Content curation

I think I’m going to start blogging a weekly “Stuff I’ve read and found interesting” kind of post. I have no idea if anyone would find this useful at all. It will be roughly even mix of tech news, science stuff, gaming stuff and a miscellaneous esoterica kind of category probably. I guess we’ll see if it draws more traffic.

EC2 Costs

I started this post nearly two years ago, and it has been sitting in my “Drafts” folder since then, untouched.

I recently came up against a need for which Amazon’s cloud was once against the hand’s down most cost effective way to meet my needs, and I figured it was worth documenting the use case. If you don’t know already, I play minecraft. I have a realm. I’ve hosted my own server in the past, and have done a whole mess of stuff with it over the years, including some pixelart (which I will link once I’m not at work anymore). Realms don’t support any kind of mods or plugins, or maps, etc. And so I’ve had to do some manual work to get a map of our realm available online. When I was using fragnet (had great experience with them, btw … our use case just changed is all), they had basically one click install options for using dynmap, a popular dynamic mapping system for minecraft, and it basically auto-magically maintained the map for me, no maintenance or anything necessary. It would update reasonably quickly after you explored more of your world, and all was well in the world.
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Obsess much?

So for … basically ever, I’ve been playing a simple logic “solitaire” game called Sherlock. Its pretty simple, has only a few rules to understand, and it is in a class of game that I have just basically always had in my life in one form or another. I have read a few studies over the years that indicate that keeping your brain engaged and active can either prevent or delay the onset of some of the cognitive disoders, like Alzheimer’s. Not that I originally considered that in my choice to play these sorts of things, I just liked them. And still do… but it has certainly reinforced my decision to continue playing them. They are a sort of litmus test for whether or not I’m “slipping” mentally, or losing my ability to solve those sorts of problems. There are certainly lots of arguments that I’m not doing a very scientific test. Yes, sure… granted. But that also isn’t my primary goal. Its just a happy side effect.
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Tank update

So algae. How frustrating is this stuff. Short answer? Very.

We did a bunch of research, and the prevailing wisdom says that there are a few different causes of algae growth. Phosphates, Nitrates, lack of filtration, lack of circulation, not enough competing life (macro-algae in the refugium) and lighting cycles.
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New Hotness

So I need to prime the pump of this post with a bit of foreword. It should be noted that I am decidedly NOT a mac fanboi. I’ve used a fair portion of their kit over the years for a variety of purposes, both liesure and work related. From the technical perspective, I have evaluated their products on those basis, and am willing to state the following things about their products and mentality:

  • They have, on a regular basis, been able to innovate decidedly outside of the box
  • Their ecosystem is proprietary and exclusionary, and has allowed them to make gobs of money at the expense of a healthy market (they are definitely NOT the only company guilty of such practices. That doesn’t make the fact any better)
  • iTunes software and store sucks. Sorry, it just does. And it is getting worse as time goes on
  • Their products are incredibly sexy. They take aesthetic design to a level that most companies don’t even know exist, many more simply emulate, and almost noone can rival. Off the charts
  • They have excellent support, in my experience. I’ve not had to make that much use of it over the years, but when I’ve had to, it has not let me down
  • They have managed to create a brand and consumer loyalty index that is also rarely rivaled. Those who have bought in are damn near rabid. In markets where there are so many other options, and in the few cases where an otherwise healthy competitive market exists for the particular product set… that is pretty invaluable, and might have been one of the most important reasons they’ve stayed in business during some of the tougher times
  • They support educational markets. I dig that. Even if it isn’t for purely altruistic reasons, they at least recognize that it pays off in the long run, and have (and continue to) leverage this fact. Well played, sirs … well played
  • I’m not fond of their pricing model. I speculate that part of their strategy is (or at least, was), to play to people’s vanity and price their products as the “premium” model in the markets they participate in. Yes, sure… I can chalk some of that up to needing to recover the costs associated with their high quality of engineering and design, but not that much. Also, it just isn’t true anymore. Yet they still participate in their markets with prices 20% or higher than the nearest equivalent product, and I’m sorry, but those differences in product that were once arguably differential are, quite simply, no longer true

Ok, so now you know my stance on them. I own several of their products, and where I can rationalize the price, I may very well purchase them in the future as well. But at the moment, my general “one liner” about their current product set is “I’m kind of over them”.

Well, that was yesterday. This is today. And holy shit. If I really take a damn hard look at this, and try to noodle out what the real differences are between this product (that I’m about to link) and its competitors … the list is probably reasonably short, but not insignificant. However, maybe its just I’ve got that glossy sexy shiny thing making my eyes all blurry and all, but HOLY SHIT. Apple, I gotta hand it to you… you make some sexy stuff. Without further ado… please feast your eyes:

http://www.apple.com/mac-pro/

You’re welcome.

