Book Review: “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”

Shortly before I left for a conference in Washington, D.C., a friend told me that astronaut and Internet sensation Chris Hadfield would be signing his new book the day I arrived. I didn’t even know he had a book coming out, but I figured I shouldn’t turn down the opportunity to get an astronaut’s autograph, so I pre-ordered it. My impression of Colonel Hadfield was that he was a humble and genuine person.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth reads the same way. Hadfield takes the reader through his life and career with a degree of humility only a Canadian could achieve. He tells the stories with such enthusiasm, as if he’s in awe of his entire life. The descriptions of views from space are particularly compelling, and the reader can easily place himself aboard the International Space Station.

One might not expect astronaut skills to be very applicable to daily life. However, as I read this book, I found myself drawing inspiration from his words. His focus on “working the problem” particularly resonated with me. I consider it no accident that the day after I finished the book I made a significant breakthrough on a problem that had been vexing me at work. Although the stakes are much higher for astronauts, we can all benefit from the astronaut way of thinking. Hadfield took great care to point out that being accepted into the astronaut corps did not make him an astronaut. Even a trip to space is not sufficient. Astronauthood comes from years of training, practice, failure, and — most importantly — developing the right mindset.

Hadfield’s advice, developed from years of surviving some of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, focuses on what seem to be negative thoughts: sweating the small stuff and “what’s the next thing that could kill me?” He does an excellent job of explaining how these negative thoughts lead to positive outcomes. The lessons are readily applicable to everyday life, even for the earthbound. This is a masterfully-written book. It is both entertaining and inspiring.

Trying various razor blades

Note: the links in this post go to with an affiliate code. If you purchase from these links, Amazon gives me a tiny cut of the revenue. I am otherwise uncompensated for this post.

About two years ago I switched from using a Gillette Mach 3 to a double-edged safety razor. When I first bought my razor, I just bought a pack of whatever blades seemed like a good value. When that supply began to run low, I thought it would be a good idea to shop around a bit. My friend Andy had a sampler of a variety of blades, so he traded me a few of his. Thus begin several weeks of not-at-all-scientific testing.

The blades I tested with.

The blades I tested with.


I had originally purchased Personna blades, which come in a handy container that stores your used blades for safe disposal. The shave was alright, but I found it tended to irritate my neck quite a bit, especially from the second shave onward. This is what inspired my quest for a better shave.


My first new blade was the Shark. While I didn’t have the problem this guy had, I was definitely a little more nicked than normal. There was no irritation, though. Subsequent shave attempts with the Shark proved much better.


The Astra blades gave a pretty nice shave. There was nothing particularly memorable about them, but I recall liking the experience. I should have taken notes.

Durablade 7 A.M. Plus

Initially, I didn’t notice these blades since the color of the wrapper was very similar to the other Durablades (below). I discovered them after I had already ordered more blades. The shave was great: very smooth, with no irritation or nicking.

“Israeli Personna”

This unlabeled blade, which is known as the “Israeli Personna“is one of Andy’s favorites. There is no universal “best” blade, and this is a prime example. The blade felt like it was too short, and it took several passes to get a shave that was sufficiently smooth.

Durablade Sharp

This blade was so bad that I had to force myself to use it more than once. It pulled fiercely. I hated it.

The verdict

I ended up buying 100 Shark blades, which will probably end up being about a two-year supply. Had I found the 7A.M.s before I ordered the Sharks, I would have had to flip a coin or something. The Astras would have been a good choice, too. The others I probably won’t use again.

The downside to the Sharks is that they come in cardboard boxes, which left me needing some way to dispose of used blades. I found an empty Arizona tea cannister (metal) in the garage. A little bit of JB Weld to keep the lid on and a small slit cut with the Dremel and I now have many years’ worth of safe blade storage.

