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EPICYCLE

 

29th September 2005

I've spent the day having my head crammed full of information on our new Dell/EMC SAN storage infrastructure, along with my manager and one of the PFYs. It's been very worthwhile, so far, and I loved their SAN simulation software - you can actually connect the right wires and fibre cables to hook the various components of the system together by dragging and dropping on a detailed schematic of a CX-700, power all up the modules in the right sequence by clicking the little power buttons and watching the little LEDs light up, then create a PPP connection from a simulated Windows server to perform the SAN initialisation via a simulated web browser. It felt exactly like doing it on the real hardware, only without having to leave the desk - marvellous stuff!

More tomorrow, but in the meantime a few quick links:

"On Bullshit" - via a throwaway reference in Dan's latest letters page, surely one of the key works of modern sociology.

New D&D advert disses online RPGs - "If you're going to sit in your basement pretending to be an elf, you should at least have some friends over to help". Brilliant.

Compensating for something - these amateur rockets make the little Estes offerings look like, well, toys... Mach 2 from a DIY project, anyone?

Skype upgraded - I have to admit that I've actually never used the popular VoIP app, but friends who have swear by it, and on paper the new version looks better than ever.

The evil of piracy - eight people have been charged with leaking the recent Star Wars III movie to the web the day before the official opening, ensuring that it only grossed a meagre $837.5 million.

Surely some mistake - Linux may not be the unhackable, uncrackable miracle OS we're always been assured it was, as a new initiative from IBM and red Hat is intended to improve its security.

More trouble in paradise - Apple has admitted that there may possibly be a flaw with a teeny-tiny handful of their new iPod Nano units, but blame the users for most of the problems.

No Footfall - The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is funding a three-year study into intercepting and deflecting asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

Blissful ignorance - apparently most people have absolutely no idea what a weblog is, or what "podcasting" means, or many of the other buzzwords that proliferate in our Internet-connected society.

 

28th September

Homer:  But I have to have a gun! It's in the Constitution!

Lisa:  Dad! The Second Amendment is just a remnant from revolutionary days. It has no meaning today!

Homer:  You couldn't be more wrong, Lisa. If I didn't have this gun, the King of England could just walk in here any time he wants, and start shoving you around. (Starts pushing Lisa) Do you want that? Huh? Do you?

    - "The Simpsons" episode 5F01, The Cartridge Family

 

I've decided to set up my IP cameras at home again, not for any particularly good reason but just because they're cool.  :-)  I have a venerable Axis 2100, a pair of DLink DCS-1000W wireless cams, and a little 3Com USB cam on an Eagletron Trackerpod pan-and-tilt base. For my first attempt at comprehensively invading my own privacy, a few years ago, I hammered together some ungainly and offensive JavaScript to display the various streams on a page of this web site, but this time I'm feeling a little less inclined to roll-my-own and I've invested in a copy of the WebcamSat server from Surveyor Corporation.

WebcamSat is a Java-based server that connects to various flavours of USB and IP-based cameras and redistributes the streams via its built-in web server, complete with all the usual user security, video recording, and motion detection. At the moment it's installed on my Server 2003 domain controller, but as soon as I'm happy with the basic configuration I'll try to port it over to the Sun/Cobalt Raq web server appliance. I'm not exposing my DC to the tender mercies of the Internet, but I don't mind hanging the Raq out in the DMZ to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous port-scanning. Once it's working I'll point a camera at the collection of flashing lights in my server cabinet, for the edification and delight of all concerned - so watch this space.

 

27th September

More random links, as right now I don't know whether I'm coming or going!

Intelligent design in court - a group of parents in Pennsylvania is seeking to overturn a local school board's decision to allow the teaching of this pseudo-science claptrap.

Born in chains - another of those little political cartoons that undoubtedly funny, but makes you gnash your teeth and clench your fists as well. Rather too true... Via The Sideshow.

Data retention illegal - the European Data Protection Supervisor has warned that the current EU proposals will need to be heavily regulated before they will be acceptable to his office.

Free antennas - neat little parabolic reflectors for attaching to the dipole antennae of a Wi-Fi router to boost the range, although as time is short I chose the commercial equivalent over the DIY approach.

Technical art - this year's entries in the Science And Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored by Science magazine and the NSF. As usual, many of the images are absolutely fascinating.

Hardware hackery - via Boing Boing, cracking a combination lock using an old beer can. The host site is groaning under the load right now, though, which should be worrying to users of said locks...

Advice for travellers - Penny Arcade offer their take on the Skymall catalogues found in seat-back pockets on airplanes. I want a Hideous Portal to Gael'Thoth, myself - but then, who wouldn't?

Dan at Gizmodo - tech guru Dan Rutter is interviewed at gadget site Gizmodo (Note to the site's writers - not every web page is a 'blog, dammit!) and reviews an unsatisfying pen.

 

25th September

Just a few random links, tonight, as I seem to have lost the will to do anything more than vegetate in front of a week's backlog of American cartoons. After one of those weeks, evidently it's been one of those weekends as well.

Corporate greed - analyst iSuppli continues to take Apple's gadgets apart, this time revealing that the manufacturing costs of the new iPod Nano are only about half of the $199 retail price.

Screen horror - it is emerging that the Nano's LCD screen is incredibly fragile, though, and only a few scratches are sufficient to render it incapable of displaying photos clearly enough to be worthwhile.

Cthulhu Lives - "A Shoggoth on the Roof" is an fictional musical based on the H.P. Lovecraft stories, as featured in an equally fictional documentary of an unsuccessful attempt to stage the production.

