29th November

I'm wearing a gun as I write my weblog. I feel so... American...

I bought a holster for the airsoft Beretta, and have spent the last couple of evenings trying to wrestle it into submission. It's an interesting design, able to be worn in either a "tactical" configuration strapped low down on the thigh, or as a more conventional belt holster - but this extra flexibility, in addition to the usual adjustments for gun size and shape etc, apparently requires a nest of tough nylon straps and industrial-grade Velcro interwoven in Byzantine complexity. It took me almost an hour to reconfigure it from the tactical to belt configuration, last night - although with practice I'm fairly sure I could get that down to ten minutes...

Actually, I'm beginning to think that Velcro is one of the most important technologies in law enforcement, right now - all the equipment I've seen seems to have this rather fetching nylon and little hooks motif, and can apparently be easily and securely attached to everything else! My own experience shows that detaching it again afterwards can take two strong men, chains and a team of horses, though - which is Ok because the sheer rigidity of the Cordura Nylon gives them plenty to pull on - tough though the replica Beretta is, I suspect that the holster and belt are actually tougher...

So, I'm currently sat here squirming uncomfortably, trying to persuade my holster belt that although it is round and seems determined to stay that way, I am actually an oval in cross-section... Wish me luck!

28th November

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the tech news sites, today, following the recent publication of a report by The Aberdeen Group, an IT marketing and consultancy agency. Their report claims that Linux and it's fellow open source UNIXs are now the leading generators of security exploits and vulnerabilities. This is based on the fact that of CERT's security advisories in the first ten months of this year, sixteen out of twenty-nine were to do with an open source OS or application.

Various rebuttals have been attempted, ranging from "Oh, CERT sucks anyway!" to "it was a commercially commissioned report" to "they're not differentiating between major and minor vulnerabilities." They're all hooey - CERT may or may not suck as an organisation (and I don't think that they do, myself!) but their advisories are a fair benchmark for this sort of thing and the fact that the report was paid for is irrelevant when its source data is so freely available for confirmation.

I've been arguing this for ages in the open vs. closed-source debates, and Caesar at Ars.Technica says it again - "That said, the report is quite correct in provoking the question: is either approach inherently secure? Please note the word inherently. Clearly the answer is no."

27th November

Will Dilbert ever get lucky? The latest issue of Scott Adams' Dilbert Newsletter brings the startling news that we can influence the hapless techie's quest for love and a leg-over... Oh, the power!

"There's been a lot of clamoring lately for Dilbert to end his long unlucky streak with women and -- how should I say this? -- get his necktie straightened.

I've decided to leave that decision to you.

Here's the deal: If my new hardcover book, 'Dilbert and The Way of the Weasel', makes it to the top five of the New York Times best-seller list, then I'll arrange for Dilbert to reach the promised land.

That's right: I'm willing to sacrifice my artistic integrity, and sell Dilbert's body, to get the job done. It's called 'marketing,' and no one said it would be pretty."

Elsewhere, here is a rather neat online login generator for the annoyingly-restricted New York Times online news archive. If you haven't signed up already, avoid giving them a huge mass of annoyingly personal details by saving the page locally and connecting as a different anonymous user each time. Hah!

26th November

I managed to source a rather nice Adaptec 39160 SCSI card for the second VXA tape drive, but it's misbehaving slightly - on boot I get a fierce-looking "Error - Expansion ROM did not initialize" message from the PC, almost certainly caused by a lack of upper memory to load and initialise the card's BIOS image. This particular system is a fairly stretched-out Dell XPS workstation, and as well as the usual extensive set of motherboard-based devices, the Adaptec's ROM has to compete with those of a network card, an add-on graphics card, and an IDE RAID controller - and evidently the 39160, with its huge128Kb BIOS, is losing...

Windows has detected the device correctly, and I suspect that it will probably work Ok, and as the SCSI bus will only be supporting a tape drive I don't need the onboard BIOS... but all the same I really don't like leaving loose ends. However, I'm not quite sure what I can do about this one, as I can't disable the Adaptec's BIOS without the BIOS-based setup program (Adaptec used to have a command line utility for this sort of thing, but I can't find it now!) and the Dell BIOS is extremely feature-poor, without facilities to disable ROM scanning on a particular PCI slot or tune the system's memory allocation in any way!

