Kids are back

Just got back from my first outdoor run in what seems like forever, so I’m sure I’ll be nice and sore tomorrow. I’ve really fallen off with the biking (and exercising in general) recently, and I do hope to ride in several more times this year, but this is definitely the time of year when I start to transition from biking to running as my main form of exercise. Which reminds me that I need to pick up a new pair of shoes.

Work has been absolutely insane lately, as it always is this time of year (the kids are back). However this year has been rockier than recent years. myUMBC always gets pounded at the start of the fall semester, and this year we’ve had problems with almost all of our back end systems at one point or another: the HP3000, the Oracle database, and even our enterprise filesystem. myUMBC is kind of like a canary in a coal mine. It relies on a complex, fragile infrastructure of systems and services, and if any one of them goes down, myUMBC is usually the first thing to die. Here’s a rundown of emergency work performed in the last few days to try and keep myUMBC running:

  • Late-night database reconfiguration to make Oracle less of a dog
  • Shuffling Easipipe around to attempt to fix flakiness on the HP3000 (it didn’t work)
  • Reconfigured myUMBC web server to work around IE SSL weirdness
  • Turned off Tomcat clustering stuff that wasn’t working and was possibly screwing stuff up

Things seem to be improved today, with the HP3000 thing the only unresolved issue. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

On the home front, we’ve got tulip poplar leaves all over the place. I would so love to cut those things down. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much, because they at least waited until the end of August. The drier the weather is, the earlier they start dropping leaves. We’re in a semi-drought now, although it didn’t start until mid-summer. If the entire summer had been dry, I probably would have been dealing with leaves in late July. I really need to get a leaf net for the pool.

And of course, the semi-drought likely will end tomorrow with the tropical system that’s supposed to pass through and give us more biblical flooding. It’s really feast-or-famine with rain around here these days, and it seems like it’s been that way for about a year now. Afterwards I guess I’ll have to mow again, which I haven’t done in quite awhile, and haven’t really missed.

If previous years are any indication, we’ve got at best another month of swimming left. And this year, we’ll be at the beach the last week of September (T-minus 3 weeks). So I guess we should toss Michael into the pool while the tossing’s good. On that note, I’m outta here for today.

More pool fun

The inevitable happened yesterday.. I accidentally ran the vac booster pump for an hour or so with the intake plumbing shut off. Fortunately, it looks like it survived.. thermal cutoff switches are your buddy. Several years ago, a similar mishap happened to the main circulation pump, and it’s still alive and kicking. The damage this time was very similar to then: leaks at the threadded intake and output fittings. I disconnected them (plumbing unions are your buddy), re-coated with teflon tape, re-lubed the union o-rings, put everything back together, let the motor cool, tried again, and everything seems fine. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Also, I’m going to need to go and fill in some low spots in my recently-applied deck caulking. The joint is holding water in a few spots. My tentative plan this week is to power wash and identify all the low spots on Tuesday or Wednesday morning before work, then do some more caulking on Thursday morning. Shouldn’t take me too long.

As I’m fond of saying.. the fun never ends.

Polyurethane caulk + no gloves = big mess

At long last, I got the planetary alignment needed to caulk the pool deck joints, so I did it this morning. First lesson learned: I need to wear disposable gloves when doing this. Because as bad as I thought silicone caulk stuck to my hands, polyurethane caulk is 10 times worse. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m still peeling this stuff off my fingers when I’m 60.

The actual job went very quickly. The caulk flows very easily. The important thing is to mask the joint on both sides. I went through 2+ rolls of masking tape, but it was well worth it. If I hadn’t, the caulk would have been all over the map. I went through 8 29-oz tubes of caulk to do this portion of the pool (I couldn’t do the entire pool because the coping stones are off on the deep end side). I imagine I’ll need 4 to 6 additional tubes to complete the job once the coping is repaired. Not too bad, and the Sikaflex stuff I used was much less expensive than using Deck-o-Seal or some other pool-specific product.

It will be interesting to see how well the joint holds up. There are a couple spots I’m concerned about, where the backer rod was a little close to the surface, and I suspect the caulk bead might be too thin. If these areas fail, I’ll just touch them up as needed. I’m confident that most of the joint will be sound.

The color of the stuff is interesting. Sika calls it “sandstone”, but it looks more like “calamine lotion” to me. For some reason, Home Depot carried only this color and gray — no white. It really doesn’t look too bad, just a little more pinkish than I expected. I wonder how it’ll weather.

