We took the “kids” (age 20 and 17) for an overnight trip out to far western Maryland Monday into Tuesday. We visited Swallow Falls State Park, the Maryland Rock Maze, Sideling Hill Creek State Park, Cumberland Narrows, and Washington Monument State Park. We got some hiking in and found several geocaches. Even though we were away less than 36 hours, it was nice to get out of the house for a while, and brought back memories of trips like this we used to take back when the kids were smaller. Who knows if we’ll ever be able to drag both of them out for something like this again!

I rode my mountain bike to work today, for the first time since June 7. Although I’m no fan of mountain biking in the heat and humidity, the main thing stopping me this summer has been the wet and stormy weather we’ve had since the second half of June. My schedule is most conducive to mountain biking on Wednesdays, and most weeks, the trails have been too muddy. Currently, we are in the midst of a several-day dry spell, so conditions were pretty good. I stuck to familiar trails, and they were in mostly good shape, but there were lots of muddy patches in areas that aren’t usually muddy. I passed around 8 hikers on the Howard County side between Belmont and Rockburn Branch, which is 8 more than I usually see in that area weekday mornings. I guess the beautiful early August weather brought everyone out of the woodwork. Temperatures were in the upper 60s, with low humidity.

On the swimming pool front, something seems to be wonky with our SWG today. This morning, I went out and noticed that the temperature sensor was reading 5-8 degrees higher than the actual water temperature. I calibrated it to match, but I’ve never had to do that before. I ran a test, which showed normal cell amps, but then after I exited the menu, the display started flashing a low amps warning. Not sure if the two issues are related. The temperature thing is usually related to the tri-sensor, but the low amps thing usually points to the cell, so I’m not sure what to make of this. I power-cycled the controller and also backwashed the filter, but neither helped with the temperature anomaly. The low amps display went away after a minute or so, but the Chlorine has been running a little lower than expected this week, so I wonder if this has been happening for a few days. This evening, I’ll pull the cell out and inspect it, and I’ll also look at the check valve and see if there’s anything impeding flow through the tri-sensor. The cell is 14 years old, and has outlasted the original controller and tri-sensor, so it could be that it’s finally time for a new cell. However, it doesn’t seem like a bad cell would cause the issue with the temperature reading. I’m sure I’ll get to the bottom of it, and I’m sure it’ll end up costing me more money. That’s just life with a pool.

Jasmer Challenge

One of the more popular geocaching “side games” is called the “Jasmer Challenge”. The goal: for each month since geocaching began in May 2000 (when Selective Availability was turned off), find at least one geocache that was placed in that month. As of this writing, that means finding 214 caches: one placed in May 2000, one in June 2000, one in July 2000, etc., all the way up to February 2018. It’s a difficult challenge to complete, because of the travel required, and the scarcity of some of the months. For example, there are only four remaining active hides in the world that were placed in August 2000.

I’ve been working on this challenge off-and-on for about 3 years. Many people, including some of my friends, have taken “geo-trips” specifically for finding caches to help them fulfill the Jasmer Challenge. Geo-trips aren’t really an option for me at this point in my life (not that I’m complaining by any means), but I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel for work several times a year. Work travel often gives me opportunities to work on my geocaching goals, including (you guessed it) the Jasmer Challenge. In 2017, I found myself with only two months left to go to qualify: July and August 2000. I was able to find the latter in April 2017, and the former in February 2018.

April 2017: GC36, “Geocache 612” (hidden 8/21/2000)

“Geocache 612” is one of the four remaining caches from August 2000. It’s located in Kalkaska County, MI, which is in the northern section of the lower peninsula, about 3 to 3.5 hours north of Detroit. My opportunity to find it came in April 2017, when I traveled to Ann Arbor for a work gig at University of Michigan. Upon arrival, I rented a car and drove 7 hours round-trip, with the weather threatening the entire way, and made the find. The full story of this find may become the subject of a future post…

February 2018: GC18, “Tarryall” (hidden 7/2/2000)

“Tarryall” is the oldest active geocache in the state of Colorado. It’s located about 2 hours out of Denver, in a rural area at about 8600′ elevation. I’ve had my eye on it for a long time, as work seems to bring me to the Denver area every couple of years. I had plans to find it in 2016, but decided to drive east and find another old cache instead.

