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Genders and dominance2017-03-05 11:07:28

My mind was blown by a pair of articles today: When Factory Jobs Vanish, Men Become Less Desirable Partners, and one from 2010, The End of Men. To me these articles present a view that I had been largely unaware of before, and explains a lot of things that I've been puzzling over.

The articles point out that women are increasingly dominating most professions. Being a software engineer, one of the few industries that is the exception to this trend, I hadn't really paid much attention to this. But the article goes further: it says that as a result of this shift, men are losing the dominant role in families, are often unable to get married, leading to many women becoming single mothers.

This produces what I think of as a situation not in equilibrium. We're in the middle of a societal shift from men being the dominant gender to women being the dominant gender, but we're only partway through. Women have already become dominant in a lot of industries and roles, which is fine. What hasn't caught up yet, though, is the societal perception of "who should wear the pants". I think a lot of men still feel that society expects them to be dominant - to be the breadwinner and the head of the nuclear family.

Much like a difference in electric potential between two points produces a current, this difference between what is and what is expected produces frustration and anger. If I imagine myself in the position of one of these men - having lost my job, unable to find a woman who wants to start a family with me, while still having the societal pressure to somehow take charge - I can easily picture myself feeling like a failure, and having a lot of anger. Across an entire population of men feeling this way, it's not surprising to see violent action to make a change.

The thing is, there's two ways to bring the system back into equilibrium. One is to go backwards - to reinstate jobs in industries where men can dominate, like manufacturing. This allows men to again live up to the societal expectations. This is what Trump has been promising, and it makes sense to me (finally!) what drove these men to vote for him. It also explains the rash of hate crimes against immigrants, the anti-globalism movement, and so on - these are all things that are perceived to have contributed to the loss in manufacturing jobs and therefore to men's loss of dominance. However, I don't think going backwards is really a viable path. The reason we entered this state of disequilibrium in the first place is because we were correcting a different disequilibrium, and going backwards will not really help. Those who fight to go backwards are guaranteed to lose, but the longer they fight, the more painful it will be for everybody.

The better way out is to keep going forward. We have to complete the transition by also changing the societal expectations of men's role in the world. Instead of continuing to implicitly or explicitly typecast them as the dominant gender, we must accept (and encourage) that they can take on roles that were previously stereotypically "female" roles, for example being a stay-at-home parent. This shift is well under way, but until we have a whole generation of men raised in a culture where that's the norm, it won't be complete.

The "End of Men" article linked above also mentions the rise of "herbivores" in Japan - men "who are rejecting the hard-drinking salaryman life of their fathers and are instead gardening, organizing dessert parties, acting cartoonishly feminine, and declining to have sex." As odd as this behaviour sounds to me, I feel now that this is actually the correct direction to be heading. I'm not saying all men should behave this way. What I'm saying is that men should feel accepted by society even if they do behave this way. There should be no perceived societal pressure to behave any differently. No judgements.

That being said, the article also says things like "clearly, some percentage of boys are just temperamentally unsuited to college" which I disagree with. The underlying premise here is that the genetic or biologic make-up of males is unsuited to higher education or adapting to these new circumstances, but I strongly believe this is more a result of societal expectations and cultural influence. In other countries with different cultures, where higher education is more valued, I think the results are very different.

In the end, I think the notion of gender itself will become obsolete, but until it does, we should be more explicit in our support of people of all genders to take on any useful role in society.


Bitcoin mining as an ad replacement?2016-07-17 21:49:17

The web as we know it basically runs on advertising. Which is not really great, for a variety of reasons. But charging people outright for content doesn't work that great either. How about bitcoin mining instead?

Webpages can already run arbitary computation on your computer, so instead of funding themselves through ads, they could instead include a script that does some mining client-side and submits the results back to their server. Instead of paying with dollars and cents you're effectively paying with electricity and compute cycles. Seems a lot more palatable to me. What do you think?


