Archive for February 2003
Holy Moley, Batman! It’s already Friday, and the end of February. It’s been a busy week, compounded by another 2-day session of the Enterprise Backup Systems training course I run here. The other guy who was sharing duties here has pulled out, so I’ll be doing them all on my own from now on, unless we can find some other sucker to take it on.
The material is outdated, and badly structured, so that the whole first day is “Death by PowerPoint”, with a few of the students tempted to jump out the window for some relief. I’m tempted to follow them, so I try to liven thing up with jokes. Last time I told the story of Murphy’s Law; this time I had the students imagine they were trying to degauss (wipe) a backup tape by putting it on top of a loudspeaker. I asked for their opinions on which music would be best at the job; I lean towards Industrial music with heavy clipped square wave content in the bass range.
- It takes more power to produce a bass note at a given volume than treble – a woofer needs hundreds of watts, but a tiny piezo tweeter using a fraction of a watt can deafen you.
- OK, square waves aren’t as “dense” in the frequency spectrum as sawtooth waves, but square waves are easy to produce: just overload the signal until it clips. Do this to a guitar and you get “fuzz”, do it to a bass and you get Nine Inch Nails.
There were several Germans on this course, so Techno was quite a popular suggestion. Kraftwerk? Nein, not dense enough. I’m thinking the kind of bangin’ Techno they pump out at the Love Parade every summer in Berlin, at the kind of SPL found there too. The magnetic leakage from the speakers must be frightening to anyone with a pacemaker, and it wouldn’t be good to any magnetic media such as tapes or disks.
Today I booked my main summer holiday – some old school friends are renting a cottage in the Highlands in July, so we’ll all get together and catch up. I may take a Risk game with me, we got a lot of mileage out of that before. The last time we were all together, in 1986 I think, we bought a lot of beer, had a barbecue, then started playing Risk at about 5PM. We were still fighting board battles at 2am, the beer was gone, so we raided the drinks cabinet, and by 5am I sat down to “rest my eyes” for a minute and woke up three hours later, still drunk.
I’ve never had that kind of drinking experience again, because everyone drinks so much so quickly now, I don’t even try to keep up. Back at that party in 1986, we drank steadily but slowly for over 12 hours, and it didn’t bother me. I avoided a hangover by not going to sleep again, after that three hour nap, until that night.
I can’t believe the way time is flying: we’re already approaching the end of February. Time flies when you’re having fun… or not. I haven’t been having much fun so far this year, but at least I haven’t been bored.
We’ve been asked to plan our own training schedules for this year, to the extent of digging up times, locations, and costs of any external training we want. OK, I want to go on a Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) Fast Track ( RH300) course in April please, it will cost €2500. Several of our team started salivating when I passed them the details, so there’s a fair chance we can organize it and get a volume discount too.
Later on this year, it will be time to dig in and get a MCSE in Windows Server 2003 (the OS formerly known as .NET). The exams won’t be available until June at the earliest, so that leaves time to prepare etc. A “boot camp” is a possibility, and I have a line on one here in Ireland. Although it could be quite expensive, we are informed that HP has assured Microsoft that thousands of us will be qualified by the end of the year, and we have backing at board level for this. If the money is available, I can suspend thrift and splurge, if it gets the results.
Well, that was the week that was – but a pretty good one as weeks go, since a) it was only 4 days for me, and b) I had a breakthrough against the logjam effect yesterday and actually caught up with my work, for the first time this year. This was partly due to the consideration of my colleagues, who gave me the space to get stuck in, and partly due to the (few) customers who actually came back to me with useful diagnostic results i.e. what I’ve been asking them to do for weeks.
I’m constantly tempted to lecture customers on what Support is: we help them solve their problems, but they still have to keep their end up. In a minority of cases we can spot a product fault, see it for ourselves, and deal with it; in most cases, it’s something that they have done or are doing, and it’s a bitch of a job finding out what it is, far less getting them to do something about it. Too many customers think they can call our phone lines, provide the little information they think we need, then sit back and wait for us to resolve it. Sorry, guys, it’s your problem unless you can prove otherwise – not that we can tell them that, of course.
I only did phone support for a year here at what is now HP, formerly Compaq, but I had never expected to do any. I thought I’d be doing something more like what I’m doing now. I thought phone support was a low grade position; it is, in a way, but that doesn’t tell you much about the people who do it. I was promoted out of phone support to “Level 2” over two years ago, but I was quite lucky; many of my former colleagues are still there. I know about the stress they endure and the knowledge they’re expected to hold, so I won’t hear a word said against them.
I have the luxury of partially specializing, knowing a few fields in depth, relative to the Level 1 phone people. They are required to know a bit about everything, but some of them have knowledge going far deeper than expected, which helps a lot but for which they get no thanks. Some of them are well qualified to join me here, but the internal situation, especially the merger, closed off that avenue for a year, and it’s only now showing signs of opening up again.
No plans for the weekend – I might get round to watching the DVDs I bought last weekend in London, including Natural Born Killers and The Royal Tenenbaums. More Command & Conquer: Generals, of course. Where’s the Glee™? My hands need some right now, it keeps them supple.
Apart from work, the few days since I returned from London have been dominated by Command & Conquer: Generals, which I bought last Friday. This is the latest in the C&C family, and the first version based on a 3D graphics engine, which looks stunning. I don’t buy many games, but this was a no-brainer.