Good, bad and ugly - courtesy of Toolhaus.org, an excellent web-based service to filter an eBay user's feedback profile for negative reports, scan their recent purchases, and other useful searches.

Strange but true - and talking of eBay, the aptly named "Way Out Auctions" highlights the most strange, bizarre, pointless, unexpected and downright peculiar things currently up for auction.

Halt or I fire - an automatic "sentry gun" using a bunch of PC-based image recognition hooked up to an airsoft P90. I love the way he developed it with the aid of his little brother as the target...

Credit card fraud - amazingly, a US court has ruled that credit card companies have no obligation to tell their customers if their networks are hacked and all their confidential data is stolen! Outrageous...

TiVO breaking contract - and talking of corporate bastardry, users who have taken exception to TiVO's new policy of disabling their recordings will have to pay a $150 "early cancellation" fee.

ASA stamps on Crazy Frog - the infuriating Jamster adverts have been ruled unacceptable before the 9 o'clock "watershed", and the company has generally been slapped on the wrist and told to behave.

 

24th September

Much has already been written on the subject of the modern trend for blindingly obvious safety warnings, but I'd like to add this one, on a glass wall mirror I've just fitted: "Do not strike surface with hard or sharp objects". Indeed.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, (more) trouble in paradise - Symantec has reiterated their warnings from earlier in the year that the much vaunted alternatives to Microsoft's operating systems and applications are not the universal security panacea that is often claimed. With significantly more vulnerabilities discovered in Mozilla-based browsers than Internet Explorer so far this year (indeed, a sample exploit for the latest Firefox flaw has just been released) and Mac OS-X rootkits such as Weapox now circulating in the wild, things are looking decidedly more hostile for the Mac fanboys and Linux lawn dwarves. Just as predicted, actually.

And talking of malware, the IFPI, another recording industry mouthpiece, has released a tool that allegedly searches a computer for both "illegal" music and the P2P software that has been used to download it. However, not only are the basic assumptions severely flawed - any music not protected by DRM must be stolen, and all file-sharing software is only used for theft - but actually it appears to do a really poor job of implementing even that deluded policy. Bearing in mind that the recording industry have repeatedly stated their intention to release virus-like software that deliberately infects remote PCs and actually deletes data files it doesn't like the look of, and it's clear that there is reason to worry...

On a related note, an IFPI spokesman in Finland has made his feelings clear about both fair use and systems that do not conform to the emerging DRM standards:

“Now, we need to understand that listening to music on your computer is an extra priviledge. Normally people listen to music on their car or through their home stereos”, says Kyyrä and continues; “If you are a Linux or Mac user, you should consider purchasing a regular CD player.”

Finland seems to be one of the key battlegrounds for over-restrictive DRM and intellectual property madness at the moment, actually, and if that is the prevailing attitude of those responsible then it's no wonder...

Closer to home, but just as worrying - telecoms specialist David Mery was arrested by the Metropolitan Police in July, a few weeks after the suicide bombers massacred travellers on the London transport network. His crime, basically, was being a techie, as it seems that thanks to the wonders of psychological profiling, to a policeman computer geeks or engineers appear to behave in the same way as Islamic terrorists. Although David was searched and found to be completely lacking in explosives, weapons, or anything else suspicious, he was still subjected to the full rigours of police interrogation, and although charges were eventually dropped the official process of recovering his possessions and clearing his record is still far from over. Appalling and upsetting as this incident was, I suppose he could count himself lucky that he wasn't just shot out of hand... Oh, but I feel so much safer knowing that the Met are taking care of London's citizens like this.   :-(

 

22nd September

My fiend Dale, a veteran shooting enthusiast from a country where the real thing is still (mostly) allowed, once described my M4CQB as an "aircraft canon" - and tonight I'm wondering how he'd describe my latest acquisition. In real life the GE M134 Vulcan minigun actually is an aircraft cannon, usually found gracing the door of an assault helicopter or (in slightly different guise) the wing pods of a fighter plane.

In Hollywood, however, it's more often found tucked nonchalantly under the arm of a very large man, specifically Jesse Ventura in Predator or Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, and is used by them to make a real mess of somebody's day - or, more often, a whole bunch of somebodies... For various reasons it would be completely impossible for even a superhero to use it like that, but it looks marvellous on screen.

My new toy is one of the three airsoft replicas produced to date, manufactured by Piper's Precision Products in the US - mine is the original A1 version, since replaced by an A2 variant which has a higher magazine capacity but lacks the 1:1 scale accuracy of the earlier model. The Japanese companies Asahi and Toy-Tec both made M134 replicas in the early nineties, but apparently they were rather fragile and cantankerous beasties and the PPP versions seem to be easily the most practical and sought after.

Power to spin the barrels comes from an impressively hefty NiCad battery pack, with the BBs propelled by compressed air or CO2 bottles in the backpack. Connecting the weapon and the backpack is a real-steel feed chute, complete with deactivated 7.62 rounds to conceal the power and gas lines.

As an airsoft replica it rules the field with a rate of fire of up to 3000 rounds per minute (matching the genuine article!) and maximum power levels far above the safe limits for skirmishing. Given the massive overkill this implies, in practical terms I probably won't even be able to fire it in my back garden, and I have to admit that it's probably doomed to languish mostly as a display item. But still, what a piece!

In spite of all the research I've done on the replica in the last week, I'm actually a little stunned by the sheer magnitude and brutality of the weapon when seen in the flesh, so while I sit here slightly open-mouthed you can find more information at the excellent Monty's Miniguns, undoubtedly the canonical resource, and an equally excellent video review (love the accents!) at Airsoft Austria.

