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30th April

An odd set of circumstances found me prising open a late-eighties DEC MicroVax with a claw hammer, this afternoon, and I'm not particularly proud of myself for it...

My employer absorbed one of our competitors back in the autumn, and now that their data has been seamlessly integrated with ours (Hah! In a pig's ear, it has!) the surplus IT hardware has been arriving. The first batch, at the end of last year, was an identical pair of rather nice clone Wintel servers, which immediately found a good home under my desk and have been hosting my network management tools very nicely. Various other consignments have arrived since then, in the form of clone desktop PCs and strange little hardware gadgets most of which have mysteriously vanished within a day or two - but the final batch that arrived this week didn't attract nearly so many acquisitive eyes.

The first sign was the arrival of trolleys bearing something I haven't seen in a decade or more -The Great Grey Wall, an entire set of archaic DEC VMS manuals that completely covered my holidaying department manager's desk. They were soon followed by a set of three late-model MicroVaxen and the full range of terminal concentrators, VDUs, printers, external disk cabinets, cables, software, backup media and - well, in fact, it was the entire customer-facing computer facility packed into crates and delivered to my doorstep!

This filled the rest of the manager's office to bursting, of course, which was a cause of some concern because said manager, a notably irascible type, is due back in the office tomorrow... A quick poke around this morning suggested that there were at least some components that could be recycled into either my home or office networks rather well, but in fairness I decided to give my opposite number in our Finance arm's IT department first look - they run DEC Alphas, which share a lot of the same peripherals. In the end he didn't take much of any interest (I'm sorry? You actually want 10Mbit Ethernet hubs?), but unfortunately his eye was caught by the most recent of the MicroVaxen, a neat little one foot cube that I'd kinda fancied bringing home to play with. Ah, it's probably just as well... Most people seem to think that I have enough obsolete hardware in the basement as it is.

Anyway, I was picking through the heaps salvaging SCSI drive packs and odd cables and fans when my manager stuck his head in to collect all the backup tapes to be destroyed. In my innocence, I pointed out that the remaining MicroVaxen probably had internal disk drives, and that ideally they should be erased as well before the hardware was dumped. He thought that this was a very good idea, and within moments had left me to it - at which point I discovered that a) the extremely solid steel casings were firmly locked and that b) the one thing that didn't seem to have been shipped to us were the keys. Time was short, and what with the fact that MicroVaxen have always been built to last, well, let's just say that's where the claw hammer came in. It wasn't pretty...

Bless me father, for I have sinned.

29th April

The Sideshow's temporary home has an excellent rant, today, against media "experts" with far more ascribed knowledge than they really possess. The author's experiences with these bozos have evidently been frustrating and annoying in the extreme, and this completely mirrors my own experiences of False Authority Syndrome within the IT industry.

It's well known among sysadmins that a suitably worded email message (or even a badly-worded one, in many cases!) can inspire users to do the most bizarre things, up to and including deleting their entire PC and starting again from scratch. I've frequently seen messages in online forums announcing that the poster still has the deadly JDBGMGR virus even after reformatting his hard disk and re-installing Windows twice (and, often, that he or she is going to get that Linux thing instead, because of it - good luck with that!), and even though I continue to publicise the common hoaxes and myths on our corporate intranet, every few weeks one of my users comes to me with a self-diagnosed case of SULFNBK or some-such, based on an email from his brother's friend's accountant or something he over-heard in a pub. It's usually just a regular attack of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, fuelled by media hysteria over Love Letter and Nimda, but occasionally it's more personal, castigating me for allowing this virulent code into the network in the first place - "I thought you were supposed to be in charge of keeping viruses out!" The former are patiently reassured and referred to to Rob Rosenberger's definitive Virus Myths site for an education, the latter get an entry in my sysadmin's little black book and are referred instead to my department manager, who has even less time for fools than I do...

One thing that puzzles me though, now that I come to think of it, is that they are all so sure that they have a virus even though there are no actual symptoms! If someone is convinced that they have JDBGMGR, based on a warning that claims it will "destroy your hard disk!", don't they think it a little odd that their disk remains undestroyed? The users seem to think that they can pick-and-choose amongst the various prophecies of doom that the emailed warning contains, too, ignoring the particulars of trigger dates or software prerequisites, and any problems that do actually exist are automatically blamed on the hypothetical virus - problems reading a floppy disk? Can't log on to the network? Printer out of toner? Hit by falling whale? It must be the virus...

Oh, well, there's no accounting for how easily led the average sheep is, whether in political and social issues or in IT - but I sometimes wish that I was more of the wolf and less of the shepherd...

27th April

Bounty hunters offered reward for turning in spammers?

US Open Robot Soccer league kicks off at CMU

Linux will have DRM - Torvalds

File swapping tools ruled legal...

...but Verizon still ordered to name and shame

Elsewhere, "cannabis may become the aspirin of the 21st century", according to an article in yesterday's Independent - the online version is in their subscription-only section but, naughtily, it's also reposted here. According to a study at the Institute of Neurology in London, the article says, use of cannabis helps to protect against Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntingdon's and motor neurone disease,  as well as generally improving the brain's resistance to the more usual signs of aging. It appears that the active ingredient, tetra-hydra-cannabinol or THC, is effectively similar to the naturally-occurring fatty acid anandamide, believed to maintain the chemical balance regulating the rate at which neurons fire. The brain's receptors for anandamide are also triggered by the chemically similar THC molecule, hence the traditional changes in the perceived passage of time, and it is thought that artificially regulating this system could slow or prevent the process of brain tissue decay. Fascinating...

