28th February

Damn, but I'm glad the week is over - especially as it ended in a rush when the higher levels made a sudden change of plans at ten to four, requiring an extra switch to be installed to provide connectivity while a nearby office space is refurbished over the weekend. However, I probably achieved the fastest installation of networking hardware I've ever managed in order to get away on time... I had a brand-new Cisco switch out of the box, configured with basic IP details and SNMP management and safely bolted into the rack, all in a pleasing twelve minutes. It would have been eleven, but I accidentally left the power cable on the floor below...

Elsewhere - Coo, a record player that reads LPs using a laser instead of a stylus! Now, that's bound to be popular with the vinyl die-hards - it's extremely expensive, but won't wear precious antique discs any further and claims to offer better sound reproduction than a stylus as well as higher tolerance to scratches and existing wear. Neat!

Further elsewhere - right, it's definitely odd gadgets night, tonight. How about a car with a quantum engine, using radiation pressure to drive a piston with claims of far higher efficiency than a traditional Carnot Cycle engine, brought to us by the same man who invented the "quantum afterburner" exhaust-powered laser. Uh, yes...

More, you say? How about a USB coffee heater, then, or a USB electric blanket? Isn't technology wonderful...

27th February

Microsoft announced firm dates for Server 2003 a couple of days ago but, bizarrely, now that we're down to the wire my management want to back-pedal. Under the terms of the Rapid Adoption Programme we get the "gold" code the moment it's released to manufacturing on March 12th, and are obliged to have at least two servers installed and doing something useful before the official launch on April 29th.

However, today I have been met by nothing but obstructions and annoyances... It looks as if the bean-counters will refuse to allow the new junior techie we badly need to take some of the load, the programming manager (and intranet webmaster) claimed that it would take weeks to re-write his PERL scripts to query an Active Directory for user account information instead of the current NT domain, and on hearing this the department manager even suggested that we delay the launch until next year! Oh, brother - at this late stage Microsoft would have the company in court for breach of contract as fast as their lawyers could fill out the forms...

At the low levels, we're all ready to roll - I've been chafing at the bit since my AD training courses this time last year, my PFY is eager to gain the migration experience so that he can jump ship with it to a better job, the desktop team have thoroughly bought-in to the "ease of management" pitch, and one of the junior programmers has dived into Visual Studio .Net and was already creating "Hello World" active web pages on my test IIS6 server after only a few hours... It's all going well, and with a shed-load of free consultancy from Microsoft and Eurodata the project should be looking extremely promising.

The last thing we need is obfuscation and politics from the higher levels, but it seems that's exactly what we're going to get - and the one thing that could really turn the coming year into a grade-A Project Of Lost Souls is having to fight every step of the way with a bunch of know-nothing management bozos.

It's all very depressing and annoying, and I think may be the last straw. At the end of last year I was promised a promotion, taking the new techie and the DBA under my wing to give me a team of three, and that now seems as unlikely as the new techie itself... Well, I am going to do an Active Directory roll-out this year, come hell or high-water, and if my current employer doesn't want it then I shall find a company that does. Hah!

Elsewhere - why Google was nominated for this year's US Big Brother Award...

26th February

Work was a bitch, so just clippings tonight...

Neowin has an interesting guide on configuring Server 2003 as a workstation.

Glowing bubbles and vibrator cozies at avant-garde design house SuperHappyBunny.

Jupiter reprimanded at SatireWire.

It's starting again!... RC5-72 at Distributed.Net. Count me out of this one...

Pioneer 10 dies after 31 years in space, 7.6 billion miles from Earth.

Giant Cheeto at auction on eBay.

The Irish government implemented a secret data retention policy almost a year ago, according to Karlin Lillington! Damn!

25th February

On a whim, I took the new camera into the office today. Dialup users aren't going to like this page, now, but it's too close to the end of the month for the fuss of starting a new one. Install DSL - you know you want to.

Above, the makings of a nice little server farm - five Dell PowerEdge 2650s, each with a pair of P4 Hyper-Threading Xeons, a miniature RAID-5 array and a gigabyte of fast memory. A pity I'm no longer taking part in any of the distributed computing projects.

The R&D department's idea of a professional, enterprise-level dialup service - two tired old PCs and sixteen bog-standard analogue modems (as well as the three yards of power strip required for their wall-wart power supplies). Come on, guys, that's what a Digicard is for!  <sigh> Their final solution to the crashing comms service was to create another service that watches the first - when it sees the modem handlers going down, it reboots the PC! I would be laughing my head off if all this crud was polluting someone else's network...

I am Plasmon! Tremble before me, puny lifeforms!

Finally, the optical disk jukebox I'm (gradually) installing for the accounts department's archiving project - the monitor sat on top gives an idea of size... The unit as a whole displays a barely-restrained desire to invade Poland, and I'm careful to keep the wheels locked when I leave the room.

I spent a while watching it running self-tests, today, and the speed that it can move the disk picker mechanism about, spinning and twirling as it goes, exceeds anything I've seen in this class of hardware... Impressive stuff. The management software, however, is truly the spawn of Satan... but I won't rant, except to say that in the year 2003 an application without support for long file names and directory paths should be too ashamed to venture out in daylight.

23rd February

A failed attempt at industrial espionage is having catastrophic affects on computers around the world, according to a story in The Toronto Star. The exact details are unclear, but trade magazine IEEE Spectrum suggests that the design for a new variety of electrolytic capacitor (a key component of electronic circuits in many home appliances, as well as computer systems) was stolen by a disaffected employee and later resold to one or more Taiwanese component manufactures. Unfortunately the design was incomplete, omitting the specification for an additive intended to keep the electrolyte stable, and a build-up of hydrogen gas inside the capacitor is causing problems ranging from subtle periodic failures to complete (and explosive!) destruction of the component in question.

Many major computer manufactures have been using capacitors from the suppliers in question over the last year or so, although only IBM and ABIT have so far admitted it, and the fall-out is now starting to appear in the repair workshops. Hardware site PC Stats has a report on the practical implications and advice to techies in diagnosing and correcting the problem, as well as a survey intended to determine how widely distributed the faulty components have become. PC guru Carey Holzman seems to have picked up on the issue for his Internet radio show, as well, and with all this publicity I confidently expect the idea to be eagerly adopted by the computer-using public to replace virus-attack as the cause of any and all system failures. Oh, well - if nothing else, it's another line to add to the BOFH Excuse Generator.

22nd February

Interesting news at CNN of a new study showing that it can be surprisingly easy to implant false memories in some people. In a recent test at UC Irvine, more than a third of the subjects claimed clear memories of hugging Bugs Bunny at Disneyland (impossible, as Bugs is not a Disney character) having had the idea subtly suggested to them in earlier interviews. One of the keys, it seems, is to associate some sensory impression with the "memory". Mentioning a taste, sound, smell or, in this case, the feel of stroking Bugs' fluffy ears, when the information is supplied seems to greatly increase the chance of it being accepted subconsciously as a genuine experience. "If you imbue the story with them", says psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, "you'll disrupt the memory process. It's almost a recipe to get people to remember things that aren't true."

It's nothing very new, I suppose, and has always been one of my standard explanations for UFO phenomena and other paranormal and religious experiences, but I'm glad to see that researchers are still active in the field. I can still vividly remember the Orkney ritual abuse debacle in the early nineties, and it's quite clear that the authorities and the media have learnt little from all the analysis and discussion that has taken place since - until terrorism drove everything else out of the news, the witch-hunt for the less-Satanic types of paedophile was becoming depressingly familiar...

20th February

The many years the venerable SF magazine Analog has been publishing a series of columns by John Cramer titled The Alternate View. Intended to keep readers (and authors!) up to date with the latest in cutting-edge and blue-sky science, over the years he has covered quantum computing, faster-than-light phenomena, the nanostructure of ribosomes, the expanding universe, gravity waves, string theory, and dark matter - to name just a few.

I stumbled across the collection online while searching for the current wisdom on proton decay, having read something that started me thinking:

"It is difficult to see why a proton should not decay rapidly if it can decay at all"
- Freeman Dyson.

It's an interesting point, but having become thoroughly distracted with The Alternate View I'm still none the wiser... Well worth a look if you have an evening to spare.

Elsewhere, and this is really funny - the German media giant Bertelsmann is being sued for encouraging music piracy. Bertelsmann were the first to take legal action against the peer-to-peer networks, and having threatened Napster to within an inch of its life they turned around and bought the remnants of the company. Their intention was to investigate turning the Napster network into a commercial channel for authorised distribution, but nothing came of the idea and most of the company's assets are now owned by Adaptec's software spin-off Roxio. The $17 billion lawsuit claims, however, that by investing in Napster before the company's demise Bertelsmann encouraged and supported peer-to-peer piracy - an allegation that must really rankle with the group's executives... It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.

19th February

We've spent the last few weeks pondering whether to rent or buy the satellite phone for Ros's US voyage, and the prospective supplier has finally made us an offer we can't refuse... by the time he'd shaved his margin to the bone, we'll end up paying a touch less than a three month rental would cost, as well as having the phone to keep or re-sell at the end of it.

We'll be using the re-born Iridium network, which is not ideal for data use, but the Motorola handset is barely larger than a regular cell phone and in this case weight is a serious consideration - even the smallest of the faster Inmarsat terminals are the size of a laptop themselves, so V32 modem speeds will have to suffice. On the other hand, it comes with a nifty little stand for use in data mode, and with the addition of a long serial cable it can probably be stashed on a balcony or window ledge to get a good view of the sky while Ros is somewhere considerably more comfortable. In theory, it should all be as straightforward as using a regular cell phone - in practice, well, we'll see.

Elsewhere, I'm currently arranging for Epicycle's new home. Over the last year or so we've become increasingly disillusioned with our long-time service provider Cix (aka Nextra, aka Telenor, aka Parkglobe), and have finally decided to start unravelling the various accounts, domains, web hosts, mailboxes and bandwidth with a view to simplifying them where possible and relocating to other providers. We've already using FreeParking for some of our domain names, and I've been very pleased with their services, but unfortunately they don't offer hosting facilities and so I've had to look elsewhere. Some reading over the last few days has suggested FastHosts as a plausible option and I now have 500Mb on a shared Windows 2000 server with FrontPage Extensions, all the scripting bells and whistles, and one of the nicest stats and monitoring packages I've seen.

The package included a free domain name or transfer, and as I was reluctant to abandon FreeParking's excellent online DNS record management, registering a new domain seemed to be best - we wracked our brains without coming up with much that appealed, as is always the way when forced to choose a name without notice, but eventually Ros dived into an online list of interesting words and emerged again with "chthonic", of or relating to the underworld... That seemed extremely suitable, and as soon as the DNS record propagates chthon.org.uk will be up and running. I'll leave the epicycle.org.uk domain name pointing to this site even after I migrate it to the new host, but doubtless a use for the new domain will occur to us in time...

18th February

Our R&D department have made absolutely no attempt to solve the problems with their Oracle application, which is still enraging both end-users and internal support staff by crashing every few hours, and instead they continue to throw hardware at the problem... The client-to-server comms on the modem gateway they installed last week has somehow managed to make the system's overall reliability even worse than before, so their solution has been to install a second gateway with an additional bank of eight analogue modems. The central Oracle app is leaking memory badly, so their solution has been to demand that an extra gigabyte of memory is added to each server. In order to store the huge transaction log files required to recover from the frequent crashes, they've demanded additional drives in the RAID array. It goes on and on...

This approach baffles me as much as it annoys me, as apart from cluttering up my computer room with cheap PCs and dozens of consumer-level modems (with the rat's nest of wiring all that involves), one thing my long career in IT has taught me is that you can never fix a software problem with hardware! Unfortunately they are a literally law unto themselves, reporting directly to group head office in France, and as the whole pack of them are being made redundant over the next two months their lack of inclination to take on a major re-write is matched only by their lack of talent and ability.

The quality of their work is evident in the fact that last week, when the telephone calls from irate customers were completely swamping the four members of the support team, the additional eight client PCs they added to help take up the load managed to bring the Oracle application to it's knees... Given the big-iron server platform, and the dedicated network connectivity, it genuinely amazes me that they can write a text-based client/server app so very badly that it can't even support a dozen users. Sometimes I despair, I really do.

