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31st May

I have to eat humble pie, tonight, after I've finished picking up the top of Mike's head and reattaching it... He evidently did a little more checking around at the Board Game Geek site, and did indeed find my long-lost wargame already documented there... I'm certainly not going to be able to find anything more obscure than that one, now, so I shall have to admit defeat and acknowledge that the site is indeed most remarkably comprehensive and voluminous, and that I am unworthy even to re-index its databases.   <retires, muttering>

Meanwhile, Koolance finally have released their PC3-736 water-cooled case, and as expected it's a real monster. Based on the full-height Lian Li PCV-2000, it has space for six 5¼" drives, twelve internal 3½" hard disks, and a motherboard about the size of Kansas. Now that I'm looking at pictures of it, though, I'm actually starting to wonder whether I really need a chassis that large, but as I'm being quoted a lead time of several months from the UK distributors and shipping direct from Koolance in the US would cost in the order of $300, I have plenty of time to make up my mind...

Elsewhere:

Top ten non-dictionary words  - I was especially fond of "cognitive displaysia", an ailment from which I suffer terribly every time I go away for a few days holiday.

Deep Throat steps forward - ex-FBI deputy director W. Mark Felt claims to be the legendary source who leaked details of the Watergate scandal, but this has not yet been confirmed by Woodward himself.   [Update - yep, looks like it's official - the Washington Post has published the story, too]

Spamming the wrong people - New York law firm Ziegler, Ziegler & Associates took exception to having their email system clogged with junk, and decided to... uh... take the law into their own hands.

The LiveCD List - a marvellous catalogue of bootable CD images, mostly Linuxes of one flavour or another, for performing some useful specialist function - firewalls, data recovery, security auditing...

Worms starting to turn - elements of the French legal system are starting to raise objections to the draconian and excessive sentences that the media industry is demanding for small-scale file sharers.

The Science Of Consistency - an interesting article on the demand for continuity within science fiction movie plot lines, and a tantalising hint that the mystery of the Klingon forehead may yet be revealed...

Dissolving the boundaries - Bathsheba Grossman is "an artist who explores the region between art and mathematics", apparently, and although pricey her work is certainly appealing and unusual.

Thinking the unthinkable - at Boing Boing, a long article on the advisability and technique of cleaning your computer keyboard by putting it in a household dishwasher. I remain unconvinced, myself.

The Great Ball Contraption - a collaborative effort to link up many discrete Lego-powered ball machines, each built to a standard specification so that they can interface with each other. Neat!

 

30th May

I've just finished re-reading Piers Anthony's "Bio Of A Space Tyrant" series, and it certainly is an extremely unusual set of novels, being half a science fiction story and half a recipe for solving the various problems of the real world in the 20th century. In what must surely be a unique literary device the population of Earth has spread throughout the solar system without intermingling at all, so that every country is represented by a planet or moon which shares the original language, culture and even geography of its origin. Jupiter is the north and south American continents, with its moons representing the Caribbean islands, Saturn is Asia with the USSR in the northern hemisphere and China in the southern, Uranus holds the various European countries, Mars is a Moslem world containing the Middle Eastern nations, etc etc.

Where necessary for the plot, even individual states and regions are exactly represented - "Sunshine" is a predominantly Hispanic region at the southern edge of The United States Of North Jupiter, the route via which most of the illegal drugs and many of the illegal immigrants pass through into the country from South Jupiter, and has a serious problem with organised crime... It doesn't take much imagination to recognise Florida, even when it's just a group of bubble cities floating within the atmosphere of a gas giant planet.

If this sounds to you like rather a forced, artificial premise for a novel, you'd be right. I have to admit that, enjoyable as these stories are, they are not Anthony's finest works - even by the standards of an author who has based an entire series (the "Xanth" fantasy novels, currently standing at around thirty books!) on teeth-gritting puns and word-plays. There is something vaguely compelling about the sheer bare-faced effrontery of the idea, though, and it certainly does make a change...

As a teenager the protagonist flees the Hispanic state of "Halfcal", part of the moon Callisto and representing Haiti, and the first of the five novels is his adventures as a refugee in Jupiter space - experiencing callous indifference from the government of the planet, working in poor conditions as a migrant labourer and eventually, out of desperation, joining the Jupiter navy. The second book details his meteoric rise through the ranks and his subsequent military campaign to wipe out various clans of space pirates, the organised crime lords responsible for exploiting, raping and murdering his friends and family during his time as a refugee.

In the third book he becomes a politician, and it is here that Anthony's home-grown recipe for social and political reform really begins to show. On Jupiter he cleans up the corrupt government, balances the budget, rebuilds the greedy and inefficient industrial base, and solves problems with drugs, crime, education, housing and poverty. Along the way the author completely re-stages the cold war, including a Cuban missile crisis when Saturn sends "planet buster" missiles to Jupiter's moon Ganymede. Next the hero moves to Saturn, reforming the communists and manoeuvring them into peaceful cooperation with the rest of the solar system. In the fifth and final book he travels from planet to planet, ending apartheid on Mercury (South Africa), solving the problems in the Middle East (with iron-rich Mars as the Arab states and its moon Phobos as Israel), and generally curing all ills and banishing all evils in order to unify the solar system and so enable humanity to spread out of the solar system and colonise the stars.

