January 2011

Twenty-five years ago I was working my first job after college at ITT Telecom in Raleigh, NC. I was in the test department, and we were testing a massive telephone switch (Signalling System 7, or SS7). It was crunch time, so management decided that we needed to test at all our facilities. They fanned our department out up and down the East Coast to make use of all our SS7 labs. I ended up going to Cape Canaveral with one of my co-workers. We were working back-to-back, 12 hour shifts. He had the 8:00am – 8:00pm shift, and I had the opposite.

As it happened, they had a shuttle launch scheduled on one of those days. I had witnessed three other launches previously, and I can tell you that they are indeed something to experience.

The first launch I saw was when my brothers and I went down to Daytona Beach for some R&R. My older brother was station at Robins AFB in southern Georgia, and my younger brother and I were still in college (but it was summer break). We stopped in to see a shuttle launch. I guess we were some eight miles from the launch pad, across the bay. When they lit it up, we could easily see it as it slowly lifted from the ground and then disappeared into the clouds. Then we saw ripples coming across the bay towards us. When the ripples reached us, so did the sound. It was pretty loud! I estimate that it took about 40 seconds for the sound to reach us, and at roughly five seconds per mile.

I had seen two other launches after that during my time at the Cape courtesy of ITT, but I was ready to watch another. I had just come off one of those dreadful 12-hour shifts, and the launch was scheduled for something like 9:00am (if memory serves). I stayed up, but they delayed the launch. Then they delayed it again. I gave up at 10:00am, drove to the hotel, and went to bed.

I woke up around 3:00pm, loaded up my toothbrush, and flipped on the TV “to see how the launch went.” My first thought was “Cool, I don’t have to wait for the story.” So there I was standing in a hotel room brushing my teeth less than 10 miles from Cape Canaveral when I learned that the Challenger had exploded. I slept right through it.

As was my habit, I went to a nearby IHOP. That was the only place I knew of where I could get breakfast in the middle of the afternoon. The mood there was pretty black. I expect it was all over the country, but I wasn’t all over the country that day – I was at the Cape. I thought a lot about it too, and concluded that these people had more of a right to be glum than any other community – this disaster threatened to cost them their livelihood. Their economy was built around NASA. I never felt more like an outsider than I did on that day. I was grieving too, but I was not able to share their grief.

I later learned that the Cape Canaveral community did not have exclusive rights to gloom. The place I work now – Concord, NH – also had special dibs on that right, for Christa McAuliffe was one of their own. The astronaut-teacher taught at Concord High School. I wasn’t part of this community in 1986, so once again, I find myself grieving alone in the midst of a grieving people.

Rewinding to 1986 again for an ironic twist, ITT shut down my division less than a month after the Challenger Accident, but NASA went on. I was again sleeping in the hotel at the Cape when my cohort from Raleigh woke me with a phone call – all our friends in NC had just gotten pink slips, and we were likely getting them too. No one at the Cape knew if the two of us had jobs or not, but it was pretty safe to assume we did not. We got a call from the boss later on confirming the bad news. They did fly us home again (which I actually worried about), and we did get a generous severance package (which I was not expecting). I hung around Raleigh thinking I’d get another job there, but that was a pretty stupid thought – ITT had just dumped 500 engineers on the job market there, and most of them had way more experience than I did. I moved back to Kentucky, and Va and I got married before I found another job (the napkins had already been ordered, with the date printed on them!) We spent the first month of our marriage there before relocating to Falls Church, VA where I had accepted a new engineering job at E-Systems (later bought by Raytheon).

Apparently there was trouble at one of my favorite haunts yesterday. We drove by this morning on the way to work, but I couldn’t tell where the incident took place. I might snowshoe out there Saturday and look around.

SpectraAccess came to the school today and got us hooked up with an antenna and modem. We now have much faster access to the Internet. As soon as I saw that it was working, I called HughesNet and cancelled our satellite Internet feed. This is sooo much better. With no satellite latency to suffer through, double the download bandwidth, no bandwidth cap (daily, monthly, or otherwise), it is about like going from dial-up to broadband.

Our new connection comes with a static IP address, so I will be able to remotely log into the servers at the school and make any necessary adjustments without driving out to the school. I have a very long list of things to do to the network now, including migrating to a new server, and repurposing the old one. I can move the card catalog off a PC at my house and onto a server at school. The possibilities this opens up are manifold!

Over the weekend, David and I went to Barre, VT for Pathfinder Leadership Training. It was a busy weekend. It started Friday with a snowstorm. I guess we got five inches or so. I decided to work from home until noon. By then it had quit snowing, so I cleared the driveway. We drove in to Concord because the citrus truck was due to be there around 3:00pm.