17th February

The consultants descended today for the start of the Windows Server 2003 migration planning, and so far it's all proceeding smoothly. Having suffered through several weeks of training early last year I already have my own ideas on how our Active Directory should be arranged, and somewhat to my surprise Microsoft seemed quite happy with the design - and they were also impressed with the amount of network documentation I provided and even the neatness of my computer room, which was slightly surprising considering that I felt the former to be embarrassingly skimpy and the latter unusually cluttered! However, having just signed a big document permitting Microsoft to take photographs, record video interviews, issue press releases and diverse other multimedia things, the primary target of getting my picture in Computing or IT Week now seems well within reach - a functioning network is definitely optional at this stage, as far as I'm concerned...

Ros spotted a wonderful set of online optical illusions, and one of them is among the best I've ever seen. The original animation merits a warning, though - the final "illusion" is a whirling, hypnotic spiral that suddenly displays the mouth of a snarling wolverine, scaring the bejesus out of anyone not already clinically dead. Given the ethos of the web site this is rather the point of the exercise, I can see, but it's a cheap trick nevertheless... Fortunately the one that caught my eye seems common elsewhere on the web, and can be found in it's native form here at the creator's page. It has a checkerboard effect of carefully shaded light and dark squares, and only close examination with Photoshop convinced me that two obviously different squares are, as claimed, actually exactly the same shade. Take a look.

True to form, part of the online stationary order I placed yesterday is apparently out of stock for another month. Not a vital part, fortunately, and they've been very flexible over splitting the delivery, but I really wish these minor-league online retailers would hook their web site up to their back-end database properly - it's a perfectly practical operation, as I know from my own experience, and without it the whole process is rather pointless...

16th February

Comedian Steven Wright has a line about having a full-sized map of the world which he hardly ever unrolls, and I think I know how he feels... In preparation for Ros's upcoming whistle-stop tour around the US and Canada I picked up a beautiful semi-relief/semi-political map of North America (from online map supplier Stanfords) on which to follow her itinerary.

It arrived yesterday, and is indeed a very nice map, but I hadn't quite appreciated exactly how large it was going to be in the flesh - fortunately another online vendor, The Stationary Store, claim to be able to provide a corkboard of sufficient acreage to mount it on, as well as many types of coloured pins to label the various waypoints. It would be nice if they actually manage to deliver it all a little faster than Stanfords, though - when a web site says "in stock", I really don't expect to wait over a month and chase the lack of progress myself...

15th February

Comparative dynamics at Epicycle, today - in the interests of science I spent quite a while gassing up and loading six magazines for the three airsoft replicas, then a brief but enjoyable couple of minutes emptying them again.

On the left, three sets of ten rounds from the Beretta M92 - when my hands are steady, it's fairly easy to achieve 1" groups at around 5 metres, the maximum the length of the basement permits.

In the middle, short, controlled bursts from the M4CQB. Even a short-barrelled assault rifle is almost pointlessly accurate at this range, and most of the hundred-plus rounds passed through existing holes in the target.

Finally, on the right, the MAC-11. This is an entire seventy-two round magazine, fired in fairly enthusiastic bursts - about three second's worth of full-auto frenzy. Massive collateral damage occurred all-round...

And which is my favourite? It's hard to say... The Beretta has a lot of class, and is probably the most authentic of the three in overall look and feel. It's accurate, powerful, and very satisfying to shoot - and definitely lives up to the reputation of it's manufacturer, Western Arms, for making high-quality gas replicas.

The M4 is a very businesslike, efficient device. Tokyo Marui is the mainstay of the entire European airsoft market, and their electric mechanism is mature and well-regarded with massive potential for power and performance upgrades. I'm not as happy with the quality of the 3rd-party custom bolt-ons (the Aimpoint-type sight and the drum magazine have yet to meet expectations) but the gun is solid and reliable and will make an excellent weapon if I ever try outdoor airsoft skirmishing.

To coin Steve Jobs, the MAC-11 is just insanely great. The least accurate of the three, and demanding of the most maintenance and setup time in spite of giving the briefest possible shooting experience... but there's nothing like that wonderful full-auto metal-on-metal sound as I watch a paper target disintegrate through the shimmering waves of propellant gas. Great stuff...   :-)



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