Oh, and apropos of nothing - did you know that Che Guevara drove a Chevy V8? Apparently so.

26th April

The technology in use on Ros's Grand Tour is taking a surprising turn, with bizarre mail problems (probably a combination of authentication issues) over regular dialup connections but absolutely flawless voice and data through the satphone! So far, the bulk of her communication has been from a car roaring through various parts of the Grand Canyon National Park, and I'm both surprised and delighted at how well it's working. Oh, yes, and in a bizarre twist of fate, it turns out that the friend who is accompanying her on the current Arizona/Nevada leg of the tour actually designed the EDAC parity checking chips that an Iridium phone uses for error correction! It really is a small world - but, as I've said before, I still wouldn't want to wire it with CAT5.

The results my recent trawl through the second-hand airsoft markets have started to arrive, and I spent a few hours yesterday evening swapping the short M4 pattern fore-end on my assault rifle for a longer one styled after the SR-15 M5. It was extremely fiddly to fit, and in the end I had to make a set of little paper gaskets to precisely adjust the fit between the barrel and receiver - the various M16-based replicas all differ slightly in their dimensions, and if the spacing isn't just so when the rail assembly is screwed on it ends up twisted to one side or the other when tight.

All the fiddling was worthwhile, though, as I'm really pleased with the end result - it's lengthened the gun by about eight inches and completely changed the lines and feel of the replica. With the drum magazine fitted, it makes a really elegant light support weapon, and has the air of something straight out of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Neat - but as you can see, I'm back on the old camera while Ros is away and the picture doesn't do it justice.

However, the new fore-end is at least double the weight of the old M4 design, and I'm starting to worry about the stress and strain on the plastic receiver, one of the few remaining sections of the off-the-shelf replica... I've been deterred from the idea of a full-metal conversion, as it involves removing and refitting a whole bunch of small, fiddly, but precisely aligned components into the new shell, and the idea of performing this procedure at the mercy of the entertaining but mostly useless Japanese instruction sheets is rather daunting. I'm no stranger to balancing  tiny parts on huge, powerful springs, though, and it looks as if I'll have to take the plunge at some point. Watch this space...

Elsewhere - here's a cunning thing, the iGo Juice. It's the closest thing I've seen so far to a universal charger/power supply for portable devices, and with a promise of any subsequent socket adaptor you need sent free, it's probably worth a second look.

25th April

Well, that was not a pleasant few days! Mid-way through Thursday our comms guy phoned up from the computer room to say that there was an ear-splitting alarm sounding. I didn't need to read the email warnings that immediately followed his alert, as there's only one warning buzzer that loud (I could hear it over the phone!), unfortunately belonging to the disk array on the server holding 90% of the network's home directories, departmental shares, front-line applications etc.

I wasn't particularly worried on the way down in the lift, however, as the array is fully redundant all the way from the mains supply to the server itself, and no single failure was going to cause significant problems. However, a quick examination of the front of the cabinet showed that two drives appeared to have gone dead together, and the budget has never been available to permit sufficient redundancy to cope with multiple simultaneous failures.

An increasingly urgent series of calls to our supplier eventually resulted in the promise of a pair of replacement drives and a phone number direct to the manufacturer's tech support in the US. Thankfully, I got through to an extremely competent techy, who calmly and competently talked me through telnetting into the array controllers and accessing the firmware of the disk drives to query their exact status before announcing that one of them wasn't really dead! That was somewhat of a revelation to me, as I've never heard of anything like it before, but he talked me through some highly obscure shell commands and, sure enough, the drive spun up and the ready light came on. He glossed over my question about why this drive should apparently have staged a sympathy strike for the genuine failure, but by that stage I was sufficiently relieved not to press further - with only one drive missing  I could bring the array back online and start checking for file system errors. All appeared to be Ok, and although we weren't quite at the end of our regular office hours I was still feeling dubious about the second drive and elected not to bring the server fully online for the users - the replacements were on the way, after all, and having been offline all afternoon another hour wouldn't make much difference.

I waited in vain until seven o'clock before finally giving up, and learned this morning that, thanks to the courier company, they were finally delivered sometime after eight - not our supplier's fault, really, but they missed their four hour service level agreement by four hours and I do want someone to be scolded for it... However, I collected the drives from the gatehouse this morning, slotted them into the array and jacked the resynchronisation rate up to maximum - the users were starting to arrive and log in, but the array subsystem is really grunty and there was no appreciable performance overhead. The resynch finished a couple of hours later and we were all back in business again.

Of course, after a shock like that additional funds were suddenly made available, and I already have a hot-spare sat at the far end of the cabinet purring quietly to itself and ready to take over at any signs of failure, and the promise of another to come. That will certainly help, of course, but talk about locking stable doors! I contend with too much of that, I feel, but on the other hand this particular incident did bring a rather unprecedented result: my network usually runs very nicely, and although my users gripe as much as ever, in reality they're quite spoiled... they're not used to such a serious outage, and to have everything but email, web and mainframe access suddenly jerked away from them evidently started some of them thinking. Two of them, in fact, offered the opinion that I actually had heavier responsibilities in my position than almost anyone else in the company! It's something that's been in my mind recently, too, and hearing it confirmed (without prompting!) by an accountant and an engineer, traditional enemies of the IT department, was really rather reassuring.

