Archive for the 'Travel' Category

♫ Georgia, Georgia … The Whole Day Through ♫

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

I spent a few days this week down in Atlanta with both Jeff (OpenNMS consultant extraordinaire and Georgia resident) and the gang over at Wellstar, one of our older clients (since 2004). It’s funny how much work with do in the health care industry, with companies like Cerner, Fairview, Hershey Medical Center, as well as having our oldest customer in Children’s Hospitals of Minnesota (circa 2001). There seem to be growing requirements on hospitals for network-enabled services, and thus a solid network management platform like OpenNMS is becoming even more of a requirement.

I’m not a huge fan of Atlanta the city, as the sprawl is a little too much for the country boy in me, but we’re actually up in the Northwest corner (Smyrna/Marietta) which has been quite enjoyable.

First I want to apologize for not posting in awhile. When you write a blog you are always on the lookout for new “blog worthy” ideas, and I have about 20 posts in the queue, going all the way back to April and the OUCE. While I still hope to get to those, I figured the best way to break the silence would be to just write something, so here it is.

I’m still playing Ingress, and so after Jeff picked me up at the airport we went hunting for portals. There is a tremendous amount of history in the area, often reflected in the available portals, and it is amazing to see really nice monuments and museums to rather specific things, such as the role trains played in the Civil War.

It’s always fun to visit with customers as well, and to help me absorb some of the local flavor we went to the Marietta Diner for lunch. It was hard to walk past the dessert case without wanting to dive right into it.

Toward the end of this short trip we went up to Kennesaw State University. They had a gorgeous campus with some of the largest brick buildings I’ve ever seen at a school. While the students had just left, one of them left a little reminder in the concrete that gave me a chuckle.

Milgram’s Experiment

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

I returned home from a trip to England yesterday through London’s Heathrow Airport, and once again I was delayed by airport security. The experience reminded me of the Milgram Experiment, a famous study on how people respond to authority.

In the experiment, there were three roles: a researcher, a student and a teacher. While both the student and the teacher were introduced as volunteers, the true subject of the study was the person in the teacher role, who was given monetary reward to participate ($4 in 1961 or about $31 today). The researcher would explain that the purpose of the study was to explore the affects of negative reinforcement on learning. The teacher would read questions and should the student end up getting a answer wrong, it was the duty of the teacher to administer an electric shock. The strength of the shock would be increased if the student continued to answer questions incorrectly. The subject in the teacher role would be given an example shock at the lowest level before the experiment began.

I was introduced to the experiment in school through a black and white film called Obedience. It must have been in middle school, since I distinctly remember it as a film and not a VCR tape, which is what we had in high school. I can remember sitting in a dark room listening to the whirr of the projector as we watched the results of the experiment.

The teacher and student were separated, and the true subject of the experiment was seated in front of a console with numerous switches. Each switch was supposed to represent a level of shock, from mild shocks in the “green” area on the left side of the console up to extremely strong shocks in the “red” and finally “black” area on the right side (and yes I have no idea why I still see that panel in color when it was a black and white film – perhaps it was described). Now no actual shocks were administered to the student. Instead the panel was tied to a tape recorder that would play back the “student’s” responses. As the shock level increased, the recorded responses would get more desperate, often pleading for the experiment to end. In some variations, the confederate in the student role would even bang on the wall separating them from the teacher. Eventually, the pleading would simply end and be met with silence.

What Milgram found was that a high number of the subjects would be willing to administer shocks at the highest level as long as the researcher told them to do it. One should really experience this film because I was horrified when I saw it. Most of the people, while expressing concern, continued to press the buttons, and I can remember actually crying when one of the subjects simply refused to continue after administering the lowest shock – he was the only one to stand up to the man in the lab coat (at least in the film).

The movie had a strong impact on me and my personal philosophy, and Peter Gabriel even wrote a song about it called Milgram’s 37 with the repeating lyric “We do what we’re told.”

So what reminded me of this experiment at an airport? I’m glad you asked.

