Happy Sysadmin Appreciation Day

Many people refer to their job as a “calling.”  For many system administrators, there’s a calling as well.  Generally at some obscene hour because the monitoring system noticed that a critical server went down.  From your banking to your time wasting on Facebook, life as you know it is made possible by the system admins who work to keep things running.  Let’s face it, you probably never give any thought to those poor men and women who sit in their cramped, dim offices (or cubes — yuck!).  Nobody stops to think about the vast amounts of coffee, Mountain Dew, etc that go into fueling the labor of the sysadmin.  These brave souls who always have their BlackBerry or pager within arms reach — not because they want to, but because the SLA stipulates five nines.

Fortunately, today is the day you get to show your appreciation for all the work the sysadmins do for you.  Today is System Administrator Appreciation Day.  On this highest of holy days, show a sysadmin some love.  Buy him a beer.  Offer to take some of the empty soda cans out of her office.  Don’t break things.  If you feel comfortable, offer a platonic hug.  But don’t dawdle.  Even today, the sysadmin has plenty of work to do.

It’s a bad week to be AT&T

AT&T, like any other large company, has had it’s share of bad news.  Things like delayed support of MMS on the iPhone and complicity in warrantless wiretapping caused a stir, but nothing like the week the telecom giant has had so far this week.

On Sunday, AT&T began blocking traffic for img.4chan.org one of the most influential DNS entries in all Internetdom.  If you’re not familiar with 4chat, that’s a good thing.  Just know that’s where things like LOLcats and federal charges come from.  The best and worst the Internet has to offer.  Although some might not admit it, everyone who maintains an Internet presence lives in fear of angering 4chan and the Anonymous legion.  Apparently, someone at AT&T forgot their fears.  Wired later reported that AT&T was actually responding to a DDoS attack from 4chan, that was in turn a response to a DDoS from an unknown source.  Will this fact stop the b-tards from seeking revenge?

Perhaps they won’t need to.  Someone at AT&T seems intent on doing that to themselves.  Some poorly coded PHP exposed the files on www.research.att.com to the public on Monday.  Not just the files they wanted you to see, but things like /etc/passwd, the /proc filesystem, and so on.  While is it doesn’t appear that any sensitive customer or corporate data has been exposed, it certainly has given a potential attacker a lot more information than a normal web server should expose.  It is a very basic, simple mistake with broad consequences.

As of Monday evening, the ban hammer had been lifted from 4chan, and the www.research.att.com web server was blocking external traffic, presumably to guard against further exposure until they fix…the glitch.  The end result of this appears to be mostly bad karma on the Internet with little in the way of actual damange, but AT&T has had a rough week.  In fact, word Tuesday is that the removal of Google Voice-enabled apps from the iTunes app store is AT&T’s fault.  Can anything go right for them?

They don’t make TV like they used to

Last week the Internet greeted me with the news that Les Lye had died.  You may not know who Les Lye is, and I will admit that the name did not register when I first came upon it.  After reading the article, I was told that Les Lye was the sole adult on the hit Canadian show “You Can’t Do That on Television.” Way back when I was a youngster, Nickelodeon used to show episodes of “YCDTOTV” which I watched with great amusement.  I was too young to understand most of the jokes, but the slime was very appealing.

Friday night, I was just tooling around on YouTube and I found myself searching for episodes of YCDTOTV.  YouTube did not disappoint me — much.  They’re broken up into segments, and it seemed that a lot of the episodes were missing a segment or two.  It turns out that the website Blinkx has full episodes.  So I have a lot of catching up to do.

On Saturday, I decided to keep the nostalgia train rolling.  I discovered that Joost.com has episodes of the animated classic GI Joe!  Angie watched an episode with me, but she mostly laughed at me as I watched several more episodes while I was making dinner.  I LOVED GI Joe when I was a kid.  I cried when Duke was stabbed with that snake and went into a coma.  It was traumatic, don’t laugh.  Anyway, I don’t think I realized when I was a kid how hokey it was.  The Cheat Commandos was an over-the-top parody, according to my recollection.  It turns out that the parody is spot on.  Half of the enjoyment in watching the old GI Joe episodes is reliving the past, half is laughing at the plain goofiness of the show.

Eventually, I’ll have watched all of the episodes of these two shows that I can.  What next?  Well, I loved watching “Salute Your Shorts”, “Hey Dude” (I can still sing the entire theme song!), “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, “Doug” (pre-Disney), and “Rugrats”.  Of course, there are toddler classics too: “Sesame Street”, “Reading Rainbow”, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, and “Shining Time Station.”  Man, I miss the 80s.