Late last year, I learned that I would be heading to Golden, CO for a few days in early February 2018. Now, if I had my choice, I’d rather get sent to Colorado in spring or fall (note to readers: I am not a skier). I just figured that Colorado at 8600′ in February would be, well, snowy, and to maximize chances of success, it would be better to eliminate snow as a potential complicating factor. No such luck, but I decided to plan a mission to Tarryall in spite of it, and hope for the best.

First thing I would need would be a car. I’ll throw in a plug for Zipcar, a car-sharing service which I’ve used for several years. It’s great for just this kind of thing. As long as there are Zipcars available nearby, they can be rented by the hour, 24/7, and there are no rental counter lines or pushy agents to deal with. Just reserve, find your car, and drive. On this trip, I was happy to find that Colorado School of Mines (the site of my meeting for the week) had cars available. I reserved a 4WD Ford Escape, which I figured would give me the best chance for success should I have to deal with any bad weather.

I chose the first full day of my trip (a Monday) to make my attempt. My day job didn’t start until 12 noon MST, and by body clock would still be on eastern time. I figured I would need 2 hours for the drive out and 2 hours for the drive back. If I left at 4:30am, and planned on being back by 11, that would allow 2.5 hours for caching.

Departure day arrived. The weather forecast in Colorado looked beautiful, with highs above freezing, and no snow predicted in either Golden or the area around Tarryall. Maryland was another story, though: we had an ice storm the day I was scheduled to fly out. No significant flight delays, though, other than to de-ice the plane. I arrived in Golden, got my stuff ready, and went to bed early.

After about 5.5 hours’ sleep, I was up bright and early and making preparations to head out. I left my hotel at a little after 4, found my Zipcar, and was on the road at 4:30, just as scheduled. It was very windy around Golden, as a front had gone through overnight; but the weather at the lower elevation was a balmy 50°F (considerably warmer than back home in Maryland).

The drive was dark. Really, really dark. At about the halfway mark, I drove through Kenosha Pass, which has an elevation of 10,000′. This was the one area where my careful planning failed me. I had checked weather in Golden, and in Tarryall, but not here. Here, it was snowing. Not a huge amount of accumulation, but heavy enough to coat the roads and reduce visibility. Thankfully, the wind had died down, but it was snowing. And dark. And my car was out of windshield washer fluid. And did I mention dark? I was having a hard time seeing the road. The truck in front of me decided to pull over to wait it out. Morale was slipping, and I considered turning back.

I decided to soldier on. In spite of the snow coating the road, I could still see the yellow lines, so I knew it wasn’t deep. I stopped to manually clear my windshield, which helped with visibility. The Ford Escape seemed to be having no issues with traction. Braking was still crisp and responsive. There was no one else on the road to worry about. I cut my speed and drove carefully. Eventually, as the elevation dropped a little bit, conditions improved. I started to see the first glimmers of light in the east. The roads were no longer snow-covered. I might just make it!

I pulled into the parking area for Tarryall at about 6:30am, right on schedule. I had read that with a 4WD vehicle, it was possible to drive on the unpaved ATV road up to about 0.1 mile from the cache. Instead of doing that, I elected to park near the main road and walk from there, which was only about 0.5 mile. I hiked out; I found the cache; I did my happy dance. By now, the sun was up, and the area was just beautiful. I’m not saying that Maryland isn’t beautiful, but we don’t have stuff like this. I hung around for another hour or so, and found another cache, before returning to my vehicle for the drive back.

The drive back was uneventful. I stopped for several more caches. It was hard to resist the urge to stop for even more caches (fellow geocachers can relate to that kid-in-a-candy-store feeling), but I had a deadline, and couldn’t be late getting back. It was still snowing at Kenosha Pass, but the plows were out doing their thing, and the drive was much less daunting in full daylight. I made one more stop, for gas and a really bad gas-station sandwich. I rolled back into Golden with plenty of time to spare.

