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Instant Debian – Build a Web Server is now available

During the past few months I worked on a book project with Packt to make it easier for people new to Debian to leverage it for Web-based applications. I’m happy to announce that Instant Debian – Build a Web Server is now available. Although it is not my first project with Packt (I’ve reviewed some nginx books before) it is the first one that I’m authoring, and I’m already working on some new projects.

I had the fortune of having a senior leader that I deeply respect from the Debian Project as my technical reviewer, and the full support of the Packt team. The motivation for the book is simple: in a world of elastic clouds, simpler NoSQL’s and explosive growth, developers, sysadmins and business leaders are less concerned about the operating system and more about their time-to-market. In this book, I use my 10-year experience with Debian to provide a simpler path to a solid Web platform.

In fact, all of my immediate writing projects are related to most of those low-hanging fruits that add incredible value to business decision makers in the broader technology conversations of todays: elasticity, information security and privacy and performance. In a way, this book answers the “why” I get from the business side when explaining technical decisions related to Debian: why use noexec in /tmp, why use codenames in sources.list for APT, why use sudo, etc. – only with a goal: reduce time-to-market.

This is a beginner’s book. If you haven’t heard about Debian before, and would like to leverage virtualization or cloud technologies to create a “template” for your Web deployment, Instant Debian – Build a Web Server will provide exactly that, while exploring the rationales and laying a solid foundation for you to continue exploring the system.

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Lauro, the young Guatemalan stranded between home and street violence

The lawyers warned me: “he’s a scared kid”

Lauro is 17 years old, just like Humberto, although shorter and decidedly of Mayan origin. He is from Guatemala and has been around for a while, now living with foster parents. They tell me that he’s stressed out because he’s being bullied at school, picked on because he has a “girly” name.

I am there to translate a follow-up interview, which goes through his previous accounts of the events leading to him leaving his country. There are some inconsistencies in his record. It is not clear whether it’s the mom who punctured his ear with a wooden stick and broke it inside the cartilage until it bled or whether the older sister was the one that used a slingshot to smash a rock in his head, repeteadly. One thing was clear: he was abused at home, and was too young to run away – so he had to endure.

Although all the older figures at home abused him, he insisted that his dad and one of his sisters were “kind” to him. By kind, he means that when they hit him, they apologized. His mom, and the other sister, just wouldn’t apologize and would take away his food for days or hit him with rocks, sticks or fists. Eventually, he takes long term jobs to stay away from home, and works with a cousin.

It’s not long until he is beaten up by a gang that was in need of a new member to carry over an execution. He escapes and runs away, spending the next month gathering money to flee. He ends up in Mexico, pays for a guide and crosses the border twice, witnessing the death of the travel companions. The vehicle that was going to pick him up never arrives and he’s picked up by law enforcement instead.

Up until today, he can’t remember when those events happened. He never went to school so it was very difficult to try to place it. I try to remind him of the Korea-Japan World Soccer Cup, or the Alvaro Colom election around 2002-2003 but he really doesn’t relate. Up until today, he still talks to his mother and asks why she beat him. “Maybe they didn’t want me in the house”, he says. He’s not scared of his family (the gangs are what scare him most) but as he grows up he’s getting frustrated for not understanding why they singled him out.

He’s still too early in the process to know what’s going to happen, but I wish someone helps him figure out the answer to that question soon.

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People like us

Last week I signed up for my first United Way’s Day of Caring. Microsoft is a huge sponsor, with very high employee participation and a whole month focused on employee giving, so I was very much looking forward to it.

Although for latinos there’s something not right about caring for just “one day”, the concept is very impactful because of the scale. While I was in Ecuador, we did something similar during Christmas, which actually became one of the most important moments of the year for Ailé and me, but at 0.1% the volume of support we could do here.

After some discussion, my team chose to volunteer at the University District Youth Center, a youth shelter located in Seattle. The shelter has several programs, but it’s devoted only to the youth, and particularly the homeless youth. It’s the kind of people that you really wouldn’t want to give up. If there’s a group that can go through everything, and one that should not back away, it’s that one!

