System Administrator Appreciation Day

The last Friday in July (today!) is the 16th annual system administrator appreciation day, an obscure celebration started in 2000 (by a system administrator, of course) as a response to an H-P ad showing users expressing gratitude to their sysadmin for installing the advertiser’s latest printer.  To my knowledge, none of us have ever gotten flowers or even donuts on “our” day, but it does remind us in the profession that our job is to keep the users happy, mostly by keeping the machines happy, but also by attending to their needs in a prompt and professional manner.

I was reminded of the event not only by notices in the discussion forums and IT email lists, but by the fact that today, the replacement memory module for our network server came, and I installed it. A simple procedure, but one that takes a fair portion of the sysadmin’s bag of tricks and tools to accomplish.  Bigger shops might have a service contract with the hardware vendor, but in many cases, the sysadmin is also the hardware mechanic.

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For a few months, the server, a Dell T110, has been crashing every few weeks, fortunately not while we were on our two-month grand tour, but of concern, naturally. especially because it is a virtual machine host, and often has a half-dozen virtual machines running on it, which means, when the server goes down, half of our network goes with it.  Virtualization is a great way to run different versions or distributions of operating systems when developing and testing software, so not too many have production roles in the network, but it is still an inconvenience to have to restart all of them in event of a crash.

A red light appeared on the front panel of the server, indicating an internal hardware condition, so it was time to check it out.  First, hardware designed for use as servers (the T110 is aimed at small offices like mine) is a lot more robust than the average tower workstation you might have on your desk.  Note above the heavy-duty CPU heat sink (air baffles have been removed for access to the memory modules–the four horizontal strips above the CPU fins).  In addition, big computers have little computers inside that keep track of the status of the various components, like memory, CPU, fans, and disk drives, and turn on the light on the panel  that indicates the machine needs service.   Server memory has error-correction circuitry, as do most server-quality disk arrays, but this is limited to one error–the next one will bring the system down.

System administrators depend on these self-correcting circuits and error indications to schedule orderly shutdowns for maintenance, so that the machine doesn’t crash in the middle of the workday.  For most offices, this means late evening or weekend work.  For 24-hour operations, like web sites, it means shifting the load to one or more redundant systems while the ailing one is repaired, so no data is lost.  Companies like Dell supply monitoring software to notify sysadmins of impending problems, which is vital to operations where there is a room full of noisy servers and the admins are in a nice quiet office in the back room.  In our case, with just one server, we don’t use the monitoring software regularly, but it is useful for telling us which component the red light is for; then we can look up the location in the service manual and order the right part, and hope the system doesn’t crash before it arrives.

Normally, businesses that are thriving and need to keep competitive in the market replace their machines at least every three years.  Others, like ours, that operate on a shoestring and buy whatever resources we need for a project when we need it, tend to run machines five years or more, sometimes until repair parts are no longer available: since we run Linux, we have machines eight years or older that are still useful for running some network services.

Our server is almost five years old, so when I order replacement parts, they don’t always look like the ones we took out, or have the same specifications.  For that reason, I usually take replacement as an opportunity to upgrade, replacing all of a group of components with the a new set, which I did when a disk drive failed a couple years ago.  However, this time, since I’m semi-retired and don’t have a steady cash flow, I only ordered one memory module, to replace the failing one.  Memory comes in pairs, so having slightly different configurations in a pair causes the machine to complain on startup, but it still runs.  The “upgrade” alternative would have replaced all four modules, or at least the two paired ones, with the larger size, at a cost of $150 to $300 instead of just replacing a $50 module and putting up with having to manually restart the machine on reboot.

So, the sysadmin not only needs to keep the machines running, but running within budget, and making sure the operating systems and hardware capabiities can support the software users need to do their jobs.  If he or she is doing their job right, there won’t be any red lights in the server room, and the sysadmin will look like they aren’t doing anything…

 

Tour 2015: The Movie

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Waiting for the Albuquerque-Santa Fe Rail Runner to pass, on the Santa Fe Rail Trail.

Our recent Grand Tour 2015 took us by car through 15 states, visiting relatives (some we didn’t know before–3rd and 4th cousins in the Pietz line), old school classmates, national parks and monuments, state capitols, hero monuments, and landmarks.

We also took our bicycle, a Bike Friday Tandem Traveler “Q” model, which spent most of the 14000 km trip perched on top of the car to catch whatever insects were prevalent where we traveled.  But, from time to time, we sought out bicycle trails and rode about 2% of the total (288 km).  The tour marked the one-year anniversary of my cardiac bypass surgery and subsequent pulmonary emboli, the latter for which I was still taking anti-coagulants (warfarin, which we called by it’s more common usage–rat poison).  So, we generally followed doctor’s advice not to stray too far from the car, and limited our rides to 15-38 km, though I’m sure that 20km might be considered “too far.”