It seems to cure pretty fast. When I was finishing up, the areas I had done first were already starting to solidify. The directions say that a full cure takes from 48-72 hours. Given the weather forecast (sunny / upper 80s), I’m guessing I’ll be at the early end of that window.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll do one last joint that I haven’t stuffed with backer rod yet. All in all, this wasn’t a hard job at all. If I have to do it again down the road, I should be able to do everything in a single weekend. The other nice thing is, I have an idea now how much caulk I need for the job. So if Home Depot stops carrying it or something, I won’t have to guess how much to order.

3 cheers for backward compatibility

Well, we finally upgraded our calendar server last night, from old-and-crusty Steltor CorporateTime to its successor, new-and-shiny Oracle Collaboration Suite. And, kudos to Oracle, as it looks like they’ve kept it backwards-compatible with the old CorporateTime API. That is, my homegrown OracleCalendar-to-iCalendar exporter thingy is still working. That’s nice, because I’ve come to depend on it, and this means that I won’t need to spend lots of time fixing it. Things are a little busy here right now, so if it had broken, it probably would have stayed broken for awhile.

Once things slow down, and I can revisit this, I bet I can make it work even better with the newer APIs now. Actually I may not need to use the APIs at all any more, as OCS supposedly supports CalDAV. In the meantime though, I’ll very happily continue to use the stuff I already have.

Oh, and a few days ago, I installed MediaWiki. I think I’m going to get a lot of use out of it. Read about my recent trials and tribulations with PHP iCalendar.

Party on…

Summer’s almost over

Well, here it is late summer again. And I must say — I’m ready for fall. If you’d have told me 20 years ago that I’d be writing that now, I’d have looked at you like you were crazy. But it’s true.. I’m just not crazy about summer these days. It’s not really the heat — being a profuse perspirer, I’ve always disliked the heat, but I haven’t always disliked summer. I think the main culprit is our house. Now, you’d think our house would be the ideal place to spend summer, with a big yard and a pool. And yeah, I guess it is ideal if you’re a kid and don’t have to take care of the place. But the upkeep on the place, combined with working full time and helping care for two small kids, doesn’t leave much time to enjoy the amenities. What it boils down to is, it never seems like there’s enough time in the day, and after a couple of months, it starts to get old.

Owning a pool has proven to be interesting. I do enjoy getting in the pool, particularly with my son. But it’s funny — when you spend a certain amount of time and money on the upkeep of a pool, and the pool is lightly used, you actually start to feel obligated to get in the pool to make it seem worthwhile. And when the pool sits unused for more than a few days, you start wondering why you’re putting so much into it, and then you start entertaining thoughts of having it filled in. People have told me that my best pool-ownership days are ahead of me, when the kids get to the age where they’re swimming all day, every day. I’m looking forward to that, but once the kids are past that age, I want to move — seriously. Because at that point, pool ownership just won’t be worthwhile any more.

But anyhow… I want to like summer again. I dislike it now, but I still get a little sad when it ends. Everything is a phase. Eventually, life will be less crazy and I’ll be able to kick back and enjoy summer again. We may need to move, the kids may need to get a little older. But it’ll eventually happen.

Cisco VPN client for Linux

Well.. after quite a bit of fiddling (what else is new) I managed to get Cisco’s VPN Client working on my Linux box. OIT provides a download for this, but it’s just a tar file of the client software.. no docs or any other info.

Details: I run Debian, and most of my Linux boxes have custom-built kernels; I don’t use the pre-packaged Debian Kernels. For some reason, I’ve found that things “work better” like that, at least for servers. Case in point: I initially tried to build the VPN stuff on a freshly-installed box with the stock Debian kernel, and it bombed spectacularly. I then built a custom Kernel, tried again, and it worked.

I run 2.4.x. Specifically, the two machines I’ve built VPN on run 2.4.32 and 2.4.33. I have no idea if the stuff works on 2.6 or not.


  1. Untar the distribution, VPNClient.tar.gz, and cd into the resulting vpnclient directory.
  2. Become root and run the installation script:


    It should be safe to accept the defaults for all of the prompts. One of the prompts is whether to start the VPN Service at boot time. Since I rarely use VPN, I elected not to do this. I ended up with an init script, /etc/init.d/vpnclient_init, which I need to run manually. Presumably, if you tell it to start at boot time, it’ll create the appropriate link in /etc/rc2.d or wherever.

