Getting a pair of custom made RM Williams boots really softens the blow of turning 40.
The internet relies on DNS servers that do the dirty work of translating human readable domain names to something that makes sense to a device on a network, which is where you see four sequences of numbers separated by a period.
I have been updating my homepage at andrewcanion.com such that it displays the three latest blog posts I have published by leveraging the RSS feed generated by WordPress. RSS feeds provide a method for other sites and services to subscribe to the work of the site offering the feed. Each new entry is included in the RSS feed, and for my homepage, I grab the latest three entries for prominent display.
I had assumed that this would all work well until I stumbled across a strange problem. My site would only occasionally load and display the article entries contained within the feed. Other times the articles would not display, instead pausing in a state of permanent loading. I tried the site across a number of devices, and a number of browsers to eliminate a problem existing at the device level. As they all exhibited the same issue I presumed the problem must be occurring at a deeper level of the network.
I examined the source code of my site and it appeared to be fine. I checked to make sure the Yahoo API that grabbed the RSS feed and translated it for use on my home page was still active, and it was.
Next I tried connecting to the site through a VPN, which makes it appear that my point of origin was somewhere other than through my own internet connection. When using a VPN the site loaded every time. This was great to discover, as it moved me another step closer to the identifying the problem.
That problem had to be related to my ISP (or in the new nomenclature of Australia’s NBN, my RSP). Somehow, that provider must have been causing a problem because when I routed around them with the VPN (on any device) my site loaded completely. Yet when I visited the site on any of my devices that didn’t connect through the VPN there was a problem.
My theory is that my RSP is aggressively caching content to attempt to reduce global bandwidth consumption and that this is preventing my RSS feed from updating correctly. If my caching theory isn’t correct, then it must be some other shenanigans they are up to at the network level, no doubt to reduce their bandwidth bill.
To resolve the problem I needed to reduce my reliance on my provider’s infrastructure. That meant transitioning to a different DNS provider rather than using the default, which is the DNS server of my RSP. I chose to connect to OpenDNS. Basically this means I have traded in the internet lookup tables that came with my broadband subscription in favour of an offering from a third party whose primary business it is to provide good DNS. Through the nature of their product and their business model they are incentivised to provide excellent DNS services. It is their core business. For my RSP, however, the provision of DNS services is a necessary sideline and their key driver is not to deliver excellent routing, but rather to use it as a point of leverage to reduce their own bandwidth costs to improve the profitability of their company.
As soon as I switched to OpenDNS my site loaded perfectly in every browser, on every device. My detective work had paid off and my willingness to not accept the defaults has improved the situation.
The only potential downside I was worried about was that OpenDNS might be a little slower to resolve sites simply because the distance to their server might be further than the default DNS server. I needn’t have worried though, because if anything, I think it might be a little bit faster.
Companies all share an incentive to maximise profitability. How they go about achieving this can vary greatly depending on their product and their business model. My internet provider only needs to provide a service that is ‘good enough’ for the majority of normal customers that want to browse the web and check Facebook. If they can deliver that to satisfaction and save some money on the back-end with caching and other network tricks, they’ll do it, even if it creates some edge-case problems.
I’m an edge-case and I wanted excellent DNS services. To get these I had to go to a company that is incentivised to provide quality DNS management. For them, only by delivering on that promise can the business generate revenue and grow its own profitability.
The character of Lester Freeman sums this up in this slightly NSFW scene from The Wire.
Follow the money.
I’m not one for new year’s resolutions but at the beginning of this year I decided to try incorporating mindfulness meditation into my life. This was an idea brought about by a feeling that I was living life in a semi-permanent state of anxiety; feeling the pressure of the now and the next thing to be done that was sneaking up behind that. I figured that some mindful meditation might offer a way in which I could carve out some time to intentionally slow myself down and try to alleviate some of that perceived stress.
To facilitate the practice of meditation, I found Headspace. After enjoying the free trial I subscribed to an annual plan. Since my purchase, I’ve also discovered (but haven’t tried) a free, Australian equivalent, Smiling Mind.