For the past 3 years, we’ve been documenting our bike rides (and a few hikes) with a GoPro sports camera mounted on the front (and sometimes the trailer) of our bicycle, and this trip was no exception.   We talked about the art of making videos in an earlier post, from a technical standpoint, with some discussion of editing and integrating sound, and the importance of creating a story, rather than just a replay of the ride.  From a content standpoint, there are two ways of making a video record of a bike ride: one is to simply turn on the camera and let it run, picking out highlights later in editing, and the other is to film points of interest as they go by.  We haven’t yet taken the time and effort to use multiple cameras (a luxury us pensioners can’t justify) or to stage “selfies” by setting up the camera beside the trail and riding past it (which takes extra time, and we’re slow enough as it is), and, since we ride the same bike, we can’t shoot scenes of each other easily.

Santa Fe Bike Trails

Our first ride was in Santa Fe, from our condo downtown to my granddaughter’s house 20 km south of the city, intended to be on city trails and frontage roads.  However, without a detailed map, we missed turns and ended up on busy highways on the way out and way off course on the way back, depending on the kindness of strangers (with a pickup truck) to ferry us between where we ended up and where we should have been.  The distance was a bit ambitious for our level of training and the high altitude (2100 meters, 7000 ft), so it was fortunate that getting lost actually made the return ride about 8 km shorter.

Waverly Rail Trail

During the first day of my 50-year college reunion, we registered early, then went for a bike ride on the Rolling Prairie Trail, camera running.  Regardless of the method, a 25-km ride generally yields between 20 minutes and two hours of video, which needs to be whittled down to a short “story” of impressions of our ride and interesting things we saw along the way (other than endless trees drifting by at 15-20km/hr).  Nevertheless, we do get carried away sometimes, so the films tend to have lots of bridge crossings, runners and riders on the trail with us, meeting or passing, and foliage whizzing by, the apparent speed amplified by the narrow (2-3 meter) trail width, for viewers used to auto highways.  Still, none of the travelogues have particularly exciting footage or a compelling story, other than the novelty of two old and overweight people rambling along flat trails at less than half the speed of the Tour de France peleton.

Pheasant Branch Trail

This is a one-shot video: we filmed segments along the entire trail, but only kept this long shot, which follows a fast downhill on the Pheasant Branch Creek from U.S. 12 to the end of the paved trail at the nature preserve.

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Yes, it says “Part 1,” but we never got around to making Part 2, which essentially covers the route we took two years ago on our excursion through Madison.  This ride was with our son and grandson.  Hopefully, we taught the young man a few pointers about trail safety (keeping to your lane–about which, more later) and pacing yourself on longer rides:  One reason we didn’t make Part 2 was because the younger contingent were far behind us most of the second half.

Trout Run Trail

The Trout Run Trail in Decorah, Iowa, is not a rail trail, but circles the city along the river, up the creek to the trout hatchery, then up through the cliffs south of town.  We chose not to tackle the cliff portion this early in our bicycling season, so rode to the first switchback and then back to the city campground.

Jackson

Most of the videos lie dormant on Vimeo.com’s servers: I consider a video successful if both of my loyal followers watch it (some have zero plays). But, amazingly, one video in this group, “Jackson,” has gotten a lot of airplay, more than 500 viewings in the past month, since I cross-posted the link to a Facebook group of ex-pats and current residents of my home town.   The video follows our ride from our B&B in my old neighborhood onto a bicycle trail that follows the river through town and circles the west side.  Of course, there is no way to tell who watched it all the way through, or whether they saw the link on Twitter and thought it was a pirated long-lost Michael Jackson music video and clicked on it by mistake.  But, 500 (out of the total group membership of 1380) either means it was interesting or that small town folks will watch anything that features their town.  The compelling beat of Massimo Ruberti’s frenetic  techno “Sabotage” on the sound track probably didn’t hurt, either.

I’ve collected a range of likely soundtracks, from one of the internet repositories offering royalty-free music under a Creative Commons licensing policy: most public video streaming services strictly enforce copyright and license rules in submitted work.  The trick is finding a suitable backdrop that is appropriate to the course that fits the edited length, then reedit to match the scenes to the phrasing and actual length.  Some results are better than others, and some require truncating the selection to match the film length.  In some, two or more shorter works are appropriate.

