30th May

The department move today was very, very long and hard and tedious, but in the end went very well and I think Monday morning should be fairly smooth. I think they're going to be extremely demanding and unforgiving users, actually, and their previous sysadmin has gone up in my estimation, slightly, just for putting up with them for so long... I'd forgotten what it was like supporting proper engineers, though - every PC was strange and peculiar, and every one presented some unique challenge or oddity to debug. Oh, but I managed to break through the security of an NT4 workstation that should have had its password removed but hadn't - the old faithful NT Password Changer, recently renamed and polished up, helped me crack the SAM and reset the administrator password (to "bozo") in around four minutes, which certainly raised an eyebrow or two amongst those assembled.   <buffs fingernails on lapel>   It was the high point of the day...

29th May

It's been another bad-silicon day, today... I needed to add some new disks to the LSI RAID array on the main fileserver, running the new Server 2003 OS, to accommodate the mass of data I'm acquiring in the departmental move this weekend. The new drives bound into the existing array nicely enough, but when I came to expand the volume onto the extra space I found that the menu option wasn't actually there!

Much poking around at the manufacturer's site finally suggested that the expansion facility is only permitted on dynamic disks under Windows 2000 and later, and having confirmed with our supplier that this was indeed the case I gritted my teeth and prepared to upgrade the partition. This was a source of some consternation, as even after three years dynamic disks are still very poorly supported by third-party utilities, and because the conversion is effectively a one-way process it could well cause problems in future...

In the event, however, I needn't have worried - all attempts to upgrade the partition returned a "not enough space available" message, even having moved some files to a secondary server and defragmented the volume to ensure contiguous free space... Further research showed that the upgrade actually requires around 1Mb of unpartitioned space immediately after the partition end, and under most circumstances this is automatically reserved (ah, so that's what that is!) when a partition is created under Windows 2000 or later - unfortunately the server in question was upgraded from NT4 and the partition fills the RAID volume. Even if it hadn't been, though, there would still have been issues if the volume was created as a basic disk and later upgraded, as is the common practice - it's extremely fussy.

With Partition Magic and Volume Manager still completely non-complaint with Server 2003, the only way to reduce the partition would be to delete it, re-create it, and restore from backup - and if I'm doing that, I could simply delete the entire RAID volume and re-create it with the additional disks anyway! So, in the short term, I'll mount a completely separate, non-redundant IDE drive into the server to hold the new data, and cross my fingers that it doesn't fail! In the long term, I'll have to spend another tedious weekend watching data stream to and from tape - even with LTO drives, I'm looking at about ten hours for a full backup and restore...

Unfortunately, this completely echoes the experience I had with an earlier generation of Metastor/LSI hardware a couple of years ago - in both cases we've been assured that dynamic volume expansion was fully supported, but in the event it turned out to work only under the most precise, ideal circumstances, rarely seen outside a test lab... I love their hardware, but their management software sucks donkey...

I don't mind a bit of weekend work at the moment, though, as the overtime will help to pay for this:

It navigated me home from work quite nicely, today, even coping remarkably well with the massive A13 road restructuring that has been going on for the last few years. Full report when I have a spare moment - probably around the time it becomes obsolete, at this rate...

28th May

So, it looks as if Amsterdam's famous coffee shops are finally to be legislated out of existence - not in any direct attack on cannabis use, but instead as a side-effect of legislation designed to protect employees from passive smoking in the workplace. The era ends not with a bang, then, but a whimper!

Elsewhere, Amnesty International's annual report says that the US Government's "war on terror" has actually made the world in general less safe for ordinary people, as well as distracting attention from all the other counties guilty of human rights violations:

"What would have been unacceptable on September 10, 2001, is now becoming almost the norm," Amnesty's Secretary-General Irene Khan told a news conference. "It is vital that the world resist the manipulation of fear and challenge the narrow focus of the security agenda ... the definition of security must be broadened to encompass the security of people, as well as states."

Closer to home, another letter! Just like buses, evidently, although with two in one week they're more frequent than any public transport, locally...

27th May

Just URLs, today, as I'm shattered...

Georgia Tech working on next generation of autonomous robots

SCO in court over Linux, and in bed with Microsoft as well

If a PC was a toaster... Oh, wait...

How the mighty have fallen - NCSA clusters PlayStations...