24th April

I heard a while ago that the CDDB, that wonderful online database of CD track titles used by many audio players, had been bought by Gracenote and would probably become a licensed service, but apart from frowning at the idea of further media consolidation it didn't really sink in... Evidently this has happened at some point since I last played a new CD, as today my venerable but much beloved CD Valet player greeted me only with "invalid response returned from server". It turns out that Gracenote have reformatted the database, changed the access protocol, and installed some kind of key-exchange system with licensed players to protect their investment.

However, as I hoped and suspected, the original database is still very much alive in the form of freedb.org. They use the same protocols, ports and syntax as the original cddb.com service, and all that old software needs is the names of the new servers. Unfortunately, in the case of CD Valet, that meant a trip to the registry armed with a hexadecimal calculator, but thanks to the clearly named keys a minimum of head-scratching ensued before the player was once again displaying track titles.

The CD, by the way, was a recording of Laurie Anderson playing at Town Hall, New York City, a few days after September 11th. The timing adds an extra poignancy to some of the songs, especially as she broke old habits by playing a number of her older works along with the new ones...

For me, singing lines from "O Superman" like "Here come the planes. They're American planes. Made in America" felt like I had written it yesterday. In fact, I wrote that song in 1980 during the Iran-Contra affair, which now seemed like part of a longer conflict that continues to rage between the worlds of Islam and the West. It wasn't that the songs were "prophetic", as several reviewers pointed out. It was simply that this war was still going on. Loss, betrayal, death, technology, anger and angels, these have often been the things I have written about. At Town Hall in New York I was singing for once about the absolute present.

It's still going on, and it's getting worse... What was it Marshall McLuhan said about marching backwards into the future?

23rd April

<rubs hands> Right, enough of being soppy, back to geek stuff again...

First, though, a complaint - there seems to be a new rule at Heathrow airport limiting any individual item of luggage to a meagre 32Kg, apparently so that the poor baggage handlers don't strain themselves. Well, I think that's pretty pathetic, actually - I regularly hump fileservers and disk arrays weighing far more than that in and out of their cabinets, and I'm certainly no Charles Atlas! Lifting heavy things is the job of a baggage handler, after all, and as they're supposed to have both the training and the appropriate equipment for that job I think they damn well ought to shut up and get on with it. I'd get pretty short shrift from my management, I'm sure, if I suddenly decided not to work on computer systems that were "too complex"...

22nd April

Ros is in mid-Atlantic now, heading for Phoenix Arizona, so I came home to an almost empty house for the first day of ten long weeks... Not completely empty, though, as she evidently left her love behind to keep me company while she's away -  there are seventy sealed envelopes containing (I assume!) sweet little notes, one to open every day that she's away, and ten little gifts, one for every case of Monday morning blues... What a woman! Damn, but I love her so very much...  <sniffle>

21st April

After some tense negotiation in email, I've finally snagged the classic airsoft replica I've been lusting after! It's a Browning Mk III made in the mid-90s by the original masters of gas blowback airsoft, Japanese firm JAC. The current owner has fitted an aluminium slide, Hogue combat grips, and a black hammer, safety catch etc to provide contrast with the chrome effect. It's tuned for heavyweight .36g BBs, and is likely to be quite a beastie. Together with the Remington M870, still in transit from Hong Kong, this will bring the collection to seven - only a few weeks after I announced that five was definitely enough!  <blush>

Elsewhere, via The Sideshow's temporary home, a marvellous animated version of Tom Lehrer's classic "Elements" song. Check it out, then buy the T-Shirt!

20th April

There is a passage from Hunter Thompson's landmark novel Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas that I've always found very moving, and as Ros will be in Las Vegas in a few day's time it has been echoing in my mind... This is an edited version of the speech, used in the movie and the audio production, and without the digressions of the original it feels even more powerful... Harry Dean Stanton's world-weary voice and the muted background music will usually bring a tear to my eye, at the thought of the generation I missed...

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.

And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting - on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

   - Hunter S. Thompson

And talking of Thompson, the home page of musician Warren Zevon, sadly now terminally ill with cancer, currently shows a photo of Zevon being attended to by his "personal physician" - Dr Gonzo himself.

Elsewhere, according to the Weekly World News and Yahoo, the US Security and Exchange Commission has arrested an unusually successful stock market dealer on suspicion of insider trading - who claimed to be a time-traveller from the year 2256... "We don't believe this guy's story," said a source within SEC. "But the fact is, with an initial investment of only $800, in two weeks' time he had a portfolio valued at over $350 million. Every trade he made capitalized on unexpected business developments, which simply can't be pure luck." Even more peculiar, the SEC spokesman revealed, is that "no one can find any record of the man's existence before December 2002"...

Given the original of the story, I'm taking this one with a metric ton of salt - but it's marvellous to see the plot of so many classic SF stories recycled so shamelessly, whether by the WWW itself or by the self-proclaimed time-traveller in an attempt to protect his informants.