Using multiple keyboards2016-04-18 09:32:45

When typing on a laptop keyboard, I find that my posture tends to get very closed and hunched. To fix this I resurrected an old low-tech solution I had for this problem: using two keyboards. Simply plug in an external USB keyboard, and use one keyboard for each hand. It's like a split keyboard, but better, because you can position it wherever you want to get a posture that's comfortable for you.

I used to do this on a Windows machine back when I was working at RIM and it worked great. Recently I tried to do it on my Mac laptop, but ran into the problem where the modifier state from one keyboard didn't apply to the other keyboard. So holding shift on one keyboard and T on the other wouldn't produce an uppercase T. This was quite annoying, and it seems to be an OS-level thing. After some googling I found Karabiner which solves this problem. Well, really it appears to be a more general keyboard customization tool, but the default configuration also combines keys across keyboards which is exactly what I wanted. \o/

Of course, changing your posture won't magically fix everything - moving around regularly is still the best way to go, but for me personally, this helps a bit :)


Frameworks vs libraries (or: process shifts at Mozilla)2016-01-31 13:26:07

At some point in the past, I learned about the difference between frameworks and libraries, and it struck me as a really important conceptual distinction that extends far beyond just software. It's really a distinction in process, and that applies everywhere.

The fundamental difference between frameworks and libraries is that when dealing with a framework, the framework provides the structure, and you have to fill in specific bits to make it apply to what you are doing. With a library, however, you are provided with a set of functionality, and you invoke the library to help you get the job done.

It may not seem like a very big distinction at first, but it has a huge impact on various properties of the final product. For example, a framework is easier to use if what you are trying to do lines up with the goal the framework is intended to accomplish. The only thing you need to do is provide (or override) specific things that you need to customize, and the framework takes care of the rest. It's like a builder building your house, and you picking which tile pattern you want for the backsplash. With libraries there's a lot more work - you have a Home Depot full of tools and supplies, but you have to figure out how to put them together to build a house yourself.

The flip side, of course, is that with libraries you get a lot more freedom and customizability than you do with frameworks. With the house analogy, a builder won't add an extra floor for your house if it doesn't fit with their pre-defined floorplans for the subdivision. If you're building it yourself, though, you can do whatever you want.

The library approach makes the final workflow a lot more adaptable when faced with new situations. Once you are in a workflow dictated by a framework, it's very hard to change the workflow because you have almost no control over it - you only have as much control as it was designed to let you have. With libraries you can drop a library here, pick up another one there, and evolve your workflow incrementally, because you can use them however you want.

In the context of building code, the *nix toolchain (a pile of command-line tools that do very specific things) is a great example of the library approach - it's very adaptable as you can swap out commands for other commands to do what you need. An IDE, on the other hand, is more of a framework. It's easier to get started because the heavy lifting is taken care of, all you have to do is "insert code here". But if you want to do some special processing of the code that the IDE doesn't allow, you're out of luck.

An interesting thing to note is that usually people start with frameworks and move towards libraries as their needs get more complex and they need to customize their workflow more. It's not often that people go the other way, because once you've already spent the effort to build a customized workflow it's hard to justify throwing the freedom away and locking yourself down. But that's what it feels like we are doing at Mozilla - sometimes on purpose, and sometimes unintentionally, without realizing we are putting on a straitjacket.

The shift from Bugzilla/Splinter to MozReview is one example of this. Going from a customizable, flexible tool (attachments with flags) to a unified review process (push to MozReview) is a shift from libraries to frameworks. It forces people to conform to the workflow which the framework assumes, and for people used to their own customized, library-assisted workflow, that's a very hard transition. Another example of a shift from libraries to frameworks is the bug triage process that was announced recently.

I think in both of these cases the end goal is desirable and worth working towards, but we should realize that it entails (by definition) making things less flexible and adaptable. In theory the only workflows that we eliminate are the "undesirable" ones, e.g. a triage process that drops bugs on the floor, or a review process that makes patch context hard to access. In practice, though, other workflows - both legitimate workflows currently being used and potential improved workflows get eliminated as well.

