March 2002 Part Two


16th March

Much fiddling with the "new" UPS, this morning. An extensive search online (this is a very old piece of hardware, and APC barely acknowledges it's existence) suggests that I should be able to get the full range of Smart Signalling data, so hopefully it's just a matter of finding the right combination of cable, software and configuration. Right now, though, it's just a large, softly-humming paperweight that periodically sends annoying bogus alert messages to every PC on the network. Grrrrrr.

[Later] Well, it's not quite as dumb as a stick, after all! An older version of PowerChute recognised it correctly (if only after I'd moved it to the other serial port!), and I'm finally reading some of the status parameters from the mains side of the unit - it seems to be happily displaying and logging the supply voltage, the load of the server, and it's own temperature. It isn't giving me any information about the batteries or run-time, though, and it's likely that if I want anything more I'll have to perform the hardware recalibration that I spotted last night. That's likely to be annoying, as it needs a fairly precise 30% load to be present on the UPS's outputs, but the article's author suggested connecting an appropriate number of table lamps or similar and that may well be practical.

I opened up INFINITY earlier to thread power and data lines for the LCD panel, and have just finished drawing the cutting template on the front panel. It lines up remarkably well with the case badge and air intakes, actually, and is going to look extremely spiffy if I manage to cut the hole neatly enough...

15th March

The microwave died - it just beeps and flashes incomprehensible error codes! What a month for hardware failures! Maybe I've Lost The Knack...

It hasn't been all doom and gloom, though - I hooked up the LCD panel temporarily (hanging out of the case in a sort of Frankenstein's Subsystem manner with wires trailing everywhere) and it certainly seems to work. There's going to be a lot to learn, but after some fiddling with the serial port parameters LCDcenter was displaying readings from Motherboard Monitor, free disk space, memory load, and all sorts of other geek data - and by the look of it, I'll be able to make it display pretty much anything I want, within the limits of the LCD's 122 x 32 resolution. There seems to be some weirdness with updating the display, but I'll leave debugging that until it's mounted.

The rest of the evening's excitement was from replacing the batteries in the UPS which, to make things more interesting, appear to have arrived fully charged! I'm not fond of electricity (in fact, I'm respectful to the point of fear) but I took things slowly and carefully, and the one small spark I produced only sent me cowering back to the PC for ten minutes or so. I didn't find the hoped-for "How to change your battery" FAQ, but found some fascinating background information on recalibrating an old UPS - which distracted me for long enough for my brain to catch up and suggest that I removed the main fuse. Everything was smooth enough after that, if fiddly - both the battery retaining clamps and the PCB are part of the cross-braced chassis, and lining everything up while carefully avoiding the high-tension areas of the PCB was a little nerve-racking...

It's only working in "simple signalling" mode at present, but I'm hoping that's only a cable mismatch as even a second generation Smart-UPS should be a little more voluble than the Dumb As A Stick (TM) Back-UPS 1400 feeding the workstations upstairs. I shall persevere.

14th March

After another hour of concentrated fiddling I finally gave up on the Extreme Tracking hit counter, which has beautifully detailed and presented statistics but has never seemed very happy with FrontPage 2000's HTML auto-formatting tendencies and, I suspect, my domain host's URL masking. I've now signed up for the free offering from Site Meter - unlike Nedstat, which I've been using until now, it has an "ignore IP address" facility, and the count is far more informative when my own visits to proof-read (I don't quite trust FP's own preview, sometimes) are excluded... The JavaScript version installed easily enough, directly into the HTML, and it's well worth a look if Extreme won't behave for you.

13th March

Best wishes to my friend Avedon Carol, currently poorly in hospital. My thoughts are with you...

The LCD panel arrived today - another impressively quick delivery, especially since it was coming from Canada. It's a neat little thing, and hooking it up and playing with it is going to be great fun... Cutting the aperture in the front panel is going to be a pain in the neck, though - I'll have to be really neat and precise or it will hurt my eyes every time I look at it. The new Dremel circular saw blade might be just the thing, but I'll have to practice with it first to make sure that it doesn't melt the edges of the plastic as it cuts...

