The joys of making budget cuts

It was over two years ago that my department’s Computer Support Manager left, leaving me as the de facto leader of the IT staff in my department.  With one professional and four student staff members, I don’t have a great deal of administrative duties.  Most of my leadership is directed toward mentoring and coordinating daily tasks.  The department head doesn’t even feel the need to meet with me regularly (I take that as a sign that we’re doing a good job).

I don’t even get a budget to work with.  Our IT purchases come out of the department’s general funds, so I just spend money when we need something, and if the department runs out of money, they’ll tell me to stop.  Fortunately, this hasn’t been a problem to date, but the University has asked our department to make a 2-3% cut in our budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.  All of a sudden, I find myself having to make big important-type decisions.

Being a state institution, jobs are fairly safe.  I don’t foresee myself or our Windows person being axed or asked to stay home more often.  The students have less inherent job security, but the department seems to have accepted how useful they are (and students are CHEAP!), not to mention the fact that I’d work in the dark before I got rid of my students.  On the other hand, we do have an annual agreement with the central computing group on campus that gets us access to some extra resources and also some personnel contribution.  Two of the three people we get have already been cut to part-time by their department.  Unfortunately, the only way to save in that agreement is to reduce one of them further.  It is hard to make that recommendation, but few choices exist.

As I watched “Meet the Press” this morning, I tried to come up with ways to cut costs.  The first thing that came to mind was to reduce the speed of some of our network connections.  The networking group charges $120 annually for 100 Mbps connections, but only $60 for 10 Mbps.  It has been the standard in our department to pay for 1-2 connections in each office and lab (depending on which subnets are needed).  As a result, networking costs are the single largest non-salary IT expense.  Large data users would have a hard time getting by on “just” 10 Mbps (some even pay for 1 Gbps connections!), but there’s no reason a secretary, for example, can’t be happy with 10 Mbps.

The other big cost in my department is printing.  In the centrally-managed labs on campus, print quotas are used.  Faculty and staff get $40 per semester, and students get $20 per semester.  Each page of black and white printing costs 4 cents, and color pages cost 12 cents.  Departmentally-managed printers work however the deparment decides.  My department decided that the “public” printers are free.  Research groups can have their own printers that they pay for, but there’s no cost to use the departmental printers.  This includes our 42″ poster printer, with paper that costs about a dollar per foot.  One of the side effects of this policy is that the color printer is sometimes used for jobs that contain no or little color.  In the past, I’ve tried to convince the department head that we need to implement a policy to encourage the reduction of printing.  It fell on deaf ears, but we’ll see if current conditions give that suggestion a more receptive audience.

One thing I have managed to accomplish is to change the way we charge researchers for space on our file server.  When the file server was first set up, the hardware cost was divided by the available space, and the end result is that there’s a one-time charge of $400 per 96 GB slice.  That worked initially, but 5 years into the server’s life, it’s obvious that it isn’t a sustainable model.  We pay a vendor $1700 per year for hardware and software support, not to mention the $1/GB we pay for backups.  Not only that,  but the way the funding rules work, this space can’t be charged to research grants.  If a research is out of startup funds, they can’t purchase more space.  After over a year of gentle prodding to our overworked Business Manager, we’re finally in a position to begin charging for this as a cost center.  Research groups will pay a smaller annual fee that can be charged to federal grants.

Of course, our state has yet to pass a budget, so that complicates matters as well.  I guess we’ll see how things go.  With any luck, the economy will rebound later this year, and the budget will return to a more normal state (and maybe salaries will be unfrozen!)

SOCKS it to me

(This is the first in a series of “there’s already a thousand other articles about this out there, but I’m writing my own so that I’ll have something to put on my blog” articles).

For security’s sake, some of the services I run in my department aren’t accessible off-campus, or even outside of my department’s subnets.  This is normally a good thing, but it can be a bit of a hassle sometimes.  If I’m at home and I want to check my Exchange e-mail with Entourage, or if I need to access my Samba server, I can always just fire up a VPN connection.  But if I need to play around with CUPS, and I’m not wired in to my department (say, for example, I’m sitting in a meeting and I want to get actual work done instead), then I’m just up a creek.  The VPN is at the University level, and I don’t really feel like letting the whole campus print to my printers.  We spend too much on printing anyway.