19th April

I stood up on a chair to take this photograph of Ros's laptop stuff, took one look at it, and quite involuntarily exclaimed "You have got to be kidding"... I hope that by the next time I have to do this, the comms technology has converged and unified somewhat.

Elsewhere, in a determined attempt at comfort-shopping, it's been a busy few days on the second-hand airsoft forums. So far I've netted a G&G SR-15 conversion kit for the M4, a marvellous Soviet Kobra reflex scope, and a spare fore-grip for the M1100. The latter is especially pleasing, as I can now heavily modify (Dremel frenzy!) one of them to fit the heat-shield, with a backup if it all goes horribly wrong.

I'm also hoping to acquire a rather special pistol, a custom Browning Mk III by one of the luminaries in Japanese airsoft, offered for sale only with much regret because he's leaving the country and disposing of his entire collection... It can be seen featured here on his classic airsoft site (it's the one at the top of the page) and with luck and a following wind will be seen again on this page before too long.

18th April

For no readily apparent reason, today's Epicycle is brought to you courtesy of the Leningrad Cowboys, singing "Back In The USSR". It could have been worse... Much worse.

The itinerary for Ros's grand tour is mostly finalised now, so I've been updating the map. The route is <takes deep breath> Phoenix, Las Vegas, Cedar City, Grand Canyon, Scottsdale, San Bernadino, Wildomar, Los Angeles, Solvang, Big Sur, Monterey, San Francisco, Bodie, Galveston, New Orleans, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Amish Country, Philadelphia, Niagara Falls, Toronto, Chicago, St Paul, Pepin, Walnut Grove, De Smet, Billings, Viola, Butte, Moscow, Spokane, Vancouver, Hillsboro, Portland, Seattle and finally home to London. Whew!

Elsewhere, the personality cult around the vanished Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf continues to build... The first commercial offering is a talking al-Sahaf doll, and I'm sure it won't end there. Presumably a Porta Saeed for one's PDA is already on the cards...

17th April

Ahhhh, a well-deserved long weekend. I'd be happier if Ros wasn't jetting off to the US for ten weeks at the end of it, but there you go...

There's still a bunch of work to do on the laptop (I've yet to successfully complete a data call via the satphone, for example) but 90% of it seems to have installed and tested Ok. As far as I can test it, that is - I can pretend to be dialling a local POP in Phoenix, Arizona, and routing through it to a UK ISP's mail server, but that really isn't the same as actually being in Phoenix... I've been working with comms since the beginning of the UK home computer boom in the late seventies, and one thing all that experience has shown is that it hardly ever works first time -

 

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The Tao of Comms
 

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Keep in mind the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Comms is constant suffering.

  2. This suffering is caused by craving. The lust for reliable high-speed comms deflects the soul from Nirvana.

  3. The cessation of suffering is not possible.

  4. There is no fourth Noble Truth.

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Some ask whether two comms systems can ever be identical. The true sage knows that even one comms system can never be identical.
 

bullet

If a comms problem seems too difficult to solve, stop. Clear your mind and reflect a while in quiet meditation. You will then realise that your original perception of difficulty was in fact a gross underestimate.
 

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All comms problems can be solved by the application of one of the two great techniques:

  1. Random trial and error

  2. Methodical trial and error

bullet

Remember the Eightfold Path to connection:

  1. Male, 9-way, DCE

  2. Female, 9-way, DCE

  3. Male, 25-way, DCE

  4. Female, 25-way, DCE

  5. Male, 9-way, DTE

  6. Female, 9-way, DTE

  7. Male, 25-way, DTE

  8. Female, 25-way, DTE

 

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We'll just have to see what happens, and hope that the comms gremlins don't manage to disable every access method simultaneously (and as we're geared for landline dialup and broadband, and wireless over GSM cell or satellite, there's a good chance of one channel working well enough for me to connect via VNC to fix the others) but, knowing Ros's friends, in the event of a complete disaster at least there's a good chance of competent local tech support.

16th April

Wednesday is random links day, again, at Epicycle...

Better things to do with a Mac Classic

Decorative "Skins" to wrap around your PC - or your fridge

Whit Diffie speaks out against Microsoft's Palladium strategy

A punishing exercise programme

Elsewhere, my low opinion of US talk show hosts has raised, somewhat, after seeing these quotes:

"President Bush announced tonight that he believes in democracy and that democracy can exist in Iraq. They can have a strong economy, they can have a good health care plan, and they can have free and fair voting. Iraq? We can't even get this in Florida."

- Jay Leno

"President Bush has said that he does not need approval from the UN to wage war, and I'm thinking, well, hell, he didn't need the approval of the American voters to become president, either. "

- David Letterman

I do think it's a pity that they weren't saying more of that stuff at the time, though... Dubya's theft of the 2000 election is apparently stale news, these days, and thanks to the carefully-applied spin at the time most people don't even seem to remember it accurately: "Oh, but didn't that recount later show that Bush actually won, or something?". No, it didn't...

