23rd December

Epicycle will be offline over the holiday period, spending some time away from technology. Updates will resume in the new year, but until then I'll leave you with some odd links... And they are odd links, this time.

Cell Phones That Do It - Wired reports on a new range of add-ons for your cellphone.

New industry in cloning pets - $50,000 for a copy of your cat.

"Fart Bomb" toy withdrawn in Hong Kong - hydrogen sulphide is not especially good for you...

Google's summary of 2004 - Britney Spears, Orlando Bloom, SCO and The Simpsons.

The world's dirtiest computer? - up for auction on eBay.

Poodle aerobics - although the video stream doesn't seem to be working very well, right now.


Live aurora webcast from Alaska

And finally, via The Sideshow, the AuroraWebCam broadcasts live aurora all the way from Alaska. Marvellous...


Enjoy the holidays!


22nd December

We're trying to tidy up a lot of loose ends before christmas, at the office, so it's been a more than a little frenzied... So here's another handful of random links - for which I make no apologies whatsoever.

Via my space-guru friend Mike (and as he says, some people really do have too much time on their hands - in this case, four years) full instructions for building your own working reproduction of the Block I Apollo Guidance Computer. As well as being the flight computer for the moon landings, the AGC was also the world's first integrated circuit computer. It's a fascinating project...

Proving that there is definitely no more Mr Nice Guy in Cupertino, Apple are suing person or persons unknown over leaked information about an as-yet unreleased product. It's not clear which particular leak has aroused their ire, but it's likely to be rumours about either a flash-memory iPod or a port of iTunes to Motorola cellphones. The source of the leak isn't known, either, but Apple are firmly resolved to seek damages from anyone they can pin it on... As an aside, I was terribly amused to see veteran geek site Ars.Technica describing Apple as "the iPod maker", though - and given the subject of the rumours that caused the fuss, is this a sign that their computers are becoming thoroughly sidelined in the face of a pocket jukebox? Heh!

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the computer room - the return of Hans Moravec! The veteran proponent of "downloading", copying your mind into a computer system, is back - and this time he has his own company. Seegrid Corporation will design robotic "drones" for moving stock in warehouses, based on low cost off-the-shelf hardware components backed up by what is apparently some extremely clever software, It's hard to see the connection with scanning and copying a mind, but presumably, like the rest of us, Hans has to eat... At least until he successfully downloads himself, that is!

A California lawsuit involving Microsoft, Symantec, Adobe, CompUSA, Best Buy, and Staples has ended in a legal settlement, with an agreement that the infamous shrink-wrap licensing scam is no longer acceptable. You know the dodge - by opening the package you are deemed to have agreed to the licensing terms, but you can't read the terms until you've opened the package - and by that time it's too late to return the product if you don't like the look of them! It's first class weaselling on the part of the manufacturers and retailers, and it would be very nice if the California ruling was the start of a real backlash against it.

As it's that time of the year:

Biotech christmas trees       The 12 bugs of christmas       Top 11 worst gifts for geeks

And, finally, the winner of this week's Tenuous Marketing award, a range of Dilbert mints. Indeed.


21st December

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.

The little blue SFF PC in the picture below is running the SmoothWall Express open source firewall - which is based on the Linux kernel.

Together with the equally blue Cobalt RaQ web appliance above it, that now makes two Linux installations on my home network, and as the hardware has thinned out a little since Ros and I parted, there are only three Windows systems currently in use! If you add my Axis network camera, which is also based on a Unix kernel of some kind, then the score is tied - and if I'm not careful, I'm going to be thrown out of the He-Man Linux Hater's Club...

