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30th April

I'm still waiting for Koolance to release the larger version of their new water cooled case series, hopefully sometime next month, and until then I'm reading and absorbing everything I can about the technology. This morning I noticed a new review of the Exos 2 (the external add-on version of the cooling subsystem integrated into the ready-made cases) at über geek site [H]ard|OCP, and popped over for a quick look - only to be greeted by a line right at the very top of the article crediting the "Grammatical & Spelling Editor". Now, long experience with reviews written by geeks (especially the younger ones!) has shown that many of these tech sites are badly in need of an editor with basic English skills, but it's a sad state of affairs indeed when they apparently feel the need to publish the fact so shamelessly. I expect correct grammar and spelling as a matter of course rather than something worthy of specific mention (Ok, so I'm often disappointed) and this morning I'm having difficulty in pulling my left eyebrow down into its usual place.   <sigh>    [H]ard/OCP - now with added correctness...

Meanwhile, another annoyance. A friend was at the funeral of SF trufan John Brosnan, yesterday, which made me think of a funny quote from him in Gaiman & Newman's wonderful opus Ghastly Beyond Belief, an extensive collection of the worst that science fiction had to offer. I used to have two copies of this book, but thanks to friends with extremely short memories where book loans are concerned I don't have either of them now, so I decided to take a quick look on Amazon and eBay to see if I could track down another. The book is long out of print now, though, and to my horror it's changing hands for over £100 on Amazon UK, with Alibris and Amazon US not far behind. I'm never going to pay that much for a twenty year old paperback, and barring a fortuitous discovery in a second hand shop (becoming less likely now that all the book sellers are online and can fix prices between them) I'm not going to own a copy again. Ah, well, maybe I can track down a copy of Dave Langford's loose equivalent, The Silence Of The Langford, instead...

Elsewhere:

New admin tools - Microsoft has released a new version of the Server 2003 Administration Tools, although it's not especially clear what has changed and the upgrade process looks as if it could be tricky under some configurations. I shall test it at home before taking the plunge at the office, I think.

The website's new clothes - venerable tech site NT Compatible (you can tell how old it is from the name!) changed its layout a week or two ago, and I think it's a great improvement. News items are now split into categories - compatibility, reviews, how-to guides, Microsoft news, etc - and it's all very clear and well laid-out. The site has always been one of my staples, and is thoroughly recommended.

Now I'm off to install a new power supply in Infinity, and so hopefully by the end of the day I'll be able to play games again without the PC dying with a sad little meeep noise. If I have a PC instead of a random pile of components, this evening, I'll post some pictures...

 

29th April

What with all the fuss and everything, I though I ought to take a look at the Firefox open source browser, and I've been running it on my laptop for the last week or so. I have to say that I'm not terribly impressed... It's a perfectly respectable, feature-rich application, but after all the hype I'd expected something an order of magnitude faster, slicker and more exotic than I'm used to from Microsoft's allegedly bloated, buggy and sluggish offering, and I'm really not seeing any of that. It scores heavily over Internet Explorer in being multi-tabbed, of course, but I've been using Crazy Browser, a tabbed browser based on the IE engine, for a year or so now and that seems to serve my needs quite adequately. There's certainly nothing wrong with Firefox, but for my purposes there's nothing especially right with it either and I doubt that I'll keep it installed.

And talking of fuss, what with all the hype about biometrics and fingerprint recognition, it only seems fair to post links to instructions for creating your own fingerprints. Old-time hacking group Chaos Computer Club prefers using cyanoacrylate to transfer a print to wood glue, but mathematician Tsutomu Matsumoto and IT guru Dan Rutter both prefer gelatine. Be warned.

And talking of fuss, again... It seems that erstwhile high-end PC company Libermann was not a hoax in just the same way that Richard Nixon was not a crook. The two founders of the company, which went belly-up in October last year, seem strangely unrepentant and, in fact, almost proud of the colossal scam they perpetrated on their customers. Their web site advertised dozens of impressively specified systems, often including hardware components that didn't actually exist on the open market, and although few of these were ever shipped the company nevertheless managed to put in place "multi-million dollar domestic and international distribution agreements for all its product line". It was a sorry state of affairs, to be sure, and their departure is certainly no loss to the IT industry.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

For the fan who has everything - well, everything except for a full-sized Star Wars X-Wing fighter, that is... One of only eight, it's up for auction on eBay (where else?) at a starting price of $40,000. Bidding is slow to the point of being non-existent right now, though, and there's only a day or so left to run... Come on, people - they're even offering free shipping within the continental United States!

The Register went to the movies, and wasn't especially impressed with the new Hitchhiker's Guide offering. I'm expecting to feel the same, actually, when it finally crawls out onto DVD - for me, the original radio series was pretty much the pinnacle of the canon, and it's been all down hill since then.

A virus writer with taste - the Antiman-A virus is spreading rapidly throughout Eastern Europe, and it carries an unusual payload... Designed to delete "manele" (the increasingly popular electronic version of Romanian gypsy music) from infected systems, the worm poses as an online survey about withdrawing troops from Iraq - an especially contentious issue given the recent kidnapping of three Romanian journalists.

And finally, to nobody's great surprise, NASA has delayed the Shuttle launch until July at the earliest. There are still serious potential issues with the falling ice and debris that caused the Columbia disaster, and although various remedies are under discussion the perceived level of safety is still inadequate. This leaves a possible repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope as uncertain as ever, but at least planning work has started at the Goddard Space Flight Center, even if the first likely window for the mission is still a long time away.

 

28th April

To round off one of those weeks, one of those days. I'm not going to say anything, but the especially attentive will hear me muttering darkly under my breath: Cisco IOS, buggrit, Formscape, bastard, SNA, sonofabitch...

Meanwhile (and I know you're way ahead of me, here), some quick links:

Cheap at twice the price - Dan reviews 1U rack servers from motherboard manufacturer Tyan, and is pleasantly surprised. I don't think I'll be trading in my Dell PowerEdge systems any time soon, though.

Apple keeps fighting - an unauthorised biography of Steve Jobs has enraged the company, it seems, to the point where they've withdrawn other books by publisher Wiley & Sons from all 104 of its stores!

A black box for your beige box - the next version of Windows will include an extension to the Dr Watson utility that Microsoft have likened to a flight data recorder, and it's ruffling feathers already.

The fuss continues - Microsoft's U-turn on the Washington state anti-discrimination law continues to provoke comment from all sides, and by now of course even Bill is involved.

Standardising the standards - The International standard weights and measures used to be physical objects, but these days they're being redefined as a fraction of some physical constant.

Web attacks soar - web site attacks rose by 36% to almost 400,000, last year, many of which were apparently mass defacements as part of organized cracking contests.

RFID kills - in response to fears about plans to embed broadcasting RFID chips in US passports, the government is changing the design slightly to reduce the risk, but persisting with the basic strategy..

Wireless hacking - as the use of public Wi-Fi hotspots grows, the range and number of the security risks faced by their users are increasing to match - but is anyone actually surprised to hear this...?

And finally, a follow up to the classic "how fast would Santa have to travel" thought experiment, a calculation of the size of Jesus based on his gradual consumption in the Catholic ritual of Eucharist. The answer, it seems, is around 1.2 million tons - it's always useful to know these things.

 

27th April

It's been one of those weeks, so far... Work has settled down to the usual low-level frenzy since the office move (although with the computer room due to be expanded and refurbished next month it's just a lull before the storm) so in order to compensate I've had a set of minor crises at home, instead. Yesterday one of the shelves above my desk decided to hurl itself to its doom, narrowly missing squishing my PC and monitor, and this morning I discovered that the water pipe feeding the washing machine and dishwasher had sprung a leak. I've spent the day on DIY, then, re-attaching the shelf with giant 7cm wall bolts (let's see it come out now! Hah!) and bailing an inch of water out the kitchen. These things always happen in the spring, for some reason...

