July 2002 Part Two


17th July

More security fun and games at the office, today, when what started as a routine firewall upgrade threatened to go horribly wrong. On the "advice" of our support company we've left the firewall software at a positively prehistoric level of service packs, and although it's been nagging me for a while I haven't had the brain to spare for what is usually rather and awkward and convoluted process... So when I agonised to my PFY about it yesterday, I was pleased that he seemed willing to take the plunge and bring us up-to-date. Some checking this morning showed that it would be a fairly significant major upgrade, taking the embedded IPSO operating system (based on a hardened BSD kernel, and the only UNIX system we have!) up 5 point versions to support a firewall upgrade from service pack 2 to service pack 6 - and unsurprisingly he ran into a few quirks and hitches. He persevered with confidence and determination though, and although I offered an opinion or two and explained the odd technical term, most of the credit definitely went to him when all appeared to be back to normal by lunchtime.

Unfortunately, by mid-afternoon some problems had started to surface - one type of mainframe terminal emulator wasn't connecting from one of the regional offices - and although for a while we blamed the apparently unconnected mainframe problems earlier in the day, the users were starting to get hot under the collar and none of us were any closer to a solution. The firewall seemed the most obvious culprit, but we could access the mainframe ourselves via a VNC connection to a PC in the remote office, and I didn't understand how a central upgrade could have such apparently sporadic effects. After some head-scratching, we enabled extra logging on the firewall, and after a while we see actually see the packets that were being dropped - on the authority of the mysterious "Rule 0", an embedded rule for discarding packets that the firewall just generally doesn't like the feel of...

Fortunately I was able to link these drops to an actual error message, and thirty seconds at Google showed that it was a well-known and well-documented issue with the upgrade from SP2 - I'd read the documentation for the latest service pack, the one that we were applying, but of course the ancient change in packet filtering behaviour wasn't mentioned there. However, there is a simple work around, and although it lowers our theoretical security level a touch until I can find the actual cause of the problem (inadequate keep-alive packets to preserve the session, I think) in practical terms it's unlikely to cause any problems. To add a touch of irony, it also became apparent that the firewall was the cause of the mainframe problems earlier, as the the dropped connections discombobulated one of the telnet daemons to the point where it died and then hung on restarting... <laughs> Mainframes never crash, remember!

Everything finished up neatly for me to leave on time, and I survived a horrible traffic jam to get home and find that the Adaptec DuoConnect USB2/1394 interface had finally arrived. The hardware is everything I'd expect from Adaptec, but it hasn't escaped my notice that Matrix Orbital managed to get my extra LCD serial cables to me all the way from Canada a week quicker than it took Micro Warehouse to send the DuoConnect from Cheshire. MO are a very good firm...

A very expensive photo frame... and, in a more plausible configuration, many ports... <rubs hands>

16th July

A pleasant afternoon, today, spent wrestling with the Yaha worm. It seems to have sneaked onto a laptop used by one of the service engineers, probably only a few days ahead of the DAT update that would have blocked it (I always have trouble keeping the remote users up to date over dialup connections, as the upgrade agent on the PC runs invisibly and they tend to hang up in mid-transfer) but fortunately it doesn't seem to have spread outside of this one system.

The first thing the worm does on taking up residence is to disable most of the common anti-virus tools. Then, just to make life interesting, it patches itself into the file-type association for .EXE so that it can automatically terminate apps such as REGEDIT and TASKMAN, two of the most useful tools for an initial cleanup attempt... For even more fun, its executables are encrypted, compressed, randomly named and padded with a random number of random extra bytes! Cunning indeed, and with all that I'm not quite sure how the virus scanners even recognise it - but they do, and once I'd cut the thing out of the registry and re-installed the anti-virus software, it mopped up the last few remnants without difficulty. All-in-all, an interesting challenge!

The worm looks as if it will spread well when left to it's own devices, though, using an internal SMTP client to send out copies in many different guises - the number of permutations of email subject lines and bodies (many quite plausible) make any specific warning to my users pointless, and all I can do right now is warn, again, against generic virus-like behaviour. The ultimate payload is interesting, though, and unusually political - claming to be the work of an Indian hacking group, it attempts to perform a denial of service attack on one of the Pakistani government websites...so what with one thing and another, I predict that we'll be seeing a lot more of this particular little gem.