I showed up there in the morning, with work gloves as requested, and everyone started to put together the projects for the day: kitchen, back stairs, front yard, etc.

I volunteered for the bathroom – which ended up being one of the most, if not the biggest project of the day. I really didn’t know what the bathroom was used for. I just jumped in. Patrick was my partner, a Microsoft engineer specialized in Labs. He briefed me on the plan for the day: tearing the bathroom apart and rebuilding it. Heh. For someone who pilgrimages to Ikea, the idea of tearing things apart and rebuilding was daunting.

But it was one of the most rewarding experiences of the year for me!

Getting everything out of the bathroom was easy. With the right tools, I unbolted the heart out of that bathroom in just a few minutes. We had to paint and recaulk, but first we needed to derust and plaster. And before that we needed to clean. I figured I could use a face mask and some safety glasses, particularly for derusting the heater that looked out of a 1950’s movie. After derusting, I started removing the old caulk.

It’s not the first time that I volunteer “hands-on” but this time I really, REALLY didn’t know what the bathroom was used for, nor what the project actually was all about. Was the bathroom used by people with communicable diseases? Or maybe by people O/D’ing, puking all over the place? Or by drug addicts? Or maybe by people who got stabbed or shot? Had someone died in that bathroom? Or someone gone into labor there?

And then it hit me: the reason why our team chose this place is because it benefits people that you don’t want to give up. You don’t want them to back away. It’s people like me, or like you. People like us. And if we had to take showers for decades in moldy tubs where someone else peed, puked and pooed, we could take any project!

Decaulking a rotten tub is not a pleasant experience, using screwdrivers, razors and even your nails to take nasty stuff out. And my next project was to buffer the tub with a heavy duty cleaner/polisher that took all the goo and concentrated it in swirls of nastiness. And after that, caulking again. And then painting and splattering paint all over ourselves, and then power cleaning the floor, replacing the curtains, drilling new holes and bolting new stuff back.

When we realized, we were 2 hours overdue for our project. Most people had left, it was about 5 PM. As I was scrambling to find some materials, someone asked me if I knew what the bathroom was going to be used for. I said no. And then they explained that homeless youth would live in their cars, and park in the shelter to use the bathroom. They would take a shower, clean their clothes, get some food, and keep going. The bathroom was actually the only place with walls and ceiling that they had. It provided an essential service that allowed them to, for example, keep working. And something that most of us give for granted.

Just before we finish, a young couple shows up. They ask for food and someone gives them the leftover subs from our lunch. While they eat, they peek at the bathroom and comment how classy the new heater in all-black paint looks, and how clean and new everything looks. It’s all worthy then. They deserve a shiny tub, new caulking, fresh paint, a hot meal and an opportunity. I pat Patrick in the back while we wrap up – it was a good day!

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At the crossroads of STEM and Scouts

A few weekends ago I had the opportunity to talk to Boy Scouts about electricity and ham radio. The local ham club created the content, which talked about basics like Ohm’s law and electromagnetic fields, and the purposes and applications of ham radio. Although at first I was assisted by some senior hams, I ended up covering the content for the rest of the afternoon. It was the first time I spoke to kids on the topic in English.

One thing I noticed was that while the content was excellent, the delivery lacked a bit of excitement and purpose. It was not clear for all Scouts whether anything in that day actually added value or not. So I started using other methods, like showing them the slides on my Surface, or doing actual IRLP demos with my handheld radio. That made a lot of difference and they engaged with tons of questions and ideas.

They particularly engaged in the conversation of the value of ham radio in emergency situations. They understood the concept of a resilient infrastructure and how hams would operate in such a situation (nets, etc.) I had joined the Redmond ARES team a few weeks before so I shared with them some of the things a RACES/ARES team could deliver in case of emergency – bingo! As a former Scout, “Be Prepared” conveys a universal sense of being one step ahead, and those small 15 minutes session with each one of the 7 groups during that day was a real opportunity to make the difference.

