26th September

I guess Epicycle is now officially on hiatus. Partly it's because work is such a grind at present (we're going live with SAP and Siebel, together, in a month or so, which is enough to stress any techie) and partly it's because I just lost heart with the project following my failure to make the big time after more than five years of dedicated blogging. It seems quite possible that I'll recapture my enthusiasm after a break, though, and until then I'll probably still post the odd update, as tonight - so if my few regular readers feel the urge to keep in touch I would recommend signing up with an update notification service like ChangeDetect or ChangeDetection.

In the meantime, a few snaps of the hardware that is occupying so many of my waking hours these days:

We lost the lighting in the computer room a few days ago, so I took the opportunity to capture some of the blinkenlights. I have to admit that I find a large mass of computers in the dark a very beautiful sight, but it's actually rather hard to photograph a bunch of tiny lights and this is one of my better attempts. Just in case you don't recognise the devices from their pattern of LEDs, those are a bunch of Cisco switches and security appliances on the left, with some Raritan KVM hardware and Netgear switches on the right. But I'm sure you knew that.

When the lights came back on I thought I'd catch up with the rest of the room. This shot shows fifty of our 100-or-so Dell servers, with most of the remainder lurking out-of-shot to the right, on the other side of a cold aisle. A recent survey of the installation by a datacenter consultancy firm confirmed that we're woefully under-equipped in terms of the UPS and aircon systems, among other areas, but as rectifying all the problems they've highlighted could cost in excess of one hundred thousand pounds I'm not convinced that anything much will come of it. Still, they praised my team's careful and professional approach to making the most of our limited resources, so it could be worse.

They also suggested that we were grossly deficient in the areas of stripy tape and warning signs, and as those were the cheapest recommendations to comply with we went to town (or, more accurately, to RS). The computer room is now very alarming!

And finally, my bte noir, the DEC Alpha servers that I've reluctantly inherited from one of our finance departments. I've just finished documenting the process of setting up a new user on the system, and to the horror of my PFYs the procedure runs to more than fifty steps to create the three accounts (one for VMS, one for Ingres, and one for the application) necessary for a single person to access the leasing system that the Alphas support. And they're fifty obscure and fiddly steps, as well, many of which are thoroughly unforgiving to the slightest deviation... To people raised on the Windows GUI, the messy reality of minicomputers is a nasty shock!

We're talking about porting the system to an emulated environment with the Charon AXP software, but although that will remove the annoyance of a set of tea-chest sized boxes filled with with fifteen year old disks, fans, power supplies and tape drives, replacing them with a shiny new 64bit Dell PowerEdge instead, all the vagaries of VMS, Ingres and the bespoke leasing application would remain intact and that's hardly an appealing prospect. The only sensible solution will be to re-write the application completely in a modern environment, but in the current financial pinch caused by excessive consumption of contractors during the SAP and Siebel development phase that doesn't seem like a plausible option. I foresee much wailing and gnashing of teeth ahead, and unfortunately most of it is likely to me coming from me. Wish me luck!


7th September

Who knew? Ada Lovelace was a fox...   :-)

Ada circa 1838, by A.E. Chaton

Meanwhile, even in the wilds of Essex I can hear a great wailing and gnashing of teeth from the other side of the Atlantic, following the news that Apple has dropped the price of the 8Gb iPhone from $599 to $399 less than two months after the product's launch. Jobs himself has defended the slashing price cut by stating that "people need to get used to the fact that technology moves quickly", but a reduction of a third so soon after launch is unprecedented even for the dog-eat-dog consumer IT market! A subsequent promise of a $100 credit at Apple stores seems to have mollified the howling mob somewhat, although of course given Apple's prices this will probably result in most people spending more money with the company! To my amazement nobody on the discussion thread at Ars Technica seems annoyed at this, though - a typical response from the aptly-named "Mac Guy" reads "Price cuts in technology are inevitable. The fact it was 33% is irrelevant. The fact it was within a couple months is irrelevant", and a number of people who paid the full cost only a few weeks ago are claiming to be "totally satisfied" with the partial rebate. Baaaaaah, little sheep, baaaaaah!