This is where SOCKS comes in.  SOCKS is a proxy protocol — instead of traffic going directly from a server to you, it goes through the proxy first.  SOCKS can be used to pass all kinds of traffic, but probably the most common use is to encrypt, hide, or otherwise mangle web traffic.

Some uses of SOCKS are completely honest, like my example above to access restriced resources when I’m away from my office.  Another reason to use SOCKS is if you’re on an untrusted network, like at a coffee house, and you don’t want anyone who is trying to snoop your network traffic to see what web pages you’re viewing.  A less noble case is tunneling your web traffic through somewhere else while you’re at work, thus allowing you to visit sites your boss would not approve of.  I suppose you could also use a SOCKS proxy to visit sites that the law would not approve of, but you’ll still get caught.

So I’ve gone on for over three hundred words so far, and I still haven’t said how you can actually do this.  As it turns out, it is surprisingly simple.  All you need is an SSH server, and SSH client, and a web browser.  The SSH server runs on whatever you want to use as a proxy, in this case my Linux desktop at work.  The SSH client and web browser run on the computer you’re using to surf ye olde intertubes.  (If you’re using Linux or Mac OS X, you’ve probably already got the SSH client and SSH server available, but you might have to get it started.  Windows users will need Cygwin or something similar.  In any case, Google is your friend).

To get started, just make an SSH connection to your proxy host.  Something like

   ssh -ND 8120

will do quite nicely.  The “-ND” option does not mean to root for Notre Dame.  Do not do that under any circumstances.  “N” tells SSH not to run a command, so you won’t get a command line, which in this case is fine.  “D” specifies the local port to use.  I chose 8120, but you can choose pretty much whatever you want between 1025 and 65535.  The important thing is to remember it.  The rest is your username and then the server you want to connect to.

Okay, so now you’ve got the connection set up.  The next thing to do is to tell your browser to use it.  Firefox users, go to Preferences and select the “Advanced” tab.  Next, select the “Network” section.  You’ll see a line that reads “Configure how Firefox connects to the internet.”  Click on the “Settings” button next to that.  Select the “Manual Proxy Configuration.”  In the box labeled “SOCKS Host” enter “localhost” and in the “Port” box next to that, enter the port you chose when you set up your SSH connection.  Click “OK” and then you’re done.

If you did it right, you’re now sending all of your web traffic through the proxy.  Well done!

Oh man, where did I go?

For the first time in the history of this blog, I had a new post for seven days in a row.  Wow.  I’m really not sure how that happened, since I rarely have anything to say.  Coming up with pointful content on a daily basis is apparently a really hard thing to do, and the more I try, the more respect I have for people that manage to do it.  I’ve tried to cheat and write several posts at a time, and then schedule them to publish the next day.  Even then, I just don’t know enough or something.

So for the time being, this is a post to let you know I’ve updated a page.  The About Ben page now makes reference to my membership in the Fedora Project’s Documentation group.  Yay.

The delicate art of naming

I found an old post on Linux Journal discussing the naming of Fedora releases.  I’ve always wondered where those names come from, and it turns out there really is some logic behind it.  It turns out that the name of release N+1 must be related to release N, ewfbut not in the same way that N and N-1 are related.  With Fedora 11 (Leonidas) coming out shortly, the Fedora Project is now soliciting names for release 12.

I’ve been wanting to find a way to give back for a while now, so I registered an account with the Fedora Project.  My first contribution was to suggest a name for Fedora 12.  In case it actually gets suggested, I want to state for the record that I suggested “Beauregard.”  Beauregard was a Confederate general in the Civil War, as was Leonidas.  We’ll see what future (and hopefully better!) contributions I make in the future.