Media Library

So once I got the XBMC server setup, I started ripping all my DVDs onto the NAS drive and making them available to that server. I also found a neat too (xbmchtml) that lets you rip the Library out into a nice HTML formatted view. So I added a link to that up in the top header (Media) so you can go there and check out all the movies and tv shows we have ripped down. Very neat. Oh, and the link back to the blog is up at the top left of that page when you’re ready to navigate back.

Enjoy!

raspbmc and hdmi

So thanks to my main man Mohtaram Eyang Kakung Signore Rhino-ji, I have a Raspberry Pi (model B). If you’re not familiar with what that is, clickie the linkie and go check it out.

When I first was thinking about rebuilding my media server, the RaspPi immediately came to mind. There are literally dozens of online blogs, readmes, tech sites, etc with details about how to set that up. And honestly, even if there weren’t, this was ridiculously simple to do. First step, figure out which version of xbmc to use. If you don’t know what that is, go take a look here. Essentially, it is a front end for media servers. In addition, it has several dedicated builds supporting the Raspberry Pi. Foremost among them are OpenELEC, RaspBMC and Xbian. You can do your own investigation around which of these (or others) is best, or you can just trust this guy. I ended up going with RaspBMC.

Ok, so after doing that reading, I still need a few things. The Pi doesn’t come with any “extras”. So in order to make this go, I needed a power supply, some kind of rudimentary case and a memory stick for it. I opted for the acrylic case from Adafruit. I also ordered a power supply from them as well. And finally, I ordered a 4GB SD (Class 10) from B&H Photo, my preferred site for all things camera related. Total cost, about $35. About a week later, everything arrived, and I was ready to rock. I snagged the Windows installer from the RaspBMC site, and that “burned” the image to the SD card. The installer also lets you manually set the ip address, instead of using DHCP. I want a fixed address so I can point tablet/phone based remote apps to it, so I set that as well. I popped in the freshly minted SD card, attached network and power, and up it came. Note that I did not attach it to the video or USB keybd/mouse yet. I was hoping to complete configuration through an SSH connection. This turned out to be less effective than I would have hoped. You can’t just use the web interface either. You can, however, avoid the keybd/mouse since the app remote called Yatse (check your droid store, not sure if there is an iOS version) has a remote keyboard function as well. It takes only a minute to point it to the right host, and you’re good to go for controlling it over the network.

It goes through a couple quick setup steps to pick locale and timezone. At this point, I needed to point it to my network storage where my Videos are, which is quick step as well. I have a Synology NAS that I’m sharing out Videos from (via NFS) and for each type (Movies or TV Shows) it “scrapes” your collection to gather info and locally cache that info. At this point, I just need to get it hooked up to the real TV and receiver and I’m good to go.

And therein lies the rub. Basically, I’m just out of HDMI ports. My receiver is an older SONY model that doesn’t have any, so the video signal is not going through the receiver. The TV has two inputs, currently occupied by the DVD player and DirecTV thinger. Also, since my A/V gear is in its own “closet” (read; the furnace room), I’m dependent on those long runs to get signal to the TV. So, I’m going to put an HDMI switch in my rack, push the HDMI outs from the Pi, DVD and DirecTV device to it, and just use one of the long runs to the TV. I picked out this model. Monoprice is my default vendor A/V gear and network cabling and supplies. They’ve always done right by me, orders big and small. Anyway, that should arrive sometime next week, at which point my install will be complete.

Oh, one final note. Since my receiver doesn’t use HDMI ins/outs, it also isn’t taking advantage of the HDMI audio signalling. I’m using digital coax or fiber connections from the various devices currently. I’m hoping that switch’s digital coax connection can be used to get the HDMI signal’s audio over to the receiver and that way I can take advantage of the full audio I’ll get from that instead of using the Pi’s 1/8″ audio jack. I’ll see how that works once I get it all hooked up. Worst case, though, I just use that jack.

I will follow up on this post once I get it hooked up and running and watch my first movie!

PS – might be time to consider getting a modern receiver. Ah well… something to add to the list.
PSS – I’m very pleased with the RaspPi performance thusfar. My testing using my HDMI monitor had really high quality output with no smearing. I can’t wait to see this on the big TV.

liverock bonus plan

So there has been quite a bit of progress on the fishtank front. Where to begin…
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Thank you, brain

So I have a peculiar brain. I say this because it has managed to take four completely unrelated, seemingly innocent facts about the current state of my life, and turn this into insomnia. Note the time of the post. I’ve been up for about an hour now, and here is the reason:

  1. I’m currently reading Sherlock Holmes Complete Works. This isn’t really notable, except in that if you’ve read it, you might recall the precision with which the main character goes through crime scenes and observes things. Watson’s descriptions for his methods, and the narratives describing those examinations borders on the pathological. A minor nod must also go out to the style of language involved in the dialog. This is certainly a function of the era and perhaps also the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s command of it.
  2. I’m playing a game called XCOM: Enemy Unknown at the moment. This is an odd sort of game that you don’t often see these days. The relevant point here is that it is a turn-based, squad combat game. For those not familiar with computer gaming parlance, what this means is that, during at least the action-heavy parts of the game, combat is slowed down into turns. In each turn, you get to choose an action for each of the 4-6 squad members in your strike team. Things like “move over to this spot”, “fire your gun at that enemy” or “use your special blow things up especially well ability” might be example actions. At the end of every round, each enemy unit on the field likewise chooses its own action and tries to foil your well laid plans. If you think about how this plays out, it makes what would otherwise be a very quick SEAL-team-like combat sequence play out in very long carefully scripted action sequences, broken into little chunks of action only several seconds long, mixed in with long pauses of your own strategic decision-making about what each member of your team should do to end the combat with minimum losses.
  3. I am capable of lucid dreaming. For those of you unfamiliar, I will link to the wikipedia page, and steal its first line here to explain: “A lucid dream is any dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming. The term was coined by the Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik (Willem) van Eeden (1860–1932). In a lucid dream, the dreamer may be able to exert some degree of control over their participation within the dream or be able to manipulate their imaginary experiences in the dream environment.”
  4. I wear a CPAP at night. Again, I link you to wikipedia if you happen to be unfamiliar. It is basically like going to bed wearing an oxygen mask, prescribed to help with my sleep apnea.

Ok, I’m going pause here briefly to give you a chance to read stuff at those links if needed, and maybe think about how these things might all play in concert with one another. Go ahead, I’ve got all night. Take a few minutes…

Alright, so here’s what my brain has done with all of that. I end up dreaming about Sherlock Holmes crime scenes and gunfights. Except that those gunfights and crime scene investigations end up playing out like XCOM combat sequences, with each character getting to move in little time-sliced chunks, after each move, taking a moment to have a soliloquy in Sherlockian dialog, with exactingly long sequences of observations about what is going on and with whom. If you’ve seen the recent couple of movies with Robert Downey, Jr, you might recall the sequences where you can see him planning out a method of attacking an opponent, in each moment observing how to best disable them, and then seeing it play out in real time exactly as he had surmised. That is how it happens in the dream. Now add to this the fact that I begin lucid dreaming, and I can, in fact, influence the course of the action, and it becomes exactly like playing XCOM-style in a Sherlockian novel. And then, of course, becoming aware of the sounds of my CPAP machine, adding that into my dream, and then slowly falling out of the dream state because moving through Sherlockian combat scenes in slow motion while listening to the augmented sounds of your own machine-assisted breathing is, in fact, quite disturbing and mind-numbingly boring.

So yeah, thanks brain! I owe you one. I’m going to just go in to work early and try and get some work done.

Brain? By the way? Pull this shit again, and I’m pulling out the ambien and taking your ass down. Just sayin’.

Quicken Tech Support Fail

Here is a redacted cut/paste of a conversation I just had with Quicken Tech Support. I’ve redacted the name of the support person because I have no interest in throwing anyone under the bus. My initial question was to find out if there was any special/upgrade pricing as a long time user, and what the new features were. I will leave you to make your own conclusions…

XXXXX: Hi, my name is XXXXX. Thank you for contacting Quicken, please allow me a moment to read your question.
XXXXX: Hi Mark, how are you doing today?

me: very well, thanks. Happy New Years.

XXXXX: Thank you and happy new year to you to.
XXXXX: I would like to inform you that there is no update price available while upgrading from 2010 to 2013, however as you are a valuable customer, I am providing you with a link to get $20 discount.

me: that would be great, thank you.

XXXXX: http://quicken.intuit.com/blahblahblah

me: that is for the rental property manager
me: is there one for home and business?

XXXXX: You can scroll down, you will see it at the bottom of that page…

me: ah, nevermind, I just switched products, and the discount is still there.
me: Excellent.
me: so. final question… are the new features worth the upgrade? Last year, I was told there wasn’t anything significant changed
me: (by support)

XXXXX: Yes, there are many new feature plus the Mobile app.
XXXXX: Are you satisfied with the support I provided today and my efforts to help? If not, how else can I help you?

me: ok, thank you, I’ll look into it. Actually, I do have one final support type question
me: I’m trying hard to reduce the size of the file I work with.
me: its currently 40Meg + and the performance of quicken is suffering as a result
me: I’m trying to do a year-end copy to get rid of pre-2006 data
me: and after I do that, the file size is STILL over 40M (no reduction in size)
me: what am I doing wrong?

XXXXX: I would like to inform you that Year end feature is not working currently you can try the copy option to archive your file
XXXXX: Are you satisfied with the support I provided today and my efforts to help? If not, how else can I help you?

me: does it work better in 2013?
me: or work at all?