  3. UMBC includes two VPN “profile” files, "UMBC OffCampus.pcf" and "UMBC OnCampus.pcf". Copy these into the directory /etc/opt/cisco-vpnclient/Profiles. Make sure they are set to mode 644.

    cp UMBC* /etc/opt/cisco_vpnclient
    chmod 644 /etc/opt/cisco_vpnclient/UMBC*

  4. Check the file /opt/cisco-vpnclient/bin/cvpnd and ensure the setuid bit is set. For some reason, after installing on two different machines, one of them had the bit set and the other didn’t. This file must be setuid root or vpnclient will not run for a non-root user.

    chmod 4111 /opt/cisco-vpnclient/bin/cvpnd

  5. Try it out:

    vpnclient connect UMBC\ OnCampus
    vpnclient connect UMBC\ OffCampus

Problems? Make sure all the files are in the locations they should be (no filenames misspelled etc) with the exact permissions specified above. It’s very picky about this, and the errors it gives aren’t too helpful. strace is definitely your friend here.

In other news.. I think I’m going to try setting up a personal Wiki to document stuff like this. Using the blog for this kind of stuff does work (i.e. I’m documenting stuff that I previously wasn’t, and I have a resource I can refer to for stuff now), but the diary-like nature of the blog doesn’t lend itself too well to organizing information. With a Wiki, I’ll be able to organize stuff for future reference, and I can keep the Blog for the stream-of-consciousness type stuff. I think I’ll try MediaWiki initially, because I’m familiar with it and like its look. My only concern is that it might be overkill, so I’ll have to see what kind of footprint it has.

Parking Permits and EasiPipe hacking

I bit the bullet today and bought a UMBC Parking Permit. Now, for someone who works at UMBC, this may not seem too remarkable. But, this is the first time I’ve had a parking permit in about 4 years. I’ve always had philosophical issues with the University charging its employees for parking, but that’s kinda beside the point — I originally worked in a remote area of campus (TRC building) with a lot of nearby street parking. So, it was kind of a no-brainer to eschew the permit and just park on the street. A few years ago I moved to main campus, which is about a 20-minute walk from where I was originally parking. But up till now, I remained permit-less. I would either park off-campus and walk the mile or so to my office, or I’d ride my bike in, or have my wife drop me off. It worked, for awhile. Now with two kids, it’s becoming too inconvenient. So, I got the permit. I’ll actually miss the occasional walks to/from my car, but it’ll be nice not to have to worry about getting to my office in bad weather. And, I don’t really feel the need to beat the system any more just to save a few hundred bucks. Sometimes convenience is worth paying for.

In other news, I hacked a bit on Easipipe today. Easipipe is the program that brokers connections between myUMBC and the HP3000 mainframe that serves as our SIS system of record. This is all part of the big project to move all our stuff off of SGI hardware. Easipipe is a big piece of that. It’s written in C, and required a bit of porting to get it running under Solaris. But it wasn’t too difficult after I dusted off my long-neglected C programming skills. Since we have two clustered portal web servers, I’ve decided to try running two Easipipe instances, one on each web server. It required a bit of hacking to prepare the code for the new configuration. The HP3000 listens on a total of 20 contiguous TCP ports. Each web server will use a block of 10 of those ports. The code needed to be hacked so each Easipipe instance could figure out the correct block of ports to use. Right now, I’m doing that by checking the hostname. I’m going to cut over to this setup tomorrow morning, so I can babysit it over the course of the day. I think it’ll work fine, but ya never know.

SGI, we hardly knew ye

At UMBC, we have a bunch of web apps which are running on SGI hardware. The SGIs are no longer under maintenance, no longer being upgraded, no longer getting new software builds, etc. etc. Let’s just say “we’re phasing them out.”

I can’t help but feel a little melancholy about this turn of events, having been at UMBC in 1992 when we moved into the new Engineering/Computer Science (now just “Engineering”) building. We got a big pile of money to buy computers and other equipment for the new building. Now, up to that point, our department was primarily a DEC (Digital Equipment Corp) shop. And, we were all lined up to buy lots and lots of DEC hardware with our new-building money. But, DEC’s new baby, the Alpha chip, was not quite ready for prime time in 1992, so they weren’t able to sell us Alpha-based equipment in time for the building to open. So, DEC ended up losing (and subsequently getting bought by Compaq), and SGI ended up getting our money. SGI had just released their new entry-level workstation, the Indigo, and we packed our labs full of them. We also had Crimson servers and eventually, a 16-node Challenge XL. At the time, SGI was well-known for making high-end graphics workstations. They were featured in movies and were widely used by the entertainment industry for animation and special effects. As such, they showed up a lot in the popular press, so in general, the public was “aware” of SGI and their reputation. By extension, with our labs full of SGIs, we became cutting-edge too. It was a busy year, but it was lots of fun, particularly for a 22-year-old geek like me with no life outside of UMBC (hey, at least I admit it 🙂 )

But unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The mid- and late-90s were not kind to SGI. Companies like ATI, nVidia and 3dfx began marketing cheap, high-end graphics cards for garden variety PCs. The cards got better and better, and SGI lost their edge. People began moving away from SGI’s proprietary hardware and OS, towards PCs running Windows or Linux. Then, the tech downturn hit, and that pretty much killed SGI. Now, pretty much every PC out there has graphics hardware that blows away anything SGI had back in the day.

