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31st July

The dragons are slain, and the notwork is back to being a network again - apart from some minor peripheral issues, most of the recent network problems were caused by faulty negotiation between Cisco switches and 3Com switches. Unless there's a special reason, I usually configure switch ports and network cards to auto-detect both duplexing and LAN speed, but the Cisco hardware seems far less tolerant than 3Com's and auto-negotiation with other hardware is chancy at best... However, it does seem to be a well-known and well-documented problem, and although our supplier worked very hard to help us fix it, they did tell us that they'd already researched any potential compatibility issues with this combination of hardware... Hmph.

This means that I'm going to have to keep a much closer eye on port configuration, in future, and make sure that everyone else in my team does as well... which, considering how well they follow my existing procedures, is sure to be a recipe for eventual disaster. Fortunately, the same bloated purchase order that provided the problematic hardware has also provided something towards a solution - the CiscoWorks hardware management application, coupled with What'sUp Gold for monitoring and alerting. The former hasn't been working until today, so although I could map the network nicely enough I couldn't actually access any of the hardware itself. However, an update to the switches' onboard management support files let it burst colourfully into life, and it's now obvious that I'll be able to do most of the network configuration from the computer room. The 3Com hardware has an embedded web server for management, but having both network topology and port details in one console is going to make life a lot less stressful.

The disadvantage is that, once one can produce beautiful graphs of network utilisation and errors over the previous month, management tend to 1) want to be given access to said graphs, 2) insist that something is done about the errors, and 3) make scary plans about streaming video and voice-over-IP telephony to "maximise" the excess bandwidth. There's little worse than an IT manager given access to accurate and voluminous data about the network...

30th July

A very long day with the network problems, spent mostly in roasting-hot router closets, and with so much confusion that by the end of the day I didn't know whether I was coming or going... I shall see how it all feels in the morning.

29th July

I've just heard that a small but extremely annoying and persistent PC problem on a system that I used to support has been resolved. I wish that I knew how it was finally fixed, though - I banged my head against that one for months without any success, and I'd be fascinated to know just what it was that I hadn't thought of...

As I should have predicted, but didn't, the new switch hardware at work did not behave well this morning. Everything appeared fine to begin with, but as the users arrived we started getting complaints right across the network. A quick look was enough to show that we were dropping packets in great quantity, and some hours later it had become clear that any connections involving only the new Cisco hardware were fine, but that any sessions passing over the existing 3Com switches were failing randomly. After much unproductive fiddling with little things, the supplier started disabling the more exotic functions on the new switches, and by the time that they were approximately as dumb as paperweights the problem suddenly vanished. We've left it like that until tomorrow (with half the servers pinging the other half to keep a close eye on it overnight) to provide at least a few hours of stability, and hopefully the installation engineer will come back in tomorrow and sort everything out for us... I'm really hoping, as today was a fairly miserable experience - especially for the users, who had six hours of hanging PCs, dropped sessions, time-outs and odd crashes...   :-(

28th July

Fancy a modern PC built into the case of an old Atari 2600 video game console? No, neither do I, but apparently Retrosystem has identified a market... Other options include the pizza box Amiga 1000 and the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Some people have far too much time (and money!) on their hands...

I'm always bugged by web sites that insist on opening links in a new window - I'm quite capable of right-clicking and choosing a new window myself when I want to, but I don't usually feel the need to leave a trail of my progress through a site in a stack of unnecessary windows. Worse than that, though, are sites that force said window to a particular size, shape and position - whatever they choose is rarely appropriate on my 1280x1024 display, and rarely enhances the page's layout in any discernable way... And worse even than that are sites that do both those things, and then disable Internet Explorer's menu and status bars, trapping me in an un-controllable window and often perverting the default settings for the next IE windows that open. Stop doing it!

