learning things I don't want to know Friday, March 29 2013
As anyone who works with information technology knows, there is far more to be known than can ever fit into a single human brain. This wasn't as true when I was a teenager tinkering with eight bit machines, but 30 years later that primitive world seems as remote as Cynognathus in mammalian evolution. The speciation of new languages, operating systems, and licensing schemes have fanned out in wildly-divergent ways to the point where a person in my position has to pick and choose the ones to stay knowledgeable about. In my case, I've cast my lot with the open source technologies, having made a bet that they stand a better chance of long-term survival (and will be better insulated from forces of radical change) than technologies controlled and licensed by single corporations. In the long term, for example, I think the Microsoft model is doomed (though for the time being their workstation operating systems suit my needs better than those made by anyone else).
Because of the random circumstances of my career arc, all my early server-side work was on the Microsoft platform, and it was there that I first saw the possibilities of what a server could do. Consequently, when I later undertook my own server experiments, they were on Microsoft servers running a primitive (pre-DotNet) web server architecture. This work culminated in 2000 in a site called Vodkatea.com, where I maintained a message board system and a number of early social network experiments including a meta-Mad-Lib random text generation system, a flexible polling system, a generic entity social ranking system, and interactive self-hyperlinking glossaries. Though Vodkatea.com ended up getting a fair amount of traffic and user-created content, I didn't know the value of such things in those days and, through sheer neglect I allowed the domain name to fall into someone else's control at some point in the year 2003. If you go there now, it tries to install a virus on your computer (which, for a domain name, is an even lower level of rock bottom than being a scatter-shot list of sleazy links beside a smiling couple of generic Shutterstock white people). Indeed, I had a number of Vodkatea web bugs on some of my non-Vodkatea pages, and those bugs now also try to install viruses on your computer, which meant I had to go in and remove them from my pages in order for them not to raise warnings when listed in a Google search result page.
The other day someone who created one of those Vodkatea glossaries sent me an email asking if I had a backup of it. So I rooted around in my files and managed to find a number of backups. But Microsoft database backups are not in a form readable to anything but an installation of Microsoft SQL Server, and I didn't have any working SQL Server installations on any of my computers. The last time I interacted with SQL Server was in 2010 when I was porting a website from Cold Fusion/Microsoft SQL Server to PHP/MySQL, but since that time I've rebuilt Woodchuck, my main machine.
I wanted to recover that glossary, but I didn't want to junk up my main computer with an installation of Microsoft SQL Server; too much is dependent right now on Woodchuck being able to serve as a PHP/MySQL platform, and I couldn't take the risk of SQL Server usurping my ports or any of the other terrible things that software packages (particularly Skype) do when they incorrectly assume that they are the only thing I want to run on my computer. Fortunately, I have a number of other computers that I rarely use that are perfect for such things. One of these (named Lemur) has two gigabytes of RAM and is built around an Athlon64 (my main CPU until I got a Core 2 Duo), so that was the one I chose to use. It had been so long since I last attached it to the internet that it didn't even have an installation of Google Chrome, which is now my preferred web browser.
Getting Microsoft SQL Server up and running on that box was not an easy job. Part of the pain was my aggravation at having to learn things I didn't feel any interest in knowing. Remember, I've thrown in with open source technologies like PHP and MySQL, and I could take no joy in the extent to which I was learning a new technology (indeed, I'd been down this road three years ago and had retained none of it). I could have downloaded a pirate copy of the full version of SQL Server, but in this case the free "Express" version seemed adequate, since all I wanted out of it was a handle to the data, which would hopefully eventually experience a new life in a MySQL database. (Remember, I have no confidence in the long-term viability of any Microsoft technology.) But even with a free download I ran into one complication after another. Lemur runs the 64 bit version of Windows XP, which automatically makes it ineligible for SQL Server 2012; I had to download the 2008 version. And then I had to install one prerequisite after another, including a huge DotNet runtime and some sort of Microsoft Installer. Mind you, neither of these prerequisites were immediately pointed out to me during the various attempted installations; I had to wade through several screens of clicking yes to this and yes to that before being told that, nope, it couldn't happen. And even once it all was installed, something called "SQL Server Agent" wasn't working, and I assumed that this was why I could find no way to import the old copy of the Vodkatea.com database. Only after checking the logs did I discover an error message saying that SQL Server Agent isn't installed by the Express version. I was left to surmise that I needed something else in order to actually be able to use my installation of SQL Server. That something else was something called SQL Server Management Studio 2008; and the process of installing it is anything but intuitive. I can't say enough how I hate the SQL Server Installation wizard. The process actually had me pining for the command-line simplicity and staightforwardness of Linux (plagued as it is by its own pitfalls). In the end I was finally able to get the old Vodkatea.com database online (at least locally). Now all I need is a way to move it to MySQL. Given the ugliness of the SQL Server export wizard (which seems to require me to wade through the menus manually for each table), it's looking like my best bet is MySQL Workbench. (MySQL Workbench also has its prerequisites before installation in the form of a number of C++ runtimes and such, but, unlike the craptastic world of 150 megabyte DotNet libraries, they're only about five megabytes each. That's a good proxy measurement of my relative disdain.)
For the past day or two I've been listening to the recently-released Harper Simon album entitled Division Street. The music has great lyrics and an appealing mix of psychedelic, folk-rock, and post-punk influences over impeccably-dreamlike arrangements. It's only when he slows down that you can hear his father (the far more famous Paul Simon) in his voice. My favorite songs include "Breathe Out Love," "Bonnie Brae," and "Nothing Gets Through." Here's "Bonnie Brae," the song that got me interested in the first place: