System Administrator Appreciation Day

Listening to yesterday’s broadcast of the Marketplace radio program on NPR this morning (as a podcast), I heard the following mentioned during the “Datebook for July 31, 2009” segment of the program.

And bring some goodies for the IT department. You need those folks for the health of your server, firewall and computer stuff. It’s System Administrator Appreciation Day.

Considering that I was in the office until 2 AM last night, I find it particularly serendipitous.  If you’re a system administrator, you already know (too well) the propensity for late nights and working weekends.  For those of you not familiar, here’s a quick synopsis of my evening’s circumstances to help you understand how it all went down.

Yesterday afternoon, my office lost power when a car crash brought down a neighborhood utility poll.  As we waited for utility power to be restored, our server room’s UPS kept the battery power rolling to the network, the wireless access points, and the servers.  The overhead lights were out, but the Internet was still on.

When the UPS reported 25 minutes of power remaining,  we decided to shutdown the non-critical servers.  At 10 minutes of power remaining, we began to shutdown all critical servers.  Unfortunately it was not enough.  About 40 minutes after the outage started, all remaining equipment went dark.  When the power was restored another 20 minutes after that, we discovered that the Cisco Catalyst switch was dead.  The supervisor card on the Cat was unable to boot the switch properly, and it would be 4 hours before a new replacement would be available on-site.

Some of you might point out that we could have designed better redundancy into our office network.  And yes, we could have.  But it all comes down to balancing cost and risk.  All of our production data centers (i.e. live website presence) are configured with redundant sets of A/B switches.  However, our office network is not.  A production site outage can potentially impact our website revenue to the tune of $1,000,000 or more, depending on the timing and duration.  An office outage, on the other hand, represents lost productivity on an order of magnitude much less costly.  And for this reason, we do not have a redundant Catalyst switch in the office, but we do have a Cisco support contract with 4-hour response turn-around time.

Waiting for the new supervisor card to arrive, we began the process of bypassing the larger Catalyst switch with a smaller 24-port switch, patching the most critical servers (e.g. email, VPN, phones, and various other backend processing).  The new card arrived later that evening, and we then began the process of getting the larger Catalyst back online and reconfigured.  We eventually moved all the bypassed servers and devices back to the original switch, brought up all remaining servers and storage, and fixed all the other little things that break during an unplanned outage.

When it was all done, the time was 2 AM.

I’m not complaining about my evening, because it’s what I do.  It’s my job, and after all, I love my job.  But it is the nature of the work.  And I hope this story helps you to gain a little insight into what we system administrators do.

So, on the last Friday in July, put a smile on a system administrator’s face, and send a brief mention of thanks or appreciation for all the work they do.

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Making Cheap International Calls

I recently made the mistake of calling a number in Canada with my cell phone last month.  This month, I discovered that my call to Canada cost me 48 cents/minute.  Thankfully, I chatted for only 10 minutes.

Looking into alternative options, I obviously wanted something cheaper, but I didn’t want to pay a monthly fee for the privilege of being able to make cheaper international phone calls.  I call Canada only occasionally, and I think Sprint PCS charges $5/month for the option to call Canada at 10 cents/minute. Blah.  That’s still a crappy deal.

After some internet searching, I discovered a company called Localphone.com.  Allows me to make really cheap calls to anywhere in the world (internationally and domestically).  In many cases, for less than 1 cent/minute.  Calls to some countries and mobiles cost a bit more, but that’s because of tariffs imposed by those countries.  Essentially, Localphone.com is a pre-paid long-distance service, that does not charge hidden fees, nor does it prematurely expire pre-paid credits (as long as you make 1 phone call per year).  I got started with a credit of 5 bucks.  And at $0.0070/minute to Canada, that’s a credit good for 12 hours of calling to Canada.

I’ve since discovered that Skype offers a similar service (Skype To Go).  If you’re already using Skype, then you may prefer that service.  However, for various reasons, I actually prefer Localphone.com.  It’s cheaper than Skype, and there are no hidden fees (e.g. no connection fees).  Also, Localphone allows me to alias long-distance phone numbers to local phone numbers that I can save to my cell phone’s address book.  I can then dial the local number directly from my cell phone, without first calling an access number.  Also Skype To Go works from only 11 countries, while Localphone has local call numbers in almost 50 countries, which means I can use it more often when I travel internationally.

Lastly, I should point out that Localphone.com is a UK company, but their web site does not make it particularly clear that their service works for anyone in any country.  Also, the cost of calling a country is the same rate, regardless of what country you are calling from.

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Those So-Called ‘Green Shoots’ in the Economy

I was reading a transcript of an interview Warren Buffett gave to CNBC yesterday, and I found this following comment to be funny, succinct, and matter-of-fact.

BECKY: We hear people on our air all the time who talk about the “green shoots” that they’re seeing. Are you seeing any of those green shoots?

BUFFETT: (Laughs.) I looked. I wasn’t seeing anything. I had a cataract operation on my left eye about a month ago and I thought maybe now I’ll be able to see green shoots. We’re not seeing them. Whether it’s retailing, manufacturing, wherever.

I have to agree. Looking at the data, I don’t see green shoots.

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Stovetop Espresso

Recently, I came to realize that I occasionally enjoy a small cup of espresso after dinner. I have a nearby coffee shop that supplies me with my morning latte fix, but they close in the late afternoon, and besides, it’s not so convenient to go to the coffee shop for after-dinner espresso. Therefore, I’d like to be able to make espresso at home. I could buy a decent espresso maker for my home, but I don’t see the value of a $300 machine for the occasional after-dinner espresso (about once per week).