27th July

I was in work for a few hours this morning, supervising the transfer to the new Cisco core switch and running miles of new cable under the floor. Apart from tangles and snags in the cabling, it all went peacefully enough, and the server-to-server connections already feel a little more responsive. When I complete the handover to the new Cisco workgroup switches on each floor next week and retire most of the hubs, we should see a real improvement in network performance at the desktop, too. I've carefully allocated the available hardware so that I have a generous 1.2Gbit/sec bandwidth between the floor my office is on and the main servers, and as I can probably reserve a portion of it just for my own use later on, I should be well-provided for in the foreseeable future.  <rubs hands>

Cutting Edge Case Mods has expanded their range of Perspex power supply covers to include support for dual-fan units such as my Enermax. They increase the height and depth of the PSU slightly, but if there's enough clearance in the new case I think I will splash out on one: I think the grey steel casing of traditional PSUs, CD drives etc is going to look a touch naff in a black windowed case, so even before I've actually seen the thing I'm already starting to think about colour-matching the internals... <blushes> I've always scorned pretty-boy PCs, usually while fondly patting the macho, brute-force arrogance of a big-ass ProLiant 3000 server, but somewhat to my embarrassment I seem to have decided subconsciously that I've already done the whole kick-ass overclocking thing, and so image is now equally important...

Eeek! It's just occurred to me that I'll need black cable ties and bases! Oh, where will it all end!

26th July

Ros has apparently played her last game of Bubblet, having reached her target average of 400 in MegaShift mode after a mere 11917 games... I've put it on hold for the moment, myself, after a period of lapsed concentration threatened my hard-won average - and it's been very nice just to play a game (in this case a FreeCell clone) rather than to work at playing it.

There's a really slick new graphic display panel on the market, currently, equivalent to my Matrix Orbital LCD but based around a much brighter VFD module nicely sized for a 5 drive bay. It's also good value, as the sudden flood of interest in the forums at Bit-Tech (after their recent and highly favourable review) has encouraged the manufacturer to offer a complete kit as a special deal for PC-modding enthusiasts. I think the enthusiasm has taken them rather by surprise, actually - they're a global manufacturer more used to selling in bulk to OEMs, and have probably never considered selling direct to the end user - but they're certainly making the most of the opportunity now and it's really nice to see a big corporate being so flexible!

25th July

I've finally found a review of the Thermaltake Xaser II case, the design that started me thinking about new cases in the first place. It looks as if Thermaltake announced the product long before it was actually shipping, as it's taken over seven weeks for the first review to surface... However, a closer look confirms that it's nothing very special, and with work on the new case apparently in it's final stages, I'm happy with what I've chosen - at least on paper!

One part of the project that I have not been looking forward to is painting the drive bezels black to match the rest of the case. Vinyl dye seems to come highly recommended, and there are many helpful how-to guides floating around, but it still sounded like a fiddly and noxious (the solvents in the vinyl dye are fairly heavy-duty, apparently) job. I've tracked down factory-made black bezels for the Seagate tape drive and the Ricoh CD writer, but all from US companies with a morbid fear of overseas transactions, so I was extremely pleased to find that the firm currently building the new case is now selling painted bezels for my Pioneer 106S slot-load DVD player. One is now on its way, but after an hour or two of searching I still haven't been able to source a shipping-friendly supplier for the others.

24th July

A welcome note of common sense from Caesar at Ars.Technica, commenting on today's doomsaying at the BBC News site...

Asteroid smasteroid

Circling the news sites today are reports that we're all doomed. But don't run out and start looting just yet, because the "ETA" for a 2-kilometers-wide asteroid's impact with earth is reportedly February 1, 2019. The asteroid, currently named 2002 NT7, was only first sighted at the beginning of this month. Oddly, although we supposedly have a crash date (it's being reported everywhere), scientists have not yet calculated its trajectory in any reliable manner. In other words, the collision date is just silliness.

According to astronomers, NT7 will be easily observable for the next 18 months or so, meaning there is no risk of losing the object. Observations made over that period - and the fact that NT7 is bright enough that it is bound to show up in old photographs - mean that scientists will soon have a very precise orbit for the object.

2002 NT7 is not your average galaxy crossing asteroid. Nope, it's solar, circling the sun every 837 days, but at a highly inclined orbit (yes, I know most asteroids orbit something, and many orbit the sun).