It's interesting to note that as part of this grand plan each planet is assigned its own region of the galaxy, preserving the complete segregation of society and culture that exists in the solar system - so in spite of the drive towards peaceful coexistence and unification of resources to which the hero is dedicated, presumably the author doesn't actually believe that humanity is capable of homogenising to any significant extent!

It's hard to recommend these stories, as by any reasonable standards they're dreadful old pot boilers without any significant merit - but, nevertheless, they have a certain something, and the unusual literary device that Anthony employs is undeniably interesting... You can pick up all five books second hand on eBay or Amazon Marketplace for only a few pounds, and they're light enough reading to provide a good few hours of thoroughly undemanding space opera. I say, go for it!

 

29th May

My über-geek friend Mike has been staying this weekend, and pointed me to a couple of classic geek web sites. The first, the aptly-named Board Game Geek, is clearly the premier site for everything to do with (did you guess?) board games. They have details, photographs, user reviews, discussion areas, and various other resources for many thousands of games of all genres, and really are an excellent example of how wonderfully thorough this kind of special interest site can be. I used to be an enthusiast of board games and wargames myself, back in the day, and Mike challenged me to find one that the site didn't already feature. I tried a dozen that I thought might be sufficiently obscure to have slipped under the radar, without any success at all (rather the opposite, in fact, as many of them turned out to be extremely well documented!) but fortunately I managed to find one before Mike's smug grin became so broad that the top of his head fell off - an obscure magazine game based on the Battle Of Arsouf in the 3rd Crusade. He's now gone off to track down further details so that he can submit it to the site's database.  :-)

He also pointed me to Parks Sabers, a manufacturer of extremely impressive Star Wars light sabre replicas. They sell a dozen different designs of handles, nicely turned from aluminium or stainless steel and with assorted LEDs and controls to add detail, and the detachable "blades" are electro-luminescent tubes of various colours sealed inside a tough polycarbonate outer. They look marvellous, as indeed they should considering that they cost upwards of $250, and although I'm not tempted I have to admit that I am impressed.

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

It hasn't been a good week for US Government computing, it seems... Firstly a university student at Georgia Tech published a report on the role of poorly secured military systems in spreading the Witty worm last year, next the Government Accountability Office revealed that the Securities and Exchange Commission has failed to implement adequate security and auditing procedures internally, and finally federal auditors have released a scathing report on the woeful state of the controversial Homeland Security Agency. Apparently the agency has failed to devise any plans for restoring the national data infrastructure in the event of an emergency, and in fact is generally unprepared for exactly the sort of crises that it was created to manage. Hmmm.

And talking of government IT disasters, the UK's appalling ID card scheme, currently being pimped around as a solution to the growing problem of identity theft (how, when the majority of such fraud is committed via electronic means where an ID card would be completely irrelevant?) might turn out to be even more expensive than the already significant cost claimed by the proposal's sponsors. Experts at the London School of Economics, cited in The Observer, suggest that the true cost of implementation could be more than £18 billion, triple the official figure and the equivalent of £300 per UK adult. Support in Parliament is mixed, but the UK public seems to be surprisingly fond of the idea - proving how poorly they understand any of the civil liberties implications and technical problems inherent with the scheme, and also how successfully the Labour government has deceived them about the claimed benefits it would bring. Not good...

Still on the subject of unfortunate IT - the latest version of the venerable Netscape browser was released earlier this month, and all has not been plain sailing. To begin with, the release version shipped with a generous handful of security vulnerabilities (one of which had already been identified and patched in the related Firefox release), and more recently it emerged that installing Netscape 8 breaks Internet Explorer's ability to render XML, killing RSS aggregators and similar tools. AOL hasn't yet released a solution to the problem themselves, but fortunately Microsoft has provided a workaround. However, this requires that Netscape is uninstalled (you can imagine the laughter at Redmond!) because of its habit of over-writing the registry key on question every time it is run.

Playing with the new protocol - two projects are underway to develop custom firmware for the popular Linksys WRT54G wireless/DSL router, enabling IPv6 functionality without sacrificing support for the conventional IPv4. The long-awaited IPv6 is the great white hope of the next generation Internet, and we're all going to have to come to grips with it sooner or later.

Thoughtless Acts - a fascinating new book explores how people react to an environment that is not perfectly suited to them, the modern world, and how they modify this environment (sometimes even subconsciously) where possible. The web site introduces the book, and allows readers to add their own contributions - of which there are already a significant number.

Icons of science - the US Postal Service has released a set of stamps honouring four American scientists - thermodynamicist Josiah Willard Gibbs, geneticist Barbara McClintock, mathematician John von Neumann and my favourite physicist Richard Feynman.

 

27th May

Ah, the weekend at last - and thanks to the bank holiday a long weekend at that. With one of my PFYs away on leave this week (and next week, too, which is going to be even worse as I have a generous scattering of annoying but important meetings to cope with as well) I'm more than usually glad for the break.

Small, but surprisingly powerful - dual CPU, dual SLI video, four SATA interfaces, and all the usual gubbins - somehow packed into a SFF PC chassis. I can't help but wonder how hot it gets inside, though, with all that silicon!

At Ars.Technica, a useful discussion on building a CD of support tools for working on a relative's computer while visiting - until a couple of Mac bigots jumped in with their tired and formulaic "ditch the POS Wincrap" invective. Sheesh.

Various new enhancements to the BitTorrent P2P application have emerged recently, including the controversial search and trackerless versions -the MPAA et all must be foaming at the mouth over this, and it's a bad time to be baiting them, for sure...

Monitoring the undead - CipherTrust's new ZombieMeter is an online map illustrating the number of new, unique zombie PCs detected every hour around the world. As I write this, the UK has seen a total of 5573 in the last twenty four hours, representing 3% of the world's compromised systems.

Device drivers the new Trojan horse - both Windows and Linux systems are at risk from buffer overflows and other vulnerabilities in 3rd party device drivers, according to a new report. It never fails to amaze me how poorly-written some device drivers actually are, so the news is hardly a surprise.

All is not rosy in Mac land, it seems, at least among readers of The Register. The new Tiger version of the OS is receiving criticism from a wide sector, citing an ever-restrictive interface, serious usability issues with the Mail app, and of course the infamous VPN issue - to name but a few!

And, finally, a controversial charge for photographing the spectacular "Bean" sculpture in Chicago has been abandoned, after significant opposition from many sources. The giant mirrored sculpture was donated to the publicly funded Millennium Park by communications giant SBC, but the park's management then decided to charge $350 dollars for the rights to photograph it, claiming that they were obliged to protect the artist's copyright. This is absurd for all sorts of reasons, of course, and after wriggling frantically for a while the management company has finally given in and withdrawn the fee for all but large-scale film crews.

 

26th May

Just some lightning-fast links, tonight - If You Can't Talk About It, Point To It...

At Tom's Hardware, all the ins and outs of lighting up a PC case.

The evils of DRM - upgrading eBook software cost this hapless user an expensive download.

Evolution in action - Macedonian cockroaches learn to live on laser printer toner.

The pre-history of the Internet is revealed in a documentary on the 1980s BBS culture.

Abusing Amazon - more cunning hackery with their wonderfully flexible and powerful API.

At the New York Times, a review of Microsoft-founder Paul Allen's SF museum in Seattle.

To boldly go - Voyager 1 has officially left the solar system, our first step into deep space.

Working with what you've got - a minor digital masterpiece, created with the primitive MS Paint!

Who knew? Tim Henman accuses Wimbledon's tennis balls of being flat and lifeless...

The Register tells it like it is - "UK ID scheme rides again, as biggest ID fraud of them all".

Like one of his own stories - SF writer Robert Sheckley is still trapped in a Ukrainian hospital.

One step forward and two steps back - UK court bans online sale of adult videos.

Sinn Fein are selling an MI5 bug found in their offices, after eBay cancelled their original auction.

Long, but extremely worthwhile - a faux presentation on the benefits of commercial vampirism.

 

25th May

So, my little dance of domains and web servers is over, now, and everything seems to have settled into place very nicely. My previous domain host, Freeparking, used an annoying masking technique which meant that a web browser just showed the URL as epicycle.org.uk wherever one actually was in the site. An equally annoying side effect was that I couldn't use paths to particular pages along with the domain name, but instead had to use the non-masked address of the web server itself, thus losing the Epicycle "branding" and confusing search engines and online site management utilities no end. Now, however, I can give out a URL such as http://www.epicycle.org.uk/weblog.htm, which will redirect straight to the current weblog page - much more elegant, and very convenient as well!

Unfortunately the migration process involved moving my pages to a different virtual server within Fasthosts's server farm, and so none of the old links to my site are now valid. The native address of the server itself will still work, domain816798.sites.fasthosts.com, (although there's no need to use that now that the epicycle name works properly) but the previous site address of domain385250 is completely defunct, and that's going to wreck havoc with my beloved stats until Google has crawled my new address.

Bizarrely, the URL that first hosted this site, cix.co.uk/~dominict, is still active - if extremely outdated by now! That address is at my old ISP Pipex (the provider formerly known as Cix, Telenor, Nextra, and GX Networks), and in spite of the fact that I severed all connections with the company back in November 2004, they haven't actually got around to removing my pages from their web server! Instead, they've spent most of this year chasing me for money for a long-cancelled DSL connection, and although they're happy to send out erroneous bills they seem incapable of actually reading and understanding any of the multitude of letters, faxes and emails I've sent them in reply. They really are the most incompetent and frustrating ISP I have ever dealt with!

As I've had domain names so much on my mind of late, it occurred to me yesterday to look around and see what the other variants of the "epicycle" name are doing with themselves. Epicycle.com, epicycle.uk.com, and epicycle.net are owned by three of the now ubiquitous domain speculators, and are currently just standing idle. Unusually, the majority of the other domains remain available - with the exception of the epicycle.co.uk domain, which has been used for the home page of a Chicago-based pop group of that name! Now, I have rather a bee in my bonnet about flagrant misuse of top-level domain names, and this example definitely ticks me off - acquiring a UK domain when you're firmly based in the middle of the North American land mass is just plain butt-headed, and is a sign of either someone with either a complete disregard for netiquette or a complete lack of knowledge about the way the Internet is supposed to work. Whichever, it's making me grit my teeth and stifle an angry but probably completely pointless email...