That in itself is somewhat notable. Normally, we do not order enough fruit to warrant a direct drop, and that was the case again this month. However, a school in Manchester and another in Westmoreland had ordered some, and we were all slated to pick up in Portland, ME (a 2.5 hour drive for me). But the fruit company looked at the map and since the three of us had 140 cases all together, and since they decided Concord was central to the three, they proposed that they drop the fruit here. I was not going to argue!

I got a call from the coordinator at Manchester saying they could not be there for the drop off. I stupidly agreed to unload their order for them and hold it for a day. I was expecting Westmoreland to show up though.

Anyhow, the truck did arrive around 3:00 in spite of the snowstorm, but our plow guy had not hit the parking lot at the church yet. So the driver refused to pull into it. Instead, he parked at Sam’s Club (next door), and we unloaded his truck into Ken’s truck – twice. So even though they delivered it to Concord, I still had to unload a truck twice. And on top of the, Westmoreland was late, and Manchester wasn’t going to show up at all. So our crew unloaded 140 cases twice. Then the guy from Westmoreland showed up, and we helped him load his van. That’s a lot of work just so we can sell 27.5 cases of citrus.

We labelled our boxes, and then David and I hopped in Melissa’s van (she’s one of my Pathfinder staff) and we drove to Vermont for the leadership weekend.

That went pretty well. The highlight was when a guy presented what his club had been doing over the past year. His club decided that they would write a bi-monthly newsletter and send it to the 1,300 soldiers in the Vermont National Guard who had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s 2,600 stamps, by the way – every month. They raised money to cover that. But that’s not even close to the most impressive thing they did. They also committed to helping out the soldier’s families back home.

Vermont is a small state, and Barre (which is where they were located) is right in the middle of the state. They can drive to any corner of VT in two hours. When soldiers deploy, their salary goes from whatever it was (and average of $50,000) to $20,000. That’s a pretty big pay cut. And there is often no one at home to pick up the slack. Who cuts the grass, fixes the car, takes the trash to the dump? Often it’s the soldier’s wife, but often, she is already overwhelmed. So sometimes stuff just doesn’t get done.

Enter the Central Vermont Regiment Pathfinder Club. They approached several businesses (including Sherwin Williams & Aubuchon Hardware), and got them to agree to provide paint & materials to do home repairs. They sometimes drove two hours (each way) every week to cut one woman’s grass (a 30 minute job). They fixed cars. They hauled trash to the dump. They finished siding a house. Their director was putting in about 30 hours per week doing this for 10 months until the troops came home again in December.

They raised over $200,000 dollars in cash, goods, and services. All I have to say about that is “Wow.”

Saturday night we ended up playing basketball until 11:30 pm. Four teens against four old people (I count myself in that group). We spanked the teens. The score was roughly 20 to infinity. 🙂 I am still paying for that though. I am very sore, but I’m sure none of the teens are, so one could rightly ask who really won that.

We drove back to Concord after lunch. Va met us at the church, and David went home with her, while Beth stayed at the church with me to keep me company while people came to pick up their fruit. At 7:00pm, we went to Taco Bell, grabbed some food to go, and headed home. I went to bed around 9:00 exhausted.

Thermometer reading -14F

Va has asked me to remake a felt board for her. I built one for her six years ago, and it is showing its age. The main problem with it is that someone splashed some glue (or something glue-like) on the main felt surface. Also, the felt has been pulling away at the bottom. So I brought it home tonight, and I asked Va to get some new felt for it.

I am going to replace the base (which is just an X made from some 4×4’s with a one-inch dowel standing in it). The new base will be a cabinet with wheels on the bottom so it can be moved around more easily.

I need to finish this project tonight, or at least get it to a usable state. Va will need to use it on Saturday, and tonight is the only time I have before then to get it done.

Nancy Nichols
Nancy Nichols passed to her rest last night. It came suddenly and I can hardly believe she’s gone now. Nancy was one of the spunkiest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. She was always passionate about whatever she did.

About five years ago she fought cancer and won. Then she was diagnosed with cancer again a couple of months ago, and had just started chemo (again). Then last week she was in a car accident which landed her in the hospital. It did not seem to be serious though. Then we got word that she had an infection. Then we were told she was unresponsive. And then this morning we got the unexpected news that she had not made it through the night.

