February 2003 Part Two


14th February

Friday night is evidently Odd Links Night again, at Epicycle.

To begin with, the First Vienna Vegetable Orchestra are apparently playing in London this weekend. There are full details of this unusual ensemble here, together with some of their music - their interpretation of the Radetzky March is especially... ah... interesting.

Further afield, Sumo wrestlers have been mobilized to fight street crime in Tokyo - I can't see that working anywhere else in the world. Well, I can't see it working in Japan either, actually, as I don't think an imposing physique and a thousand years of ritualised combat training are any match for a magazine's worth of 9mm semi-jacketed submachinegun rounds, apparently the major source of entertainment for today's hip Japanese street punks.

Elsewhere - Poke A Penguin, a nifty little interactive animation. Make sure to run it through a few times, as there are several different outcomes...

And finally (thanks to The Sideshow for the link) - a wonderful Three Stooges treatment of the US government.

12th February

I can't begin to describe my contempt for the knowledge and abilities of the programmers in our (soon to be dissolved) R&D department. It would take too long (and the gnashing would wear out too many teeth) to describe the whole sorry story over the last three years or so, but it all centres around the only area where they have any interaction with the rest of the company, the cash-cow Oracle servers that host their applications.

For reasons nobody seems to understand, rather than using a proper digital modem card they insisted on a stack of cheap consumer-level US Robotics modems to accept the calls from the remote dial-up devices, and they've written their own strange, archaic set of serial port handlers and messaging services to interface them to the Oracle application.

It's a horribly designed and poorly-implemented lash-up, in my opinion, and since the changes made during the recent database merge the modem handlers have started crashing badly every few hours, which causes another nasty crash in the service running above them... The service refuses to shut down in good order, and even attempting to kill the relevant processes through Task Manager returns the "Access Denied" message that always signals time for a reboot.

These servers have to stay running 24/7, though, and so rather than fixing their mistakes their solution to this problem has been to terminate the processes forcibly with some bastard kill tool they wrote in-house. Now, NT displays a stern and dire warning about system instability and data corruption even when a process is terminated "legally" through the Task Manager, and although this should only be ignored in the most dire of circumstances, to make matters even worse they then proceed to restart the offending service and modem handlers back into the damaged memory state.... A recipe for disaster, of course, and after a few of these little episodes NT turns up its toes and expires.

Even a casual inspection of the system logs by a real programmer suggested that they've made a handful of basic programming mistakes (inadequate handles, that sort of thing) but rather than fixing the problems, their next solution has simply been to move the modem handler subsystem onto another server - so that at least when it dies it doesn't take the Oracle database down to hell with it. It all feels very 70s mainframe...

Of course, the modem subsystem still dies brutally, and as I left this evening (shaking my head in disgust) they were eagerly discussing whether adding more RAM would help - apparently one of the logged errors "says something about insufficient memory", but they obviously haven't quite mastered the concepts of stacks and heaps, let alone buckets and pools... We could take the servers up to their maximum of 4Gb without changing the fact that NT's resource heaps are of a fixed size (if more than big enough for properly-written applications!), or the fact that once you've fried your operating system by ripping low-level processes out of the kernel by their bloody roots, all bets on memory management and resource allocation are well-and-truly off.

I'd be very glad that they'll all have been made redundant in another few months, except that I hear their parent department in Switzerland, who will presumably be taking over this system's software development, are even worse... Ho hum.

[Later] I went down into the basement and put three magazines through the MAC 11. That certainly helped. :-)

11th February

Ah, the MAC 11 arrived, and it's really cute!   :-)

Firing the gun is as lively an experience as I'd expected - there's a sharp bbbbbbbbbbblert noise, the gun squirms in the hand like a small animal dying in convulsions, and the air is suddenly full of shattered BBs - true to it's real-steel counterpart, the gun is amazingly inaccurate, and the ricochets from the walls, metal shelves and assorted storage that lines my "range" certainly made life interesting! It's currently firing several feet too high, and while I'm sure that can be improved by tweaking the sights and the HOP-up a little, the grouping is non-existent and it's never going to be more than a point-and-spray toy. Who cares! Needless to say, the grin factor is immense - I definitely prefer the gas guns to the AEGs, for that, and wish that more of the wonderful gas-powered assault rifles were available outside of Japan.