 

21st September

Things geeks get reincarnated as, No. 9:  The token in a Token Ring

Pots and kettles - it's amusing to see that the new bug that emerged in the Linux versions of the much-lauded alternative browser Firefox is exactly the same type of vulnerability that the open source fanboys have spent years criticising Microsoft for. When Firefox is set as the default browser, a maliciously-crafted URL in an email message will be acted on by the shell to run arbitrary commands, much to the consternation of all concerned - now, does that sound at all familiar from the venom traditionally levelled against Internet Explorer, Outlook et al?

Meanwhile, ZDNet columnist George Ou has totalled the number of vulnerabilities and exploits for both Firefox and IE, showing that in many ways Firefox is actually considerably less secure - which should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the news, but is very much the opposite of the prevailing "IE suckz, Firefox rulez" mood on forums such as Slashdot. No modern operating system is perfectly secure, however cool and trendy it is, and anyone who thinks otherwise is sadly deluded.

Yahoo in the doghouse - Yahoo has joined the growing number of once-hip Internet companies that have caught the usual disease of big corporates, sacrificing ethics for profits and political influence. Many questions are being asked following exposure of the company's active support for pop-up ads, the changes made by its rather dubious software utilities, and its release of information to the Chinese government that led to the imprisonment of a journalist. Not good...

World of Warcraft plague - the popular online role-playing game is experiencing difficulties following a bug in a magic spell. The spell is only supposed to affect a single player in a particular situation, but instead it is spreading like a virus and only the very strongest can survive infection. The game's organisers have not revealed how many of the two million players have been caught so far, but rumours suggest that all attempts to prevent the spread of the damage have been ineffective.

Elsewhere,

You don't talk about fight club - tasteless, but funny all the same, "how to turn your hamster into a fighting machine".

Power to the people - more victims are standing up to fight back against the RIAA's bullying, and I'm hoping this is just the start of an avalanche.

Just say no - the No2ID campaign has appointed Lib Dem MP Matthew Taylor as parliamentary spokesman to argue their case.

Christians vs. the DMCA - religious rockers Switchfoot are teaching fans to bypass the copy protection on their own CDs.

Teasing the devil - Boing Boing is having a little jab at black metal, and it has to be said that it's something of a slow-moving target.

Steve speaks out - Steve Jobs is back on his soapbox again, this time accusing the music companies of profiteering; a position I have rather more sympathy with than usual...

12 sided calendars - when you absolutely, positively, need a calendar in the form of a pentagonal or rhombic dodecahedron.

 

20th September

Quick links...

Never forgets - one of the icons of 1980s computing was the floppy disk manufacturer Elephant Memory Systems, whose distinctive logo really stood out from the other more prosaic brands.

Camphone OCR - wave a cellphone over a printed page for a few seconds, and it will capture several dozen images which are then automatically stitched together and OCRed into text. Very clever!

Got wood? - at Boing Boing, more beautiful wooden peripherals from Russian craftsmen, very timely considering Dan's latest post on burr walnut computing.

Debasement of technology - the Forget-Me-Not panties have a built-in GPS transmitter to report their location, along with the body temperature and heart rate of the wearer - but I'm pretty sure it's a hoax.

Creative recycling - at [H]ard/OCP, a pretty little wind chime made from an old interface card and the steel platters from a dead hard disk. It's a good idea, although extracting the platters can be tricky.

WWII Tanks - Mike and I were watching Kelly's Heroes, the other day, and a discussion over the size of the main gun in the various models of the Sherman tank led me to this excellent resource.

Liquid sculpture - a wonderful gallery of high-speed photos of pouring, splashing and dripping liquids. Nothing very new in itself, of course but this is by far the best single collection I've some across.

A better mousetrap - the humble screw hasn't changed much in 2000 years, but a US company is seeking to revolutionise the industry with a new breed of what is now termed a "threaded fastener".

From Russia, with love - a new twist on the Nigerian funds scam seeks to lure the lonely and horny by answering their adverts on dating sites. Once a bond has formed, the requests for money start...

RIAA posturing again - in the wake of the Supreme Court Grokster decision, the RIAA is puffing out its collective chest and issuing dire warnings to the companies that make P2P file sharing software.

More weird USB gadgets - the idea of an electric eye massager fills me with some trepidation, I have to admit, but I'd still rather have one of those than a USB drumming Santa.

And finally, the PowerSquid - it may sound like a failed cartoon character, but actually this "electrical strip minus the strip" looks ideal for plugging in those annoying "wall wart" transformers that are so common with modern peripherals. It's available with US sockets only, at present, and on past experience unfortunately it may stay that way...

 

19th September

My mother was the cold north wind
My daddy was the son
Of a railroad man
From west of Hell
Where the trains don't even run
Never heard the whistle of a lonesome freight
Or the singing of its driving wheels
No, I never did no wanderin'
Never did no wanderin'
Never did no wanderin' after all

 - Never Did No Wanderin', The New Main Street Singers

 

The Jobs reality distortion field - Steve says that he's buried the competition when it comes to online music and MP3 players, but I'm not convinced. Outside of the Mac fan-sites, the iPods are consistently rated overall as not the best players on the market, and thanks to the proprietary DRM that locks users into Apple's systems (moving your songs to another platform is not impossible, but it's certainly difficult) it's way too soon to be sure of the long term success of iTunes service.