It’s just like Magick

Recently at work, I had to post images from our awards banquet.  With over 100 picutres at nearly 5000×5000, loading that page would take forever.  Clearly, this was a case for Captain Thumbnail.  What’s a thumbnail?  It’s a reduced-size version of an image, according to Wikipedia.  There are two main reasons to use thumbnails.  The first is to make it easier to quickly visually inspect a collection of images.  The second is to reduce the time it takes a page to download and render.

Some people just use HEIGHT and WIDTH in their HTML <img> tags.  That is very naughty.  Using that method doesn’t shrink the data size of the image, so people on slow connections still have to wait for the full image to download.  I learned this when I shared pictures of my first tornado with fellow chasers.  In order to prevent offending the bandwidth of Nealras again, I found a nifty little program called “Media Resizer.”  The free version allows you to resize images, add watermarks, etc.  What the free version does not do is allow you process a batch of images.

Re-sizing an image or two individually isn’t such a big deal.  Making over 100 thumbnails one at a time is the suck.  Knowing the GNU Image Manipulation Program (The GIMP) could resize images, and assuming that it would be scriptable somehow, I began Googling.  What I found instead was a nifty suite of tools collectively known as ImageMagick.

ImageMagick can create thumbnails, sure.  It can add effects, like torn photo edges.  It can convert text to images, or images to different formats.  It can probably do a whole lot more that I haven’t even explored yet.  The best part is that it is easily scriptable, much easier than scripting in The GIMP.  The bester part is that it seems to be included with most Linux distributions.  If you need to do something with an image, especially if you have a bunch of images, think ImageMagick first.  Very helpful examples can be found at:

So what would you say you do here?

The job of a systems administrator is very vague.  Some sysadmins are responsible for a single set of systems — a large farm of e-mail servers, for example.  Others are responsible for everything up to and including telephone lines.  Most of us lie somewhere in between, but even most sysadmins would have a hard time narrowing down what it is that we do.  Perhaps the best way to describe my job is to give a list of what I’ve worked on this week.

  • Fix the weather data web server so that the maps get updated
  • Set up a new network printer
  • Put together a price quote for a high-end Linux workstation
  • Diagnose a problem with compiled code
  • Add a new user to our main file server
  • Put together a price quote for another high-end Linux workstation
  • Setup two new MacBooks
  • Diagnose a problem with a network printer (the cable had come unpluged)
  • Make Ethernet cables
  • Replace toner in a printer
  • Install a library package so code could be compiled
  • Various updates and fixes to the department’s website
  • Tell a user how to restore the desktop switcher to Gnome

And that’s only the tickets I got.  That doesn’t even cover any self-driven tasks.  Of course, next week, I’m sure the list will be completely different.

Who’ll stop the rain?

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow (CoCoRaHS) project is really interesting.  It is a nearly-nationwide collection of volunteers who take daily measurements of the precipitation they receive.  I participate because my meteorological education has taught me that there’s always a need for more data.  The side benefit is that I get to see what others around me have received in the way of falling moisture.  The differences across small distances can be pretty large sometimes (although I suspect that is often due to a poor rain gauge setup), but seeing similar numbers can help you believe that you really did get that much rain.

Case in point: since Tuesday, my station has recorded 4.56″ of rain.  To put that in perspective, the average rainfall  for the month of May  is 3.93″.  On Wednesday, when I recorded 2.03″, I might not have believed it had other stations nearby not recorded very similar values.  Today’s 2.35″, on the other hand, was pretty believable on it’s own.  The lake that is my yard spoke volumes.

Last weekend, my wife and I hauled, mixed, and poured 3,200 pounds of concrete.  Why?  Because the walkway that goes from our front porch to our driveway sat lower than the ground around it, meaning when it rained, your shoes got wet.  I’m very grateful we got it finished, since when we got home from a friend’s house last night, our yard was a marsh.  Even now, over 12 hours after most of the rain has stopped, the ground just has nowhere to put the water.

The completed walkway.

Measuring nearly an inch of standing water in the yard.

Measuring nearly an inch of standing water in the yard.

Worms, worms, worms!

Worms, worms, worms!

