Soupin’ it up

by Steve, January 5th, 2009

techFor the first time in our avocation as a Web publishers, the family server has been upgraded to a brand new machine.

Until the last box could no longer keep up with the load, I was committed to using only discarded hardware running free software to keep the ol’ Wacky Enterprises blog farm humming. I’m still committed to open source software, but ever-increasing traffic had grown beyond the last machine’s ability to cope.

The last straw was when a disk on the old box started showing errors, and the price of a new machine was only a little more than the price of a new disk. Go figure; I guess the time had come.

The new unit features a modern, fast, 64-bit dual-core processor and 2GB of RAM. This may not sound impressive, but it replaces a single-core 32-bit machine with 256MB of RAM, which was a replacement for the original box, a 200MHz Pentium Pro with 32MB or RAM.

For the non-nerds, that basically means that performance issues we suffered due to memory swapping on our old machine should be non-existent with this one.

For the nerds, on the old machine I had to tune apache to keep it from spawning too many child processes, lest the machine run out of memory, start swapping, and bring the blog farm to its knees. Even with careful tuning, the old machine was so short on memory, it was constantly teetering on swapping, and I had to have a process monitor the load average and kill and restart Web server processes from time to time. That meant the Web server would get itself wedged into a corner, visitors would have timeouts and authors wouldn’t know if their post got saved.

The new box hummed through its first day today without a hiccup (and without the load average rising above 0.31).

For those who are really interested in the nerdly details, here are the particulars:

  • Intel Core Duo CPU E7300 @ 2.66GHz
  • 2 GB RAM
  • Linux 2.6.27.7-9-default x86_64 (openSUSE 11.1)
  • MySQL, Apache, PHP, WordPress

Planned and unplanned outages

by Steve, December 21st, 2008

techDue to ever-increasing visitor loads, the server that hosts this blog (and a few others) is no longer able to keep up. Coincidentally, our router is failing. And we’re dealing with snow and ice in Portland, which could easily lead to prolonged power outages.

A new, more powerful server is on order for the new year, and a new router should be installed in the next two days. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if we’re offline from time to time in the next couple weeks!

Blogging, journalism and the new media landscape

by Steve, October 23rd, 2008

Anybody who knows a professional print journalist — and I know a few — knows that there is a growing sense of panic in the industry. Readership is in a death spiral, along with ad revenue. Owners of big city dailies — mostly large conglomerates now — are reacting by slashing newsroom staff. Our own local daily, The Oregonian, announced buyouts this summer for at least 100 full-time employees (a story I broke here, later picked up by Willamette Week and Oregon Media Insiders, and much later reported in The O itself).

In the throes of this existential crisis, it’s easy for journalists to blame the Internet. That’s where all the classified ads went (Craig’s List), and it’s also where readers, especially young readers, go for 24×7, up-to-the-minute news coverage and analysis. Who wants a pile of dead-tree paper on their porch with yesterday’s news?

Big city dailies like The O have been slow to adapt to the new media landscape (you may notice that I’m not linking to any Oregonian stories here, for the simple reason that they don’t provide online access to their archive), but even those papers with great Web sites are struggling. That’s because there is a revolutionary change afoot, well beyond the shift of medium from print to electronic.

This shift is every bit as important as the introduction of movable type was, and in much the same way. The difference is in scale.

Now, almost anybody in an industrialized nation can own or borrow a digital printing press. The implications for democracy are stunning, as evidenced by the sudden and lasting impact of Web-based organizations like MoveOn.org and the online fund raising and network-building efforts of insurgent Democratic candidate Howard Dean in 2004.

In the realm of information dissemination, bloggers have created an echo chamber for issues of concern to them and their candidates, keeping stories alive that would otherwise die in a 24-hour news cycle. But until recently, they mostly acted like aggregators, not reporters, simply repeating and amplifying news gleaned from traditional sources.

But the trend now is toward doing actual journalism, albeit with a well-defined point of view.