Murphy's Law - a wonderful series of photos - car falls into the sea, crane pulling it out, crane falls into sea, bigger crane pulling it out, bigger crane falls in too - but unfortunately on closer examination it's at least partially a fake as the final frame is obviously based on the 5th image. I can't see obvious problems with the earlier images, though, so it's safe to assume an embarrassing and expensive salt water dunking for at least two vehicles.

More TiVO locking - in spite of the bizarre explanations, initially of mistakes at the broadcasting companies and later of "noise" causing errors, the mysterious rash of automatically expiring programmes is still occurring. It seems to me that this is a deliberate feature, currently undergoing internal testing and evaluation, that has been accidentally leaked into the live broadcast streams. Bet you we haven't heard the last of this, yet...

More copyright lies - desperate to brainwash children before they're old enough to understand the issues of intellectual property for themselves, the media companies have long resorted to misinformation and downright lies to spread their message. It's a great pity to see the US Patent And Trademark Office joining in, however, with an page of distorted, twisty interpretations of copyright designed to prevent children from doing some things that are actually both legal and perfectly ethical!

Razor madness - I've been a fan of the allegedly "high-tech" razors for ages, and have upgraded through Gillette's model range to their current three-blade Mach 3 Turbo. I tried the competition's four-bladed Quattro without much success (perhaps unsurprisingly, it just seemed to cut me more often!) but now that I've heard that Gillette are introducing a five-blade model I'm somewhat dubious. It's taking on something of the feel of an arms race, and an expensive one at that...

 

18th September

After many years of work, I've finally achieved an almost completely silent computer. This is no mean feat with the high-end dual CPU motherboards I favour, and my current pair of 3.06GHz Xeon CPUs has been the most challenging yet. The combination of water cooling and careful selection of all the other components has finally paid off, though, with the final step being today's installation of a Seasonic S12 600W PSU. The end result is that I can hear the servos of the four hard disks stepping when things get busy, and if I sit still and listen carefully I can hear the faint hum from the pumps and fans of the Koolance hardware, but everything else is blissful silence.

Mmmmmmm.   :-)

The power supply itself is a nice piece of hardware, although the device cables are a little short for a case the size of my Lian Li PC-V2000 and I had to add an extension to reach the top bays. Apart from that, though, it certainly lives up to the favourable reviews in Silent PC Review and others, and at this stage I can thoroughly recommend it.

However, I was much less impressed with the replacement blue acrylic cover I purchased pre-installed from Performance-PCs, which really didn't fit very well at all, and already showed definite signs of detaching itself from the metal frame even before I had a chance to install it!

Having emailed them to complain about this, I was equally unimpressed with the response from Hank Baron, one of the company's founders, that the covers fit some power supplies better than others and that there wasn't much they could do about that. That isn't what their web site claims, however, and in any case it isn't really much of an excuse! I am disappointed with the quality of the cover and the way in which it had been installed, and I am discussing this with Hank at the moment. I'll post full details here when the situation is settled - either way...

In the end I decided to remove the acrylic cover completely and replace the original metal part, which I had asked the company to supply just in case I didn't like the modification. Anyone who is considering buying a PSU with one of these addon covers pre-installed would be well advised to do the same - unless you've seen it fitted to your particular model of PSU, don't assume that it will look nearly as good as the pictures.

 

17th September

I watched the first episode of the BBC's new documentary "Space Race" the other day, and I was really enjoying it until around forty minutes in when my eyeballs fell out onto the floor in surprise. In a scene where American army soldiers were chivvying Von Braun's scientists onto a train just ahead of the Russian advance, one of them was carrying a very unusual rifle slung over his shoulder:

To be accurate, it seems to be components from several different weapons - the barrel, gas tube and front part of the stock are clearly from one of the many Communist Bloc weapons inspired by the AK-47 assault rifle... those little flattened semi-circular cut-outs in the woodwork are a dead giveaway, and a set of three of them points quite conclusively to the Chinese Type 68.

The receiver and the rest of the stock, however, appear to be from the Australian Lanchester submachine gun. Unlike the late sixties Type 68 that donated the front end, the Lanchester at least has the benefit of being appropriate to the WW2 era, but evidently the designer of this peculiar mish-mash decided to offset that by gluing on what appears to be a bit of scrap wood to represent a pistol grip. Unfortunately, as well as being a completely different shade of brown to the rest of the stock, it is a decidedly uncomfortable shape and also rather too far from the trigger to actually be useable by anyone not in possession of six inch fingers!

The overall impression is not unlike a Garand M1 carbine, which would have been very appropriate for US front-line forces operating in Eastern Europe at the end of the war, but to anyone who knows firearms it stands out a mile - and as the genuine article is certainly not a rare piece either as a replica or a deactivation it's a bit of a mystery why anyone ever felt the need for such a poorly-conceived and badly-constructed heinz!

My space-head friend Mike points out that the technical details that mattered, those of the V2 and R1 rockets, were well presented and very convincing, and I do take his point - but it's often the little things that make a big difference and when I see a glaring error in a field I know something about it does make me wonder about mistakes in areas with which I'm not so familiar. For example, Mike tells me that Wernher Von Braun should have had his left arm in a full-length plaster cast for most of the episode, the result of a car crash during his escape from Peenemünde.

I'm definitely looking forward to the rest of the series, but by now it will be hard not to be on the lookout for booboos... There's nothing like nitpicking.  :-)

 

15th September

If I may be so bold as to say -

Woot! Woot!

Cool servers...   :-)

Meanwhile, more links.

Microsoft update - a fascinating look at the new Office interface, the first major change in a decade and really very impressive, and Bill Gates has given one if his rare interviews to the Seattle Post Intelligencer, talking about the future of the company.