"The error in our knowledge of where NT7 will be on 1 February, 2019, is large, several tens of millions of kilometres," he said.

The current Impact Risk Summary is available from NASA. According to that page, 2002 NT7 rates a 2 on the Torino scale, which means that it is rated as such:

The chance of collision is extremely unlikely, about the same as a random object of the same size striking the Earth within the next few decades.

The next level up is "A somewhat close, but not unusual encounter. Collision is very unlikely."

23rd July

The JPEG group has issued a rebuttal of Forgent's claim to the rights to the technology behind the JPEG file format, indicating that the claim is mostly based on the classic run-length encoding technique used since time immemorial. However, they also note that the standard is under threat of IP disputes from various other companies, including Philips and Lucent, and I'm guessing that all this fuss will considerably increase the rate of uptake of the new JPEG 2000 format.

Another interesting legal minefield here at CNN - the Italian police have censored web pages on servers based in the US after the (Italian) author was charged with blasphemy, using the suspect's own computer and password to replace the various images in question with the logo of the police unit in charge of the investigation. There is already enthusiastic discussion on their right to enforce a local law overseas, of course, but it also seems telling that the suspect had not at that time been formally charged, let alone found guilty! It's a dangerous and worrying precedent...

After some puzzling and crawling around under my desk, this morning, I discovered that one of my front speakers and the sub-woofer were completely silent - and shortly after that, discovered that the main audio-out cable wasn't fully seated in its socket. A quick click, and I have a much more respectable volume level; still rather more quiet than from the SoundBlaster card, but apparently quite adequate. I shall wait for a suitable time and then turn everything up to eleven and see if I can shake the dust out of the case.

The more obsessive reader of this journal will have noticed that I appear to be working my way through L. Ron Hubbard's "Mission Earth" stories. I have to put my hands up to it - I read the first few in my teens, but having repeatedly spurned them in second-hand bookshops since then, I saw eight of the ten hardback volumes unusually cheap a few weekends ago and couldn't resist... I feel somewhat embarrassed, as I have a low opinion of both Hubbard himself and of the organisation he founded, but the stories are not actually as terrible as most people seem to say, and it's a huge quantity of reading for 30 (none of which went to anyone connected with the author!). The unfortunate editor of the series writes about his experiences with Hubbard here - including the methods that were allegedly used to artificially inflate sales enough for the series to reach the best-seller lists - and apparently similar practices were used to hype both the book and movie of "Battlefield Earth" a few years earlier, which I feel explains rather a lot.

22nd July

I've been in need of a distraction, today, so decided to install the new sound card anyway... Unfortunately, somewhere along the line one of the Creative uninstallers apparently eat part of the registry, so although the sound card installation itself went without hitches, I found myself without a large part of Microsoft Office, without most of the software on my 'Add & Remove Programs' list, and with a puzzled expression on my face... However, excitement like this is what tape backup is for, so I recovered the System State from last night's run and with a quick flick of the wrist (well, Ok, then - with a quick hour or so persuading the system that it no longer had a SoundBlaster card installed without the dubious assistance of the uninstallers) and all now seems to be settled again.

There are still some oddments to track down, such as the mysterious drop in overall volume levels, but right now I'm happy enough to fiddle at it for a while to see how it all behaves. The mixer panel is huge, though - it takes up almost a quarter of my 1280 x 1024 display, and unless it scales automatically depending on resolution (in which case I wish it didn't!) it must be almost full-screen on a more conventional system! How odd...

On the other hand, it has more sliders and faders than you can shake a length of speaker cable at, and at least I have a little animated spectrum analyser again.

21st July        A Black-Edged Day

Geek Horoscopes at BBspot...

Taurus (Apr 20 - May 20)
You are disappointed to learn that the extra $300 dollars you spent on the 3-year warranty of your PC was voided when you didn't have a certified technician take the twisty-ties off all the cables.