As somebody who had never traversed the path of mindfulness and meditation, I had no idea what to do, how to do it, nor what to expect from it. The great thing about Headspace is that it assumes this is the case for its new users. The app provides a helpful introductory course that helps guide one into the technique and its potential benefits.
For the first few months, I was intentional about carving out 10-15 minutes each day for the exercise. Within a couple of weeks I found it had a positive impact on my state of mind, and each day I looked forward to the time where I could intentionally sit and do nothing. However, life being what it is, after about five months I found I was going days without meditating, and the habit that had been forming once again dissipated.
In the last few weeks, I’ve made another conscious effort to undertake a session of meditation each day and once again I am enjoying the benefits it confers. Now, heading towards the end of August, my total meditation time recorded in the Headspace app is at about 1,000 minutes1 which equates to a bit less than 17 hours.
In these days of hyper-connectivity and a constant barrage of (often self-inflicted) interruptions, we are lacking quality time for ourselves. It’s hard to ‘unplug’ from the world. In response, taking a few minutes out of each day to dedicate to my own peace of mind seems a sensible investment. The greater sense of calm I feel after a mindfulness meditation session helps with focus thereafter and so the time ‘lost’ to the meditation activity is quickly made up through increased productivity. Plus, nobody is so important that they can’t be incommunicado for 15 minutes, especially me!
While I’ve grown up on the Internet, I also remember the pre-internet era well and spent most of my formative years there. I was a kid who was able to get a modem and connect it to the text-only world of Bulletin Board Systems and Usenet (when Usenet was a service for discussion, not just binaries). I spent hours exploring these worlds, finding like-minded people, and expanding my horizons as to what computers could enable by way of communication and engagement.
I was so excited on the day I got my own internet-based email address, until I realised I had nobody to email.1 Nevertheless, it was still a thrill to have the possibility of contacting anybody else in the world who may also have happened to have an email address. The open nature of email was really the first indicator of the power of the open internet.
As time went by, I kept up with the technology of the time. I remember skipping accounting classes at university because I was having more fun in the Unix labs browsing the web with Lynx. Later in my uni career, I would be skipping classes and browsing the web with an early version of Netscape Navigator. It was slow, but it was the future and I wanted a piece of it. The only web sites that were around at that point were really published by other geeks and there was a real sense of open exploration of what could be achieved. I still have memories of the early IMDB site, and even then the amount of information available was astounding.
The next port of call for me on my journey through the open web was blogging. I operated a since-departed (photo)blog that managed to gain a bit of traction and traffic over the few years that I ran it. This was back when hand-coding and CSS tweaking was a necessity, and there was no thought of, or need for, responsive design. Eventually though, I got tired of the whole thing and shut it down. I kept a text archive of the posts which I still have somewhere, and little bits of it remain at the Internet Archive. Sometimes, though, I wish I had been a better archivist of my own work even if just so I could look back on it from time to time.
After this time the web became ‘socialised’, in that all the action was on various social media platforms, be it MySpace(!), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… the list goes on. The problem with all of these sites, though, is they are not open. Far from it; their motivation is to keep both you and your content captive to their walled garden so they can sell advertising based on your eyeballs.
These sites do not reflect the open web that I’ve always loved. I miss the days of easily-shareable content, where all that was required was a URL. I really wish that content wasn’t so reliant on companies as content platforms and that so much of the content wasn’t published simply as a means of monetising the attention of others.
This is why I am particularly interested in the currently-in-development micro.blog service. This appears to have the potential of offering the best of both worlds: the ease of use of social media, but with the open web philosophy that I so appreciate. Unfortunately I wasn’t part of the original Kickstarter project, so I don’t have any early access. I have, however, signed up to be notified and am following the developers RSS feed closely to watch it’s development. I really hope that it gets some genuine traction, and that this can lead to real-world success.
I know that we can’t go back to the way things were. The internet will never again be the Wild West, inhabited only by the zealot explorers. Now it’s a platform for everybody, and the commercial money isn’t going away anytime soon. Yet I will keep my RSS reader and maintain the search for those independent voices that I can follow who create and deliver interesting, independent content.