Of course, things aren't all as black-and-white as I might have made them seem. As always, the specific context/situation matters a lot, and it's always a tradeoff between different goals - in the end there's no one-size-fits-all and the decision is something that needs careful consideration.


Asynchronous scrolling in Firefox2015-11-30 13:32:51

In the Firefox family of products, we've had asynchronous scrolling (aka async pan/zoom, aka APZ, aka compositor-thread scrolling) in Firefox OS and Firefox for Android for a while - even though they had different implementations, with different behaviors. We are now in the process of taking the Firefox OS implementation and bringing it to all our other platforms - including desktop and Android. After much hard work by many people, including but not limited to :botond, :dvander, :mattwoodrow, :mstange, :rbarker, :roc, :snorp, and :tn, we finally have APZ enabled on the nightly channel for both desktop and Android. We're working hard on fixing outstanding bugs and getting the quality up before we let it ride the trains out to DevEdition, Beta, and the release channel.

If you want to try it on desktop, note that APZ requires e10s to be enabled, and is currently only enabled for mousewheel/trackpad scrolling. We do have plans to implement it for other input types as well, although that may not happen in the initial release.

Although getting the basic machinery working took some effort, we're now mostly done with that and are facing a different but equally challenging aspect of this change - the fallout on web content. Modern web pages have access to many different APIs via JS and CSS, and implement many interesting scroll-linked effects, often triggered by the scroll event or driven by a loop on the main thread. With APZ, these approaches don't work quite so well because inherently the user-visible scrolling is async from the main thread where JS runs, and we generally avoid blocking the compositor on main-thread JS. This can result in jank or jitter for some of these effects, even though the main page scrolling itself remains smooth. I picked a few of the simpler scroll effects to discuss in a bit more detail below - not a comprehensive list by any means, but hopefully enough to help you get a feel for some of the nuances here.

Smooth scrolling

Smooth scrolling - that is, animating the scroll to a particular scroll offset - is something that is fairly common on web pages. Many pages do this using a JS loop to animate the scroll position. Without taking advantage of APZ, this will still work, but can result in less-than-optimal smoothness and framerate, because the main thread can be busy with doing other things.

Since Firefox 36, we've had support for the scroll-behavior CSS property which allows content to achieve the same effect without the JS loop. Our implementation for scroll-behavior without APZ enabled still runs on the main thread, though, and so can still end up being janky if the main thread is busy. With APZ enabled, the scroll-behavior implementation triggers the scroll animation on the compositor thread, so it should be smooth regardless of load on the main thread. Polyfills for scroll-behavior or old-school implementations in JS will remain synchronous, so for best performance we recommend switching to the CSS property where possible. That way as APZ rolls out to release, you'll get the benefits automatically.

Here is a simple example page that has a spinloop to block the main thread for 500ms at a time. Without APZ, clicking on the buttons results in a very janky/abrupt scroll, but with APZ it should be smooth.


Another common paradigm seen on the web is "sticky" elements - they scroll with the page for a bit, and then turn into position:fixed elements after a point. Again, this is usually implemented with JS listening for scroll events and updating the styles on the elements based on the scroll offset. With APZ, scroll events are going to be delayed relative to what the user is seeing, since the scroll events arrive on the main thread while scrolling is happening on the compositor thread. This will result in glitches as the user scrolls.

Our recommended approach here is to use position:sticky when possible, which we have supported since Firefox 32, and which we have support for in the compositor. This CSS property allows the element to scroll normally but take on the behavior of position:fixed beyond a threshold, even with APZ enabled. This isn't supported across all browsers yet, but there are a number of polyfills available - see the resources tab on the Can I Use position:sticky page for some options.

Again, here is a simple example page that has a spinloop to block the main thread for 500ms at a time. With APZ, the JS version will be laggy but the position:sticky version should always remain in the right place.