15th April

The Server 2003 upgrade at work has proceeded so smoothly that it appears Microsoft are rather fond of us, and following our recent acceptance into the Rapid Adoption Program for Titanium, the latest version of the Exchange mail server, we've just been told that we'll actually be the first company in the UK to take it live. We're off to the UK campus in Reading in a couple of weeks time to be groomed and pampered, and then I guess at some point after that a couple of Microserfs and I will get together and sort out all the techie details... Gosh! First in the UK for a flagship MS product! If I can't get my picture in Computing for this, I should hang up my cable tester and call it a day...

14th April

So, I see that the Millennium Dome is still in dire straits... I've been annoyed about this massive boondoggle since the start, as from day one it appeared to exist only to line the pockets of the various organisations involved. The Government bought the site "as is" from British Gas, paid again to demolish a Victorian gas works and assorted other buildings, and then spent a small fortune cleaning up various industrial contaminants to avoid poisoning the visitors - all at the taxpayer's expense, but we were assured that this would be justified when the Dome was "handed over to the community", or some such, after the fuss had died down...

After a number of abortive plans to re-use the Dome itself, the site (with Dome intact!) was indeed handed over a year ago, but it turns out that community in question was a group of property firms and US corporates, which was probably not what most Londoners had expected. To make matters worse, it appears that the the site's not insubstantial maintenance and security costs are somehow still being charged to the taxpayer! What a sweet deal - 190 acres of prime building land within spitting distance of the centre of London, revitalised with 1.5 metres of clean topsoil throughout, served by brand new road and rail links, and with one of the world's most distinctive buildings thrown in just in case you can think of a use for it. Oh, and you don't have to lay out a penny on it until you're ready to build...

Needless to say, it didn't take the "community" very long to draw up a plan to capitalise on this bounty, and their offering was targeted directly at London's yuppie market - a grandiose sports stadium and a huge tract of houses and flats to capitalise on the proximity to the City - but it was announced today that the Mayor has refused to permit the scheme unless it is modified to include a significantly greater quantity of "affordable housing".

I'm in two minds about this, I guess - on one hand, I don't see why the taxpayers should go on paying for something that many never wanted and most never saw except on television, and I'm sure that the building trade would appreciate the work that at least 10,000 houses would bring... But overall it's just another illustration of how powerful government sleaze and corporate greed can be when acting together, and I would be annoyed even further by the thought of the directors of Quintain Estates, Anschutz Entertainment Group, English Partnerships et al giving themselves nice little million dollar bonuses as a reward for closing the deal. Gah!

Elsewhere, and thanks to Ros for bringing this vital and long sought-after service to my attention, the Devon Pressed Flowers company will now supply (you guessed it) pressed flowers by mail. Presumably the hobby is having something of a revival, as apparently they're not the only ones, either, and there are even microwave flower presses that contract an entire year in the back of the wardrobe into only a few minutes! What it is to live in the 21st Century...

13th April

Dan of Dan's Data has a passion for model tanks, and his latest review covers a pair of tiny remote-controlled tanks that can actually "fight" each other. They do look rather neat, I must admit, but currently not as neat as an extended 20" barrel, foregrip and silencer to make a sniper variant of my M4CQB. Suddenly there seems to be a whole bunch of these on the market, however, and it's proving hard to choose...

Elsewhere, I came across an article at The Digital Journalist - "What Bodies?" by Patrick J. Sloyan. Written in November of last year on the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991, it makes fascinating but disturbing reading in the light of recent events... On a related note, a story at Yahoo claims that Sony are attempting to trademark the phrase "Shock and Awe" for use in an upcoming video game... That strikes me as unusually tasteless, but evidently they're not alone in seeing a dollar to be made out of the war - in the last month the U.S. Patent and Trademark office has received more than a dozen applications for commercial uses of the phrase, including fireworks, lingerie, baby toys, shampoo, consulting services and pesticides... I hope that Harlan Ullman, the military strategist who coined the phrase in 1996, is pleased with himself.

12th April

Quick links tonight, as I've spent the last few hours on the never-ending configuration of Ros's road-warrior laptop and I'm thoroughly fed-up with computers...

The Museum Erotica, Stockholm

Win Delvoye's erotic X-Rays

SF starships compared - when the Slashdot Effect wears off...

Real-life PacMan - also Slashdotted at present.

"Case-modding" a Nissan Sentra

<shakes head> As I've said before, and will doubtless say again, some people have far too much time on their hands.

Elsewhere, the results of Privacy International's "Stupid Security" competition have been announced, and as expected the number of UK winners is disproportionably high... Full details at their site.

11th April

I've made the most of my unexpected day off, and having spent a few hours fiddling with the shotgun and the new add-ons, I'm in a position to begin the definitive guide to after-market modifications of Maruzen gas shotguns. The M870 will probably arrive sometime next week, and I can have more fun mixing and matching between the two for best fit. It's a welcome change from network servers, I have to say...

Elsewhere, according to a news story at Yahoo, Iraqi Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf has achieved cult status online with his daily television tirades against "British infidels" and "Imperialist hawks". The unlikely fan site is down as I write this, thanks to the usual unexpected rush of visitors, but promises to be back up on new servers within twenty-four hours.

10th April

Another very long day, but well worth it - our Microsoft-approved consultant from Eurodata fixed all the AD problems using the classic Richard Feynman method of thinking very hard and then doing one (relatively) simple thing, and after close of business we upgraded three domain controllers from RC2 to the full release version of Server 2003. Assuming that it hasn't all fallen flat on its ass when I dial in to check it tomorrow morning, the first phase of the project is now done and dusted, and the day of holiday I'd booked tomorrow to make up for working on Saturday will be the start of a badly needed long weekend instead.