Between the greed-heads and the idiot, though, It's almost enough to provoke me into grabbing the epicycle.org domain myself - either for my own future use or, at the very least, to keep it away from people who would misuse it. Unlike the majority of potential purchasers I would willingly release it to anyone with a reasonable use for the name, and as it would only cost a few dollars a year it's definitely tempting. I already own the chthon.org.uk domain, though (which although currently unused is very handy for assorted nefarious short-term projects) and, unlike assault rifles, there's a limit to the number of domains I can really justify to myself. We shall see...

 

23rd May

Administrative note - the http://www.epicycle.org.uk domain name has settled safe and snug into its new home at FastHosts, and although there are some more tweaks I can do to make the fully qualified paths a little more elegant the basic functionality is intact again. Bookmark away.

Meanwhile, the usual start-of-the-week links...

Dan rides again - Dan has been unusually quiet, recently, so it's good to see him back again with a new letters page. The advice on deleting locked files from within Windows is especially interesting.

No billboards in space - the US Federal Aviation Administration is proposing regulations to ban giant advertising satellites in low earth orbit - but they may have a sinister hidden agenda...

MS on multi-monitor support - flat panel monitors are getting better and cheaper, and this makes multiple monitors an attractive proposition even for those without huge desks and deep pockets.

iPod health warnings - following what seems to be the start of a backlash against the little white bastards, The Register has been running a contest for the best anti-iPod slogan.

Answers to creationist nonsense - a wonderful article at Scientific American, listing the common arguments made against the theory of evolution and the appropriate ways to refute them.

Phone fraudsters ignore fines - although ICSTIS fined 16 premium-rate phone operators a total of £1.3m for using illegal automated calling equipment, they have yet to collect a single penny.

Internet telephony threatened - true to form the incumbent telcos are acting to protect their monopoly by throwing obstacles into the path of the IP phone services.

Writing on a hair - a team at Boston College has used a laser to deposit a polymer onto a human hair, without affecting the hair itself. The material they deposited formed the letters to spell out "H A I R".

Giant iceberg rampage continues - following the rather anti-climactic collision with the Drygalski ice tongue in January, the 115 kilometre B15-A iceberg is now menacing the Aviator Glacier.

Apple's true colours - via Wonkette, Steve Jobs' thoughts on the Apple blogger case. Note to Steve: they weren't exactly "trade secrets", now, were they - you launched the product itself three weeks later!

 

21st May

Administrative note - I've just started the process of transferring the epicycle.org.uk domain name between the original registrar and the provider that is now hosting the site, as the first stage of a general re-vamp of my domain forwarding. This is likely to take several days, of course, and may bring unexpected side-effects - so if during the coming week you can't see this page at the usual address, you'll know why. Normal service will be resumed at some unspecified future date.

Meanwhile, back on the web...

Windows exploit detection tool - Microsoft are developing a network of probes to seek out rogue web sites that are using OS exploits to infect PCs with malicious code, analyse the types of attack that are being used, and report back so that the pages can be removed. The bizarrely-named "Strider HoneyMonkey" uses a combination of technologies emerging from Microsoft's Cybersecurity and Systems Management Research Group, and although its early days the technology certainly looks extremely promising.

Vigilantes attack phishing sites - meanwhile, some white-hat hackers are taking direct action themselves, breaking into rogue web sites and not only identifying the pages as scams but also removing any dangerous active components. Web monitoring firm Netcraft says that it has found evidence of two such "attacks" in recent weeks, one against a site posing as paypal.com and the other that was imitating the NatWest bank. The practice is a touch dubious legally, of course, but I say more power to them!

Spooky robotic cat - Mark at Boing Boing disapproves of robots that are that little bit too lifelike, and having watched the video of this robotic cat I rather agree with him. It's not that it's 100% convincing, as it isn't, but that actually makes the aspects of feline behaviour that they have modelled perfectly look even more disconcerting. The way that it rears it's head back when the girl moves to stroke it, for example, or the way the ears twitch and the eyes narrow, is absolutely perfect.

Amdahl CPU board - found by accident on eBay a few years ago, this circuit board from a 1992 Amdahl 470-series mainframe is a marvellous example of the state of the art at the time - the front of the PCB has an array of 42 air-cooled CPUs, neatly laser-bonded to the substrate and each with their own little heatsink... The back of the board, on the other hand, is a mass of hand-wired connections, probably to rectify errors in the design of the multi-layer PCB itself, and although this may indicate that the board was an engineering sample many mainframe systems looked like this even in production.

Video game docs - replacementdocs is an archive of downloadable instruction manuals for computer games, currently providing several thousand manuals across a couple of dozen platforms and with more being added all the time. Unusually for this sort of site, it has the full approval of many of the original manufacturers - and some, such as Atari, are actually linking to the site from their own tech support pages. It's neat - I've just found the quick reference card for the old Gunship! helicopter sim, which I lost track of several years ago and without which the game is completely opaque to me!