Root River Trail

The Root River winds through the cliffs in the Driftless region in southeastern Minnesota, 50 km north of Decorah, Iowa, where we rode the week before.  A large section of the trail was closed in the middle for bridge replacement, but the part between Whalan and Lanesboro is the most scenic, so we rode it two days. We stayed at a large campground on a bend in the river across from the trail, upriver from Whalan.

Staples

We drove to northern Minnesota to ride the Paul Bunyan Trail, but the mosquitoes were too dense to camp and Staples, 40 km to the west of Brainerd, had the nearest affordable motels. Staples also had a bike trail from downtown to the regional college and the Legacy Garden north of town. As long as we kept moving, the mosquitoes couldn’t catch us.

Paul Bunyan Trail, part 1

When we originally planned this trip, we intended to ride the length of the 200-km Paul Bunyan Trail and return, camping along the way, but a more practical plan called for riding out-and-back short segments from trailheads. The portion we actually rode was from the Northland Arboretum to the village of Merrifield, on North Long Lake, 15 km north.

Paul Bunyan Trail, part 2

Some of the videos get a bit long, despite best editing efforts, so this one got split into two segments, one for each direction. Part 2 has a surprise in the middle, the first of several large snapping turtles we came across in our travels. They apparently like to nest under the warm asphalt trails and dig out during the day.

Heartland Trail

We moved on to Park Rapids, at the western end of the Heartland Trail, which intersects with the Paul Bunyan trail at Walker, 60 km east. This was our longest ride of the trip, a pleasant 19 km run to the town of Nevis for coffee. This video is mercifully short, as we ran out of memory on the camera midway through the outbound leg, and didn’t notice.

Itasca

Our final midwestern ride was on the hilly Lake Itasca State Park trail, from the Visitor Center 9 km to the Mississippi Headwaters.  Shortly after we decided we had enough footage and turned off the camera, we had a scary near-miss encounter with a group of cyclists coming uphill who didn’t expect a fast tandem coming downhill and were riding around a curve on both lanes of the trail.  We cut between them, down the middle, losing a water bottle in the evasive maneuver.  One point for the “film it all and edit later” method, though maybe we don’t want to see the harrowing aspects of our travel mode, where you can be killed or seriously injured even at what would be minor fender-bender speeds in a car.

Polson Skyline Trail from Larye Parkins on Vimeo.

After our tour of the Minnesota trails, we headed back west, stopping for a week in Montana for a family gathering, taking a day to check out the new Skyline Trail in Polson, riding a 14 km loop from the base of Polson Hill to the top of the Skyline, then down through town and onto the rail trail back to our starting point. This video is in several shots, leading up to the summit, then three long segments, on the trail and road. We kept the drag brake on during the downhill part, to maintain control on the steep grade and curving narrow trail, with full speed only on the road, to which we switched after the trail turned into a pedestrian sidewalk.

Tour 2015: Afterword

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Coming home after a long trip pulls one quickly back into the routine that the trip was designed to break. However, a two-month absence makes reestablishing the routine much more difficult. The inside of the house looks exactly as we left it (in somewhat of a hurry, but prepared–empty refrigerator, empty garbage cans, etc)–almost: a shelf fell off the wall, probably due to being overloaded just before we left, and a bicycle tipped over, probably due to digging out last-minute supplies from behind it.  However, the outside is a profusion of blooming things that were just starting to wake when we left, and we missed most of the rhody season–those blooms are long gone.  Fortunately we did have a service maintain the grounds while we were gone, so the place didn’t look quite as abandoned as it would have.

Delia is happy to be home, too.
Delia is happy to be home, too.

By now, the cat is used to extended stays of a week or two or three at the Just Cats Hotel, but she always clings to us for a few days after we all get home. This time is no exception. We’ve moved downstairs to the guest room to beat the unseasonable heat wave, and the cat has taken that in stride, curling up next to us, though she still thinks we should be upstairs. We’ve been busy finding window screens and hunting down our seldom-used fans to help keep the house cooler: our big oscillating floor fan perished last year and wasn’t replaced: a brief search for a new one, even a table unit, was in vain, as the heat wave caught us in Montana several days before we got home, and local stores quickly sold out of what isn’t usually a big selling item in the usually mild Pacific Northwest.