Parallax. Oh boy. There's a lot of different ways to do this, but almost all of them rely on listening to scroll events and updating element styles based on that. For the same reasons as described in the previous section, implementations of parallax scrolling that are based on scroll events are going to be lagging behind the user's actual scroll position. Until recently, we didn't have a solution for this problem.

However, a few days ago :mattwoodrow landed compositor support for asynchronous scroll adjustments of 3D transforms, which allows a pure CSS parallax implementation to work smoothly with APZ. Keith Clark has a good writeup on how to do this, so I'm just going to point you there. All of his demo pages should scroll smoothly in Nightly with APZ enabled.

Unfortunately, it looks like this CSS-based approach may not work well across all browsers, so please make sure to test carefully if you want to try it out. Also, if you have suggestions on other methods on implementing parallax so that it doesn't rely on a responsive main thread, please let us know. For example, :mstange created one at which we should be able to support in the compositor without too much difficulty.

Other features

I know that there are other interesting scroll-linked effects that people are doing or want to do on the web, and we'd really like to support them with asynchronous scrolling. The Blink team has a bunch of different proposals for browser APIs that can help with these sorts of things, including things like CompositorWorker and scroll customization. For more information and to join the discussion on these, please see the public-houdini mailing list. We'd love to get your feedback!

(Thanks to :botond and :mstange for reading a draft of this post and providing feedback.)


Management, TRIBE, and other thoughts2015-05-31 13:07:46

At the start of 2014, I became a "manager". At least in the sense that I had a couple of people reporting to me. Like most developers-turned-managers I was unsure if management was something I wanted to do but I figured it was worth trying at least. Somebody recommended the book First, Break All The Rules to me as a good book on management, so I picked up a copy and read it.

The book is based on data from many thousands of interviews and surveys that the Gallup organization did, across all sorts of organizations. There were lots of interesting points in the book, but the main takeaway relevant here was that people who build on their strengths instead of trying to correct their weaknesses are generally happier and more successful. This leads to some obvious follow-up questions: how do you know what your strengths are? What does it mean to "build on your strengths"?

To answer the first question I got the sequel, Now, Discover Your Strengths, which includes a single-use code for the online StrengthsFinder assessment. I read the book, took the assessment, and got a list of my top 5 strengths. While interesting, the list was kind of disappointing, mostly because I didn't really know what to do with it. Perhaps the next book in the series, Go Put Your Strengths To Work, would have explained but at this point I was disillusioned and didn't bother reading it.

Fast-forward to a month ago, when I finally got to attend the first TRIBE session. I'd heard good things about it, without really knowing anything specific about what it was about. Shortly before it started though, they sent us a copy of Strengths Based Leadership, which is a book based on the same Gallup data as the aforementioned books, and includes a code to the 2.0 version of the same online StrengthsFinder assessment. I read the book and took the new assessment (3 of the 5 strengths I got matched my initial results; the variance is explained on their FAQ page) but didn't really end up with much more information than I had before.

However, the TRIBE session changed that. It was during the session that I learned the answer to my earlier question about what it means to "build on strengths". If you're familiar with the 4 stages of competence, that TRIBE session took me from "unconscious incompetence" to "conscious incompetence" with regard to using my strengths - it made me aware of when I'm using my strengths and when I'm not, and to be more purposeful about when to use them. (Two asides: (1) the TRIBE session also included other useful things, so I do recommend attending and (2) being able to give something a name is incredibly powerful, but perhaps that's worth a whole 'nother blog post).

At this point, I'm still not 100% sure if being a manager is really for me. On the one hand, the strengths I have are not really aligned with the strengths needed to be a good manager. On the other hand, the Strengths Based Leadership book does provide some useful tips on how to leverage whatever strengths you do have to help you fulfill the basic leadership functions. I'm also not really sold on the idea that your strengths are roughly constant over your lifetime. Having read about neuroplasticity I think your strengths might change over time just based on how you live and view your life. That's not really a case for or against being a manager or leader, it just means that you'd have to be ready to adapt to an evolving set of strengths.