It seems somewhat more powerful than my other two replicas, though, even though I'm initially playing it safe with the low-power HFC134a rather than risking the more powerful American Eagle I bought for use when it's settled in. It's certainly made an interesting mess of my target box (if as much because of the terrible accuracy as anything else!) and almost every other bit of cardboard in the immediate vicinity, and the flying shards of plastic from the harder surfaces give an effect not unlike a tropical hailstorm...

Firing the MAC 11 is also rather a brief experience, on the whole - even restricting myself to short bursts the 68 round magazine is empty in a few seconds - but fortunately I anticipated this and bought a couple of extra mags... They're noticeably more fiddly to load than those of the Beretta, but hold far more gas - enough for three or four reloads even when cold, which I gather is quite impressive.

What I didn't get, unfortunately, was the Mafia Goon silencer - although I'm pleased with the speed with which Zero One Airsoft have delivered, both orders so far have been incomplete due to lack of stock... Evidently another online retailer who's database bears no relation to their inventory - one of my pet peeves. I shall shop around elsewhere, as although the gun is sweet as it is, it takes on a whole new image with that bad-ass silencer. I think I need a sling, too, but for that I shall probably steal a design from the manufacturer of the real weapon, Cobray, and make my own from some spare webbing.

10th February

I've just spent a rather unproductive nine hours trying to move our corporate intranet from it's old desktop PC platform to a shiny new purpose-built server. The IIS Migration Tool should have performed this task with ease (that's what it's for!) but the added 3rd-party complexity of our intranet (mainframe connectivity, 192 phone database, and an insane tangle of PERL scripts cobbled together by our self-taught webmaster) completely defeated it even after many attempts. I'd arranged to have the entire service taken offline today, and we managed to make a successful manual copy of the web itself, but thanks to seemingly unrelated issues it was a horrendous experience. To begin with, the virtual IP addresses used by the FTP services refused to bind to the equally virtual load-balancing network driver - we never did find a solution to this, and in the end I've had to leave FTP on the old server for the time being.

Glossing rapidly over the problems with a freeware PERL extensions library that wouldn't link (I'm not a programmer, dammit!), the next major issue was the confusing tangle of IP addresses, MAC addresses, NT domain names and DNS and WINS entries caused by successive experiments with the load-balancing teams, exacerbated by the need to rename both servers within the domain. It had sorted itself out locally when I finally called it a day, but it will probably take a day or two for the changes to propagate successfully through the entire network, and I'm expecting much anguish tomorrow.

Finally, just to add insult to injury, the mainframe terminal emulation subsystem presented much weirdness when we came to install it on the new server, and although my PFY wrestled manfully with the configuration settings, it was still offline when I left - the only service that wasn't working in some way, shape or form, but unfortunately rather a high-profile one, and we're both going to have to scramble to fix everything up tomorrow.

<sigh>  Not the best start to the week, and with Microsoft scheduled to descend on us next Monday to make a start on the AD design, really I don't need this... Maybe it's still not too late to cross-train into plumbing.

9th February

Oooh, this is nice - an airsoft replica of the M41A pulse rifle from the movie Aliens, complete with digital ammunition counter, manufactured by the same company that made my SR16 CQB conversion. It's certainly a nice-looking replica, built around the classic Thompson SMG, but with so much custom work the price (yet to be announced) is sure to be scary...

It's a popular weapon in other forms, too, with various homebrew conversions and kits available, ready-made replicas both prop and fully-functional, and well-covered by fan pages. In fact, there's a whole raft of information available...

Elsewhere - unfortunately - seven hundred Australian women protested against their country's possible involvement in Gulf War II by taking off their clothes. I doubt that it will do much good (the message of this kind of protest is usually lost amongst the nudges and winks) but hey, why not...

8th February

Some odd links, today - and I mean odd...

Mysterious purple streak hits Columbia

Security experts duped by Slammer 'jihad'

Office Linebacker

Museum of Hoaxes

Masturbate For Peace

Earth Erotica

Rude snow

And finally, from someone's sig:

    "I spent most of my money on guns and women... the rest I just wasted..."

Damn right...

7th February

Damn, I seem to have bought myself another gun, in spite of my new year resolutions... This one is an airsoft copy of the wonderful little Ingram MAC-11 machine-pistol, made by the Japanese company KSC. Unlike my Beretta, this replica is rated for the medium-performance HFC22 gas, but even with the less powerful HFC134a it has a thoroughly improbable rate of fire, emptying its 48 round magazine in a couple of seconds on full-auto. It's going to be a lively little thing to shoot, I'm sure, when it arrives next week.

Fortunately, I already have the briefcase. The older brother of the M11, the slightly larger MAC-10, was allegedly designed for use by Central American guerrillas - but ever since its media debut in the 1974 John Wayne movie McQ the entire "Ingram" series has been eagerly adopted by terrorists, drugs traffickers, gangsta rappers and anyone else who felt the need for a scary quantity of firepower in a pocket-sized weapon. The massive silencer effectively doubles the size of the gun, of course, but for today's gun-crime elite it's such a great fashion accessory that it's almost obligatory.

6th February

The new digital camera (Whoops! Didn't mention that, did I) arrived yesterday, and both the picture quality and portability are streets ahead of the antique DC120. It's a Canon PowerShot S45, the latest of their mid-range consumer cameras - the Digital Ixus is noticeably smaller but less feature-rich, while the G3 is noticeably more expensive and bulky to make up for it's plethora of features, modes and gadgets. In an ideal world I'd like both an Ixus and a G3, I think - one to take out with me and one to keep at home - but funds wouldn't permit and I'm hoping that the S45 will fill the gap in the middle well enough...

Early indications are excellent, as the camera passed the INFINITY2 test with flying colours - even on auto-everything mode, Canon's highly-regarded DiGiC imaging processor managed to look through the case's side windows to focus on the cabling inside, and the flash was powerful enough (eye-poppingly so!) to reach through the tinted Perspex and provide illumination, although of course it totally wiped out the beautiful red glow. Once I've experimented with the exotica of the various manual modes, I'll update the project pages with some pictures that will hopefully show how very pretty it all is.   :-)

5th February

[Admin Note: I've started including hyperlinks for each entry's title rather than just numbered bookmarks, so that should make linking easier...]

My BMW's registration number begins with N404, which always makes me think of the classic "404 Not Found" HTTP status code (probably as much of a personalised plate as I'd ever want) and this evening, thanks to a beautifully documented but evidently poorly-linked web site, I've just stumbled over some opinions on the exact derivation of the error code. The first was a charming story involving Room 404 at CERN where the original web servers were located, but this is roundly dismissed by what appears to be the definitive reference, The 404 Research Lab (on the very reasonable grounds that there has never been a Room 404 in the building) and replaced by a technical explanation - doubtless more accurate, but somehow not nearly as pleasing... However, they also provide a huge collection of the best and worst of 404 error pages, advice on working around faulty links to find the content you need, and more besides. It's certainly worth a look - unlike the official list of HTTP 1.1 status codes, which should only be referred to when all else fails...

4th February

For a computer hardware junkie, I certainly don't have much luck with the stuff... The huge UPS at the office died horribly some time over the weekend, and although it went offline smoothly without interrupting the output power long enough for anything to notice, it was a nasty moment when I arrived at the office to hear an ominous bleeping...

The maintenance engineer arrived this morning and (just as the status display suggested) initially diagnosed a faulty inverter, but further tests showed that the fault was actually in the onboard diagnostics hardware itself - it seemed to think that one of the three phases of the output was drifting out of phase with the others, and so shut down the inverter and took the UPS offline. Definite overtones of Dark Star... He fiddled with it for an hour or two trying to correct a non-existent problem until light dawned, and a replacement of the management PCBs meant that all is now well - but it's shaken my faith in the UPS somewhat just at the point where I was starting to relax about it.