University of Calgary to train the next generation of virus writers

25th May

With the recent addition of the Advanced Camera for Surveys package, The Hubble Space Telescope continues to out-perform all expectations. The program's initial images are a set of ultra-distant shots taken more to test the camera than as "real science", and among them is the planetary nebula Henize 3-1475. This memorably-named object is a shell of gas surrounding a giant star, and together they seem to be acting as a cosmic lawn sprinkler, spraying out jets of material in a rotating and oscillating pattern. At around 2.5 million mph, the jets are significantly faster than expected, and the mechanisms that could cause the complex periodicity are not as yet clear... Equally thought provoking, and equally spectacular, are the other images on the recently re-launched hubblesite.org, an archive of the best from the HST together with a wealth of background information and explanation. I went straight to the exotica section of the gallery, which has some really cool stuff - a set of six images of incredibly distant quasars, for example, each at the heart of a different type of galaxy. I also noticed an image of the fine structure at the heart of the remarkable Crab Nebula, showing a fractal detail obviously identical to small-scale life forms, or blood vessels, or mineral deposits in rock... It's spooky stuff, when you think about it - one set of rules for everything, from top to bottom... The physical processes of the universe are extremely efficient with use of information.

24th May

All sorts of interesting references at primo geek site Ars.Technica, today:

NVidia "caught cheating" over benchmarks

US Government stakes claim on space

Efficient changes to wavelengths of light

80,000 volt protective clothing

DARPA pokes its nose into, well, everywhere

"If we run out of batteries, this war is screwed"

[Later] Just returned from a very tedious evening fixing friends' PCs. Next time I meet new people, I'm going to tell them that I'm a plumber, or something - nobody seems to expect a mechanic friend to give up a Saturday evening to fix their car for free, or a builder friend to knock up a quick kitchen extension, but once I admit that I understand computers there is an apparently endless stream of "oh, could you just have a quick look at my scanner" etc.  <sigh>  Who says geeks have no social life...

23rd May

I heard a depressing statistic on the television news a few mornings ago - according to various surveys, half the adult female population of the UK have never been given flowers, only 13% get them even once a year, and apparently more people send flowers to say "thanks" than to say "I love you". How very sad...

Ros's satphone is working very well, as I've commented before, and as the reliability of the other comms methods has been relatively poor, she's used far more of her 400 prepaid minutes than we'd expected. While checking out how to top-up her Iridium SIM online I glanced at a chart displaying the savings offered by the 3rd-party airtime provider we're using in comparison to British Telecom - ever dubious of this sort of thing, I decided to check with BT themselves, but rather to my surprise the claimed saving of at least 40% is actually on the conservative side!

This has me fuming about bloated corporates all over again, and as bandwidth has been on my mind recently BT are right in the middle of my sights - they still have a complete monopoly on the local loop, OFTEL is still bending over backwards to protect them, and even the token gesture towards a level playing field in the form of exchange co-location was made so awkward and expensive that only one bandwidth provider, Easynet, has dared persevere.

It's been like this all my life, it seems - I'm remembering the "good old days" of home computing in the late seventies and early eighties, when BT-approved modems were both less technically advanced and more costly than their unlicensed competition, thanks to the huge time and expense involved in BT's certification process; and BT's own products, bundled with their embryonic dialup service Prestel, were the least advanced and the most expensive.

All through the eighties I kept hearing incredible statistics about BT making profits in the order of a million pounds a day, and yet where did this money go? Not into improving the national comms infrastructure, certainly, or we'd all have fibre to our doorsteps instead of rotting copper and even aluminium... and not into a subsidised tariff, either, or they wouldn't want to charge me £3 per minute plus VAT to phone abroad... Even chairman Peter Bonham's outrageous salary, stupefying bonuses and lavish golden handshake wouldn't have made much of a dent in that sort of income! It's a bit of a mystery, really, especially considering that these days they're claiming abject poverty again... Oh, well.

[Later] Ros used the satphone again, today, to tell me that she was "calling from coitus interruptus" - a line she was evidently very pleased with, as at the time she was deep in Amish Country, in the middle of Intercourse, PA... Talk about a debasement of technology.  :-)

22nd May

Hey, it's the 30th birthday of Ethernet, today! A toast to Bob Metcalf, then, whose brainchild has caused me a lot of head-scratching in the course of an IT career spanning two thirds of the standard's lifespan... and with Cisco forecasting 40Gb Ethernet within the next two years, and 100Gb a while after that, there's no sign of an end in sight. That certainly is a lot of bandwidth, but unfortunately the pipe tends to become exponentially thinner the closer it gets to the commercial end-user, and with the apparent failure of metropolitan Ethernet in the UK and dreams of fibre to the home desktop evaporating in the face of BT's ridiculous "Midband" offering, it isn't going to make any difference at all outside of carrier backbones and the most demanding corporate networks.

Now here's a cunning thing - a hardware keystroke logger that can be interrogated later without drivers or utilities - it recognises your password as you type it into a text editor, then generates menus and returns information by dropping the appropriate characters back into the keystream heading towards the PC. Very clever, and very subtle... Actually, there's a whole bunch of neat stuff in the ThinkGeek store - it's grown a lot since I was there last year, and is definitely worth browsing through.

21st May

Another busy day at the silicon face, but with some interesting news... I've been suggesting for a while that the semi-independent network run by our leasing subsidiary should be evicted from it's legacy DEC Alpha hosts and re-housed on something new and shiny running Windows, and it looks as if the powers that be have finally started to listen and agree. With the remnants of the defunct R&D department about to relocate onto my LAN, it's another step towards total control of the company's IT... Recently I've even had the first official hints that the core databases running on the time-shared mainframe will be moved in-house in another few years, as well, which will give me complete power over everything. Muhahaha! <coughs delicately> Excuse me...

Elsewhere, I'm just finishing Wheelers, by biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart. It's nothing staggeringly new or original, but was extremely enjoyable all the same - between them they've created a fascinating alien ecosystem in the atmosphere of Jupiter, and the most eyebrow raising way of travelling through the solar system in a hurry since John Barnes' wonderful Mother Of Storms. They're not dissimilar books, now I come to think of it, and both are well worth a read.

Oh, and there's a new letter - problems with Windows XP and the Kingbyte KU5-In-1 USB card reader that I've just retired in favour of an internal one.

20th May

Aaargh... Work was a bitch.

My PFY is off on a Checkpoint NG firewall training course (an excellent upgrade from our current FW-1, he tells me) and in his absence it was full-on panic interspersed with one annoying chore after another... Eventually I managed to ruin the head of a cheap mounting bolt while moving some switch hardware around in its cabinet, then snapped the tags on its cage nut by hurrying and trying to force it - that lost me an hour while I hacksawed the head off in situ, gained me a nasty cut, and did not help my frame of mind one little bit. To make matters worse, after much fuss and annoyance I finally managed to convince Demon that I'm authorised to manage the overfilled POP3 mailbox, and persuaded them to clear out the oldest mail, only to have it make very little practical difference to the horrendous server problems... It has not been a good day.

Fortunately an old friend is coming over for an hour or two, and we shall have fun catching up and talking techie... Just what I need, tonight.

She walked through the corn leading down to the river
Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun
She took all the love that a poor boy could give her
And left me to die like a fox on the run

 - Tony Hazzard

I'm really getting a taste for bluegrass...

19th May

So, I'm now officially a senior network analyst, with my own team of two techies and a DBA. One of the techies doesn't actually exist as yet but, unlike the previous contenders, the applicant we interviewed today actually understood my nasty-bastard interview question (issues with WINS over a router to a multi-homed server!) and even stumbled towards the general area of the answer! We've short-listed him, along with one other, to come back and be grilled by HR and the IT department manager, and with luck we'll have one of them onboard in another month or so.

Although my office network is well protected again the current Fizzer virus, it seems to be causing major problems on IRC, connecting to a random channel and generally causing mischief. However, once it was discovered that the virus is designed to visit a particular Geocities address every day to check for updates, a possible solution occurred. The Geocities site was obviously intended to be an emergency measure and the virus writer had not reserved it in advance, presumably to avoid linking himself with the code unless absolutely necessary. This enabled an enterprising IRC channel admin to claim the site and leave his own instructions for the virus to act on, and although the initial attempt to force it to uninstall itself from the client PC failed, the way is still open for a second, better-planned attempt. Unfortunately it seems that this would not be advisable, as thanks to various US computer misuse laws, specifically the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the action of uninstalling or disabling the worm would constitute unauthorised access to the infected PC and so would be as illegal as planting the virus in the first place - possibly more so, given that the virus writer, if found, will almost certainly come back with one of those ridiculous "oh, I didn't mean for it to escape" defences. That was a valid excuse for rtm's original worm and the IBM christmas card, back in the eighties, but by 2003 it's merely laughable - and the programmer of any future anti-virus code wouldn't even have that slim defence to fall back on! It's an interesting situation, for sure...