Meanwhile, some snippets of news:

Going after the big guys - Californian ISP Hypertouch is suing Gevalia Kaffee, a division of food giant Kraft, under CAN-SPAM and the Computer Fraud and Abuse act. In spite of its blue-chip background, Gevalia's electronic advertising ethics have always been dubious, and the suit alleges that among other questionable practices the company used forged header data and inserted ABC news text to fool spam filters.

Two dead pianists - music software company Zenph Studios has developed a technique of re-processing an audio recording into an extended  variant of MIDI, enabling a high-end Disklavier Pro electronic piano to produce a completely faithful rendition of the original pianists' work. Next month classical music enthusiasts will be treated to Bach's Goldberg Variations as played by Glenn Gould in 1955, and a Chopin prelude played by Alfred Cortot in 1928.

Be careful what you wish for - Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner announced last week that he would swim from Norway to the US if the newly released Opera 8 was downloaded a million times in its first four days, and now he has to keep his promise - although I think he's going to need something more substantial than a rubber dinghy to support him in mid-Atlantic. There is definitely a tongue inserted firmly in a Norwegian cheek, there, I think...

There's gold in them there hills - the adware industry is worth well in excess of $2 billion annually, it seems, according to the a report from computer security company Webroot. The top revenue-producer is the annoying Cool Web Search, which Webroot reckons may be installed on on around half of the computers on the Internet, but old favourites Gator and AUpdate aren't far behind. With that kind of money to be made, it's no wonder that the companies involved are completely unrepentant.

Happy birthday, Hubble! - as the Space Telescope reaches its fifteenth year of operation, two stunning new pictures have been released to mark the occasion. The first is a new view of the star-birth clouds in the Eagle Nebula M16, well-known from previous Hubble images, and the second is the Whirlpool Galaxy M51, a classic spiral galaxy seen at an unprecedented sharpness and clarity. Hubble's original image of M16 is the first of Space.com's list of top ten space photos.

JPEG lawsuit not dead - I'd completely forgotten the lawsuit by the previously unknown company Forgent over the technology behind the JPEG image compression standard, but now they've resurfaced and added Microsoft to the long list of companies they're suing for patent infringement. So far there have been around 35 lawsuits, directed at such heavyweights as Sony, Adobe, Macromedia, Apple, Dell, Kodak, HP, IBM and Xerox - and as far as I can tell all so far have settled, netting Forgent somewhere in the order of $100 million in licensing revenue . It will be interesting to see if Microsoft makes a stand, as from what I can remember Forgent's basic claim seemed to be decidedly dubious.

Finally - and thanks to The Sideshow for the pointer - a post at left-win 'blog Bounded Rationality proves conclusively that not only does the author have an emoticon library, but that he isn't afraid to use it. Rather the opposite, in fact - but it's funny anyway. Notice the first comment, though: "Sometimes even ‘liberals’ have a sense of humor" - exactly who was it that said we didn't...?

 

24th April

I knocked up a banner for my friend Avedon Carol's weblog, The Sideshow, yesterday, and thought I'd post it here by way of a quick plug for the site.

You often hear the term "a musician's musician", used to describe someone who the big names listen to when they get home from a gig, and in that case I think Avedon is a blogger's blogger... Even though The Sideshow gets about as many hits in a day as I get in a week, it's still relatively quiet by the standards of high-profile political weblogs such as Liberal Oasis, Eschaton, or Washington Monthly - but Scher, Atrios and Drum read The Sideshow to find out what everyone else is saying, and when Avedon has the time to post her own work as well as summarising the blogosphere, it's always hard-hitting, relevant and thought-provoking. If you're at all interested in the left wing of American politics, or just want to keep an eye on the worst excesses of the Bush regime, it's well worth dipping into The Sideshow every few days to find out what's new.

Meanwhile, some links...

USB guitar - LEDs embedded in the frets light up to show where to finger, just the thing for beginners. I really think they could have found a better name than "FretLight", though...

The state of AI - is pretty damn poor, according to an article in New Scientist... There's very little risk of super-intelligent computers taking over the world and enslaving humanity, it seems.

Multi-core madness - IBM has announced that, in common with most other major players, their software will be licensed per processor rather than per core. This leaves Oracle standing alone, now.

Columns and curtains - a home theatre system in every sense of the word. It really is a fantastic piece of work, and obviously a labour of love - but, uh, some people have far too much time on their hands...

Insects au naturel - photographed artistically in natural light rather than the usual giant spotlights, these images of insects are remarkable. I wish my etymologist friend Colin was alive to see them.

And finally, more on Microsoft's on-again/off-again anti-discrimination stance... Big-name MS blogger Robert Scoble has posted the memo that CEO Steve Ballmer sent to all MS employees, together with his own thoughts in reply. Various other Microsofties are speaking their piece, too, including Scoble's boss Vic Gundotra. Whatever happens with the anti-discrimination legislation itself, it's certainly causing a stir - so much for aide DeLee Shoemaker's justification that "no one will know"...!

 

23rd April

I went out and made a start on my little garden, today, cutting the grass, pruning things that looked like they needed pruning and tying back everything else, and generally tidying up a little. It was hard work, and used a whole bunch of muscles that I'd forgotten I had over the winter, but it was really nice to spend a Saturday surrounded by green things instead of by computers - the first time in a month or so. There's some more to do tomorrow, weather permitting, and actually I'm rather looking forward to it.

Yes, that is a palm tree, even in the wilds of Dagenham. Global warming, I expect...

Meanwhile, some random snippets of news and stuff:

Watching the watchers - wearable computing guru Steve Mann is fighting back against the ever-increasing culture of surveillance by taking his own cameras into areas monitored by CCTV. Needless to say, the reactions from the powers that be are not, on the whole, enthusiastic - but their justifications for their own monitoring practices were tenuous to say the least.

Unsafe at any speed - a new book by four Wired editors suggests that US citizens are no more safe than they were before the WTC attacks, in spite of the millions spent on hi-tech security measures. Have the dreadful encroachments into civil liberties that have come along with this monitoring and surveillance been worth it? I really think not...

Tridgell drops Bitkeeper bombshell - in the wake of last week's fracas over the Linux kernel version control software, Andrew Tridgell has actually released open source code for retrieving data from proprietary BitKeeper databases. What with that and Torvalds' own version control tool, if he ever writes it, it looks like BitMover itself has been well and truly sidelined.

MGM throwing their weight around - yet another case of a big media corporate bullying fans of their intellectual property. This time the victims are a group of Stargate enthusiasts, who were planning to create a mod for the Half-Life 2 game based around the look and feel of the TV series. MGM objected, and as I write this their web site, StarGateSource.com, is completely unavailable... Shame.

Case-modding at its best - at Bit Tech, a new offering in the shape of the ordnance-inspired WMD, and a reprise on the classic Orac3 case. The latter, especially, is a stunning piece of work, with meticulous attention to detail - look at the way he sleeved the thin wires in transparent tubing, for example, or the silver shower hose that carries the larger cables... True craftsmanship.

Computers in spaaaaaaace! - also at Bit Tech, an entertaining but informative overview of the sort of computer hardware used in current space vehicles, including the Shuttle (big, clunky circuit boards, pre-dating surface-mount components), the Cassini probe (classic ferrite core store) and the Mars rovers (a version of IBM's PowerPC CPU).

The benefits of hoarding - last week Intel offered a significant cash reward for the prehistoric issue of Electronics magazine where Gordon Moore's law of computer growth was first laid out. In best geek tradition, the issue (along with the rest of his collection) was stashed under the floorboards in the attic, and the owner's wife had been pressuring him to get rid of them. Presumably he is now insufferable...

Puffed-up professor - the theft of a laptop containing all sorts of allegedly top-secret data from a professor at UC Berkeley has been attracting much attention around the web, presumably because of the lurid, overblown and bombastic threats levelled at the thief by the laptop's owner. I find the whole thing ridiculous, personally, and this little cartoon strip sums up my own take on the issue very neatly.

Porn scandal down under - it has emerged that New Zealand police officers have acquired a taste for Internet porn at work, to such a degree that their downloaded images apparently took up around 20% of the capacity of the police IT systems! The material, which came to light during an unrelated internal investigation, is likely to be grounds for a significant number of dismissals at all levels of the force.