I suffer from an eye condition that requires me to put saline solution in my eyes periodically. This becomes more of an issue when I fly due to the dry air in airplanes. Unfortunately, I have to use a special sterile, preservative-free solution that only comes in 118 mL (4 oz) bottles. The bottles are sealed to prevent contamination.

Back when I had only two of my three readers, I ran into a problem transferring at LHR on a trip to Portugal. The liquid limit in Europe is 100mL and they refused to let me through the airport with my solution (even though it is stamped with “TSA Approved” on the bottle). I would say about 50% of the time when traveling internationally someone spots the bottle, but in every single airport outside of Heathrow, including Bangkok and Dubai, the security people have accepted my explanation and let me take it through.

After my last problem at this airport, I sought out the policy that would allow me to take this liquid on the plane. I found this in regard to medicine on the Heathrow website:

Liquid, aerosol or gel medicines in containers over 100ml must be carried separately, together with supporting documentary proof of authenticity, such as a prescription or letter from your doctor.

I had my eye doctor write me a letter explaining the situation and I carry it with me when I travel. Luckily, I haven’t had to use it.

Until now.

As I was going through screening, the lady noted that my saline bottle was above the limit. They had also held my bag for additional screening (I travel with a lot of wires and they sometimes call it a “spaghetti bag”) so I told her that I could produce from that bag a letter from my doctor explaining that I needed that liquid for a medical reason and that it was only available in a 118mL bottle. She sat the bottle aside and called over a supervisor.

Mr. Bally Balkar (an STL or Service Team Leader) arrived and I dutifully showed him my letter. He seemed very confused, although the letter explained in detail why I needed the sterile solution in that particular container. He suggested, as did the lady the last time this happened, that I could go to Boots and get a smaller bottle. Apparently the English system of education tends to skip over the definition of “sterile” or maybe he was out that day. I patiently explained that the whole reason I didn’t do that in the first place, such as I do with other liquids, was due to the fact that the liquid both had to be sterile and could not contain preservatives, and I have neither the equipment nor the expertise to transfer it on my own, much less in the departure terminal of an airport.

He called over his supervisor, a Mr. Harry Singh (also an STL), who very solemnly examined my letter and then proceeded to suggest the same things Mr. Balkar had done. At this point I realized that despite my having followed the procedures for an exemption, there was no way that I was going to get that bottle (which, I should point out, only contained about 30mL of liquid at this time) on the plane. I decided to see if either Mr. Balkar or Mr. Singh possessed the ability to reason.

Me: I’m a little confused. I have followed the procedure. Why am I not allowed to carry this bottle on?

STL: Well, this letter doesn’t look like a prescription.

Me: The liquid itself is not prescribed. My use of this particular liquid is, however, necessary for the health of my eyes. And in the US you usually have to surrender the prescription when obtaining the medicine.

STL: But this is not a prescription.

Me: I understand that, but it is a letter signed by my doctor on official letterhead explaining why I need it. Isn’t that sufficient?

STL: But it is a year old.

Me: It’s dated April 15th, 2013, which makes it a little less than 11 months old, but as my condition hasn’t changed I didn’t see the need to bother my doctor for a new letter.

STL: (silence)

Me: I’m confused. You let the family ahead of me through with litres of baby formula and didn’t even swab it for chemical traces, yet you are saying that my doctor’s letter isn’t sufficient?

STL: Well, they were traveling with a baby.

Me: So you are saying that terrorists wouldn’t think to travel with a baby?

STL: (silence)

Me: Here, let me demonstrate the safety of this liquid. (I open the bottle and squirt a bit into my mouth). See?

Balkar: Oh, if you’ll finish that here we can let you go.

Me: (incredulous silence)

As I had now been at security for over 30 minutes and really wanted to leave, I settled for getting the names of the inspectors who denied me and I plan to file a complaint with the airport as well as with my airline. I am a frequent traveler through Heathrow but I’ll change airlines if this is not addressed. If anyone reading this knows of someone else who might be sympathetic to my story, say a UK government agency or a newspaper, please drop me a note with the contact details.