Elsewhere - apparently truffles can now be successfully farmed on a small scale for the first time, or even grown at home, using baby trees already implanted with truffle spores. The exact technique is a well-guarded secret, of course, but if it floods the market as some predict, it's certainly guaranteed to shake up the food snobs...

17th May

It's been a frustrating day struggling with email servers... One of our ISPs, UK stalwart Demon Internet, has been having extremely serious problems with its POP3 and webmail systems over the last few months and, as they are Ros's primary mail provider, this has been causing some difficulties. To make matters worse, in one of my usual belt-and-braces decisions her laptop's mail client was configured to leave mail on the server, and after a month of this her mailbox has grown to 31Mb... Hardly critical under normal circumstances, but given Demon's current server issues it seems to have become enough to bring the entire process of reading mail to its knees... timeouts, mysteriously locked mailboxes, bogus authentication errors and disappearing servers abound, and she's been effectively locked out of her email for the last couple of days. She does have an alternative ISP, but a strange SMTP authentication issue that she's never been in one place for long enough to debug means that she can only send to other users of the same ISP - and that's really only me...

So, hoping to save some hassle for Ros while we're trying to persuade Demon to purge the mailbox themselves, I spent most of the day trying to connect through their webmail interface to delete whatever I could. Unfortunately this proved almost completely fruitless - after several hundred connection attempts I managed to access the mailbox maybe five times! Having finally persevered long enough to clear the first page, almost every attempt to move onwards or to sort by date order resulted in the connection dying, and every attempt to request more then the default of twenty messages per page gave me a "server not found" error... It's all been extremely trying, and as Demon are playing it by the book and demanding all sorts of account details and security phrases to purge the old messages, none of which I have, everything has stalled somewhat. It's an awkward moment for it to happen, too, as she's moving rapidly over the next few days and various people are trying to reach her with contact details etc. Very frustrating...

Elsewhere, for those in search of the ultimate in unusual weaponry, look no further than US custom gunsmiths Birdman Weapons Systems - motto "Unfriendly Products for an Unfriendly World". With a product range including a Barrett M82 Pistol, a single-shot cellphone gun, and a 300round 5 foot long "Giant Mag" for the Uzi SMG - not to mention the .50cal nuclear bullets - they really do have something for everyone! Fortunately, it turns out to be a spoof - but I looked at several of the offerings with no more than a raised eyebrow before finally catching on... take a look...

16th May

Well, that was an exceedingly stressful end to the week... I got to the office early in an attempt to sort out the horrible mess of modems left by our almost-defunct R&D department, and was most of the way through unravelling the spaghetti when all the phones suddenly started ringing. Apparently we'd completely lost contact with the fourth and fifth floors of the building, and when a thorough check of the switches at each end revealed nothing, I started investigating the infrastructure itself. Both primary backbone strands tested completely dead, which certainly raised an eyebrow, but when the four spares also showed the same state I was starting to wonder whether my cable tester had failed instead! Having proved to myself that it hadn't, and that all six cables had indeed mysteriously failed, I then had to prove the same thing to my immediate manager before he took ownership of the problem and let me rush back to finish with the modems.

Eventually it transpired that our cowboy electricians (about whom I have complained long and hard, here, before) had been commissioned to remove some obsolete coax from the second floor the night before, and in doing so had somehow cut through the backbones leading from the server room to the fourth floor. I have no idea how they managed that, as the coax is thick, black and runs horizontally, while the backbones are thin, grey and run vertically, but there you go... I've had words with management about them on a number of occasions (the most recent words were "dangerously incompetent", if I remember correctly) but have been fobbed off. Maybe they'll take me seriously, now, and leave data cabling to the professionals... Hah! And maybe pigs will fly...

Elsewhere, a report in the prestigious British Medical Journal, claiming that the risks of passive smoking are significantly less than have been thought, seems to have come under heavy fire - mostly on the grounds that it was partly funded by the tobacco industry. Leaving the data itself to one side, for the moment (although it does seem to be unusually large and comprehensive, which makes it interesting in itself) this seems to be to be an absurd argument. Firstly, it's quite clear that large quantities of the overtly anti-smoking research has been funded by the anti-smoking lobby, and this has never apparently been a problem... and secondly because who else would actually fund research in this area, any more? The health risks of smoking are now one of those "everybody knows" memes, and don't attract much in the way of research grants... As a smoker myself, I'm in no doubt that it's harming me, and I'm still fairly sure that secondary smoking is probably harmful to a degree as well - but nevertheless I'm still interested to see research in the field, whoever spent the money to commission it.