And, finally, I mentioned Stardock's new Multiplicity utility a few days ago, and since then I've been testing it on my three desktop systems at the office. It acts as a sort of software KVM switch, as although you retain one VDU for each PC you are controlling, all of them are driven from a single keyboard and mouse - simply move the mouse pointer horizontally from one monitor to the next, and any subsequent mouse and keyboard actions will be processed by the particular PC that currently has the focus. In use it is extremely slick, virtually bug free even in this early incarnation (it seems to freeze animated cursors, for me, but I imagine that will be fixed RSN) and well worth the relatively small expense - as an Object Desktop subscriber I could sign up for the entire ThinkDesk suite (of which Multiplicity is the first member) for a discount, and jumped at the chance. Multiplicty, and indeed all of Stardock's other GUI and useability enhancements, are thoroughly recommended.

 

22nd April

It's taken a week of hot, dusty labour, but my team has finally settled into our new home. It's been business as usual for the rest of the IT department from a day or so after the move, but the network and desktop support teams were responsible for moving a huge quantity of hardware and infrastructure from our old store room (sometimes only moments ahead of the area being gutted ready for refurbishment!) then sorting it into our new workroom-cum-storeroom. Of course, we had to design, furnish and equip the room itself, pretty much concurrently with moving into it, and so it's been a fairly frenzied time. The results are definitely worth all the hard work, however, and I'm very pleased with how it turned out - many thanks to everyone who contributed.

I've wanted a store room lavishly equipped with brightly-coloured storage bins for almost as long as I've wanted a huge fire safe full of data tapes, and as my management gave me a free hand in equipping the room I really went to town. I think my colleagues were rather nonplussed when I started showing them pictures from the RS catalogue, last week, but now that it's all in place, neatly labelled, and filled with large quantities of cables, adaptors, components and oddments, they seem to have embraced the idea with considerable enthusiasm. Whether we will be able to maintain such a degree of order and neatness in the height of the next crisis will remain to be seen, but I plan to impose on-the-spot fines for anyone caught dumping cardboard boxes full of random hardware and trying to sidle away undetected...

This is seriously heavy-duty workshop shelving - each inch thick chipboard shelf can hold up to 300Kg, and as it's wood there's none of that tooth-loosening screeeech that you get when you pull a PC or whatever towards you across conventional metal racking. The shelves are almost a metre deep, too, and swallow hardware without complaining - you can only see the front rows, but there are around forty monitors in the picture above! It's also the shelving that was badly delayed when, to our considerable annoyance, RS were able to supply the flat bits but not the upright bits - although I have to admit that, in the end, the missing parts were delivered a lot earlier than the two weeks we were originally quoted. One beneficial side-effect of this shelving is that the rubber mallet used to bash the keyhole joints together will come in very handy the next time the users start acting up.

Wonderfully solid static-safe workbenches salvaged from our R&D department when they closed down last year, and jealously horded in the knowledge that one day we would have space for them... The observant will notice that we didn't have quite enough space, when it came down to it, so I had to cut a pair of slots in the edge of the work surface to accommodate the supports at the end of the racking... I measured it all carefully before I placed the order, and as there only seemed to be about 5cm leeway I asked my PFY to double-check. When he independently came up with the same 5cm I was happy, but a dry run after receiving the horizontal elements of the shelving showed that actually they were about 5cm too long, instead! The only sensible conclusion is that RS doesn't know how big their shelving is, and this must have caused a number of raised eyebrows for other customers without my freedom to attack things with a hacksaw. Try doing the same thing to a brick wall, for example...

The blue bins have a year's supply of CAT5 cables in all our standard colours, neatly coiled and sorted by length - and if the system is going to break down, that's where it will happen first... The usual state of our stock of cables is more like a snake pit than anything else (you can see an excellent example spilling out of the cardboard box on the trolley, a late-comer awaiting sorting), and it will be interesting to see how long we can stave off the chaos.

 

21st April

Tidying... blah, blah... store room... yadda yadda... orange crates... etc etc...

It's almost finished now,  so I'll probably get around to posting some pictures tomorrow. Until then, though - did you guess yet? - a few random links:

I've linked to the comprehensive notes and episode guides for The Simpsons, Dilbert and others at TV Tome before, and it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that they have equally comprehensive information about Futurama, one of my all-time favourite cartoon series.

Cool keys - Dan has been a bit quiet, recently, but he's back today with a review of an illuminated keyboard that is significantly better than any of its predecessors. He also links to what is surely destined to become one of the classic hacker icons, a range of keyboards with blank keycaps. Nice...

Badly out of proportion - sharing a movie prior to its release can now result in up to three years in prison, thanks to a new law approved by Congress this week, or six years for a second offence. It should be noted that in the US involuntary manslaughter usually receives a lighter sentence. Sheesh.

Experts solve mystery of unpopped popcorn - ah, the miracles of modern science... It's down to an unusually permeable husk, it seems, that allows water vapour to escape during heating and so reduce the moisture level of the kernel below the critical threshold of around 15%. So there you are.

Shuttle pics - as part of a test of the new Nikon D2X digital camera, some wonderful images of the refurbished Discovery shuttle during its roll-out from the VAB to the pad. The first flight is expected on May 22nd at the earliest, but the launch window has been put back once already.

And finally, via The Sideshow, some extremely disappointing news. For well over a decade Microsoft has been one of the most tolerant and supportive of multinationals with respect to homosexual and transgender employees, offering regular benefits to same-sex domestic partners and including sexual orientation in its corporate non-discrimination policy. Their attitudes have been so liberal in comparison to other corporates, in fact,  that a few years ago they received a "Corporate Vision" award from the influential Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center - something proudly documented on their own web site.

All this seems to have changed quite suddenly now. however, with the company about to withdraw its support for proposed legislation that would match the company's own equal rights policy, outlawing discrimination in employment, housing, banking, insurance, and other areas by adding sexual orientation to a state law which already bars discrimination on traditional grounds of race, religion, national origin, gender, marital status, and mental or physical handicap.

Without Microsoft's support, however, the bill is apparently hanging in the balance, and although a Microsoft representative accepted that the change was a severe blow to the legislation's chance of being passed, the attitude was that "no one will know"...

According to the article at The Stranger that broke the news, this unwelcome corporate U-turn was provoked by the actions of one man, a right wing Christian bigot with the usual blind prejudice against homosexuals:

"The pastor, Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond, met with a senior Microsoft executive in February and threatened to organize a national boycott of the company's products if it did not change its stance on the legislation."

It's bizarre to think that a company that has stood firm against the US Federal Government, several coalitions of US state government, the rest of the IT industry, and the entire European Union without showing any signs of weakening, should be influenced so dramatically by such a trivial, mean-spirited threat. It's a damn shame, and I've mailed Bill et al to tell them so. If you feel like doing the same, the highly informative AmericaBlog has all the appropriate contact details at the end of the article.

 

20th April

The last of the racking for our new store room arrived today, so it was all hands to the pumps to move dozens of spare monitors out into the main office, assemble the racking in the newly created space, then move the monitors back onto it again. Oh, and we had to cut a pair of slots out of the edge of an adjacent workbench, too, as somewhat to our surprise the racking turned out to be five centimetres larger than the catalogue suggested... It all makes for an interesting day. Tomorrow we'll finish off loading the various shelves and storage bins with all the many and varied cables, oddments, gadgets and gizmos of a working IT department, and then we can breath a sigh of relief and get back to our "real" job of  managing the network, again. Hopefully nobody has noticed that in our absence it's been managing itself perfectly well over the last week or so...

Meanwhile - and I'm sure you're way ahead of me here - a few quick links:

Why Google scares Bill Gates - at Fortune Magazine, more on the continued growth of the mighty Google... although somehow I doubt that Bill is actually scared by anything in the corporate world...

Talks like a robot and walks like a man - I've seen one that hopped, but the bipedal "Rabbit", from a joint French-US development team, manages to walk without the benefit of feet.