So - I can check to make sure that the network card's BIOS isn't enabled, possibly moving the PCI cards to different slots will allow the limited system memory to be used more efficiently, and I'll make sure that both the motherboard and SCSI firmware are at the latest versions... disabling legacy USB keyboard support might help, or I might be able to temporarily remove enough cards to allow the Adaptec BIOS to load so that I can disable it... There's a bunch of stuff to try, but it could easily turn out to be one of those problems... <sigh> Last time I came across this issue, I had to fix it by changing to SCSI cards with a smaller BIOS!

25th November

We were wondering a while ago if the "Eye Need" begging adverts in Private Eye magazine ever resulted in a significant gain for the advertisers, and had tentatively come to the conclusion that people probably wouldn't keep placing them, that indeed there wouldn't still be a section for them, if they didn't work at least to an extent...

I think that can be confirmed, now, after the startling and annoying success of Save Karyn - the enterprising Karyn managed to score over $13,000 between June and November of this year just by asking for it on her web site! Evidently tales of massive credit card debts and compulsive comfort-buying at Saks and Bloomingdales must strike a familiar and sympathetic note these days, as the donations work out to an average of $650 per week or, in my terms, 1600 per month - which was my take-home pay a couple of years ago... Bah!

I have to admit that she at least showed a determination to change her habits and herself, though, selling her designer clothes and accessories at eBay in a long series of auctions that finally brought in over $4300 - but along the way she also managed to score appearances in People magazine, various TV shows and, recently, even a book deal! Bah, again!

The eBay auctions continue, if without the designer clothes, and her current plan seems to involve setting up an online shop to sell "New York fashions" (whatever they are) and handing over the Save Karyn website to a carefully-selected inheritor... But these things tend to be five-minute wonders, and somehow I doubt that the new benefactor will find well over a million people willing to show even a casual interest, let alone forking out cold, hard e-cash.

23rd November

 Vote! Vote! Vote!

You know you ought to... and remember the ice weasels.

The second VXA tape drive finally arrived today, after a long holiday courtesy of UK Customs & Excise. This one is a LVD/SE SCSI unit, but rather to my annoyance I discovered that I don't actually have a spare LVD SCSI card - the Adaptec 2944 that I'd remembered in my spares collection turned out to be a non-differential 2940, and although the physical connectors are compatible the electrical signals definitely are not. However, I think I know of an LVD-compatible SCSI card currently hosting a non-LVD tape drive, so I think a quick swap when I'm feeling better should do the trick.

The tape drive came bundled with half a dozen tapes, though, so after the obligatory check to make sure that they'd been properly security-erased (unfortunately they had... Rats!) at least I've finally been able to restart proper backups of the home network using the existing drive. After fitting the second drive, the next task will be to copy some legacy archive data from Travan to VXA media, for which I intend to use the Novastor's TapeCopy product. This software has a serious limitation in that it uses its own ASPI interface and will not co-exist with any other tape device drivers, but for a one-off job it should work nicely if I disable the Backup Exec services.

22nd November

A quick plug for Atom Films, finest online purveyor of low-budget shorts, bizarre indie films and mainstream movie trailers - they're spotlighting Star Wars fan films, right now, which is certainly worth a look if you have the bandwidth.

Elsewhere, I've just finished reading Terry Pratchett's Strata, somehow over-looked for years in the library... Boy, is it just like Larry Niven's classic Ringworld! It was a good book, and enjoyable, but the frequent parallels were too glaringly obvious not to jar -  I kept thinking "oh, that's just like when they found the Fist Of God meteor puncture", "oh, that's just like the God Gambit", "oh, the Discworld engineers are computers instead of Pak"... I found it all quite startling, but apparently it  was an intentional "pisstake / homage / satire" (Pratchett's own words) and we are assured that Larry Niven himself enjoyed it!

21st November

I'm suffering from some virulent cold bug today, so was less than impressed to read at Yahoo that a team funded by the US Energy Department are planning to create their own customised single-celled organism. Headed by the founder of the Celera Genomics Group, a commercial organisation instrumental in the recently completed human genome mapping, they intend to re-engineer an existing bacterium with only those genes necessary to sustain life:

"Venter and Smith said they will delete a gene that gives M. genitalium the ability to adhere to human cells, as well as another 200 genes that confer upon the organism the ability to survive in a hostile environment. The end result will be a delicate creature, at home only in the warm nutrient bath of a laboratory dish."