Meanwhile, the Ann Summers high-street sex shop chain is suing to force the government-run Job Centres to carry advertisements for vacancies in their shops. The organisation has been prevented from advertising through the Job Centres since a decision eighteen months ago that vacancies in the sex industry would no longer be carried, and although I thoroughly agree with the company's stance I'm nevertheless thoroughly baffled by a statement from their lawyer, Kate Gallafent, who announced today that "Ann Summers is not part of the sex industry". What exactly are they, then, I wonder?

15th May

So, if London succeeds in its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, I could be paying £20 per year additional tax for the next twelve years - or £25 for the next twenty years, depending on who you listen to. So far none of the claimed benefits have been of any interest whatsoever (so Sydney now has a plethora of sports clubs after they hosted the Olympics? Well, gee!) and what with the ongoing debacle over the Millennium Dome I'm becoming increasingly disillusioned with any claims that the locality ever really benefits from these projects. Whatever their lofty goals, they usually just end up making a whole big pile of money for people that had a whole big pile of money already. Bah!

Elsewhere, a recent report in New Scientist magazine reveals that real life is actually more sordid and depressing than TV soap "Eastenders":

"Trawling back through 18 years of fictional east London life, the magazine found that just two percent of the programme's female characters and 1.7 of its men had an affair per year. That compares to real life levels of 9 percent for women and 14.6 percent for men."

The latter is an interesting statistic in itself - given that it usually takes one of each sex to have an affair, if fewer women than men are indulging, doesn't it mean that the ones who are must be doing so with more partners, to compensate? Well, there you go.

Eek! Look at this... http://epicycle.blogspot.com/... I feel infringed...

14th May

Today's Epicycle is brought to you by the mighty Steve Earle, with or without The Dukes. I missed out on the whole Alt Country revival until it was well underway, and it came as quite a surprise to me recently to discover that Earle was at the forefront of the genre. After growing up with the sanitized, commercial Nashville sound somehow it had never occurred to me that Nowhere Road was "country", and I bought Exit O when it came out in 1987, right in the middle of my heavy rock salad days, on the strength of that track alone. Recent exposure to bluegrass legends such as Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (via the wonderful movie O Brother, where Art Thou?) has revived my taste for what is apparently the "real" country sound, however, and I've been exploring a little further...

As I'm on my own, right now, I don't feel embarrassed to play the same track ten times in a row when a riff gets under my skin, and it's easy to vastly over-estimate a song under those circumstances... Nevertheless, it seems to me that Telephone Road, from Earle's 1997 album El Corazon, is equal to any of Springsteen's small town angst classics. Like The Boss, Earle somehow manages to leave no doubt that he's been the working man of his songs, and after a few of these one feels an urgent need to buy a blue denim shirt and join a union...

My brother Jimmy, my other brother Jack
Went off down to Houston and they never come back
Mama wasn't gonna let her baby go yet
But there ain't nobody hirin' back in Lafeyette
I'm workin' all week for the Texaco check
Sun beatin' down on the back of my neck
I've tried to save my money but Jimmy says no
Says he's got a little honey out on Telephone Road

It's a strong, industrial rock beat, with thumping bass, rasping sax, a Hammond sliding up and down the chorus, and Earle's powerhouse, moaning vocals driving over the top of it all... Very tight, very bad, and deserving of significant volume - if this is country, sign me up for the next tour of Dollywood.

Elsewhere, and while I'm in a lyrical mood - for Ros, a line from Minneapolis band Big Sky's haunting Tuvan/rock fusion, Siberia:

And you are so far; still we see the same stars...

The track is available as a free download along with five others, and is a beautiful song indeed...

13th May

The DEC hardware I salvaged from work has already given rise to some peculiar moments, and the final step, today, was no exception... This time I found myself sandpapering down the plug of a SCSI cable so that it would fit into the strange little aperture on the drive array's IO module. Removing two millimetres of plastic moulding was sufficient to wiggle it into place, and somewhat to my surprise it all worked perfectly first time. Not bad for a server solution built entirely out of second-hand parts!

I managed to salvage five 9.1Gb drives and two 4.6Gbs from the Microvax arrays and, once they're all formatted, I'll have a nice 34Gb RAID-5 volume for our MP3 library and a mirrored pair to hold the server's pagefile. Now all I need is a server worth hanging it onto, but as a quick look on eBay last week suggested that you can pick up a full-loaded late-90s Compaq Proliant 1600 or similar for a couple of hundred quid I think an upgrade may well be on the cards, soon - I used to run whole companies on those boxes, and even though they're aging a touch these days they'd still make a sweet home server...

