31st August

Back online, and very pretty it is, too! I'm quite pleased...

The picture really doesn't do it justice... It's a bitch to photograph.

The last few days have not been without their problems, as a balky driver made a couple of fairly good attempt at scrambling the SYSTEM hive of the registry - at which point I discovered that there appears to be something very wrong with the network backup strategy... I'm still looking into that, and typing with two fingers crossed that I've managed to eliminate the Adaptec sword of Damocles - a couple of nasty blue screens at awkward moments caused some damage to the configuration of two major apps, and I'm not keen to repeat that experience without the safety-net of a good backup.

There's still a fair amount of detailing and cosmetic work yet to do, though - most of the power supply cabling is just stuffed in any old way, the internal audio cables and the temperature sensors have yet to be installed, and I need to sleeve another couple of miles of assorted cabling... but it's up and running, with all ten fans whispering gently and a beautiful pink-red-orange glow from sides, top and front - which sets-off the sharp blue flickering of the drive LEDs. It's quiet, it seems to run cool, and if I can go a day or two without further unpleasant data loss I'll be very happy.

The sleeved and braided cables that I've finished so far have brought an extremely professional touch to the internals, courtesy of a new heat gun kit from Maplin's current sale. Heat guns are usually rather expensive, and I've always managed heat-shrink in the past by gently waving a lighter flame around - but this one is extremely good value, and has encouraged me to sleeve everything in sight:

The  DigiDoc 5 and the neons, fully sleeved... It was round about then that I turned to Ros and said "maybe I'm taking this too far...?"

More when I've caught my breath...

27th August

I'll start the new PC tomorrow after work, and hope to finish it off at the weekend. Updates as and when...

26th August

A well-received break from awkward computer technology, and almost ready to plunge back into the office network again. If I'm now allowed to assume that the network is functioning "well enough", I can start to catch up on some of my backlog at last... Ugh... I'm intending to start off on building the new case in the evenings, this week, and that will probably bring it's share of new frown lines, too... It will also bring another lean period for updates here, but I'll take plenty of pictures as I work to bore people with later, and hopefully will be back in black sometime around the weekend. Fingers crossed!

My friend Mike had an interesting new toy, this weekend - a reusable chemical hand-warmer in the shape of a flat transparent pouch containing a solution of sodium acetate and a thin, coin-sized metal disk. One flexes the disk slightly by pressing through the pouch, and suddenly a change starts spreading outwards from the metal: the clear solution starts to solidify and turn white, releasing heat as it does so. After a few minutes the entire pouch is opaque and semi-solid, and toasty warm with it! It "runs down" after half an hour or so, at which point it can be revitalised by being boiled gently until clear again. The chemical reaction is well known, I gather, but it's not one I had come across before and I was rather charmed - there's a neat explanation here.

Mike also told me that Britain is about to launch a Mars probe - and a lander, no less! Beagle 2, named after the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his inspirational voyage, will ride piggy-back on ESA's Mars Express orbiter mission next year, before making a soft landing with parachutes and an air-bag system. The package is small at only 30Kg, but is comparatively hi-tech and even has a remote probe that can burrow under the Martian surface to take samples from within a five metre radius. A working life-span of at least 180 days is expected, and if all goes well with the delivery mechanisms I'm sure that some interesting data will be returned.

Another interesting space mission, if somewhat inadvertently, is the upcoming launch of the QinetiQ 1 high-altitude balloon. The canopy of this incredible device measures 381m (as high as the Empire State Building) and has a volume of 1.2 million cubic metres. The launch is expected sometime in the next month or so, winds permitting, and the plan calls for it's space-suited crew to be carried to 132,000 feet in the open cockpit in search of a new altitude record.

I hear at Ars.Technica that British Telecom has "utterly lost" their claim to hold the patent on the concept of hyperlinking, and thus on the World Wide Web. There's an overview at ZD Net, and apparently the full judgement is available as a PDF. Hah!