Apart from the implicit loss of credibility as a Windows evangelist, though, I have to say that so far the SmoothWall has been an extremely pleasant system to get to grips with. I've only just scratched the surface, as yet, but it's obviously a really powerful IP security toolkit. As well as the stateful packet inspection firewall, the package includes the SNORT intrusion detection system (which can be linked into the firewall rulebase to give a fully-adaptive firewall facility), as well as the usual DHCP, VPN, CRON, logging and reporting services. It's all wrapped up in a relatively self-explanatory GUI for the basic functions, with access to the Linux shell for anything more cunning. Only time will tell as to how good a firewall it actually is, but it certainly seems to have an excellent reputation and testing with Steve Gibson's ShieldsUp! port scanner suggests that this is well deserved. Watch this space for updates when I start stretching it a little more in the new year.

Meanwhile, a handful of random links.

Penny Arcade on why the MPAA's anti-BitTorrent strategy is like the over-use of antibiotics... or like a whack-a-mole game, you choose...

A USB vacuum cleaner - does it suck as badly (pun definitely intended!) as every other mini-vac I've seen? Find out in the review at Ben's Custom Cases.

And USB christmas tree lights - although I'm not sure why everyone seems to be making so much fuss about what is actually a very trivial (and quite sloppily performed, in my opinion!) modification... Hardly a "stroke of genius", really!

Now this is much more impressive: via premier UK modding site Bit-Tech, an excellent case inspired by the Cube 2: Hypecube movie.

Gingerbread computer hardware. Mmmmm, PCI cards...   :-)

A reclining chair with built-in full-motion capability - just the thing for flight sim enthusiasts, especially when partnered with Samsung's new 102" plasma display. 102" - that's an eight and a half feet diagonal. Gosh!

Yet another security flaw in Google's desktop search service - this thing is really not ready for corporates, yet... Which is rather a pity, considering the enthusiasm that corporate users apparently have for it. I've fended off a number of enquiries about it, in the last few weeks, but I'm sure that some people have gone ahead and installed it anyway. I must check up on that in the new year...

Via Ros... AIBOHPHOBIA - the fear of palindromes.

And, finally, from the SF novel I've reading at the moment:

"Larry Chao had destroyed the Earth. And somehow, Simon Raphael was going to see to it that it came out of Larry's pay."

- Roger MacBride Allen - The Ring Of Charon

Boy, is that one hard-assed manager! I think I used to work for him...


20th December

The week before christmas, and although most of the company is starting to wind down somewhat, as usual the IT department is working flat out... These quiet holiday periods are an excellent time to do all the maintenance and upgrading that can't usually be done during working hours, and as we're in the middle of another significant phase of expansion and migration, it's all hands to the pumps and damn the torpedoes!

Meanwhile, links...

ISP awarded $1 billion from spammers - a US District Court has found in favour of a small Iowa ISP who's mail servers received up to 10 million spam e-mails a day. The unusual size of the award was based on Iowa legislation that allows damages of $10 per spam message, which was then tripled under the terms of the Federal RICO legislation. Actually collecting the award, of course, might well be a very different matter.

Microsoft may have bought a pig in a poke - their recent acquisition of anti-spyware technology from Giant has prompted an announcement from another company, Florida-based Sunbelt Software, that they are actually co-owners of the code and so have the rights to any and all future updates. Microsoft dismisses the claims, of course, and it will be fascinating to see how this one plays out!

Penny Arcade's christmas strip (the first page of which is currently hosted at Slashdot due to overwhelming demands on their bandwidth) has a distinctly Lovecraftian motif.  [Warning - comic may contain Cthulhu]  And talking of which, for that unique blending of saccharin sweetness and nameless dread, try Hello Cthulhu - but please note that the management of Epicycle accepts no responsibility for outbreaks of vomiting or the urge to ingest of one's own eyeballs.

Elsewhere - and, fortunately, quite a long way elsewhere, at that... Tom's Hardware Guide reviews Technology Enabled Clothing. It makes me think of Techno-Bill from the Dilbert strips, of course, and I already have enough worries about my increasingly pear-shaped silhouette and a tie that is definitely starting to turn up at the end...

Retro gaming T-shirts from GameSkins - I don't really see myself as a hardcore gamer, but even so they have some elegant designs... I rather liked Insert Coin and WASD, for example - they both bring back memories...

