November 2002 Part Two


15th November

Epicycle via The Dialectizer. I think it's an improvement...

A perplexing problem at work, today, when I was suddenly called on to provide remote dialup access to a DEC Alpha minicomputer independently managed, for various legacy and political reasons, by our Finance Department. When I joined the company it was still running dumb terminals communicating over serial lines, so I was happy to keep my distance and leave them to it... But the terminals were phased-out a while ago, replaced by PCs running a needlessly complicated WRQ Reflection TCP stack, and last year the Alpha was finally connected to the rest of the network. Since then, predictably, it and its "administrator" have caused me a world of grief: mostly puzzling but minor connectivity issues caused by his apparently random tweaks to the client settings, but occasionally with a real eyebrow-raiser. Setting up his own competing DHCP server was probably my favourite - I couldn't understand why PCs scattered around the company were suddenly dropping off the network until I rebooted one of my own and noticed its completely alien IP address... The Sniffer clearly pointed the way to his office door, and boy was I terse that day...

Today's job should have been fairly simple, though - I only had to enable a path through the firewall for a single protocol from a specific client to a specific host - easy to implement, nice and safe, a minute's work... except that the user still couldn't connect.

I spent a while on the phone checking the user's TCP/IP configuration, which all appeared plausible, and then a while longer checking the firewall rules and various static routes to no avail. I could see the packets entering our network and being routed towards the Alpha, but nothing seemed to be coming back... So just before I fired up the Sniffer to tear apart the packet headers, I sat back and tried to put myself in his place: "If I was a know-nothing bozo, promoted far beyond my level of competence and full of resentment towards the real IT staff, what would I have done to adapt my system to the main network?" The answer seemed to be the absolute minimum possible, and it suddenly occurred to me that this problem had all the symptoms of a missing or incorrect default gateway address. I'd provided full details of our TCP configuration when he first connected the Alpha to the network, but that was no guarantee that he'd actually implemented them! A phone call confirmed it: "What is your default gateway set to, Danny?" "Uh, what is a default gateway?" "Come up and see me, please..."

A brief lecture on TCP/IP internetworking followed, complete with diagrams when it was obviously sailing over his head, but ten minutes and a restart of the Alpha's TCP stack later, it all burst into life. <sigh> I would like to have told him exactly what I thought of him, but I gather that his tongue usually lives in the Finance Director's behind and caution prevailed - although I think I succeeded in infecting him with The Fear through dire warnings of how exposed his server had suddenly become, conjuring dark visions of hackers brute-forcing his puny four character numeric passwords in a matter of seconds and romping freely through his server before selling all his data to Lithuanian blackmailers. He was visibly shaken, and even my PFY was impressed - he doesn't usually see me bullshitting the users quite that outrageously, and I think he'd previously considered that to be his domain. Hah!

14th November

Virtual gibberish on tap, courtesy of the ChomskyBot - a natural language processor based on phrases from the linguist Noam Chomsky's 1957 classic Syntactic Structures. To me, at least, its output makes just as much sense as anything else I've seen of Chomsky's work...

13th November

Today's media news is full of the MPAA and its paid mouthpieces bleating that the second Harry Potter movie has been pirated already, is widely available on the various P2P file-sharing networks, and how it will be the death of the motion picture industry. As usual, it hardly sounds plausible - apparently it's a poor-quality video of a preview screening last weekend, badly digitised from a hand-held camcorder, and I can't imagine that it would be of interest to anyone except the die hard fanatic... who would only be using it as a stopgap until they could watch, rent and buy the real thing! Indeed, a thread at Slashdot is discussing the likelihood that Warner Brothers leaked the file themselves - as usual, the thread is long and convoluted, so here's a summary from Ars Technica:

WB could have infected the P2P supply with a crummy version which would become ubiquitous across the networks. When higher quality rips show up, downloaders would find the bad version and eventually give up. Mainstream news outlets are sure to pick up news of the leak with WB benefiting from millions of dollars of free advertising, far more money than (actual) lost ticket sales from a bootleg internet version. If ticket sales are lackluster they can blame bootleg versions on the internet for (theoretical) lost ticket, DVD and VHS sales while running to Congress for stricter DRM protections. Yea the theories may sound far fetched, but I wouldn't put it past them to leak the bootleg themselves.

It's certainly not out of the question, but I suspect that right now RIAA and MPAA are content to wait for Congressman "Hollywood" Berman to win them the privileged hacking rights they feel they need to protect their livelihood...  After all, the "Harry Potter" canon has a sufficiently high media profile, and is sufficiently popular with an almost unprecedented age range, that I don't think they would need to rely on dubious 3rd party publicity or need to disguise poor ticket sales!

[Ten minutes later] Things move fast, on the Internet... Apparently the movie hasn't been leaked after all! Warner Brothers now say that they "had opened a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that it discovered in a hard-to-find location on the Internet and found it to be an empty decoy." Bizarre stuff...

12th November

Damn, that was a busy day...

So here's Dilbert™ Rendered in LEGO®

I wish I had as much free time...

11th November

Tweakers Australia is up and running properly again, today, so any regular visitors who don't click the vote link below will be tracked down and infected with a copy of the annoying "Friend Greeting" virus I've been wrestling with today. Well, it's not a virus in the true sense of the word, as to become infected the victim needs to permit Internet Explorer's automated component installation process to run, then agree to a download and two separate software licenses - one of which actually admits that the program will send spam to the entire contents of the Outlook address book! - but the users seem happy to oblige the source company, Permissioned Media Inc, and the net result is pretty much the same...

Although their web site makes a big thing of their privacy policy, the small print of the license states that anyone who installs the software is a "PerMedia User" and thus covered instead by a very different set of terms and conditions indeed! Included specifically is the right to update the software automatically to perform any other function without notification, the right to deliver advertising content via pop-ups, email messages, banner ads and any other format that occurs to them later, and the right to track your online activity in any way possible and pass the data to anyone they like. Hmmm.

Unusually, these days, this steaming pile of filth has a payload of sorts, although I hardly think that it was intentional - when application windows are minimised on an infected system, they don't appear as icons on the taskbar - but although this is an annoyance it's hardly terminal. In the absence of complete message tracking logs (our email gateway is still running on a temporary server after the fun and games of last weekend) this was actually a good way of spotting infected systems, and as far as I can see only three users actually succumbed.

Fortunately the spam messages are just a badly-worded blurb with a link to one of PerMedia's many web sites, and not copies of the virus itself, so the minor incursion we suffered over the weekend was easily contained by blocking those domains at the firewall and web filter, then breaking out the emergency two-by-four and embarking on a short programme of user re-education. Fortunately, again, the wretched thing can easily be removed - and, because of it's pretensions to being legitimate software, even removed via the regular Add/Remove Programs applet!

I intend to leave all PerMedia's domains permanently blocked at the firewall, and also to add any more that emerge... I don't trust these people any further than I could spit a rat.

10th November

For no readily apparent reason, you can now vote for this site at the Tweakers Australia Top 50. Just click here to make me bigger than Dan Rutter:

At least, you would be able to click if the entire Tweakers site wasn't experiencing major server problems this morning. What a debut...

It looks as if PC-tweaking manufacture ThermalTake is expanding their project range again. Highlights this month are pretty blue and red LED-illuminated smart fans with an unusually wide range of configurations, and a new variant of the rather elegant Xaser II case with an integrated water-cooling system. The latter is aimed squarely at Koolance, the established leader in the field, and it will be interesting to see if ThermalTake can break into the market. Recent experiences with the company suggest that the Aquarius II is almost certainly vapourware at this stage, but although the system's performance is unknown the cosmetics seem impressive - the cooling hardware is compact and well-located, and the case as a whole seems far more attractive than any of Koolance's offerings... But Thermaltake has rather an uneven record with their products, seeming to alternate gems with lemons, and the small scale of the cooling components suggests little extra capacity for video cards or hard disks. As usual, the proof of the pudding will come in a few months time when the hardware sites get the first samples...

9th November

Saturday night is Rude Technology Night at Epicycle!

Spank Bush in effigy, and then send it to him.

Keep your girlfriend distracted while you play Rez.

Or, for the hardcore deviant, letch while you iron.

8th November

A nasty moment for Dan, earlier today, when Dan's Data was briefly knocked off the number one spot at the Tweakers Australia poll of the top 50 tech sites. It's traditional that Dan's site crushes all opposition here, being home-grown and all, and Dan was visibly shaken - but fortunately his fans rallied and he's back on top again, if still somewhat precariously, as I write this... His site is always worth a look, though, and today he has posted a review of a wonderful magnetic objet that he's been playing with. I think I'd like one of those myself...

And talking of magnets, it appears that in the US the Sandia National Laboratory is planning a successor to the remarkable Z Machine, currently the most powerful source of X-rays in the world. The Z machine is a pulsed accelerator consisting of giant capacitors that are charged with electricity for about a minute, before releasing it almost instantaneously (a 100 billionth of a second!) as a pulse of 50 trillion watts or 18 million amps! This burst of energy converges at a small array of fine wires, vaporising it to create a plasma which almost immediately collapses under the intense magnetic field, or "Z-pinch", created by the passage of the electricity through those same wires.

From a geek's point of view all this is clever stuff indeed, but the most remarkable thing about "Z", as it seems to be affectionately known, is that it lives in a pool of coolant water over one hundred feet across. During the power-up phase the water is alive with blue and red electrical effects, making it by far the most spectacular of all the Big Science accelerators. The full-sized version of this picture by Randy Montoya can be found here at Sandia, and makes beautiful wallpaper:

Some experiment configurations use a "jacket" around the target to convert this energy to sufficient heat (1.6 million degrees) that the atoms of the jacket emit X-rays, others use it to study the effects of such extreme energy on the materials themselves. A recent project has harnessed the capacitors to power a rising magnetic field capable of accelerating coin-sized metal plates to 13km/sec, faster than anything except a nuclear explosion and three times greater than Earth's escape velocity - but doing it so gently that the plates are neither distorted, melted, nor vaporized, as they would be if fired by any type of explosive charge. This allows all sorts of interesting tests to simulate the high-velocity impacts that might occur in space exploration or, perhaps more likely now that the work is advancing well, to develop hyper-velocity space weaponry for Bush's Star Wars II.

Z's replacement, the catchily-named X-1, is still only at the stage of feasibility studies - Sandia have demanded a complete simulation and proof of concept before commissioning the hardware, and the tools to perform the simulation don't actually exist as yet... But given the resounding success of the Z project I'm sure that X-1 will bring great things - possibly even the elusive goal of "high-yield", a self-sustaining fusion reaction where the amount of energy produced exceeds the amount of energy used to create it... potentially, virtually limitless electrical power.

7th November

It appears that after thirty years of allegations that the moon landings were faked, NASA has finally been sufficiently nettled to respond. In the past they've usually dismissed these wild attacks, apparently believing them to be beneath their dignity and leaving it up to (often highly capable) amateurs to comprehensively debunk the various myths in the space newsletters and latterly, on the Internet. I think the recent harassment of Buzz Aldrin and a ridiculous TV "documentary" last year has convinced them to act, though, and they have just announced that they will be financing a monograph intended to address each specific claim point by point. It will never convince the arrant loons, of course, but may well help the regular know-nothings...

6th November

Now here's an interesting thing - the ReactOS NT-compatible open source operating system. They're still at the kernel and command line stage at the moment, but a GUI is promised RSN... An interesting project, certainly, especially now that Microsoft are about to discontinue support for NT itself.

Elsewhere, the answer to a question that has puzzled me for as long as I've been working in IT - what's the deal with those little bags of silica gel desiccant that you find inside the shipping cartons of electronic equipment, and why do they have such prominent "Do Not Eat" warnings all over them? I've always felt vaguely insulted by these notices, as I'm not in the habit of opening a new PC and cramming handfuls of the packaging into my mouth, but mostly I've been puzzled - my knowledge of chemistry is rapidly descending to the kitchen sink level, but even so I'm pretty sure that the contents of the little bags, sodium silicate, is essentially harmless!

However, validation offers itself at last, thanks to John Thile, the latest recipient of my Too Much Time On Their Hands award. John seems to have made something of a cause of silica gel, and as well as a remarkable gallery of his sachet collection, he has also provided a comprehensive treatise on the subject of their safety. His conclusion, that one would have to ingest enough to choke a medium-sized male rhinoceros to find the experience anything more than unpleasant, is no great surprise to me but welcome nevertheless - and John's new blog, Lunarpolicy, is certainly worth keeping an occasional eye on... If only to make sure that he doesn't reproduce.

5th November

I don't usually admit to liking heavy rock these days, when someone asks about my taste in music, and really it doesn't even occur to me that I still do... But I've just been listening to a bunch of Motörhead tracks, from their original incarnation in the late '70s, and what can I say - I just want to go somewhere and play air guitar... "In the end / when all else fails / dead men tell no tales"  <sigh> Lemmy was my hero...

Still one of the classic rock logos. I wanted to paint it on the back of my leather jacket, but I didn't have a leather jacket and my mother wouldn't let me buy one... So I painted it on a kite, instead, and went totally off the rails as soon as I left home.

4th November

It's been a tough few days down't mill... I was planning to spend some time in the office on Saturday, but one of the scheduled tasks, adding a second CPU to an email gateway server and patching NT to make use of it, went horribly wrong. I'm not quite sure what actually happened, but whatever it was resulted in an unbootable NT installation and no amount of twiddling, tweaking or restoring seemed to make it any better... I worked on it until Sunday afternoon, but when after dozens of rebuilds and repairs I'd only managed to return to my original error message (having visited a whole bunch of new ones in the meantime, including an honest-to-goodness NT BugCheck), I couldn't bear it any more... So today was spent stripping the server down to bare metal and reinstalling everything, a process not without its own unexpected problems, and after three days of wrestling with the damn thing I'm just about dead on my feet...

Fortunately my PFY had been testing a later version of the mail gateway software a few months ago, and he did sterling work in bringing it live at short notice to take up the load, while I worked on the main server. It's odd - it was only a couple of years ago that I was arguing with my department manager over the necessity of an external email facility at all, but by now he was the first person to give me a hard time about it's absence this morning...

Personally, I think the problems started right at the beginning - I gashed the tip of my thumb while changing the heatsink on the new CPU, and the sharp edge gave such a clean cut that I didn't even notice until I saw copious blood dripping onto the motherboard... And, as all horror movie fans know, once the demon computer has tasted blood things rapidly start to go downhill - I expect that the computer room will turn out to have been built on the site of an Indian burial ground, next.

On a brighter note, though, I managed to find another VXA-1 tape drive on eBay - a beige LVD SCSI unit, this time, to match either Ros's PC or the server... I'm not quite sure where it will end up, as yet, but the half-dozen tapes included in the deal will certainly help out - I needed that many tapes anyhow, and as the high-capacity V17 cartridges are £60 each I effectively got the tape drive free!

3rd November

Guru-programmer Mike was visiting this weekend, and asked me to operate on one of his old-favourite PDAs, the Psion Workabout. Often seen in the unappreciative hands of meter readers, these days, their hardened casings nevertheless conceal the guts of the classic Psion 3 Series, apparently a very respectable development platform. Unfortunately the little catch that releases the internals is not built to the same standards as the rest of the unit, and he was being driven mad by the thing repeatedly popping open in mid-coding frenzy. So, under his watchful eye I clamped his baby into the Dremel drill press and in less time than it takes to translate the Book Of Maccabees from Hebrew to Lithuanian we'd drilled down through the casing and installed a spare thumbscrew from my PC to hold it together. It has a marvellous bolt-through-the-neck look, now - Frankenstein's Workabout...

Somewhat to my surprise, in the Microsoft trial Judge Kollar-Kotelly has upheld the original government settlement and rejected calls by the non-settling states for harsher treatment. The judge agreed with Microsoft that most of the states' proposals went beyond the company's "misdeeds", and that they would mostly benefit Microsoft competitors AOL and Sun. I expect that the Attorney General's office will be keeping a very close eye on Microsoft for a while, though...

2nd November

I've just treated myself to some new eye candy, in the form of the "Desktop Dreamscapes" animated SF wallpaper-cum-screensaver. While not quite as swirly as Drempels or VoodooLights, its game-quality graphics are certainly pleasing to the eye:

Note to small software houses: try to contain your ego when configuring installation scripts, resisting the temptation to nest your installation folders several layers deep on some obscurely-named path: it's bad enough when the program files themselves are buried like this, but when the Start Menu icons are similarly hidden it makes finding the utility some time after installation pointlessly hard. I don't remember the name of your company, and you probably only have one program on the market anyway, so a path along the lines of  C:\Program Files\Company Name\Product Name\Version Number  really is over the top... Defaults can be changed, of course, and Start Menu items dragged around afterwards, but this is an extra fuss and tends to leave orphaned shortcuts after upgrades or uninstallation - and there are still some apps that get into a dreadful tizzy if they're installed elsewhere than the defaults or even to a path with a space in the name... Tsk!

1st November

Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball... Do not taunt Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, either, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup...

The ruling on the appeal against the verdict of last year's Microsoft witch-hunt is expected imminently, and as it's been a long time in coming the smart money is on Judge Kollar-Kotelly toughening up the original settlement terms. This one will run and run...





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