Eolas are a shower of bastards - claiming that they are "not a wealthy company", the recipient of $534 million in damages from Microsoft is cashing in on the disaster in New Orleans with both grasping hands. I can't begin to express my disgust with their behaviour.

TiVO controversy - the last week has seen a furore over whether the popular 3rd-party PVR was bowing to pressure from broadcasting companies to restrict access to old TV shows, but now it appears that it was only a mistake. Personally, I'm not convinced, and neither are some others...

Sun adverts offend - a set of adverts specifically targeting Dell have been rejected by sections of the IT press as too controversial, but to me they just come across as rather childish. They're inaccurate, too - in spite of Sun's claim to the contrary, there are four Dell x64-based servers in the picture above...

Redbus and Demon founder appears in court - how the mighty hath fallen.  Oh, dear...  :-(

UK council pays £7.7m to escape outsourcing deal - probably the first of many, I'd say...

Apple under fire from its victims - suing your fans is not "insanely great", it's just insane.

David and Goliath - and talking of lawsuits, some no-name is suing Google over the GMail trademark.

eBay bought Skype - which is odd, as it doesn't really seem to fit into their portfolio very well.

Boggling gently - for sale on eBay, pants used by the monkeys in the early Soviet space programme.

In retirement - the pioneering SpaceShipOne has been moved to the Smithsonian museum.

Leet Scrabble tiles - a strange idea, given that the language's proponents mostly can't spell...

SD card benchmarks - an excellent user-contributed database of flash card performance in PDAs.

And finally, PeRs-pLeXeD, an impressive transparent case with a number of neat twists that I haven't seen elsewhere. It's a cool project, indeed.

 

13th September

Between babysitting the Dell box-to-rack team and tidying up the loose ends from the weekend's computer room reshuffle, it's been another one of those days - so you'll have to content yourself with a quick summary of the news items that have been building up while I've been busy elsewhere...

Fixing stuck pixels - by getting physical with your monitor. I'm not sure I'm brave enough...

Shake your funky groove-thing - with an advert for the new Motorola ROKR phone

Death to iPods - assault and battery, and not before time if you ask me!

Strong but silent - SPCR has updated their excellent quiet power supply guide.

Microsoft's greatest hits - courtesy of BBSpot, the boxed set we've all been waiting for.

The History of Linux Part I - from prehistoric lawn dwarves to Linus himself.

Copyrighting I2 - nobody is actually using Internet2, yet, but the RIAA are staking their claim already.

Tom on Bart - a new offering from the guru of boot disks, and this time it's flashy...

Windows N reviewed - the EU's crippled version of Windows comes under the microscope.

A plethora of Vista - as do the many different versions of the upcoming Vista OS.

Displaying the future - SED, photonic textiles, LED beamers and flexible screens. Cool stuff indeed!

2D data cabling - I've seen flat speaker cable before, but flat CAT6 is something new.

Vint Cerf nettled - "I've been busy, you know", he tells The Register.

Are you listening to me? - an audible new twist on the classic Tempest attack.

Palm's software downfall - a once proud company reduced to living in a foul-smelling ear.

A blast from the past - Sony's venerable Walkman brand is re-launched for the 21st century.

Inland Revenue loses 1 million tax records - why are there so many government IT failures?

Blatant fandom - an impressive science fiction resource courtesy of Professor Susan Stepney.

"In Soviet Union, computer uses you" - wonderful wooden computers; real craftsmanship.

A surprising stance - a Republican senator is opposing RIAA mouthpiece Orin Hatch on P2P.

Everybody hates Charles Clarke - telcos and ISPs are speaking out against data retention.

 

12th September

Monday night is geek porn night at Epicycle! As promised, more of the fruits of the weekend's labours.

On the left, our existing servers - around thirty Dell PowerEdge 2650s, with a handful of older 2400s and 2500s thrown in for good measure. Oh, and three old Compaq Proliant servers, too, which in spite of their advancing years are still slightly too useful to throw out... On the right, three new cabinets for the SAP hardware, currently in the process of being installed for us by Dell  - at great expense, and to my considerable puzzlement, as apart from the fibre channel switches, which are new to me, I probably have a better appreciation of the ins and outs of mounting rack servers than the two engineers who have ended up doing the job. Ah, well.

On the left, the connectivity - many Cisco switches, an extensive Raritan Paragon II KVM system, and more firewalls, routers, security appliances and gateways than you can shake a fairly generously-proportioned stick at. On the right, the new Dells - a set of 1850s to act as domain controllers and the like, another set of workhorse 2850s, the PowerVault 136T LTO3 tape library and (tomorrow, I hope) the EMC SAN cabinets, and then four 6850 quad-CPU monsters destined for a Windows cluster at the heart of the SAP landscape. The raw processing power available is exceeded only by the number of pretty blue lights.

The remnants, left behind in the old part of the room... The dark grey cabinet is our PBX, which is attached to the rest of the world by cables so short and thick that it is impossible to move, and the taller one beside it is a pair of servers that are so closely coupled to the aforementioned cabinet that none of us seriously contemplated separating them. This is going to present an interesting challenge to the contractors refurbishing the room, as they're going to have to jack up the server cabinets somehow and lay the new floor underneath them. Now that, I'm going to enjoy watching...

 

11th September

Job done.

It took another twelve hours today, but we got everything back up and running again in the end - fifty-something servers, and all the routers, gateways, firewalls and security appliances needed to provide connections to branch offices around the country and group networks around the world.