There was a bizarre glitch with the first server upgrade, though - I'd set the monitor refresh rate to a nice, steady 100Hz under RC2, but the release code didn't initialise the graphics hardware correctly on the installation's final reboot and we were left with a black screen... Of course, our first assumption was that the server itself was crashing, and a worrisome ten minutes followed before we realised that we could still ping it and then, via VNC, connect to it and login successfully! Assuming some oddness in the KVM hardware (rather too smart for its own good, sometimes) we switched to a directly attached monitor without improvement, and it was only when a niggle made me think of dropping the refresh rate did all return to normal. Now that I write this, actually, I think I can remember this issue from the Windows 95 betas - in the final code they trimmed some of the more aggressive monitor settings from the list to play safe, and the installer wasn't smart enough to reset the configuration the next setting down, as it were. Tsk!

Keith, the consultant, is an extremely competent techy... He's about my age, and although our careers have taken slightly different paths (and he's probably paid 10K more than I am!) we seem to have ended up with a very similar view of the IT industry - considerably jaded after the many thousands of dead PCs and dying networks we've been faced with over the years, but still in love with the technology itself and so still capable of being excited and impressed by a new operating system... And Server 2003 is an exciting new product - it has proved itself visibly tougher than NT4 already, when the flakey SCSI interface on the backup server was fixable this morning by restarting the appropriate services instead of restarting the entire server! Yay! The DNS, DHCP and WINS subsystems on the two core servers are working flawlessly and with the best management GUI yet, and the very latest version of the Group Policy Editor, traditionally an opaque and puzzlesome utility, has had a complete facelift and on first inspection now seems extremely useable.

Elsewhere, my shotgun bolt-ons have finally arrived, and somehow I seem to have ordered a second shotgun to go with them. It's another Maruzen gas replica, this time of the Remington M870 - the pump-action brother to the semi-auto M1100 I've been enjoying so much recently. The two replicas are extremely similar in design, and I should be able to distribute the various accessories between them to create a pleasantly unmatched pair. Watch this space...

9th April

Another long day at the silicon face, with no sign of a resolution to the AD problem and various odd hardware issues on the backup server just to make sure that I wasn't bored... There was one moment of light relief, though, when our telecoms bod (truly an idiot of the first water) asked me to uninstall the "System Idle Process" task on his laptop as it was using all of his CPU...  <long sigh>  However, a quick look online shows that since the Windows Task Manager became widespread with XP Home Edition, there is widespread fear, doubt and uncertainty over the mysterious "idle process" that hogs the CPU - and, as usual, the "experts" are out in force to resolve the problem for its hapless victims. This thread, for example, has twenty different explanations and solutions, each more butt-headed, inappropriate and downright ignorant than the last... Several people even told the questioner to remove and re-install all his device drivers, advice absurd and dangerous enough to have me up on my feet ranting and raving to Ros about it! There are isolated gems of sanity, though, especially in the form of this complete guide to Windows services from BlackViper.com and, of course, Microsoft's own documentation, but I'm becoming very impatient with this sort of butt-headed ignorance these days, and it's probably just as well that I've had less and less contact with end-users as my career has progressed. If I was still doing 1st and 2nd line support, a CAT5 'O-Nine-Tails would be standard debugging equipment... Oooh, look! There's a new design, too!

8th April

The airsoft Remington M1100 has become of my favourite toys when I want to let off a little steam, but it's by no means perfect. For starters, the shot shells must clearly be regarded as disposable items - the sharp edges of the feed ramp and chamber seem prone to scraping little curls of plastic from the front end, and as well as clogging up various moving parts the resulting deformations tend to make the shell less likely to load and eject cleanly - which causes further scarring of the plastic.

Secondly, I've yet to find a variety of BB to suit the replica - loading more than three garden-variety Excel .20g BBs in each cartridge leaves rather less gas to eject the shell, and stoppages are common when the shell fails to leave the ejection port. An experiment with .11g BBs was less than successful, as they're so poorly made (flaps of sprue, moulding ridges and even occasional visible differences in size!) that even more stoppages occurred - I've seen this particular type of yellow BB advertised elsewhere as "only suitable for cheap springers", and I think that my supplier, Zero One Airsoft, should clearly state the same thing... However, I put a few dozen rounds through the gun last night, mostly with only two Excel BBs loaded, and problems were noticeably fewer - but two pellets doth not a shotgun make, and some of the fun was definitely missing. Of course, the real culprit is the replica's notorious lack of power in general, but I feel that I should be able to work around this with the right BBs.

On the other hand, when it works well it is great fun to shoot. It's heavy, it's mostly metal, and it looks so thoroughly bad-ass that I almost scare myself. To make matters worse, I've finally had confirmation that my custom parts are in transit from the US, and the addition of a perforated metal heat shield down the length of the barrel will not make the gun look any more friendly... Unfortunately it now transpires that the claims that most real-steel parts will fit this replica without modification were groundless, and it seems likely that the magazine extension tube, if I can get it to fit at all, will be a purely cosmetic add-on.