Thankfully, at Mozilla, unlike many other companies, it is possible to "grow" without getting pushed into management. The Mozilla staff engineer level descriptions provide two tracks - one as an individual contributor and one as a manager (assuming these descriptions are still current - and since the page was last touched almost 2 years ago it might very well not be!). At many companies this is not even an option.

For now I'm going to try to level up to "conscious competence" with respect to using my strengths and see where that gets me. Probably by then the path ahead will be more clear.


Firewalling for fun and safety2015-01-04 21:17:41

TL;DR: If you have a home wi-fi network, think about setting multiple separate VLANs as a "defense in depth" technique to protect hosts from malware.

The long version: A few years ago when I last needed to get a router, I got one which came with DD-WRT out of the box (made by Buffalo). I got it because DD-WRT (and Tomato) were all the rage back then and I wanted to try it out. While I was setting it up I noticed I could set up multiple Wi-Fi SSIDs on my home network, each with different authentication parameters. So I decided to create two - one for my own use (WPA2 encrypted) and one for guests (with a hidden SSID and no encryption). That way when somebody came over and wanted to use my Wi-Fi I could just give them the (hidden) SSID name and they would be able to connect without a password.

This turned out to a pretty good idea and served me well. Since then though I've acquired many more devices that also need Wi-Fi access and in the interest of security I've made my setup a little more complex. Consider the webcam I bought a few months ago. It shipped from somewhere in China and comes with software that I totally don't trust. Not only is it not open-source, it's not upgradeable and regularly tries to talk to some Amazon EC2 server. It would be pretty bad if malware managed to infect the webcam and not only used it to spy on me, but also used as a staging area to attack other devices on my network.

(Aside: most people with home Wi-Fi networks implicitly treat the router as a firewall, in that random devices outside the network can't directly connect to devices inside the network. For the most part this is true, but of course it's not hard for a persistent attacker to do periodic port scans to see if there are any hosts inside your network listening for connections via UPnP or whatever, and use that as an entrance vector if the service has vulnerabilities.)

Anyway, back to the webcam. I ended up only allowing it connect to an isolated Wi-Fi network and used firewall rules on the router to prevent all access to or from it, except to a single server which could access a single port on it. That server basically extracted the webcam feed and exposed it to the rest of my network. Doing this isn't a perfect solution but it adds a layer of security that makes it harder for malware to penetrate.

There's a ton of other Wi-Fi devices on my network - a printer, various smartphones, a couple of Sonos devices, and so on. As the "Internet of Things" grows this list is bound to grow as well. If you care about ensuring the security of machines on your network, and not letting become part of some random hacker's botnet, knowing how to turn your router into a full-fledged firewall is a very useful tool indeed. Even if you choose not to lock things down to the extent that I do, simply monitoring connections between devices inside your network and hosts outside your network can be a huge help.

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Killing the office suite2014-11-15 11:44:20

Have you ever had the experience of trying to write a document in MS Word (or Open/LibreOffice) and it keeps "correcting" your formatting to something you don't want? The last time I experienced that was about a year ago, and that was when I decided "screw it, I'll just write this in HTML instead". That was a good decision.

Pretty much anything you might want to use a word processor for, you can do in HTML - and oftentimes it's simpler. Sure, there's a bit of a learning curve if you don't know HTML, but that's true for anything. Now anytime I need to create "a document" (a letter, random notes or signs to print, etc.) I always do it in HTML rather than LibreOffice, and I'm the happier for it. I keep all my data in git repositories, and so it's a bonus that these documents are now in a plaintext format rather than a binary blob.

I realized that this is probably part of a trend - a lot of people I know nowadays to "powerpoint" presentations using web technologies such as reveal.js. I haven't seen many people comment on using web tech to do word processing, but I know I do it. The only big "office suite" thing left is the spreadsheet. It would be awesome if somebody wrote a drop-in JS spreadsheet library that you could include into a HTML page and instantly turn a table element into a spreadsheet.