It’s beginning to look a lot like LISA

We’re just over two months from the Large Installation System Administration (LISA) conference, and the website has recently been updated with details. I’ve never been to this conference before, but as a member of the official blog team, I’ll get to spend the week doing nothing but participating in, and writing about, LISA ’10. Can I write two blog posts and countless tweets every day? It will be a challenge, and I’m sure I’ll be tired of writing by the end, but there should be plenty to write about.

With three days of workshops, 48 training courses, and three days of technical sessions,  there’s plenty to choose from.  I’m especially interested in the talk “Measuring the Value of System Administration” scheduled for Thursday morning.  Of course, each evening there will be Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions, which I’m told are the most valuable part of the whole LISA experience.  BoFs are an informal meeting of the minds, where admins who do similar work compare notes and pick up new ideas to bring home.  And drink beer.  I’m okay with that.  The BoF schedule is still pretty thin, but no doubt it will fill out as November approaches.

If you’re interested in attending LISA, you can register online at  Registration is available in half-day increments, so you can pay for exactly the amount of conference you want, and if you register by October 18, you get the “early bird discount.”  I hope to see you all in San Jose!

Book review: “The Breathtaker” by Alice Blanchard

Enjoying both tornadoes and mystery novels, Alice Blanchard’s 2003 work The Breathtaker seemed a natural fit for me.  In a sense, it was.  I read it much faster than I normally read books, and I found myself trying to guess the twists along the way.  However, I found the ending to be completely unsatisfactory.   The killer, as always, is not who the reader thinks it is, and when it was revealed, I found myself quite surprised.  There was no way I saw that coming.  The killer’s reason becomes clear as well, but it is never explained why the victims are selected.  The killer says that there are people “so evil…they deserve to die,” yet it is never explained what made these particular victims evil.  In fact, the killer’s motivation in the final chapters is decidedly unclear.  My initial thought upon finishing the book was “well, where’s the rest of the story?”

I will say this: Blanchard did her homework. Although there are a few parts that offended the meteorologist in me, the terminology and weather descriptions were fairly accurate throughout, even if the references were a bit forced in a few places. Certainly the novel is far ahead of other artistic works in that regard (I’m looking at you, “Twister”!)

The most annoying part of this book for me was the writing style.  There were a few points where I had to stop reading because I felt the descriptions and dialogue were trying way too hard. Blanchard suffers from the same problem that I’ve noticed in other female authors: unconvincing male dialogue (before anyone gets up in arms, I’m sure there are many men who do not write convincing female dialogue). All-in-all, though, the book is an enjoyable read, and it’s not likely that most readers will guess who the killer is before the protagonist does. If you’ve got a free weekend and you want to never see a thunderstorm the same way again, give this one a try.

Happy holidays, now go away!

Seriously.  It’s Christmas Day. Why are you here? Even if you are adamantly opposed to Christmas, you can still spend this time with your family.  Even if you are adamantly opposed to your family, you can still spend this time giving charitable service to your fellow man.  Even if you are adamantly opposed to your fellow man, there’s gotta be an IHOP open somewhere.  Don’t try to pretend that you’re adamantly opposed to pancakes, it’s not possible.

So from all of me here at, have a happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Boxing Day, Kwanzaa, Atheist Children Get Presents Day, Festivus, or whatever solstice-related holiday you celebrate (if any).  Check back again on Monday and I’ll have actual content for you.

The simple games

Last weekend, I let myself get talked into buying Guitar Hero.  Granted, it didn’t take a lot of convincing.  My wife and I spent about 10 hours playing that first day and a half.  While it was fun, it was also really frustrating.  You see, I have no musical talent.  At all.  I have no concept of rhythm and I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.  So the whole time I’m playing, I’m getting a constant reminder of how awful I am.

It doesn’t help that the “Easy” mode on the drums is total crap.  With the guitars on Easy, you only have three of five notes that you have to play.  On the drums, even with Easy, all six notes are presented.  Granted, the speed is generally slower, but it is still a lot less Easy than it would have you believe.  After a bit of trial and error, we determined that playing the bass on Easy is within the range of my abilities.  When I know the words, I can do okay on the singing parts though, as long as you don’t listen to me.

