29th December

One of my more pleasing acquisitions this christmas was a copy of Laurie Anderson's retrospective of the first two decades of her work, Stories From The Nerve Bible. It seems to have been out of print for a while, now, and copies are rare in the second-hand market - I dropped out of an eBay auction earlier this month when the bidding reached $75, and had resigned myself to a long search.

However, Ros managed to track one down on Alibris in time for christmas, and I seized it eagerly before disappearing into it for the rest of the day. There's very little overlap with RoseLee Goldberg's recent biography, it turns out, even though the format is much the same - diagrams of her early installation art, behind-the-scenes performance details, technical minutiae, lyrics and images galore... There's a lot there, and it's all wonderfully bound together with Anderson's own thoughts and feelings on her work, her travels, her life, and the inspiration and meaning behind her songs:

After the readings there was a question and answer section. The most frequent question was - “Is this stuff really true?” The answer is yes, except for the songs. For example, I wrote a song about seeing a host of angels mowing down my lawn and I don’t even have a lawn. It just seems like I do sometimes.

It's hard to only like Laurie Anderson a little, it seems, and if you've taken the same route to obsessive fan-worship that I have, you'll want this book - buy the Goldberg bio too, but search high and low for Nerve Bible itself.

Elsewhere, and thanks to Dale for the link - MSNBC on 'The year’s top 10 space mysteries'. Interesting stuff, and although as usual MSN's style is a touch superficial, the article is well-populated with links to greater detail.

28th December

Back in London after a few days with my parents in Devon, and still reeling after a serious second-hand bookshop frenzy - Ashburton, Totnes and the Plymouth Barbican, then the two vast Bookbarns in Glastonbury and Wells on the way home, and finally an unexpected visit to the previously unknown Bookbarn trade warehouse outside Wells when we ended up driving past it while slightly lost. The latter was remarkable, with a larger section for science fiction and fantasy than entire bookshops elsewhere - but few of them were sorted alphabetically! Even the eye of a seasoned book-hound wasn't enough to take in all the titles in the time available, and I know that I must have missed a number of gems... but I came home with fifty books in all, including some that I'm really pleased to have found, and they should keep me going for a while.

Meanwhile, all sorts of weird stuff seems to have been happening - Microsoft will be forced to bundle Sun's Java Virtual Machine with future releases of Windows, desperate techies are working for free in the remnants of San Francisco's dotcom boom, a bizarre Canadian cult has announced the imminent birth of the first human clone, and Kevin Mitnick is to be allowed back on the Internet in the new year. It's good to live in the End Times!

And finally, thanks to notable political 'blog The Sideshow for this vital resource - how to say "Oh my god! There's an axe in my head!" in more than one hundred different languages. I shall have to learn a couple of the more obscure ones for use at the office...

21st December

I probably won't be updating here for the next week - I'm going to try to take some time away from computers over the holiday, if possible, and see if I can recharge my batteries a little.

Very best wishes to my small band of regular readers, and a waved "hi" to everyone else who wanders in here accidentally via Google.

Back after christmas!

20th December

Two fascinating and closely-connected stories today, featuring those stalwart defenders of corporate greed the Recording Industry Association of America. Firstly, it emerges in The Register that the RIAA have been distinctly "economical with the truth" about their recent sales figures - although it may well be true that CD sales have fallen by 10% over the last few years, they have just admitted that their actual production has fallen by 25% - the industry released only around 27,000 titles in 2001, compared to 38,900 in 1999. In other words, despite fewer albums being released, despite the evils of copy-protection, despite the terrible threat of file-sharing, the war against it, and the price increases that it has been used to justify - in spite of all that people are buying more CDs than ever! Obviously, this news casts an even greater shadow over the RIAA's increasingly hysterical demands for aggressive powers against file-sharing networks and mandatory copy-protection for all, but with Intel and Microsoft both firmly behind the idea of digital rights management we may be at the stage where facts don't matter much, any more...

Elsewhere, and acting as a timely reminder of the exact corporate nature of the recording industry, it seems that after the success of the anti-trust suit alleging widespread price-fixing of CDs by the industry giants, we've finally come down to the pay-out. Under the terms of the settlement, every US citizen who bought pre-recorded CDs, tapes or records between 1995 and 2000 will be eligible for a refund to a maximum of $20 each. A little over $67 million has been allocated (along with $75 million's worth of CDs, destined for various public and non-profit groups), but the final amount will depend on the number of claims made - and if the individual payments would be less than $5, the whole amount will go instead to those same non-profit groups.

It's grim stuff - an organisation who's members have admitted to being sleazy and corrupt, both individually and as a corporate mass, is successfully lobbying the government into passing new, invasive, un-constitutional laws merely to allow it to sell less product at greater profit. Damn, but it's the 19th century robber-barons all over again!  <sigh>

19th December

Well, I've finally had a response from Adaptec about their DuoConnect USB2/Firewire interface's compatibility with SMP dual-processor PCs - and I am not particularly pleased:

"We do not support the use of our drivers in multi processor machines. The Microsoft drivers seem to work correctly and they should continue to be used. Do not load our drivers as they are not supported on your hardware environment. As for our future plans - I have not seen an indication that we will be producing drivers for multi-processor machines."

I think that this is outrageous coming from a company like Adaptec, who made their name with add-ons for real, grown-up server hardware - almost exclusively multi-processor! Apart from anything else, the performance PC craze is in full-flow right now, and SMP-based systems are no longer an insignificant, ignorable niche market - as well as the traditional (and expensive!) Pentium-based solutions, SMP systems based on most of AMD's range and even Intel's budget Celeron chips are now readily available.

So, Adaptec have now joined Creative on the "couldn't give a fuck about power-users" list, and I've spent the last hour getting my own back by posting their response to NT Compatible, 2CPU, and various other compatibility databases... If I can at least prevent one other techie from being burned by this, I'll be that little bit happier...

One saving grace is that, in spite of the protestations to the contrary in their documentation, Adaptec's USB Control utility does seem to work with the Microsoft drivers. Even in my current disgruntled state I have to admit that it's really quite slick, and has already told me some things I didn't know about my USB subsystem - principally that all three of the DuoConnect's rear USB2 ports are on the same root hub, rather than split between the two that the card provides. I assume that the internal port (intended for connections via the case's own front ports) is exclusively on the second hub, which seems to be a fairly arbitrary decision...

18th December

Into London this morning to meet with Microsoft and Eurodata, their solution partner for our Rapid Adoption Programme rollout of AD and .Net Server. It was a lot of hot air, really, but the next step sounds considerably more productive - a three-day "workshop" at our office to analyse our current configuration and plan the Active Directory schema itself. It should be happening early in the New Year, and with .Net still on target to "go gold" at the end of Q1 it sounds as if we have a plausible timescale for both design and implementation.

On the other hand, you should have seen my manager's face when he realised that all this high-powered consultancy wasn't going to be quite as free as he'd been expecting. Admittedly, nobody had actually mentioned anything about paying until now, but I guess I'm just more cynical than he is (I've been in the IT industry for three times as long, so its almost compulsory!) and I was rather expecting a large invoice to turn up at some point.  <laughs> Well, it's not my money, and besides - we've been hand-picked by Microsoft as a flagship rollout for .Net Server (we're the UK's leader in our particular vertical market, somehow) and they'll be throwing publicity at us... I might even get my photo in Computing or IT Week. Coo!

17th December

UK radio station Virgin are currently holding a Top-100 Great British Artists poll, and although John Otway is unaccountably absent from the drop-down list, they're accommodating enough to provide a space for write-in candidates, too. Let's make this the next big one for Otway! Yeah!

Work is mad, and I am rapidly starting to emulate it. Only three more days...  <grits teeth>

16th December

A day without overt crises, fortunately, although a quick trip to the warehouse this morning confirmed that Friday's aircon failure had indeed roasted the external DLT tape drive on the server... Not especially a problem, as our maintenance contract will probably have replaced it by the time I write this, but the total cost for the failure is mounting up. I hope that this finally makes management sit up and listen - without an adequate infrastructure, my department will never be able to offer an adequate service. and I think it's about time we took responsibility for these facilities away from our Site Services department - I'm a great fan of managing things in-house, even within a company...

I don't expect the rest of the week to be as peaceful, though - this is my last week before the christmas holiday, and I have a whole bunch to fit in... Including a visit to one of Microsoft's "Solution Partners" on Wednesday to discuss next year's AD migration. Busy busy!

Elsewhere, and in this case I'm glad that it is elsewhere - introducing... Uncle Booger's Bumper Dumper. For only $59.95, you too can have... Oh, just go and see for yourself.

15th December

Adaptec have released a new version of their USB2 drivers - but a close examination of the README file reveals that they are still "unsupported" for SMP systems. I've mailed them to ask for clarification, and while I was at it made a few somewhat barbed comments about a company that makes its living mostly from products for server hardware releasing drivers that are described as unsuitable for servers...   <sigh>

Elsewhere, it seems that the RIAA's crusade against P2P file-sharing networks is having an unexpected and, to them, doubtless unwelcome effect. As the smaller networks have fallen by the wayside under the threat of legal action, everyone seems to be conglomerating on the Kazaa network - and a quick check this morning reports three million users online, between them sharing almost six hundred million files!

The effectiveness of a P2P network such as this depends on the ease and speed with which one can find the data required, and the more users who join, the better the experience will be - so by crushing Napster and the other early centralised networks, the RIAA has actually made the few remaining decentralised networks far better for the end-users. I suspect that the cat is truly out of the bag now, too - even if Sharman, the owner of the Kazaa protocol, is sued out of existence, the absence of any single "master node" will ensure that the network itself carries on regardless. The only potential solution would seem to be attacks launched directly at individual nodes, and of course is this is exactly what the RIAA and others are lobbying for permission to do.

Fortunately I suspect that, even if this bastardry passes through the US legislature, it will ultimately prove ineffective and even counter-productive... with an enormous number of end-users to locate and attack, and taking into consideration the essentially dynamic IP addressing used by the clients and the essentially static addressing used by the RIAA's own networks, it would be like starting a rock fight from the bottom of a well - the massive distributed DOS attacks that would doubtless be launched by the Black Hat community in reprisal could keep the offensive servers paralysed indefinitely.  <smile>  I think it might be rather entertaining.

14th December

Where was this back in the summer when I needed it? Nerdslut, on Latin For Breakups:

    Amare et sapere vix deo conceditur...    - Publilius Syrus

Ah, yes...

Meanwhile - here's the new car. Very slick, very luxurious, and I already love it to bits... I'm still a touch confused about the heating and aircon systems, mostly because of their sheer flexibility - I seem to be able to make so many different temperatures of air come out of so many different places at once that I almost feel a GUI interface is called for! I'm undecided on how to mount the cell phone, too - I didn't mind having holes drilled in the Granada's vinyl dashboard, but the best place on the BMW is right in the middle of an extremely elegant area of walnut, and it seems altogether too sacrilegious...

13th December

There's trouble at mill, again, with yet another aircon failure... Not the main computer rooms, this time, but instead thirty miles away on the other end of the leased-line to our distribution centre. It's a little room built from sheets of plasterboard in the corner of a warehouse, about ten feet square and only just large enough to comfortably hold a pair of fire safes and a full-height server cabinet plus server - a big-ass Compaq ProLiant 3000 that hosts a disaster-recovery mirror of our cash-cow Oracle database. With a full complement of processors and disks the air conditioning is vital, and one of the local supervisors is supposed to be checking it every day to make sure that everything is Ok. Evidently he hasn't been, however, as when our DBA visited for a software upgrade this afternoon he opened the door to be driven back by a wall of heat.

I felt extremely guilty when I heard the story, as I know I haven't been using Compaq's Insight Manager server monitoring app as thoroughly as I should have been... The old versions were marvellous apps, and saved my bacon on many occasions, but since they converted to a slow, confusing browser interface and added flakey DMI support, I find the whole thing extremely tiresome. Unfortunately, Dell's equivalent, the Open Manage suite, is equally flakey and fragile, and between them I'm currently relying on the hardware's fault-tolerance rather than acting on early warnings.  <sigh> Fire-fighting - the curse of sysadmins.

However, having checked carefully back through the system logs, then forced down an involuntarily-raised eyebrow and double-checked the exact tolerances online, the server never actually reached a dangerous level! According to Compaq the motherboard's default alert threshold is 60°C, the CPU's is 110°C, and no alarms would have been triggered even if I'd been glued to Insight Manager by the eyeballs! I can't say the same about the disks, though - I'm sure we'll notice reduced life-spans over the next year.

Fortunately, an answer to this problem (and several others) exists in the form of the Jacarta SP2 environmental sensor, apparently also marketed as the sensorHub. Although there are various networkable monitoring devices on the market, most are extremely expensive and far too sophisticated for the basic server-room monitoring I need - the SP2 is a new entry, priced at an extremely reasonable £299 for the unit plus a short temperature senor. Two independent sensors are supported by each unit, and Jacarta offer a good range: temperature, humidity, airflow, water detection, security closure contacts and voltage monitoring at present, with more promised. Any measurement exceeding various user-defined thresholds can send an alert via SNMP or SMTP email, and the levels can also be monitored in real time via its embedded web server.

I have to say that the sensors themselves are a touch expensive at £100 to £200 each, that the current version of the browser-based monitoring applet is a little basic, and that it took a fair bit of fiddling to get it configured correctly on the LAN... but on the other hand Jacarta's technical support was extremely helpful with the initial problems, and have assured me that most of the interface enhancements I suggested are already being added to the next version of the software. I'd definitely recommend the SP2 even now, though - for less than £500 I have early warning of any temperature increases in both computer rooms, and which will even reach me at home. Another one is now on order for the warehouse.

12th December

Having been told by the site services department that there was "nothing that could be done" about the single fuse for both aircon units, I bounced it upstairs to my management and sat back to watch the fur fly. I think it will turn out that something can be done, after all...

Elsewhere, an amusing article by Patricia Gongal on the pros and cons of relationships with hardcore techies:

"Being in love with a computer geek can try your faculties at the best of times. But hey, just think of the loyalty, dedication, patience, and enthusiasm that must be buried in that boy somewhere! Or.... just remember the free tech support."

Elsewhere again, The Law Of The Playground, a site describing itself as "the least coherent encyclopaedia of playground insults on the Internet" - probably a claim that few would choose to dispute. I stumbled across it when the Updates page unexpectedly popped up during a search for something techy at Google, and it was sufficiently enthralling to completely break my chain of thought. I don't remember any of the new additions from my own school days (these things tend to be extremely parochial, I suspect, in both geography and time) so it was a real education!

My fingers smell of gun oil and I'm collecting the new BMW tomorrow evening... "Bob" is in his heaven and all is right with the Earth.

11th December

It seems that after I left last night, my manager's increasingly terse phone calls finally provoked a visit from a contract aircon engineer, who diagnosed and repaired a blown 65W fuse somewhere in the chain of mains distribution cabinets in the UPS room... so evidently there is a single point of failure for both of the "fault-tolerant" units after all... <sigh>

My PFY apparently ignored everything I told him last night, so I guess the free porn feed was too much of a distraction to ignore - the windows were still open when I arrived, with the three creaky old office fans still blowing (a wonder none of them had caught on fire!), but at least that meant that the room was as cold as I've ever seen it - down to my ideal target of 16° for the first time! It's great for the servers, and also tends to discourage anyone else from spending much time working in what I definitely think of as my domain. It didn't last, of course, as on a good day the aircon in it's current implementation can only hold the temperature at 20°, and by the time I left the office it was back up to a nice, cosy, 21°. However, the temperature sensors for the aircon are currently located not in the computer room but... wait for it... up in the ceiling space of the corridor outside. Obviously, this has a certain effect on how well they relay the temperature inside the computer room to the control mechanism and, once this came to light, so eventually did the fact that the contractor who had installed the hardware had never installed for a computer room before, but was used to open-plan offices - rather a different kettle of fish! Further questioning revealed that although we had two specified aircon units for redundancy, each allegedly powerful enough to cool both the computer room and the UPS room, in the event of a failure in one somebody would actually have to climb up into the ceiling space to physically move a baffle in a duct - and that, thanks to a complete lack of status indicators, nobody would know that anything had failed until the temperatures started to climb! To make matters worse, an engineer sent by the manufacturer to debug the mysterious failures (he didn't, incidentally) was of the opinion that the vents bringing cold air into the room were generally too small, too few, and too badly placed... Oh, and to make maters worse still, it's drying the air so much that I'm getting static shocks when I touch the grounded server racks!

So... the paperwork for the extra vent, the automatic cutover device, the status lights, the humidifier and the remote temperature probes has been grinding through the finance department for the last few months, but nothing yet is actually happening - I'm sure that the directors are keen to know why this system is costing twice as much as was originally agreed, and is still not working reliably after almost a year - but as usual no-one is asking me... We hired the lowest bidder to design the system, without checking their previous experience, and had it installed by an electrician with an almost negative knowledge of data systems - his most recent exploit was to run a five hundred metre length of unshielded CAT5 between two buildings while I wasn't looking, and then take umbrage and complain when I refused to plug it into my network. <sigh> Presumably he was also the idiot who wired both aircon units into the same fuse, so I guess it's going to be a lively day, tomorrow.

10th December

I think I must have done something very bad in a previous life (or possibly even this one!) as the computer room air conditioning failed today and once more threatened to cook all my servers. It had been behaving quite well over the last month or so, and I was actually hoping that the summer's problems were now behind us - but no such luck, evidently, as this time both the main and backup units died simultaneously and no amount of power-cycling and resetting would bring them back online again. Unfortunately, although the hardware itself may be of reasonable standard, our setup was designed by idiots, installed by morons, and is covered by a "when we get round to it" support contract - so we're not due a visit from the engineer (although I hesitate to use the word in these circumstances...) until tomorrow. In the meantime, I've pulled the doors off all the server cabinets, opened the room's doors and windows, scavenged fans from around the office to circulate the air a little, and left my PFY watching the room until the security guards take over later this evening. The latter was probably the easiest part - all I had to do was mention the unrestricted web browser that covers its tracks after use and he was there within minutes... As I predicted, the lure of high-bandwidth porn and warez is something that few twenty-something computer geeks can resist...    :-)

9th December

I wouldn't normally link to a site like Boycott Microsoft, as apart from being firmly in opposition to my own feelings about the company, it is also littered with blatant disinformation and propaganda as well as many technical inaccuracies and examples of utter ignorance... but they also have a fascinating table of all the companies that Microsoft acquired outright, gained control of, or (in the case of Apple) bailed out financially from 1980 to 1999. Whatever you think about Microsoft and its policies, it's quite a list, and reminds me of the boom years of the nineties when Apple considered buying General Motors merely to absorb an embarrassingly large pile of cash! Oh, the good old days...

Work continues to be insanely busy, and now that we're on Microsoft's .Net Rapid Adoption Program is likely to stay that way. I've been playing with a little test domain running .NET RC1, over the last few weeks, and I'm currently waiting eagerly in the queue for the downloadable version of RC2. Microsoft promise that when .Net ships, in the spring, it will be rock solid - and, marketing bullshit aside, having seen the first release candidate I'm inclined to believe them. Watch this space.

7th December

So good to see the boot on the other foot, for a change - after a story last week in the Detroit Free Press came to the attention of Slashdot, arch-spammer Alan Ralsky, a dubious character believed to be personally responsible for a significant percentage of the world's unsolicited email, has been inundated with junk mail to the point where he is now foaming about legal action. It's not quite clear who he intends to sue, though...

More ammunition in the fight against British Telecom's broadband near-monopoly comes from Scottish telecoms provider Thus, now owner of the venerable Demon Internet. Thus has complained that BT is either discriminating against the other UK carriers, or is displaying "fantastic inefficiency and stupidity" - on at least two occasions a prospective Thus broadband customer has been denied ADSL installation by BT on the usual grounds of being too far from the local exchange... however, in one case the customer already had an ADSL connection from BT Broadband, in the other they subsequently applied to BT Broadband and were accepted! It would be nice to think that the newly sanctioned Ofcom, the combined regulator of all things that communicate, will do something about BT's underhand corporate behaviour - but I'll be extremely surprised if anything changes in the foreseeable future.

Elsewhere - can you tell your arse from your elbow? Prove it here, courtesy of the Ass-o-tron...

6th December

Unwelcome news, today, in that the new optical disk library we're expecting after christmas is a free-standing unit rather than rack-mounted and, worse, almost a cubic metre in volume. In its current arrangement the computer room is pretty much full, and although I had mentally reserved half of a 78" server cabinet when the project was first brought to my attention, having made a paper model of the unit's footprint it wouldn't even fit if I sawed it in two... In best tradition, nobody in the accounts department (the initiators of the document-management project that the library will host) thought to check anything like this with us before they'd signed the contract, so my first task of the new year will probably be to rearrange the computer room. <whimpers> Oh, the cables... the cables!

So I was only slightly mollified when my manager also told me that next year I'll probably be managing our DBA as well as the additional PFY I've been demanding, and will officially be a "senior network analyst" with a couple of thousand extra to show for it... Signs of gratitude or even recognition from my management are usually few and far-between, and I'm embarrassed to admit how pleased I am at the prospect. Just as well I'm buying a new car, I guess, to go with the promotion.   :-)

5th December

Today's Epicycle is brought to you courtesy of FrontPage 2002 - quite similar to FP2000, at first glance, but with an interface makeover and various alleged usability enhancements to match the rest of the Office XP suite. Interestingly, it appears that cracking Microsoft's much-vaunted product activation would be as trivial as the news stories suggest - just a few bytes to change in the shared MSO.DLL and J. R. "Bob" Dobbs would be your uncle...