As a result of all the rain, the Wabash River has gone from 6 feet to 16 feet since 8 AM Wednesday, with a forecast crest of 20 feet at 8 PM tonight.  At 20 feet, Extensive flooding increases. Flood waters begin to cover Stair Road located on the southeast side of the river just off SR 225 in NE Tippecanoe County. Low portions of Barton Beach Rd is flooded. Several river residences are nearly isolated by high water. River residences near Interstate 65 are affected by high water. River Road near Wabash Valley Hospital floods. Local roads begin to flood in the Granville Bridge area. River residents become concerned.

Space: the final frontier

I went to see the new Star Trek movie last weekend.  It was awesome.  That’s not what I came to talk about today, though.  On Monday, the first astronaut from Purdue’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (the 22nd overall from the University) boarded Atlantis for the final repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.  Dr. Andrew Feustal received a BS and MS from EAS, and lived in Cary Quadrangle (all the cool kids lived there).

So having a bit of something in common with him, I was pretty excited to watch the launch on Monday afternoon.  The University’s president happens to have Chief Scientist at NASA on her resume, so having her there at the launch party made it all the more interesting.  Even though the streaming video feed was a bit choppy, it was really exciting.  I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, and a part of me felt like I was there.

And then yesterday, Drew made his first EVA.  Many hours floating around in space performing work on the Hubble more difficult than anything done previously.  I think the most impressive thing was when he came out of the shuttle, his words were “too cool.”  Very matter-of-factly.  Rock and roll.  Four EVAs remain, with Drew making the Saturday and Monday walks.  I look forward to watching NASA TV all day again for those.

Science is cool!

Chase results — 13 May 2009

So I’m still not sure if the long-term plans for my chase results are blog posts or static pages.  What I do know that my 13 May 2009 chase certainly doesn’t deserve anything more than a quick blog update.  This being my first chase in over three years, I was a little apprehensive, and I spent most of the morning looking for my GPS and the battery for the video camera.

From the day three outlook, central Illinois was marked with a moderate risk area.  By that morning, conditions were very ripe for a strong line of storms, with the possibility of some isolated cells in the late afternoon.  The big concern was the clouds that didn’t seem to want to leave the area after weaker storms had moved through that morning.

In the early afternoon, Angie and I left for our initial target of Bloomington, IL.  We figured it would be a little bit of a wait, so I made for the Panera on Veterans Parkway.  I love Panera for their bagels and their free wi-fi.  We sit there waiting and waiting for something to happen.  All that happens is that my laptop battery gets lower and lower.  I brought my power adapter in from the Jeep…and no electrons flowed.  After trying several different outlets, I came to the conclusion that my battery life was nearly at an end.

During the last few minutes of battery I had left, I kept an eye on the ILX radar.  An outflow boundary was moving east and I was hoping it would kick off some storms.  With the wind fields, it wouldn’t take much to get anything that formed to start rotating.  Right as the battery died, a few small cells starting popping up along a Peoria-Lincoln line.  Since I wouldn’t be able to use Streets and Trips anymore, we made a run to WalMart to get a DeLorme atlas.  Then we made a run to Borders to get the very last one they had.

Using my BlackBerry to get crude radar data, we followed Old Route 66 toward Pontiac.  This turned out to be a very good choice, as the best looking cell was heading northeast from Peoria.  After a few minutes, it got a severe thunderstorm warning.  As we drove, I noticed it looked very high-based.  After following it for a while, it looked crappy and high-based.  By the time we reached Dwight, it was game over.

So we drove back home, with the requisite stop at The Hardees In Paxton With Sticky Floors.  Despite the annoyance of a grunge bust, it was really nice to get out to central Illinois and chase again after more than three years.  I also found out that Angie makes a good navigator, although on the next trip we might try switching seats.

I also have to give a shout-out to Rain-X.  I heart Rain-X.

Also, my friend Drew managed to catch a tornado in Missouri.  He might even update his website ( soon.

For more storm chasing results, see the Chase Results page on Funnel Fiasco Weather.