Nancy had gone on a couple of mission trips, one to Ghana, and another to Peru. She retired last year as a registered nurse. She was one of the first people I met when we first attended the Concord Adventist Church. Back when I lived in Northern Virginia, I had to come up here for a couple of days every couple of months. I had enough frequent flyer miles built up that when I had to come up in June 2003, I brought the whole family up here with me for a working vacation. When we showed up for church, it was almost empty except for Nancy and Emma Haggett (who died last August). Almost everyone else was was at the annual Camp Meeting in Freeport Maine. But Nancy and Emma both made us feel as welcome as could be.

I invited Nancy to teach the Bones, Muscles, and Movement honor to the Pathfinders a couple of years ago, and she agreed to do that. She also financed the registration & membership dues of more than one kid who wanted to join Pathfinders.

She was always delightful to hang around with. Funny, always ready to help out, sometimes irreverent (in a good way) and not one to beat around the bush. You always knew what she was thinking, and it was usually a riot.

Nancy had the habit of giving names to the things she had that gave her trouble. Her computer’s name was Ichabod. She also had names for her vehicles, but I can’t think of what they were right now. She had a prayer list a mile long and on the church mailing list would frequently ask for updates on people for whom she was praying.

She had a heart of gold. I’m going to miss her!

We finally got a good snowstorm. We had six inches on the ground when I rolled out of bed, with the promise of more to come through 7:00pm. True to the forecaster’s word, it’s still coming down at a pretty decent clip. We’ve got well over a foot on the ground now. I didn’t go to the office, but instead worked from home. I’ll still hafta take a half day of vacation for it though, because in the afternoon I succumbed to the temptation to go sledding with Beth and David. We went to the city’s sand pit about a mile from the house.

I wore my snowshoes. The snow was a fluffy as ever I have seen it, and even with snowshoes, I was sinking into it at least a foot. Breaking trail through that kind of snow is pretty hard work!

When we got to the sandpit, Beth and David sledded down the tremendously steep (but mercifully short) slopes. I’m pretty sure the snow depth here was about two feet. Here are a few shots.

Penny slogging through the snow up the side of the sand pit.

Penny slogging through the snow up the side of the sand pit.

Beth pulling her sled up behind her

Beth pulling her sled up behind her

David demonstrates how hard it was to remain standing on the steep slope

David demonstrates how hard it was to remain standing on the steep slope

Here’s a shot from the north rim facing west.
Northfield Sand Pit Buried in Snow

Northfield Sand Pit Buried in Snow

I had David take this shot of me pulling Beth in her sled while I snowshoed down the trail.

Snowshoes in Action

Snowshoes in Action

Shortly after this shot was taken, one of the bindings I made for these gave up the ghost. I was planning to redo them anyhow, because I was afraid that exactly this would happen. One of the rivets pulled through the leather and let go of the buckle. That had already happened to a couple of non-crucial rivets, so it was really only a matter of time before it hit an important one. I slung the shoes over my back and hoofed it in just my boots the rest of the way home. Luckily, I was only 30 feet shy of a plowed road when that happened, so it was no big deal. I did have some rope with me just in case I needed to effect a repair on the trail, but with a plowed road, it really was not necessary.

Once I had the snowshoes slung over my shoulder, Penny kept expecting me to throw them so she could fetch them. Talk about a one-track mind!

In a little bit, I will go back out and snowblow the driveway again. I did that this morning, but it’s eight inches deep again, and the snow is still falling. I’m going to wait until closer to 7:00 to start though, as that’s when it should taper off a bit more. Do you know what stalls my snowblower’s engine? Basketballs. Basketballs do. Penny left hers in the driveway, and the snow had covered it completely. Can’t quite get one of those through the chute. No damage was done, except perhaps to the basketball. Penny does a pretty good job of deflating those by herself though. I expect I’ll be able to pump it up again and it will be almost as good as it was yesterday (which is not to say very good).

We’ve got four foot drifts against the house. 🙂 This is how winter is supposed to be!

Today I felt I had a severe case of the Reverse Midas Touch – everything I touched turned to… not gold. I was having a hard time getting stuff to work at the office. It used to work, but it refused today. Then I got an email from Beth’s teacher.

Last night after work I went to the school to bring the new terminal server online. It’s a very beefy server. I did the install at home, so it was mostly ready to plug in and run – I just needed to copy user files over to it, add user accounts, and make a few other adjustments. That took about two hours. When I was finished, I turned on the client PC’s and saw them boot. I logged in, and saw that that worked too. I was feeling pretty good about it all.

Until I read the teacher’s email. Nothing was working. So I hopped in my car and drove right over. After fussing with the new server for 30 minutes or so, I decided to just switch back to the old server (which was still in there, but off). I had made a few changes to it as well to move it out of the way, so I had to unchange that. It took me another 30 minutes. Then I rebooted the clients again, logged into each one, and saw that everything seemed to be in good working order. So I drove back to the office.

