Archive for June 2004
What a struggle to get the patches installed, with some of my archived patches even trying to go online for more
patches – which was not going to happen at home. Then a disk check, which takes up to an hour on my large-but-slow notebook drive. Still, my main tools (OpenOffice.Org , HTML-Kit) were on there on Sunday, I could have done any necessary work at any time. Except for audio editing, that requires Adobe Audition, a classy program I don’t mind paying for. (Though I am looking harder at Audacity as a free software alternative.)
Still at work, downloading drivers. I rebuilt my notebook PC the other day, after an unwise attempt at disk partition modification. I normally use “Partition Magic”, which does the job pretty well, but this time I used Microsoft’s command line “DiskPart” utility. I gave the right command, and the utility returned an error like “your disk is not suitable for expansion”. But it was suitable, and it did appear to have done the job, according to the Disk Management screen. However, Windows Explorer did not recognize the change, and trashed files over the next day or so, to the point where “lsass.exe” was damaged and logging on caused an error and a (clean) shutdown.
The good news is that I had backed up all my data first, and I keep the freshest working data on my flash cards. I did not lose a byte, and reinstalled Windows XP while watching the last Euro 2004 quarter-final on Sunday. Tonight it’s the Service Pack and subsequent hotfixes, anti-virus, then maybe Microsoft Flight Simulator with the NY Megascenery addon pack. This time I’m going to experiment with stripping out even more of the Microsoft applications than I usually do, even Internet Exploiter (if that is possible). Mozilla, for me, now does it all, and better.
This year has seen a crisis in the world of American Television: the ending of three popular long-running series’. First was Sex and the City, followed closely by Friends. Now it’s the turn of Frasier, which hasn’t resulted in quite as much fuss as the previous two, but is probably my favourite of the three. The next-to-last series flagged a bit, but the impending end has perked things up considerably. (Nothing like impending doom to concentrate a writer’s mind wonderfully.)
So far, Daphne has just given birth on a veterinary surgeon’s table, after Eddie swallowed the ring for Martin Crane’s wedding, which was ruined by Daphne’s drunken brothers firing guns, causing a truck driver to crash and unload his cattle cargo into the hotel gardens. We’re meeting two of the brothers for the first time, an opportunity for some more British guest stars – Robbie Coltrane and Richard E Grant – to bolster the American impression of Englishmen as lager louts who can’t speak… English.
Now we have Roz as the new station manager, whose first duty is to accept Frasier’s resignation, to go to San Francisco… and the end, with just the right amount of sentimentality for Frasier: very little. He does manage to squeeze a little Tennyson in to his final radio address:
Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Ulysses, 1842
I own an Akai MPC1000, and I think it’s a pretty nice piece of kit, an update of the older MPC models that takes advantage of recent storage technology and the ubiquity of WAV sample files. Like a Palm or iPaq handheld computer, it can be used by itself, but it works best with existing PC/Mac skills and software. The designers have left off some of the more advanced sound-manipulation features of previous models. This makes it a little unfriendly to veteran MPC freaks, but fine for people like me.
Some interesting news on the MPC-Forums, however: P. Diddy was spotted buying about 20 MPC1000s, probably to give away as gifts to his homies, or (I think) to a charity. Hey, so I’m ahead of the curve for once, eh? Let’s see if I get a call from LA, looking for some mad skillz in da studio, bruvas? (Yeah, right.)
The Queer Eye for the Straight Guy phenomenon has finally landed in the UK, and I get Channel 4, so I’m watching the first taped episode now. The “Fab 5″ are hilarious, with all kinds of faggy banter, but are also surprisingly full of practical advice usable by straight guys, as the title implies. I’m growing my hair at the moment, with a view to hitting the barber before my Dubai trip, but this show has got me wondering about visiting the local salon for a jou-jou do… nah. It’s not just about the look either, the “victim” in this makeover is an aspiring artist who gets a gallery wall, help with the opening party, and tips on how to work the room.
Putting a bunch of contrasting gay guys together was a great idea, I think, with their contrasting styles and complimentary skills. It makes them more real and less threatening, showing there’s more to them than their gayness. That’s the way I see it, anyway: one reason why gay guys bother straight guys is the public narcissism, the focus on the superficial things – clothes, body – to the apparent exclusion of more substantial concerns. But a straight guy can use a little of that, especially these days, when having hair on your back means pillory as an unevolved caveman. (I think my ancestors had more important things to worry about, like staying warm through the last Ice Age.)