So, thus ends my quest to complete the Jasmer Challenge. It was fun, and it sent me on a couple of crazy adventures! If you thought it was over, though, don’t fret: once one has completed the Jasmer Challenge once, the next step is to complete it twice. I’m already crossing my fingers that work will send me to Atlanta, where I’m told another August 2000 and another July 2000 hide are lurking…

Laptop Travel Essentials

Being an intrepid occasional business traveler, I’ve come to rely on my trusty MacBook as sort of an office-away-from-home. Working while away from the office presents an interesting set of challenges. Internet access (particularly Wi-Fi) is becoming ever more ubiquitous, so getting connected is easy, but there’s no guarantee that a given Internet access point is secure — in fact, it’s most likely not. Working remotely often requires access to potentially sensitive data and resources that are protected behind firewalls and the like. It’s best to keep sensitive data off laptops, as laptops are easily stolen, and a data breech could land you on the 11:00 news, or worse.

This is a collection of tips, tools, etc. that I use to work securely with my laptop while on travel. It’s geared towards Macs, but much of it is applicable to other operating systems as well. Comments, suggestions, corrections, etc. are welcome.

SSH Tunnel Manager

A lot of organizations use VPNs to facilitate off-site access to private intranets, and ours is no exception.  I’ve never been a big fan of VPNs, because they all seem to rely on OS-specific drivers (or weird Java applets) that inevitably fail to work properly with my OS or web browser.  So, I avoid our VPN and use SSH tunnels instead.  All this requires is SSH access to a host with access to the intranet resource(s) I need.  With several well-crafted SSH tunnels, I’ve never found a need to use our VPN.

There’s one catch with SSH tunnels where laptops are concerned.  Setting up an SSH tunnel often requires feeding the SSH command a complex set of options.  When I’m on travel, I’m constantly moving from place to place, and bringing my laptop in and out of sleep mode.  This causes the SSH connections to time out, and I end up having to re-initialize all my tunnels every time I want to work on something — a big pain.  This is where a good SSH tunnel manager helps.  A tunnel manager maintains a list of tunnels and lets you start and stop them with a mouse click.  There’s a decent app for OS X called (surprise) “SSH Tunnel Manager,” and PuTTY does a nice job on Windows.  For Linux, I like gSTM.  With the SSH Tunnel manager, I’m up and running in seconds after starting up the laptop, and I don’t have to remember complex SSH command-line options.

Firefox Proxy-switching Extension

Secure web-browsing is a primary concern when traveling.  As such, I do all my browsing through SSH tunnels, which ensures that all my browser traffic is encrypted.  For general purpose browsing, I use a tunnel to an ad-filtering proxy running on a server in my office.  For work related stuff, as well as online banking and related things, I use a SOCKS proxy.  There are a couple other configurations I use as well.  Each of these requires a different proxy configuration in Firefox.  As shipped, Firefox only allows you to define a single proxy configuration.  There’s no support for multiple proxy configurations; if you want to change your proxy, you need to go in and manually update the settings each time.  Proxy-switching extensions allow you to define as many proxy configurations as you want, and switch between them quickly and conveniently.  I’ve found them to be indispensable.  There are a bunch of proxy-switching extensions out there, but my favorite is SwitchProxy, because it seems to be the best balance between simplicity and functionality (note that the stock version of SwitchProxy doesn’t run on Firefox 3, but I found a modified version that works nicely here).


Foxmarks is a Firefox extension that synchronizes bookmarks between different instances of Firefox.  With Foxmarks, I now have the same set of bookmarks at work, at home, and on my laptop, and when I change my bookmarks in one place, all the others stay in sync automatically.  I’ve been running separate Firefox installations on different computers forever now, and I only recently discovered Foxmarks.  It’s one of those things where once you have it, you wonder how you got along without it.


VNC, or Virtual Network Computing, is a remote desktop-sharing technology.  It’s similar to Microsoft’s Remote Desktop service, but it’s an open standard and is platform-independent.  It allows me to pull up a virtual desktop and access data on a remote server as if I were physically sitting at the server.  This is a great way to keep sensitive data off my laptop — I just manipulate it remotely.  All of the connections are made through SSH tunnels. (what else?)

