For the first time since 1998, I’m unemployed and looking for work! (by )

I'm really quite happy about this. We have enough money to live off of for several months, so I can afford to look around for a good job, and take a long-wished-for break to relax and work on my projects.

I'm going to:

  1. Clear out a load of domestic TODOs that have been hanging over me. I've axed my "urgent" TODO list in just a few days.
  2. Sort out my workshop/home office: fixing up the nasty power cabling, finishing my workbench, putting up shelves so everything's not all over the floor, that sort of thing.
  3. Finish the home mainframe (no family should be without one!) off and get everything migrated to run on it.
  4. Put out the next release of Ugarit, with performance improvements, replicated storage, and an improved archive mode interface.
  5. Finish and publish a pencil-and-paper role playing game I started writing in 1994. Deary me, has it been that long? It's a wonder that I still have it, as it was on a FAT16 filesystem under MS-DOS when it was first written.
  6. Do some work on that MMORPG I designed in the late 1990s and never got around to implementing more than basic proofs-of-concept of. I don't think I'll have a fully working game any time soon, but I think that if I have some uninterrupted time, I could get it to a level that I can then hack on in odd bits of time thereafter. I've just found getting started daunting when I've only had the odd half-day here and there to work on it; other projects have offered more immediate rewards...

However, I am looking for a job, to start around the end of March / start of April - two months' break should be enough fun for me! So if you know of anything I (CV here) might be interested in, given that I'm based in Gloucester (UK), please do drop me a message!

Society 2 (by )

Six years ago, I wrote up some opinions on how people complain about society, and how I'd like to improve matters. Since then, I've been thinking about the problem on and off, and two different models for human societies that, I hope, might be more fair, productive, and downright pleasant to live in than our own.

So what do we want out of a society? This is largely a matter of personal taste to many. Some want a worl d in which total human happiness is maximised; some want a world in which their own happiness is maximised (these are not nice people); some want a world in which people have the most freedom rather than happiness; and so on.

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Libertarianism (by )

I've long been fascinated by libertarianism. Creating social structures that are self-maintaining and do not require central control seems like a noble goal; things that are owned by organisations tend to end up either stifled by conservatism, destroyed by mismanagement, or fall into the hands of the greedy and end up taking advantage of everyone who has to use that service. The blockchain technology behind bitcoin is particularly interesting; it implements a form of democracy that requires no central body to hold elections and tally votes. Anyone can join the community of miners (although the cost of a sizeable vote is getting higher and higher with all these ASICs), and a proposed change will "become law" if you can convince the owners of enough of the mining power it's a good idea. This is vulnerable to somebody having enough money to buy enough mining hardware to dominate the system then being able to dictate their own terms to the world; but, fascinatingly, anybody who owns that much of the mining equipment will now have such a sizeable stake in the Bitcoin economy that it's very much in their economic interest to act in the interests of the Bitcoin economy as a whole - making it not vulnerable to abuse by the greedy; at most, it's vulnerable to abuse by the ideologically driven (somebody who's willing to spend a lot of their money just to destroy the Bitcoin economy).

However, "libertarian" has become a dirty word. A lot of the folks discussing decentralised social structures back when I first starting reading about them in the mid-1990s have turned into complete loons, ending up arguing for the replacement of every social structure by free-market economics, denying climate change, adopting evolutionary-psychology models of genetic competition to explain human mating behaviour in a way that fails to account for human free will and then allows them to justify misogynistic ideas, and so on.

Which is a bit of a shame. Can't we all get back to working out social structures that actually maximise individual liberty, rather than focussing on particular tools for that and elevating them to the status of worshipped idols?

I mean, free market economics is great in many ways. An ideal market will force suppliers to compete for the business of consumers, leading to better services and better prices. But that doesn't mean that abolishing government will lead to a Utopia as organisations scrabble to provide the best healthcare, protection from crime, social services, roads, and so on for the lowest possible price. Suppliers of products and services don't like free markets, as they introduce competition, and have historically shown great ingenuity and determination in disrupting the markets they sell into through anti-competitive practices. They will attempt to make their products hard to compare to those of competitors, lie barefacedly in advertising, use market leadership in one area to weight other markets (eg, Microsoft's use of its operating systems near-monopoly to bundle Web browsers that understood a different dialect of HTML, thereby pressuring the creators of web sites to target them to that widespread browser, thereby causing web sites to not work so well on competing browsers), and so on. Companies like Twitter, Amazon, Google and Facebook have a lot of control over the primary means we use to find out about and compare products and services to buy, so can easily give their own products an edge over their competitors.

Free markets only remain free (as opposed to capture by monopolies) when there's some body capable of setting standards through which comparable products can be fairly compared, enforcing advertising rules, and to stop monopolies. Left to their own devices, they stagnate.