I both pity and fear men like Mr. Bally Balkar and Mr. Harry Singh. I pity their cowardice. In much like the subjects in the Milgram experiment, they were so afraid to make a mistake in the eyes of an authority figure that they would ignore overwhelming evidence that their actions were wrong.

I also fear them, as under a slightly different set of circumstances these are the men who drag families and children into vans in the middle of the night for “re-education”.

We do what we’re told.

Sweden Once More

Saturday, October 26th, 2013

I recently returned from my fourth trip to Sweden this year. I had planned to go over the summer but the best plans are sometimes overtaken by events, and so it wasn’t until October that I was able to return.

We have been doing a big project there since around March, and I went over to do some training. It was a lot of fun, and probably one of my favorite trips so far. The weather was much warmer than in trips past, and it wasn’t much different than where I live in North Carolina at this time of year.

The work is being done in a little town called Åsensbruk, pop 522. I was staying in a hotel about 10km away in Dals Rostock called the Kroppefjäll, and the nearest “big” town is Mellerud, which is 11 people smaller than the small town in which I live.

To get there, I fly from North Carolina to London, and then from London to Gothenburg (the second largest city in Sweden after Stockholm). From there it is a two hour or so drive up the E45.

This time I was rented a diesel VW Golf, which I quite liked. It came with BlueMotion technology, which is a high efficiency, low emissions system that produces amazing fuel economy (I went over 1000km on half a tank of fuel). It did freak me out the first time when it turned itself off automatically. I had stopped to check directions, so I put it in neutral and let go of the clutch and the engine turned off. When I depressed the clutch to go again, it started back up. I really wish they were available in the US.

Note: if you plan to drive overseas, make sure you can use a standard transmission. While automatic transmission cars are available, you usually have to specify one when renting.

It was a real pretty time of the year, and while I spent most of it at the office, I did play a little Ingress while I was there. I really like to play when I travel because portals tend to be interesting places and it can be cool to go find them. On this trip I went to the Sörknatten Nature Reserve, and I should have known it would be an adventurous trip when the GPS first announced that it would involve unpaved roads and then errored out with “No route found”.

I went out anyway. The area is populated with some amazing lakes and the fall foliage was beautiful.

Once I got to the end of the directions provided by the GPS, I was able to detect the location of the portal in my scanner. It involved driving over this:

But I did manage to find it and gather some keys, which resulted in a pretty nice green triangle over the area:

Because of the remoteness of the area, there aren’t many dining choices, especially in Åsensbruk. The company has a local restaurant called Café Gruzzolos bring food in, so my usual lunch consisted of a salad or a sandwich. I was a little disappointed to find no actual skink in my skinkbaguette.

There is a little co-op grocery nearby where we’d go to get drinks. Craig bought a bottle of this, which I thought had an unfortunate name in English, especially considering the color, but he said it tasted fine.

In the evenings there weren’t many options for food. There is a pretty good Thai restaurant in Mellerud, but this being my fourth trip I’ve tried most of the places and just decided I would eat every night at Restaurant Vågen. It’s really good, and I especially like the fish:

and of course it is nice to finish off the evening with a beer:

Swedish beer is good, at least to my palate. It’s light and finishes clean.

But the thing that keeps me going back (well, besides getting paid of course) are the people. The Swedish people are pretty amazing to me. They have a socialist government (what some would call in the US a “Nanny State”) but the people themselves seem very independent.

And they know how to have fun.

For example, one night I decided to eat at the Kroppefjäll. The hotel is also a resort and spa (although it started life as a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients 100 years ago) and so it tends to host large parties for meetings, weddings, etc. The restaurant isn’t always open (there were days when I was the sole guest) but on this one Saturday they were. When I walked in there was a large party, about 50 or more people, in the main dining room eating from a buffet, but they were able to seat me off in the corner. While I was drinking a glass of wine and waiting for my meal, everyone just broke out into song.