15th July

The oddments of hardware for INFINITY² have started to arrive in a flurry - USB to PS/2 adaptors for the mice and keyboards, USB to serial adaptors for the legacy devices, and today the Adaptec XHub for the USB2 connectivity. I'm still waiting for the DuoConnect USB2 card itself, for the high-speed shielded silver drive cables (the old automotive green suddenly seemed so passé) and, of course, for the case itself. The case isn't going to be with me for a while, as Kustom are ordering in the smoked Plexiglas especially for the job, but I'm not really ready to transplant everything quite yet so I'm content to wait. The only disadvantage is that the longer I wait, the more things I can envision needing for the project, and my credit cards are starting to smoke gently from over-use...

And, in today's "Far Too Much Time On Their Hands" department, this has to be seen to believed.

I'm currently reading Samuel Delany's Nova, one of the classic works of Science Fiction's second golden age. I've haven't read much of of Delany's work until recently, but now that I'm catching up I'm extremely impressed by the ones that I've encountered so far, and can see that his reputation is thoroughly deserved. Nova is a remarkable story, and seems an obvious precursor to (and influence on) the cyberpunk novels of the 1980s - other works are typically quoted as being major influences on the cyberpunk genre, including Tiptree's The Girl Who Was Plugged In, Brunner's The Shockwave Rider, and Cordwainer Smith's Game Of Rat And Dragon, but I'm sure that several of Delany's stories are equally strong candidates. They may not describe the look and feel of "cyberspace" in such loving detail as Gibson and Sterling, perhaps, but all the ingredients are there - routine body modifications for both cosmetic and practical purposes, direct mind connection to computerised systems, total immersion control interfaces and, of course, a captivating feel of the sleazy low-life cities and the do-or-die adventurers they spawn. Look out for Nova, The Ballad Of Beta-2, Babel 17, and Empire Star. <long sigh> They just don't write 'em like that any more...

13th July

According to a story at News.Com, Mac users are smarter, better educated and earn more money than PC users. Well, there you go... I shall have to resign myself to a life of futile stupidity, then, as I still think that on the whole Macs both suck and blow - at the same time.

Via Fox and the BBC - Homer Simpson on region-free DVD players...

Universal Studios have finally taken the plunge and are experimenting with online music sales. An article at SF Gate describes Universal's new eMusic site, where MP3 versions of around a thousand hard-to-find back-catalogue albums are available to download at what seems like a reasonable fee. Interestingly, they are expressly permitting these downloads to be re-recorded to CD or mini-disc, something that the studios have traditionally been vehement about preventing.

"Beginning today, EMusic.com, which charges $10 to $15 per month for a subscription, will offer Universal's jazz, pop and classic hits from the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. The artists include Olivia Newton-John, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Oingo Boingo, Chuck Berry and Pat Boone."

Signing up to their trial program allows fifty free downloads before the subscription has to be confirmed, so it has to be worth a look through the catalogue...

10th July

I needed to open my mouse, today, so went straight to Dan's Data for instructions: Dan won't review any hardware unless the supplier is happy with him stripping it bare and poking a grubby finger into it's internals, and he always documents any quirks in the disassembly process. This time he saved me a few minutes by mentioning that my IntelliMouse Explorer has screws under all four of it's little "feet", and provided a tip on how to wriggle the casing over the side buttons. His site is a valuable resource indeed - my first stop for reviews when I'm planning new hardware, fiddling with something I already have, and often just to browse for fun as well. Recommended - as always.

It was surprising how much cruft had filtered through to the inside of the mouse, though, considering it's ball-less design. I suspect that it had been trickling in through the gaps between the buttons or wheel and the casing, but two minutes with isopropyl alcohol and compressed air made short work of it and my sticky button now seems to have improved. I'm extremely pleased with the Explorer's optical design, I have to say, although it's not quite as maintenance-free as the marketing would like you to believe (the little slippery pads on the base need cleaning almost as often as a mouse ball, it seems) and the once-shiny silver finish is looking decidedly warn and shabby after two years' heavy use. I may just re-paint the thing, but if I do decide to replace it on cosmetic grounds I won't have any hesitation in buying the current equivalent model.

I usually spend a fair bit of time browsing the hardware forums at Ars Technica and AnandTech for the latest news and opinions, but recently I've been spending more time at BiT-Tech, their UK equivalent. The forums there are just as busy, geeky and voluminous as their US counterparts, but with the added bonus that most of the "where to buy" links are to English companies. And talking of links, here's one to another nice online version of the Jargon File.

9th July

Ah! It's just occurred to me - if I do switch to a different sound card, either of the two front-runners will free up the drive bay currently taken by the Live Drive. That means that I could slip the LCD panel into the vacant bay and wire it directly to one of the internal serial port headers - thus also avoiding the need to find a new home for a currently homeless COM port connector. Hmmm.

The new dishwasher arrived today (only a day late!) marking the third major household appliance requiring complete replacement so far this year. <mutters> As usual, the instruction manual seems to have been translated from Hebrew via Lithuanian, complete with little informative icons that did absolutely nothing to inform me. There is also a bewildering variety of pipes and connectors (not usually something I'm easily bewildered by!) and even the drain hose has many circlips and joints...

However, browsing the net while my brain recovered from instructionistis, I came across further speculation over the re-classification of cannabis as a Class C drug - apparently a government announcement is expected imminently. It's good, I suppose, but still not good enough - and just as with the relaxation of the official attitude on pornography last year, it will make the task of the campaigners for legalisation that much harder.

8th July

I've seen several interesting articles, recently, explaining that the effect of electrostatic discharge on computer circuitry can often be a cumulative one, rather than the finger of death failure that has been the meme all through my long career with computers. Although it's perfectly possible to kill a CMOS component instantly if you don't take adequate precautions (or, I guess, it you're just plain unlucky!) the most probable outcome will be a degree of damage to the transistor junctions etc rather than out-and-out destruction. Apparently this is likely to cause a noticeably reduced lifespan, and the noise or signal irregularities in the component's electrical patterns may lead to intermittent and transient failures in the meantime.

I've become a little blasé about static over the years, and although I always lay my palm flat on part of the bare metal chassis when I open a case, I only usually bother with a wrist-strap if I'm working on either a big-iron server at work or one of the two core systems at home. I think I'll try to be a little more rigorous from now on, though - the last thing I need, either at work or at home, is flakeys...

I've only recently started thinking about PC cases with lighting and windows, so I'm as not yet sure how good some of the more vanilla internal hardware this exposes is going to look. I'll wrap as much of the wiring as I can in spiral wrap or whatever, and I'm hoping that the grey metal casings of the 5¼" devices will be mostly hidden by the black chassis, but I'm starting to wonder about those bright green IDE cables and, especially, the large grey power supply. Fortunately I'm riding the crest of the "pretty components" wave, and there is a fair range of ready-made cosmetic mods available for most parts of a PC. This one is rather nice - a replacement Perspex lid for one's power supply - available in many unpleasant colours from Cutting Edge Case Mods in the US, as well as this rather more subtle smoked black effect:

It increases the height and width of the PSU by a few millimetres, unfortunately, so it's not the sort of thing I'm going to buy before I see the case for myself to check clearances etc - but at $9.99 it's a distinct possibility for the future.

7th July

Mike says that the next incarnation of my PC should be named INFINITY² rather than INFINITY II, and I think he's right.

The new case has a set of USB and FireWire ports in the front panel, and I've decided to try to utilise them to improve the rather convoluted set of USB and serial interfaces I'm currently employing. I've been reading excellent reviews of the Adaptec DuoConnect combined USB2 and FireWire controller, and when partnered with their XHub 7+ USB2 hub the entire subsystem can actually be managed and interrogated by Adaptec's proprietary USBControl utility. The hardware itself is as feature-rich as I would expect from Adaptec, with the interface card having three external and one internal USB2 ports, and one external and two internal FireWire ports; the hub, bizarrely, even doubles as a photo frame, but can be mounted horizontally instead in one of the better hub layouts I've seen. I have to admin that it was the management software that won me over, though, and the pair are winging their way to me this week.

Yes, it's a USB hub. Honest.

I've never liked the current hub, bought solely for it's built-in PS/2 mouse and keyboard connectors, but the market has moved on since then and I've finally been able to locate small dedicated USB to PS/2 adaptors to add the final nail to it's coffin. I suspect that all this will leave me shy of a serial port or two in the new case, but fortunately USB to serial converters are also cheaper and more common now and I'll grab a handful when I decide (almost certainly on the fly - it's very confusing right now!) exactly how it's all going to be arranged. One of the advantages of my deeply engrained habit of collecting and hoarding any computer hardware that strays within my reach is that I often have the luxury of tacking routine jobs on the fly - I know that I have every conceivable variation of CAT5, serial and parallel cable known to god ready at hand, for instance, so many of these bright ideas can be plunged into immediately inspiration strikes - a refreshing change after having to weigh the pros and cons of even minor modifications to the office network. I haven't had opportunity to acquire many USB oddments, though, and for this particular bright idea I've found a new supplier, Euronetwork Ltd, who specialise in PC and audio cabling. They have a bunch of little bits'n'bobs that I haven't seen outside of the specialist US suppliers, and seem to be worth a look if you're struggling for anything out of the ordinary.

6th July

I've finally given up on Creative Labs and its SoundBlaster range of sound cards! I've used nothing but Creative products since the very earliest days of PC sound, and although they used to be the absolute industry standard, traditionally free from any and all problems affecting other sound cards, these days they seem to be heading downhill fast.

The problem stems from my use of a dual CPU system - this is the SoundBlaster's real Achilles' heel, and whatever the performance and reliability of the hardware in a single processor environment, use in Windows 2000 or XP running under SMP causes various unpleasant issues: sudden unpleasantly loud screeching in games, horrendous skipping during MP3 playback, unexplained changes in output volume, and several compatibility quirks with 3rd-party TV and DVD subsystems.

Various explanations have been offered, including extreme sensitivity to IRQ sharing under ACPI, PCI bus bandwidth and latency issues, multiple instances of the driver, the phase of the moon etc etc, but none of the suggested fixes have worked for me. Even the current top-of-the-line Audigy card seems to be just as susceptible, and this morning I saw Creative's attitude to the problem neatly summed up by another frustrated user: "Thankyou for your support enquiry. We don't care. Regards, Creative" - and with multiple processor users a distinct minority, it's very obvious that they really don't.

I've been running an unofficial driver set  for the last few months, actually designed for the later 5.1 home theatre cards, and those seem to have been the most reliable ever. I've still had /some/ skipping and jumping in MP3s (I always tell people that I've achieved the ultimate goal of digital music enthusiasts - perfectly re-creating the authentic vinyl LP sound), but most things have worked most of the time.

Recently, though, there has been much discussion of a set of OEM drivers released for the Live and Audigy cards bundled with Compaq PCs - a unified driver for the entire range, allegedly free from all SMP issues and highly recommended. I installed them this morning, but unfortunately I haven't been impressed: the skipping and jumping is worse than ever, I've had a couple of blue-screens already, and the supporting applications seems distinctly lighter in basic features - even the little spectrum analyser display has vanished from the mixer panel. Given the usual difficulties in downgrading a driver set, and the slightly unofficial nature of the drivers I would want to downgrade to, it may be a complex process - and I am not a happy bunny this afternoon.

I've been flirting with the idea of upgrading to an Audigy anyway, quite ready to be seduced by it's remote control and built-in IEEE1394 FireWire interface, but right now I really don't feel inclined to give the manufacturer any more of my business. So, where to go now? There seem to be two major competitors in the "high-end gamer" niche that I inhabit: the Hercules Game Theatre XP 6.1 and the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz  (marketed in the UK as the VideoLogic Sonic Fury). The former has an external IO connection panel surpassing even the Audigy's in the number of fascinating sockets and ports (although without the integrated RC facility), the latter is significantly less feature-rich but has a useful little software-configurable IO port - it supports several different analogue and digital audio standards in one 3.5mm jack socket, which is probably more appropriate than the Game Theatre's external rack for my admittedly limited needs at present. The Turtle Beach scores heavily by being a touch less complex and so noticeably cheaper, but I will probably plump for the Hercules with all it's bells-and-whistles - I always like to be ready to connect anything, even if I don't have anything much to connect, and moving the audio IO panel outside the PC will free up a much-needed drive bay for my Secret Rheobus Project!

Sound quality itself is no longer really an issue for me - all the modern sound processors seem more than adequate for my relatively indiscriminate ears, and my priority is something that can give good spatial sound in the occasional game, and play MP3s without sounding like a scratched 45. The accepted meme is that both of these cards have no issues with dual processor systems, but unfortunately an hour browsing the forums at 2CPU.COM seems to suggest otherwise: for every ten users saying "yes, it's brilliant, it's wonderful, buy one!" there is at least one user saying "blue-screens, lockups, horrible noises, I'll never buy from them again". Still, that's noticeably better than the 1:10 ratio seen in threads about the SoundBlaster range, and it's fairly safe to attribute at least a proportion of the problems to issues elsewhere in the PCs concerned.

I'm not sure when I'll take the plunge, as I've budgeted about as much as I want to at present for the new case - I suppose it will depend on how successfully I can revert the drivers to the earlier version, not something I'm looking forward to.

3rd July

It seems absurd that in these days of USB and Firewire I still appear to need six old-fashioned serial ports - a modem for emergencies, the LCD panel, an old digital camera, the Palm's hotsync cradle, the UPS, and the transmitter for my Lego Robotics. This causes a small problem, as in the current case one of the ports is mounted in the area taken by a pair of 80mm fans in the new case, and so unless I can force myself to retire something, it will have to be found a new home.

I'm still stuck with the traditional interfaces for my keyboard and mouse, too, thanks to the KVM switch (although both are actually USB devices connected via adaptors!) and there's another pair of PS/2 ports on my USB hub for the (ultimately) wireless secondary keyboard and mouse. It's a bizarre configuration, now I come to think about it... It just evolved that way.

While it would be easy to switch almost everything to USB right now, requiring only a wallet fatter than mine is at present, I won't discard such functional hardware without a degree of internal struggle - so I think I'm stuck with it all for the foreseeable future. When Bluetooth finally matures, however, I'll probably take the plunge and transfer as much as I can then. <wry smile> I wonder if one will be able to buy Bluetooth to serial adaptors?

2nd July

Good news for those seeking relief from Dell's screaming PowerEdge 2650 server! The BIOS update was released on Friday, but in such a blaze of un-publicity that it took us several days to track it down. The download is here, but be warned - installation is a fairly awkward process. There seem to be two main steps - first the system BIOS itself has to be flashed to the new A04 version from a boot floppy, and then the embedded Remote Access subsystem (Huh?) has to be upgraded too via Dell's Server Administrator software; the former provides support for the latter. This procedure is not adequately documented and, in fact, all attempts to upgrade the RA subsystem just resulted in "Invalid Image" messages. Eventually I discovered instructions for using a command-line utility to perform the upgrade, and after a looooong wait without progress indicators of any kind, the wailing fans suddenly quieted. It was such a relief, and after suffering through several hours of the upgrade process my ears have now expressed their avowed intention to marry Dell and have its babies....

Airflow still seems adequate in spite of the reduced fan speeds (it seems to have dropped one pair of fans from 7000RPM to around 4500, and another pair down to around 6000) and the resulting sound is merely the usual fan noise, without 95% of the high-pitched scream. This made it possible to actually work on the server, so after a flurry of activity this afternoon we now have a virgin installation of MS SQL Server 2000 waiting to be filled with data. The initial plan is to use it as a data store for both our Websense net nanny and some kind of internal digital cheque facility - I knew nothing of the existence of the latter before this afternoon, so that will probably be another adventure.

1st July

The evil deed is done, and a cheque for altogether too much money for a PC case is winging it's way to Kustom PCs in Ayr. I can certainly recommend their service so far - the owner, Graeme Clark, has been extremely helpful with advice and suggestions, and I think between us we've created a very neat little setup. Now all that remains is to transplant all of INFINITY's internal organs, which now it comes to it I'm not particularly looking forward to - there will be a million wires to route, and another million last minute problems to solve, and a bunch of drive bezels to paint... And then weeks of checking temperatures, tweaking fan speeds, and worrying... <sighs> Hopefully by the time it arrives (and I'm not expecting it for another couple of weeks) I will have rediscovered some of my enthusiasm, but right now I'm feeling a touch jaundiced about computers:

I've spent much of today trying to break one of our Exchange servers, unfortunately without success. This particular system has always been a touch fragile, and recently it's taken to hanging completely when the backup agent tries to open the Exchange Information Store. There seemed to be a number of likely possibilities, so I disabled them all and ran a test backup. All went well, and I started re-enabling the services one-by-one, running a quick backup of the Information Store after each change. Eventually the server was back to it's standard running configuration and still not crashing, leaving me pretty much out of ideas and feeling like I've rather wasted the day. However, I have a strong gut-feeling that it will fail tonight during the regular backup cycle, all the same - this server is an ornery lump of hardware, for reasons which continue to escape me, and has the general disposition of the proverbial Louisiana mule...




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