I’ve been putting together a system for reading and replying to Usenet News offline, and it’s working rather nicely. Tonight I’ve been reading alt.fan.pratchett, and replying to an off-topic thread about Modern Assumptions:
My pet Modern Assumption peeve: the cellphone.
I think I was born a hundred years too late. A century ago, there was a certain protocol involved in contact between people: you arrived at the front door and presented your calling card, and the occupant of the house could agree to meet you, or not. When the telephone arrived, it was greeted with genteel horror. “Do you mean”, asked the upper classes, “that a stranger can pick up this… instrument… place a call, and a bell rings in your house, demanding to be answered? Put the cursed thing downstairs, with the servants!”
After World War II, the development of automatic exchanges brought the telephone to the masses, but the hoi-polloi still resisted the idea. Why, _anyone_ could be on the other end of the line! Fast forward to the 90′s, and we can carry the telephone around with us. Now, anyone can call up and interrupt me at any time! Excellent!
So, now that everyone has a cellphone, you don’t mind giving me your number, right? Go to the optician to order contacts, they want your number to call you when they arrive. Place an order on the internet, they want your number “just in case”.
Time for countermeasures. Caller ID? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but if you don’t… you have to explain why, later. No, I have a better way: I frankly enjoy telling people “No, I don’t have a phone, I am _not_ available after hours, you have no reason to call me anyway. If you do, it’s because you want something from me, for free, at all hours, and you’re not paying me enough for that.”
Full disclosure: I did telephone support for exactly one year before being promoted out of it, which has ruined the telephone for me for life. The thing is: I was promoted to a higher-level support role, where being available after hours ia a positive liability. When a customer has an emergency, and “first level” can’t sort it out, we can find ourselves rudely awakened because some faceless manager halfway to Bangalore got a number from somewhere.
That hasn’t happened to me, since my last cellphone has sat in a drawer for three years. There’s a landline in my house, for a housemate’s job, but not even I have that number, far less my boss. Look at any large corporation, and you will notice that jobs involving customer contact are near the bottom of the tree: the ones involving contact by phone are down there with the moles and earthworms. Do you think Michael Eisner (Disney) or Carly Fiorina (HP) get people calling them up asking for stuff? That’s what Secretaries are for.
Cries of “Luddite!” don’t go in one ear, they miss my head altogether. And before someone says “you’re cutting yourself off from society” or the like, they should ask themselves: how did people manage 20, 50, or 100 years ago?
OK, next time I find myself looking for a job I may consider a landline and an answering machine, to screen all calls. But by then I’ll probably have access to broadband internet, meaning that e-mail will be nearly instant if I need it to be. What I will not give people is the ability to thoughtlessly interrupt me, just because they have a problem that they want to share. Sorry.
Bloomin’ ‘Eck! That felt good. Rant over.
I just banged out the following to close off an out-of-control thread on the MPC Forums, in ten minutes, and I’m slightly pleased at the results, so I think I’ll preserve it:
(Adopts Jerry Springer-esque closing statement pose.)
If there’s a lesson to be learned from this here thread, it is about the value of troubleshooting skills in all walks of life.
- Define a goal. What are you trying to do? Can you clearly describe it to others? If not, maybe you’re trying to do too much at once. So…
- Divide and conquer. Break a big task or problem down into little ones. In a MIDI setup, start with a single MIDI cable, from A to B. Get that working as it should be
working. If you don’t know how it should be working, you haven’t defined your Goal properly – go back to step 1!
- What Changed? If something goes from Working to Broken, then it Changed. Sometimes the Change is out of your control (hardware failure etc.), but for everything else, it’s someone’s fault, usually yours. Be prepared to Undo any Changes you make, before you make them.
- Reporting: a newspaper cub reporter soon learns a mantra that forms the basis of reporting in all its forms: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Not every story needs to have all those elements, but it’s a good place to start when reporting a problem. (OK, we don’t really want to know Who, unless you’re Pete Townshend.)
- If you ask for technical support,whoever you talk to doesn’t want to know what isn’t happening. They need to know what is happening. What’s the difference? Say “it didn’t work”, and you can expect more questions like “what didn’t work? what did you see? what were you trying to do? why were you trying to do that?”
- Assume nothing. We don’t know anything about your setup unless you tell us. We don’t know what you want to do (see Step 1). We don’t how you tried to do it. We don’t know what you’re working with, how you’ve wired it up, what settings you’ve chosen, or any of that stuff. If someone, trying to help, asks for more information, be prepared to give it if you want further help. We’re not dissing you, being funny about it, or wasting your time. If you knew exactly what questions we would ask, or what information we would need, you probably would have answered that already and found the problem. Don’t sweat it.
- One more thing: can’t we all just get along? That’s what I get from years of working in technical support…
What a day it was; a surprisingly good one, at that. I made good progress at work, closing several cases and bringing the others under control. The case load has been such that I’ve had to cut back on “discretionary” activities at work in the past few weeks, including participation on the MPC Forums, mucking around with b3ta images, reading my favourite websites, such as the User Friendly comic strip and wilwheaton.net, even writing this blog.
I’ve also been trying to do some self-study at work, particularly on HP-UX, something I would never have seen myself having an interest in had you asked me a year ago. After playing with Linux for years, it’s quite an eye-opener to see an “old-school” UNIX in action. The only machine available for HP-UX play is a 10-year-old HP Apollo workstation that can only run a 10-year-old HP-UX version – and it’s not half bad. System Administration on all versions is handled by a boring but solid tool called SAM (System Administration Manager) – the kind of thing that Linux has only recently gained (e.g. Webmin).
The catch: if I get too good at it, I will be expected to take customer cases and work on them – but it’s a long way from a) making something work according to the instructions, and b) fixing the mess caused when people or programs don’t do what they’re supposed to or interfere with each other.
The Japanese language is starting to embed itself in my brain, finally, and today I started using the JFC Japanese Flash Card system. It’s from the same people behind JWPce, but it’s only viable now that I’m comfortable with Hiragana. I haven’t done much Katakana yet, but this will help too. Even better, I have versions for the iPaq and the PC, sharing common data files, so I can track my progress.
One thing that’s finally become clear today is the intimate connection between Chinese and Japanese; not only does Japanese use Chinese characters, for writing, but some of the Chinese speech has filtered into spoken Japanese and is mixed in freely. Whenever you look up a Kanji in e.g. JWPce, you get an English translation and two different Japanese versions: the “kun-yomi” or Japanese reading, in Hiragana, and the “on-yomi” or Chinese reading, in Katakana. When I look up the Kanji of some of the words I’ve been taught, I find I’ve been learning a mix of on-yomi and kun-yomi words. So, by the time I’ve learned Japanese, I may have a good grasp of written Chinese too…
Isn’t the web a wonderful thing? I had a few strange problems reading the home page of this site a couple of weeks ago, but they appeared to go away and I thought no more of it. However, the Mozilla browser I’m using was masking the problem, loading the page from its cache and displaying it.
What I found today, however, was that requests were returning a “null” page that fooled Mozilla into displaying the cache, even when I explicitly refreshed the page. The offline version on my notebook was OK, using Internet Explorer, but using IE on the live version returned an error. I used the Babelfish service to verify that the problem wasn’t in my connection: that operates by loading the page from my server to theirs, with no interference from my connection, and that also failed.
I eventually solved it by rebuilding my home page, by cutting out all the HTML, pasting chunks back in, and uploading. By elimination, it appears that the King Crimson News Network (KCNN) Java applet was causing the problem, and it all looks OK now. I had meant to remove it anyway, since it was very CPU-intensive when displaying headlines and could have brought an older PC to its knees – which would have been slightly inconsiderate of me.
Looking back at the above model, something else just occurred to me: the original four- or seven-layer models were formulated for computer communication, but they have clearly-defined limits: past the highest layer of abstraction, the assumption is that further computation and communication tasks are handled by people. How valid will this assumption be in the future?
I haven’t gone any deeper into layer eight, asking just what functions the individual performs, since that could fall into the field of psychology, but one factor stands out to me: the ability to ask questions. We people currently define the problems that we use computers to try to solve, but will there be a time when computers fulfil that layer eight function too? This is a factor in much science fiction, of course, the most obvious negative example I can think of right now being The Terminator and sequels. There, when the “SkyNet” computer network becomes self-aware, it takes that question-asking role away from its human masters and defines “The Problem” in its own terms, with disastrous consequences for humankind.
In Dial F for Frankenstein (abridged version here), first published in 1965, Arthur C Clarke toyed with the idea of the world’s phone and network systems forming a self-aware network consciousness, not one with malevolent intent, but one no less dangerous for all that. The idea of a global computer network was hardly new – an obvious application for Clarke’s geosynchronous satellite system – but it’s spooky to see just how comfortable he was with the idea, years before the first Arpanet experiments.
Clarke excelled in framing mind-boggling concepts in down-to-earth ways: in this story, twelve hours after all the phones in the world ring for no reason, and the computer networks go berserk, a group of tired Post Office engineers head for lunch in a greasy spoon cafe, to try to puzzle out what is happening, while the world’s technology falls apart around them. One even hits on the idea of a newly-formed network consciousness, to the scepticism of the others:
‘No-one answered the question I had asked before Jim came in,’ complained Reyner. ‘What would this supermind actually do? Would it be friendly – hostile – indifferent? Would it even know that we exist? Or would it consider the electronic signals it’s handling to be the only reality?’
