Archive for March, 2007


er, sorry just a minor Red Dawn reference – it’s not my fault, I grew up in the 80s.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, a note on a new toy.  As I mentioned before, I’m going to go (mostly) digital on my trip to Yellowstone.  I bought 8 GB of memory cards which is only 800 or so pictures in raw format.  For the past several years, I’ve shot around 800 pictures in film.  On the one hand, I suspect I’ll take more pictures in digital since the marginal cost is basically zero.  On the other hand, I’ll have the ability to prune out any bad shots.  Still, I suspect that I’ll wind up wanting more memory cards.

wolverine.jpgRather than trying to guess how many, I decided to buy the “Wolverine FlashPac 7060” (hey – I was getting there).  The Wolverine is a pretty neat device.  When I first started looking for a hard drive on which to temporarily store pictures, everything I found was a basic USB hard drive that required a computer to control.  The FlashPac doesn’t.  It’s a multi-type card reader and hard drive that has enough smarts in the firmware to know how to mount a memory card and copy all of the pictures from a card onto the internal drive.  It preserves the contents of the card and you can manually erase the card in your camera. It comes in a variety of sizes, I bought the 60 GB version – enough for 6,000 pictures.

I got the device in today from B&H (they seemed to have the best prices).  Unfortunately, it had outdated firmware installed on it which wouldn’t read my SDHC cards.  Fortunately, I was expecting that and I had downloaded the next release of the firmware which does support SDHC (although at the fairly slow, standard SD speeds).  Of course, getting the firmware on a device while using a linux computer is always challenging.  After screwing around with it for an hour or so, I punted and used the old Windows 2000 partition I have on the desktop.  I felt dirty afterward, but at least the device works with my memory cards now :).

Overall, it’s a very cool piece of hardware.  It does what it says it does and seems to do it well.  It’s not for archiving – that’s a whole different problem to tackle, but for short term storage, it’ll work.

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New blog category: plumbing

It felt like I was griping a lot about plumbing here, so I thought I would make it a new category and go back and classify old posts as “plumbing” if they were water related. So far, I’ve found 14 posts on plumbing problems – more than I’ve written about photography :-(.  That’s depressing.

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John W. Backus dies

Back when I was a postdoc, I was studying FFTs. Okay, actually, I’m not enough of a mathematician to study FFTs, I was studying the efficient implementation of FFTs on parallel computational clusters. One of the graduate students I was working with on the project penned the following:

If there’s a working FFT
That’s not in FORTRAN but in C
Alas it twice as slow will go
And that (as always) goes to show
If speed is your greatest asset,
Then what you C is what you get.
-V.V. (Mony) Iyers

For years, Fortran was the programming language of choice for engineers.  It’s name, a derivative of “Formula Translator,” give you an impression of what it does: it makes it easy to represent matrix algebra formulas in a computer programming language.  Because it is a compiled language and it has built in support for performing matrix algebra operations, it is extremely fast.  I never did much Fortran programming and V.V. and I disagreed on the speed of Fortran vs C (I could always tweak C code to be as fast as Fortran), but it is a great programming language for engineers that has unfortunately, largely been replaced by Matlab.

Fortran was first released nearly 50 years ago and has been updated a few time since then.  Given the age of the language, I hadn’t even thought about who invented it, and was saddened to learn that the creator (or at least the project lead) died last weekend.  John Backus was apparently the project lead for the creation of Fortran back in the 50s and he died Saturday at the age of 82.

It’s hard to imagine what the engineering field would be like without Fortran and even though I hadn’t heard of him until this week, I think I’ll miss him.

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K’s birthday

It was K’s birthday today and I decided to take the day off.  In part, I needed to because I had to work on her present.  It’s hard these days knowing what to get each other.  I could have gotten her jewelry – again.  Instead, I decided to clear out one of the beds that the previous owners had planted (fancy) grass in, and plant flowers instead.  I’ve never been a big flower person, so most of the things I’ve planted have been fruit trees or vegetables or herbs (big basil fan!), but this was for her, so flowers it was.

We went to the nursery on Sunday and then this morning, I cleaned out the bed and arranged and planted the bulbs.  I can’t remember what all we got, but it included Callas, Dallias, Lillies, Columbine and a few other things.