In other news, I've finally tracked down the car I've wanted to replace my current Grenada 2.9i V6 - a BMW 525i auto with aircon, all the electric toys, full black leather and walnut interior, and a Thatcham-approved remote alarm to help keep it safe.... I've been in love with BMWs (I blame my father!) since my first car, the strange but wonderful little 2002 tii. Although this square box on wheels looked more like a Triumph Herald than a sports car, they were extremely successful in the saloon car racing during the seventies and are apparently often seen at classic race meets today. My 1973 tii was the first European car with fuel-injection fitted as standard, and even after twelve years' abuse by previous boy-racers, when I owned it during my salad days it still could burn rubber away from the lights and seriously embarrass most of my then partners-in-crime with their much newer Capris and Astras - although the exhaust tended to smoke with burned oil in positively cartoon-like quantities at anything much above 85mph.

From 2002 to 525 in only eighteen short years... My new 525 (in a metallic plum colour apparently named "Brocade") has taken a while to find, but a deposit is now paid and I should be driving it home sometime at the end of next week. Wheee!

4th December

Testing FrontPage 2002...

3rd December

I had a visit from Microsoft today, which was rather a thrill - a suit and a techie from their Vertical Systems Marketing Integration Division (at least, I think that's what he said) came in to sell us on .Net Server and Active Directory. This was hardly a difficult task, considering my leanings towards their products, but they also mentioned that they're considering us for their Rapid Adoption Program. This is basically a leg-up and a head start, giving us some free migration consultancy from an approved partner and then a copy of .Net server as soon as the code is finalised for manufacturing - usually a month or two before the product becomes generally available.

My manager seemed hopeful that it would also provide some kind of discounted licensing on .Net products, and as they could be using us as a reference site in all sorts of publicity and promotions, in any reasonable world that would be the case... but I've been around Microsoft too long to expect anything like that, and will be eager to sign up simply to get my hands on the tools I need as soon as I can. I'll take all the advice and opinion I can get, too - with upgrades to servers, desktops and back-office applications all planned during 2003, it's going to be a huge project.

Oh, and - .Net Server Release Candidate 2 hit the web today, so it should be arriving on CD to Customer Preview Program subscribers any day now. <rubs hands> This one, I think, will be good...

2nd December

I'm fuming...

For reasons that are too complicated to explain or even understand, my department manager runs a huge volume of our corporate reporting locally from his laptop. This is written in VBA under Access 95, using various dubious data-access drivers to poke into half the systems on the network (including the rented mainframe, the PABX logs, the cash-cow SQL servers and even my Exchange servers!), and then use various equally dubious scripting facilities to send a barrage of annoying email attachments out to the poor unfortunates concerned. Personally I could do without nags about data in address book fields that the users can't even see, but somewhere along the way he's managed to make this set of self-taught, cobbled-together scripts and databases vital to the company's management and any interruption tends to bring down the wrath of the finance director in extremely short order.

Leaving aside the fact that, being a laptop, the system has no redundant disks, no regular backup strategy, and is routinely connected to the vagaries of the Internet without even a software firewall... Leaving aside the fact that he seems to install pretty much anything in the way of shareware utilities and toys that he wants to... Even leaving aside the fact that nobody in his right mind would run anything this important except on a big-ass fault-tolerant SQL server nestled safely in the computer room and that watching this kind of mission-critical system walk out of the door every night makes me come out in chills... Apart from all those there is the man himself. <sigh> I shall just say that he is a very difficult man to work for.

The system coped well enough four years ago when all he had was Office 95, but unfortunately he is obsessed with the latest technology. He changes the laptop to Dell's latest, fattest, shiniest one every year, and evidently has the same lust for painful new experiences with the Office suite - he's attempted to cherry-pick among the releases, demanding that as each subsequent version emerged, certain components of it were installed to replace the previous versions that he had somehow found wanting... Currently it has most of Office XP (including Access), parts of Office 2000 (including Outlook) and, of course, Access 95 hiding unseen down in the basement somewhere.