I may have reservations about the UPS, but I can't praise the supplier, PowerWorks, highly enough - their engineers are extremely competent, friendly and approachable with silly questions - and certainly more tolerant of hardware misuse than I would be under similar circumstances. The room that houses the UPS is still thickly scattered with finely-ground brick dust from last year's installation of the aircon ducting, and which (predictably enough) trashes the UPS's cooling fans on a regular basis - they've already replaced two under warranty, and today's engineer noticed that another was making unpleasant noises as it spun up and cheerfully swapped it out while he was there. Now, if I was attending this call, I'd insist that the room was properly cleaned before providing further maintenance cover - and, oddly, the engineer's tolerance has made me feel sufficiently ashamed of the dust to finally do something about it. It would probably be easier and quicker to roll up my sleeves and take care of it myself, but time is short right now and I may have to go through all the fuss of having it done for me via official channels. Oh, well...

3rd February

The search teams continue to drag in more wreckage for NASA analysts to pick over, a hypothesis has been offered, the Islamic lunatics have said their piece, and it looks like the finger-pointing and whistle-blowing has started. On first sight, it doesn't appear that anything was learned after the Challenger explosion - the astronauts usually know the real risks, but the high echelons of NASA continue to blow PR smoke... Where is Dick Feynman when you need him...

2nd February

 "We've had a bad day" - NASA senior flight director Milt Heflin.

I've been meaning to re-orbit the Mir kit for ages, and today seemed like a good opportunity to climb up on my desk and do it... I'd forgotten how it was dwarfed by the similarly-scaled ISS.

The chance of the real ISS ever achieving the proportions of the original design that my model represents has fallen to almost zero, now - even in its current state, resupply missions will almost certainly will have to flown by Russian spacecraft in the immediate future, and when shuttle flights resume in months or years, the remaining fleet will face even heavier demand for launches. Dubya's National Missile Defence programme will be coming online soon, and in these days of "heightened tensions" I suspect that ISS construction missions will take a much lower priority...

1st February

[Stop Press] Oh, no - the space shuttle Columbia has gone down, breaking up high above Texas during re-entry. The seven astronauts are almost certainly dead. Official details at NASA, as they emerge, and full coverage at Space.Com.

horizontal rule

An unscheduled adventure into the wilds, yesterday, with a three hundred mile round-trip to darkest Wiltshire to collect Ros's new car - a 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee. It's the size of a tank, with a four litre straight-six engine, permanent four wheel drive, and enough electric gadgets to warrant an LCD status display larger than that of the first laptop PC I owned. The previous owner lived slightly outside the back of beyond, and it's currently encrusted with genuine off-road mud - a determined assault with a jet-wash will fix that, and now it's made it to London I doubt it will see any more... although I will be considerably more anxious the next time we're stuck in a traffic jam and Ros threatens to turn off the road and go cross-country - this thing could do it...

The gadget factor is incredible - electrically adjusted seats and mirrors with memory settings for two different drivers, heated leather seats, giant alloy wheels, remote locking and immobiliser, aircon and full climate control, CD changer, cruise control, a trip computer with electronic compass, and the aforementioned LCD status panel (grandly titled The Vehicle Information Center) - mostly standard equipment with this model. There are dense little clusters of switches and buttons scattered around the interior to control it all, and the huge spaces in between are punctuated with sunglasses caddies, cup holders, cargo nets, map pockets and little pouches galore.

Under the bonnet - sorry, the hood - is a classic hunk of MOPAR muscle, more brute force than finesse as befits it's all-terrain ethos, but still capable of relaxed cruising at speed. Apparently it delivers 174bhp to the wheels via an electronic four-speed automatic gearbox, a Quadra-Trac four wheel drive and limited-slip differentials... so there you go. It also drinks petrol, big-time - Ros was pleasantly surprised to use somewhat less than half of the eighty-seven litre petrol tank on the way back to London, but my BMW managed to survive on around a quarter of an eighty-one litre tank... according to the fuel economy gauge built-into the speedometer, I was getting around 35-40 mpg at steady motorway cruising speeds, which I'm very pleased with... I don't think I'd want to swap, but I have to admit that the Cherokee has a lot of style and character to go with the interior pampering, and its presence on the road is excellent. It's definitely a Ros sort of car.  :-)


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