Prosjekt Bender - at a Norwegian "overklokking" site, a PC case shaped like Bender the robot from the wonderful animated series Futurama. Nice work!

Vroom! - firmly in the "don't try this at home" category, a DIY dragster powered by a pair of pulsejet engines capable of up to 440lbs of thrust... In such a lightweight chassis, that is just plain scary.

Holy domain squatting - in a remarkable display of foresight, several weeks ago a Florida-based  technical writer bought the BenedictXVI.com domain, along with five other likely pontifical names.

 

19th April

Midweek... Still trying to make order out of the chaos that the weekend's department move left... The racking and storage bins for our work room are still arriving, gradually, as is a huge mountain of hardware from our old, temporary store. Some is obsolete, some is still useful - but it all has to be identified, sorted and found a home for. Busy busy, so just some quick links.

Bonded DSL - with many providers promising 8Mbit connections by the summer, and ADSL2's 20Mbit due "real soon now", ISP Vaioni is offering bonded DSL to maximise the existing technology.

Skype scores 100 millionth customer - Internet telephony is not new, by any means, but Skype has  made themselves the one to beat. Their business model is something of a mystery to me, though...

More trouble in paradise - at gaming comic Penny Arcade, a bitter rift is developing between creators Gabe and Tycho. I assume it's a jape, especially given the latest strip...

Piracy can be a positive thing - the desktop Linux vendor Linspire is echoing the favourite line of confirmed pirates, saying that illegal copying of software can help establish a user base for a product.

Now this is just getting silly - US airport luggage screeners seems to have lost all touch with reality, according to an article at Boing Boing. Now they're banning books - yes, that's right, books.

Reductio ad absurdum - the classic gangsta rap album Straight Outta Compton, cropped down to just the profanity - complete with an "explicit content ratio" for each track. Great stuff...

And, finally, at Something Awful - new, realistic, punchlines for old, tasteless, jokes:  Q: What do you get when you cross a chicken with a centipede?  A: A media circus about the debate over the morals and ethics of genetic engineering.

 

18th April

There's trouble in open source paradise, it seems, as the gods are bickering amongst themselves... Last week Linux founder Linus Torvalds published harsh criticism of Andrew Tridgell, the respected author of RSYNC and SAMBA, for his apparent attempts to reverse engineer the proprietary BitKeeper source code management system used for version control of the Linux kernel. The CEO of BitMover, the company that owns BitKeeper, offended at what he interpreted as a deliberate attempt to steal the information required to develop a competing product, has revoked the license and forced Torvalds to look elsewhere for an alternative. For this state of affairs Linus blames Tridgell, in no uncertain terms, claiming that he "screwed people over", and that he deliberately destabilised the product "just because he could".

Strangely, Torvalds also came out with some unexpected viewpoints about the open source development ethos itself, including the statement that the development method is useful but not "a moral imperative" - exactly the opposite of the usual viewpoint of the open source fanboys... He also announced that he will be developing his own version control system for future use with the Linux kernel, which rather leaves BitKeeper out in the cold in spite of their action to protect their own proprietary structures!

The plot thickened the next day, too, with fellow open source guru Bruce Perens wading in on the side of Tridgell, telling Linus to "cool it", and defending the entire concept of reverse engineering a system by examining the data that it puts onto the network. After all, he pointed out, this is exactly what Tridgell did with the Microsoft Networking protocols in order to create SAMBA, and nobody seems to have had any ethical problems there - although, of course, to the open source community all is fair and equitable if the victim is Microsoft... "There are times when Linus Torvalds can be a real idiot", said Perens, "and this is one of these times".

Indeed. With Apple apparently shooting itself in the foot by threatening (and even suing!) some of it's staunchest supporters and enthusiasts, and Linus himself falling out with his fellow lawn dwarves and apparently even embracing the dark side of proprietary software, who knows what the future will hold for the non-Microsoft way!

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Virus writers have girlfriends - not the spotty, socially inept adolescents we have been lead to believe, according to Symantec's Sarah Gordon, who apparently hangs out with enough of them to know...

3G mast wars loom - the new generation of cell phones require far more masts than their GSM predecessors, it seems, and given the current fears about the effects of ambient radio frequency on health, the telcos are likely to have a fight on their hands when they try to obtain the needed planning permissions from councils.

SP2 wailing and gnashing of teeth - now that Microsoft has deactivated the setting that prevents the automatic installation of Win XP SP2, everybody is in a complete tizzy about it... As usual, Microsoft can't win - they're criticised up and down for releasing insecure operating systems, but when they finally manage to do something about it (and SP2 really does help, a lot) they're criticised again for doing so! The article claims that corporates are having fits about the SP2 upgrade, but the writer seems to have forgotten Microsoft's Software Update Services, a local server that synchronises with Windows Update online, but then allows administrators to control exactly which updates are rolled out to their network. If you don't want to install SP2 quite yet, just don't approve it for distribution. Sheesh!

 

17th April

I am so fed up with orange plastic moving crates, right now... I seem to have spent most of the last year packing them, moving them, unpacking them again, and trying to find one particular crate in a stack of half a dozen (it's always at the bottom) to retrieve something that is suddenly indispensable... My department's new office is currently orange from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, with more expected after I left for the day, and I'm very glad that there's only one more department move after this one.   <long groan>

Meanwhile, a few more quick links...

The evils of overclocking - a post at Raymond Chen's MSDN blog suggests that a surprising number of Windows crashes may be caused by overclocked CPUs, even if the PC's owner doesn't know that his system is actually overclocked at all!

Flavour of the month - I hadn't heard the word "rootkit" before today, but suddenly it's everywhere... It seems to be a generic term for malware that attempts to hide its presence from spyware blockers, antivirus software, and system management tools.

SCO vs. The World - two years after SCO's first lawsuit, against IBM, the waters seem muddier than ever... They have yet to adequately substantiate claims of pirated code in Linux, and their bullying tactics against major users of the OS actually seem to have the opposite of the desired effect.

Goodbye to KVM switches - Multiplicity, a new utility from desktop gurus Stardock, lets you move the mouse off one monitor and onto another, switching control between the PCs as you do so. I've noticed this functionality in a few exotic OSes before now, but I think this is the first bolt-on for Windows.

The future of advertising - some remarkable images in a recent contest at the Worth1000 image manipulation site. As an occasional digital image fiddler myself, I'm not sure how I've managed to miss these daily contests for so long, but the quality of the graphics is often extremely high.

 

16th April

I've been a touch short of time for writing here over the last few days, as in between the stresses and strains of  the weekend's office move (most of today, and doubtless most of tomorrow too), for a change I'm actually managing to have something of a social life as well. Remarkable...

I'm sure it won't last, but while it does you'll have to be content with some even quicker quick links:

Video game stars to strike? To quote Deep Thought - "There is no terror in your threat".

MPAA vs ESS suit settled - it looks as if the DVD chip manufacturer has caved, as expected.

French ISP laughs at court ruling - guilty of a major overcharging scam, but thoroughly unrepentant.

Moon base site chosen - near a tube station, not too far from the shops, plenty of ice...

New Mac specs leaked - another web site risks the wrath of Apple by speculating about new products.

Smart alarm clock - monitors your sleep patterns, and wakes you up when it will be least jarring!

Laser-controlled headless zombie flies - you heard me...  You can't make this stuff up!

Airport screeners still do poorly - in spite of training, and hardware, and new laws, things are no better.

 

14th April

It was a very long, hard, dirty day at the silicon face, clearing out a store room full of old computer junk ready for the office move at the weekend - and then an hour after I got home and was just looking forward to a long, hot bath to sooth the aches and pains, a phone call summoned me back into the office to restore a file that turned out not to exist. It's been another of those days.

I feel thoroughly wrung out now, so you'll have to survive with a handful of quick links:

Exoskeleton - still not quite the powered fighting suit from Heinlein's Starship Troopers, but the Hybrid Assistive Limb project at the University of Tsukuba is one of the more impressive in a growing list of prototypes that stretches back at least thirty years.