XXXXX: It is not working in 2013 as well.

me: thank you. Yes, I’m satisfied with your support.
me: have a great day

Christmas Trains

So once upon a time there was a guy. And over the course of his childhood and adolescence, he was in the habit of acquiring model trains for he and his brothers to play with. Nowadays, these would be referred to as “old school” trains, with the fancy switches, electricity to power them, little reservoirs that you can fill with dry ice or something so that the little smokestacks really spit out smoke, everything mounted to big swaths of plywood with fake grass, dirt, mountains, matchbox cars, and 1 inch high people strewn about. This guy, as he got older, thought to himself… you know, wouldn’t it be cool if I could have a couple boys (or, I suppose, girls) and when they’re old enough, they can play with this stuff too. We’ll be able to make it a father/son (or, I suppose, daughter) project and they can learn all about electricity, being responsible with potentially dangerous stuff, and so on. I should also note that this guy would have been thinking and saying these things in German, since he was my Dad, and was in Austria at the time those thoughts would have been percolating.

I should maybe take a moment here, and note that some of this story I’m telling second hand, I was either not there yet or too young to remember when some of these details were happening. I’m also not quite sure of the sequence of events, but it isn’t that important. I suspect there was some embellishment on the part of story-teller, but it still makes for a good yarn, so just bear with me.

Anyway, so let us fast forward a few years now, and now that guy is married, and has two kids, aged 4 and 2. Still in Vienna at this point, but already planning to move over the good ol’ US of A, where the lovely lady has most of her family, and of course, misses them terribly. At some point here, this guy’s stepmother decides that she is going to take that whole train set and all of its associated trimmings and trappings, and send them off to one of her nephews. Dad was apparently not consulted on this, nor was anyone else that might have had some relevant input to the decision. If I’m conveying a bit of bitterness, it is because there was some. I’ll leave it at that, since, again… this predates me, and it is hard for me to feel a lot of emotion about something that couldn’t possibly have mattered to me at that point in my life.

Ok, so there was some animosity, regret, sadness, opportunity missed for some quality Dad/son time there, and life went on.

Another fast forward, and here I am, now a Dad myself. Two kids, 4 and almost 2. And lo, check it out. Opa David (my Dad-in-Law) decides to send us his trains. Once again, these are the old school variety. I haven’t done a complete inventory yet. I do know that there are at least there are two locomotives, at least 3 cars, and a whole mess of track. There are two of the “transformer” boxes that let you regulate the speed and direction of the train. There will need to be some cleaning, probably a few parts that need to be replaced, but even with the very limited stuff we set up today, we were able to get a functioning oval of track around the Christmas tree with one of the locomotives and two cars hanging off behind. It throws off a few sparks here and there, lights flicker on some particular rusty bits of track, but it runs!

This will be a long project, spanning a bunch of years, especially since the kids are pretty young still. This kind of thing, I believe, is a labor of love, with long hours spent with sandpaper, modelling glue, and linear miles of wire so that the little streetlights will all turn on when the room gets dark. Perhaps I’m letting my imagination get away from me a bit here, but … well, what good is that darn thing for anyway, if not to close your eyes and let it run a bit wild the possibilities.

So thank you Opa David. Someday, Madeline and Nicholas will come to appreciate what I already know… just how special a gift this is.

Happy Holidays to all!

not so elegant hacks

Some time ago, I went through, as I do on a semi-regular basis, and updated passwords on everything I could remember. I have tools for this. The tools are very good at making things random and hard to guess or hack. They let me specify the types of characters that should appear in them, and how long they should be, and all kinds of funny rules to consider.

This time, I decided to also update the passwords on my DSL modem at home. The maker is Actiontec, although ultimately that isn’t relevant. On the password screen, they accept any character on the password screen, and entries of any length. Given that, I chose my 16 character mixed profile, which is pretty much the strongest one I generally use. A very few sites/apps accept longer ones, but not usually. The dialog accepted my new password, and saved it, and since I was also experiencing some port connection issues at the time, I decided to reset the modem. No problem, everything came right back up minutes later, and I was good to go.

I popped back onto the admin page for the modem, and was going to login to verify that the memory usage was back down to nominal levels. What’s this? An error??? Let’s see here… “Your password cannot exceed 15 characters in length”. WHAT??? It let me enter 16 characters when it asked. How can the login screen only take 15? So then I think, ok… maybe it automatically chopped the final character off? Nope. Maybe it chopped the first character off? (Ok, I admit thats kind of out of the realm of reality, but I’m getting desperate here)… Nope. After trying many different further combinations, including my old password, ALL CAPS, no caps, etc, I decided to do a little more poking around. Fire up the firefox debugger, and look at the code evaluating on this page. Sure enough, there is a routine in the javascript there that is validating my input on that page, and checking to see that the input <= 15 characters. Ugh.

So, I realize at this point that I could reset the modem back to factory defaults, and go ahead and reconfigure my custom settings. I have some specific port maps setup and this is generally a big pain in the butt, so I decide to try contacting their support first. Hit the webpage, leave a message with my email address, and await my reply. A few days later, they do so, indicating that the login page should be able to accept any password length that the password reset script would have allowed, and that I should check to make sure I’m typing correctly.

o.O
O.o

Really? Um, ok. That is like asking me if the power cord is plugged in. They indicate there is no “backdoor” and that I need to reset the modem to defaults in order to resolve, thank you for playing, we’re considering this issue resolved, and please don’t ask us any more of your stupid questions. kthxbye.