Entropy continues to eat away at houses whether they are occupied or not: the upstairs bathroom tank-to-bowl gasket dried out from age, heat, and lack of use, so toilet repair was first on the list after unloading the car. Several days have passed: the tank bolts continue to seep, despite new bolts and rubber washers–a careful juggling act between tight enough and too tight, to make a seal without breaking the porcelain. The new bolts were larger in diameter than the old ones, which called for carefully drilling out the holes in the ceramic tank with a masonry bit, not something one expects to have to do… Suitcases were unpacked, laundry done, and finally, camping gear put away, though we intend to do some local overnight trips the rest of the summer. A trip to Costco to replenish supplies was in order, but the bulk items remain stacked in the garage, awaiting time to distribute them into the usual storage places.

We also brought back items from our cabin after staging it for sale as a furnished dwelling, including a small kitchen table and stools we originally had used in our Bremerton town house, four houses back, in the 1990s, intending to replace my parent’s old kitchen table, which has been a bit large for the breakfast nook in our Shelton bungalow. The cabin has a set of folding tray tables that is adequate for meals: the table and stools have always been a bit crowded there. So, the 1930s kitchen table, disassembled, has joined the other items in the sewing/craft space in the basement, awaiting further disposition, perhaps as a craft table instead of the precarious tilting drafting table we use now. The plan for the rest of the summer is to unclutter and simplify our current home, whether or not we choose to downsize to a smaller house in the near future. Unfortunately, part of the clutter is the accumulation of two months worth of mail. Some progress has been made on reducing that, as I have chosen not to renew my professional society memberships as well as let several other paper subscriptions lapse anticipating being truly retired and traveling more.

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Of course, retirement is a gradual process for the software entrepreneur and systems manager: maintenance and upkeep goes on for existing clients, and the home network that supports the profession has been largely left running untouched for the past two months, so software patches and upgrades are in order for all the machines as well. Amazingly, the services on which we depend for access to data and security while we were gone performed well for the entire two months, though a few of the non-essential experimental systems, unstable at best, did go off-line. The essential systems still are susceptible to functional degradation after a restart, and could become inaccessible if they have a restart and the cable company changes the router address before we can reset the security tokens. Something to work on–I  programmed the devices to require manually starting a password agent after reboot to reset the inter-computer communications between servers and clients both internal and external to the network.  There is a way to “permanently” allow encrypted communication between selected computers, but I’ve been reluctant to use that method.

The main issue is that, to save money, we have a regular residential Internet account, where the provider assigns the address more or less randomly, so that our network gateway has to continually monitor its address and then be able to provide changes to the external web server.  A regular commercial account can request a permanent internet address and link it to the Intenet name service, but that is expensive.  Even though our “stealth” web server and secure gateway is not registered, we still get bombarded with dozens of break-in attempts on a daily basis, as the “bad guys” simply scan the network address space for servers and attack them.  In fact, “unlisted” addresses are more likely to be personal computers that are notoriously insecure, rather than servers that have professional management and keep security protocols up to date.

Tour 2015 – Days 59-61: Polson -> Hamilton -> Florence -> Home

Connie's 80th Birthday quilt, made by the Bent Needlers.
Connie’s 80th Birthday quilt, made by the Bent Needlers.

After an eventful week visiting with relatives and preparing the cabin for sale, we at last headed for home, with a two-day detour up the Bitterroot Valley to the biennial Bitterroot Quilters Guild show and a visit with a long-time friend. The quilt show is as much about the quilters as the quilts, so we spent more time visiting than ogling the quilts. Too soon, the show was over. We helped take down the show, a monumental task that involved dozens of guild members and their families, unpinning and bagging quilts, then distributing them to their owners while others unpinned and folded the muslin display walls and dismantled the frames. The group of which we were part took down the Hoffman Challenge traveling display and repacked it to send on to the next quilt guild show, as well as taking down the muslin frame covers.

Bitterroot Valley, Montana: a wet summer thunderstorm brings heat relief instead of fire.
Bitterroot Valley, Montana: a wet summer thunderstorm brings heat relief instead of fire.

We stepped out of the exhibit hall into 39°C (102°F) temperatures, driving down the valley to Caffe Firenze in Florence, our favorite Italian eatery. We spent the evening and the next day with our friend Connie, resting up for the last stage of our long journey, the 900 km drive home across Idaho and Washington. On the way, we stopped in Blanchard, Idaho to pick up our camping gear duffel, which we had left with Char when we met in St. Regis last week, to make sure we would have enough room to pack the personal belongings we wanted to bring home from the cabin. I unpacked the duffel and fitted the tent and sleeping bags into the few crannies left in the back of the Jeep, now filled to the roof.