Elsewhere, fascinating guides (if somewhat opaque to me, I have to admit) from O'Reilly Publishing and ResearchBuzz to programmatically hacking the Google search engine - using its own little-known but publicly available API to skew and filter a search far more powerfully than is possible via the web interface.

Elsewhere again, an enjoyable article at Hot Hardware on vintage microcomputers - coincidently, a few nights ago I was talking to an ex-Texas Instruments employee contemporary with the TI99/4A mentioned in the article, and he is still quite indignant about the way TI priced the system out of the market. It was the first 16bit microcomputer, and well ahead of its time in many ways, but TI couldn't decide whether to aim it at home or office users and so marketed it accordingly - in the end, their half-way approach failed for both. Interestingly, two of the six computers featured are still around in some shape or form - the Commodore Amiga will never die, it seems, and I suspect that with some skill and determination even a modern UNIX-based Mac might be tweaked to run software from the Mac II era.

7th April

Well, it could have been worse... The Active Directory and the network itself was working well, this morning, but unfortunately the new network design brutally exposed the vagaries, inconsistencies and flaws in the configuration of the client PCs - our desktop team has not been quite as rigorous as I'd hoped in following my templates for network settings, and where they'd explicitly entered DNS or WINS addresses to solve some legacy problem or other my carefully planned DHCP scope fell flat on its ass... However, although around a quarter of our five hundred users experienced some kind of connectivity problem because of this, at least the issues were purely client-side and easily corrected. Especially easy for me, as all I had to say was "so go and do them again properly" and then dive back into my AD management chores.

Unfortunately, tired and thoroughly distracted at the end of the day, I made a mistake... I was creating sites, objects representing the geographical locations of our branch offices, and deleted the automatically created "default-first-site-name" site instead of just renaming it to match the central office. This is an important object in an Active Directory network, and within an hour the inter-server synchronisation logs were starting to show errors... There is a documented solution, but it's complex and as the failure didn't seem to be causing problems for the users I decided not to risk making it any worse. I'll tackle it tomorrow when I'm fresh, and will just have to worry and fret until then - in a directory-enabled network this kind of problem can often be a real chore to correct.

Elsewhere, an interesting article and follow-ups at Freshmeat discusses one of the major problems with the availability of open source software - apparently there's too much of it...

"Too much Free Software? And you thought people were complaining about a lack of applications which makes them stick with Microsoft Windows. Well, they're right. On Linux, there's no decent movie player and no working sound recorder (like the one in Windows 95) shipped as the default by GNOME, but hey, there are more than 385 text editors! Choice is good, but it's frustrating when none of the alternatives works properly."

385 text editors? I can certainly see his point...

6th April

48 hours of full-on network upgrade later, and I have a head full of acronyms - OU, RID, FSMO, GC, UIN, DLG, GPO and <grins broadly> even SM... On the whole, it all went very smoothly - we had a few problems with the lack of certified drivers for Dell's network interfaces (for some odd reason, they don't intend to release Server 2003 support for another few weeks!) but these were easily solved by disabling all but one of the teamed adaptors and we should be able to tick over well enough for a while on a mere 200Mbit/sec bandwidth. The AD installation itself went very well, and in maximum compatibility mode the client systems are convinced that they're still talking to an NT4 domain so I'm not expecting any significant problems tomorrow morning. The only gripe is that, thanks to the delayed shipping of the Server 2003 Release CD, I'll have to do the whole thing all over again next weekend - but an in-place upgrade from RC2 will be far less work than the migration itself, and I'm hoping that half a day will suffice for all three domain controllers. It was a very tiring weekend, though, and it's going to be a long, exhausting week...

Elsewhere, during the last power cut I was suddenly seized with the urge to shoot something, and as the AEG assault rifle is the easiest to just pick up and blast with I picked it up and blasted into the dark... It was then that I suddenly made a complete U-turn and decided that rail-mounted targeting lasers and flashlights were not, after all, the spawn of the devil but instead a thoroughly desirable accessory... So one of each (together with some other stuff spotted while I was at the annoyingly tempting HK supplier Den Trinity) are now gracing the rails of the M4 and very nice they are, too, although the new shape of the fore-end plays havoc with my carefully cut foam case inserts.

The little laser unit is from airsoft specialist ICS and is merely an overgrown, beefed-up laser pointer, but the flashlight (or "tactical illuminator") is the real deal from firearms company Walther - it's built to withstand the shock of recoil on a rapid-firing assault weapon and it certainly shows... The laser is toggled on and off by a flat pressure switch Velcroed to the forward handgrip; the flashlight has that option, too, but it also comes with a more conventional twisting end cap and I decided that one switch was enough! I haven't sighted the laser in, yet, so can't comment on its accuracy, but it's a fun toy and certainly adds to the overall kick-ass look of the replica.  :-)

4th April

Whew! The start of what promises to be the first of two very long weekends... We started off a test of the AD migration using an isolated dummy server, and it all went very well. Apart from some minor glitches with 3rd-party components, the only real problem is that the release version of Server 2003 hasn't reached us from the US, as yet, so it looks as if we'll have to do the upgrade with last autumn's the Release Candidate 2. This will probably be Ok in terms of functionality, as Microsoft's own public-facing web servers were upgraded to the earlier RC1 the moment it became available last summer, but it does mean that I'll have to spend a day or two in the office next weekend, as well, re-installing the real thing when it finally arrives. Three weeks without a break - sheesh!