Alright, so now I get back in and try all the things I did before, thinking…ok, maybe they’re right, I just typed it wrong, and went through all the usual logical steps that I could have accidentally done things incorrectly, and I get the same result. As a last ditch effort, I go in and check the code again, except this time, I’m going to try and play with the values. Once again in the debugger I enable a breakpoint in the javascript, and start stepping through the code, watching the values of several different variables I see defined to see how it manipulates things before it finally submits the form. This time, I leave off the final character (going back to a 15 character, allowed value), and step it past the check that was previously failing. It does some more manipulation of the username, password, the current ip address, etc, and then sets that big long string into a new variable just before submitting. So just before the exit, I go back into that variable, and add my character back, by hand, in the debugger console. Click “Run” and close my eyes a bit. Wait 5 seconds… open my eyes… I’m logged in!

Every once in awhile, all the crap I went to school for actually comes in handy. No, not the most elegant hack, but it got the job done.

Promise to my children

Preamble:

I apologize up front. This is going to be intensely personal, probably very long, and only really relevant to parents. That having been said, I need to get it out. This is, to some extent, a conversation I’ve been having, both internally in my head, and externally with with friends, parents and my spouse for near around 20 years. My children are currently four and one and a half. This will be a conversation I have with each of them, most likely separately, not likely very soon. But it will happen, because I know the circumstances already that will lead to it being a necessity.

I think it is possible that I delayed having kids for a time because I didn’t feel like this dialogue was yet fully flushed out in my head. At some point, I realized that it never will be. This also came along with the realization that some people, for better or worse, never have this conversation. Some have it, realize they can’t live up to this promise, and then have kids anyway. Life is like that. I don’t expect anyone else to live up to this standard. I expect MYSELF to live up to this standard. I’m not telling anyone else what to do. I’m not judging anyone else. Each of us, once we commit to the new life in our midst, has to decide how to approach this on their own, and make their own call about what it means. As mentioned above, I think this is intensely personal, and unique for every parent, with every child. Perhaps this is my disclaimer about what you’re going to read.

And from here on, you need to imagine me (or yourself) sitting across the table from your child, and I’m going to switch that perspective so that someday, if they read this, they will know it is to them…


I’ll start with an analogy. It is one I thought up a long time ago, and maybe now, tonight, I understand it more completely than ever before.

I imagine life is sort of like walking across a stream. We’re walking across together. The water is moving fast. It isn’t very deep, but the rocks we walk on are slippery. Not all of them are stable, sometimes we have to step in the water, on a rock that wobbles a lot, just to get across. But we’ll keep moving forward, together… for now. I want you to know that I’ve walked across this stream, or one very much like it, before. I was walking with my parents. Someday, fates willing, you’ll do the same with kids of your own.

The first part of this analogy is that no matter what, we’re going to keep going. We may stop to rest sometimes, but we will always keep moving forward. For the moment, I’m going to point across the stream, and tell you that is the right direction. At the moment, you don’t know, or can’t know, what that means… for now you have to trust me that I know. Someday, at some point in the future, you’re going to find your own direction, let go of my hand, and strike out on your own. Remember this point, I’ll get back to it later.

Next, there are going to be times when I’m going to see a spot in the stream that looks familiar to me, I’m going to see a rock I stepped on before, and when I took that step, I slipped, fell, and landed on my butt in the water, and got hurt. Maybe it was some physical pain, maybe it was shame, maybe it was just an awkward moment… whatever. I’ll point that out to you. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t take that same step I did. Maybe I’ll point out a different path, another rock. Or maybe I’ll just ask you to wait a moment until the current isn’t quite so fast, but the choice is still yours. Sometimes, you’re going to take my advice, avoid the fall, and we’ll move on from there. Sometimes, you’re going to take my miss-step anyway, and fall on your butt, just like I did. I won’t tell you “I told you so” (ok, maybe I will) … but maybe it will show you that sometimes, I do have good advice. That maybe I can help steer you in tough times. My first promise is this… whenever you fall, I will *always* do my best to be there to help you back up. I’ll kiss your cheek, give you a band-aid, give you a hug, or talk to you about what happened. Whatever you need right then, I will *always* try to be there for that.

Sometimes, you’re going to take that step, and NOT fall. In those moments, you’re going to see something in me you won’t recognize until later in life. Pride. I’m going to be proud of you. Proud of you for succeeding where I did not. Pride in standing up for yourself and what you believed in, even when I told you there might be a negative outcome. I hope you will see from this that I’m not perfect. I hope you will see I’m ok admitting that. I hope you will see that though I’m not always right, I was still trying to look out for you. My second promise is that I will do my best not to be angry that you didn’t listen to me, and try to see that you’re learning to make decisions for yourself, knowing full well they might not be good ones. That your independence is just as important to me as your success.