People who have faith in objectivity in journalism take umbrage at this, but objectivity is an artificial construct. Every story you read in every newspaper has a point of view, whether or not it is obvious. (Eric Alterman covered this issue in more depth in the New Yorker last March.)

Mainstream news gathering organizations have built-in biases, largely a result of their advertisers and their proximity to the powerful; their pretension to the contrary just makes things worse. Prime examples from Oregon’s biggest daily include sitting on the Bob Packwood and Neil Goldschmidt stories, certainly two of the biggest stories of modern Oregon political history.

Especially regarding issues of social justice, pretending to give “balanced” coverage is absurd. There is no point in giving equal time to proponents of injustice.

Which is why I find the emergence of ProPublica refreshing.

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that will produce investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work will focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We will do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

ProPublica is setting a standard higher than current mainstream dailies, something it can afford to do with its private, independent funding. With its emergence, the death of traditional dailies is easier to take. After all, classified ads, obituaries, comics and lifestyle sections don’t do much to advance democracy.

Investigative journalism in the public interest does advance democracy, and it’s something the dailies long ago cut way back on.

But most blogging doesn’t rise to the level of ProPublica. Instead, at its best, the blogosphere offers the opportunity for citizen journalists to report on narrowly defined vertical topics — like a local school district, for example. While most bloggers in this realm, myself included, don’t do it full time and thus can’t do the in-depth reporting, they can offer a constant attention to issues that keep professional journalists focused.

As a citizen journalist in Portland, I’ve had productive relationships with professional journalists at the Portland Tribune and Willamette Week on issues concerning Portland Public Schools. We frequently feed off of each others’ stories, and together produce a body of work that has a clear point of view on one hand, and also a firm basis in factual reporting.

My relationship with reporters at The Oregonian, though, has been much more arm’s length. Their extreme caution in covering public schools belies a clear bias against challenging the status quo. So in their attempt to show no bias (i.e. by refusing to do significant investigation into actual, ongoing, documented injustice), they show a significant bias.

They also assure the continued demise of their newspaper.

At the end of the day, the new media landscape means that “what is news” is no longer determined by middle-aged, middle class white guys behind closed doors in a downtown office building. They’re no longer the only ones buying ink by the barrel, and they can no longer suppress news that goes against the interest of their friends and advertisers.

Now that digital ink is virtually free, Democracy is better served. Women in particular, who for ages have been treated like second-class citizens by the dailies (look at the resources poured into sports coverage), have flourished in the blogosphere. There’s something out there for everybody, which only makes the anemic efforts of the dead tree newspaper to appeal to women less relevant.

The big city daily represents an outmoded mindset, delivered in an environmentally destructive form. As long as organizations like ProPublica are around, along with the traditional journals of opinion like The Nation, alternative papers like Willamette Week, and a healthy blogosphere, I’m cautiously optimistic that the death of the big city daily is not necessarily a bad thing.

The professional journalist will not only survive, but become stronger and more respected, happily co-existing in a symbiotic relationship with the citizen journalist.

Note: The Society of Professional Journalists of Oregon and Southwest Washington is hosting Building a Better Journalist 2008 this weekend at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication in Eugene, with an emphasis on the Internet. ProPublica managing editor Steve Engelberg is the featured speaker. I am also on the program (to the shock and surprise of some journalist friends), taking part in a panel discussion on blogging, along with Bike Portland‘s Jonathan Maus and Loaded Orygun‘s Mark Bunster, moderated by Willamette Week news editor Hank Stern.

The death of Portland Metblogs

by Steve, June 18th, 2008

This past winter, I had a little falling out with Metblogs. I’d been writing for them for a while, when BOOM! Metblogs central decided to relaunch the site with a plethora of technical issues. As a technologist, I found that annoying.

But what really got to me (and a bunch of other writers) was the new registration requirement for comments. A couple of us were summarily “fired” by Metblogs honcho Sean Bonner (I subsequently had my account re-enabled) for complaining about this, and a bunch of others quit in disgust.