The storylines are simpler than previous versions, but it’s all the better for that. You can play as one of three factions: the USA, China, and a terrorist group called the Global Liberation Alliance (GLA). All three have bizarre and surreal elements to their organizations and weapons, especially the GLA, whose “weapons” include car bombs and angry mobs – controversial, given the current political climate.
I’ve been trying to work my skills up in a logical order, so I’ve been playing as the Chinese so far. They have their weaknesses, but they also have nuclear weapons, complete with gleeful operators passing comments like “I am the bringer of light”! More fun is had with the hackers and the Propaganda organization – apparently, troops can be harangued into healing themselves and shooting straighter. I’m also getting a lot of use from aircraft in “combat air patrol” mode – great for taking out enemies before they get near you, as long as they’re not missile-armed.
The graphics are quite astonishing, yet still very playable at the high resolution of my laptop screen (1400×1050). The engine models most things in the environment, from people and trees (neither of which can withstand tanks very well), to flowing water, and explosions from hand grenades to tactical nukes. If I can talk a few more people into buying it, we may have a few network matches in the near future.
I took Tom Clancy’s Red Rabbit to London with me, a borrowed hardback copy, which was a pain to carry around but worth it. It’s not a return to his old style, he’s introducing more subtle real-world detail in his recent books, but he’s clearly had fun filling in a major gap in the story of his main character Jack Ryan, whose CIA career is just starting to take off at the time of the story, 1982. The background is the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, and Red Rabbit is an attempt at creating a “back story” behind the real events. Historically, of course, the attempt did take place.
Without giving the story away, then, Red Rabbit is almost a prequel to Clancy’s later novels, offering a chance to expand on his other interesting characters, most notably the Foleys, the husband-and-wife team that later jointly came to run the CIA after years in the trenches. I’m not sure how wise it was to hook his narrative up to real history, but I can hardly fault the storytelling. Red Rabbit is almost up there with The Cardinal Of The Kremlin as Clancy’s best work, I think. He’s no Shakespeare, but he’s not John Updike or Philip Roth either, two Pulitzer Prize winners that I have found almost unreadable.
Clancy just about passes the British Geography test that American writers can easily fall foul of (see 2 Dec 2002 blog). He has the Ryans living in Chatham in Kent, travelling to London via Victoria station, which is correct. He then blows it by having Jack Ryan driven from near Manchester to Chatham in half an hour – not a chance, since it’s over a hundred and fifty miles, with London as an obstacle that would necessitate taking the M25. Two hours would be a minimum at high speed, more likely three. Close, but no cigar, Tom.
his is a letter I just wrote to Jerry Pournelle, which described how I felt after two days in London:
Hi, Dr. P,
I lived in London for eight years, but I’ve been in Dublin for the last three. I’ve been back in London for 2 days, and the fear of terrorism and war is everywhere, playing havoc with life in general.
I arrived on Thursday, through the quiet Luton airport, with only armed police (no soldiers) in evidence, but had my bag searched at a train station later, by a “police community assistant” (not even a real police officer), who seemed to have been given the job as part of some hazing ritual. He was totally unprepared for the procession of angry people he was creating, but still had the cheek to ask for my name and address. I was carrying a hardback book (Tom Clancy’s “Red Rabbit”), but he didn’t even look inside it – there was space for a pound of C4 had I been so inclined.
At the time I was being searched, someone arrived at Gatwick from Venezuela with a live grenade in their luggage, having obviously not been searched at departure. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2765531.stm. BBC News ran an “expose” showing how a presenter could go and stand under the takeoff path at Luton and Stansted airports, within SA-7 range of departing planes, for half an hour before being challenged by armed police.
Today about half a million people are marching towards Hyde Park for an anti-war protest that has been semi-hijacked by a “Freedom for Palestine” platform. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2765041.stm It was such fun walking out of the centre, against the mass of “day tripper” protestors in their eiderdown jackets, with Starbucks lattes and McDonalds muffins in hand, that I had to resist the temptation to go “baa!” at every corner in memory of Dolly (who died yesterday). http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2764039.stm
Starting Monday, every car that enters central London will have its license plate read by computer, and the registered owner will receive a fine if they haven’t paid the £5 “Congestion Charge” by the end of the day. There are unconfirmed reports that the system is (or soon will be) capable of facial recognition too. Of course, the call centre that handles payments and exceptions (for residents etc.) is hopelessly backlogged, due to poorly trained staff and badly-designed systems, and thousands of local residents can expect to get nasty letters through the post in weeks to come.
Now I’m off to Luton for my flight back to Dublin. Let’s see if I can make it without Tube crashes, “peaceful protest” riots, cancelled trains, bag searches, facial profiling, disrupted flights, and a SA-7 warhead up the undercarriage as we take off. Good day…
Just caught the late News here, with two items of interest
The Government here are going to drastically increase the
price of cigarettes again, perhaps as high as €8
(£5 / $8) for a pack of 20. Combined with last
week’s news that smoking will be banned in pubs and
restaurants. perhaps as soon as May this year, is further
evidence that smoking is firmly in the government’s
I never have smoked, except for one puff when I was 13 or
so, but I know enough smokers to be going ouch in
sympathy. I won’t miss it, of course, and if smokers
really can’t deal with it themselves, what else can you
do but dissuade them as far as possible?
The Government here are investing large amounts of cash
in a national broadband internet scheme, though they
won’t be addressing the “last mile” question, as far as I
can tell from the short report. Why can’t private firms
do this, as Qwest and others did in the USA? I understand
it involves government regulations about telecoms