The MPAA appears to have started a concerted war against BitTorrent link sites, seen as the major source of pirated movies. The last couple of days have brought the complete disappearance of Suprnova, TorrentBits, TV Torrents and Phoenix Torrents - and there may be more.

And finally, the US army has unveiled their new, ultra-realistic combat simulator. Comprising a number of different environments, such as a parked Humvee overlooking a computer generated desert landscape or a rubble-strewn apartment with a window looking out on a war-torn city, it is designed to train soldiers to observe enemy activity and accurately call in air strikes and artillery fire. The quality of the simulation is unprecedented, with high-resolution projections and hidden speakers producing everything from subtle background effects to cataclysmic explosions. As just one of a number of specialist training systems now in use, it shows the army's increasing reliance on technology both on and off the battlefield.


19th December

"But there's still one thing I don't understand..."

My new ISP and RIPE are making me go through the usual song and dance to get a decent range of valid external IP Addresses, and while my application grinds through the machinery I've been trying to get proper 1:1 NAT working on my little Zyxel router to allow me to bring the rest of the network online with respectable levels of connectivity. I've run into problems when I've tried before, so this afternoon I've been making a concerted effort - but unfortunately have met with an equal lack of success!

I can set up all the 192.168.0.x local addressing without problems, and the translation table between the local addresses and the meagre range that Zen have allocated (Five? Who can survive with only five IP addresses?) but although everything seems to be configured correctly, I can't get any traffic at all out onto the WAN.

Now, I've managed to set up NAT without problems on the considerably more complex and sophisticated Nokia / Checkpoint FW-1 NG system at the office, so it's a complete mystery why I'm having so much difficulty on something with a 10th of the feature-set. It's a little embarrassing, actually - as a hard-core network techie, setting up a home DSL pipe is not something I feel that I should have any difficulty with!

One possibility of saving face remains, however - although I bought the router almost as soon as it was launched, according to Zyxel's documentation the firmware version seems to be positively antique, and the release notes for the later versions do seem to suggest some issues with NAT. However, all attempts to update the firmware (whether by the web interface, an FTP client, or a command-line telnet session) have proved just as fruitless as with the NAT problem, resulting in a selection of unusual messages (The uploaded file is too big? Really? But it's exactly the same size as the existing one!) and nothing else except a slight increase in my blood pressure.

I've given up for the day, now, having fired off a series of email messages to the technical support address of anyone who I think might give a damn - so we shall see what transpires later on in the week. The way things are going at the moment, though, I'll get a working solution the day after RIPE decides to cough up my additional IP addresses.. .   <mutters darkly>


18th December

I've just finished watching the movie Equilibrium, which I've frequently seen recommended to anyone with an interest in firearms. It turns out to be a cross between Fahrenheit 451 and The Matrix - and although it is not as good as either, the fire-fights are definitely fun to watch. By no means one of the best science fiction film of recent years, but worth a couple of hours if there's nothing else on...

Elsewhere, thanks to UK modding magazine Custom PC, I came across a new graphics package called SketchUp 3D, which seems to have found popularity amongst homebrew PC builders as a quick and easy way of designing the layout of components in a custom case. There is the beginning of a library of ready-made objects at an enthusiast site, too, which promises to become a very useful resource if the users keep contributing.

The weirdest games of 2004 - balls, bowls, blobs, bugs and more balls. Weird indeed...

A robot that tracks gunshots - other variants will listen for chainsaws and people climbing over fences!

Send coal to the RIAA, courtesy of Downhill Battle - a worthy investment if ever I saw one.

And, finally, as if on cue - Wired is calling for nominations for this year's Vaporware Awards. I've suggested the iBIZ Virtual keyboard, of course, and I very much doubt I'll be the only one!


17th December

The end of a long, busy and frustrating week. Just don't ask me about car wheels, Ok?

Really, don't even mention them.