12th May

So, in her resignation speech before The Commons MP and ex-cabinet minister Clare Short really flamed the Prime Minister and the government, not only for the current secret negotiations concerning the fate of post-war Iraq, but also for their policies in general. It certainly needed saying, of course, but I can't forget her years of misguided and ill-informed campaigning against pornography and "Page 3" girls and I'm still inclined to think that she's mostly a waste of skin...


How to ruin a telemarketer's day for around $20 up-front

A design for a turtle-like robot using only the components from a standard PC floppy drive

Splatter your name across the surface of a comet, courtesy of NASA

Repair dying PC cooling fans - useful stuff

And, um, a nude tennis webcast... Which leads to a previously unsuspected nude sports webcast community... As I've said before, and will doubtless say again - some people have far too much time on their hands. Although, I have to admit, at least they have the weather for it - London is cold and grey again, now.

10th May

I've just had an eyebrow-raising experience online - I ordered some airsoft consumables from one of the big UK online retailers, and then went immediately to the site of their main competitor. For some reason I accidentally clicked the "show basket" link on the second site, and to my surprise the items I'd just purchased on the first site were already there in the basket! It was obviously a mistake, as the second site doesn't even stock some of the things I bought at the first (hence the need for multiple orders!), and some investigation shows that they both use the same secure ecommerce provider. Presumably a session cookie or something isn't expiring when it ought to, and although I can't actually see any significant security issues arising I thought I'd spread some of my IT misery around and so have mailed the webmasters of both sites and the hosting company itself, together with screenshots and logfiles. Enjoy your Monday morning, guys...

Elsewhere, it's been pleasant to spend some time with technology that worked pretty right out of the box. The D-Link wireless cameras slotted into the LAN relatively easily, and although the picture quality currently leaves something to be desired in low light they're quite pleasing little units. The LinkSys wired-to-wireless bridge was equally easy to bring online, but unfortunately it has taken my last IP address to do it - when Ros comes back home, I'll have to switch something off to free up an address for her laptop! I wonder if I can persuade Easynet to give me 24 IP addresses rather than 16, when I finally get around to switching providers...


So here are the questions:
Is time long or is it wide?
And the answers?
Sometimes the answers just come in the mail
and you get a letter that says all the things you were waiting to hear
The things you suspected, the things you knew were true
And then in the last line it says:
Burn this.

- Laurie Anderson

9th May

I've been so busy doing things that I haven't had time to write about doing them! With all this time and attention spent on acquiring airsoft, the computer technology has languished rather and I've had something of a backlog. However, in bursts of activity over the last few evenings I've managed to catch up a little.

I started by installing the internal card reader that I picked up for my main PC a while ago, and which was something of a chore - the USB cabling was designed to connect straight to a motherboard header, and I had to search out the official specification and re-wire the cable to attach to the internal socket on my Adaptec DuoConnect card. Somewhat to my surprise it worked perfectly first time, and as my soldering was a little better than I usually manage I've managed to preserve a good enough signal path for full USB2 connectivity, often a problem with homebrew cable assemblies.

While I had the case open I decided to re-arrange the motherboard's IDE bus to separate the tertiary hard disk and the tape drive - previously, when one was backing up the other the high bus utilisation would slow the whole PC to a crawl, and after initial tests it's now feeling a lot more useable. Having removed the two devices that I was swapping around, though, I realised that the tape drive was now going to be the the uppermost unit in the stack and visible through the top window, so would need covering with black sticky-backed-plastic to preserve the cosmetics. Unfortunately, the drive casing is well perforated with air vents, so a tedious hour ensued while I chased each one out with a scalpel - the constant risk of dropping the little sticky cut-outs down into the tape mechanism certainly kept me on my toes...

Still on the subject of technology, the SCSI interfaces and cabling for the new RAID array have been tricking in this week, and a further blitz at eBay netted me another pair of network-attached cameras, this time with an 802.11b wireless interface as well as a regular UTP port, and also a wireless-to-wired bridge to use with the existing Axis camera. Total coverage...   :-)

Back with airsoft, the M870 arrived, as did the JAC Browning, and today the M1100 Defender shell conversion and a whole stack of shotgun add-ons. There's more to come, still, but once it's all here I'll take the three shotguns apart to mix-and-match between them. I'll probably keep two of the resulting hybrids, and sell the third along with any unwanted spares. <sigh> I'll probably have to risk the old camera for some photos again, now - although the last attempt wasn't particularly successful. Watch this space...