What price confidentiality? - apparently unsuspecting users of the Intuit Turbotax and H&R Block financial software are heavily monitored via 3rd party web bugs that track their online behaviour during the tax preparation and filing process.

Labour vague on ID cards - they will be completely voluntary, according to the election manifesto, unless you actually want to do something like applying for a passport, in which case they seem to be surprisingly compulsory...

Bending plastic with light - a new flavour of memory plastic can be bent and stretched into a specific shape, and then "fixed" by a specific wavelength of UV light - and then exposure to a different frequency will cause the polymer to return to its original shape.

Open Office not quite bug-free - in spite of the frequent assertion that the peer review process of open source development removes the chance of bugs, a "moderately critical" weakness has been exposed in both release and beta versions of the movement's flagship application.

Strong response to zombies - Telstra BigPond, Australia's largest ISP, is taking action to detect customer PCs infected with spyware, viruses and trojans, and, if the owner can't be contacted, the systems in question are being disconnected from the network. More ISPs need to do this.

Xbox 360 coming closer - the launch date isn't until May 12th, but we already know that the colour scheme is departing from the moody black in favour of an iPod-like ivory white. Vague, blurry images of the controllers are circulating, too.

BBC Creative Archive - it looks as if the Beeb's plans to make huge amounts of radio and television programming available free of charge are moving forwards well, although under the terms of the corporation's license fee only UK users will legitimately be allowed access.

Radioactive watch - looking more like an electronic dosimeter than a device to tell the time, this Japanese (do I really have to tell you that?) gadget looks likely to be as confusing to the user as to the casual bystander...

 

"Now, a few more details about this year's company picnic. It's at the plant; no food will be served; the only activity will be work; and the picnic is cancelled."

- C. Montgomery Burns, The Simpsons

 

13th April

A few days ago I suddenly remembered an old favourite movie, the "rock'n'roll fable" Streets Of Fire, and as my tape copy has probably aged past being worth watching, by now, I treated myself to a new one on DVD. It must have been around ten years since I last watched it, and after some recent disappointments I was delighted to find that I enjoyed it as much as ever. As soon as I'd finished it, in fact, I went right back to watch the opening sequence again!   :-)

The story is set in an alternative, slightly-twisted New York, clearly based in the1950s but shot through with frequent eighties touches, as well as some highly anachronistic fetishwear sported by the wonderfully sinister bikers who serve as antagonists - it gives an unusual feel to the movie, but is extremely effective in this case. The leading actors, Michael Paré, Diane Lane and Willem Dafoe,  may not be huge names by Hollywood standards, but the soundtrack certainly has an impressive pedigree - music composed by Ry Cooder, and lyrics by Jim Steinman, Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty. As you would expect from that list, some of the songs are dynamite, and fortunately they're set as key segments of the movie rather than just as incidental music.

I'm not going to describe the plot, partly because the outlines in the various IMDB user reviews prove that it's very hard to capture the rapid pace of the movie in words, and partly because if you're at all interested after reading this then you should just go and buy a copy for yourself - in the UK they're available second hand on eBay or Amazon marketplace for less than £5, and at that price you really can't go wrong. Recommended.

Meanwhile, back at the office... As one of the last stages of the building refurbishment we're about to move the IT department from a temporary home stuffed into a corner of the back of the Service department, to our new office space right at the top of the building. The move is scheduled for the coming weekend, but yesterday my manager and I both realised that we had assumed the other would be sorting out racking for the hardware store room. In the end I volunteered for the job, as it's exactly the sort of thing I enjoy fussing over, if not normally in such a hurry, and this afternoon I managed to draw up a plan for an appropriate selection of shelving, arranged for a PFY to double-check the measurements (there was only 5cm leeway, which is a little too close for complacency) and had it approved by the powers that be - all in a couple of hours... And then we discovered that although the bulk of it can be delivered tomorrow morning, the uprights for part of the shelving will actually take a couple of weeks instead! How can a supplier have all the shelves, brackets, supports, and you name it for a particular range of shelves in stock, but not the bit that turns them from a pile of components on the floor to a structure that can actually hold things!  <shakes head in resignation>

 

12th April

It's been another one of those days at the office (there are a lot of them about right now, it seems) so just some random news links for now...

Amazing contraptions - entrants in Perdue University's annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest design a device that uses the most complex process possible to complete a simple task. This year's challenge was to change a pair of torch batteries, and the winning machine involved 125 wonderfully unnecessary steps. There's video, too!

Ice on the move - back at the start of the year it looked as if a huge iceberg was about to smash into an equally-massive floating ice shelf in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. In the event, it appeared to have run aground in shallow waters a few kilometres short of the shelf, stalling there until early March, but it's on the move again now and is edging its way past the ice and on out into the Ross Sea.

Desperately seeking Gordon - Intel is advertising on eBay for the April 1965 issue of Electronics Magazine containing the original article "Moore's Law" by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. They're offering a generous $10,000 for a mint copy, and although there can't be many around in that condition I expect that the price will lure any that do still exist out of the woodwork in fairly short order.

Apple making enemies - the court case brought by Apple Computer to unmask online journalists' confidential sources for articles about upcoming products is causing a real stir around the blogosphere, with a number of high-profile emerging media writers and groups signing an amicus curae brief in support of the persecuted journalists.

WiFi Hall of Shame - At ZD Net, the six dumbest ways to secure a wireless LAN. I have to take exception to the overall tone of the article, though - MAC address filtering and hiding the SSID may not be the ultimate in security, but when combined with proper use of WEP or WPA on a home network they certainly help to deter the casual hacker.

And, finally, a PC case that definitely hasn't made my short list... Dan reviews the iCute 0408 SL, an unremarkable steel mid-tower - with one exceptional feature...

 

11th April

I've been immersing myself in water-cooling over the last few days (no pun intended) and after several hours of obsessive poring over pumps, radiators and water blocks, I started wondering if one of the off-the-shelf systems from manufacturers like Koolance would fit the bill. I've been keeping an eye on the development of their Exos self-contained external cooling system over the last couple of years, and while browsing their web site for details of the updated Exos II model I noticed that they're also offering an integrated version built into the Lian Li PC-V1000 case. Now, although this is certainly an impressive case (even Dan thinks so!), it's a little small for my taste - as standard it only has five external drive bays, and as the Koolance version uses the top bay to hold the pump and reservoir that doesn't leave nearly enough.

The PC-V1000 has a bigger brother, though, in the shape of the seven bay PC-V2000, and this would be a far more practical proposition. The two cases are functionally identical except for the height, and it occurred to me that maybe Koolance were contemplating an über-geek version of their ready-made system in the larger case. Sure enough, a quick email enquiry brought the reply that they are indeed planning a PC-V2000 based system, probably due for release sometime in May, and right now that is definitely at the top of my list. I've already changed my mind three times in the last week, though, so it's anyone's guess what I'll actually end up implementing!

One thing I'm relatively sure of, though, is that I'll be using a rectilinear layout for the coolant tubes instead of the conventional tangle of loops and curves. I saw this for the first time a few days ago, and it caught my eye immediately - the technique uses short, straight lengths of tubing with right-angled connectors at the corners, and it looks really elegant.  [I hope that description is enough, though, as apparently I've completely lost track of where I saw it - it was somebody's project log, on some cooling geek forum, but I've seen so many of those recently that I have no idea which one it was. I'll update if I ever manage to find it again!]   I expect that the connectors reduce the flow rate somewhat compared to a seamless length of tubing, but the Koolance hardware seems to have adequate overhead and I wouldn't expect serious problems as long as I don't over-do it.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

NASA World Wind - an impressive application that allows you to zoom into imagery of the Earth's surface, gained from several satellites combined with data from the shuttle missions, and updated daily with details of natural events. The 171Mb download is not for dialup users, though...

Linux vs. Windows, don't get emotional - at The Register, the results of a reader survey on migrating to Linux. It seems to be one of the most balanced of its type that I've yet seen, and admits that Linux is certainly not the be-all and end-all of operating systems.