A couple dozens of them ended up passing their ham radio exams and earning their merit badges. And while we did the post-mortem I realized that this is the kind of events in our lives that led us to STEM career. I believe in the value of STEM although I’m not an advocate of things like shoving programming down every kid’s throat. And I also realized that the lack of excitement, and the lack of those “make the difference” experiences can influence those life decisions. 73, and be prepared!

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Humberto, the 17-year-old catracho that wants to be a truck mechanic

Today I met Humberto. He’s a 17-year-old slim and tall-ish catracho (Honduran) When we met, he was wearing his only valuable possessions: button-up shirt, slacks and a pair of simple, black leather shoes. Somebody had lent him a tie, which he ended up loosening later in the day, taking care to keep the knot just in case.

Less than a week ago, he was about to be detained and deported back to Honduras. The first personal feeling he shared with me was: “a week ago I was really scared that I would have to go back there” But, at the same time, he was very optimistic about the process. He praised Linda, his pro bono lawyer, as if she was a law conqueror, a savior. And as I was translating forms, questions and affidavit contents for him, I could definitely see and share Linda’s passion, too.

A year ago, Humberto crossed the dangerous USA-Mexico border with another catracho that he met in Mexico. They spent more than a month travelling, until they were picked up by law enforcement in Arizona. He was relocated and released to foster care. Before the slacks, the shirt and the shoes, his only possessions during winter were shorts and a ragged tee. While in foster care, he has been studying, preparing for entering high school in the USA, which will happen the next week.

Not so long ago, Humberto was in one of his many court visits. In this one, the judge had to determine whether Humberto was the subject of abuse back in Honduras or whether his family could be able to take care of him there. Humberto does not know the name of his father, and he can’t remember when his mother’s birthday is. He generally can’t remember anything that happened in his life before the age of 9. The courts have found not only that he suffered abuse but also that Humberto was a trafficking victim.

Back in Tegucigalpa, Humberto worked for about 5 years as a mechanic. He considers himself an specialist in large engines: buses, trucks and tractors. He laughs when he thinks that in the USA he would have to touch smaller, “normal” cars as a mechanic when/if he starts working. He doesn’t want to go back, but he isn’t scared of the future. He knows he might face detention at an adult center, with the inherent risks, and deportation. But he focuses on the opportunities. If he has the opportunity, he wants to make it right with education and go back to mechanics. Maybe his own business, he says. He is advancing ast towards his language skills. And he is aware that people are helping him, and he’s very grateful about it.

In the future, I might have to translate for him again. This time in a court, to dismiss future cases because he might secure legal status by then. Perhaps by that time he would have had a chance with a Cummins engine – or, well, maybe a Civic.

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Switching to Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon (and Ideapad Yoga 11)

I’ve used Thinkpads for years now. T21, T23, T40, T400, T410, T420, and now X230 and X1. About 6 months ago I had the opportunity to move from the T420 to either X230 or X1. At that time, I chose the X230 for portability and because X1 had a severe backlog (couple months offline)

While I had a great time with the X230, as it was very powerful for its size, I recently got an X1 Carbon and I am very happy with it.

The touch screen is fairly good, but when compared to other Lenovo screens such as the Yoga 11 one (which is a consumer laptop on the Ideapad family, that Ailé just got) it is on the glossy side of things (both with screen protectors, obviously, being touch)

I can’t believe Lenovo did not provide power in their USB 3.0 dock. I have to carry around the new adapter (as you would imagine, every outlet at home has a traditional-style Thinkpad AC adapter connected to it, which is now useless) and this is a major nuisance.

The chiclet keyboard is not that bad. The X230 had it as well, and I could type as fast as always on it. But, when compared to the X230, the touchpad of the X1 is more annoying. Anyways, I always turn it off and use the trackpoint thingy or an external trackball mouse. Actually, on a side note, the Ideapad touchpad is even more annoying with all the swipes and gestures being triggered by simple things.

Of course, both X230 and X1 had UEFI and Secure Boot. Since I had to get in the BIOS anyway to change boot order, I just disabled both options and all my old Linux USB drives boot like a bliss.