More strange copyrighting earlier this month, too - Microsoft seems to have laid claim to both the OpenGL graphics programming language and the vertex programming image-rendering algorithms. I shouldn't be surprised, I know - some of the net.gods have been warning of runaway Intellectual Property disputes for a decade or more, and with the current financial pinch in the IT industry the clawing and grasping for revenue is definitely making those prophecies come true.

I started fiddling with the Sonique audio player last night, and to my surprise managed to play several hours of MP3s without a single skip or jump. It's a nice little player, too, and although the interface is a touch bizarre in comparison to Media Player, it has all sorts of neat features - a built-in multi-band graphic equaliser, internet radio streaming, support for the legacy MOD format, and a rather pretty animated interface. It's certainly worth a look, but a major re-write is in progress, so maybe not quite yet...

20th July

The builder who has been doing some repairs on our house has finally packed up and left - having taken eight weeks for a job that he estimated at two... I wouldn't mind so much if his work was of any reasonable quality, but somehow he's still managed to skimp and skive and take short-cuts (here's a hint, Terry - buy yourself some sandpaper!) and the majority of the renovations are finished to a worse standard than I could have achieved myself... We didn't get our money's worth, I'm sure, but by this time I'm just glad to see the back of him!

I slipped out to PC World this morning and bought myself a new soundcard - I don't normally shop there, as it's far from cheap, but I had 40 in vouchers burning a hole in my pocket and I'm hoping that the new Videologic SonicFury will mean the end to skipping MP3s for ever. I don't intend to install it (or the Adaptec USB card) until I come to transplant everything to the new case, though, so I shall have to put up with the authentic scratched-LP sound for a little longer yet. All I'm waiting for now is the replacement cables from The Overclocking Store (they sent me floppy drive cables instead of IDE ones, and apparently never read their "returns" mailbox) and the case itself.

I'm planning to do the initial wiring in the new case without most of the hardware installed, so that I can tune all the fans without the risk of overheating. Fortunately, it's fairly easy to fool an ATX power supply into powering up without the controlling electronics on the motherboard - insert a short loop of wire into the PSU's motherboard power connector, shorting between the green PS_ON wire and one of the black earth wires, and J.R. "Bob" Dobbs is your uncle.

19th July

I decided, more or less on the spur of the moment, to upgrade Photoshop to the latest V7. I'm expecting this to be a fairly disconcerting and unproductive experience, initially, as I've been using 5 and 5.5 for ages and the later versions have definitely been revolutions rather than evolutions - V6 was almost a different application, I gather, and there are further significant changes with V7. Still, I haven't uninstalled the old version yet, and thanks to an excellent little upgrading guide at the ubiquitous About.com, I have a new way of migrating my plugins across to the new one, so I shall have a play with it this weekend (designing a logo for the new PC - oh, that sounds so sad!) and see what I think...

And on the subject of graphics - with an eerie echo of the Unisys/Compuserve GIF debacle a few years ago, a little company called Forgent has just announced that it owns the copyright on the JPEG file format, and that it is now intending to claw huge quantities of money from all concerned. This seems absurd to me, as I can remember back when the JPEG group was formed in the mid-eighties and the stated intention was always for the standard to be in the public domain.

Hmmm. As zathras2 put it, in a thread at Ars.Technica:

18th July

I'm blushing - this site has just been reviewed at The Weblog Review, and both were very complimentary!

"Epicycle is unique among blogs"    <laughs> Thankyou, indeed, but I'm sure that nothing online is unique...

Yet more mainframe connectivity problems today, and again the firewall upgrade was the obvious suspect. We worried over it for an hour or so, my PFY checking the local configuration while I absorbed as much as I could online in a crash-course on stateful packet inspection, but nothing helpful emerged by the time we were ten minutes away from the hard limit I'd set before rolling back to the earlier versions. I would have hated to lose all that hard work, though, and the relief was tremendous when we heard that other partitions of the mainframe were having similar problems... it turned out to have somehow been caused by a disk volume in the hosting company's own firewall filling up (Sheesh! Don't they have monitoring?) which I felt was rather a pity - I was kinda hoping that I'd killed it again!

 

 

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