When we weren’t rocking out with the Guitar Heroes, I got out my old Sega Genesis.  In the past week, I’ve played about 10 games of World Series Baseball.  Man oh man, do I love that game.  Really, its the simple games that I enjoy the most.  The games I play the most often on the computer I have to play via DOSBoxCommand HQ and Sub Battle Simulator are games that I’ve played since before the Windows 3.1 days.  My Sim Citying hasn’t gone past Sim City 2000 (okay, I did play Sim City 3000 for a while, but it got complicated.  I hear Sim City 4 is the best of all worlds, but I’ve never tried it).

Sub Battle Simulator was probably the first computer game I got into.  It cost $5 at Target and came on a 3.5″ floppy.   I spent hours playing it when I got home from school.  When I went off to college many years later, I found a newer submarine game:  Tom Clancy’s SSN.  It was a fun game, but it was a lot more realistic than Sub Battle Simulator.  Too realistic, in fact.  I couldn’t do everything fast enough to keep up with the game.

Kids these days with their crazy, complicated games.

I’m a nerd

It’s true, I can’t deny my nerdiness.  How do I know this?  So yesterday I developed a fever.  When it kept going up despite taking Tylenol and using cold washcloths, I had my wife take me to the Urgent Care center.  On the way back, with my fever approaching 103 degrees, she hit the brakes a little harder than I expected.  I grabbed the handle above the door.  “Are you okay?” Angie asked.  “I’m fine, there was just more delta-p than I was expecting.”

That’s right.  Instead of saying something like “you braked too hard”, I commented about how the change in momentum was more than I expected.  What a nerd.

Fortunately, my fever has dropped considerably since last night when it peaked at 104 degrees.  Maybe later today or tomorrow I’ll be coherent enough to write the post I’ve been wanting to write about creating USB boot disks.

The joys of making budget cuts

It was over two years ago that my department’s Computer Support Manager left, leaving me as the de facto leader of the IT staff in my department.  With one professional and four student staff members, I don’t have a great deal of administrative duties.  Most of my leadership is directed toward mentoring and coordinating daily tasks.  The department head doesn’t even feel the need to meet with me regularly (I take that as a sign that we’re doing a good job).

I don’t even get a budget to work with.  Our IT purchases come out of the department’s general funds, so I just spend money when we need something, and if the department runs out of money, they’ll tell me to stop.  Fortunately, this hasn’t been a problem to date, but the University has asked our department to make a 2-3% cut in our budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.  All of a sudden, I find myself having to make big important-type decisions.

Being a state institution, jobs are fairly safe.  I don’t foresee myself or our Windows person being axed or asked to stay home more often.  The students have less inherent job security, but the department seems to have accepted how useful they are (and students are CHEAP!), not to mention the fact that I’d work in the dark before I got rid of my students.  On the other hand, we do have an annual agreement with the central computing group on campus that gets us access to some extra resources and also some personnel contribution.  Two of the three people we get have already been cut to part-time by their department.  Unfortunately, the only way to save in that agreement is to reduce one of them further.  It is hard to make that recommendation, but few choices exist.

As I watched “Meet the Press” this morning, I tried to come up with ways to cut costs.  The first thing that came to mind was to reduce the speed of some of our network connections.  The networking group charges $120 annually for 100 Mbps connections, but only $60 for 10 Mbps.  It has been the standard in our department to pay for 1-2 connections in each office and lab (depending on which subnets are needed).  As a result, networking costs are the single largest non-salary IT expense.  Large data users would have a hard time getting by on “just” 10 Mbps (some even pay for 1 Gbps connections!), but there’s no reason a secretary, for example, can’t be happy with 10 Mbps.