Someone had parked in the spot I had been in. There were no more spaces left in the garage, so I tried the outdoor lots. Both were full. So I went to the city garage and parked there ($2.30 – not a bad deal really). When I got to the office I found another email from the teacher. Nothing was working. In fact, it seemed like whatever had taken out the new server had struck the old one as well. The symptoms were about the same. I wrote back – I’d stop in after work and try to sort things out.

I was so upset that I didn’t feel like dealing with a dirty bowl – so instead of making one dirty, I ate some soup cold right out of the can. Soup is always better when it’s warm, but it was not sooo much better that I was willing to wash a dish – today at least. Then it was back to the grind of figuring out why things I get paid to work on were no longer working. I made little headway, but there was some progress.

After work I drove back to the school to sort out the server situation. The teacher was still there, and I asked her a few questions – and that’s when I learned that her second email had been sent before I had gotten there the first time. There was no problem. Everything was working perfectly. The reason the second “problem” sounded so much like the first problem is because is was the first problem. What a moron I am.

So I was miserable all afternoon and ate cold soup for nothing.

I will go back again sometime when I have a little more time and debug the new server. It is a much nicer machine. I think I may even know what is misconfigured on it, but that remains to be seen. Hopefully I will be cured of the reverse Midas touch by then.

Corvus brachyrhynchos

Corvus brachyrhynchos

I took a walk at lunch time today just to see if I could find something to take a picture of. That usually means flowers, but not in January in New Hampshire. Instead I was looking for animal tracks. That was not productive either, as the the snow on the ground now is basically ice. The only tracks I saw were those left by cats and dogs. So I looked for birds, and voila – found one.

In other news…

I finally found an alternate ISP fr our school. We’ve been using a satellite link from HughesNet, and everything about it has been horrible. It is painful to use. There are no wired Internet connections within a mile of the building, so the only options we have are over-the-air. We could have gone for a Verizon cell link, but they have a 5 gigabyte per month bandwidth cap which when exceeded costs 50 cents per megabyte. It’s not difficult to envision a five digit Internet bill with a policy like that in place. No thanks! Hughes also has a bandwidth cap, but it’s daily, and when it is exceeded, they simply clamp the flow down to less than a dial-up connection. We’ve hit it more than once, but it did not result in a five digit bill – only pain and suffering.

The problem with a satellite connection is that the satellite has to be in a geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles (or so) up. Given that the speed of light is not infinite, that means it takes a little more than a tenth of a second for the signal to travel from the ground to the satellite. And then it has to go down again, which translates into a quarter second delay. And that’s just to get your request for information onto the Internet. It has to traverse the same path in reverse to get back again – so there’s a half second of delay for pretty much everything. That renders interactive web sites exceedingly painful to use – some become completely unusable.

But as I wrote earlier, I have found an alternative. My employer uses something like three ISPs, and one of them (SpectraAccess) provides a line-of-sight terrestrial radio link to our building. I knew they were in Manchester, so I assumed they would not be a possibility for our school. (We don’t have line-of-sight from the school to Manchester.) But I asked our IT guy about them anyhow. Apparently, though their offices are in Manchester, they have an antenna only two miles from the school – we have a direct shot at them.

Our company pays them an enormous (to me) amount of money each month, but that’s for a pretty hefty link. I called them expecting them to quote me $300/month or something like that, but instead they quoted $60/month. That’s less than we’re paying Hughes.

Our Hughes connection is 3Mbits/second down and 128Kbits up (which is pretty terrible). The connection SpectraAccess quoted is 7Mbits down, 2Mbits up. That is a pretty substantial speed increase. Further, they have no bandwidth cap at all, and the price includes a static IP address.


Having a static IP means I can log into the school servers from anywhere and do maintenance from home in the evening, or from work for an emergency. I can also move the library card catalog server out of my living room and into the network closet at the school. Since it’s web-based, that means I will also have a public-facing web server I can play with again.

All I have to do is get the school board agree to pay the installation fee of $200 or so. I don’t think that will be a problem.

One of the parents at our school donated a new server last month too, so I have that at home now and have been configuring it for the school. It’s a fairly hefty machine: Dual 3GHz processors, 6Gigs of RAM, and a 5 SCSI disk hardware-based RAID array. Nice. That should speed things up at the school a bit, but truthfully, I am far more excited about this new Internet connection than about the server. It will have a greater impact on the system’s usability.