22nd August

Another visit from our network hardware supplier, this time in the person of a gen-u-ine Cisco guru - a huge, smiling, soft-spoken man who was obviously extremely vexed that he couldn't fix what had appeared to be a simple SNMP community string issue... I've lost write access from the management console to the core switch, which has rather stalled moving the remaining servers across to it, and in the end he scratched his head and gave me a quick course in setting the port characteristics via the IOS command line.

However, he sniffed around the whole LAN, and declared the network to be in good shape - he is sure that the steady flood of UDP errors reported by CiscoWorks is bogus, on the very reasonable grounds that the graphs showed around 95% of UDP packets being dropped - and if that was the case, something somewhere would be failing badly, which it apparently isn't! Being the anxious type, I'm not completely convinced, but he's promised to investigate in the closed Cisco-guru forums and see what he can find out for me. He also explained why the network wouldn't feel much faster than in it's previous incarnation - and he was equally convincing as when his colleague explained why it would when the project started a couple of months ago... Ho hum.

However, one of the other main issues, the truly pathetic network performance of the department manager's laptop, suddenly vanished yesterday when we replaced the built-in network interface module with a similar equivalent - it's not clear without further testing whether the module was faulty or the chipset somehow incompatible, but at least he's off our back before the end of the month busy period starts.

Meanwhile, the home LAN has stalled rather while we sort and hide the usual mounds of kipple and things with no home... I got as far as putting the new USB hub-cum-picture-frame on my desk last night, but I'm still dithering over how to arrange all the ports and peripherals and didn't even wire in the power supply! Half of the external hardware (modem, wireless transceiver for the remote mouse and keyboard, KVM switch, Lego robotics, and about a mile of assorted cabling that may or may not be useful...) is still in piles on desk and floor, and the PC feels a little gutted. I do hope that there's a window for the rebuild soon...

21st August

Too tired, too busy... work is insane again, and home too full of cables and furnishings. It never ends...

So the PC is still boring beige, and last night one of the windows in the new case started unbonding from the frame as I was testing a replacement for a faulty Digidoc - presumably the heat softening the adhesive tape. Even more annoying, it slipped over the chassis like a ratchet pawl when I put the side panel back on, and took fifteen minutes of fiddling and twiddling from outside before I could slide it off again! It's annoying.

19th August

Phew! Back online again, but still with a boring old beige PC case.  :-( The room rearrangement worked out very well, in the end, but was extremely hard work in the current heat wave and took far longer than we'd hoped: mid-way through the first day, we decided against re-using a long table custom-made for the old layout, and which really didn't fit so well in it's new home. Instead, we went shopping for wood, stain and legs, and made a longer, segmented unit to hold most of our computer peripherals. It's given us far more surface area, and best of all it's open at one end so that I can crawl underneath to lay new cables etc - absolute luxury, for a techie...

It threw us badly behind schedule, though, what with the sanding and staining and drying, and although Ros has had full connectivity since late Friday evening, I only got around to hooking my system up earlier today! So, unfortunately the new case will have to wait for a little longer, which is rather a pity as I was hoping to show it off to guests this weekend - but I don't think there's much chance of fitting it into the remaining evenings of this week without rushing dangerously. <pout>

Meanwhile, Dan has been theorising again: "Why it doesn't matter whether censorware works or not".

14th August

Entries here are going to be few and far-between over the next week - an idea that started as simply rotating my desk to show off the new PC case better has turned into a complete re-arrangement of the large lounge/office room... As well as moving almost every piece of furniture, I'll also have to re-lay the cabling etc for the entire LAN and AV systems, and somehow the wiring for our four workstations and the server seems to be as complex and convoluted as for a typical corporate branch office. It's all very worthwhile, as we're in need of a change, but it will take rather a bite out of the time off I'd scheduled for the PC rebuild, and unfortunately that may now be a bit of a rush. Wish me luck!

In the meantime, Dan is writing about spam. He has a theory...