World's Easiest Explanation of Anamorphic Widescreen Enhancement in DVDs - with a title like that, you wouldn't think that a geek would have to read it more than once before understanding it, but unfortunately that wasn't the case. It's a confusing topic, and at this stage I'm still not quite sure which DVD of "Bugsy Malone" I actually want to buy. Is a larger picture better than a sharper picture? It's a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing - if there was only one DVD, I would have bought it straight away, but now I'm terminally undecided.

 

9th April

Some links for the weekend:

EarthCore - a science fiction serial distributed as "a podcast novel" - or in other words, for those who remember life before Apple's iPod obsessed the industry, an MP3 audiobook.

Robert Heinlein's greatest hits - a new edition of the SF grand master's collected works is imminent, including all the novels and short stories, all the non-fiction books, and much of his other writing.

Reith Lectures 2005 - The BBC is making this year's lecture series, The Triumph Of Technology, available online as streaming or downloadable MP3s.

A green U-turn - hard-line environmental icon Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog and The Well, now thinks that nuclear power may be the only feasible way forward.

Schwartz attacks the GPL - Sun's president has reaffirmed his companys's support for open source code, but criticised the GPL itself, saying that it amounted to "economic imperialism".

Gordon Moore interviewed - forty years after formulating his infamous "law", the Intel old-timer (one of the few computer industry founders still alive) looks at the ramifications of his prediction.

Yankee Group slams Linux extremists - following another hostile reaction to a report that favourably compared Windows to Linux, the analyst has criticised the religious fervour of the fanboys.

IBM, Nokia and Oracle sharks circling - the EU's lawsuits against Microsoft are still in full flow, and the competition is staying close in case it can make things harder for the Seattle giant in some way.

Military flying saucers - MSSMP was a prototype for a six foot flying saucer using a 50hp motor driving a ducted fan, and designed for highly flexible infantry support roles on the battlefield.

Shuttle flights still dangerous - the redesign may make the new shuttle "the safest vehicle ever flown" but experts acknowledge that manned space flight is still an inherently risky business.

Nukes in spaaaaace! - NASA's Prometheus program is developing nuclear reactors for use as propulsion systems for interplanetary probes, but they're struggling against bad PR and budget cuts.

Cool Tools - a new weblog devoted to (did you guess?) cool tools... "any book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that is tried and true", and it's an interesting selection.

Skulls Direct sells skulls of all types - vampires, dragons, goblins, paperweights, bookends, you name it. They look gorgeous, and they're really quite reasonably priced.

And finally, at Boing Boing, many pranks - guerrilla marketing, classic college pranks, anti-gravity interior design, stressing the US Postal Service, and a particularly involved and sadistic hoax at the expense of a hapless Starbucks HR droid.

 

8th April

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of rebuilding his damn PC again, it seems. I hadn't intended to do this quite yet, but the imminent demise of my Antec TruePower has brought my plan forward somewhat - replacing the power supply in Infinity3 is sufficiently traumatic and fiddly that replacing the case as well is almost just an afterthought...

The problems with the TruePower seem quite common, actually - I've seen a fair number of users on the forums describing the same kind of gradual slippage in the 5v line, and with exactly the same symptoms of disappearing disk drives and random lockups under load. It's annoying, of course, as it always seems to take a year or two for this stuff to emerge - when you're looking for recommendations everybody is saying "oh, yes, you can't go wrong with Enermax/Antec/PCP&C", and then later on when everything has gone horribly wrong the forums are full of "oh, no, you don't want to use one of those"... We're a fickle bunch, I'm afraid.

Anyway, I've already ordered a replacement power supply in the form of the current flavour of the month, PC Power & Cooling's Turbo Cool 510 XE. I need an EPS12V supply for my dual Xeons and so the choice is decidedly limited, but (at least for the moment!) the PCP&C hardware seems well regarded for high-end systems. They're quite rare, though, and although I couldn't find a single UK supplier I was delighted to come across a US company, Performance-PCs, who are offering this particular model with braided sleeving already fitted to the wiring loom - which will save a whole raft of fuss! The 510 XE has multiple 12v rails, easily accessible voltage trimming pots, active power factor correction (although hardly anyone seems to know what that means!) and unusually fine output tolerances - and in spite of the name, it actually has a peak output of 650W, so should provide some leeway when I finally decide to make the move to water cooling.

The latter is coming sooner rather than later, now, I think. I'm sizing up new cases with a large radiator in mind, and having spotted the ThermoChill HE120 series last autumn I seem to have my heart set on the biggest one that will fit. [ThermoChill turns out to be a UK-based manufacturer, by the way, and as they have their own online shop there doesn't seem to be much point in buying elsewhere.] I haven't really made any progress towards choosing pumps, reservoirs and water blocks (again, with the latter, choice is limited to the relatively few suitable for the Xeon's Socket 603 form factor) but I'm sure that will sort itself out in the fullness of time.

The first step is the case, however, and at this stage I'll probably just transplant most of the existing air-cooling subsystem Although I've been lusting after the extremely impressive Mountain Mods cube cases for a while, in actual fact they're not very well suited to my requirements and having ruled out Lian Li's PC-V series as well, the current favourite is the new CoolerMaster Stacker. It's an interesting design, with the entire front panel of the fairly tall case being made up of 5¼" drive bays - the case comes equipped with a mounting bracket that holds four hard disks, cooled by a front-mounted 120mm fan, and fitting neatly into three drive bays. The chassis will support up to four of these, with the whatever slots remain being available for optical drives etc - I'd only need one of the brackets to support my pair of SATA mirrors, which would leave ample space for everything else. This is just as well, as (in common with the Mountain Mods cases) there are no conventional 3½" bays at all. This is a touch inconvenient given determination to retain a conventional floppy drive (how do people upgrade device firmware and system BIOS without one?) and a few other smaller devices, but these can be mounted with adaptor rails and shouldn't present a significant problem.

Other notable features include a long, rotor-type cross-flow fan to blow air directly across the motherboard, and the facility to hold two power supplies - one in the conventional ATX location at the top of the chassis, the second down at the bottom rear. Either of these locations could be used for water cooling hardware instead, and although there are pros and cons to both, the layout certainly seems flexible enough to provide a good solution if given some thought. I'm also going to have to give some thought to windows, lighting, my Matrix Orbital LCD, and all the little tweaks that I've already thought of even before I've actually seen the case.in the flesh. I'm going to have to immerse myself in the whole ethos of water cooling before I make any decisions, too - I've caught enough snippets in passing to keep up with the current technology, but I don't have any specific brands or models in mind, and that means some serious time at 2CPU.com, ProCooling.com, Kustom PCs, and Ars.Technica - to name but a few. There's a lot of work ahead!

 

7th April

So we're recruiting for a new helpdesk bod, right now, and yesterday my director was looking through CVs... He read one out to me, listing the guy's expertise in Red Hat Linux, Lotus Notes and Novell Netware, and given that we don't use any of those systems, and that he knows I'm a confirmed Microsoft evangelist, the only conclusion I could draw was that he was hoping to set me up for a fight to the death along the lines of Max Max Beyond Thunderdome - two men enter the computer room, one man leaves. Still, as the candidate in question seems to have backed the number two technologies right across his career, it's no wonder he's looking for a job.

Meanwhile, some quick links. So quick, in fact, you if you blink you'll miss them.

 

See?

You want them again, but slower? Oh, very well, seeing as it's you...

A new robotics-building system - manufactured by Radio Shack, it seems rather reminiscent of high-tech Meccano. Details are extremely sparse at present, with the web site long on animation and short on content, but it's certainly worth keeping an eye on.

No black holes? - according to a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, they're actually "dark energy stars" instead, formed either by stellar collapse or by fluctuations of space-time itself.

FermiLab data processing hardware - a look behind the scenes at the server farms and network infrastructure of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Lots of geek-porn images...  :-)

<cough> Bullshit!  - from a review of a PC power supply at HardwareZoom: "The special coating on the casing not only gives you a dark reflective surface, it actually reduce radiation to ensure electro magnetical compatibility". Uh, Orion, don't give up your day job. Really, don't.