Thanks very much to my PFY for fixing all the things that I couldn't, and to my manager and the helpdesk guys who beavered away tirelessly running cables and relocating BT wallboxes, and to my director who magically produced hot food every time we needed a break. Real teamwork, and it wouldn't have been possible without you all.

I was too busy to take pictures by the time things started becoming more photogenic, but I'll post a bunch when we've tidied up properly to show off the new Dell servers that are going in tomorrow.

And now, a long, hot bath.   <creak>  <groan>

 

10th September

That was a very long day, but there's still a lot left to do tomorrow... My team all worked like slaves, and the external contractors who were in to rewire the power distribution system pitched in whenever they weren't too busy with their own work, but I think we all under-estimated the sheer magnitude of the task. It's going to be a long weekend.

I've designed the new extension so that when you enter the room the first thing you see is a double row of fully-loaded Dell server cabinets, in all their black and silver glory, which is going to be quite spectacular. The space seemed absolutely huge before we started moving the cabinets across, but until the refurbishment is finished it has to hold the entire contents of the old part of the room as well as the three new cabs, and it soon filled up.

It won't be any worse than the horrendous overcrowding we put up with in the old computer room, though... This is a demanding project both mentally and physically, but the end results will be well worth it and I'm really looking forward to showing friends and colleagues around when it's all finished - and that isn't an offer you'll be allowed to refuse...

The contractors built us a ramp between the old and new raised floors, which made it possible to move a fully-loaded 42U cabinet from one side to the other. It didn't make it easy, however, and with the heaviest cabinet containing around 800Kg of Dell Poweredge 2650 servers it took six people to get it over the lip onto the ramp - but I hate to think of how we could have managed without it...

The room is starting to fill up... But there are a lot of cables to run under the floor, and a lot of head-scratching and consulting of Visio diagrams, before these cabinets are anything more than giant pieces of abstract sculpture...

More tomorrow.

 

9th September

The first phase of the computer room refurbishment is almost complete, with the partition between the existing room and the newly rebuilt extension removed and most of the electrical wiring now in place, so this weekend half of the department is coming in to help move servers and lay new cables.

There are some finishing touches still outstanding, as not only have the lino floor tiles been delayed somewhere in Italy (so we have a shiny, slippery bare metal floor) but there's also a yawning gulf between the two sections of raised floors and the new floor is four inches higher than the old one - which is going to make moving fully-loaded server cabinets into the new part of the room a challenge along the lines of the Royal Navy field gun trials. Oh, and the huge Daikin aircon units are running late, as well, so we're cooling the newly combined area with a combination of a large flexible aluminium hose feeding cold air in from the UPS room and the bunch of the portable units that have been so problematic of late.

However, the tight timescales dictate that we move as much as possible from the old part of the room into the newly extended part whatever the outstanding problems, as Dell's "rack and stack" team is arriving bright and early on Monday morning to fill three new racks with twenty-something servers for our imminent SAP installation. As my department director says, it's "an interesting challenge", but at least he's putting his money where his mouth is by coming in to help out - and as he's an ex-techie that's more than just a gesture.

Until then, some quick links...

Moon phases - a neat little video sequence neatly shows how the moon's slightly irregular orbit changes the area of the surface that can be seen from the Earth.

Pretty but pointless - a tiny little valve amplifier designed for use with MP3 players or laptop PCs, and apart from sheer pose value I'm still trying to work out what this is actually good for...

More recording industry myths debunked - the Canadian industry association is under fire, this time, by an academic at the University of Ottawa, and as usual his findings differ from the official version.

ID card myths debunked - on a similar note, another noted academic has joined the growing ranks disputing the value of the British government's proposals for compulsory ID cards as flim-flam.

More on the Australian Kazaa ruling - an excellent analysis of the controversial ruling, together with speculation on the likely outcome for the P2P industry itself.

Hunter Thompson's last words - Rolling Stone has published a note written a few days before the great author committed suicide, and it looks as if he was just too tired of life to want to go on living.

Playing the phishing blame game - who is really at fault when a user's PC becomes infected with a keystroke-recording Trojan that allows a criminal to loot his online bank account?

Google hires Vint Cerf - the legendary networking guru is the latest in a growing list of luminaries hired by the search engine company, but it does seem rather more cosmetic than anything else...

Zombies! - finally, an excuse for my friend Mike to upgrade to broadband: Urban Dead is a browser-based online role-playing game along the lines of his beloved George Romero zombie movies..

And finally, Lego lays down the law - the Lego corporation is so keen to stop people describing the bricks as "Legos", as is apparently increasingly common, that visitors to the URL www.legos.com are treated to a short lecture on protecting their trademark from unwanted dilution! I have to confess that the misuse of the word bugs me as well, but from what I can see the term is in frequent use in the US, at least, and the manufacturer is just going to have to grin and bear it. In circumstances like this being pompously officious won't help one little bit!

 

8th September

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

  - lyrics and music by Merle Travis, originally sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford

 

Just a few quick links tonight, as I became distracted playing a tutorial scenario of Empire Earth II. At first glance, it seems to combine some of the best elements of the Settlers and Command & Conquer series of games, and is quite entertaining.

The best and the rest - hardware supplier NewEgg's monthly case modding contests have produced some truly remarkable projects - and a bunch of tasteless lemons too, it has to be said.

Upgrades all round - the optimum hardware requirements for Vista are starting to leak out, and they're pretty outrageous - a PCI Express graphics card with 256Mb of RAM, a dual core CPU with 2GB of DDR3 memory and a SATA-2 NCQ hard drive. Gosh!