Running multiple versions of the Office components is usually possible, and with some care can even be reliable and stable - but as Office 95 has been replaced by Office 97, Office 2000 and now Office XP, the gulf between them has widened and widened. Apart from being seven years old, and now completely unsupported by Microsoft, Access 95 was mostly a wrapper around the existing 16bit Access 2, itself bought in from another company several years before, and I'm looking at a spread of more than ten years between the oldest and newest components of the system...

The whole thing has been an obvious can of worms since I joined the company, and I've tried to stay as far as away from it as possible - but unfortunately this has lead to some questionable activities on the part of the people who worked on it in my absence (including installing Office XP in the first place!), so I've been called in to sort out strange problems and weird behaviour more times than I care to name... and each time I've warned (in increasingly stern terms) that it was impossible to guarantee that it would continue to work for very much longer. Unfortunately, again, I've always been able to fix the problems (often with the able assistance of my support company, SynTech) so my Cassandra-like warnings of doom have been completely ignored.

I think the worms have thoroughly spilled out of the can now, though - last Friday I installed various service packs and security updates to both the OS and the three versions of Office (95, 2000 and XP) currently installed, mostly in the hope of fixing a persistent crashing problem when the Access code tried to send messages via Outlook. It all appeared to work well enough at the time, but I got in this morning to find a series of increasingly terse email messages starting from a few minutes after I left on Friday. Considerable effort today has achieved nothing, and I'm now thoroughly fed up with the whole thing! I think that tomorrow I shall forward copies of all the dire warnings I've sent over the last few years, and say - "Ok, now it's actually happened - it's broken and can't be fixed." With servers to build for next year's Active Directory migration, I have much better things to do...

So, tonight I've distracted myself by buying an aircraft cannon, as my friend Dale puts it - the custom-built M4-CQB airsoft assault rifle that I've been lusting over for the last few weeks. Rather than importing from Hong Kong, I've arranged with my local supplier to have one built in the UK from the same off-the-shelf components, and given the duty and VAT I'd have to pay on the original I think he's quoted me a very fair price.

It probably won't be finished and clasped in my hot little hands until after christmas, so until then I shall leave you with some figures... 2500 plastic BBs, each with a muzzle velocity of 280 feet per second and fired at 750 rounds per minute. That is going to make a wonderful mess of a cardboard box target, I think, and would be pretty effective against a department manager, too...

1st December

The stats at Tweakers Australia are reset at the beginning of the month, so please feel free to click and register your approval... and if you don't vote, I'll come round and fill your disk drives with bad pirated copies of the new Harry Potter movie - assuming that I can actually find them online...

 Vote! Vote! Vote!

Elsewhere, a news story at Yahoo reveals that during World War II the British government was planning to threaten Germany with nuclear strikes on their cities - in spite of the fact that even the Americans were still two years away from possessing nuclear weaponry. The bluff was intended to deter Hitler from continuing attacks with the V2 rockets, and although it evidently didn't work, the report reveals an interesting statistic - between them, the 3000 V2s launched only managed to kill 2700 people, which strikes me as a fairly minimalist achievement for a forty-six foot supersonic rocket with a 740kg explosive warhead. The histories tend to agree than the main impact of the V2 was psychological rather than physical, and this is evidently the case - the Nazis would probably have created more actual chaos and damage by sending 3000 spies, each armed with a hand grenade and a pistol, so saving the $50,000 dollar estimated cost of each V2....

Hmmm. This is not a link for arachnophobes: according to CBC, a sixty acre clover field in British Columbia has been invaded by tiny spiders and, until recent rain and snows destroyed it, was completely blanketed in a thick, continuous mat of web. This is extremely unusual behaviour outside of bad B movies, I gather, but no convincing explanation has yet been suggested!

On the subject of wildlife, the current letters page at Dan's Data includes a link showing what happens when a small snake decides to take up residence inside your PC's power supply overnight. Predictably, neither snake nor computer survived the experience...

Dan also links to an interesting new product from Thermaltake, showcased at the recent (and apparently even more disappointing than last year) Comdex Fall. It is a plug-and-play Peltier-based active cooling system, with the interesting wrinkle of a dedicated monitoring and controlling module to ensure that the CPU's temperature never falls below the dew point. With the Peltier's traditional risk of condensation (and the various electrical disasters that tend to follow) removed, this certainly sounds like a plausible gadget - but Dan has done the sums and is convinced that the cooler is drastically underpowered for the modern CPUs that it apparently targets. I will be interested to see the reviews when it finally hits the streets after Thermaltake's usual three month vapourware phase.





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