The big day is tomorrow - wish me luck...

3rd April

Oh dear, oh dear, what it is to be a geek... I took the day off, today, to recharge before the AD install at the weekend, and then spent the whole damn day fiddling with computers anyway! I started out configuring the laptop for net access via the satphone, which was not successful in terms of actually being able to connect to the net, but will probably work when I get around to taking the thing outside to test properly. I was getting a signal indoors with the phone on a windowsill, but only intermittently - the signal strength would move from full to nothing in the space it took for clouds to cross the sky, which I found rather startling. The Apollo TCP stack used for the Iridium data service is rather a strange and bizarre thing, though, and required considerable massaging before I was happy with the configuration. Later versions than ship on the CD can be found on their FTP site, but it's not a neat upgrade...

All that massage required many reboots, and in the meantime I was installing and then almost immediately uninstalling the latest version of APC's PowerChute UPS monitoring software. As usual with a mature product, it has suddenly suffered a rewrite into Java and has not benefited from the experience - it's big, bloated, and includes its own web server and SQL database, which I think is overkill for something that basically watches a big battery... The older version slipped back onto my main system well enough, but the server's antique SmartUPS 600 is always problematic and once I'd started fiddling I decided to try to recalibrate the runtime settings. This process involves attaching a fixed load of exactly 30% and, having not quite achieved that with the table lamps etc to hand, in a moment of brain-fade I attached a small fan heater with the idea that I could turn the heat up and down to vary the power drain. Of course, dragging an alleged 3000W kicking and screaming from one outlet of a 600VA UPS caused everything to shut down all at once with one of those sad little electronic whines, and so far it has resisted all efforts to turn it on again.

I think that I've just blown the UPS's own fuse, but it's an odd little size and I don't have another at hand. <sigh> I'll head off to RS or Farnell, I guess, to be faced with the usual choice between paying a fortune in handling and shipping for a 5p fuse, or buying a bunch of stuff I didn't really intend just to reach the threshold for free delivery. Fortunately the RS site allows creation of "parts lists" that can later be imported to the shopping basket with one click, and I had the specs of some Kynar wire and braided sleeving for the hypothetical extra case lights all ready to add. Damn, now I'll probably have to buy and fit another two neons... What it is to be a geek!

2nd April

I've just opened up the PC for the first time in ages (then immediately fetched the vacuum cleaner to do something about the giant mutant dust bunnies spawned by all those fans) to install a new CD writer, as my trusty old Ricoh MP9060A, the first of the combo CD / CDRW / DVD drives, finally gave up the ghost last week. The drive turned out to have an unusual failure mode, as many of its predecessors could still write CDs even when they couldn't read anything at all, while the Ricoh still worked well as a reader but refused to even think about burning a disk - one of my diagnostics even reported that it wasn't write-capable! It worked very nicely in both modes for three years or more, though, and given the smoky environment it lived in I've been very pleased - a notable change from our previous Philips and HP drives, all of which disappointed tremendously and in fairly short order, too.

The replacement is impressive, though, and was also extremely reasonably priced. Ros has been using LiteOn's 40x drive for a year or so without problems, and the current 52x equivalent was getting good reviews. As usual, the clincher was finding it from a trusted supplier pre-fitted with a black bezel - you can't imagine how wretched a single beige device looks in an all-black PC... The tray's in and out movements are unusually smooth for a modern drive, and nothing seems to rattle or shake too much even during fast reads. In use as a writer it performs pretty much as advertised - I burned 654Mb to disk in a shade under three minutes, which is pleasingly fast, and in UDMA mode the CPU overhead was less than 10%. With all the usual under-run-protection burning in the background is thoroughly un-stressful, and I think that home CD writing (at least for data disks - video brings its own problems!) is finally a mature consumer technology.

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Elsewhere, very best wishes and all fingers crossed for my friend Avedon, due for thoroughly unpleasant eye surgery on Thursday morning. My thoughts are with you...

 

1st April

When I was a schoolboy in the seventies, one of the few political things I remember paying any attention to was the apparently endless wave of plane hijackings by leftist revolutionaries fleeing the United States for Cuba - the catchphrase "Take me to Havana!" was a firm part of the playground lexicon, and as an embryonic gun nut it was interesting to see various countries' special forces teams at work. So when I saw on Yahoo News just now that someone has tried the same trick today, but this time going in the other direction from Cuba to Florida, I was quite tickled - he'd obviously heard of Cuban hijacks, but didn't know quite how to do one properly! However, some research online suggests that this is the way to do it, these days - today's incident is the second in two weeks, and one of several over the last few years. Apparently Castro is extremely friendly to "enemies of the US", these days, and as the more traditional route is now guarded by a relatively effective surface-to-air missile defence, evidently the tide has started to turn...

It's the first of the month again, so I'll keep the ice weasels straining at the leash while you hurry off to vote - every little helps, and while I'll never come close to knocking the remarkable Dan Rutter from the top of the list (although he's been losing ground heavily to newcomer Cyberwizard Pit, recently, and has even spent some time at number two!) I've managed to hover somewhere down in the thirties quite consistently. Neat!    :-)

 

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