Misplaced pride - "Everyone knows that Russians are good at maths", says an official of the police cybercrime division. "Our software writers are the best in the world, that's why our hackers are the best in the world".

"Toothing" a hoax - Boing Boing reveals that the recent craze of UK commuters hooking up for random sexual encounters via Bluetooth cellphones never really happened... Strangely enough, though, the practice actually seems to be quite routine in Kuwait, instead!

eBay's policy on surcharges - I hadn't realised this, but a while ago eBay banned sellers from charging extra for payments via PayPal, Nochex and other electronic money services. The advice on the community forums seems to be to pay the winning bid without the surcharge, and see what happens...

Father Dougal McGuire for pope - Some US bookies are offering 1000-to-1 odds, apparently without realising that he is a fictional character from Channel 4's comedy series "Father Ted"...

Alcohol-fuelled election - the UK supermarket chain ASDA is cashing in with a themed beer for each of the major political parties, and they're intending to use the sales figures as a form of opinion poll!

HST's Funeral - as eccentric in death as he was in life, the ashes of the great counterculture author are to be fired from a cannon mounted inside a 53-foot-high sculpture of the "gonzo fist" emblem. Gosh!

 

6th April

I don't normally re-post the "funny pictures" that float around the Internet, perhaps because as the sysadmin of a company with seven hundred mail-crazy employees I've seen so many of them over the years that my sense of humour has withered and died. This one tickled me, though, so just this once...

My first thought was a Photoshop hoax, especially given the proximity to April 1st - but no, a little research reveals that the Titan Uranus does indeed exist, an oil tanker registered as HK-1325 and owned by the Titan Petrochemicals Group, a Malaysian company that seems to like to naming its vessels after stars and planets. Perhaps this particular name serves as a reminder to its operators of the danger of leakage...?

Meanwhile, I've spent half the day sitting with one of our Human Resources department's payroll team, trying to puzzle our way through the Inland Revenue's new FBI ("Filing By Internet") processes for submitting P15 and P45 tax data electronically. The manufacturer of our HR system (once Peterborough Software, then Rebus HR, and now apparently rebranded to Northgate) has released a nice little utility to convert data from the antiquated PS2000 for DOS that we're still using to a modern XML-based EDI format, and that bit went smoothly enough. Having created the EDI file, however, the next step was to submit it to the Inland Revenue via the Government Gateway, and that's where everything started to become tedious.

Today was the starting date for submission of this data, and we had been told that the secure gateway site would be available from eight o'clock. We tried at around 8:30, first, only to be greeted with an obscure error message suggesting that our password was wrong. Now, I've had experience with UK Government IT before (hell, I ran part of it for a while!) so I didn't actually take this at face value. With this in mind we tried again at nine-ish, and this time the entire site was unavailable. At midday we could make a connection, but the transfer stalled forever "waiting for a response" - and it stayed that way for the rest of the afternoon. When I gave up on it for the day my HR colleague was about to phone the Inland Revenue and complain, but of course that won't achieve anything - like every other public-facing IT project that the department has been involved with, they've screwed it up. We'll try again tomorrow, I guess, but experience suggests that the situation will get worse before it gets better and we might not have much luck until the initial rush dies down next week.

 

5th April

Ok, after further testing it's quite clear that the new version of RealVNC is significantly more responsive than the previous V4.0 release, so if you've been having performance problems with Windows XP or Server 2003 hosts (it seems to have been an issue with the built-in Remote Desktop service) then you should definitely upgrade. I make extensive use of VNC at home to drive my desktop PC with the laptop from the comfort of my settee, for example while I'm writing this weblog in the evenings, and the improvements are dramatic.

Meanwhile, all the news that's fit to 'blog.

Well, Ok, maybe not all the news...

But some of it, at least.

And who could ask for more?

Father of the Playstation dissed  - outspoken Sony director Ken Kutaragi has fallen from favour in the company, it seems, not only having been passed over for the recent CEO vacancy, but then losing his seat on the board as well. Kutaragi has been unpopular with users of the new Playstation Portable, too, having described a sticking button on the first release as "a feature" rather than a fault, and suggesting that owners just put up with the stuck pixels that are currently plaguing the displays.

Avery Ant and his one minute rant - an animated ant, ranting for (do I really have to tell you?) sixty seconds... Recent topics include Valentines Day, Camilla, April Fool's and Hunter Thompson. It's an unusual and eclectic mix, for sure, and the animation is rudimentary but also kinda neat. Thanks to The Sideshow for the link.

Rise in commercial virus writing - a story in Information Week suggests that 70% of virus writers are now writing spyware for personal profit, under contract from organised crime groups. I'm taking this and similar reports with a large pinch of salt, of course, as it seems to be the current flavour-of-the-month in anti-virus marketing hysteria, but there may wll be an element of truth to the story and if so it's certainly a worrying development.

BBC frowns at 'Ceefax Google' service - after the BBC inexplicably discontinued broadcasting their Ceefax service to the Dutch cable channels two years ago, an enterprising viewer arranged for a UK colleague to make a feed available to him and then created a real-time search engine to interrogate it via the Web. Now, though, the Beeb has become aware of the facility and is regarding it with a raised eyebrow - even though they don't actually seem to have any legal or even moral grounds for objection.

Watching Them, Watching Us - the UK civil liberties group is worried about the disproportionate number of CCTV cameras that are sprouting in streets and public places, together with the poorly regulated and enforced legislation on exactly who can view, store and process the data they capture. I thoroughly agree with them, too, having only just moved away from the London Borough of Newham, which apparently has more cameras per square mile and per capita (and more intrusive ones, too, from a civil liberties standpoint!) than anywhere else in the world.

NTP conspiracy theory - someone (who should probably remain nameless) noticed that "a US government timeserver has a bizarre service running on a non-standard port" that returns rather unusual and opaque messages. Speculation was rife about secret encryption keys for spies, until a more level-headed old-timer pointed out that the "non-standard port" was actually the venerable Finger service, and an NIST employee explained that the odd numbers are actually rather prosaic.   :-)

 

4th April

Well, I've just seen a TV advert for the long-awaited Hitch-Hiker's Guide movie, and my initial reaction was five seconds of stunned silence followed by a loud, involuntary exclamation of "What...?". I've been a fan of the entire HHG canon since the radio show first aired in 1987, so I'm sure that I'll watch the movie when it comes out on DVD - but I'm equally sure that I'll have to cram my fist into my mouth periodically to avoid shrieking in outrage.

What HP doesn't want you to know - at Accelenation, an extremely comprehensive and well-written guide to cleaning, maintaining and refilling inkjet printer cartridges. Great stuff.

Everything but the kitchen sink - just when you thought you'd seen everything a PC multi-function panel can offer, the Sunbeamtech 20-in-1 proves that there are still more pointless features that can be added - and then you come across Aerocool's bloated 2-bay Gatewatch and realise that you ain't seen nothing yet...

Somewhat more cool (pun definitely intended!) are pretty titanium fans from Ultra Products, and less pretty but rather more elegant aluminium fans from Cooler Master. The latter do look rather appealing, I have to admit, and they'll go on the short-list for the new case.

Meanwhile, UK modding site Bit-tech has been at the CeBIT technology expo in Hannover, and found all sorts of interesting PC cases - of particular interest are the impressive wooden ones on the first page, and the new Cooler Master "Stacker" (odd name for a case that obviously doesn't stack!) on page three.

Also at Bit-Tech, news of the new MX6 display from Canadian LCD gurus Matrix Orbital. It uses the new Organic LED technology rather than the usual LCD, giving significantly improved viewing angle and contrast, together with the sort of low response times usually associated with VFD hardware. And, just as an aside, it turns out that MO's hardware diva Henry Jakl runs a tea house in his spare time!

 

Ren Höek: "Welcome to our secret headquarters"
Stimpson J. Cat: "Thousands of miles below the Earth's crust"
Ren Höek: "Shut up, you fool!"

