Tromso here I come!

Well, it’s time. I’ve done 99% of the packing and really have only the toiletries to pack in the morning.

So, it’s up at 5:30am and off to catch a 10:20am plane to Oslo and then after a 3 hour stop-over it’s on to Tromso for the 15 day trip. No doubt there will be lots of photographic opportunities.

I’m not sure if I’ll have net access when there. There doesn’t seem to be any internet cafes as far as I can find using Google and the only WiFi hotspots are in the airport and a couple of hotels. Anyway, I’ll soon find out.

So, T.T.F.N. and see you in a couple of weeks!

One for Jim….

I think I’ve beaten him to a blog link about wierd Aberystwyth happenings…

It seems that the University of Wales, Aberystwyth’s CompSci lot have been drinking too much ale again.. they’ve developed a welly wangging robot!

O.K. it’s not an official research programme.. more a Channel 4 programme as they’ve developed it for the “Scrapheap Challenge Roadshow”, but still. 🙂

Luggage hell.

O.K. I’ve spent the last few hours trying lots of combinations of ways to pack my cameras, lenses and iBook into a couple of bags.. the previously mentioned Sainsbury’s cool bag and a small rucksack I got at the IT Support Staff Conference in June.

The rigorous Department of Transport enforced size of hand-luggage of 45cm x 35cm x 16cm are proving a problem. The 45cm x 35cm is not a problem, it’s the very narrow 16cm which is.

With minimal padding, the width of an iBook and my larger aperture lenses is ~16cm, but then you have to add the thickness of the bag. I’m not sure that I can actually reach that magic 16cm. I will have more likelyhood of getting the Sainsbury’s bag into the hole that they’re using for testing than the rucksack, so I think I shall have to use that. Still, it’s still a risk that I won’t be able to force it in without causing damage.

It’s obvious that the size that the DoT and Home Office descided upon was a businessman’s briefcase and nothing else. Actually, it was probably the minister’s own briefcase which was measured. And the excuse that a bag any larger would be harder for the security personnel to search is a complete and utter bear faced lie. If the regulations stated a volume restriction or even a type of internal structure for a bag that would be a reasonable argument, but specific dimensions is just a stupid, arbitary restriction which serves no-one.

The ministers have also said that people should put only things in their hand luggage which they will need during the flight. That’s fine in theory and I would whole-heartly support it if, and only if, they could guarantee that the hold luggage was perfectly safe from theft, loss or being damaged by the baggage handling system. This is no-where near true. Not only this but the insurance industry won’t even cover hold-luggage and the airlines cower under the Montreal Convention terms which mean that compesation for damage is based upon the wieght of the luggage and has a ceiling of £250!

Firewall fun.

Those of you who have been on Bullet within the last week or so will know the “fun” I’ve been having with our new firewall. It’s a Cisco ASA5520 with the IDS card installed.

When I first tried bringing the machine into service I found that the machine would crash within 10 minutes. It took quite a while to get a new version of the operating system for it, which seemed to work a lot better.

However, on Thursday it was brought to my attention that ssh connections were no-longer reliable, especially if they were high traffic ones. So, I spent the whole of yesterday investigating the thing with tcpdump running at both ends of the connection and on the IDS (which runs Linux). The packets looked OK within the our network and at the IDS but there was some which were becoming corrupted at the far end, which the Linux kernel wasn’t spotting and was hence getting through to the ssh application. I tried loads of tweeks on the firewall to see if I could change the problem, but it wouldn’t go away.

Anyway, today I decided to test the same thing from home using my Apple iBook. The connection (and rsync, which I was using to test) seemed to work OK, but there were a few pauses. The problem still happened when I tried from my Linux server, however. I then tried the rsync to a different machine in Earth Sciences and it broke.. So, it looks like there are two bugs.. one in the ASA IOS (or there’s duff memory damaging packets) and a bug in the Linux IP stack which stops it from noticing that packets are corrupt. :-/

Anyway, as soon as I get BT SkyNet to move our support contract from them to Cisco (which I originally requested when I purchased the equipment but was given their own support contract) I’ll lodge a bug report with Cisco. Goodness knows how I’ll get a bug report sent to the Linux kernel hackers… maybe I should e-mail Alan.


Why is it that the new regulations for hand baggage seem to be designed to stop digital photographers?

Every photo+laptop bag is one or two centimetres larger in one dimention or another than their regulation maximum size (including handles and pockets). I’m sure that they’re doing this deliberately.

Why the current airline security strategy is ultimately futile.

The current strategy to prevent people intent on destroying aircraft is based upon the premis that by banning descrete items you can stop the event from happening. This, however, suffers from three problems: Firstly, the “enemy” is smart and adaptive. Secondly, it suffers from a law of diminishing returns. Thirdly, it ultimately makes the mode of transport unusable.

I’m going to concentrate on the first of those failings here.

In the current alert it has been determined by the powers that be that the danger can be limited by preventing any electronic item inside the cabin and any item which may contain an explosive substance. Hence, the small number of items which can be taken as hand baggage. Everything else has to be placed in the hold of the aircraft. This a problem for the airlines (extra space needed in the baggage holds), the passengers (valuable items have to be placed in checked-in luggage which is then both not covered by insurance and liable to theft or damage by baggage handlers) and the security services (who have to check double the amount of hold baggage).

These measures miss some glaring holes, however.