This is the traditional approach to the problem of allowing alien organic material to escape into the great outdoors, and often involves an engineered-in reliance on a chemical found only in the lab environment - a similar solution is often proposed for tomorrow's nanotech assemblers. I've read plenty of SF stories where everything got a little out of hand, though, and pitchforks and flaming torches no longer seem to work against Frankenstein's microbe...

20th November

Surely a new milestone in geek food - apparently a few years ago Dilbert creator Scott Adams diversified into the fast food industry with The Dilberito, a frozen ready-made burrito-like thing in four spicy vegetarian flavours. I had to check the site quite carefully before I was sure that it wasn't just a joke, but it does appear to be a real product... Sheesh! Americans! There's even an online game where you feed Dilbert healthy foods while avoiding the unhealthy - a sufficiently high score allows you to dance on the grave of your chosen nemesis...

Another online game currently proving popular is Stephen Brooks' Browser Wars, a variant of the traditional Connect Four concept using the icons of the various web browsers - having made your move on one of the shared boards, you're blocked until a move is made by a user with a different browser. Last time I looked Mozilla was ruling the scoreboards, but I'm sure that we can put a stop to that... That part of the site is currently swamped after yesterday's Slashdotting, though, so it's probably best to bookmark it and try next week after the fuss has died down - but there are various other projects at his site, including a handful of unusual and pretty little graphics applets that are worth a look while you're waiting.

Also Slashdotted out of existence today is the Gates Bros. Rocketry site - not the Bill of Microsoft fame, but instead the lesser-known Gates of the beleaguered Xircom network hardware manufacturer:

"What happens when the founder of Xircom and his brother bolt a DV Camcorder to the side of a 200 lb. model rocket and press the red button? The incredible movies (with sound!) at Gates Bros. Rocketry tell the tale. The quality of these movies is by far the best I've seen from the 'strap a camera to a flying toy' community. They have a nice gallery of still photos too."

19th November

"Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come..." -  Matt Groening

The dastardly Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act may receive its first real challenge soon, following an announcement today that the House of Commons All Party Internet Group will be holding a public enquiry into the data retention rules that the government intends to force on UK ISPs. The group's chairman, Liberal Democrat MP Richard Allan, has called for written submissions from IT specialists and the industry, and has issued a list of the particular areas that the enquiry is intended to address - data retention and protection, the impact thereof on the ISPs, the organisations that should be allowed to monitor or access the stored data and, of course, the weighty issue of privacy online. The hearings begin on the 11th December, and will be worth keeping an eye on.

18th November

Ahhhhhh, the Beretta arrived... Mmmmmm.

So just to heighten the suspense I will first mention www.whitehouse.org, a truly remarkable political satire site that really doesn't pull its punches. I just hope it lasts - Dubya and his cronies must be fuming...

Now, where was I? Oh, yes - this:

The heft and finish of the replica is remarkable, especially when you realise that the visible components are mostly ABS plastic - even knowing this, on unpacking the gun I still had to tap the slide and receiver with my fingernail before I could believe it. This is mostly due to, as the manufacturer's brochure puts it, the Premium Edition's "matually plated, and also carefully polished" finish. The accepted wisdom is that they're using a silicone-impregnated plastic with a hint of powdered steel, but whatever the formula it's satisfyingly solid, apparently durable and really does look like blued gunmetal... after firing it even shows the usual shiny smears of light oil.

It's not only the finish, though, but the details of the Western Arms replica that make it stand out amongst the many other airsoft M92s on the market. Unique amongst them, I gather, just as in the real gun the safety catch acts as a de-cocker, releasing the hammer onto a solid metal block so that it can be safely holstered whilst loaded. There are no visible seams anywhere, and the slide and frame carry the full set of authentic markings, including serial numbers and copyright notices, with the authorized Beretta logo cast into the chequered handgrips. There's even a rigid rubber bumper pad at the base of the magazine, permitting the trademarked John Woo reloading technique of dropping the spent magazine right out of the grip onto the ground and just leaving it - preferably done with two guns at once, of course...