Baseball hates me

I love baseball.  It may not be fair for me to say that, because I really am more of a passive fan (at least compared to the die hard fans I know).  Maybe it’s because my team is lousy and 1000 miles away.  Maybe I’m just not that big of a baseball fan.  Regardless, I love baseball.  Baseball, however, does not love me.

Baseball’s unlove for me began when I was just a wee lad.  Little League was like being in heaven.  The dirt, the grass, the Big League Chew.  Nirvana.  However, baseball did not see fit that I should be any good at the sport I loved.  Through most of the 7 years that I played, I generally got the requisite 2 innings in the field and one at-bat.  It wasn’t until my last year that I got to play regularly (in the infield, no less!).  Even then, I couldn’t get a hit for anything.  I think I ended up batting around .225 that year, which would be acceptable if I were a professional, but in Little League .225 is just plain lousy.

Eventually, I had to stop playing.  Not because of any serious injury, or because I didn’t want to.  I had to stop playing because I wasn’t any good.  Now, nobody came up to me and said “Ben, you’re a chump, stay clear of the diamond.”  It was obvious, though, that you needed to be a good player to keep playing in the next league.  Those teams traveled, and there was no rule stating that each player must get playing time.  I was heartbroken, but that’s life.

Once I became and adult and made actual money, I could afford to take the occasional trip to see a Major League game.  Apparently, baseball hasn’t forgotten me.  I’ve attended five MLB games in my lifetime (it would be better if the Orioles moved to Indianapolis or something) and my team is 1-4, including a four-game losing streak.  Last weekend, I went to two games.  The White Sox beat the Orioles in both.  On Sunday, as I was driving back home, the Orioles decided to win.  Thanks, baseball.

Yesterday afternoon, as I’m trying to figure out what to write about, I find out that Mark Buehrle of the White Sox is pitching a great game.  So great, in fact, that it ends up being a perfect game.  The perfect game is a very rare feat.  Buehrle’s outing last night was only the 18th in the major leagues, dating back to 1880.  Twenty-seven batters faced, and 27 retired.  The stamina, skill, and sheer luck required to perform such a feat aligns so infrequently.  Of course, the cause was aided by teammates, including an amazing catch by DeWayne Wise.

Of course, when I watched Buehrle pitch against the Orioles last week, he had to have a routine 7.1 inning showing giving up a run and eight hits.  I mean, if my team is going to lose anyway, can’t we at least be on the losing end of something special?  Oh, that’s right: baseball hates me.  Thanks, baseball.

A 650-node 10Gb computer cluster: easy peasy

At Purdue, we have a long history of being a leader in the field of computing.  (After all, Ctrl+Alt+Del was invented by Purdue alum David Bradley.)  Since we’re a pretty geeky campus anyway, it is more than a matter of professional pride, there’s street cred on the line too.  After building a large compute cluster last year, the research computing group on campus decided it needed to be one-upped this year.

Once again, volunteers from around Purdue and a few other institutions gathered to set up the cluster in a single day.  Once again, we finished way ahead of schedule.  This year, approximately 650 nodes went from box to OS install in less than three hours.  Jobs were already running by lunch time.

The process wasn’t entirely smooth though.  For reasons not adequately explained to the volunteers, the 10 gigabit network cards (NICs) were not installed by the vendor.  That meant each machine that was installed had to first be opened and have a NIC installed.  That is what I did for two hours yesterday morning.

The NIC installation process wasn’t too difficult, there were only 4 screws to contend with.  The organizers had expected 15 NICs per person per shift would be installed.  I did 42 in my two hour shift, and several others installed 50 or more.  At several points, they couldn’t get the machines unboxed and on our tables fast enough.

Several hundred more nodes will be installed once the external funding is processed, and it is likely that Coates will end up reaching the maximum capacity of just over 1200 nodes.  This gives it over 10k cores, all joined by 10 gigabit Ethernet connections.  This allows an obscene amount of data to be processed and transferred, which is very helpful in big-data fields like the atmospheric sciences.

Expectations are high for Coates.  It is, like Steele was, the largest compute cluster in the Big Ten at build-time.  Coates is expected to rank in the top 50 internationally when the supercomputer rankings come out in November.  Coates is also expected to be the first academic cluster connected solely with 10Gb that is big enough to achieve international ranking.  Perhaps most importantly, Coates is expected by Purdue researchers to facilitate some serious science.