Another announcement from Apple's product launch (what a surprise, more iPods!) is the ability to buy short versions of songs from the iTunes store to use as ringtones, which probably explains the iPhone's much-lamented and discussed lack of MP3 ringtone support at launch. The ringtones cost 99 cents each, and although I'm sure Apple is going to make a mint selling the same song again to people who either own the CD or have already bought it as a full track (if you like a song enough to use it as a ringtone it's a fair bet that you'll own it in other formats, yes?), this move is not nearly so popular with the crowd at Ars Technica as the $100 iPhone "rebate".

I'm starting to get the feeling that Apple has become a corporate equivalent of the infamous Milgram Experiment, with peer pressure replacing the authority figure and the bank account standing in for the "victim". For how long can desire to buy cool tech toys drive an unsuspecting dupe to bow to increasingly callous and abusive treatment from the company manufacturing them, acting against his own intuition, and his own best interests, whatever the cost to his finances? The sheep look up, indeed.


5th September

"Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1 1/2 tons."

 - Popular Mechanics magazine, March 1949.

Any remaining doubts that Palm has lost its corporate mind should be dispersed by the news that they have just cancelled the Foleo PDA addon before a single unit was shipped. Announced in a blaze of publicity back in May by Palm founder Jeff Hawkins, the mini-laptop was intended to complement the company's Treo smartphones by providing them with a larger screen and keyboard. Industry pundits were highly dubious, however, (as was I) and perhaps their collective raised eyebrows have had an effect, as an entry on the company blog now says that the product is being abandoned in favour of concentrating on the next generation smartphone platform. Given the time and money that has been wasted on this pointless project, especially in the face of Palm's ever-decreasing market share, somebody should be ashamed of themselves...


4th September

"All I've ever wanted was an honest week's pay for an honest day's work."

  - Steve Martin, as Sgt Bilko.

Damn, but it's busy at the office, right now! The SAP and Siebel development has moved into high gear ahead of the scheduled "go live" date in November (the latest of several such dates, in fact, but I suspect that this one will be the one) and at the same time we're revamping the tired old SDSL links that connect the central office to the regional offices and to the Internet, replacing them with shiny new leased lines (but wait a minute, wasn't it only three years ago that we were replacing the tired old leased lines with shiny new SDSL links? This all seems eerily familiar!). The tight deadlines of this project have been made even more entertaining by the fact that half of the team, including my comms specialist, are off on holiday at present, so as befits the proverbial Chinese curse times certainly are interesting.

Meanwhile, the unstoppable march of Linux continues! Figures from Internet monitoring company W3Counter suggest that the penguin OS is now as widely used as Windows 98, comprising 1.34% of operating systems used to browse the web. Linux may well be ready for the desktop, then (as its advocates have been claiming for roughly eighty years, it seems) but evidently the desktop is not yet ready for Linux. The statistics also show that Mac OS X still has the edge on Vista with 3.63% compared to the 2.46% for the new Microsoft OS - although both are eclipsed by the venerable Windows 2000 at 3.94%. I expect Vista's to share to increase significantly over the next year, of course, in spite of the widespread FUD being spread by its detractors at present - although it seems that most pundits have forgotten, exactly the same thing happened with XP, Win2K, and Win9x - and look how popular they became... In any case, it's good for the Linux lawn dwarves to have something to aspire to, I guess, and becoming more popular than the vintage Windows 2000 is probably an appropriate target to aim for.

And talking of dinosaurs, veteran IT journalist Guy Kewney is fuming about the way that American Internet users have claimed to be the first bloggers. In fact, Guy claims, my old oppo Rupert Goodwins was the original blogger, citing the online diary that first appeared at ZDNet's web site in 1996. Of course, this assertion has provoked a number of comments at The Register from people who beg to differ, citing prior art in such varied forms as a UK television blog and the personal diaries on the Monochrome BBS system from 1995, the journal at wargames company Steve Jackson Games from a year earlier, and a "lottery blog" that has allegedly been running almost continuously since 1994. Whether any of those were worth reading is another matter (boy, that lottery blog sounds riveting, doesn't it!) but in general I agree that Guy is probably talking through his beard again...