Our ISP wants to charge us 100 to upgrade our ADSL pipe from 512Kbit to a megabit... They're already one of the most expensive providers in the UK (we're with them for legacy reasons, as they were also one of the first providers), and I'm not at all happy about paying that much for someone to change a bandwidth throttling parameter in an ATM switch somewhere. Our initial year's contract only has a few months more to run, so I shall threaten to vote with my feet and we will see what happens.

I've just reconfigured the Palm cradle from serial to USB with Palm's own adaptor in less time than it took me to open the packaging - and extremely slick installation, and didn't even require a reboot. On the other hand, I've just heard that the similar subsystem on Ros's PC has started behaving a little badly, so I guess it all evens out in the end!

12th March

It's nice to see that Zimbabwe, having struggled so hard and for so long towards Western democracy, has finally succeeded in holding a presidential election as honest and fair as that of the United States.

I've been reading around the subject of ADSL, today, and have come across a recipe for gaining control of the re-badged Efficient Networks 5861 modem/router that bundles with the BT's Ethernet ADSL package. It's a fairly scary procedure, requiring both a firmware upgrade and a re-install of the OEM kernel (the latter seems to be the key) with the caveat that BT won't help at all if one can't reconfigure it successfully afterwards - and, from what I remember of the Ts&Cs, are even entitled to suspend the ADSL service altogether... Once flashed, though, the router is fully-manageable via a web interface and has all the usual obscure settings and stats. For the brave, search here for "5861".

I was working on a problematic installation of Internet Explorer V5.5 today, and found some interesting symptoms. Firstly, there were several hundred bogus cookies in the cache folder, most with dates far in the future and all apparently superseded. I'm guessing that this is a hangover from a previous version of IE, before the discrete \Windows\Cookies folder was used. Secondly, and more problematic to fix, the cache management seemed to be deleting many or all files from the current browsing session, making offline browsing virtually impossible. Having noticed that even with a completely empty cache, the INDEX.DAT file was still 4.6Mb, I hypothesised severe index corruption and vaped it in DOS mode. We shall see if it helps...

I can recommend the freeware Cache Manager and Cache Sentry utilities from Enigmatic Software. They provide an unadulterated view of what is actually happening in the cache, and even claim to fix a handful of bugs in IE's own cache management strategy. They certainly made it easier to attempt a diagnosis on my problemette, today.

Oh, and the Palm USB adaptor that I ordered from PalmDirect UK on Sunday 10th arrived today - I'm extremely impressed with how fast that happened...

11th March

I discovered late last night when changing the weekly backup tape that having had 14Gb of data streamed to it at high velocity, the cartridge was almost too hot to touch - it looks like the soundproofing I added has dramatically reduced airflow through the main drive bays. As an emergency remedy I powered up the four side fans that blow through this area of the case, and that kept things from melting overnight at the cost of doubling the apparent sound level. It certainly raised Ros's eyebrow - I don't think she realised that the PC could get any louder... It's going to need some thinking about, though - I can't leave those fans enabled permanently, but neither the tapes or the drive will react well to temperatures like that...

I modified the side fan mounting brackets to decrease the turbulence noise a little, and reversed one pair to provide the recommended cross-flow through the case, but they really are too loud and it was mostly to give myself time to think... Based on what I've learned over the last couple of years, if I was starting this project from scratch I would approach it rather differently (for example, a single six or seven inch mains-powered fan in the front of the case could replace half a dozen smaller DC fans, providing far greater air flow with a fraction of the noise) but I've invested far too much time and love in this PC to change direction now... Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!

Today's excitement was an expedition to the Silicon Graveyard in the basement, after orders to dispose of at least some of the old PC hardware. I sometimes find it very hard to throw this stuff out, especially the 17" monitors, which are still fairly expensive to buy and at least some of which could probably be repaired by replacing the proverbial 5 resistor. I also unearthed a pair of external DDS1 DAT drives, since replaced by the internal Travan drives I'm using now and probably still useful to someone, and a couple of small laser printers that probably only need a clean and a fresh toner cartridge... We'll offer it all around for a few weeks, on the off-chance, but after that it's the bin... :-(

However, I also found a long-forgotten APC Smart-UPS 600 with dead batteries, hoarded "just in case". It's so old that APC don't even admit that it existed, but it uses standard batteries and it looks like around 30 will get it up and running again for use with the domain server. Neat!

10th March

Presumably a whole week without significant hardware fiddling at home has agitated my subconscious, as I was seized with modding-fever when I woke up, and researched and ordered a little LCD display panel to mount in the front of the PC case. There is a bewildering variety of technologies, interfaces, drivers, utilities, sizes and even colours, but after much pondering and measuring I settled on the new slimmed-down graphic module from Canadian firm Matrix Orbital, apparently the current market leader. It can display four lines of alphanumeric text like the traditional LCD modules, but supports soft fonts and a pixel-addressable screen as well. It's rather smaller than the alternatives, too, and I think it will fit just nicely into the only unused section of the PC's front panel. I'm not quite sure what I'm going to display there, as yet, but it seems that everything from pretty patterns to the news headlines is possible with the right magic  - so even if not quite my longed-for bank of red LEDs, it's a step in the right direction.

However, it means that I have to free-up a serial port (in these days of USB, how do I manage to have something on all five COM ports?) so will probably have to get a USB -> serial adaptor for the Palm cradle. <wry smile> They're not very expensive, but it's one thing after another...

9th March

Astounding - Sun Microsystems are suing Microsoft for One Billion Dollars after MS's decision not to ship a Java Virtual Machine with Windows XP and IE6. This is thoroughly bizarre, as Sun have spent the last five years whining that they don't like Microsoft having anything to do with Java and, indeed, among the foundations of the current anti-trust farce is Sun's insistence that they don't!

It's also interesting to see how badly this is change being misunderstood by the computer-using public. The meme seems to be that Windows "doesn't support" Java, whereas in fact all that is required is to download a free JVM from Sun, Microsoft, or anyone else who provides one... and systems that have been upgraded from IE5 to IE6, or from an earlier version of Windows to WinXP, won't even need to do that, as the existing JVM is not removed. However, part of Sun's suit will seek an injunction not only to prevent Microsoft from making their own JVM available for download, but also to force them to ship Sun's own JVM with XP and IE6! What price open standards now! <long, heartfelt sigh>

I've been having some problems with CD audio, recently, and have finally managed to fix them this morning. I haven't been able to use the digital playback mode on either drive, and the analogue mode has been riddled with the little "pitter-pat" of the drive's error correction. It's hard to tell exactly when the problem started, as since the MP3-era I don't play audio CDs as often as I used to, and during the first few months of the year I upgraded the sound card drivers, the CD drive, and the ATI multimedia software all in fairly close proximity *.

It appears that having digital playback enabled in the Windows Device Manager was preventing the Creative applications from acquiring the digital audio stream - the current driver release seems a bit grabby in all sorts of ways, unfortunately - I can't run the ATI TV app without closing the Creative Mixer, for example. Unfortunately, changing this setting may well mean that Media Player, far more closely integrated with Windows than it used to be, won't now be able to acquire a digital stream itself - I shall have to experiment.

[ * My friend Mike, who is a consultant and so has the luxury of time to document his systems, says that I should maintain a "Change Log" to help me keep track of this sort of thing, so now I have... We'll see if I can keep it up...]

I've started to bring the Digital Art section of the site online - it's sparse at present, but will grow.

8th March

I'm extremely puzzled by the recently released CCTV images of the Pentagon at the time of the November 11th terrorist attacks. Taken together with a fascinating site that I found earlier this week, I'm now convinced that something extremely fishy is going on - I strongly suggest that you play "Hunt The Boeing" yourself and see if you come to the same conclusion.

I spent most of yesterday evening driving a pair of 2" screws into the wall to support a small glass shelf and a few grams of plastic models. I am extremely prone to over-engineering when I'm putting up shelves or similar, I admit, but would never have chosen such huge, long screws in my worst excesses of caution. I would have changed them for something more realistic, but they would have been proportionally thinner, too, and wouldn't have worked very well with the clever little supporting bracket/clamp things.

The final effect is very pleasing, though - I've arranged the FlyLights to shine up under the shelf, and in low light it just glows, really showing the models to their best effect. I'll have to paint the bottom of the bases, though - I wasn't expecting them to stand on glass, and they're still plain white and so a touch stark...

Where I am when I'm not at work. It's nicer than the Eleventh Dimension, which although being [strikes Richard Feynman pose] very, very tiny indeed, somehow manages to contain the entire universe...

I've never noticed such a strong fisheye effect from the digital camera, before... <long sigh> It really is time to think about a replacement - two people who saw me using it in the office, recently, have noticed it's extreme clunkyness and assumed that it was a video camera, not still!

Our net provider, Nextra (the ISP formerly known as Cix) is passing on BT's recent ADSL price cuts, so we have the choice of paying 20 per month less for the current service, or 20 per month more to double the bandwidth to a megabit. Hmmm - I wonder which one we'll pick. <evil grin> It would be neat to have a fatter pipe than my employer does...

6th March

The new tape drive is unbelievably fast! Fresh out of the box, without tweaking or tuning anything, it writes at around 550Mb/min and reads at a breathtaking 1.6Gb/min... Never seen anything like it... It was all working very well, too, until I tried to install Backup Exec's Exchange client, and unfortunately forgot that BE's installer is very fond of uninstalling the existing components when a new one is added - so in the middle of a full test backup, it proceeded to stop all the services and delete all of itself except for the Exchange agent! Not the end of the world, but it will need another reboot before it will work again and so I was cheated out of a whole afternoon of marvelling at it's speed and general wonderfulness... Still, hopefully my PFY will reboot it on the way home from his training course today, so I'll have something to look forward to tomorrow - and the drives are still far slower than the mostly fictional rated speeds, so there will be plenty of hacking to be done, too...  [Rubs hands together] "Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of a Sloar that day, I can tell you!''

5th March

A whole day without mysterious hardware failures or collapsing chairs - what luxury!

The SCSI interfaces of the new new tape drive are the whizz-bang LVD Ultra-3/Wide SCSI-3 (rated at 160Mb a second!), rather than the SCSI-2 of the existing tape changer, so I'll go in half an hour early tomorrow morning and install a new card and BackupExec - and then I can actually start playing with it all. I've had enough experience wrestling with the three installations of BackupExec at home that I'm not expecting any major problems with the basics, so if the hardware plays ball I can probably disable Networker and perform the coming weekend's full backup with the new system. I can't consign Networker to File 13 as it so richly deserves, as I'll have to install it and the old changer on a spare PowerEdge in case we need to restore legacy data, but at least it won't be in the front-line any more...

A small, black fridge - just what we needed for the computer room. "Yeah, I want Cheesy Poofs with that!"

4th March

The new tape drive arrived today, and it's a real beastie... I checked the measurements when we were about to confirm the order, but there's a great difference between holding a ruler across a gap and suddenly being faced with a shipping crate requiring three people to lift, which then disgorged a tape drive the size of a small fridge... Much of the space inside is empty, as we can install a further four drive modules and tape columns, but it's still a really imposing lump of metal. The computer room is taking on a definite black theme with all this Dell hardware - I just hope the traditional beige Compaqs don't start getting sniffy about it...