7th May

Dead-tired, this evening, after a busy (but very productive) day with the Microserfs. We drove down there in a director's new Jaguar, for various reasons, which had an in-car GPS navigation system that left me green with envy - a seven inch colour LCD built into the dashboard, displaying an Autoroute-style road map when on motorways etc but zooming all the way in at junctions to show the exact lane and turn-off! Extremely slick, and a quick look around suggests that portable units are now available with much the same functionality... It's very tempting...

Elsewhere, as I rather expected, the New Jersey Assembly public safety committee has approved a bill that will impose a complete ban on airsoft replicas and other pellet guns intended to look like a real firearm. If the bill is voted into law, it carries an outrageous 18 month prison sentence for possession and an incredible five years for supply! Unfortunately the NRA are too busy with their own problems to campaign on such a fringe issue, and the air rifle competition shooters don't use weapons that look even slightly like firearms so won't care much, either - US airsoft is largely the province of adolescents too young to own real guns and so I don't see much likelihood of significant political organisation against the bill. That will be a mistake for all concerned, though, as it feels to me very much like the thin end of yet another wedge...

5th May

The new LCD monitor monitor arrived today, and so far it's everything I hoped it would be - slim, black and elegant (with a subtle blue power light to match the PC), so flat that it almost looks curved the other way and, most amazing of all, try as I might I haven't yet managed to find a single dead or stuck pixel! On a 19" panel that's a remarkable testament to Iiyama's manufacturing quality, and as the official ISO standard allows at least three problems on a display of this surface area, I think I've been extremely lucky. [Update: I found one, stuck on in red - but positioned on the usual location for the Windows title bar and I'm unlikely to notice it again without searching.]

I'm running on a pure digital connection for the first time, as well, abandoning the analogue dongle on my Radeon graphics card and using the DVI output thus revealed. It's hard to say how much (if any) of the improvements in picture quality are due to this, and how many are just due to the monitor itself, but either way I'm pleased with the results. The whites are very white, the blacks very black, and all points in between are apparently coloured appropriately. I shall have to tweak the gamma a touch, as this particular display has a rather unusual value of 1.97 in comparison to the PC standard of  2.20, but out of the box it's certainly close enough for government work. A quick wander through Unreal Tournament showed none of the ghosting effects that used to limit TFT displays, and video streams seem to playback normally, and the bundled Pivot software neatly rotates the Windows display, allowing the LCD to be rotated to work in portrait mode should the need ever arise.

Although nominally the same size as my previous Iiyama S900, the new display is measured in real inches and not CRT inches (the bezel on a traditional VDU can hide an inch or more of the potential viewable area, but nevertheless the value given is always the diagonal size of the CRT itself) and so everything on-screen is slightly larger. Hopefully this will bring a little less craning forward to read small fonts - which at 1280x1024 can sometimes be very small indeed...

All the tech on my desk is now black or silver, with the exception of my modem and keyboard. Fortunately Logitech do a slightly updated version of my current ultra-flat model in black with silver trim, and the modem can be swapped for a spare black-cased equivalent that's been languishing in my desk drawer at the office.

Talking of the office, we're off to Reading to see Microsoft, tomorrow, so that they can sell us on the idea of being the UK pilot for Titanium, the imminent new release of Exchange Server. I don't really need to be sold, of course, as the amount of consultancy and hand-holding we get from these RAP installations is worth its weight in gold, and to be honest I'd rather spend the day in the office catching up on work... But I'll try to vacuum up as many freebies as I can to make it worthwhile, if only to pass them on to my PFY - the long-awaited addition to my network team has finally been approved, and he's currently suffering a crisis of confidence at the thought of losing status to the newcomer. I'll make sure that he doesn't - he has all the makings of becoming a top-notch sysadmin in a few years time, and I want to hang on to him as long as I can...

4th May

I've been browsing through SCSI cards, today, to attach the newly dried and rebuilt drive array to my little home server, and have been surprised and disappointed to discover that the venerable Adaptec 2940U, my favourite workhorse for low-end SCSI, is still being sold at a thoroughly unreasonable £160 and upwards... When I added in the cable and terminator I'd need (no matter how many SCSI oddments one keeps in stock, one never has just the right combination), then VAT and shipping, the total could go as high as £300 - and for use with salvaged hardware of uncertain provenance, that just wasn't an appealing prospect.