Since I am nothing if not a child of technology, I pulled out my phone and took a little video. Sorry about the quality but I was trying to be discreet.

It was cool.

Toward the end of my visit we returned to the Kroppefjäll. One of my coworkers named Mats joined us, and I wanted to share a story he told.

The man who runs the company in Åsensbruk is named Lars-Olov. Lars is one of the more interesting people I’ve ever met, and I like the fact that he is also a little unconventional. He wanted to get his management team closer together, so he told them all to get ready for a weekend teambuilding exercise and that they would need to pack light. Most figured it would be held at some sort of remote Swedish luxury hotel. Well, as Mats shared with me, this is what passes for a luxury hotel for Lars:

The managers were driven to a rendezvous point and then placed into a military helicopter. The pilot flew in Korea, and he used his skills to glide them over the treetops (Mats later asked him about it and he said the highest they got was fifty meters above the trees and the lowest was within five meters). He flew them out to a remote part of the forest and they ended up having to survive on their own for two days. The “hotel” picture above was of the shelter they built. They had to do a lot of stuff on their own, including finding their own food. The exercise ended on the evening of the second night when cars arrived to drive everyone home. Mats said he made it back to his bed around two on Monday morning.

I had heard this story from Lars as well, but it must have made an impression since Mats was able to talk about it in detail.

On my final day in Sweden, on the way to the airport in fact, I was able to meet up with my friend Lena. She and her friend Emelie had come to the US back in early 2012 to get trained on OpenNMS.

Emelie is in the middle and Lena is on the right.

You might recognize Emelie as I tend to use this picture of her admiring my license plate to advertise our conferences.

Lena and I met at the Vågen and while we were eating lunch, Emelie called. Since she was close by she stopped in to say “hi”.

All in all it was a pretty nice trip. The weather was sunny and for the most part warm (it is much warmer there today than it is here) and I had a lot of fun. My next trip back will probably be in February, and while I can’t wait to see everyone again it will be cold.

But maybe there will be moose to eat.

Rackspace and San Antonio

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

I can’t remember if Rackspace was our second or third commercial support customer (Children’s Hospitals was our first, but I can’t remember if NASA was second or third), but I do know that it is doubtful OpenNMS would still be around if it wasn’t for them. They were an early adopter of the platform and their support kept our company going until we could reach the critical mass needed to remain profitable.

Now that we are beginning to think about how we can use utility computing (sorry, “The Cloud”) to better serve our customers, I wanted to visit San Antonio to learn more about OpenStack. I also wanted to work with the team there that’s using OpenNMS to make sure their needs were being met, so my two day trip had a bit of a schizophrenic aspect in that one day I was the customer and the next day I was the vendor.

I started working with Rackspace in April of 2002, when they were about 100 times smaller than they are now. I’ve always admired them, since at their heart they are a services company and I’ve always viewed the OpenNMS Group as a services company. A lot of people think services companies can’t grow, but Rackspace is a shining example of how wrong that is.

My first contact there was with a guy named Eric Evans, who is both a friend and now a coworker. Even though he left Rackspace not that long ago, things are changing so fast that we had trouble finding the new visitor’s entrance. The Rackspace headquarters building is called “The Castle” and it is in a shopping mall that the company bought several years ago. It is amazing to watch how fast it has been built out, and while I hear that New Relic’s headquarters really hark back to the days of the first Internet bubble, The Castle is a contender for “nerdvana” (plus is it full of Level 8 Ingress Enlightenment portals).

We had a little time between my plane landing and our appointment, so Eric took me to a barbecue joint called Smokin’ Joes.

I’ve liked Texas barbecue ever since being introduced to Rudy’s in Boerne all those years ago, and every time I bring up how much I like Rudy’s it embarrasses Eric a little bit, because while good he doesn’t think it represents true Texas barbecue. He was determined to provide an authentic Texas barbecue experience.

He didn’t disappoint.