Dissing Infinium again - following the complete absence of the controversial Phantom console at the E3 technology expo, and the recent filing of an extremely depressing financial statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it seems increasingly doubtful whether Infinium will actually be able continue as a company at all, let alone whether they will ever bring their long-delayed console to market. So, no surprises there, then...?

Apple recalls batteries - Apple have issued a recall for some Powerbook and iBook batteries, following the identification of a risk of overheating and fire. Apple are no stranger to battery problems (remember the PowerBook 5300-cum-hibaci barbeque?), and for that matter neither are a number of other manufacturers - it's a symptom of trying to pack an ever-increasing capacity into an ever-decreasing form factor, and the Lithium Ion chemistry currently in vogue really isn't very friendly.

 

20th May

Regular readers of Epicycle may remember that I still harbour a covert love of eighties heavy rock music, and when I noticed adverts for a new DVD by veteran Aussie rockers AC/DC, Family Jewels, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion. I went to Amazon first, as usual, and as their price seemed good for a double DVD I went ahead with the purchase - this is fairly routine by now, and I wasn't really paying attention until a message suddenly popped up a telling me that thanks to some EU loophole I could have it delivered from Amazon's Jersey division and so save a whole bunch on tax... I can't quite remember the details, and apparently I can't make it happen again without buying a second DVD, but whatever the rationale I was delighted to pay a mere £10.89 including shipping. Talk about a bargain!

I've listened to a lot of AC/DC over the years, especially the earlier songs, but they've never really been a group that has spent much time on video and so the forty tracks on this pair of DVDs have been something of a revelation to me.

The first disc is the classic era that I grew up with, from their earliest appearance on Australian TV in the seventies to a recording of Highway To Hell made only ten days before the untimely death of founding singer Bon Scott in 1980. The other features the band's second life with Geordie front-man Brian Johnson, starting with the definitive Hell's Bells and ending with videos from their 1990 album The Razor's Edge - their 14th release in as many years.

The opening track, way back in 1975, is certainly the most unusual - a cover of blues standard Baby Please Don't Go, featuring not only guitar diva Angus Young in the schoolboy outfit that became his trademark, but also singer Bon Scott as a bizarrely twisted schoolgirl - blonde Heidi wig, heavy makeup, and school pinafore. Perhaps fortunately, Scott apparently didn't consider the gimmick worth persevering with, but somehow Angus's shorts and school cap became an accepted part of the heavy rock mythos - an unlikely phenomena, with hindsight, but definitely a favourite with the fans.

I have to say that the majority of the remaining tracks are pretty much formula - the band have always been extremely accomplished rock musicians, they obviously love what they do, and they've just never felt the need to branch out into anything more adventurous. That really doesn't matter, though - their music is easily among the best of it's genre, and if you happen to like that genre you're going to like a whole bunch of it even more. Buy this DVD, turn the volume up, and then dust off your air guitar - Angus' Young's clear, elegant and yet stunningly powerful riffs are thoroughly infectious, and you're going to need it!

Highly recommended.

 

19th May

I am really looking forward to the end of the week... I've been up to my elbows in SNA printing problems, and after that sort of work I always feel a little dirty. Unfortunately it looks as if, having managed to avoid any intimate acquaintance with the company's out-sourced IBM mainframe for over six years, I'm now going to be forced to cosy up to it only a year or so before it is due to be retired and replaced with a SAP/Siebel system running in-house on my Wintel servers. Ah, well, there goes both my street cred and my dignity.

There's still time for some quick links, though, before I have to go and wash my hands again...

Intense competition to wire the Tube - with sixty companies bidding for the contract to wire the London Underground for cell phone use, there's obviously a lot of money involved - and that's no good thing.

More corporate bullying - Stelios Haji-Ioannou has threatened legal action against a small Welsh cell phone company who have been in the business for several years longer than his new EasyMobile.

Oracle settles whistleblower suit - they've paid off the vice president who exposed the alleged scam over billing for government training with $8 million, but are still professing their complete innocence....

Commodore Teapot - these inspired lunatics ripped the guts out of an old Commodore PET and installed a spinning, illuminated wire teapot of the sort beloved by James Blinn and Alvy Ray Smith.

Flying, flocking Linux - and talking of lunacy, a team at the University of Essex is building helicopters piloted by ultra-compact embedded systems that communicate with each other via Bluetooth.

Scavenging space hardware - villagers living near the Plesetsk Space Center in northern Russia are making ends meet by recycling debris from forty years of launches, in spite of the serious health risks.

Cracking laptop locks - there was something of a fuss about security products from Kensington and others, last autumn, and this video demonstrating the technique is sure to stir up the market again.

PS3 specs - hot on the heels of the semi-launch of the XBox 360 comes the PlayStation 3 and, unlike Microsoft, Sony have committed to backwards-compatibility with both their previous consoles!

Robot skin - bristling with infra red sensors to detect physical contact, a new material developed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre could be used in the next generation of robotic probes.

Travelling at C - a set of photos of a German street try to give an impression of how it would look to drive through the town at the speed of light. One would need excellent brakes, of course...

Country Joe McDonald - the veteran singer-songwriter's web site is full of fascinating history, new music, anti-war protest (you choose the war!) and a whole bunch of other stuff. Recommended.

Bad keyboard food - courtesy of ZDNet Australia, a guide to the worst food to eat over your keyboard. Jelly is especially bad, it seems, but I have to say that I don't usually it it near a computer...

 

17th May

It would be reasonable to suggest that I may have overdone things a little with my home network. Even hardcore geeks don't usually find that they need a rack of DLT tapes storing 1.5Tb in an eight week backup cycle - and that's just for the server, as I have a separate VXA tape library for my desktop PC... In my defence, all I can say is that I've been working with enterprise-level networks for so long that I genuinely don't remember any other way of doing it. All data must be held on redundant drives, all data must be backed up regularly, all systems must be protected by a UPS - anything else is just plain wrong.

A colleague brought in his home PC for some emergency repairs, yesterday, and I became quite uncomfortable when I realised that it had two 160Gb hard disks that weren't mirrored to each other.  The idea of all that data at the mercy of a manufacturer's designed-in MTBF statistics is far too scary to contemplate with equanimity, and I had to bite my tongue when I found myself on the point of lecturing him on data security - he's actually been in IT rather longer than I have, and certainly knows what's what, but even the more technical users just don't think about these things the way a veteran sysadmin does.

It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

 

16th May

It's that start-of-the-week ennui, again, so just some quick links...

Hot hardware - At the redesigned Bit-Tech, a discussion on the innards of the new Xbox 360 - and the specs are actually rather impressive. Three 3.2GHz PowerPC cores, for a start!

Slimmed-down Windows - designed for corporates that need to stretch older PC hardware for a little longer, Eiger will run on a Pentium II with 128Mb RAM, updating systems currently running Win 9x.

MS security suite - One Care, comprising anti-virus, anti-spyware and a firewall, will be aimed at home users and licensed by subscription as expected. The Register has some worthwhile comment.

Air conditioned case - not exactly a Prometeia or a Vapochill, but Nextherm's ICS 8200 features a Peltier with its cool side towards an inlet fan, and is certainly an interesting budget idea.

Collaborative anti-spam - desktop spam filtering software around the world should exchange information on junk messages currently in circulation, increasing the success rate for everyone.

Test your own code - a new product can check source code against a database of 38 million open source files, to make sure that nothing has sneaked in that might violate the terms of the GPL.

Doctor Who e-books - courtesy of the BBC, eight freely downloadable stories from across the canon, complete with new illustrations. Annoyingly, though, they only seem to be in single chapter files!

Space-age ant farm - "as used on a 2003 NASA space shuttle experiment", according to manufacturer Scientifics, Antworks is a blue gel in a neat Perspex container - ants not included!

Sun spits tiny squirt - just to prove that not all solar events are on a cataclysmic scale, the smallest coronal mass ejection yet observed has emerged from an area a mere 10,000 miles across.

X-Ray PowerBook - this see-through image of Apple's finest is fascinating, clearing showing all the fiddly details - the CPU cooler's heat pipe, the bearings on the hard disk spindle, and all the little pins on the circuit board and ICs. Marvellous stuff - but probably best not to be tried at home.

 

15th May

I am not fond of working inside laptops, and especially not this particular one... I bought it on eBay earlier this year, and it serves as an excellent reminder that the emptor should definitely caveat. Although it was advertised as a Latitude C840, in fact the motherboard is from an Inspiron 8200 - a fact of which I'm sure the vendor was aware, as he specialises in Dell laptop components and presumably built it himself from odd spares! The Inspiron range is slightly less feature-rich than the Latitude equivalents, and although the two boards are extremely similar there are some annoying differences. To make matters worse, whoever created this particular Frankenstein's Notebook cut a few corners on the way - a number of screws are missing from both the internals and the casing, and it's taken me a while to tweak and tease everything back into what I consider to be an acceptable state. This particular foray onto the black depths was to add a screw to the orange bracket supporting the video cable, successfully resolving an annoying screen flicker when the lid was opened or closed slightly, and as I took the opportunity to double-check the rest of its innards while I was in there hopefully that will suffice for a while. As it happens, this time I found it very hard to decide between buying a second-hand laptop as always before, or splashing out on a new Dell Latitude D series - and after this experience I strongly suspect that the next time the hardware is up for replacement I'll buy new instead.

Doubts haunt new XBox - although extensive details of Microsoft's upcoming XBox 360 have now been released, one huge question remains unanswered - will it be backwards-compatible with games written for the original console? Amazingly, it seems that Microsoft have not yet decided on this basic feature, which is raising a few eyebrows around the industry given the lateness of the day. Speculation is rife as to whether it's a licensing issue, or a marketing strategy, or even that the three 3.2GHz PowerPC CPUs don't provide enough raw power to emulate the original hardware's 733MHz Pentium III. Whatever the reason, though, backwards-compatibility is likely to be a major factor in the success of the new console, and they'd better make their minds up soon...