Even though my contribution didn’t require much technical skill, I take pride in the fact that a whole rack of nodes can transfer data on the fast because of the network cards that I installed.  This cluster is a big deal to those who care about clusters, and it is really nice to be a part of something so geekily awesome.  If you’re one of those people who care about clusters, the technical details are at http://www.rcac.purdue.edu/userinfo/resources/coates/

One small website for a man, one giant website for mankind

Like many other kids, I spent a fair amount of time lying on my back with my feet on the seat of a chair.  That was the only way to pretend to be an astronaut.  As I got older, I discovered that the Louisville Science Center had a mockup of the Gemini capsule that you could get in.  Only one of the two seats was open, and many of the controls were behind plexiglass, but that didn’t matter.  There were switches I could switch and no trip was complete without sitting in the capsule for far longer than any normal kid would.

Although the dream of being an astronaut slowly gave way to reality, I never lost my fascination with the spectacle of manned space flight.  It seems fitting that, although I never set foot in an astronautics class, I attended the “Cradle of Astronauts.”  Purdue University has contributed 22 astronauts to NASA (including two on the current shuttle mission), but the most famous has to be Neil Armstrong.  You may have heard of him.

Purdue has buildings on campus named for Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, two alum who were tragically killed in the Apollo 1 fire.  In 2007, a third astronaut-named building was dedicated.  Armstrong Hall stands majestically at the corner of Northwestern and Stadium Avenues — the brick, glass, and steel shaped in such a way as to evoke the thought of flight.  On a chilly October morning, I joined hundreds of others to stand in the mud and witness the dedication ceremony.  I knew this would be a very memorable moment for me because of the list of speakers.  Of course the University’s president and the Dean of the College of Engineering would speak, but also there would be remarks from the most recent man to walk on the moon: Purdue alumnus Gene Cernan.  Oh yes, and NEIL EFFING ARMSTRONG!

Neil Armstrong, by all accounts, is just a guy who wants to get the job done and get back to being Neil.  For years he has shunned the spotlight, rightly arguing that he was just one man on a team of many who succeeded in the goal of putting humans on the moon.  He is reclusive, so it is very rare to get the opportunity to hear him speak, so there was never any doubt that I would go and watch.  I don’t even remember what he said, I just remember that the entire time he was speaking I completely geeked out.  “OMG!  This is Neil Effing Armstrong!”

Later that day, the Purdue football team played host to Northwestern.  A while back, a tradition what started that I don’t particularly care to partake in.  At the end of the third quarter, a guest of some sort will wave a large flag out of the press box window and give some variation of “Hey Boilermaker fans, it’s time to shout!” and then Otis Day and the Knights will regale us with their version of the lively tune while the fans occasionally join in.  Well on this particular day, who should be waving the flag but Neil Effing Armstrong!  I had no choice but to shout.  If Neil Effing Armstrong says to do something, you do it.

On the same note, the football team was losing 14-17 at the end of the third quarter.  In the fourth quarter, the Boilermakers scored 21 unanswered points to win 35-17.  Clearly the thought process was “hey, this guy walked on the damn moon.  The least we can do is win a football game for him.”  If only we could get Neil Effing Armstrong to show up to all of the football games.

So later today, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  Unfortunately, some of us didn’t exist when it happened originally, so we can’t relieve it in our minds.  Fortunately, everyone can relive it on the internet.  The JFK Presidential Library is re-creating the entire Apollo 11 mission in real time at www.wechoosethemoon.com.  You can be sure I’ll be following it closely, and re-living the dreams of my childhood.

I’m Twitter-pated

A while back, I decided to register a Twitter account.  I had no intention of using it, but I figured since it’s free, I might as well squat on my domain name.  Last week, I was having some problems with the IRC chat for the Mario Marathon, so the only way I had to interact with the guys was to use my Twitter account.  So I did.  Then on Sunday and Monday, I was in front of the camera reading the tweets.  Much to my surprise, people began following my account.

“Listen, you guys, I’m not very exciting,” I’d protest.  It made no difference.  As of this writing, there are 200 people out there who feel the minutia of my life is worth following.  Since I’m a sucker for attention, I had no choice but to start actually using it.  OMG, I’m in love.

Twitter has allowed me to feel emotions that I never thought I could.  For example, on Wednesday Wil Wheaton was having problems with his iPod.  I felt so bad for him.  I mean, as a kid, I totally wanted to be Wesley Crusher, and here I am now watching him suffer through the misery that is a misbehaving electronic device.  Fortunately, some of the other hundreds of thousands of people who follow him were able to give him advice on how to fix it.  I am happy to say that Wil’s iPod now works.  Without Twitter, I’d never have been able to get on this roller coaster.

At first, the idea of microblogging seems rather silly.  But it can be a lot of fun, and it’s certainly easier to catch up on 30 tweets than it is to catch up on 30 full blog posts.  And tweets are more like a slow conversation than a lecture, which makes it easier to form e-bonds with people.