The washing machine was duly repaired (it was only a snapped drive belt, as I'd hoped, so not even particularly expensive) and the repairman was greatly amused to find that the belt had been chafing against a small cushion that had apparently been stuffed inside the casing. I do remember filling the chassis up with padding to stop things shaking when we moved house around four years ago, and presumably I pulled out less than I stuffed in... but it's somewhat surprising that the repairman who replaced the drive belt a couple of years ago didn't notice it - unless he did, and left it there knowing that it would generate another call-out before very long... Hhmph.

3rd March

A bad technology time, this weekend... first the drive belt on the washing machine failed, leaving us with an annoyingly large pile of unwashed and partly-washed laundry, and then one of the VCRs started behaving most oddly. There were unexpected infrastructure failures, too, in the shape of the second collapsing chair in a week. I blame a sudden rise in sunspot activity.

I think the VCR is fried, though. It stopped responding to the controls and refused to do anything except play the currently-loaded tape - even when unplugged and left overnight to pull itself together, as soon as I reconnected it this morning it started playing again immediately... I opened it up and carefully extracted the tape (and then a second tape we tried afterwards, just in case it had spontaneously fixed itself - it hadn't) but it looks like repair or replacement is required...

I had a good look at the TiVo for the first time since it was launched, but although the hardware has plummeted in price (currently around 260 from online dealers)  the 200 sign-up fee for the channel guide etc is still rather daunting... We're still waiting to see if digital cable is ever going to be available in our area (this part of London was the first UK cable TV franchise taken up, so has the earliest, least capable and most fragile hardware installed - decidedly not digital-ready) and I think it would be a mistake to fork out almost 500 for something that could may not work as well as it should with whatever CATV service is finally offered.

In the interim, then, I suspect a straight replacement may be best - the big names continue to add bells and whistles to their analogue VCRs, and the current choice seems to be a Sony with excellent built-in image enhancement features or a Panasonic with extra-length recording and a memory of which programmes are recorded on which tape. The latter is strongly reminiscent of the modern AIT and LTO tape formats, and could be extremely useful for keeping track of our rather disorganised recording habits if it works as advertised.

Unfortunately, either way it means that I'll have to wrestle with the snake pit of AV cables once more, a set of connections and devices that not only rival the PC's wiring in complexity (and, in fact, the two are as close as Siamese twins in places) but is sufficiently obscure to require it's own documentation...

2nd March

We've been having a lot of fun with the Playstation version of Warzone 2100 recently, a real-time strategy game in the same style as the venerable Command & Conquer series, but developed to the logical conclusion: there are hundreds and hundreds of technologies to research, and the most comprehensive set of AI-assisted unit orders and control methods I've ever seen. The game has it's flaws, certainly, mostly due to strict limits on the numbers of units and buildings necessitated by the limited processing power available on a console platform, but nevertheless is extremely playable and very pretty. The PC version is on order, too, and I'm hoping that some of the wealth of 3rd party add-ons and patches will overcome the built-in restrictions and make the most of the PC's horsepower.

1st March

The quest for banks of flashing lights for the PC continues, although this offering from PCModKits is more Tandy than Colossus. It has a certain appeal, though, but I think that it's a rather a weak solution in comparison with Future Power's offerings - admittedly at a considerably higher price... It's tempting, but... no, the search continues...

I've run into an interesting little problem with FrontPage 2000 -  the server I'm hosting this site on is UNIX-based, so instead of using FP's built-in security subsystem I have to manually create and edit the .htaccess and .htpasswd files for the secure section. Now, Windows won't let one create a file with what it thinks is an extension without a name, but somewhat to my surprise I could create the files on the web server and then FTP them locally! Once on my local drive, I can manipulate these files as normal, but they're right on the edge of illegality and FrontPage doesn't see the local copies - so offers to remove them from the web server every time I synchronise! I need to find a way of either hiding the files on the web server so that FP doesn't notice them, or of registering the local copies so that it does!

If anyone has a clue, please mail me...





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