I will tell you right now that there are going to be times when I will see the slippery rock, and I’m going to be very insistent that you don’t take that step, that you pick a different path instead, no matter how much you complain. I may use words like “forbid” or “you’re grounded” or “don’t take that tone with me young (lady|man)”. You’re going to wonder why it isn’t like the earlier case where I let you make your own mistake. I need you to just trust me on this one. I may or may not have an explanation that makes sense to you at the time. My next promise is that I will make my best effort to use this “veto power” that parents have as sparingly as possible. I won’t take it lightly, and I won’t use it carelessly or casually. It will only be when I think that the possible outcome is so bad that it would be MUCH worse than the lesson you would learn by making the mistake yourself. It is my hope that someday you will see the logic and understand, even though that “someday” might be much later in your life. Sometimes, the 38+ years I’ve lived more than you have will have more weight than the force of your will and nature.

Now getting back to that earlier point. Someday, we will find ourselves at a spot in our journey where you are going to want to let go of my hand and take off in a different direction. That is also ok. We may not agree on when that time should be. I did the same thing with my parents. I would ask that you recognize how difficult a time that is for parents. Letting go is hard. Maybe *the* hardest thing we’ll ever do. To some extent, we sign an unwritten agreement when we had you that was a long term deal. We knew full well that we were signing up for the long haul. That brings me to the last promise. What we were signing up for was to make sure that when you did decide to let go, and make your own journey, that we had done our very best to prepare you for what was ahead. It won’t be perfect. You won’t always agree. From the moment you let go, you will see and do things we probably would never have imagined. All we can hope for is that we steered you right, gave you the right guidance, and left you with the smarts to make the decisions on your own, the common sense to be intuitive about your path, the independence to be able to stand up straight on your own, the compassion to help those you’ll meet in the future, and the emotional maturity to handle your successes and your failures with grace, humility and honesty.

I guess there is one more thing too, worth mentioning. You may find that the first time you let go doesn’t work out quite as planned. Sometimes there are false starts, and for that part, you will always have a home with us. No matter what the circumstances are, you can always count on the hugs, band-aids and the support you need to try again. Don’t ever feel shame in that. The only failure from falling down is if you don’t learn (or don’t want to learn) the lesson from it. Why you fell… how to not fall again for the same reason. We will do our best to be here for that part too.

I love you. Now go back to your room. You’re still grounded until further notice.

Couple quick fishtank notes

Steve was kind enough to bring over some extra live rock that he had from the shipment. It is, quite honestly, some of the best we’ve ever seen from any LFS around here. It is provided by Tampa Bay Saltwater. Please do check out that link. They have quite an amazing setup.

The issue, for those unaware, is that, as this hobby has become more popular, there were a number of “bad players” in the market who were harvesting live rock from active reefs around the world. Unfortunately, the reefs of the world are already facing decline from any other variety of factors, and us meddling humans just going out and further hurting that was just going to make that worse. So there has been an active ban on that for some time now. What Tampa Bay Saltwater did was to gain a permit for a five acre lease of underwater area in the Gulf of Mexico, and created his own reef. According to the page, they have over four million pounds of rock that they have put out there to “grow” their own, in short creating a “farm” of his own, and preventing any destruction of active reefs. As you can see if you poke around the page, the rock he’s shipping out is just rich with life.

Finally, it brought to light another aspect of this that I’ve long believed, but never really any confirmation of. Reef tanks need a “cleaning crew”, consisting typically of snails, hermit crabs and so on. If you take a look at this page on his site, you can see the ratios of critters he recommends (based on number of gallons). For our size tank (225gal), he recommends approximately 440 pounds of live rock, 220 pounds of live sand, 220 blue leg hermit crabs, 110 astrea snails, 10 tiger tail cucumbers, 5 serpent or brittle stars, and 5 peppermint shrimp.

Wow.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this guy is trying to sell you a product, and obviously, will probably error on the side of more rather than less when it comes to giving you amounts that you need. I have previously seen estimates that are roughly half that for the amount of live rock. But even if I went with numbers 1/2 of what he indicates, that is still quite a serious commitment in terms of the life in the tank dedicated to cleanup.

I just went to the closest LFS I trust, and this brings our current population up to: 1 emerald crab, about 15 hermit crabs, and about 5 snails. Even with really conservative estimates, we’re still a LONG way from having enough in there to keep the reef clean. But we knew this was going to be a long project. No illusions there. Now it just puts a number to it. Oh, yeah, and just for scale? That guy sells that whole lot of stuff to you in what he calls “The Package”. Essentially all of the aforementioned rock, sand and critters in one bulk shipment. His cost for our size tank? $2614.00. Yup. Thats right. And that is without shipping. And quite frankly, for what you get? Thats CHEAP. His prices are either on par or slightly cheaper than buying from local stores. Again, even if you cut that number in half, you now get a sense for what kind of commitment you’re talking about in maintaining a large reef tank.

I hope to get some pictures up at some point here of some of the new critters and such we’ve got going on.