As with most of this low profile laptops, you have to carry around a USB Ethernet and Mini-DP VGA adapters. I actually think this is more useful than the USB 3.0 Dock which only has DVI outputs (I’ve never owned, nor needed, a DVI cable or adapter in my life)

As mentioned, Ailé did get a Yoga 11 recently and it seems like a solid laptop. The decision was between the Dell XPS 12 and the Yoga. Although the statistics show that the hinge on the Dell is not as flaky as one would expect, the Yoga was definitely sturdier (and $200 cheaper for the same specs)

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Going cableless… and back?

In a way, cable TV is very different here than what we were used to.

When we moved into the United States, we had Comcast installed in our temporary housing. And frankly, it was underperforming. Yes, they had a wide array of channels, and lots of on demand content being pushed onto the DVR, but the box was unusable UX-wise, and the quality was not “wow” And on top of that, the Internet really was a nightmare. It was frustrating to spend our first weeks here without any kind of working connectivity, particularly for telecommuting.

So, when we moved in we were considering not having cable TV at home. Specially after seeing how costs could easily rise up to $100/mo., which is what we spent in Ecuador, and not what we expected for North America. We hooked ourselves up to fiber with Frontier (FiOS) and bought a TV with a digital tuner. Then we got an antenna.

Thing is we live 20 miles out of the antenna towers, and the antenna could not pick up most local channels. So I returned the antenna and got a new one. No luck. And then another one. Nothing. It seemed like we’d need an external antenna, but the homeowners wouldn’t allow it or at least needed a significant amount of negotiation and planning (in the US, the FCC regulates how much can a homeowner prevent you from installing antennas for receiving public transmissions) which in a way also took satellite TV (which we’ve preferred for decades) out of the question.

So, with that chunky 25 Mbps fiber connection we joined Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Out of our analysis, Hulu was the less valuable service of all three. A lot of the content was either too old or too new and it was unpredictable for us to follow a show. Also, a lot of the shows were on the national networks (which are digital and free-to-air in the United States, meaning for example free HD episodes of The Big Bang Theory)

Netflix continues to be the best value for us. We get an incredible amount of content, including a very predictable path for us to catch up with shows (such as Parks and recreation) and the content is high quality, which is very different from Netflix in Latin America. And Amazon Prime was a good value just for the deals and free shipping so having some stuff free as Instant Video and the rest for low prices ($2, $3, etc.) is a good option. We use a Roku HD to consume all that content, as well as our Surface and Windows Phone now and then.

But we still couldn’t watch ABC, CBS, NBC, etc. We also couldn’t consume any content in Spanish (the free antenna carries Univision, with really poor programming, even worse than in Latin America in some aspects, and V-me) While Netflix had a channel for PBS (the Public TV system, which we love) watching newscasts was a problem as well. And don’t get me started on sports – not that we are huge fans of having all the MLB, NFL and NBA channels, but some baseball here and there and some European soccer wouldn’t hurt.

I was pretty much bought into adding Cable TV services from Frontier, until I realized that our apartment was plugged to 2 different cables. One for the Internet access, and one for… TV! Yes! Turns out the entire building is plugged in by default, and due to FCC regulations most cable operators must offer local TV channels with a technology called Clear QAM. So I tune in and remove the scrambled (encrypted) channels and I end up with 45 unique channels. All major networks are there, in HD, and I also get lots of additional programming (a lot of public TV, including the city and county TVs, the University of Washington TV channels, etc.) with a couple channels that come and go whenever the operator is trying to pull marketing stunts.

So for a couple months we’ve been able to balance our Internet TV experience with a regular TV experience. And we pay for it, but we pay significantly less than the $100+ that we would expect to pay for a lot of content we don’t use in a DVR we hate. But this will stop soon.

The reason is the FCC lifted some restrictions for the operators and they will start encrypting even the most basic TV channels. That’s part of the reason why the entire building was hooked up by default. They are rolling out the encryption now and soon we’ll be back to the Roku. Then, I’ll most likely sign up for Frontier’s Cable Services. I will let you know how it goes but, for now, it seems going cableless is just a matter of complementary, and not supplementary, experiences.

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