- Ren & Stimpy

 

3rd April

Gun porn tonight, at Epicycle, with a wonderfully politically incorrect compilation video of Apache attack helicopters reducing various targets to flaming shreds with their Vulcan miniguns, complete with rock music accompaniment... Meanwhile, just to put things in perspective, another video at Classic Airsoft shows the home equivalent,  a Piper airsoft minigun fitted with multiple TM tracer adaptors. It's almost as scary, in its own little way!

Meanwhile, elsewhere, a hint of good news in the fight against spam, with Scott 'Spam King' Richter filing for bankruptcy with liabilities of over $50 million following lawsuits from Microsoft. The Register suggests that this might be the beginning of the end for large-scale commercial spamming, but I have to admit that I'm not that optimistic - the rise of virus-distributed spam originating from Eastern Europe and China will be harder to counter in the courts, and harder to pin down to a particular individual in the first place.

Another hint of good news comes as the communication watchdog ICSTIS managed to track down and fine sixteen telephone scammers to the tune of  £1.3 million, following their persistent use of illegal automated calling equipment to offer dubious prizes of cash and holidays. I'm glad that ICSTIS are on the ball, but once again the real fault lies with BT for allowing these swine to rent premium rate numbers in the first place.

And talking of swine, media giant MGM has egg on its face following the accidental discovery of some internal PowerPoint slides revealing the fat 60% profit margin they make on movie DVDs. The slides came to light following the equally surprising discovery of a browseable collection of box art from MGM's DVD catalogue - one enterprising visitor worked his way back up the tree to find a whole raft of internal briefing documents and management presentations. The web site's sloppy security seems to have been fixed as I write this, but of course the cat is well and truly out of the bag now...

Via The Sideshow - a collection of MP3s and PDFs of Richard Feynman's Lectures On Physics, from Atoms In Motion to Superconductivity. Neat!

Microwave your iPod - a Glasgow University student is handing out provocative flyers to iPod posers, inviting them to do the right thing... I agree with his sentiment, but suspect that he might be, as the saying has it, cruising for a bruising.

Dan is doing the letters thing again, this time with grave misgivings about Toshiba's new ultra-rapid batteries, the skinny on discharging firearms into the air, and the reason that modern televisions are decidedly sluggish compared to their predecessors.

Oh, and I've just noticed that a new version of RealVNC has been released. I have to admit that I haven't been terribly impressed with any of the V4 builds, as performance seems decidedly lacklustre compared to the final V3 releases, and I'm really hoping that the new V4.1.1 might bring some improvement.  [Update: I've only had time for a quick look, but it does seem that the previously sluggish response-times are back to what I remember from V3. Good news indeed!]

 

2nd April

No rest for the wicked - I was back in the office again this morning with one of my PFYs replacing the power distribution units that feed our cabinets of PowerEdge 2650 servers, and although it went well, all our hard work is hidden behind the side panels and there's very little to show for seven hours of hard manual labour crawling around under the raised floor. Such is the lot of the hapless techy...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

How soon they forget - en route to the Supreme Court Grokster hearing, former MPAA chief Jack Valenti stopped to sign a Betamax video tape for an EFF activist, without apparently realising the irony of what he was being asked to do. Back in 1982 Valenti testified before Congress that home video recorders would lay waste to the entire Hollywood movie industry, a prediction that has been followed by decades of continuous growth and ever-increasing profits for both the studios and the actors. Twenty-odd years later, he was about to make the same claims of financial doom and gloom about file sharing and the music industry, but apparently the court was fully mindful of the "Betamax decision" that kept home VCR technology legal, and has applied the same common sense and fairness to the concept of P2P software. The RIAA and MPAA certainly won't take this lying down, of course, and the EFF et al still have a very long, hard struggle ahead.

And talking of hypocrisy and DRM (well, we were, weren't we?) the head of Norway's IFPI has revealed that he is quite happy with "DVD" Jon Johansen's recent attempts to separate Apple's iTunes service from the iTunes application itself. It's all Apple's fault for using "proprietary DRM", he says (is there any other kind of DRM, one wonders?), and evidently they deserve everything they get. What a bizarre viewpoint from a European music industry association!

Google strikes back - in the wake of the recent Guardian article describing the feature war between Yahoo and Google, the latter has fired another salvo by doubling the already generous gigabyte email allowance. I doubt that most people really want or need the ability to archive two gigabytes of email, though, and this is more of a marketing exercise made possible by the ever-decreasing cost of raw storage than anything else. Yahoo, over to you...

Bob Marley is not available - You'd think that a BBC3 TV production team who were hoping to do a documentary on the reggae icon would have known that he died 23 years ago, but evidently not... A member of the team sent an e-mail to the Bob Marley Foundation concerning a programme on his classic song "No Woman No Cry", requesting that Marley spent "one or two days with us" and insisting that the project "would only work with some participation from Bob Marley himself". Indeed.

Bay Wolf's support site for Dell's Latitude and Inspiron laptop ranges has a whole raft of useful FAQs, resources, and tips - and I wish I'd come across it a few weeks ago when I was trying to understand how a second-hand laptop sold to me as a Latitude C840 was evidently firmly convinced that it was actually the lower-end Inspiron 8200. The difference between them is slight, however, and can  mostly be corrected by a forced BIOS upgrade, but it still rates as a piece of decidedly sharp dealing in my books...

And, finally - I can't tell if this is an April Fool or not, but the idea is fascinating enough that I'm going to risk it. BreakAway Games is about to release a strategy/simulation game based around a non-violent political pressure group. Apparently the game, called “A Force More Powerful”, resembles a cross between a sociological modelling program and the common city-builder games, with the player giving orders to characters within the movement, who then attempt to carry out actions such as making speeches and organizing demonstrations. I really hope it's not a joke, as it sounds fascinating!

 

1st April

April Fool's Day again, and as always I've been too busy to carry out my dastardly plan... For years and years I've dreamed of having every PC on the company network go Ding! at exactly the same moment, and although in this era of Active Directory's millisecond timesync and SMS 2003's automated software distribution the idea has become ever-easier to implement, as the years roll on I'm getting busier and busier and somehow I never seem to have the free couple of hours required a week earlier to set the joke up. Maybe it's just as well - I always think of the Simpsons episode where Bart stacks a dozen megaphones one in front of the other. Could five hundred PC speakers acting in concert burst eardrums and blow out the office windows? Maybe it's best not to find out...

Meanwhile, as it is April Fool's Day, everybody has grown a sense of humour. Best of all, I think, (and thank you to The Sideshow for the link), is the normally staid Astronomy Picture Of The Day's contribution of clear demonstration of the existence of liquid water on Mars. You really can't argue with evidence like that.

The hilarity continues at Boing Boing, as well - or near it, anyway, with a pair of neatly-done parody sites, Gakker and Boring Boring. The latter, especially, is beautifully done, with even the regular adverts cleverly parodied. Cory proves that he's not the only one who can make a joke, though, with a witty and amusing DRM takedown notice aimed at the latter site. Um, well, I think it's a joke - these days, who can be sure...  :-)

Elsewhere, Think Geek is offering a new iPod gadget. iCopulate comes complete with a tube of contact lubricant and a ribbed sleeve to protect the mating surfaces, and allows you to connect a pair of iPods back-to-back to transfer music between them at high speed. If it wasn't for the pink latex, it would be very hard to tell that it was a joke... Their front page has a wonderful collection of other April Fool's gadgets, too, so check it out while it lasts.

Guerrilla-comedy site Zug has been getting in on the act, too, with an article on how easy it has become to feed fake news stories into the mass media - ably illustrated by an account of how they did just that, not once but several times. I've been enjoying Zug, recently, ever since I came across their adventures on the Massachusetts Turnpike last month. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

 

Oh, dear oh dear.

Not a good month in the stats, for sure.

I just don't want to talk about it, Ok?

Except to mention the ice weasels.

Enough said.

Still, to make up for the disappointment, today I got a very nice email message from someone who had just stumbled across Epicycle and wanted to tell me how much he liked it - so that mostly offsets the crushing pain and despair of such a poor month's traffic. It could be worse.   :-)

 

 

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