Yet another iPod - Apple is in danger of becoming something of a one trick pony, and frankly the trick isn't that special any more. In spite of the media puff and the company's own hype, in fact a surprisingly small proportion of the population is actually interested in carrying their music collection around with them... Memo to Jobs: remember the Sony Walkman.

533MHz FSB Xeons obsolete - the once cutting-edge CPUs in Infinity4 have only lasted around two years before Intel announced that the product range is officially terminated. In some ways I suppose that two years is actually a fair lifespan for a CPU, these days, but still...

 

7th September

Happy birthday to me.

39 today, and right now I'm actually feeling rather younger and more carefree than I have on the last few birthdays - maybe I've passed my mid-life crisis and am heading into a second childhood...?

I'm probably off somewhere having fun with a friend right now, though, so you'll just have to contain your impatience until tomorrow. Remember, no news is good news!

 

6th September

Work on the computer room extension continues, if rather unevenly - last week saw an unsettling number of days with just one guy rather desultorily sanding down rough edges of the partition walls, but today the raised floor finally arrived and things started to move again. After a while of pacing back and forth in what I assume was careful analysis of the environment, there was a flurry of activity involving steaming pots of epoxy glue, spinning laser levels and large table saws, and by the time I left this afternoon most of the floor was installed. It won't be solid enough to walk on for a while yet, let alone solid enough to push 2000kg server cabinets around on, but it's looking good. Whether we're still on target to move the first batch of cabinets into the new section at the weekend is still somewhat doubtful, but we shall have to wait and see what happens.

Meanwhile, some links:

Kazaa loses in Australian court - the recording industry Down Under has joined their cronies elsewhere in the world by suing Sharman Networks for its Kazaa P2P software, and as usual the court has rejected the claim that they are not responsible for the uses to which their product is put.

Liquid metal cooling - I'm seeing a lot of references to this, right now, and I think it's going to be a major technology. Geek site techPowerUp has a presentation from NanoCoolers, a new entrant into the market, with some interesting details of both desktop and laptop heat transfer solutions.

Phantom drifting further off course - although the appointment of ex-Microsoft Xbox supremo Kevin Bacchus looked promising, Infineon's latest press release reveals that they're repositioning the console into the casual gamer's market instead of targeting enthusiasts, which is probably a mistake.

it pays to buy a TiVo - lucky shoppers in the US and Canada are eligible for a $150 rebate on the popular PVR, and considering that Amazon are currently selling them for $99 that equates to a free TiVo and a $51 profit! THis won;t last for long, I'm sure, so strike now while the iron is hot...

Creative accuses Apple of patent violation - following the granting of a patent covering the interface of the iPod, the predictable has happened and Creative is accusing Apple of violating it. Creative has traditionally been quite vigorous about defending its patents, and this will be interesting to watch.

Strange things are afoot at the Circle K - meanwhile, back in Cupertino, all sorts of rumours are flying following the abrupt cancellation of Steve Jobs' keynote speech at Apple Expo in Paris tomorrow, and the equally abrupt cancellation of a promotion on the Mac Mini after only one day.

A trio of disparate USB memory sticks - one suitable for geeks, one for nerds, and one for eccentrics, according to some dubiously rigid definitions of the terms. I heard an identical set of definitions elsewhere a few days ago, though, so it looks as if they're about to become the industry standard...

 

5th September

Links. They're probably better than a bucket full of raw fish heads.

Google front end - a month or so ago one of the Google developers published a neat little alternative menu that provides easier access to some of the second-tier facilities - maps, video, Gmail etc - and although it was withdrawn shortly afterwards it had already been copied elsewhere on the web. Take a look now before the increasingly litigious search company shuts it down...

OSDL rejects study proposal - the Linux lawn dwarves are always complaining that comparisons between Windows and Linux are biased in favour of Microsoft, and indeed often covertly funded by the company, so it seems very unfair that Open Source Development Labs (employer of Linus Torvalds himself) has categorically rejected Microsoft's suggestion that it performs its own study with MS picking up the tab. What is OSDL really worried about?

Humour for psychos - via my friend Graham, who has evidently been hiding a sense of humour more warped than I'd realised, comes Chopping Block - because, apparently, serial killers are people too. It doesn't quite click for me, I have to admit, but it's off-the-wall and well worth a look.

AppleCrate - a rack of eight Apple IIe motherboards hooked up via a TTL network to run parallel processing jobs. It's all extremely clever, I admit, but one has to wonder about the project's basic utility... I mean, eight 6502 CPUs? It must have noticeably less than a MIP, which does rather impose a limit on the sort of number-crunching that can be performed... Time, hands, etc.

Another PSU calculator - now that I've finally settled on a replacement PSU, little online power calculators are turning up as if watts are going out of fashion. This one seems quite comprehensive, but as usual with the more complex calculators it requires a fair amount of leg-work in discovering the vital statistics of all your various internal components.

Box-wrap rip-off - a US circuit judge has ruled in favour of printer manufacturer Lexmark, with a decision that allows them to legally enforce the text on the packaging of a toner cartridge or whatever. Opening the cartridge indicates your willingness to be bound by the terms and conditions printed on the packaging - specifically, in this case, an agreement not to refill the cartridge once it is empty. This is another step back for the consumer, I'm afraid, and could have very far-reaching implications.

Luxor PC case - hot on the heels of last week's Lian Li nautilus shell, an equally bizarre pyramid-shaped case, presumably inspired by the Luxor casino in Las Vegas, complete with an illuminated acrylic tip that shines pretty patterns onto the ceiling. Like the nautilus, I have to admit that it's cute and unusual, but also like the nautilus I certainly  have one on my own desk...