So I have to say that I’m rather fond of my followers, and I’ll try not to be too boring for them.  The hard part will be trying not to become addicted.  It may be too late already.

Mario Marathon recap

So I finally got into a schedule that seemed to work.  I could have new blog posts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  Yet here it is, Thursday night and there have yet to be any updates.  You can blame that on the topic of the last update.  I ended up spending about 15 hours on Sunday and 6 hours on Monday hanging out with the Mario Marathon guys, bringing them food and interacting with the people watching.

I had to miss last year’s marathon because of my sister’s wedding, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect this year.  I took Friday off because I felt like it, so I spent a good portion of the day watching the online feed.  And then a good portion of Saturday.  I can’t explain it, it was just strangely addicting.  By the time Sunday rolled around, I was ready to be helpful.

As it turns out, due to some well-timed publicity, Sunday was the busiest day of the marathon.  As the designated “tweeter reader” (later re-named “twit face”), I was responsible for watching the Twitter feed and interacting with the people who posted.  It was a really weird experience for me.  I mean, here I am sitting in my buddy’s living room watching him play video games while I screw off on the Internet, and people are just going nuts every time I mention their name.  Weird.

The marathon was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams though.  Because they raised so much money, the guys who were actually playing the games had to 100% Super Mario Sunshine, a task that took them over a day on its own.  Finally, after over 96 hours of gaming, the marathon came to a close.  Along the way, thousands of people worldwide tuned in, and over 1,000 people contributed to raise over $29,000 for Child’s Play Charity.

There were some great moments along the way, too.   One was when someone asked if any of us were romantically involved.  Brian went down the row of guys sitting and said “Married.  Married.  Married.  Married.  And married.  So no, there’s no romance.”  Of course, we all started laughing.  Our wives who were standing in the next room didn’t find it quite so funny.

In a more touching moment, John (a.k.a. “couch guy”) shared the very first ultrasound picture of his baby with the world.  The Internet was very happy for John and Cheryl, as were all of us there.

My friend Sundeep stopped by with some members of his band CircAfrique.  They played some music for the viewers and Sundeep enterained everyone with his own unique brand of humor.  (He was so popular that the Internets are clamoring for him to do his own show.  And oh yeah, they want me on it too.)

And of course, there was the dancing.  After the $27,000 mark was reached, John, Brian, and I did a very special dance for the viewers.  Very early Tuesday morning, the donation count reached $28,000 and John did an unforgettable solo dance.

So I’d just like to thank everyone who made this possible — specially those people who watched and donated.  You guys did a terrific thing, and you should be very proud of yourselves.

–mac guy

Mario Marathon raises money for charity

For the second year in a row, three friends here in Lafayette are sitting down to play Mario games for 55 hours.  What sets them apart from the rest of gamers is the fact that they’re collecting donations for this, which get passed on 100% to the Child’s Play charity.  As Brian (a.k.a. “Shirt Guy”) explained it, plenty of charities pay for equipment and medicines for children, but what often gets overlooked is the fact that the kids in hospitals still are kids.  Child’s Play provides games for hospitalized children, which helps make the hospital experience more bearable.

After just a few hours, they’ve already raised over $2000 in donations.  If you’ve got some time, stop by www.mariomarathon.com to watch them play and donate a few dollars.

Which free virtual machine program to use?

For a while I’ve been debating whether I should buy a copy of VMWare Fusion for my Mac or to stick with the free version of VirtualBox.  For my needs, they compare nearly identically.  The deciding factor ended up being the KVM switch I use on my Linux and Windows machines.  Crazy, right?

For all platforms except Mac OS X, VMWare provides VMWare Server for free.  Server is a pretty solid VM platform for lightweight purposes.  Version 2 switched to a web-based interface which has advantages and disadvantages.  The main advantage is that it is very easy to connect to a VMWare server instance running on a different machine just by connecting to the address in a web browser.  The big problem I had with Server is that every time my mouse would leave the VM window, it would trigger my KVM switch (TrendNet TK-407K if you’re interested) to switch to the next computer.

Now the main reason I bought this particular switch was because it was very cheap.  It doesn’t have a whole lot of fancy features, it just lets me share a single set of interfaces across 4 machines, which is all I really need it to do.  The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be any way to turn off this automatic changing of machine.  Since I want to use my VM for actual work, having my keyboard mouse and monitor switch to a different computer every time I leave the VM is quite a hassle.  I found a few suggestions via Google, but none of them seemed to help.

After installing VirtualBox, I tried to get it to reproduce this problem.  It could not.  Since VirtualBox is free and available on Windows, Mac, and Linux, it really became an easy decision.  All thanks to a $60 KVM.