VNC is one of those things that I keep finding more and more uses for as time goes on.  I use it to access various GUI-based apps on my home and work PCs while traveling.  It’s particularly useful for running the occasional Windows or Linux-based app that I don’t have available on my Mac.  For example, I use GnuCash to track all of our household finances.  It’s installed on my Linux server at home.  With VNC, I can connect to my home server, run GnuCash remotely, and keep up with the finances while I’m away from home.  No need to run it locally on the Mac and worry about the data getting out of sync.

My favorite VNC client for the Mac is Chicken of the VNC.


FileVault is a file-encryption system that ships with OS X.  It will transparently encrypt and decrypt files on the fly, using the user’s account password as a key.  I haven’t used it before, but I am going to give it a go with my new laptop.  It seems like an easy way to protect sensitive data that inadvertently finds its way onto the laptop.  In the event the laptop is stolen, the thieves will at least have to work harder to get at the data.

And there you have it.  I’m sure I’m leaving something out that will become apparent the next time I travel.  One thing I’d like to have is some sort of theft recovery software.  Haven’t yet looked into what’s available in that department.


Here we are in lovely Ocean City, MD for Thanksgiving.  You know you’re getting older when it becomes more appealing to go to O.C. this time of year than in the summer.  It’s nice and laid-back here, although not surprisingly, a lot of the seasonal places are closed.  Can’t wait to see what Avon, N.C. is like in March.

Finished winterizing the pool the other day, just before we left for the beach.  As I had hoped, I was able to nurse the air compressor through it and get the lines blown out.  The compressor seems to be fine as long as I manually shut it off at around 100-110psi of tank pressure.  For some reason it doesn’t properly shut off on its own any more.  It just keeps going until the safety valve pops.  I thought replacing the pressure switch would fix it, but no luck there.  So I’m not sure what the problem is.

When we get back from our beach getaway, I’ll need to get busy clearing leaves and winterizing the tractor.  I’ll be happy when all the fall outdoor chores are done with.

Back from Vancouver

Welp, faster than a blink, I’m back from Vancouver. Unfortunately, on my second night there I came down with this nasty GI thing that dragged me down for the rest of the trip. I managed to get out and do some walking along the Coal Harbor Seawall and in Stanley Park. But, my planned recreational activities were severely curtailed. The conference was good, although I missed a couple of meals and sessions due to the illness. Bummer.

Verdict on American Airlines is neutral. check-in difficulties and a delayed connecting flight on the way out were offset by a perfectly smooth trip home.

Hopefully, JA-SIG will continue to have occasional conferences in Vancouver. Next time, I’d like to take the whole family.

Anyhow, now I’m back home and back to the daily grind. I’m slowly working through my beer stash. Tonight I tried Magic Hat Humble Patience, which purports to be an Irish Red. It’s a very good beer, but it seems a little chocolaty for an Irish Red. Then again, I very rarely drink this style (it’s not as common as other styles around these parts), so I’m not really an authority on it. Wharf Rat used to brew one; maybe I should get out there and try one for comparison.

Magic Hat is all over the place around here. It’s interesting that it’s so ubiquitous, given that it’s brewed in Vermont. They must have a very good distributor network..

Back in Vancouver

Well, here I am in lovely Vancouver, BC again. Today is my free day, and it looks like my hopes of hiking/sightseeing are going to be dashed, because of a steady drizzle. Oh well, I guess I’ll try to squeeze something in Tuesday evening, when the conference is over and the weather forecast looks more promising. As for today, well, I guess I can get some work done..

So I’m here at this Comfort Inn for another few hours before I take the bus downtown to the conference hotel. Here’s a good one.. At the Comfort Inn, I have complementary wi-fi here in my room. At the conference hotel, which costs three times more per night than the Comfort Inn, I (well, UMBC actually) have to pay $14.95CAD/day for internet access in my room. What’s wrong with this picture?

Now, the Comfort Inn is not fancy, nor is the area it’s in, but the room is clean and perfectly adequate and the wi-fi is nice. For the price, it’s a great value and I’ve always been a fan of the chain for that very reason.

Today’s agenda is… get breakfast, sit around and watch it rain, head over to the conference hotel, sit around some more and watch it rain, and figure out what I’m doing for meals. Maybe I’ll check out the fitness room at the Westin. I think my biggest regret is going to be not bringing an umbrella. Sigh..