Classic Penny Arcade - "Frank, we've had some complaints from the customers..." I tweaked the text a little to refer to "users" instead, which amuses my BOFH spirit, but even in its unadulterated form it's one of their finest strips. I really enjoy the majority of Mike and Jerry's work (the few exceptions being the jokes that are too firmly embedded in gaming for me to actually understand!) but every once in a while they produce an absolute gem.

 

3rd September

Some links:

The evils of DRM explained - at the EFF, a useful guide to exactly what is wrong with the copy protection that is being foisted on us by the increasingly popular online music services. When you cut through the friendly marketing blurb to the small print, the restrictions on how downloaded music can actually be used are really tight - and the small print also allows them to be tightened further without warning, as has already happened several times with Apple's iTunes.

Microsoft fighting DRM? - noted cipherpunk Bruce Schneier thinks that Microsoft is trying to prevent the Trusted Platform Module DRM system that it helped to devise form being incorporated into the upcoming Vista OS. It's not clear quite why, at this stage, but evidently Schneier's curiosity is piqued and I'm sure he'll carry on digging.

The evils of lying about drugs - the US government's new anti-drugs web site has some interesting statistics, and if they are to be believed 2.2 million high school kids are going to die from using meth in the next five years. Fortunately for the nation's youth the figures are complete gibberish, but unfortunately such transparent lies only serve to obscure the genuine danger of the drug. The entire Drug WarRant site is worth a read, actually - they have a useful little potted history of the criminalization of cannabis, for example.   [Thanks to The Sideshow for the pointer]

Blocking Chinese IP addresses - the endemic virus infections on Chinese PCs, the large-scale cracking groups operating out of the country, and the activities of the government's own highly successful cyber-warfare program have led to such a degree of port scanning and automated attacks that some web server admins have started blocking entire IP blocks that are in use by the country.

Gaming for grannies - this is probably the silliest idea I've heard all year, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't a) marketable, b) potentially popular, and even c) somewhat worthwhile. A robotic cat sits on your grandmother's lap, communicating with her via meows and with other cats in the neighbourhood via wireless. In this way the cats' owners are encouraged into both social interaction and competition with each other, hopefully preventing them from becoming housebound. Bizarre!

T-Mobile roaming ripoff - at Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow exposes the outrageous charges levied by cellular provider T-Mobile for customers roaming from the US onto their own networks in Europe. T-Mobile is my own provider, as it happens, and I've become increasingly disillusioned with them over the last couple of years, both from the changes to my contract terms (they've just jacked up the cost of off-network calls from 20p to 30p per minute, for example) and from similar articles elsewhere in the industry news. I think a change is in order.

 

2nd September

When I left the office on Thursday evening the builders working on the computer room extension were carrying in armfuls of fire extinguishers, just in case the man with the arc welder set fire to the ceiling... When I arrived on Friday morning, one of the portable aircon units was icing up so badly that it had caused a flood over several square meters of floor tiles, and I had to drop everything and soak up gallons of water before it found its way down into the data cabling.

Unfortunately this is just another routine day in my IT department, right now, and I have to admit that I'm running out of both patience and enthusiasm. I warned well over a year ago that the drastically overloaded computer room would not survive another summer without serious problems, but for reasons I still don't understand the refurbishment work didn't even start until this August. We've been struggling through the hottest months of the year using only portable AC units, with all the problems that involves, and the 35° temperature peaks are really taking their toll. My records suggest that the incidence of component failures is ten times greater than it was in the same period two years ago, with the servers going through hard disks, fans and memory modules so fast that Dell's support department has put a warning flag on our company's account! We'll be paying the price in unexpected hardware failures for months to come, I'm afraid, even after the building work is complete.

Selah.

 

1st September 2005

I finally decided that I'd dithered over choosing a new power supply for long enough, and settled on the Seasonic S12 600W. It's black, which is always a good start, and has an excellent reputation for delivering more power with less noise than most of its rivals - it's been highly rated at Silent PC Review, one of the leading sites in this field, and it survived the stress test at Tom's Hardware Guide without a quiver. It's on its way to me now from my favoured supplied Performance PCs in the US, with all the cables sleeved and a rather fetching blue acrylic cover in place of the stock metal one. By the time I add a blue light or two the effect should be quite dramatic,  which is just what I need as I'm in the last stage of talking to another favourite, UK modding specialists Kustom PCs, about a replacement side panel with a lower window to show off the drive array and the PSU.

Meanwhile, some links:

Xbox 360 exposed - some good photos of the internals of a pre-production prototype, and the unexpected news that apparently the final hardware will be water-cooled!

Hard disk clock - this design for turning an old disk drive into a clock looks a little fiddly and convoluted, but the end result is certainly appealing. If only I had the time!

Despicable management - some corporate CEOs are still receiving outrageous salaries in spite of their dismal performance, earning tens of millions for laying off staff and disappointing shareholders.

All the news that's fit to link - Talk Digger is a new service that aggregates reference searches from Ice Digger, Technorati, Bloglines, Google, MSN Search and others. Epicycle is there, but only just...

 

Well, that could have been better... I'd expected this month's figures to climb a little from last month's, but actually they dipped a little instead - at this stage I may even be forced to bribe some anonymous third party to pimp me around Slashdot and [H]ard/OCP. While I'm wrestling with my dignity, feel free to vote at the Tweakers Top 50 using the button below - if I can gain another five places I'll edge out the great Daniel Rutter of Dan's Data, which would go some way to compensating for the tragic disappointment in the monthly stats. Oh, but life is hard as a third-tier blogger.

 

 

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