I'm reminded of this old blog post by Joel Spolsky: How Trello is different. He talks about most of the people who use Excel really just use it because it provides a table format for entering things, rather than it's computational ability. HTML already provides that, but whenever I've tried doing that I find the markup/content ratio too high, so it always seemed like a pain. It would be nice to have a WSYIWYG tool that let you build a table (or spreadsheet) and import/export it as raw HTML that you can publish, print, share, etc.

As an addendum, that blog post by Joel also introduced me to the concept of unshipped code as "inventory", which is one of the reasons I really hate finding old bugs sitting around in Bugzilla with perfectly good patches that never landed!


Building a NAS2014-10-28 21:24:15

I've been wanting to build a NAS (network-attached storage) box for a while now, and the ominous creaking noises from the laptop I was previously using as a file server prompted me to finally take action. I wanted to build rather than buy because (a) I wanted more control over the machine and OS, (b) I figured I'd learn something along the way and (c) thought it might be cheaper. This blog posts documents the decisions and mistakes I made and problems I ran into.

First step was figuring out the level of data redundancy and storage space I wanted. After reading up on the different RAID levels I figured 4 drives with 3 TB each in a RAID5 configuration would suit my needs for the next few years. I don't have a huge amount of data so the ~9TB of usable space sounded fine, and being able to survive single-drive failures sounded sufficient to me. For all critical data I keep a copy on a separate machine as well.

I chose to go with software RAID rather than hardware because I've read horror stories of hardware RAID controllers going obsolete and being unable to find a replacement, rendering the data unreadable. That didn't sound good. With an open-source software RAID controller at least you can get the source code and have a shot at recovering your data if things go bad.

With this in mind I started looking at software options - a bit of searching took me to FreeNAS which sounded exactly like what I wanted. However after reading through random threads in the user forums it seemed like the FreeNAS people are very focused on using ZFS and hardware setups with ECC RAM. From what I gleaned, using ZFS without ECC RAM is a bad idea, because errors in the RAM can cause ZFS to corrupt your data silently and unrecoverably (and worse, it causes propagation of the corruption). A system that makes bad situations worse didn't sound so good to me.

I could have still gone with ZFS with ECC RAM but from some rudimentary searching it sounded like it would increase the cost significantly, and frankly I didn't see the point. So instead I decided to go with NAS4Free (which actually was the original FreeNAS before iXsystems bought the trademark and forked the code) which allows using a UFS file system in a software RAID5 configuration.

So with the software decisions made, it was time to pick hardware. I used this guide by Sam Kear as a starting point and modified a few things here and there. I ended up with this parts list that I mostly ordered from (Aside: I wish I had discovered earlier in the process as it would have saved me a lot of time). They shipped things to me in 5 different packages which arrived on 4 different days using 3 different shipping services. Woo! The parts I didn't get from I picked up at a local Canada Computers store. Then, last weekend, I put it all together.

It's been a while since I've built a box so I screwed up a few things and had to rewind (twice) to fix them. Took about 3 hours in total for assembly; somebody who knew what they were doing could have done it in less than one. I mostly blame lack of documentation with the chassis since there were a bunch of different screws and it wasn't obvious which ones I had to use for what. They all worked for mounting the motherboard but only one of them was actually correct and using the wrong one meant trouble later.

In terms of the hardware compatibility I think my choices were mostly sound, but there were a few hitches. The case and motherboard both support up to 6 SATA drives (I'm using 4, giving me some room to grow). However, the PSU only came with 4 SATA power connectors which means I'll need to get some adaptors or maybe a different PSU if I need to add drives. The other problem was that the chassis comes with three fans (two small ones at the front, one big one at the back) but there was only one chassis power connector on the motherboard. I plugged the big fan in and so far the machine seems to be staying pretty cool so I'm not too worried. Does seem like a waste to have those extra unused fans though.