Firstly, what if an explosive device (using the liquid explosive they seem to be worried about) were placed in checked-in luggage? Well, it might be argued that this would be spotted by the security checks but as we know from cases where newspapers have succeeded in getting dodgy bags through the system, this is not infalible. Also, this assumes an electronic timer, initiator and detenator, which may not be the case.

It is not rocket science to design and build a chemical based timer device (O.K. it is, but nothing a well funded small laboratory in the Australian outback couldn’t handle) which is accurate enough to detonate an explosive “somewhere over the Atlantic.”

Secondly, what about the clothing the people are wearing? Lots of explosive matterials could be made to be parts of clothing with things such as buttons etc. being components. They’re checking shoes, but nothing else. Will it be too risky to allow people onto a flight wearing their own clothing?

Thirdly, there’s the person’s body. Remember these people are not expecting to survive so worries about medium to long term health are not a concern. What if a “terrorist” were to swallow a device with a chemical timer and detenator held in an organic container which has a similar X-Ray contrast to other organs?

So, basically, the only way in the end to prevent such attacks using this blunt instrument would be a total ban on luggage, clothing and people from the aircraft.

Now, the problem is what *CAN* you do instead? That’s a very difficult question and it’s one I’m not sure I have an answer for. All I do know is that the current stance is untenable in the long term.

Wierd dream time….

It starts normally enough…

It seems that Alec has moved house and is now living in a georgian, cotswold stone manse (not quite a mansion, just a big house) so I go to visit him. He puts me up in a nice, ground floor guest bedroom with a window which opens out into a aluminium lean-to greenhouse with grape vines spralled over the upper half and one or two of the glass panes at ground level are broken, the door has been left open. Through the glass of the greenhouse it can be seen that it’s situated in a small courtyard bounded by a cream coloured rendered wall.

Now, it starts getting weird…

I looked down to the floor of the greenhouse.. instead of a normal floor there’s… a small, shallow swimming pool. In this swimming pool I could see a number of cats and a host of starlings and other garden birds all asleep. I wondered how they could sleep under water, surely they’d drown. I then looked up into the grape vines and saw a host of house flies hatching out and sitting around in a group, possibly warming up before flying off.. and a gecko running around eating them.

Anyway, I go outside to find Alec clearing up the courtyard and ask him about the cats and birds, to which he replies “Oh yes, they’re very good at holding their breath, though some don’t make it.” He points at the pool where at the bottom you can see one or two starlings which are clearly ex-starlings.

At this point a tiger walks past, out of the greenhouse. I look to Alec, who says, “Oh, she came with the house. She’s not really tame but she doesn’t seem to attack anything, so it’s O.K. There’s a panther around here as well, somewhere.” At which point a black panther saunters past.

Anyway, I’m not sure how, but the location is transferred to a house which I know is near Kimbolton (Huntingdonshire), where I used to live, and is a combination of the house I used to live in and some palatial dwelling. There’s a social gathering. Apparently, Alec’s lent me a super-dooper new computer which is housed in a frame (not a rack) as components slot in all around and all the insides are exposed. Apparently, it’s two AMD machines made into one, one with dual dual core chips and the other with dual 8 core ships.. but it’s all hush-hush. He warns me not to talk too much about it to an IBM chappy also at the gathering.

All very wired and random. I have *NO* idea where all that has come from, but it was entertaining enough that I really needed to bore all the readers of my whitterings to death with it. 🙂

I can’t get to sleep

The fact that I’ve been invited to a meeting to do with the design of the new building at work has set my mind on the task of how to persuade the head of department, the University’s Estates Directorate and the architects about the design for our new machine room. The problem is that this has been going around in my brain, so I’ve had to write it down,

Hence I’ve written an initial Keynote slidesshow detailing my thoughts, which are basically:

There is probably going to be a maximum of 4 clusters in the dept. at any one time, each being 2-3 racks in size. Each rack will weight about a tonne and output approximately 10Kw of heat, all of which will have to be taken away. So, that’s about 120Kw in total.

This is all OK so far.. now for the contraversial bit…

A conventional recirculation air conditioning system for 120Kw is BIG. Not only this but the failure modes when its near capacity are not graceful, with a catastrophic temperature rise due to thermal feedback. The systems would not be able to be shutdown quickly enough to avoid cooking of the disk drives in the room, leading to data loss.

My solution is based upon the premis that the external ambient temperature is less than or equal to the ideal machine room temperature for most of the year in the UK, so why not use that for cooling and vent the exhaust hot air out of the room? Not only this, if you design it correctly you can use convection to help the whole process (using a long enough chimney).

This idea has two advantages.. firstly you don’t have to cool 120Kw, merely tweek external temperature air to your required temperature, which should need far less than 120Kw. Also, if any one part fails the system fails gracefully. (If the chiller fails then the room maximum temperature will be slightly higher than external ambient. If the extraction blower fails then convection will keep at least some air flowing, allowing a slower heat build-up.)

I also suggested using a closed-loop ground heat exchange system for the air temperature control system, such as developed by a spin-off company from the Camborne School of Mines Geothermal Energy Project, GeoScience Ltd. and their subsidiary, EarthEnergy. This should be able to cut energy usage even further.

Of course, the exhaust warm air from the machine room could also be used as supplementry heating for the rest of the building as well.

Somehow, though, I think that the ever conservative Estates Directorate will veto any of these ideas, mostly because they couldn’t be implemented by their favourite contractors and the ever present “not invented here” syndrome.