Monthly Archives: March 2008

Computing in the Cloud

In the couple of months since it was announced, I think the meaning of the MacBook Air has become clear. I think that Merlin Mann had the best explanation of where Apple is going. It’s all about the cloud, baby. Of course, this causes one to wonder why the MBA didn’t include 3G wireless support, but it is a first generation product.

My initial plan for life with two computers was to basically partition the tasks that I do on the computers. I would use the MacBook Air for virtually everything except for photography, those tasks which require a virtual machine (Quicken and the occasional Office document with macros), and those tasks which require lots of storage (like digital movies, which I have very few of). The MacBookPro would live at home, as most of its functions are home-centric. This would have been mostly workable. I have heard of several people with multi-computer lives who do just this. It may still be what I do at first, depending on how much preparation I am able to get done before the MacBook Air arrives. But, there are several flaws.

First, I want to be able to access data remotely. Since I don’t have a static IP address at home (and my past experiences with dynamic DNS have been unimpressive), this basically means that the data will have to live at work. At first, this seemed like no problem, as I already have a couple servers in the lab with plenty of disk space. But then I realized that my lab servers are administered by my graduate students, and I have sensitive (student grades, recommendation letters, student application materials, etc.) and ITAR (if you don’t know what ITAR is, be thankful; if you must know Google it) data on my machine. Although I trust my graduate students completely, putting sensitive data on a student-managed server would be negligent and perhaps illegal; putting ITAR data on a machine administered by an international student could cause me to go to jail.

Second, my recent laptop repair made me realize that I really wanted the ability to hot swap laptops if needed. So, if something were to happen to the MacBook Air, I’d like to be able to pick up the MacBook Pro and keep working with minimal interruption or downtime. If tasks are partitioned, this simply isn’t possible.

New Hardware

In order to solve either of these problems, I was going to need some new hardware, capable of serving files, in my office at work. For reasons to be detailed in the next section, I decided to go with another Mac. Since I already have an external monitor on my desk at work, my first thought was to get a Mac Pro. But Mac Pros are expensive, I thought, and they are far, far more computer than I need; the rack-mounted Xserve is even worse. And the other headless Mac option, the Mac mini, has the opposite problem — it really isn’t a sufficient computer to act as a server. So, I had settled on an iMac, and planned to move my current external monitor home.

Before I ordered the iMac, though, one of my grad students came to me saying that they need more computing power. Apparently Student M is running simulations nearly full-time on the current simulation server, and Students D and R, who are planning to graduate this summer, have quite a few simulations to run, too. Because I aim to be sure that my students have the resources they need to get their work done, this clearly demanded a Mac Pro, which I promptly ordered.

Software

My initial thought was to do something naive and just sync my home directories between the machines using Unison, omitting the things that I didn’t want on each machine. This might even have worked, if I had carefully tweaked which directories to sync, but I couldn’t find much information on making it work.

What my web surfing did turn up, though, was information on network based home directories and (more importantly) mobile home directories, which are both natively supported in OS X. A mobile home directory is a home directory that is kept in sync with a version on a server when you are on the network, but works locally when you are detached from the network. Perfect!

There is a lot of information on the web on getting mobile home directories (MHDs) to work with non-Apple server solutions. It can be done, and it doesn’t even seem that hard to do. I even read that you can enable FileVault on the MHD, which might mean that I could do this safely using the student-administered server in the lab. But getting MHDs to work with a non-Apple server requires lots of work: setting up an LDAP server, setting up NFS on the server, and setting up appropriate automounts on the client machines. I am busy. And lazy. I just can’t see myself getting that deep in system administration to configure a service that only I will use.

Part of Apple’s Raison D’Etre, though, is making things easy. And there is an Apple product that makes setting up MHDs (among other things) easy: OS X Server. So, I’ve decided to purchase a license for OS X Server and put it on the new Mac Pro that I’ve ordered for my office. Besides, it’s a good excuse to gain some experience with Apple’s server OS.

The Mac Pro will then be at the center of my computing universe. Most of my computing tasks will be available and synced across all three computers, although the storage-intensive tasks will be restricted to the Mac Pro and the MacBook Pro. (The only downside with respect to the original iMac plan is that I won’t have an external monitor at home. Oh well.)