High-profile libertarians seem to fall into a trap of hating government. They seem prone to sliding into extreme right-wing ideology; interpreting "using taxation to fund a welfare system" as "robbing me of resources I earned myself in order to fund people who, despite having the same opportunities as me, did not take them". They decry the compulsory nature of taxation as a removal of their individual liberty to choose to donate to charities or not, while failing to recognise that "were my parents rich enough to properly feed and educate me, provide me with adequate healthcare, and support me while I developed my business idea, rather than requiring me to go into the first job I was capable of as soon as I was educated enough to work at all" is hardly a good criterion for the fair distribution of the individual liberty this is all supposed to be about; they seem to fail to realise that we do not all have the same opportunities. Nothing is a better predictor of an individual's future economic success than the wealth of their parents. I see that as a terrible failing of society, and far more anti-liberal than having to pay taxes.

I suspect it's maybe just a "vocal minority" problem (Wikipedia lists many different forms of libertarianism than the far right wing stuff), but I think it's a shame that the actual search for individual liberty is being steamrollered by people who seem keen to enhance their own liberty at the cost of others'.

The family mainframe (by )

I'm in the process of consolidation the home fileserver and the public Internet server - currently two separate bits of hardware - into a single physical device, virtualised to support multiple indepedent machine images. Having a single family mainframe will simplify the management of the complex web of computers and services that support our digital life.

For various reasons, the best place to build such a thing is at the office end of my workshop. Even though it's at the "clean" end, this is still a room that is prone to having fine conductive dust in the air, varying humidity and temperature, and (heaven forbid) a leaking roof. Also, I want a case with extensive room for upgrades, and which makes it easy to replace parts. Having used 1U rack-mounting servers for quite some time, I am sick of highly compact servers that are difficult to work with, requiring extensive dismantling to get to parts.

Clearly, I needed a rather special chassis for this new family mainframe, so I bought a load of steel, picked up my tools, and got to work. I've been working on this for months; I initially cut up the metal at home, then visited a friend's workshop to borrow his pneumatic rivet gun and his MIG welder. Since obtaining my own TIG welder, I've been able to continue at home.

The chassis is nearly structurally complete; this weekend, I've been attaching mounting brackets inside it for everything to attach. All that remains is to finish welding the upper panel on, then the whole thing can be cleaned and galvanised, and the exterior painted. Then I can fix it to the wall and start fitting the electronics and electrical systems!

The first thing I did this weekend was to fit mounting brackets for the processor frame. This is taken from a standard ATX case, and is the base plate with standoffs to mount the motherboard, the frame to attach expansion cards to, and the frame to hold the PSU. This is screwed into the chassis, so that I can use an existing frame (rather than having to make one myself), and so I can replace it if needed. The frame is held in place by two locating pins that fit into holes in it, and then two screws through the upper-left corner (I drilled and tapped holes in the top left bracket), and a little spacer at the top right to stop it from flexing:

Processor frame mounting brackets

With the frame in place, it looks like this:

Processor frame in place

Next came the expansion frames. I may need to add additional hardware inside the chassis in future, but once it's holding a running server and painted and bolted to the wall, I can't really take it down to weld additional brackets into. So I cut off one-inch lengths of square tube, drilled and tapped a hole in the centre of one side, and welded them to the inside of the chassis. I drilled holes in the ends of strips of steel, so they screw into the pairs of brackets, creating a metal strap that can be removed, things mounted onto (via welding etc), and then screwed back into place, without causing major disruption. There are two - one beneath the process frame, above where the UPS will go; and another right at the top, above the environment management system.

Here's the upper one:

Upper expansion frame

And here's the lower one:

Lower expansion frame

The welds were quite difficult, as I had to reach right down into a corner of the chassis. As such, they were either OK or awful, depending on whether I had to use my right (dominant) or left hand:

Lower expansion frame (left hand bracket)Lower expansion frame (right hand bracket)

I also cut and drilled some mounting flanges, which will be what are used to bolt it to the wall:

Mounting flanges

When I made the sides of the chassis, I welded angle iron onto them, in order to attach said flanges:

Tabs where the mounting flanges will attach

(Note the plasma-cut hole, which will be where a removable plate with sockets for Ethernet, VGA, and USB will go).

The mounting flanges are quite thick (the wall is rough and bumpy, so the chassis needs to be spaced slightly from it), so it was good fun welding them to the much thinner angle iron. I think I did an OK job:

Mounting flange attached

Then I mounted the internal frame for mass storage devices, which goes above the processor frame, below the environment management system. It's a metal plate drilled for lots and lots of 3.5" disk drives, which attaches (with screws) to brackets I welded into place:

Mass storage frame

With all the internal stuff done, I started to weld the top panel in place, which I'd avoided in order to enable me to get access into the top:

Top panel

Annoyingly, I ran out of argon while doing the tack welds. A TIG welder without shielding gas is a lot like a plasma cutter, and I burnt a nice hole in a shower of sparks. It's only a small hole, so I'll be able to weld over it when I finish the job off.