Oh! And in one further bit of tank news. I did get the Spa-Flex plumbing installed, and even found the *exact* right connectors to get it hooked up to the current sump and the overflow box side to get rid of the frankenstein connection I had previously built. The overflow is working great, and has a minimum of tubing now, so there isn’t this massive drain down if the power shuts off anymore. Now we just need to drill the small hole for the suction break, and we’re pretty much good to go until we get a new setup under the tank.

I did get the new collection cup for the skimmer, and put it under as well. It isn’t running currently. We turned off and removed the other two canister filters. I suspect they were actually contributing to instead of helping out with the algae problems. As previously mentioned, they aren’t really designed for a reef ecosystem. So if things are stable in the coming few weeks here, we’re probably going to switch gears a bit, and get a few more fish to pretty things up a bit.

Oh, one final note. When you brush a whole mess of algae and crap off your rocks, that will get sucked into your overflow box. The filters installed in there will start to get covered with all that crap. Guess what… that reduces the volume of water that can get sucked down! Who knew. Yeah… this guy. Of course things get less efficient in that system when you do that… duh. That balance of the water getting sucked out of the tank to that getting pumped back in gets disrupted, and makes you more prone to overflows or pumps running dry. Lesson learned… make sure you check all filters after doing major cleanings like that.

Another tank update

A couple things to mention since the last post.

This month’s tank budget was spent entirely on replacement light bulbs. They have arrived and are now in. Finally we are getting proper light wavelengths and spectrum. And, aside from that … it is nice to have the whole tank lit during both the light and dark (actinic) phases. A few old and/or burnt out bulbs makes for a less than ideal viewing experience, to be sure. So that is done now.

We continue to experience algae issues. At some point, maybe I’ll get pics of the various types and post them, but suffice to say it isn’t going away. The weird part is that we have, effectively, nothing in the tank “feeding” it. There are only a couple fish, which should be adding almost negligible amount of waste matter to the overall ecosystem. We have only a few pounds of live rock at this point, and it probably is not doing much at all to contribute either. Nitrate/Nitrite/Ammonia levels have been effectively zero since very early on.

At the moment, I think it is a lack of biological filtration producing this problem. That can really only be remedied by having a proper live rock environment plus active refugium with macro algae to consume those resources. I think we need a bit more overall water flow, but it isn’t bad as it is now. The addition of the overflow box and wet/dry box underneath is definitely helping as well. I cleaned out the two canister filters today. They ultimately aren’t intended for a reef system, but they should help keep some of the major particulate matter from circulating.

I’ve been doing a fair amount of research on sump/refugium/skimmer systems. A few notes on that. There are dozens of vendors for each individual piece of that. They come in a variety of flavors, but the basics are as follows.

The sump tank serves a few purposes.

  • It allows you to maintain the level of water in the main tank since that level is now dictated by the overflow system. Any water level changes will now be in the sump tank, and are much easier to manage.
  • You can “hide” all the major elements that would otherwise have to occupy space in your display tank down in the sump instead, allowing you to keep the display tank relatively free of clutter. This includes things like heaters, water supplement systems (ph balancing, carbon reactors, etc).
  • You can a good part of the biological and mechanical filtration to the sump tank/refugium, again, keeping the display tank occupied with the kinds of critters you really want to see, instead of having a big ol’ glob of macro algae floating around in there. And it gives you a place to put your protein skimmer (more on that in a minute).

The refugium is mentioned above, but I’ll summarize anyway. Generally, a full reef ecosystem requires solid biological filtration, in the form of macro algae, live rock and live sand. Some of those elements would generally be unsightly in the display tank, so having a refugium out of the way is definitely aesthetically better.

And finally the protein skimmer. This is a weird contraption, but definitely essential. So it has a pump, that spins the water up inside a cylindrical chamber, and injects air into that as well. When it is functioning properly, that column of water and air creates a frothy layer of bubbles at the top of the cylinder. Fantastically, those air bubbles tend to hang onto some of the waste products in the water and that froth layer pushes up into a collection chamber and must be emptied periodically. The resultant goo is REALLY smelly and if you’ve ever seen or dealt with them before, you’ll know just how nasty that stuff is. It also stands to reason that anything smelly that nasty really has no business being in your tank. I’m going to plug one of our local businesses here briefly to show you a picture of one of these things. Give that a clicky. I’ll get more into Lifereef in just a minute. This is a much bigger model than most tanks need, and I pointed to that one just to make the parts really clear. That whole column is a spinning mass of water. It looks cloudy because of all the air bubbles. At the very top is the aforementioned collection cup, which as you can see looks very brown. And yeah, it looks and smells like sewage. Yuck.

Anyway, so I have a skimmer. It is a Coralife model, I believe intended for a 125 gal. tank. unfortunately, the collection cup dropped onto the porch and broke into a few pieces, and is not reparable. Fortunately, the replacement part is only about $40. I believe this will be the next thing purchased on next month’s budget. Even though it isn’t what we will use in the long term, since we really need one that is bigger and can handle a larger tank, it will also improve our current filtration situation.