I don’t have my MacBook Air yet, but I’m hopeful that it will come soon. The Mac Pro is likely to arrive this week, I think. So, my computing world is about to change dramatically. I hope it’s for the better…

Bank Annoyance…

I am very annoyed with our bank. Which is too bad, because I like our bank, or at least I did. In both Ithaca and Blacksburg, we settled on small community banks. In both cases, I wanted to go with a credit union. But in Ithaca the credit union ran me off before I even opened an account. (It was only open to Cornell employees. Since I was on a fellowship, and not an assistantship, I got paid in a lump sum once a semester and therefore didn’t have a regular pay stub. This was not acceptable to them.) And in Blacksburg, it took me about two months to get fed up with the credit union, which had given up on its core constituency to pursue customers in Roanoke.

Anyway, it all started when I did a proposal review for a foreign equivalent of the National Science Foundation. As is typical, the arrangement was that they would pay me a modest expert’s fee. (Which isn’t really equivalent to the value of the time that I put into the review, but I appreciate the thought.) Anyway, in order to fill out the paperwork to receive the fee, I had to get wire transfer information for my bank. In the process, I learned that my bank couldn’t accept international wire transfers directly. Instead, the money would be wired to another bank for further credit to my bank for further credit to me. It sounded a bit hairy, but I dutifully transcribed the instructions and sent them on.

Soon thereafter, I presented a short course at a foreign university. Their standard arrangement was to pay fairly well for the presentation of such courses, including an extra fee for copyright transfer, since they recorded the course on video. They were also reimbursing my expenses. Not surprisingly, since everyone in Europe uses wire transfers routinely, it seems, they asked for the same bank information, which I provided.

The NSF-equivalent organization issued the payment in mid February. I didn’t worry about it too much when I didn’t see it. It wasn’t much money, and I figured it would show up eventually. But after the university where I did the short course sent significant funds a couple of weeks ago and they also didn’t arrive, I became worried.

So, today, I went in to my local bank. I was hoping to see the branch manager because we know her — that’s a benefit of banking with a local bank — but she was with some other customers. So, I talked to one of the account representatives, instead.

I gave him the details on the transfers. He called the department at bank headquarters that handles wire transfers. They conferred. They concluded that they hadn’t received the transfers (which I basically already knew). I asked him if they could track them down, perhaps by contacting the third party bank that accepts their international transfers. He said no. Only the originating bank could trace the transfer, he said. He did confirm that the instructions that I had given the organizations were correct.

Now, it makes some sense to me that transfers have to be traced from the source. But it makes no sense to me that they wouldn’t call the third party bank and do a bit of poking around. I knew the exact date and amount of the first transfer, and I could get pretty close on the others. And if they really valued my business in the way that they should — we moved part of our mortgage to this bank and have paid them thousands of dollars in interest (a fact which he could surely see on his computer monitor) — then they should have offered to help me with tracing the transfers from the sources, too.

Oh, and then he mentioned that they could only receive wire transfers denominated in US Dollars, a fact that was never mentioned to me when I requested the wire transfer instructions originally. “You don’t do currency conversion?,” I asked. “Well, we can convert cash, but there is a fee. And it takes two weeks,” he replied. Now, I don’t expect my local bank to keep Egyptian Pounds behind the counter. But I’m talking about Euros here. It takes two weeks to get Euros? I could drive to AAA in Roanoke and have them in an hour. Sheesh.

My next steps are contacting the organizations who sent the wire transfers to trace the original transfers, opening an account at a bank that can receive international wire transfers directly and in currencies other than US Dollars, and asking that the transfers be resent to the new account, assuming that they can verify that the original transfers were returned. If that doesn’t work, I’m going to have to go see the branch manager and use my angry voice. And it’s all a big pain.

Update 1: Opened an account at Wachovia this morning.  I’m not sure how much I’ll use it.  At first, I’ll just use it to receive wire transfers.  But I was impressed, and I’m thinking about using it for other things, too.

Update 2: I just heard from the NSF-equivalent org, and they tracked down the bounced wire.  They are going to send me a check (or a cheque, as they say) within the next week.  Now if we can find the other money…

Exercise…

I haven’t written much lately, as you might have noticed. I have been, and continue to be, extremely busy at home and at work, and I just haven’t had much to say. A few minutes ago, I did put up something about abortion that has been mostly finished for some time. There are actually a few more drafts of longish articles in the queue, but unlike that one, they weren’t as close to finished when I abandoned them.