Elsewhere, I was half-watching a computer gaming program on television at the weekend, and caught a few minutes of a review of the upcoming SF shooter "They". The highlight, for me, was a presentation by Ingo Horn of German game publisher IMC, who was explaining how the in-game weapons could be customised to an unprecedented extent, allowing not only the offensive functionality to be mixed and matched, but also the colour scheme of the weapon and even the surface textures! "You can even place a picture of your girlfriend, as well, on there", enthused Horn, leaving me to ponder the fact that anyone who could get that worked up about the decals on a virtual assault rifle in a 3D shooter probably wouldn't have much attention left over for the fairer sex...


1st September 2007

Earlier in the summer I discovered that the Far Eastern airsoft manufacturers are now making replicas of the small-bore target pistols used for ISSF competition shooting and in the Olympics, and having picked up one of them, Star's PSS-300, I've caught the bug. Fortunately there are several similar models on the market, and I have now added offerings from KSC and Maruzen to the collection.

The first of them, Star replica, is probably my favourite. Although I had to do a fair bit of sanding and retouching to remove the sharp edges on the imitation wood anatomical grip, having done so it's the most comfortable of the three and given the impressive 1160g weight of the replica it feels excellent in the hand. Unlike the other two it is relentlessly single shot, with no magazine at all, but the chamber is easily accessible once the cocking lever is lifted and reloading between shots is not a chore. It feels very solid and well made overall, and even though I haven't yet tweaked the trigger or balance weights to suit it is nevertheless pleasingly accurate in use.

Unlike the other two replicas, the Maruzen APS-3 is not gas-powered, instead using an "air cocking" system along the lines of a traditional air pistol. As with the Star and KSC pistols a lever is lifted and then closed to chamber a round from the little five round removable magazine that nestles on the side of the receiver, and then the big silver lever below the barrel is swung forwards and then back again to pressurize an internal chamber. This isn't nearly as involved as it sounds, and in fact I got a good rhythm going after only a few rounds. The absence of a gas tank means that at 930g the Maruzen is the lightest of the three, and it feels a touch "plasticy" because of that, but in use it's very smooth and quite powerful and after a few tweaks to the rear sight I was easily making 1" groups at the statutory 10m. Given how out of practice I am with the single-handed stance used for small-bore competition shooting (I'm far too used to the Weaver Stance commonly used with military handguns!) that's not too shabby at all, and if I worked on my posture and breathing a little I could certainly improve on that.

The KSC GP-100 is the lemon of the set, unfortunately. The entire replica has been assembled with a slight twist, so that sighting along the barrel produces a curious "spiral staircase" effect with the rear site, the prominent top section the grip, the receiver, and the muzzle break all being a degree or two away from true. I can probably rectify this sorry state of affairs with some careful rebuilding, especially as in any case I need to remove the grip to pad it slightly where it wraps too loosely around the rear of the receiver and wobbles slightly but un-unnervingly. More annoyingly, if the replica is pointed downwards in the traditional rest position favoured by competition shooters the chambered BB tends to trickle down the barrel and bounce away across the floor! I don't know if this is poor design, or perhaps the chamber is missing an O-ring or similar, but it's extremely annoying! To add insult to injury it's also annoyingly difficult to fill with propellant, thanks to the barrel and muzzle break obstructing access to the filler valve on the end of the gas silver tank. Even use of a specially-made extension tube I built to charge the equally annoying Tanaka M629 revolver has met with limited success, and the low gas pressure probably isn't helping towards a positive impression of the replica. I'll try to tune the thing a little if time permits, but there may be too many issues for my peace of mind and there's a distinct possibility that it will have to go back to Den Trinity in Japan. If it comes to that I'm unlikely to be able to persuade them to cover my postage costs, so that's very much a last resort and we'll see what my amateur gun-smithing can achieve first....


Ah, yes, the stats. If one ignores the aberrant three months (which rumour suggests are due to a change at Google) and draws a trend line for the last year, one is left with a small but steady growth  that seems more plausible than the sudden and otherwise unexplained jump around Easter. Epicycle seems to have found its own level, these days, and given that my enthusiasm for the project has waned somewhat after more than 5 years of blogging (regular readers will have noticed that I'm only posting a couple of times a week, now, instead of almost every day) that seems unlikely to change.



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