In an attempt to compensate, I spent a few hours this evening starting to bring the server and network infrastructure online. There's still some work to do, but it's a start... From left to right - SmartUPS 2200, PowerVault tape changer and Sun disk array; the server itself, on top of the mini-cabinet holding the RaQ web server, the switch and (imminently) the DSL router and CloudWall firewall appliance; and finally the Pioneer DRM-5004X CD library. For some reason everything seems louder in the new house than it did in the old one!

Meanwhile, earlier today, I was doing my regular checks for false positives in the spam filters at the office, and came across a large batch that have obviously come from the same source - the forged "From" field has a distinctive style, and one that I found rather appealing. The best ones I spotted were:

Embalmed Q. Facetious, Spigot H. Breakwater, Incubate O. Standpipe, Slackening B. Prim and Stochastic O. Precedent

I don't usually get much entertainment from the endless flood of spam that comes into the company, so I'll make the most of what little there is!

Elsewhere, The Guardian has announced the results of their annual Bad Science Award. This year's winners include shrinking molecules, giant tomatoes, fake doctors and absurd marketing - well worth a look, if you don't mind being annoyed while you're being amused...

And, finally, a link courtesy of Arnie at the excellent Arnie's Airsoft site - a parody of the Apple online store front page from multi-talented UK journo David McCandless, which really tickled me. Apple evangelists famously have no sense of humour at all, though, so be warned...


16th December

So I heard today that IBM is leaving the desktop computer manufacturing business, selling their entire PC division to a Chinese company called "Lenovo". I have to admit to being slightly traumatized by the news, as it does rather feel like the end of an era for me - I vividly remember IBM's launch of their original PC back in 1981 and, indeed, briefly fondled the first one to reach England at their Temple Meads customer centre in Bristol. I've never really been a fan of the hardware itself, especially since the PS/2 series and the MCA bus, but their departure from the market is another milestone in the short but oh-so-busy history of personal computing.

Just to add to my feelings of angst, half an hour later the new Dell Optiplex GX-280 I was working on turned out to have no PS/2 ports for mouse and keyboard, with only a stack of six USB ports instead. It still had a conventional parallel and serial port, however, so the long-heralded "legacy-free" PC is not quite here yet - but the evident passing of the PS/2 ports that takes their name from IBM's fourth generation of personal computers is still very much a sign of the times.

Meanwhile, so up-to-date that it's not actually here yet, the iBIZ Virtual keyboard that launched in a blaze of publicity back in the spring is still as vapour-like as ever. iBIZ have blamed the delays on manufacturing problems (and have initiated a lawsuit against the company in question) and have now announced that they have abandoned that particular design and will be working on a completely new product instead. Starting work on V2 without ever bringing V1 to market is quite a trick, in my opinion, and I look forward to seeing the company in the upcoming Wired vapourware awards.

Closer to home, The Scotsman reports that the Royal Mail is considering a ban on posting sporting firearms and other weapons, including replicas, as apparently they keep having to evacuate sorting offices and call the police firearms unit every time something dubious shows up in the x-ray scanners. I'm a little puzzled to hear that they are involved in shipping actual firearms anyway, as it is thoroughly illegal - no reputable firearms dealer would ever do this, I'm sure, and any criminal who actually expects to receive an unlicensed gun via the post is just begging for a visit from armed police officers in the small hours of the morning instead! The situation with replicas is of far more concern to me, of course, as although one can usually choose alternate carriers within the UK, the Royal Mail is the UK partner for a number of foreign mail services, including the Hong Kong SpeedPost service that ships so many airsoft replicas into this country. Something else to worry about, then, it seems...

And, finally - I've mentioned the "Girlfriend's Lap" pillow from Japanese company Trane before, but this is the first time I've seen such a clear picture of the product. As a lonely bachelor, these days, I have to admit that it actually looks rather appealing...


15th December

So, David Blunkett has resigned in the face of ever-increasing allegations of sleaze and malpractice, and this can only be a good thing. It's too soon to tell if his departure will affect the plans for compulsory ID cards, of course, as although Blunkett was the architect and main force behind the proposals, they do have considerable support from a significant number of both Labour and Conservative politicians - but without Blunkett we can hope that a nail has been driven into the coffin, at least.