12th August

I've learned a valuable lesson during the last week - modern networking hardware is so sophisticated that the side-effects that occur when it is misbehaving can look like anything but network issues. In the last few weeks, I've had an intranet server that persistently hung shortly after booting, an app server that insisted it was experiencing disk subsystem errors, an SNA server that blue-screened constantly with IRQ-related messages, and a general sense of weirdness about several other systems. To be accurate, I have also seen a number of problems that were easily identifiable as connectivity issues - PCs failing to find a domain controller, appallingly poor network performance when they do, and a server that would hang rock-solid when someone tried to copy a small file over the network.

The single common factor, though, is that they have all gone away after a firmware upgrade for the switches and some tinkering with the network ports at each end of the problematic connections, hard-coding the duplex and speed rather than relying on auto-negotiation. Parts of the network are still running more slowly than I'd hoped and expected, but I'm too close to it all right now to get the big picture... but I'm taking a few days off around this weekend to work on the home systems (and re-arrange the room, too, it now appears!) so will leave it all to the tender ministrations of my manager and the supplier while I regain some perspective. It's been a busy and stressful few weeks...

10th August

Work went smoothly enough (Aaaargh! The cables! The cables have got me!) but I couldn't do as neat a job as I'd hoped - this particular floor is one of the two that we've upgraded to structured cabling for voice and data, so the patch panel is even busier than usual. I'd hoped to run all the data patch cables down one side of the cabinet, and the voice down the other side, but in the end it was too much work: thanks to the tender administrations of our comms guy, the telephone patch cables were impersonating the Gordian Knot and I would have needed to document both ends of around 150 cables before disconnecting and replacing them, and just couldn't face it...

I still had some energy left when I got home, though, and evidently hadn't had enough cable trauma, as I hooked up a spare power supply to the new case and started testing the electrical systems. The fans seem fairly powerful even at the middle of their speed range, and are also pleasingly quiet there. The 80mm units are pretty noisy when cranked up to full speed, but the120mm units only produce a low hum to go with a whopping 95 cubic feet per minute of air flow! Wow!

I hooked up the neons for a while, too, and very pretty they are - a pinkish-red light, and not as bright and over-powering as I'd feared. If all goes according to plan I can tuck them in behind the front edge of the windows so that they're not directly visible, but light the entire case with a soft glow... Mmmmm.

Frankenstein's PC... The first picture, with the front panel removed, shows the air filter in it's white frame. I think I'll remove the entire unit, as I'd rather blow dust out of the case with a can of spray air occasionally than lose perhaps twenty percent of my airflow! The second picture shows the mass of cabling in the base of the case, which will also be trimmed down considerably - it carries signals from the rear of the computer to the front-mounted USB and FireWire ports, and as I won't be using more than a couple of them it would be a shame to have to hide all the excess cable somewhere. Fortunately, the ones I don't want will just slip off their headers

I picked up a black floppy drive a few weeks ago, as they're so cheap that painting or replacing the bezel on an old one was hardly worth it, but thanks to a friend I've managed to get replacement black bezels for my CD writer and tape drive sent over from the US, and Kustom provided a painted bezel for the slot-load DVD and a painted Digidoc. It's going to be very black...

9th August

I think that the network problems at work have finally been resolved... [Crosses fingers] Some of them were traced to auto-negotiation failures between devices, but the actual problem seems to have been a buggy firmware revision in the Cisco 2950 switches. As a test, we dropped in one of their predecessors, a 3500, and all was fine... Back with the 2950 to confirm, we discovered that we could kill one particular server stone dead over the network simply by trying to copy a small text file from one of it's disks... Not good!

So, we've now upgraded the firmware in the 2950s (to the latest "D" revision, only a couple of weeks old and not yet released to the general public), and the first indications are of a significant improvement - there are still a few dropped packets, which worries me rather, but that may simply be excessive collisions on the cobbled-together stack of hubs that I threw into place when the switches started acting up. I'm popping into the office for a few hours tomorrow to ditch the hubs and re-wire everything again, so I guess we'll know by the end of Monday...