‘I see you’re beginning to believe me,’ said Williams, with a certain grim satisfaction. ‘I can only answer your question by asking another. What does a newborn baby do? It starts looking for food.’ He glanced up at the flickering lights. ‘My God,’ he said slowly, as if a thought had just struck him. ‘There’s only one food it would need: electricity.’
‘This nonsense has gone far enough,’ said Smith. ‘What the devil’s happened to our lunch? We gave our orders twenty minutes ago.’
Everyone ignored him.
‘And then,’ said Reyner, taking up where Williams had left off, ‘it would start looking around, and stretching its limbs. In fact, it would start to play, like any growing baby.’
‘And babies break things,’ said someone softly.
Clarke’s stories rarely have clichéd happy endings.
Election Day in Ireland, to elect Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The parade of ugly faces on every single lamppost – and I really do mean every one, no exceptions – has been obscene, and I only mention it today because I’m relieved it’s over after today.
In the IT world, we sometimes use a conceptual model of computing systems, especially networked systems, called the OSI Seven-Layer Model. It doesn’t map to all systems directly, of course, and you sometimes see a simplified four-layer model used in the USA to describe the Internet in particular – the above-linked page includes a link to the equally-valid DoD four-layer model. You can find a single piece of software encompassing or even bypassing individual layers, but the overall point is to define and maintain standards for communication between the layers.
The fun starts when you try to extend the model into the “real” world: not something you could ever take seriously, but it’s a bit of geek fun, especially today when I was “troubleshooting” a problem outside the computer domain. (Search for “OSI Layer 8 problem” for examples of how others see this.) A colleage and I formulated our own OSI Ten Layer Communications Model: this is my “atheist” version:
|Layer||Description||Example: Internet||Example: Prayer|
|9||Management / Government||Concept / Idea||Priest/Rabbi/Imam (optional)|
|8||Individual||You (in front of a keyboard)||You (holistic sense)|
|7||Application||Web Browser||Formal Prayer|
|6||Presentation||Hypertext Markup Language (HTML)||The words in the prayer (if any)|
|5||Session||Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP)||The act of worship (prayer session)|
|4||Transport||Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)||Thoughts (hopes, wishes etc.)|
|3||Network||Internet Protocol (IP)||Language spoken.|
|2||Data Link||Machine Address Code (MAC), Ethernet||Sounds from your mouth.|
|1||Physical||Cable or Radio Spectrum||vibration of air molecules|
|0||Order/Chaos||quantum fluctuations||quantum fluctuations|
(Layer 0 is shown for fun only, it’s of dubious use in everyday communication.)
Tempting as it is to try to extend this model to every aspect of life, it is clearly only suited to communication tasks. The table is for a single entity, and so a piece of communication between two entities means “drilling down” through the layers to the physical, where the actual communication takes place. The signal is picked up by the recipient, listened to (or not), and interpreted according to known standards until the original message is understood.
Note the conclusion that communication is grounded in a physical layer: it works this way in the real world, which is why I expect religious people to object to this idea. My “prayer” example is not a perfect fit to the model: the person saying the prayer may be saying it out loud, so they are broadcasting on the physical layer. But sound only carries so far, and so the implication is that the actual person-god communication is at a higher level. “God hears our thoughts” can be read as implying that the actual communication is at Layer 4 on my model, completely bypassing language, speech, and sound. In other words, it is not physical, or natural, and is therefore supernatural.
My knowledge of real-world communication gives me one more reason to be highly skeptical of religious claims. They are always founded on person-god communication – if there was no communication either way, there would be no point. Maybe you talk to God… but can He hear you, assuming He’s there at all?
Being a West Wing fan, I’m happily getting to see the last in the latest series. The President is trying to throw the first pitch of the baseball season in a bulletproof vest; Donna is in a German hospital, badly injured after a bomb blast in Gaza that killed several senior politicians. Josh rushes over there to see her, but is soon diverted in to back-door negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian factions, while the Irish press photographer Donna just slept with is there too, making Josh ask himself pretty heavy questions.
Donna’s condition worsens… will she survive till the next season? Her character is finally breaking out of her West Wing assistant role, but Josh has relied on her utterly, for six years in the White House, in more ways than the professional; could he cope without her? Could we? Hey, it’s only TV…
Can the same be said for Happy Tree Friends, on the other hand? OW!