A quick look around eBay, however, has proved extremely fruitful - the going rate for a bare 2940 card seems to be between £10 and £20, which is far more palatable, and so far this evening some crafty bidwork has netted me a card and appropriate external terminator for the meagre sum of £16.10. I also have bids on another card (just in case!) and a cable, and with luck the final total will be less than £30 all-in - now that's more like it! Adaptec hardware of that era is usually fairly tough, so I'm not too concerned about buying second-hand, and with a pair of cards to play with I'm confident of getting the array online with a minimum of fuss. Well, a minimum for a SCSI installation, that is - any project involving more than one SCSI device usually involves at least some hair loss and extra frown lines...

Elsewhere -

Cannabis rally pelted with eggs

San Francisco hosts "Masturbate-a-Thon"

Ho hum...

3rd May

Just links, tonight...

Eurotemps comes to Tunbridge Wells

ISS astronauts land at Kazakhstan

Microsoft's hardware division twenty years old

O'Reilly adopts Founding Fathers' copyright terms

RIAA sends IM warnings...

... and then settles for pennies per file shared

2nd May

So I was at the UPS package tracking site watching my most recent airsoft acquisition winging its way over from Hong Kong, and suddenly remembered the old Simpsons episode where a Japanese factory worker coughs a pulsing green cloud of germs into the box he's sealing up to send off to Homer... I always like the official word on this sort of thing, so for the record (as of today) here is the official word...

WHO (World Health Organization), FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), and OIE (Office International des Epizooties) have reviewed reports received regarding SARS transmission. To date there is no epidemiological information to suggest that contact with goods, products or animals shipped from SARS-affected areas has been the source of SARS infection in humans. For the above reasons, WHO does not at present conclude that any goods, products or animals arriving from SARS-affected areas pose a risk to public health. WHO will continue to closely monitor the evolution of SARS, in collaboration with Ministries of Health and our partner agencies.

Of course, it pays to remember that WHO is a political organisation above all else, and I wonder exactly how much proof of significant risks would have to emerge before they took the drastic step of recommending a complete suspension of all carriage and trade links with infected areas...

Meanwhile, my long-term plans to buy an LCD monitor suddenly seem to have advanced considerably - having poked and peered at some rather nice (if over-priced) examples in PC World, this morning, subsequent research online produced better hardware at better prices and I'm currently awaiting delivery of a 19" Iiyama... It's big, it's black, and it's high-tech - a built-in USB hub, dual analogue/digital DVI inputs, and can be rotated from landscape to portrait and back on the fly. Coo!

1st May

I arrived at work this morning to discover that our web proxy had suffered a power supply failure overnight (the fifth or sixth time that one of our three Compaq ML350 servers has done this - obviously a weak point, somewhere!) and that pretty much wrote-off the rest of the day. As so often, our support company had one in transit to us in plenty of time to meet our four hour fix contract, only for it to disappear somewhere in the courier system and not re-emerge until almost the end of the day.

However, this gave me time to pick over the DEC hardware I'd salvaged yesterday, and I off started testing the little three drive pizza-box SCSI cabinets with 9.1Gb drives salvaged from a floor-standing equivalent. They just plain didn't work, even after much swapping of modules, and eventually some hunting around online suggested that maybe the pizza-boxes only supported 8-bit SCSI drives, while the later towers supported 16-bit hardware as well. With six 9.1Gb and three 4.12Gb drives up for grabs, though, I wasn't about to let it drop and a trip to the huge skip where the rest of the hardware had been dumped seemed in order. Unfortunately, by this time it was around midday, and with half of the company suddenly walking past the skip on their way out to lunch, I suspect that I've confirmed a number of preconceptions about the habits and behaviour of techies!

I managed to salvage what I needed in between fending off various smart-ass comments, but it had been raining on-and-off all day and everything was damp, to say the least, with a genuine puddle of water in the drive bay... That won't necessarily be a problem, as short-term dampness doesn't really harm computer hardware in the absence of electricity, and as long as I dry everything very thoroughly before I even think about applying mains power, I may well get away with it... I'll strip it all down completely and stick it next to the boiler in the basement for a few days, and maybe have a go at putting it all together at the weekend - my home server would certainly appreciate an extra 40Gb or so of RAID5 storage...

Elsewhere, the usual crop of oddities from the web:

For the geek who has everything - a USB-powered shaver

The full set of internal code names for pre-release versions of Microsoft products

US pilots - bombing Iraq just like the simulators

WIMPS in spaaaaaaaaace!


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