February 2002 Part Three


21st February

So, I tried that experiment with the KVM switch cabling, today, running a link from the computer room on the ground floor to a spare server in the main office on the third - over a spare backbone and the regular wired-in horizontal runs. In fact, all I used of the special over-spec CAT5e "required" were odd lengths of patch cabling at the KVM switch downstairs and the wiring closet upstairs. Total run length must have been in the order of 200 feet, and nearly all over CAT5 and standard CAT5e, with a pair of patch panel connections and a wall-port thrown in for good measure.

Somewhat to my surprise, especially given the wall-ports and patch panels, the image quality at 1024x768 was very respectable, so it seems that the only real limit to how far we can extend the KVM network will be the budget - this Raritan hardware is good value, it seems, but it's not cheap...

More online shopping, today, as I've finally found a supplier for the little machine-vices I need for the Dremel's drill press. These have been annoyingly hard to find in the UK, online or in person, and I was almost resigned to an overseas order. However, a rather off-the wall search at Google eventually brought me to DIYTools.com, a UK-based company in spite of the domain, and to my delight they had both the models I wanted - and a bunch of Dremel bits and bobs that I bought just because... Their site is a pleasure to use, actually - lots of little sidebars showing the things you've browsed recently, and related things, and other things from the same manufacturer, or in the same category... really useful - and very effective at making one spend more than one had intended. :-)

It's going to be a busy weekend, I think - I really want to finish the two models (they're very close, now, with the lander needing only the decals and finishing touches), I really want to have a go with the sound insulation, and I really need to do something about the drive cooler on one of my primary disks, which seems to be making the annoying clicking sound that normally precedes a complete fan failure... I have a spare, and having to fit that will give me the incentive to disconnect the PC (No! The Cables! The Cables! Aargh!) and move it onto the table, which will certainly make fitting the soundproofing a lot easier.


20th February

I've finally acceded to the polite requests (well, and the petition) to invest in some sound-proofing for the PC. I've bought two types, from the UK company Chillblast, and will probably use both on different parts of the case and chassis. The first is relatively recent, the too-cutely named "Magic Fleece", with composite layers of felt-like material; the second is a rather more conventional bituminous/cork amalgam of the sort often used in high-end car audio installations. I also picked up ThermalTake's new cooler, the Crystal Orb  - I have no particular plans for it, but I have a weakness for Orbs in general and it is so pretty...

I've also been shopping at Healthspan, a UK online supplier of vitamins and herbal medicines. Their prices are extremely competitive compared with the high street, the St John's Wort that I use coming in at less than half the price I usually pay in Holland & Barratt. It's often awkward or impossible to find out the concentration of the active ingredient in commercial herbal medicines, but Healthspan provide reams of hard information and that alone was enough to impress me. Recommended.

19th February

Microsoft continues to have a tough time of it in the ongoing anti-trust case: U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly (where did she get that name?) has ruled that portions of the Windows source code, including that of XP and XP Embedded, must be released to the nine states in litigation. I have strong feelings on this, especially as arch-enemies AOL and Oracle are hand in glove with the state attorneys, and would just love to get their grubby little fingers on the more interesting parts of Windows... but that's not the thing that made me raise an eyebrow today... Look at the final two paragraphs of the full ZDNet coverage here:

"An unrelated drama quietly unfolded behind Microsoft and the states' weeklong legal fight. Major media organizations, including The Associated Press, CNN and The New York Times, had petitioned the court to make public depositions for the remedy process. A deposition is sworn oral testimony generally available only to the parties in the action.

But in yet another blow to the news organizations, Kollar-Kotelly on Thursday denied a request for an expedited hearing on the matter. Depositions in the case started Jan. 22. The news outlets had asked for access to five depositions and deposition transcripts."

Considering that this action is being taken purely for the benefit of the American people, or so we are continually assured, I really do think they should be allowed to see the information that the final judgement will be based on. Much of the US press is in rather a sorry state these days, and preventing them from being able to provide full and accurate coverage, should they so choose, can only assist the downwards spiral...

17th February

More work on the kits, today, and they're both coming along well - the paint is looking better than it has a right too, actually, considering my inexperience and the fact that I can never resist one last touch-up... which normally proceeds to run. Apart from a lack of patience, I think the main problem with airbrushes etc is cleaning them - a minute's use requires ten times that for spraying thinners through etc, especially with the gloopy enamel paints I'm using. I gather that acrylics are becoming popular for plastic kits now, and being water-soluble until they dry it would be far easier (and cheaper, and less toxic) to clean everything under the tap rather than with solvents.

I sprayed another layer of fake stone onto the lunar lander base, too - it obscured most of my carefully stippled colour variations ("how many shades of brown?") but has given a far better texture, so I think I'll leave it at that: "Magnificent Desolation". The spray stone is really neat, but I keep fondling the can and thinking about spraying things... It's really hard not to wonder what the PC would look like, stone-clad...

I think the paint will be hard enough to work with by this evening, so I'll probably be able to finish both kits before I have to return to the treadmill on Tuesday. I'm not quite sure what the next project will be, yet - but it will probably be something in wood, instead - either a rather elegant layered plywood chinese dragon, or helping Ros with her dolls house or room boxes. It will make a change, either way - I built a lot of that style of wooden kit when I was younger, mostly insects and dinosaurs, and they can look very pleasing if sanded down well and often during construction.

This is a couple of weeks old, but I've only just seen the reference: Channel Technology, a manufacturer of mod chips for the Playstation, was found liable under the Copyright and Patents Act for supplying a way around Sony's copyright protection mechanisms. Having upheld this type of region-restricted licensing, the court has said that, in effect, it is now illegal to play computer games and DVDs purchased from abroad... Hmmmm.

16th February

Bill Gates was on the 200th episode of "Frasier", last night. Virtually the first words out of his mouth were "Windows XP", which pretty much set the tone for the rest of the segment, but he had a couple of good lines and it's nice to see him somewhere else than a courtroom, for a change. With his pride-and-joy under fire from all angles, even the richest man in the world can't have had that much fun over the last couple of years.

I hear a rumour that Philips, the patent holder of the "Red Book" CD audio standard, are planning to sue some of the other audio CD manufacturing companies over copy protection - and they have also stated that future versions of their CD players will both read and write copy-protected CDs! The smart money seems to think that this will simply hasten the fragmentation and eventual demise of the current CD format, especially as Philip's patents start expiring this year. Strange stuff...

Also in the tech news - a new camera for the Hubble Space Telescope, that may even be able to directly observe planets orbiting other suns. "If you had two fireflies six feet apart in Tokyo, Hubble's vision with ACS will be so fine that it will be able to tell from Washington, D.C., that they were two different fireflies instead of one," said Holland Ford, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who led the team that built the camera.

On the subject of planets, this is a classic NASA image of the Earth from space. The ribbon development along the Trans-Siberian Railway always fascinates me...

I'm feeling lewd, this morning:

        Sexy addons for "The Sims"

        Dolly Parton topless - a fake?

        All the rude bits from Channel 4's "Big Brother"

        Queen Liz herself, stockings and suspenders...

[Later] Managed to get in a good few hours on the model kits, and I'm relatively pleased with some of the progress - I used some spray-on stone-texture paint left over from Ros's presepju for the base of the lunar lander, dabbing some dark brown paint in as I sprayed, and it's turned out rather well. The main surfaces of the lander and the Redstone aren't so pleasing, as yet - these were my first attempt with the new airbrush (although it's such a basic little thing that "spray gun" is a better term) and I think I mixed the paint too thin - attempting to compensate for this by spraying the living heck out of the thing has left it looking less than smooth, and I think both will need a gentle sanding down and several extra coats.

Oh, and I also discovered that the lunar lander design isn't actually one of Willy Ley's, but from plans by Wernher Von Braun in the 1950s. Interestingly, I've recently heard suggestions that Von Braun's claims of active resistance to the Nazis, subtly sabotaging the V2 project, may have been a considerable exaggeration to say the least... Another reputation on the point of tarnish...

15th February

On holiday for a few days, so it's the home systems that are frustrating me today... I installed the newly released drivers for my Radeon AIW graphics card, and while I was at it stripped out all the ATI components to try to get the notoriously flakey television subsystem working again. One hundred and six reboots later and almost everything seems to be working, although the TV app won't load if the mixer controls for my SoundBlaster Live! are already open - that's a new one! The new 3DMark 2001se benchmark won't run, either, complaining that my hardware doesn't support hardware acceleration, but that's not critical, and at least I have the television again.

I won't be buying any more of these all-in-one graphics and multimedia cards, I think - the ATI is just as fragile and annoying as the old Voodoo 3500 was, and although the new Radeon 8500DV is looking extremely tempting the support boards are full of people with just the same problems as the earlier hardware. The best option by far seems to be to spread this functionality over several cards, with completely separate graphics and TV sub-systems, and probably even separate video capture hardware - IEEE 1394 seems to be the way to go, there...

[Later] Oops! I spoke much too soon - the reason that 3DMark couldn't find the graphics acceleration functions was because they were all disabled, and no amount of fiddling would restore them. And I thought the shell was a touch sluggish, too! In the end I stepped back to a slightly earlier driver, and then the original one that I was running this morning, before it became enabled again. So, I'm back to square one - except that the TV works as long as I close the mixer, and for some reason my 3DMark score has risen by about 60 points. Curious indeed... I shall leave the drivers alone for a while, I think - these are the first of a unified build for both the old and new generations of Radeon, and there's evidently some more work to be done... Everything works well enough at present, and it's only my urge for the bleeding edge (I have to restrain myself with the office systems, and do like my own PC to be tweaked to the max) that leads me on and creates so much extra work.

This made me smile - and, boy, I needed one after all those reboots...

Something else that makes me smile is one of Microsoft's recent flight games, Crimson Skies. It's far more arcade than sim, which means that I don't end up liberally spread over the scenery whilst trying to remember how to raise the undercarriage - well, not too often, anyway. It's set in an alternative Gernsback 1930s, with Zeppelins and air pirates and lots of wonderfully retro swept-wing prop planes. The sound effects are neat, with constant radio chatter from your wingmen and opponents, and the graphics are varied, smooth and extremely pretty. There's plenty of combat if you want it, but plenty of opportunities for plain stunt flying too. It's available cheap, these days, and is highly recommended when one's trigger finger is itching...

14th February

I was just breathing a sigh of relief ready for a long, restful weekend, when the cellphone went... The bespoke sales-force application had fried it's own databases again, so I had to dial in to restore some index files with my manager acting as tape monkey to load the jukebox. I'm extremely annoyed to hear that the app's programmer is trying to blame the database corruption on me, though - he claims that the nightly backup is damaging the files while he's dialled in from the US working on them (I'm not sure how a read-only service can corrupt a file, especially with the industry-standard open file manager in place!) so I think I shall have to fight back a little... And I have it on good authority (from the system's admins, the system's users, and even an independent opinion from a programmer I respect highly) that the whole application is a pile of crud... And this is the man who originally hard-coded the app to drive letter F:, and wanted me to move my network-wide mapped netlogon share to a different drive letter so that it would run. I wouldn't, so after much grumbling he re-wrote it to hard-map to J:, instead - and it's all gone down-hill since then. <sigh>

I succumbed a little to the SNMP panic, today, even though we weren't at any significant risk from external hacking. I've upgraded the firmware on all the 3Com switches and HP JetDirect print servers, using new and considerably improved versions of the tools for both - the latest Network Supervisor ("Arrr, I remember 'em when 'ee was just plain Transcend...") and the latest Download Manager can finally auto-discover and upgrade any network devices that they can see, which certainly took the sting out of it - I upgraded seven 3300 switches and twenty-odd print-servers on the fly, inside an hour and without the users noticing a thing...  <smug smile>

It's alarming that knowledge of something like this has been so slow to propagate, though - I started seeing hints in the web logs around lunchtime on Wednesday, and had the full details and a rough plan by Wednesday evening. In comparison, our tame router support guy hadn't heard a thing by 8:30am Thursday, and even by mid-morning our ISP was maintaining that there wasn't an issue with the managed Cisco 2500. Huh!

Does anyone remember the old mainframe operator's weekly newspaper from the eighties, ComputerTalk? It used to run a little cartoon strip called "The Filing Dutchman / Project Of Lost Souls", and I would love to see it again. I've looked online a few times recently in case someone had archived them (you never know - it does happen!) but without success, so if, for some peculiar reason, anyone has any old editions...?

13th February

One of the KVM switch user stations committed suicide in the night, but the supplier was completely on the ball and a replacement is already on it's way from Holland. While we were arranging that, I got a price breakdown of the various KVM components, too - I'm completely sold on the Paragon hardware (although crossing all fingers that hardware failures won't become a habit) and will press for more server modules and user stations in the new financial year. The new year's budget can't come quickly enough for me, this time - Legato Networker is still proving to be a major annoyance (two of my Exchange servers will now only back up to the end-of-year tape pool, for some reason best known to themselves), and I'm aching to rip the whole thing out and install BackupExec in it's place.

The DBA seems to have produced his first batch of reports on the software asset database, and I'll be interested to see whether his figures are close to mine - although, to be honest, I was pretty dubious about some of my totals anyway...

So, SNMP is severely broken, then... Gosh... I know that I haven't been as secure with SNMP as I should have been, and I also know that 90% of my network structure is SNMP-capable in some way or another. I do try to avoid letting any SNMP traffic through the firewalls, of course, but I've often been tempted - and I'm sure that, like me, many sysadmins are now struggling to remember any odd little hacks that they might have put in place to fix an awkward problem... this one is huge, and I guess tomorrow I'll need to kick off an SNMP audit and then rationalisation of the entire network... Long overdue, I know, but it's such a convoluted process ferreting out all the configuration settings and community strings on a dozen different types of embedded device, let alone all the servers and management apps.  :-(

There seems to be a sudden fad for animated online clocks, recently. These two are both extremely clever pieces of work:

The Industrious Clock    The Human Clock

12th February

A real arm-and-a-leg of a day, to make up for the placid start to the week... Apart from the constant interruptions, I'm currently working to hand over responsibility for reporting on the Exchange server's databases to our departmental DBA, and it's not proving a smooth process. To begin with, I've had to wean him away from logging into his desktop NT box locally rather than with a domain account, so that I could give him rights to Exchange, and that involved moving his profile, rebuilding all his shortcuts and CMD files, and generally jumping through all sorts of annoying hoops. I wouldn't have minded that too much, but he seems considerably denser with the basic concepts than I'd expected - and here I must digress: the reason I'm handing this task over is because databases are really, really, really not my thing, and I've found wrestling with the BORK and Crystal Reports (widely considered to be the Spawn of Satan) to be a major source of frustration and missed deadlines. I drifted away from databases around the time of DBase III and it's ilk, and although I could make that generation sing and dance a little, when DBase IV came out I was distracted learning Netware admin and the whole relational database thing somehow swept over my head. I've never come up to speed, either, and it's my Achilles' Heel when it comes to modern IT  - Access baffles me, the Exchange databases scare me rigid, and Crystal is just maddeningly obscure!

So to find myself approached with perplexing questions on linking tables and data types, precisely the areas that I've been struggling with so much, is rather galling - especially when they come from the person who manages our main cash-cow, an Oracle-based app that processes real money in real-time...  And this afternoon he announced that he didn't like Crystal (well, I can sympathise with that!) so is going to work entirely from off-line data... Attempts to explain that the Exchange-based asset-tracking system's data changed from moment to moment, and that any snap-shot would be worthless after a few days (thanks to the hot-desking policies recently implemented by several departments) fell on deaf ears, so presumably muggins here will be continually pestered to export the Global Address List etc on demand. <long sigh> I just wanted to pass the whole damn project over to him and forget about it, but I'm starting to get the feeling that it would have been less annoying to persevere myself... Ho hum.



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