Oddments online, culled from the entertaining and informative front page of [H]ard|OCP:

Single molecule motor

Crossing the Atlantic by model aeroplane

Profiting from crime

The Electric Pickle

Big block AMD

8th August

I didn't have time to do much more than connect the new speakers last night, but even a brief test was suggesting that all was not quite right... After a flip through the manual today, I noticed a procedure to reset to factory defaults (Hah! I rebooted my speakers! Cool!) and was rewarded with perfect silence and a new frown line. Some scratching of heads and double-checking with the old hardware finally showed that the remote control's cable wasn't pushed far enough into it's socket, and after an extra-firm shove all has now burst into life again and seems to be working well. It's certainly louder than the old system, and after much fiddling the sound is noticeably cleaner and crisper, too.

The sheer number of sound controls is becoming a little baffling, though - the sound card has a hardware EQ function like the graphic equaliser of a hi-fi, which is mirrored (or interfered with, depending on your point of view) in software by most of the current MP3 players, and there are the usual bass and treble controls on the speakers themselves... I have volume controls in the player apps, the sound card's mixer, the keyboard, and now the speakers... I can add various stereo expansion tricks in software with the SRS or Sensaura options in the player apps, the sound card has it's own digital signal processor for all the trick echo and delay effects, and the new speakers provide their own stereo-to-quad mode, too!

It's a lot of fuss just to play a CD...

7th August

I installed the new speakers tonight, against my better judgement: I'd been intending to wait until the grand rebuild and rearrangement, but I needed a lift after a stressful day at work and, for some peculiar reason, taking said work home with me still seems to have an appeal! Of course, teasing the old cables out and the new ones in through the existing maze of wiring was far from easy, but as a short-term solution I allowed myself a few compromises [FX: Balls up massive handfuls of speaker cable and stuffs it brutally behind the desk] so it wasn't too bad.

The work stuff is proving rather traumatic, though - this afternoon it suddenly occurred to me that there were a lot of misbehaving servers, suddenly, and all but one of them had been fairly trouble-free systems before the network infrastructure upgrade ten days ago. The symptoms are bizarre and apparently unrelated, though - one of our cash-cow e-commerce servers has suddenly started dying (no blue screen, no messages, just a complete absence of anything) at a set time every day, the intranet server kept locking up until I disabled half of it's hardware, the department manager's laptop died every time he opened his email, a previously peaceful minor server persistently refused to boot properly, and this afternoon our SNA print gateway suddenly started blue-screening endlessly.

It was the latter that started me thinking, though - the problems miraculously vanished when (on a wild hunch) I moved it's network connection from one of the new switches to a hub attached to the switch, and playing the hunch further with the manager's connection cured most of his problems too! I've now isolated the cash-cow's network from the main LAN, separating it from any of the new hardware, so we shall see what happens when that time rolls around this evening! I certainly wouldn't have expected network switching problems to cause this kind or range of symptoms, but the coincidence seems too much... I just don't build servers that badly!

We shall see in the morning, I guess...

6th August

Busy busy, tonight, making some notes on all the transplanting and re-arranging required for the new case... I blame Thermaltake and their dammed Xaser II case for starting me off on all of this...

I'll try to take some better photos tomorrow in natural light - all that black turned out to be rather too much for the camera's auto-exposure under flash... As Richard pointed out, it's rather like Disaster Area's stunt-ship in Douglas Adam's The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe:

"The walls of the swaying cabin were also black, the ceiling was black, the seats - which were rudimentary since the only important trip this ship was designed for was supposed to be unmanned - were black, the control panel was black, the instruments were black, the little screws that held them in place were black, the thin tufted nylon floor covering was black, and when they had lifted up a corner of it they had discovered that the foam underlay also was black."

I think it's sad that I've started to wonder about whether the motherboard will look out of place, too green and garish... <laughs>

5th August

It's here...

First impression - I knew that aluminium cases were considerably lighter than traditional ones, but somehow I wasn't expecting it to be that light! The SuperMicro's industrial-grade steel, lined with "sound insulation" and filled with a dual processor motherboard and a full complement of hardware, weighs about as much as I can comfortably lift something so delicate... The new case is less bulky, too, and I think will be noticeably easier to heft about.

Second impression, having shed the packaging - Oooooooooooooooooooh, baby!