And finally, a disturbing reminder of the character of the government of Saudi Arabia, a country with which both the UK and US have extensive financial and political connections. Three prominent reform activists have just been sentenced to between six and nine years in jail for what basically amounts to disagreeing with the Saudi government, after circulating a petition requesting constitutional reform. Their trials were carried out behind closed doors despite earlier promises that they would be heard in public, and in protest to this the men refused to submit a defence - a brave stand indeed, but one that probably hasn't helped the severity of their sentences. All three men are diabetic, and family members are anxious over visible deteriorations in their state of health - Saudi jails are notorious for their appalling conditions and institutionalised brutality, and for middle aged academics a prison sentence that long can effectively amount to a death sentence... Their arrest last year drew rare public criticism from the US government, but since then little if anything has been said - when a country has that much oil and influence, allegedly humanitarian Western governments become strangely muted.

 

14th May

In December 1959, physics diva Richard Feynman, one of the earliest proponents of what is now called nanotechnology, offered a $1000 prize for the first working electric motor no larger than 1/64th of an inch across. He said at the time that he didn't think he'd have long to wait before awarding the prize, and sure enough, less than a year later, a man wandered into his office at Caltech carrying a large wooden box. Feynman groaned to himself - he'd already suffered through a number of approaches from would-be entrants who had misunderstood the challenge, bringing him small but conventional motors many orders of magnitude larger than he had envisioned, and this seemed to be yet another waste of his time. This offering was very different, though - the man opened the box and pulled out a powerful microscope, and Feynman grinned wryly as he realised realised that he was probably about to reach for his chequebook.

Sure enough, the motor, one of ten made by engineer Bill McLellan, was even smaller than Feynman had specified. The wires of the coil were made by patiently rolling the thinnest wire commercially available between two glass slides, reducing its diameter to just 1/80th of a millimetre - a trick McLellan borrowed from watchmakers - and the thirteen separate components were painstakingly assembled using toothpicks and the tips of the finest paintbrushes. Actually, Feynman admitted that he was disappointed by this approach, as he had been hoping to inspire a completely new technology, but he paid up willingly and added the tale to his ever-growing store of anecdotes. None of the motors survive, today - one was actually crushed by a BBC television crew attempting to film it, and the final one, still on display near Feynman's office in Caltech, burned out in 1991 having survived over thirty years of attention from undergraduates.

Four decades after Feynman inspired McLellan, some of the challenges he threw down in his legendary talk "There's Plenty Of Room At The Bottom" have been surpassed many times over. The huge technical advances in micro-miniaturisation that have been developed for the computer industry have ended up with researchers routinely showcasing their work by spelling out words using individual atoms, and highly-convincing simulations illustrate far more complex and sophisticated ideas. Nanotechnology is now a multi-billion dollar research sector, and although little of genuine value has yet been brought to market, the science media is full of fascinating components that seem tantalisingly close to being brought together into actual, working products. It may take a good few years yet, but nanotech is undoubtedly going to change the 21st century in just the same way that computers changed the 20th - and I'm waiting with bated breath to see it happen.

[Heh - while I was looking for nanotech links for the last paragraph, I came across some work by my friend Vik Olliver. I lost touch with Vik when he emigrated from England to New Zealand a few years ago, and have often wondered what he's doing with himself. I guess now I know!]

 

13th May

Crying wolf - a paper released today at a Canadian security conference brings news of a possible flaw in the HyperThreading technology used in Intel's high-end processors, such that a rogue process running on one virtual CPU may be able to eavesdrop on security keys being calculated on another. However, a long thread at Slashdot suggests that a) the guy is a bit of a loon, and probably angling for a job in IT security, and b) the flaw, if indeed it does exist, is so incredibly theoretical and ineffective that it's really not worth losing sleep over. I certainly won't be - when some of my users can barely enter their IDs correctly at a login prompt, that sort of risk is the least of my worries...

Stupidity is its own reward - a Melbourne teen's iPod was accidentally put through the washing machine, and so he decided to open it up to repair it... At which point it exploded (rather gently, admittedly - there really isn't much oomph in a battery that thin, even if it is lithium-ion chemistry), ending up with him being treated by paramedics for inhalation of fumes. Excuse me while I cram my fist into my mouth to stifle the laughter.

Exotic weaponry - the DREAD gun is a new design based on a rapidly spinning centrifuge that releases ball bearings at speeds of up to 300 metres per second, equivalent to a handgun. The rotary action would be quiet and reliable, and allows an unprecedented density of fire - with a mere 8.5mm between each round, the mass delivered to the target in any given period of time is extremely high. Full details in an article at New Scientist, and further background (with video!) at a pair of articles in Defense Review.

Son of Broadcast Flag - I certainly didn't think that we'd seen the last of the Broadcast Flag, but I have to admit that I didn't expect it to be resurfacing this soon. The MPAA has already started schmoozing around Capitol Hill, looking for a Congressman willing to sponsor what is apparently an even more draconian, wide-reaching version of the FCC's proposals, recently overturned by the Court Of Appeals. The new draft not only re-states the original intention of restricting the re-broadcasting of digital media, but also seek to control "all devices capable of performing an analogue-to-digital conversion". This is scary stuff indeed, and technically extremely implausible, but the smart money doesn't rate the MPAA's chances very highly - political support for the media lobby is waning, it seems, as in spite of extensive lobbying not one Hollywood-backed law has been passed in the last eighteen months.