Ugly words were exchanged between the rump of the Portland Metblogs crew and those publicly critical of the changes. Talk immediately began of starting up something to replace Portland Metblogs, with total local autonomy, to replace what was once a lively discussion forum.

As I suspected it would, Portland Metblogs has been dying a long, slow public death ever since. New posts are rare. Comments even rarer. Portland Metblogs has long since faded into irrelevance in the Portland blogosphere.

I made one attempt to spark things up, and proposed positioning the site as one of public journalism. Though respondents to my poll overwhelmingly supported the idea of public journalism, the idea went over like a lead balloon with a couple MB stalwarts. They clearly didn’t understand the idea of public journalism vs. social networking, and certainly didn’t appreciate me rocking their little boat.

It was pretty much at that point that I decided I wasn’t doing myself any favors by continuing to contribute to the site. And it’s only gone downhill since then.

Now, just over three months later, it looks like a group of former Portland Metblogs contributors (including “captains” Betsy Richter and dieselboi) have started their own site. With open comments.

There could still be hope for Metblogs. My suggestions of public journalism, open comments and revenue sharing to attract quality writers were met with hostility when I floated them before. Metblogs could be a voice in the Portland digital media milieu. But most likely it will quietly fade further into irrelevance.

Oops…

by Steve, March 31st, 2008

techSome time over the last few days, the software that runs this blog, or the database on the back end, decided to mess with me. All of my WordPress “Pages” were converted to “Posts,” which is why the links above to “About,” “FAQ,” and “Links” don’t work.

In real life, I’m employed as a software engineer. I fix buggy software daily. But I’ve been on a short vacation, and couldn’t be bothered to turn it into a busman’s holiday.

I’ll fix it one of these days. Meanwhile, if any readers are WordPress hackers and have seen this happen, I’d be happy to know how to fix it without having to restore from a backup (which is what I’ll be doing as a last resort).

Fun With Syndication

by Steve, March 6th, 2008

techIf you’re like me, and don’t think making Portland, Ore. look like Vancouver, B.C. should be the beginning and end of city development policy, you’ll probably like Portland Gentrification and Other Problems. With a sidebar of links annotated with snarky commentary like “Page after page of unintentionally hilarious stupidity that must be seen to be believed” (pdxcondos.net) and “PSU Architecture students see steel, get wood” (SkyscraperPage Portland Forum), you’re either going to love this blog… or just plain hate it.

I’m loving it, and added it to my feed aggregator the other day. (I read blogs almost exclusively in my aggregator, which means I get to have black text on a white background, regardless of what bad style decisions a blog author may have made, and I get to skip the ads.)

Anyway, today when I updated my feed, it came up with a bunch of new posts. The top of the list was about Natalie Imbruglia’s latest single. There was news of Joan Armatrading’s tour. A review of Neil Young concert. And something about “Pink snuggles up to hairy rocker.” All mixed in with articles about Portland gentrification, including “‘Fast Flip’ b/w ‘Do Ya Wanna Rent My Condo’ (12″ dance remix, nm, no ps).”

rssreader

Confused? So was I, until I realized that either my aggregator was confused, or the blog’s feed got crossed with the feed from The London Paper. Fun stuff.

Metblogs and Me

by Steve, March 4th, 2008

meAs if I didn’t have enough on my plate already, last November I started writing for Portland Metblogs, part of an international network of city-based community blogs.

When I joined the local team, there was much talk of a new, improved Metblogs site in the works. The existing site was based on Typepad, and was slow and non-intuitive. Suddenly, this past weekend, the site was down, and e-mail was sent to authors about the new site launch.

When it finally came back up on Monday, there were (ahem) just a few complaints.

  • The fixed width layout is 1215 pixels wide. Good design standards dictate 1000 pixels max.
  • The font is small and gray (and increasing the font size on your browser breaks the layout in ugly ways).
  • The URL to the RSS feed changed.
  • The new RSS feed was broken.
  • The RSS URL listed on the page was wrong.
  • URLs to archived post were changed, meaning all links to previous entries from other sites are broken.
  • Some authors (like me) were unable to get new passwords, and have been unable to login since the changeover.