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The black and gold finish is as pretty as I'd hoped, if not more so, and Kustom have made a very neat and professional job of the modifications: the window edges are almost perfect, the blowholes likewise, no nicks or scratches that I've noticed so far... There are a couple of things that I might have done a little differently myself, but nothing that matters in any way.

Third impression - it's so small! I may have to buy shorter cables for everything! The windows won't allow me much leeway to tuck things out of sight, either, and arranging all the wiring is going to be a real challenge... However, although I'd been a little concerned that the 12" cold cathode neon lights would have to be exchanged for 4" units, they fit into the one possible location (and a very good location it is, too) as if they'd been designed for it.

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This is going to be a whole raft of work, but although I'm not looking forward to the wiring (especially as the interior resembles a black hole - I need a geek-lamp), I can tell already that it's going to be a really neat system when everything is in place... Unfortunately, due to pressures of work, I won't be able to start the transplant for another couple of weeks, and in the meantime I will probably wear out the shiny finish staring at it and anticipating...

Oh, and I seem to have bought myself some new speakers, too... pure impulse, having noticed them heavily discounted online. They're not the best on the market, but are very stylish and will bring an increase in power from around 45 lying-Watts to around 70 lying-Watts - I think this will help to compensate for the apparently rather lower output level of the new soundcard, as I've definitely been missing some of the oomph, recently...

4th August

The new incarnation of the PC will be cabled a little differently, with most of the external devices connected via the new USB2 hub rather than directly to the PC case, and as the re-wiring involved is likely to be a touch traumatic I've finally decided to <ominous chord> do something about it. I'm going to pull the desk out from the wall a few inches to give clearance, and then screw four parallel lengths of plastic snap-in trunking into the wall above the level of the desk. We use this stuff on one of the server racks at work, and although it's a little awkward to pull off the covers, the home PC wiring doesn't change quite so often and I think it will be better than the current tangle. I can thread all the wires in and out at the appropriate points, and separate power from data, digital from analogue, infrastructure from transient, etc etc.

I've been researching webcam software, today, so that Ros and I can keep in touch when she sets off on her round the world trip some time in the autumn. I've picked up a pair of neat little 3Com webcams for that, but I'm kind of interested in streaming some video to the web-at-large, as well - and for that I think I'd need something with a little more horsepower. The easiest way is just to upload a series of still JPG images, but the FTP connections and transfers required can limit the final frame rate to about one every five seconds! Far more elegant, and with significantly better performance, is to have the client PC's browser connect directly to a video stream hosted on or near the camera itself, and the popular consumer software comes with built-in web-servers to do just that. Reading their technical specs has, however, made several new lines appear on my forehead at the idea of allowing any passing script-kiddie inside my firewall and, worse yet, directly onto my own personal PC. However - I've been lusting after the Axis Network Cameras for many years, now, and with their Linux kernel and built-in web-server I'd feel safe enough opening a firewall port directly to the hardware - although they have an optimised FTP client, too, for added flexibility. The basic 2100 model is just about affordable given that I know that I'm only playing with this, and on a good day I might even stretch to the 2191 audio module, but after that the prices take a sudden hike and the more exotic flavours are four figures...

3rd August

I'm still working my way through Hubbard's Mission Earth series, having started book five last night. I'm actually rather enjoying them - they're certainly not quality SF, by anyone's standards, but they're fast-paced, easy to read, and have a definite air of some the 1930s classics. In fact, more and more I find myself reminded of EE "Doc" Smith's Lensman series, re-written from the viewpoint of the bad guys - Hubbard's protagonist, the sleazy, corrupt bully Soltan Gris, seems tailor-made for the part of a Zwilnik agent shadowing Lensman Kimball Kinnison (ably played in "Mission Earth" by the pure, courageous Fleet office Jettero Heller) as the current batch of evil Boskonian overlords prepares their trap for him. Gris's frustration and despair as Heller evades each new plot laid would be thoroughly familiar to Smith's hapless Zwilniks...