The other big cost in my department is printing.  In the centrally-managed labs on campus, print quotas are used.  Faculty and staff get $40 per semester, and students get $20 per semester.  Each page of black and white printing costs 4 cents, and color pages cost 12 cents.  Departmentally-managed printers work however the deparment decides.  My department decided that the “public” printers are free.  Research groups can have their own printers that they pay for, but there’s no cost to use the departmental printers.  This includes our 42″ poster printer, with paper that costs about a dollar per foot.  One of the side effects of this policy is that the color printer is sometimes used for jobs that contain no or little color.  In the past, I’ve tried to convince the department head that we need to implement a policy to encourage the reduction of printing.  It fell on deaf ears, but we’ll see if current conditions give that suggestion a more receptive audience.

One thing I have managed to accomplish is to change the way we charge researchers for space on our file server.  When the file server was first set up, the hardware cost was divided by the available space, and the end result is that there’s a one-time charge of $400 per 96 GB slice.  That worked initially, but 5 years into the server’s life, it’s obvious that it isn’t a sustainable model.  We pay a vendor $1700 per year for hardware and software support, not to mention the $1/GB we pay for backups.  Not only that,  but the way the funding rules work, this space can’t be charged to research grants.  If a research is out of startup funds, they can’t purchase more space.  After over a year of gentle prodding to our overworked Business Manager, we’re finally in a position to begin charging for this as a cost center.  Research groups will pay a smaller annual fee that can be charged to federal grants.

Of course, our state has yet to pass a budget, so that complicates matters as well.  I guess we’ll see how things go.  With any luck, the economy will rebound later this year, and the budget will return to a more normal state (and maybe salaries will be unfrozen!)

Space: the final frontier

I went to see the new Star Trek movie last weekend.  It was awesome.  That’s not what I came to talk about today, though.  On Monday, the first astronaut from Purdue’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (the 22nd overall from the University) boarded Atlantis for the final repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.  Dr. Andrew Feustal received a BS and MS from EAS, and lived in Cary Quadrangle (all the cool kids lived there).

So having a bit of something in common with him, I was pretty excited to watch the launch on Monday afternoon.  The University’s president happens to have Chief Scientist at NASA on her resume, so having her there at the launch party made it all the more interesting.  Even though the streaming video feed was a bit choppy, it was really exciting.  I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, and a part of me felt like I was there.

And then yesterday, Drew made his first EVA.  Many hours floating around in space performing work on the Hubble more difficult than anything done previously.  I think the most impressive thing was when he came out of the shuttle, his words were “too cool.”  Very matter-of-factly.  Rock and roll.  Four EVAs remain, with Drew making the Saturday and Monday walks.  I look forward to watching NASA TV all day again for those.

Science is cool!

Getting hardware information

A few weeks ago, we had a Sun desktop that stopped giving video.  After some hardware experimentation, we determined that the video card went kaput.  So I thought it might be helpful to get some information on the video card so I could find a replacement (the story ends with a replacement costing $1200, needless to say we decided to retire the box).   So I know how to get all kinds of hardware information on Linux, but Solaris works a little differently.

A Google search lead me to a post on Life After Coffee which told me that Solaris hardware info can be found with the command /usr/platform/`uname -i`/sbin/prtdiag.   So there’s some info, but it wasn’t all that helpful.  I’m sure there has to be better sources, but I haven’t found them.  Other platforms give a lot more information.

On Linux, you can get information from the lspci, lsusb, and dmesg commands.  And the dmidecode command gives you way more information than you’ll ever need.  Want to know the status of the temperature probes on the CPU?

/usr/sbin/dmidecode | grep -A 5 Temperature

There’s several hundred lines of information to be had, depending on your hardware.

MacOS takes the cake though.  The system_profiler command is your one-stop shop for hardware information.  This includes the MAC address of your network cards, something other Unix-like OSes make you do an `ifconfig` to find.  Regardless of how you have to find it, you can parse this hardware information to build an inventory database.  Hooray!