With that in mind, I did a little research, and I found a couple of lower-cost alternatives available.

Bialetti Moka Express

Various sizes of Bialetti Moka pots

The first option is the Bialetti Moka Express, which is a stovetop “espresso” maker. It’s very common in Italy, where it was invented in 1933 by none other than a Mr. Alfonso Bialetti. Numerous companies now manufacturer moka pots, but the Bialetti design is unmistakably classic. It comes in a variety of sizes: 1, 3, 6, 9, and 12-cup models. Most stores carry only the 3 or 6-cup model. In San Francisco, the Caffe Trieste retail store in North Beach (located adjacent to the Caffe Trieste coffee shop) carries all the sizes, including the hard-to-find 1-cup model, and their prices are the cheapest I’ve found. Expect to pay $16 to $20 for the smaller sizes.

I say this pot makes “espresso” because it’s not technically an espresso, which requires a different extraction than what the Moka pot offers. Consequently, one might say the Bialetti makes a “moka”, a “moka espresso”, or “stovetop espresso”. Still, it makes a respectably good cup.

To use the Bialetti, fill the bottom half with cold water up to the release valve, insert the basket full of coffee grinds, then screw on the top half. Place the pot over low heat, and wait for the water to boil the coffee up into the top chamber.

Some usage notes I’ve gathered from others on the Internet. (1) The Moka Express is designed to work with the coffee basket full. Therefore, use a pot size that is appropriate for your needs. Under-filling a 3-cup model to get a single serving will not work. (2) Do not pack the coffee grinds into the basket. This is not an espresso machine, and packing the grinds will prevent the water from passing though properly. (3) The grind of the coffee will affect the results. I’ve only recently bought my Bialetti, so I’ve only started experimenting with it. However, I’m told the Bialetti requires a grind more similar to a drip-coffee than an espresso grind. A typical espresso grind may be too fine for this pot, preventing water from passing through the coffee. (4) Your results will vary, depending on a variety of factors — bean variety, degree of bean roasting, grind level, etc.

Handpresso Wild

The Handpresso Wild

The second low-cost option for home-made espresso is one that a friend mentioned to me recently. The Handpresso Wild is a handheld device which requires pumping to reach the necessary pressures for extraction. Unfortunately, neither he nor I have ever used one.

The Handpresso works by inserting an espresso pod, hand-pumping it a number of times to reach 15 bars of pressure, adding some hot water, and pushing a button. In order to get hot espresso, you’ll have to boil water in a separate vessel first, then add it to the Handpresso capsule.

The Handpresso is an interesting idea. Expect to pay about US $120 for one.

Other

I’m interested in hearing other people’s opinions of these devices, as well as other devices I should consider. I’m also interested in suggestions of books which can bring me up to speed on aspects of espresso — benefits of various extraction methods, varieties of beans, growing regions, roasting levels, etc.

California Proposition 8 – Gay Marriage – What’s the Big Deal?

Today, Connecticut began offering gay marriages.

On the other hand, California is the state that is supposed to make new things happen, not the state that retreats from them.  California is now so backwards on this issue.  What’s the big deal with gay marriage anyway?

Before I continue, I think it’s vitally important to keep the following sentence in mind as you read the rest of this email.  This country is founded on “freedom of religion” and “separation of church and state”.  Those ideals will be fundamental to how this issue plays out over the coming years.

Now, the church makes the argument that they don’t want to be required to marry two men in their place of worship, so they support CA Proposition 8 (definition of marriage as between a man and a woman).  It’s a false argument, because no one is asking them to do so.  Nor do I believe they are legally required to do so.

I understand that gay marriage is not accepted within the church, but there is an important fact that many people fail to see.  No one church has a monopoly on “marriage”.  Many religions do it: Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc.

And because of this fact, eventually, the right of same-sex couples to marry will become commonplace.  California may have passed Prop 8, but I strongly believe that it will be struck down as unconstitutional.

Here’s why.  There are two different meanings of “marriage”.  There’s the meaning within the realm of the government, and then there’s the meaning within the realm of a particular church.  That’s an important distinction.  You can get married in a church, but that doesn’t mean you’re married in the eyes of the state.  You still need to get a “license” from the state to be considered married.  And therein lies the nugget of the problem.  Eventually, within the context of government and state, same-sex marriage will be constitutional and commonplace.  Gay couples will have the same legal right to obtain a marriage “license” as heterosexual Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews.  That doesn’t mean they need to be married in a church, or that a church has to marry them.

The fact that Prop 8 has mandated the California constitution’s definition of marriage as “between man and woman” is no protection against gay-marriage.  To illustrate why, here’s an example.  If California had written into its constitution that Blacks have less rights, does that make it legal?  Of course not.  The US Supreme Court (and probably the CA Supreme Court) would strike it down as unconstitutional.  The same is true of gay marriage.

At this point, you may ask yourself: why is the issue of marriage even a constitutional question?  The answer: because of the fact that the State requires a marriage license to be considered married.  Eliminate that requirement, and you eliminate the whole question.  But unfortunately, you can’t eliminate the question, because the idea of marriage is too interwoven into our society’s fabric.  It determines too many “non-religious” things: taxes, rights to property, inheritance, etc.

There are lots of angles to the same-sex marriage issue.  However, the church should not feel so compelled to instill it’s beliefs on the whole of the society.  As I said before, this country is founded on “freedom of religion” and “separation of church and state”.  And it is those principles that will inevitably see the equality of marriage as being available to both heterosexuals and homosexuals.  Anything less is discrimination.

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