In spite of a rigorous education in the use of the English language many years ago, these days I sometimes find myself bamboozled by the basic rules of grammar - especially the use of apostrophes. Fortunately, as always, help is at hand on the net, this time from Stephen Notley's bizarre and wonderful strip "Bob the Angry Flower". Having recently linked to Dan Rutter's parody on the name in his recent article on the memory effect in rechargeable batteries, here's the original: "Bob's Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots".

2nd August

A wearisome couple of days... The network was behaving well enough by Thursday morning, so I spent the day up to my arms in the brightly-coloured spaghetti of the cable closets, moving all the switch hardware around, retiring all the hubs, and tidying the patch cables as I did so. The regular users now get a switched allocation of the 400Mbit/sec backbone to the servers, which should feel noticeably faster given that last week many of them were connected via 10Mbit/sec hubs... I doubt if the ungrateful bastards will say anything, though - after [pauses to count on my fingers] gosh, after more than eighteen years in the computer industry, I can't ever remember a user saying anything good about the network itself... They rarely realise the complexity of the system that links them to their data, I suppose, so assume that there's nothing much to go wrong with a bunch of wires... <sighs deeply> And one woman, having seen me up puzzling over the switch hardware yesterday, asked later how the telephone upgrade was going... "so we'll all be able to talk to each other at once, or something?", she hazarded... Now, telephones aren't my forte, really, but I thought they could do that already...?

Today wasn't so productive, though - the intranet server has finally given up under the load, refusing to do anything much more than answer a ping packet. It's just a desktop-spec Dell Optiplex PC, originally designed to host a test site for a dozen or so users while the company decided if an intranet would be of any use. A couple of years later it's hosting a flashy and exotic animated web site, complete with discussion board, internal telephone directory, mainframe terminal emulation sessions, mainframe and network status pages, anti-virus warnings, mass distribution of automated reports, a feed from the Daily Dilbert strip, and probably a partridge in a pear tree, too... and all used extensively by up to several hundred users at once! In spite of a year of dire warnings, a few weeks ago a new directory enquiries application was installed while I was on holiday, and the overhead of decompressing and decrypting it's massive database (the app is a first beta, too!) just seems to have been too much... It's been having odd file-locking problems over the last couple of days, and when I rebooted this morning to fix them, it fried it's software-mirrored disk partitions and hung persistently shortly after NT login. I eventually brought it back online with a combination of NTFSDOS, VGA mode, and removing some memory and one of the mirrored disks! But it only needs to hang together for a few weeks in that lobotomised state, as management have finally decided that, oh, yes, maybe the intranet is important enough to rate a proper server to run on, after all! <mutters> I really have been telling them that for ages, and dammit it's not as if servers are very expensive these days - my senior manager spends almost as much when he upgrades his laptop every six months! <foams at mouth>

Pass the dried frog pills, there's a good fellow...

1st August

The new PC case is ready, and Kustom mailed to say that they were out of stock of blue cold-cathode lights, but would I like the case shipped anyway? In the end, I swapped the blue for a second red light, as I've been dubious about mixing colours anyway (too fussy a look?) and had intended to buy a second of whichever colour worked best. So - it was shipped today, and will be with me on Monday or, possibly, even tomorrow! I'm really looking forward to seeing it!

In other news, Service Pack 3 for Windows 2000 has finally been released, as have the new ATI Catalyst video drivers. I am keeping both firmly at arm's length for a few weeks and, with the catalyst drivers especially, my scepticism seems justified already. No early "gotchas" with SP3, though - unless one has a weird installation (debug or special-purpose builds) it seems as straight-forward as the previous two releases. I will almost certainly install it, of course, but having had a quick skim through the massive list of fixes few of them seem very relevant and I'm not really expecting much change.

The remarkable Dan of Dan's Data has written an extremely useful guide to the "memory effect" in rechargeable batteries. Is there anything technical that man doesn't know about? Dan wasn't very well, last month, but he managed to play the sympathy card well enough for his loyal readership to contribute around $300 (US, not Australian!) so that he could buy the radio-controlled tank kit that he'd been faunching over. One has to admire his chutzpah...





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