If you’ve been following my Twitter feed, even in the sidebar, then you probably realize that I’m pretty close to reaching my weight loss goal (which is 170.0 lbs.). This morning, I weighed in at 172.0, although I was down to 171.2 a couple of days ago. Tomorrow may be bad, as I ate well for Easter. I may say more about the process and the experience once I reach my goal, but for the moment I’ll just say that on the whole, it has gone much faster than I expected when I started in December. Nonetheless, things have slowed down and become more difficult in the last couple of weeks. So, even though I’m starting exercise so slowly that I expect the impact on weight loss to be negligible, I’ve decided it is time to start the exercise plan.

I like to run. In a perfect world, I would start running again, as I think that’s my exercise of choice. I would eventually like to run a marathon. (I was training for a marathon a few years ago, and got within a few weeks of it, but for a variety of reasons decided to pull out.) But, since Charlie came into our life, running has been difficult. Becky stays home with Charlie during the day, and I tend to have primary Charlie herding duties when I’m home. Running means more time away from home, which leaves me with less Charlie time and increases the length of Becky’s stretches as sole caregiver, neither of which is palatable. And with a second child coming soon, I know that the apple cart is about to be overturned again, so I don’t want to start anything now without a plan to sustain it.

A few years ago, a friend of ours turned me on to The Hacker’s Diet. Although I went with a considerably simpler weight loss plan, The Hacker’s Diet is an intriguing engineering approach to weight loss. When I first read it, I remember thinking that the exercise plan, too, was interesting. But at the time, I didn’t see any reason that I couldn’t sustain a more “traditional” approach to exercise. When I recently ran across the Exercise chapter of The Hacker’s Diet again, though, I realized that it was perfect for my current situation.

The Hacker’s Diet exercise plan requires 15 minutes per day, every day. It is based on five simple exercises which require no equipment with a goal of achieving and maintaining a reasonable level of fitness for a lifetime. I can do the exercises in my home office in the morning before I take my shower or in the evening after Charlie goes to bed. I can also do them in any hotel room in the world. The exercises mostly focus on strength building, but there is a cardiovascular element. Supposedly, the general outlines of the program were developed from an exercise program used by the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The program is organized around a “fitness ladder” with 48 rungs. Each rung prescribes a number of repetitions of each exercise. Over time, you climb the rungs until you reach a level of fitness with which you are satisfied. I actually think that I’m reasonably fit for a guy who has let his exercise program wane for the last couple of years — when I have tried recently, I have still been able to run 3 miles without great difficulty. So, I probably could have started at a higher rung. But, I decided to follow the advice in the plan and start at rung 1, initially climbing 1 rung per week.

Anyway, I plan to mark my completion of the day’s prescribed exercise in Twitter, like I do with weight. It seems like is a boring way to use Twitter, but I do it more for my own benefit than for anyone else (although the idea of being accountable to others is nice). And since Twitter otherwise has almost no positive benefits that I can see — I’ve thought about dropping it from my life altogether — we’ll stick with this for now.

Mackenab Debates Abortion

This post may draw all kinds of crazy trolls. And I suppose the headline is inflammatory just by using the word “abortion.” But, I’m not actually going to talk about abortion particularly directly. Instead, I’m actually going to talk about a time in 1995 when I participated in an amateur debate on abortion.

A few months ago, I started writing a post in response to one of the stories, making the rounds at the time, about differences in brain function between liberals and conservatives. Just beginning to write that post, though, caused me to recall this experience and what a formative effect it had on me. Maybe I’ll get around to writing that other post eventually, but I doubt it. I would certainly argue that I have observed changes in the way my brain processes information as my politics have shifted left. (I’m still not particularly liberal by any objective standard; although I might seem like a crazy pinko in the current warped political environment of the U.S.) Some of my closest friend have heard this story before, but I’ve never told it publicly.

During my school years, I participated in a program known as Lads to Leaders. This was a leadership development program available to churches within the conservative, evangelical movement in which I was raised. While I see many things about the program that today cause me to cringe, I must give credit where credit is due: I would not be the person I am today, with the leadership skills that I have today, without having participated in this program over the years. (If someone from the organization follows a link to this blog post in their referrer logs, I’m sure that they, too, may cringe, given how I have diverged from many of the teachings of their fellowship. Such is life.)