On a more annoying note, I have been wrestling with hardware firewalls over the last few days, without achieving anything more than raising my blood pressure. As mentioned in my first entry from the new house, my SOHO2 appliance initially refused to negotiate an Ethernet connection with the DSL router, and although it suddenly started to behave a few days later, I was a few minutes away from finishing the configuration when it suddenly died completely. I haven't yet been able to check whether it is the power supply (a 5v transformer rated at an unusually high 2 Amps) or the appliance itself, but at the moment it is performing an excellent impression of John Cleese's parrot.

When it failed I reached for my spare, an obsolete Sonicwall Pro (which although powerful is now completely unsupported and so potentially vulnerable to future exploits) only to find that it appears to have corrupted its firmware while in storage and now won't boot up at all. Attempts to re-flash it met only with various confusing error messages, and so in desperation I've actually resorted to the Windows XP SP2 software firewall - how the mighty have fallen! Steve Gibson's marvellous Shields Up! scanner gives me a clean bill of health, or you wouldn't be reading this, but I'm generally rather uncomfortable about it nevertheless...

I could just fork out for a replacement Sonicwall of some kind, of course, but although I love the hardware I have become less and less pleased by the company's support policy over the last few years - and given my general preference for voting with my feet I'm loath to give them any more of my money. Some browsing on eBay revealed an interesting product, though, and so I am trying an experiment... The Cloudwall is a new product from what appears to be a one-man-band company, a small form-factor Compaq desktop PC sprayed a fetching shade of blue and running Linux and a suite of best-of-breed open source security software - the SmoothWall firewall, the Snort intrusion detection system, and a bunch of IP utilities, all wrapped up in a user-friendly GUI.

How user-friendly it actually is remains to be seen, of course, as I was somewhat disappointed by the similar concept of my Cobalt RaQ web server appliance - but I will be an excellent test of the concept as my knowledge of the Linux command line is virtually nil... So watch this space next week to see if it was 50 well spent, or just a large, blue paperweight.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Dan has been busy - more letters, a review of a rubber-band gun that fires full auto, and Dan's own plan to save the online gaming industry. His answer to one of the letters links to what can only be described as a first generation light sabre, a 532nm green LED with power output guaranteed to be in excess of 100mW (and maybe up to twice that!) and capable of burning holes in thin plastic. Needless to say, they will be illegal in most civilised countries - but they sound like impressive toys, for sure!   :-)


14th December

So I survived the second day of the audit training, somewhat to everyone's surprise, and so apparently I'm now qualified to design and perform ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 process audits within the company. Unfortunately this means that someone is probably going to expect me to actually audit something at some point, and it remains to be seen how well I can translate theory into practice!

On a lighter note, a quick plug for the Simpsons guide at TV Tome - this is a massive and comprehensive resource, and came in very useful yesterday when an episode I was watching included some rather funky music playing during what was obviously a pastiche of a cinematic sequence from elsewhere. Thanks to the site's fully detailed episode guide I discovered that it was actually the opening titles of The Sopranos, complete with its theme music "Woke Up This Morning" by Alabama 3. It has to be said that The Simpsons is amazingly rich in cultural references, and even as a long-time viewer I must miss a fair proportion of them - the TV Tome guide reveals another fact from that same episode, for example:

Fat Tony passes by a billboard reading "Superintendent Chalmers: Now More Than Ever," parodying a campaign poster used by Richard Nixon in the 1972 election.

Clever... Elsewhere, more random links:

Robot Chicks, spectacular cyberpunk sculptures in resin and metal.

A handful of lurid science fiction covers from the era of pulp paperbacks.

At McSweeney's Internet Tendency, obscure Chinese proverbs.

Gimme Shelter, the classic documentary on the Rolling Stones' 1969 concert at Altamont, has been restored and remastered onto DVD. Definitely one for the wish-list...