Crossing the Cascade Crest at Snoqualmie Pass, the temperature finally dropped below 30°C, but we were greeted by a projected 20-minute delay, with traffic backed up for more than a kilometer at the I-90/WA-18 junction, because of traffic detouring around the closure of WA 203 between Carnation and Snoqualmie due to a fallen tree. We left the queue, which was backed up way beyond the off-ramp, and continued on to downtown Issaquah, taking the Issaquah-Hobart road, which was congested, but at least moving, to WA-18, bypassing the Tiger Mountain Pass altogether. We also took another detour at WA-167, through Puyallup on WA-512, bypassing Tacoma and the usual congestion there. Finally, shortly after 8:00pm, we arrived back home, 1452 hours from the time we left. We were amazed by the profusion of blooms in our yard, beyond the view from our webcam.  The problem with travel is you miss the evolving floral landscape at home, and only see the changes across the land if you come back the same way you went out.

After-math

Days away from home: 61
Total car distance: 13 947 km (8,717 miles)
Number of days traveling to new destination: 23
Number of states visited: 15 (WA, ID, MT,UT, CO, NM, TX, OK, KS, MO, IA, WI, MN, SD, ND)
Total bicycle distance: 288 km (179 miles)
Total bicycle climbing: 1692 m (one vertical mile)
Bicycle average speed: 16.5 km/hr (10 mph)
Bicycling days: 13
Longest bike ride: 38 km (23.5 miles)

Delia’s Just Cats Hotel bill:  $690

Lodging:

Relatives and friends:  14 days
AirB&B: 10 days
Traditional B&B: 3 days
Tent camping: 4 days
Motels: 17 days
Cabin: 9 days
Timeshare: 3 days

Tour 2015 – Days 52-58: Polson, Cabin, Bike Polson, Family

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Tiny house in the woods

Finally, after two years, we got to spend some time in our tiny house in the woods. We’re visiting relatives next door, as nephews, niece, and their families gather for Ben’s 89th birthday celebration. But, we also have enjoyed spending quiet evenings reading and listening to Montana Public Radio, and mornings getting the cabin ready to put on the market.

Generations - Aunt Judy explaining family pictures
Generations – Aunt Judy explaining family pictures

Ben’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gathered, along with his niece and her family, with people arriving through the week, filling his house, tents in the yard, and vacation rentals in Polson.  We were glad to have our own place to stay.  We typically go into town early morning for breakfast and to catch up on email and social media, though the Safeway/Starbucks has fast WiFi but no electrical outlets.  Our solar panel at the cabin will recharge phones and iPads, but not the big laptop, so “real” work requires seeking out places that have both power outlets and good WiFi.  So far, the laundromat in Polson and coffee shop in Ronan are the only ones, though Judy still has issues with the iPad needing to be very close to the router and then not always connecting.

Stripped-down kitchen at the cabin...
Stripped-down kitchen at the cabin…

Meanwhile, we started preparing the cabin for sale. Our retirement plan involves getting our budget downsized so that one of us can live on one income when the inevitable occurs, which means either moving to a smaller house or refinancing the “big house,” both plans requiring the cash out of our Montana property. So, we are stripping down the cabin to leave it fully furnished for future trips or future owners, but keeping or passing on some personal items, so it can be listed “as-is, fully furnished.” Tools to relatives next door to share, decor to friends who have similar tastes, books…, well, recycle or add to our home library, at least until we downsize that as well. We had thought our property might be worth more if we knocked down the cabin, but, since tiny houses are all the rage now, and the cabin is suitable for temporary shelter while building a larger house, we listed it accordingly.

A photo stop on the Skyline Drive bike trail, Polson.
A photo stop on the Skyline Drive bike trail, Polson.

Before the heat wave came in, we drove downtown, parked at the Safeway, and rode our tandem up Polson Hill on the rail trail, then west on the new bike trail section to Skyline Drive, 140 meters (460 ft) above the city, which made for a fast and long downhill, and then a long, gentle uphill back to the car, a short ride of 14.2km (8.8 miles), but lots of climbing.

Flathead Lake, from Skyline Drive, Polson.
Flathead Lake, from Skyline Drive, Polson.

On Friday, eight weeks since leaving home, we took a drive west to St. Regis to meet a friend from Idaho, to whom we had promised some of our cabin decor, and handed off the goods, along with our camping gear, which we will pick up on the way home next week if we have room after repacking the car.

Looking down from the cabin loft at the reconfigured living/dining area.
Looking down from the cabin loft at the reconfigured living/dining area.

Musings on Unix, Bicycling, Quilting, Weaving, Old Houses, and other diversions

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