I knew when we walked up that I would like the place. Every amazing barbecue place where I’ve ever eaten has been something of a dive. The focus should be on the food and not the decor. I opted for a pulled pork plate (those of us purists from North Carolina understand the truth that “barbecue” means “pork”) and it was amazing. If I wasn’t so afraid of gaining back the 50 pounds I lost I would have had seconds.

After lunch we headed over to The Castle. For our meeting we were ushered into the new “experience” center, which is a state of the art meeting space to showcase Rackspace products (and yes, they have cookies). The meeting was lead by John Engates, who is now the CTO, as well as another “original Racker” named Tom Sands who runs the network infrastructure. Tom used to yell at me when OpenNMS reported 1.2 ms latency as his network is almost always sub-millisecond by a large margin. I was also introduced to a number of other people who demonstrated that Rackspace has done a good job in hiring top notch talent, and we had a great discussion of their services and our needs.

Rackspace, along with NASA (which is a bit ironic), created an open source cloud platform called OpenStack. I am not well versed in the subtleties of the Cloud market, but I think Amazon is still the leader with OpenStack companies in second. There is Eucalyptus, which is a fauxpensource play on Amazon’s APIs, and the CloudStack initiative from Apache. I believe VMWare has its own cloud offering and I’m sure there are hundreds more.

What I like about OpenStack is that it plays to the strengths of open source. Don’t like the service you are getting from Rackspace? Move everything over to IBM or HP, or host it yourself. You can use shared resources (the “public” cloud) or build your own on top of dedicated hardware (the “private” cloud) or mixed the two (the “hybrid” cloud).

The storage aspect of OpenStack is called “Swift” and while I don’t believe Eric worked directly on it, according to John his early work on something similar proved its viability to the company and resulted in them dedicating a team to develop it.

After the meeting, John, Tom, Eric and myself went to a place called The Boiler House for dinner. It is in a complex that used to house the Pearl Brewering Company, but is now home to a number of shops and restaurants.

While they had no draft beer, they did have Shiner in bottles and lots of good dishes to sample. While my normal diet is nominally vegan, within seven hours of landing I’d eaten pork, beef, lamb, bison and quail. I had a great time as we spend a couple of hours talking about tech, beer and firearms.

Welcome to Texas.

The next day we met with the monitoring team. While we were waiting I noticed an interesting looking car in the parking lot. It turns out it was a Fisker Karma, which is a plug-in electric sports car.

That meeting went well, and I’ll probably be back in San Antonio before the end of the year. Before heading to the airport Eric took me to a cool little coffee shop called Olmos Perk (which is impossible to get Google Now to recognize as it wants to replace it with “almost”).

This is near the Olmos basin, and in driving there I got to see the Olmos Dam. It is the weirdest damn I’ve ever seen, as there is no water near it – just this huge concrete structure. Eric was telling me that in the 1920s the city flooded, so they hired this Dutch guy to create a plan to keep that from happening.

Now the problem is that this dam is literally in the middle of some prime real estate, so calls keep coming to tear it down and sell the land around it. Luckily for San Antonio, a flood comes around every decade or so that shows how brilliant the Dutch guy was at his job.

It was a fun trip (and it wasn’t even that hot). I look forward to coming back.

Silicon Valley

Monday, August 19th, 2013

Ron and I had some meetings scheduled in Silicon Valley last week. It was an interesting trip, so I thought I’d put down a few thoughts.

The trip out was a little painful. Due to storms in Dallas they closed DFW and so our plane got re-routed to Waco. Now the Waco Regional Airport is not the largest in the world (it has two gates) and so they weren’t really set up for handling the few jets that got diverted there, and I’m sure the plan was just to refuel and head back to Dallas when the weather cleared.

Unfortunately, the MD-80 we were on experienced some sort of mechanical issue and it wasn’t getting back to DFW that night. They didn’t announce that publicly (if a delay is caused by weather, the airline isn’t held responsible, but if it is related to maintenance then American would have been responsible for hotels, etc.) and all we were told was that we’d have to take a bus back. I heard about the maintenance issue from the crew, but they wouldn’t give specifics.