And, worst of all:

  • The site now requires registration to leave comments.

Metroblogs is now what is known to Web aficionados as a “walled garden,” in the same class with MySpace. Before I was an author for Metblogs, I criticized the tone of metblogs as being the MySpace of the Portland blogosphere. I was only joking then, but now the joke’s on me.

I’m taking a sabbatical from Metblogs, at least until they work out their technical issues. Whether or not I want to continue bringing Metblogs readers (and ad revenue) as a contributor is an open question.

Happy Anniversary… To Me!

by Steve, February 8th, 2008

meI started this blog two years ago, and since then, it’s been through a few changes. I used to actually write about hockey and war. (Remember those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Didn’t they used to be an issue for the election?)

Long about a year ago, I jumped into the Portland public school policy fray with both feet, and it’s been all downhill for hockey fans and war resisters ever since.

So on the eve of the actual two-year anniversary of this blog (February 1), I launched PPS Equity, a Web site dedicated to equity for all students in Portland Public Schools.

You may have noticed (my lovely wife did, anyway) that I haven’t posted here since launching PPS Equity. I’ve been pretty busy over there, getting the new site established, but I hope to get back to regular posting here, with a renewed focus on issues of peace, national and local politics, and, of course… hockey!

The Winter Hawks take on the Tri-City Americans tonight on pink ice at the old Memorial Coliseum, in a benefit for cancer research. I’ll be there.

I’m Takin’ Back this Blog!

by Steve, January 31st, 2008

meMy first-born child, one half of the reason I’m so insanely ferocious about advocating for our schools, frequently gives me grief because I never write about hockey or war on this blog. “You should rename your blog,” she tells me, and also “Why don’t you ever write about hockey anymore?”

You see, I didn’t start this blog to write about school politics. I started it as a personal blog almost two years ago, and I actually wrote about hockey and war. Then, a year ago, I dipped my toes into PPS equity issues, and it has gradually taken over my blog.

Let me just say this: I would prefer to not have to worry about this shit. Seriously, I’d like it very much if things were like they were back in Iowa City where I grew up, and every neighborhood school was pretty much just like every other neighborhood school, and they all had art, music and P.E.

But, sadly, we do have to worry about this shit in Portland. So in order for me to take back this blog for things that I actually find interesting — hockey, music, macroeconomics, the price of tea in China — I’ve launched a new Web site for PPS equity issues. To satisfy my eight-year-old’s obsession with things matching up, I decided to call it PPS Equity. It’s got a blog, but that’s not all. The most exciting thing to me is a community discussion forum. With a simple registration, anybody can immediately participate and start new discussions in any of a number of forums.

Down the road, I’m going to set up a PPS data dump, in order to streamline access to PPS enrollment and demographic information.

Now is a good time for this. My friends at the Neighborhood Schools Alliance have been hammering the district on equity issues for years, and now, with the Carole Smith administration, we seem to be getting traction. Which only means we’ve got to keep up the pressure.

Check it out. Explore a little, register for the forum, start a new topic in your school cluster’s section. I think you’ll agree PPS Equity is a better vehicle than More Hockey Less War for the cause. Thanks everybody for your support over the last year, and let’s keep the nickel rolling in a bigger, better venue!

A Nice Shout Out to Rick Seifert

by Steve, January 28th, 2008

Rick Seifert’s excellent The Red Electric blog got a nice write-up by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, Oregon editor for NW regional news site Crosscut.com.

Hartnett does a better job describing his angle(s) than I can, and also gives a humorous shout out to yours truly (“possibly the world’s only pacifist blog written by a middle-aged defenseman”).

I “met” Rick via e-mail after we both testified to the school board — he about ads in schools and me about the usual equity stuff — and instantly found him to be one of those people you just know are true to the core.

Besides the fact that I always seem to agree with his viewpoint, I find his steadfastness inspiring and refreshing.