K’s not a big fan of eating out, so I gave her the choice of anything she wanted for dinner.  We wound up with mushroom crepes, rice, lima beans, and for dessert, key lime cheesecake.  The crepes turned out great – for the first time ever, I didn’t screw up the first couple of crepes.  I didn’t have a key lime cheesecake recipe, so I made something up.  The crust is ground, roasted hazelnuts mixed with melted butter and sugar.  The cheesecake itself was fairly standard, cream cheese, eggs, condensed milk, a little extra sugar and key lime juice.  We haven’t eaten it yet, but it seems like it turned out.

K received some, more tangible, presents from family, including jewelry 🙂 .  Overall, it’s been a good day.  Hopefully, the rest of the week will go smoothly as well.

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No water for you!

Yep, it has been a few months since we’ve had major water issues, so we were due. We had water before dinner, but when I went to rinse the dishes, we had no water. It seemed like the pump wasn’t working. I checked the breaker box, the breaker was fine. I went under the house with a multimeter and found that the pump controller was working and was sending power to the pump. So either the power is not reaching the pump, e.g., a root grew through the power line; or more likely, the well pump itself died.

I’ve got a plumber coming out tomorrow – I’m not screwing with the well pump. Now I’ve just got to rearrange my schedule to work from home :-/

Update 3/16 @4:30pm: the water is back on. My checkbook it a good bit lighter, but what do you do? It turned out that the well pump was shot and needed replacing 🙁

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Bob Ross

Created by “the Robot Economist,” and for hsarik, it’s Bob Ross and the Joy of Painting Missiles.  Click the picture for the full sized image with rotating scenery.

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Weekend update

Finished up a lot of little things this weekend. Nothing too terribly exciting:

  • Planted some herbs and covered them with hardware cloth to keep the squirrels out. Basil (lots of basil), thyme and rosemary. I was looking for sage, but couldn’t find any.
  • Fixed the water softener – the backwash drain hose was so old that it was leaking onto the floor every time the water softener ran. Unfortunately, I can’t find where the new hose should connect under the hose, so for now it’s draining into the utility sink.
  • Finished painting the upstairs hall. Back in October/November, K and I pulled off all of the 80’s-style wall paper. It’s been sitting bear for months, but for the past two weekends, I’ve been smoothing out the wall and painting. I’ve got the switch plates back up and it looks pretty nice. K’s already planning where she’ll start taking down wall paper next.
  • I’ve discovered a Heisenberg-like principle of plumbing: you can accurately identify either the source or the effects of a water leak, but not both at the same time. This week, I identified a musty smell and the mold that was causing it. Unfortunately, I could only identify the dishwasher as the source of the water. After running the dishwasher without the sound proofing at the bottom, so I could see the leak, I found that it didn’t seem to be leaking. My new theory is that a small leak, not near the mold, was creating excess humidity due to the heat of the dishwasher that was trapped by the sound proofing – but how to test? It’s like Schrodinger’s Cat.
  • Finally, I realized that my laptop hadn’t updated for DST, which is rather uncool. Poking at it a bit, I found out that yum was bombing out before completing the upgrade. The reason is that I did a ‘yum update’ instead of a ‘yum upgrade’ in order to go from FC5 to FC6. So I had a lot of FC5 packages lying around which then broke dependencies. After doing a bit of manual cleanup, I was able to run ‘yum update’ only to find that I had over 600 MB worth of packages that needed downloading. On the plus side, I went ahead and upgraded to the latest development version of yum which has a lot of the new optimizations. That at least made the 363 packages worth of dependencies saner to check.

Work is also okay. I ran a proposal for a lightweight authentication mechanism by the technical team and nobody found any major holes in it. It’s nice to have your ideas validated by the experts 🙂 . Next week kicks off my month with internal audit. I’m not really looking forward to that one, but then I suppose somebody needs to keep us honest. Besides, anything they tell us can only help get support for the policies we know we need.

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Lessons learned

A few years ago, I participated in Group 1 of a new leadership program geared toward the IT profession. The program usually has four schools per group, each school sending a number of participants. The group meets four times over a six month period, each time at a different, participating school. Each meeting lasts about two and a half days, for a total of 80 hours of training. Our university is participating in Group 7 and they will be coming to campus in April. The Group 1 alumni (and a Group 2 alum) have been asked to attend a half hour session with Group 7 in order to share what the program taught us. I still need to work out the details of this, but as an exercise in working out my thoughts, I am inclined to go with something like the following:

I sat down with the intention of identifying the three most important things that the leadership program taught me, so I pulled out my notes and started reviewing the different tools and techniques we had discussed. There were references to SWOT analysis, Myers-Briggs, the three lenses, etc. Some of these tools I’ve internalized, and some I’ve completely forgotten. My telling you which tools I found effective is pointless. You have to find which tools work for you, what makes sense, what you can work with.