In the last post I mentioned that I was also going to be working on getting the tank properly covered. There is some progress on that front. I made it over to Jeff’s house (he has a table saw) with my acrylic sheets, and measurements to cut them to the proper size. Thanks Jeff! That was cut to four pieces, two for each side of the tank. I have a plastic “hinge” that you then put between the two pieces and slide them in, and then you effectively get a lid that can swing up on one side while the rest remains covering the tank. The cover is there to prevent stuff from dropping into the tank from above, and also to help limit the amount of evaporation that will invariably occur. The downside of using acrylic is that it has a tendency to “bow” in the middle if the pieces are too big. It also won’t support the same kind of weight on it that using glass would, for sure. But that generally isn’t a huge issue as you aren’t normally putting stuff on top of the tank anyway. It is *definitely* easier to work with if you have to make cutouts for things like return spouts or power cords for water movers, etc. I may have been a little bit too tight on the tolerances in my measurements, and may need to make another cut to make everything fit perfectly, but it is looking good so far.

Oh yeah, one other thing to mention. So… with overflow systems, there is one really important thing to worry about. What happens if you lose power? With a poorly designed system, you are going to get a whole mess of water that still is flowing down into your sump tank that ISN’T subsequently being pumped back up! Sounds disastrous, eh? Well, it can be if you aren’t paying attention to how that all is supposed to work. On the “input” side of the overflow system, it fortunately is based on the water level in the display tank “overflowing” to provide the pressure/suction to move water down into the sump tank. If things are setup properly, if there is no more water being pumped back up into the display tank, that should level off in short order and won’t contribute more water after a short time. In our case, I can expect about a 1/2″ of water that will still overflow after the pump stops. Given a surface area of 8’x2′, that means roughly 5-6 gallons of water. Not a big deal. However… you also need to consider the output side. The problem on the return side is that you may (and probably do) have the spout for the return water submerged by a little bit. If you consider that for a moment, you’ll realize that if that is a “closed” system (so to speak), and if there is no more active pressure pushing water out (since the pumped turned off when the power went out), and given that that pipe goes down below the level of the display tank, gravity is actually going to then start sucking water out of the display tank, down the return pipe, and back into the sump as well. THAT level of water is unfortunately not dictated by the carefully controlled overflow system, only by you, and might be one or even several inches down below the level of the water in the display tank. It will continue to suck water out until the water level goes below that spigot, and sucks air back into the tube, breaking the suction. 1″ = 10 gallons. In my quick testing, a power outage would cause a SERIOUS overflow of the sump tank. It just isn’t designed for that much water. So that leads to my other discovery… you MUST have a small hole drilled ABOVE the level of the water (but facing down into the tank) on that return line. That provides an immediate suction break, since air can be sucked in as soon as there is no more back pressure from the pump. Essential! Amazing how physics just works and stuff. Dig it.

A good friend from one of my old jobs also recently got in touch (Hi Steve!) and is also getting into the reef thing with his son. He is going to come over soon to take a look at what I’ve got going on here, and we’ll hopefully be able to exchange some of our collective wisdom. I’m certainly no expert, and any advice is helpful. Apropos, we had a brief discussion on the phone the other day about Aiptasia. As it turns out, the live rock we thought was dead isn’t quite dead. We have a few of these damn pests poking up. A good reference page for what this stuff and how to deal with it can be found at this great Reefkeeping article. I was going to try and get a picture, but the conditions for taking pictures isn’t great at the moment. That site linked above has some good ones anyway. It probably does mean we’re going to need to get some Berghia (also mentioned on that site) soon to deal with them. That, in my somewhat limited experience, is the only really effective way to be rid of Aiptasia.

Finally, I did want to again mention Lifereef. In my investigations about getting sump/refugiums custom built, I found them. This guy (Jeff Turcheck) runs a company that has been doing this for 28 years or so, and his products are really something. Rave reviews on all the boards I’ve been reading about stuff, and his current backlog for building stuff is 5 months. He also sells complete systems, so you aren’t doing the “pieces parts” thing over and over and having to struggle with plumbing and how to get everything attached right. He provides *everything* to get you up and running. I’ve had numerous email exchanges with him already and one phone call, and I’m convinced that having him build something for us is the right long term solution. Downside? Expense. Instead of being able to buy a skimmer one month, then save two months and get a refugium, etc … I’ll basically have to save up about 6 months of aquarium budget to pay for the whole shot at once. His prices, once you remove shipping (since I can just drive down there and pick it up), is just slightly more expensive than what I would pay for going piece by piece. But I think that tiny extra expense is more than made up for by his quality of workmanship, 10 year warranty, and ability to provide a full solution with no hassle. That and being able to support a local business and I consider this a solid win. Now I just have to convince the budget committee (wife) and I’ll put my name on his list. We’ll see how that goes.

Good enough for now. Hopefully there will be more new info soon.

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