Finally, I booted it up using a monitor/keyboard borrowed from another machine, and ran memtest86 to make sure the RAM was good. It was, so I flashed the NAS4Free LiveUSB onto a USB drive and booted it up. Unfortunately after booting into NAS4Free my keyboard stopped working. I had to disable the USB 3.0 stuff in the BIOS to get around that. I don't really care about having USB 3.0 support on this machine so not a big deal. It took me some time to figure out what installation mode I wanted to use NAS4Free in. I decided to do a full install onto a second USB drive and not have a swap partition (figured hosting swap over USB would be slow and probably unnecessary).

So installing that was easy enough, and I was able to boot into the full NAS4Free install and configure it to have a software RAID5 on the four disks. Things generally seemed OK and I started copying stuff over.. and then the box rebooted. It also managed to corrupt my installation somehow, so I had to start over from the LiveUSB stick and re-install. I had saved the config from the first time so it was easy to get it back up again, and once again I started putting data on there. Again it rebooted, although this time it didn't corrupt my installation. This was getting worrying, particularly since the system log files provided no indication as to what went wrong.

My first suspicion was that the RAID wasn't fully initialized and so copying data onto it resulted in badness. The array was "rebuilding" and I'm supposed to be able to use it then, but I figured I might as well wait until it was done. Turns out it's going to be rebuilding for the next ~20 days because RAID5 has to read/write the entire disk to initialize fully and in the days of multi-terabyte disk this takes forever. So in retrospect perhaps RAID5 was a poor choice for such large disks.

Anyway in order to debug the rebooting, I looked up the FreeBSD kernel debugging documentation, and that requires having a swap partition that the kernel can dump a crash report to. So I reinstalled and set up a swap partition this time. This seemed to magically fix the rebooting problem entirely, so I suspect the RAID drivers just don't deal well when there's no swap, or something. Not an easy situation to debug if it only happens with no swap partition but you need a swap partition to get a kernel dump.

So, things were good, and I started copying more data over and configuring more stuff and so on. The next problem I ran into was the USB drive to which I had installed NAS4Free started crapping out with read/write errors. This wasn't so great but by this point I'd already reinstalled it about 6 or 7 times, so I reinstalled again onto a different USB stick. The one that was crapping out seems to still work fine in other machines, so I'm not sure what the problem was there. The new one that I used, however, was extremely slow. Things that took seconds on the previous drive took minutes on this one. So I switched again to yet another drive, this time an old 2.5" internal drive that I have mounted in an enclosure through USB.

And finally, after installing the OS at least I've-lost-count-how-many times, I have a NAS that seems stable and appears to work well. To be fair, reinstalling the OS is a pretty painless process and by the end I could do it in less than 10 minutes from sticking in the LiveUSB to a fully-configured working system. Being able to download the config file (which includes not just the NAS config but also user accounts and so on) makes it pretty painless to restore your system to exactly the way it was. The only additional things I had to do were install a few FreeBSD packages and unpack a tarball into my home directory to get some stuff I wanted. At no point was any of the data on the RAID array itself lost or corrupted, so I'm pretty happy about that.

In conclusion, setup was a bit of a pain, mostly due to unclear documentation and flaky USB drives (or drivers) but now that I have it set up it seems to be working well. If I ever have to do it over I might go for something other than RAID5 just because of the long rebuild time but so far it hasn't been an actual problem.


Prompts with ANSI escape sequences2014-10-19 21:35:15

Tip of the day: If your shell uses the readline library (e.g. bash), and you have ANSI escape sequences in your prompt, you should surround the ANSI escape sequences with \001 and \002 so that readline knows they are "invisible characters". If you don't, readline can end up mis-positioning your cursor and generally screwing up the display.

For example, I used to have this in my bashrc file:

export PS1='\u@\033[01;31m\h\033[m \W$ '

and that caused problems if for example I had a long command and used ctrl+a to get to the start of it.

Now I have this:

export PS1='\u@\001\033[01;31m\002\h\001\033[m\002 \W$ '

and all is well.

The \001 and \002 are defined as RL_PROMPT_START_IGNORE and RL_PROMPT_END_IGNORE in readline.h.


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