That brings me to my first take-away: know thyself. Know who you are, know your strengths and your weaknesses. Once you’ve identified your strengths, you can play to them. Recognize your weaknesses and you can find strategies to cope with them: hire people whose strengths complement your weaknesses; pay more attention to the parts of projects where you are not naturally inclined; etc.

My second take-away is that the leadership program is one of the few places you will ever be able to discuss your strengths and weaknesses as a leader in a non-competitive environment. Brian and Jim are some of the only people you will find who will take an interest in your development and in helping you to recognize your role in your organization, without having an ulterior motive. Take advantage of that opportunity. Be open with them. Discuss the things that you couldn’t tell your boss. But don’t just rely on Brian and Jim, work with your fellow university team members.

This brings me to my last point, on graduating the program, your team members will have gone through the same experiences you have. Use the opportunity of the program and the time you spend together to get to know these people. Learn to trust them, learn to behave as a team. Share problems with each other, share solutions.  Unfortunately, management presents very few opportunities to build trusting relationships. If you take advantage of this chance, you will find that you can build such a relationship with this group of people and that you will all become more effective leaders as a result.

This is at least where I’m leaning. I may completely change it if i re-read it tomorrow and it sounds too corny, but at the end of a long week, those points sound like the most important things I learned in the program

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The FBI’s national security letters

Sometime in late September or early October of 2001, I received a call from an individual identifying himself as an agent of the FBI and asking for information about the owner of an email account from the place I worked.  He stated that he believed the account was relevant to a terrorist investigation. Of course, this was in the immediate aftermath of September 11th and everyone had security concerns, but I was also certain that I didn’t want to give away information to someone who shouldn’t have it. Following a fairly standard procedure, I requested his phone number, badge number and locale so that I could contact the FBI to confirm his identity. The agent gave me a lot of grief about this, noted that I was putting lives at risk by not immediately complying, etc., but I assured him that I would call right back.

I contacted the FBI and after quite a bit of checking, they confirmed he was an agent. The reason for the delay is that he was actually an ATF agent on loan to the FBI. So I called him back and asked what information he was looking for. It turned out that he was investigating an arms sale online. I was surprised that someone dealing in illegal weapons for terrorism would use their personal email account, but sure. I told the agent that if he would provide a subpoena or court order, I would be happy to respond. This generated another round of everyone’s favorite game, “do you want the terrorists to kill people?!” I apologized, but explained that it was my job to do otherwise. I never heard from him again.

Given the nature of the crime he described, the fact that I never received any valid order, that this seemed like a small issue relative to the claim of terrorism, and that he was on loan from the ATF; I can only conclude that, with the tint not even dried on his shiny new FBI sun glasses, he was overstepping his authority, and claiming a terrorism investigation, in order to pursue a standard, probably pre-existing, case. With that in mind, today’s report by the Investigator General regarding errors in the FBI’s use of National Security Letters (NSLs) comes as no surprise.

The USA PATRIOT Act removed any judicial oversight required for NSLs in order to ensure that they could be executed in a timely fashion. The law then prevented anyone receiving a NSL from mentioning it to anyone. So you have a secret, self-issued warrant for information, creating a situation ripe for abuse. The IG’s report indicates that these abuses were errors and lack of internal oversight. That may be, but it is also clear that there were many cases of over-aggressive investigators issuing NSLs (which are intended for investigations into terrorism) in cases which had nothing to do with terrorism. I guarantee that if the USA PATRIOT Act had been law when I spoke to my ATF agent, I would have received an NSL, turned over the information, and been unable to discuss the demand with anyone.

When the USA PATRIOT Act was passed, the administration basically asked the country to trust the executive branch by allowing it a surveillance tool that had no oversight, was self issued and would remain entirely secret. The IG’s report demonstrates that our trust was abused. However, I’ll go further and say that the concept of trusting the executive branch for activities undertaken without oversight (either judicial or congressional) is fundamentally un-American and a violation of constitutional principles as espoused in the Federalist Papers and other writings of the founders of this country. I hope that the IG’s report will encourage congress to rethink their blind trust in the executive branch under this, or any, administration.

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