In any case, if memory serves, 1995, my senior year in high school, was the first year in which they offered a debate competition as part of their national convention. A close friend (greetings, JPH!) and I decided to participate. The subject of the debates for the first year was abortion. (I hope, frankly, that they have since gotten a bit better at choosing topics.) The affirmative position was something hard-lined and inflammatory. I think it was “Resolved that abortion is murder.” In any case, it didn’t seem particularly fair, as the affirmative statement was something with which most people in the organization, including the judges, would be strongly inclined to agree. (A good debate topic should not be settled, particularly amongst the judges. Maybe the judges’ opinion shouldn’t matter. But, as long as the judges are human, it does and will matter.)

JPH and I procrastinated, as we often did, and wound up working late the night before preparing our materials. As we finished our preparations, I remember commenting to JPH that we had actually built a stronger case for the negative side, as we had expected it to be so much harder to prepare a biblical argument against the proposition. (In reality, though, it might have actually been easier. The biblical texts, in my perfect hind-sighted opinion, do not support the hard line proposition, and we had collected much more supplemental material supporting the negative.) We even toyed with the idea of actually choosing the negative side if given the option.

The day of the competition dawned, and there were six teams in our division. Three of them were all from the same church, let’s call it Church A, since I don’t remember the identity of the church, nor is it particularly important. It was decided that there would be three matches, each consisting of one team from Church A and one of the other teams; this way, the teams from Church A did not have to compete directly against each other. JPH and I drew the third match.

At the start of each match, there was a coin toss. The team winning the toss got to choose the affirmative side or the negative side. The teams from Church A won the toss in each of the first two matches. And, predictably, each Church A team chose the affirmative. So, during the first two matches JPH and I sat in the audience and listened to the arguments that Church A had put together in support of the proposition. They were particularly weak – much weaker than what we had prepared for either side. In addition, both of the first two Church A teams made basically the same arguments from the same evidence. It was obvious that they had done all of their research together. And, frankly, the teams from Church A bested both of their first opponents, who obviously agreed with the affirmative case despite their weak efforts to construct arguments for the negative side.

Finally, our turn came. JPH and I won the coin toss. After a mere moment of deliberation, we chose the negative side. There was a collective gasp in the room when we made our choice, but the choice to us was obvious. We had already heard Church A’s affirmative arguments and they were weak; we had no idea what they might have on the negative side. In addition, we felt that we had developed a strong negative case.

JPH and I completely and utterly destroyed the poor team from Church A. I don’t remember much of what we said, except that in one argument we actually tied a Carl Sagan quote (about how it is the patterns of human thought that make us human) in with a biblical argument, which still cracks me up. (I believe we referred to him as “a leading scientist” though, as famous atheist Carl Sagan would’ve been viewed with disdain in that audience.) Never in my life have I left a subjective competition feeling so certain of victory.

Afterwards, one of the judges shook my hand. He told me that it had been a difficult decision for them, but they believed that they had made the right call. We found out that night at the awards ceremony that we had taken first place. (The teams from Church A in the first two rounds took second and third, respectively.) Despite the fact that it was obvious to me that we had won fair and square, I’ll always respect those judges for agreeing, even though it was obviously difficult for them to go against their preconceptions.

In any case, when I look back at the development of my ability to tolerate ambiguity (one of the characteristics of a “liberal”), that debate is a touchstone for me. At the time, I think my actual opinion still rested with the affirmative side of the argument (though not as strongly as you might expect for a conservative kid raised in a conservative church), but I was appalled at the weak arguments which were being (successfully) used to buttress it. While it seemed as if the other 5 teams in the debate had basically dismissed the negative side as not worth defending, we had taken the negative argument at least as seriously as the affirmative one. (The Church A teams, if they had taken the negative seriously, would surely have crafted stronger affirmative arguments; their other two opponents appeared to have nearly conceded before the debates even started.) The ability to deliver arguments passionately (and honestly) for a side that I didn’t necessarily agree with and stand in that gap over a long period of time really changed me.

I still have ambiguous feelings about abortion when it comes to the issue of personal morality (which is easy for me, given that I can say with certainty that I will never have one). I am no longer ambiguous about the legal issues, though: I think the decision to have an abortion is a very personal decision that the government shouldn’t touch with a hundred-foot pole. As Bill Clinton famously said, I believe that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.”