The gun sits extremely well in the hand, and although it is just a touch barrel-heavy in comparison to the real handguns I've used (a full load of propellant and ammunition weighs less than five grams!), with the total weight slightly less than a kilogram it's still very manageable and does seem to point-out the target nicely. For someone used to associating the feel of a pistol in my hand with the feel of an aching wrist, elbow and shoulder, firing the gun is so trivial as to be surprising in itself - but there's enough of a firm push back into my palm to provide at least the memory of a real firearm's recoil, there's a satisfyingly loud phut! noise from the gas discharge, and a pleasing metallic sliding-click as the action operates. The slide cycles backwards and forwards so fast that from the shooter's point of view nothing much is happening - but the next round is chambered and ready in an un-noticeable fraction of a second and it will fire twenty-four of them as fast as you can pull the trigger.

Accuracy is potentially extremely high, I'd say - I was making groups of less than two inches at around five metres, and as I know how out of practice I am, I'm sure that will get significantly better. The power and muzzle velocity are certainly impressive for a model gun, too - this version will spit a 0.2g BB at around 290 feet/sec, which makes enough of a dent in the thick cardboard of my target box to suggest that it will need frequent replacement...  In fact, the only problem so far is that the instructions are in a language far curlier than I will ever be able to learn, illustrated with those strange and incomprehensible little pictures beloved of all Far Eastern manuals. From the little I can understand, I mustn't let my dog shoot me - but if it does, apparently I'm allowed to take the gun and shoot it back. I guess it's worth bearing that in mind...

17th November

It's that time of the year, again, and both web and print media are starting to wheel out their "Best Of 2002" summaries. Time Magazine's Best Inventions list has some interesting entries, though, including a Braille dataglove that translates the wearer's sign language into words displayed on a tiny LCD monitor, cellphone hardware small enough to be embedded in a tooth, cashmere garments impregnated with Teflon to make them completely waterproof, and holographic virtual keyboards straight out of the science fiction movies... Check out the complete list here, or look back at last year's list to see how many of them ever came to anything.

16th November

A few weeks ago I stumbled across a nest of links to the sport of "airsoft", and was hooked almost immediately. A close relative of paintball, this combat game is becoming increasingly popular in countries like the UK and Japan where successive government legislation has made private ownership of firearms almost completely impossible. The guns fire 6mm plastic BBs instead of paint pellets, and unlike the silly-looking paintball guns, are accurate replicas of military weapons. I've always liked the idea of paintball, but to someone with a long-standing interest in shooting and firearms nearly all of the guns just look undignified and absurd!

Several basic airsoft technologies exist, of which AEG (air-electric gun) and GBB (gas blow-back) are the most impressive - the former uses a small but powerful electric motor and pump producing pulses of air to propel the BBs, and is most often found in assault weapons and SMGs; the latter is the favoured method for handguns and uses a reservoir of inert gas in the magazine both to fire the BB and to operate the slide in a realistic manner. The guns are mostly a hybrid of metal internals with ABS plastic frame and furniture, and the best of them are at least half the weight of the genuine article and give a convincing look and feel of their "real steel" equivalents.

Several days of intense browsing, reading, and researching followed, and after a while I realised that my main priority seemed to be the realism of the replicas rather than their suitability for airsoft combat gaming - this led me to Western Arms, a Hong Kong manufacturer widely considered to make the most authentic and high-quality airsoft handguns on the market. Their flagship product is a replica of the ubiquitous Beretta M92FS general-purpose pistol, recently re-issued as a special edition with even greater attention to detail and finish. I tracked down a UK importer, the tiny and extremely over-stressed Airsoft Kit, and the gun is on its way to me now along with the propellant gas, lubricants, BBs and a rather spiffy tactical holster. I was hoping that it would arrive today, but it's evidently delayed in shipping somewhere so I shall spend an hour this afternoon making a target holder and pellet trap out of a large cardboard box in readiness. <rubs hands> I'm really looking forward to playing with it, and will doubtless post copious pictures when it finally arrives next week...

Unfortunately, I also seem to have fallen in love with another airsoft weapon, considerably more exotic than a humble Beretta. The object of my desire is a custom replica of the US Army's M4 SOCOM, one of the many variants of the Knights Armament SR-15 weapons system affectionately known as the Stoner Rifles after their original designer.

The stunning airsoft replica is equipped with all the bad-ass Special Operations goodies, including a 2500-round drum magazine, a silencer and rail-mounting system, and enough battery capacity to spray plastic BBs at 300 feet/sec and 800 rounds/min full-auto, potentially accurate to several hundred yards! It sounds like a whole raft of fun, and I'm extremely tempted in spite of the $800 price tag... I think I'd actually have to take up airsoft gaming as a hobby to justify spending that amount of money, though. Maybe next year...?






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