Meanwhile, it appears that the children who sang the chorus on Pink Floyd's 1979 hit Another Brick In The Wall never actually received royalties for their work, and moves are now afoot to claim the outstanding fees. And talking of classic rock, I was thinking about Echo Beach by Martha And The Muffins, a few days ago - and it turns out that she wasn't actually an office clerk, but that "wallpaper quality control checker" was too hard to fit into the lyrics. Selah.


13th December

I've spent my first day back at the office in a training course to learn ISO 9001 quality auditing and ISO 14001 environmental impact assessment, so as you can imagine tonight I have no brain to speak of. Some links, then, to get back into the swing of things...

A salutary warning from ADSLGuide.org - keep your christmas tree lights well away from your telephone wiring...

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the teletype - ASCII babes make the transition from line printer to flat panel LCD.

Highly improbable weaponry from Tippman Ordnance - paintball mortars, RPG launchers, explosives, and even a howitzer.

The circuit boards from a cold war era Minuteman ICBM - cooled by immersion in liquid Freon, these state-of-the-art transistor-era PCBs are truly things of beauty.

And talking of bizarre antique hardware, via Boing Boing, this IBM radar analysis computer console comes with a built-in cigarette lighter and ashtray.

The intelligent screwdriver - with a learning facility and the ability to record macros (yes, you heard me, macros), apparently it will make a big difference even to the novice. Um.

Porn before the age of the Internet - a marvellous collection of "Tijuana Bibles", the hand-drawn underground sex comics popular in the era of the second world war.

And, finally, for the geek with too much time on his hands (and nothing better to do with his PC) the virtual bubble wrap simulator. Would I lie to you?


11th December

Back online again, and beginning to settle into the new house. The run-up to the move was incredibly stressful, with all sorts of crises, let-downs and unexpected events - but on the day itself the movers, East London-based Actual Services, were absolutely brilliant... They handled everything with tireless energy and consummate skill, and I would have no hesitation in recommending them unreservedly.

It was strange to see the big lounge-cum-study of the old house so bare and empty the evening before the move - but the stacks of boxes in the basement and bedrooms made up for it. Who knew I had so much stuff? It was round about then that I started to wonder if I had made a serious mistake in buying a two bedroom house rather than stretching to something with three bedrooms...

However, in spite of that all the chaos was miraculously transplanted to the new house and squeezed in somehow - and although there are still far too many boxes on the ground floor to make things as neat or accessible as I would prefer at this stage, in the absence of a convenient basement I've had to stack everything else in the second bedroom - which is stuffed literally from wall to wall. There is still a lot of work to do in planning, unpacking, and organising, and with a busy time at the office when I go back on Monday, and christmas coming up in only two weeks, unfortunately I don't think I'm going to make that much headway until the new year.

Still, I have the rudiments of the computers up and running again, today - the server and all the network infrastructure is still in a large pile next to the kitchen, but some Rube Goldberg IP bridging between the two network interfaces in my desktop PC has enabled me to bring the new Zen broadband connection online with one and the wireless router for the laptop online with the other. It's a little eccentric, but it does work - although I've had to forgo my trusty Sonicwall SOHO2 firewall appliance as it doesn't seem to want to negotiate an Ethernet connection with the new Zyxel Prestige 660R DSL router. I spent many hours last night fruitlessly banging my head against the problem, but in the end I've swallowed my pride and fallen back on a classic solution of NAT at the router and the usual 192.168.x.x internal addresses. It's not the way I like to do things, and won't scale well enough to bring the rest of the network online, but it will do until I can work out why the SOHO2 is suddenly being so truculent.


Meanwhile, last month's stats clearly show that it doesn't really matter if I write anything here or not, as most of my hits come from Google and other search engines. The new record numbers were caused by a strange spike in traffic towards the end of the month, with visitors to the site suddenly doubling for around a week and then reverting back to the current average again. A careful examination of my referrers failed to show any good reason for this, so I'll just put it down as one of those strange web things. There are a lot of them about...



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