Unable to do the final welding, I drilled a hole in the eaves, where clean outside air will be drawn in through a duct into the environment management system:

Air inlet

I also hefted the entire thing up to the wall where it will be mounted, propped it in position, leveled it, and drilled through the holes in the flanges to make the holes that will be used to anchor-bolt it in position:

Wall prepare for mounting

Workshop progress (by )

Setting up my workshop has been a long battle, thanks to the roof leaking (and everything getting covered in slime mold because of the damp, and ivy growing in through the holes in the roof and shedding sticky sap and dead leaves on everything, and a cat getting in there and pooing on the floor...). Things got rusty, everything got grimy, and stuff was moved around willy-nilly to get it out of the water; and then because everything was in the wrong places, stuff couldn't be put away properly, and so things ended up piled wherever they could go. This was quite distressing for me; by nature, I'm a person who makes things, but I've not been able to do anywhere near as much making as I'd like for years, because I didn't have a nice place to work and didn't have easy access to my equipment.

Door with sign

But, now the roof is fixed, and everything's had about a year to dry out. I've had time to continue painting the floor (it's all now covered in paint, but some parts need a second coat); I've cleaned and tidied;0 and thrown away wood and metal that was too rusted to be of any use, and scraped up the remains of cardboard boxes that had dissolved into fungus, and found and removed all the cat turds and scrubbed the floor with disinfectant; thrown away computer parts that were covered in disturbing fungal blooms; and cleaned and tidied the computer desk. I've made racks to store the wood and metal stocks that are still usable, and put down linoleum under the computer desk so the chair can roll around freely (it didn't do too well on the rough concrete) and I have a nice surface to rest my feet on.

I put up a bracket with hooks for my boiler suit and lab coats, by the door, as the place they used to hang now interferes with the material racks:

Protective clothing hanging by the door

I've got the compressor installed under the workbench, rather than kicking around the floor:

Compressor installed under workbench

And my computer desk is all set up nicely; you can't really see it here, but there's a desktop PC, with a nice set of speakers and an amplifier so I can listen to music - or the audio from my wide-band scanner, seen to the right of the monitor, which picks up the FM broadcast band nicely:

Desk

What's next? I still need to assemble some shelving, as there's still stacks of flimsy plastic crates holding a lot of stuff. And put a second coat of paint on some bits of the floor (which will be easy to get to when the crates are gone). And I've got a metal garden waste incinerator I was going to turn into a furnace (but which is far too large, and now I've helped somebody else build a furnace that he lets me use), which I need to find a new home for. And I need to find a place to store the festival trolley, which currently kicks around on the workshop floor (getting in the way and offering plenty of shin-scraping opportunity). And I need to finish the meter-and-a-quarter-high heavy steel server chassis standing in the middle of the room (which will be fixed to the wall next to my computer desk when it's finished).

I want to make a new welding bench, too - my current one is curved, as (in the wildness of youth) I tried to put far more welds between the top surface and the frame than was needed, causing it to warp. This means it's very hard to make flat things, as they don't lie flat when I'm lining them up to weld. And, as it stands on four rather thin angle-steel legs, on a rough concrete floor, it wobbles, so isn't much use to mount a vice on. Speaking of vices, while clearing up in the workshop, I came across this beast:

Old leg vice

It's a "leg vice"; the long metal leg should be embedded into the ground to steady it. It's a blacksmith's tool, intended to hold something while it's battered with a hammer; thus the exceptionally sturdy construction. If I bolted it to my current bench, then the bench would fall over if I tried to use it in earnest. We found it in the stable where we lived before, which is the ancestral home of one side of my family; I was given it as I thought I could try and get it working, although I was expecting a long task ahead of me to rebuild seized parts. Thankfully, the screw thread was in perfect condition, and penetrating oil and elbow grease got the joint un-seized, and it's now working nicely. It still needs some rust removal to make it more pleasant to touch and to avoid contaminating everything I clamp with rust, but that won't take long.

I costed up materials to make one with a more rigid frame, bolted to the wall at the back and with two legs at the front so that it wouldn't wobble (and, with the wisdom of experience, only stitch-welding it to the frame, as that'll provide more than enough strength without curving it into a bow); making that will cost a little over sixty pounds (plus welding consumables and electricity). The design includes a mounting point for the leg vice, so that it protrudes out into the room (with the top of the vice level with the top of the bench, so it's not in the way of large things going on the bench), and converting the old bench into a shelf under the new bench to provide much-needed handy storage for grinding tools and welding clamps.

However, having just spent a bunch of money on welding gear I'm not going to be in a position to splash out sixty quid on a welding bench for another month or so (let alone buying metal for other metalwork projects needed around the house, such as a set of railings for the front of the house...). Thankfully, we've found a local scrap metal merchant who are willing to let us rummage around for cheap metal! When we get a chance, I'm going to head over there and see if they have any steel plate for the top and box/angle section for the frame and legs... It'll be nice to have a good welding project to focus on with my new TIG welder!

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