We ended up exiting from the rear of the aircraft, something I had never done in years of flying.

It was a little frustrating, specifically because Ron checked a bag. On the plane they told us that he could get his bag if he requested it from the desk, but once we got there we found it wasn’t staffed. By this time we had left the secure area and couldn’t get back to talk with the original person, and later it turns out that the four American Eagle staff decided to hide in the office instead of dealing with questions from our crowd. We were finally told that we couldn’t get his bag and that it would be delivered to San Francisco with our next flight.

I have watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles enough that as soon as we landed in Waco, I called and I booked a room at the DFW Marriott. We managed to get there about 1am, and considering that we were rebooked on a 7am flight we didn’t get much sleep, but at least it wasn’t on the floor of the airport.

Upon arriving at SFO we went to the Admiral’s Club to check on the status of Ron’s bag. They said it had been scanned at DFW and should be on the next plane, which was due to arrive in about three hours time. We decided it was worth it to wait.

It wasn’t.

The bag wasn’t on that flight, the one 40 minutes after it, nor the one 10 minutes after that. American seemed incapable of locating the bag or telling us when it might arrive, and I couldn’t help but think that we could build them a better system using OpenNMS. Heck, the bar wouldn’t be all that high, as pretty much anything would have been better than what they have. That afternoon we gave up and decided to head out and just stop by Target to buy some clothes.

The rest of the trip was much better. We met a friend of Ron’s named Mark for dinner and had a really great conversation about pretty much everything, but with a focus on tech and the business of tech. We then called it a night due to having little sleep the night before.

The next morning while Ron was on the phone with American, who were still having issues locating his luggage, the hotel brought the bag to his room. Resupplied with clothes, we were ready to tackle our now completely booked two days of meetings.

It had been awhile since I was on Sand Hill Road, and it seems that things have changed for the better. Most investors seem eager to at least learn about a company like ours that has both customers and profit, and most of the meetings we took were fun.

One wasn’t. It was the same old tired “If you aren’t in Silicon Valley, you can’t be successful” spiel I used to hear every time I came here. The premise is that if you want tech talent, i.e. a talented Director of Sales, you can only find them in the Valley. This contrasted with another person I talked to this trip who said he was having trouble finding people because no one wanted to go to a Series A startup. With Facebook, Google, Twitter and others hiring, the top guns are either going there for the security and high salaries or are off starting their own companies.

I couldn’t help myself (it happens) and I had to point out that in the case of OpenNMS being focused on open source, there is more talent in RTP than in California. Red Hat’s revenue is over a billion dollars annually, and I would like to see the Valley’s equivalent. With all that talent ‘n such there should be several companies, right?

Didn’t think so.

On the flight back I was seated next to a woman who was a bit of a hired gun in business consulting and she pointed out that quite a few Valley startups take off like wildfire but then quickly plateau. Her theory is that the area is very insular so business plans tend to target companies in that area and they don’t do well outside of it. I think there is a grain of truth in what she said, although there are notable exceptions such as the companies I named above.

The one thing that is hard to recreate is the sheer density of interesting people. Perhaps it was because I’m now traveling with Ron who knows everybody, but I had some great conversations, one after another. I have had conversations of a similar level in Raleigh, but not in a row like that.

But I am willing to experience that via airplane versus living there. Spending over a million dollars for a small house and then having to deal with the traffic, parking and other issues is enough to make me appreciate my current standard of living. Plus, I would have to have a really nice job to afford the Telsa sedan which seems to be the car of choice in the area. At one point in time we were passed by two red ones on the 101 (one with a dealer tag). I did see only one coupe but the sedans were everywhere.

We’re off for meetings in other parts of the country (and world) over the next few weeks, so it will be interesting to compare that to my trip West. I’ll try to post my thoughts so that my three readers can experience the wonder that is business travel from some place that isn’t Waco.