The upshot of all this, is that we no longer have any SGI workstations at UMBC. However, we still have a few SGI servers plodding along, running legacy web apps, because no one has gotten around to moving the apps off. With the hardware no longer under maintenance, it’s only a matter of time till it dies, so I’m trying to get the apps moved off before that happens. That can be a challenge, because a lot of these apps also need other kinds of attention — for example, conversion from legacy authentication systems to our current campus single signon scheme. And many of them aren’t happy about being moved; lots of hardcoded path names, hostnames, URLs etc.

So it’s a slow process, but I’m slowly getting it done, moving us ever closer to the day when we can shut down the last SGI machine at UMBC… the end of an era.

Ubuntu fonts

I think I’ve finally got an Ubuntu font setup that I can live with. It’s not perfect, but it’s livable. Here’s what I did so I can replicate it if necessary.

  • Install msttcorefonts package.
  • Install MS “Tahoma” and “Tahoma Bold” fonts, neither of which are included with msttcorefonts.
  • Set X server to 96x96DPI.
  • Install a custom .fonts.conf that disables anti-aliasing for smaller fonts, sets some font prefs, and enables sub-pixel rendering.
  • In Firefox, go to Edit->Content->Fonts & Colors->Advanced. Set Proportional font to “Sans Serif”, Size 14pt. Set Serif font to “Times New Roman”. Set Sans-Serif font to “Verdana”. Set Monospace to “Courier New” at 12pt.

I’m pretty sure that’s it. Further references may be found in other posts in this category.

The overall result is a very Microsoft-y look, probably because of the heavy use of the Tahoma font. Some fonts are a little too small, others are a little to big (the default font in Firefox, for one). But, I can live with this until I go to a Mac on my desktop. It took a bit of tweaking, but it definitely looks nicer than my old vanilla Debian setup.

Followup 8/15.. The menu fonts in were still kinda ugly after doing all this.. I fixed this by going to Tools->Options->>View, and unchecking “Use system font for user interface.” Then when I restarted, the menus came up in Tahoma. Problem solved.

Followup 1/11/07: Installed Firefox 2 and found things required some additional tweaking. Changed Sans-Serif font from Verdana to Arial. Changed proportional font size to 16pt and fixed font size to 14pt. Re-enabled anti-aliasing for smaller fonts. Not sure I’m 100% happy with it, but it’s tolerable.

Scaling down the pool project

Over the past weekend, I came to the conclusion that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with my swimming pool repair project this year.

The moment of enlightenment came on Saturday, when I spent most of the day working on the pool. It occurred to me that to effectively re-bed my loose coping stones, I’m going to need to grind a lot more mortar off the bond beam than I was originally planning. Otherwise, the stones are either going to be uneven, or they’re going to sit up too high. Grinding the beam down is going to require a power tool such as an electric or pneumatic chipping hammer. And, it’ll make enough of a mess that I think the pool will need to be drained. And, that means it’s not happening this year.

So, I’ve elected to put off the major repairs until spring (probably late April or early May). This summer, I’ll make repairs to the deck and caulk the expansion joint in the areas where the coping is sound. I should be able to finish that up over the next couple of weekends. Then when I close the pool, I’ll tarp the areas where the coping is off. Then I’ll drain the pool next April around the same time I would normally start up the equipment.

This past weekend, I got most of the expansion joint cleaned and filled it with foam backer rod. I learned something about backer rod in the process: After about 24 hours in the joint, it “settles” lengthwise. My butt joints now have about 1/2″ of space between them. No problem, I can fill them with little bits of backer rod. But, I’m glad I didn’t caulk right away.

With the pool empty next spring, I’ll have the opportunity to do some maintenance, such as..

  • Touch-up areas of loose or peeling paint
  • Inspect and re-caulk around light niches, return jets, main drain, etc.
  • Inspect and repair a return jet that appears to have a threadded sleeve stuck in it
  • Patch skimmers where necessary
  • Inspect shell cracks and re-putty where necessary
  • Install an overflow line (maybe)
  • And of course, repair the coping stones and tile in the deep end

Hopefully after that, I’ll be good for another 5 years.

I love pool ownership. Really, I do.