Tasteless tech - a water cooling block inspired by a V6 engine. It's interesting, I guess, and the blue LEDs built into the "cylinders" are a neat idea, but... no, I don't think I'll be choosing a pair of those for the next version of Infinity. I'm still waiting for Koolance to launch the larger, PC-V2000 based version of their second generation integrated chassis, and then it will be time to learn plumbing.  :-)

 

12th May

It's that link again.

Trouble in paradise - Google's new accelerator has been withdrawn only a few days after the launch, with the company citing inadequate capacity on it's servers. The widespread stories of serious security issues caused by caching credentials are probably nearer the mark, however...

"Now that the living outnumber the dead" - a new report reveals that the UK currently has more cell phones than people, which won't come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the Motorola graveyard in the bottom drawer of my desk. 3G phones are still a pointless waste of silicon, though, it seems...

Poring over the fine print - the RealID act that has just been passed in the US has all sorts of bizarre and disturbing clauses, it seems, and Hannibal at Ars.Technica has been trying to make sense of the ramifications. Even the staunchly-Republican NRA zealots aren't going to like some of them, he thinks.

Deserting the cause - Apple are considering scrapping the open source model for their Safari web browser, and moving to a new proprietary code base in order to "resolve compatibility conflicts". The announcement is ruffling feathers, of course, and it has to be said that they were fairly ruffled already...

And talking of open source - a new survey has brought some unexpected responses, with surprisingly low numbers citing lower cost or better security as a key benefit of the open source ethos, and 14% claiming that they saw no actual advantage over proprietary software. Is the honeymoon ending?

Sober reveals AV flaws - the latest version of the Sober virus prevents antivirus software from opening its files on disk, it seems, which is a problem if the scanner is unable to scan for and terminate malware in memory. I'm amazed that any AV software doesn't have such a fundamental ability, though!

 

11th May

I've just paid out a surprisingly small amount of money for a 1Gb SD memory card for my Palm, and in order to prove that hope springs eternal I stuffed it into my USB card reader to see what happened. The reader is a nice little piece of hardware (it's black, which is a damn good start), but I've never had any luck with the larger capacity memory cards that are now increasingly common - it's happy enough with the 128Mb MMC I use in the Navman, and the 256Mb CF in the camera, but the 512Mb SD cards I used to use in the Palm don't even seem to register as being present. I've emailed the manufacturer a few times, and painstakingly deciphered their bizarre flavour of English to update both drivers and firmware, but even some serious hacking about with INF files has brought no success at all.

I was surprised, therefore, when not only did it read the new 1Gb card perfectly, but also the 512Mb cards that had proved so problematic before. I'd pretty much given up on the whole thing back in the autumn, so I have absolutely no idea why or when it suddenly started working again (and if it stops working tomorrow I still won't be any the wiser) but I'm quite happy to make the most of it while it lasts - a gigabyte of MP3s and Audible audiobooks took only a few minutes to copy over, rather than the half hour or more that it would have required via the Palm's hotsync. Neat!

DIY graph paper - PDFs of graph paper, including some fairly exotic varieties: asymmetric, iso-dots, hexagonal and Celtic knot. No polar coordinate or logarithmic, though, I notice...

Real ID Act passed - more stealth legislation, sneaked through as part of an $82 billion spending bill authorising funds for the Iraq war and tsunami relief. As the saying has it, "no good will come of this"...

20 Questions - at the excellent Cool Tools blog, a hand-held twenty questions game based on a neural net that has been learning to play for seventeen years! It looks extremely cool...

Unusual cooling - a stripped down PC running quite happily immersed in an aquarium full of vegetable oil. As so often with these things, it was done for a bet... Thanks to Boing Boing for the pointer.

The shape of gaming to come? - Some stunning images created by superimposing rendered objects from the Half Life 2 game onto real world scenes. Extremely impressive work.

 

10th May

Odd links...

Marvellous car decorations at Ring Of Fire Enterprises - I'm especially fond of the Darwin fishes, based on a certain well-known religious emblem.

New technology at AnandTech - SATA II hardware is starting to ship, with performance boosted by NCQ acceleration, and Samsung are releasing hybrid disk drives with flash memory cache onboard.

Coincidence? - Michael Dell has personally invested $100 million in debentures from Linux firm Red Hat - but the value of the company's shares has fallen by almost 45% in the year since the purchase.

Pots and kettles - ex-RIAA bigwig Hilary Rosen is up in arms about the iPod's embedded DRM, but amazingly she seems quite happy about the idea of "geeks" bypassing the protection!

Innovative - Bram Stoker's classic Dracula, reworked as a weblog with posts made on the same dates as those in the journal of Jonathan Harker that forms the novel. A very clever idea...

Consolidation - Adobe is to acquire Macromedia in an all-stock transaction valued at around $3.4 billion, leaving just three of the dozens of graphics companies that existed twenty years ago.

Over-reaction? - all 900,000 subscribers of UK ISP Telewest have been blacklisted by the SPEWS anti-spam service due to the huge number of PCs that have been compromised by spammers.

Rumour mill - GameSpot has an excellent summary of everything known or suspected about the forthcoming next-gen consoles - Microsoft's Xbox 360, the Playstation 3, and Nintendo's Revolution.

 

9th May

User's of Pinnacle's ShowCenter media bridge are a frustrated bunch, on the whole, and not without good reason. The extensive griping on the support forums suggests that my own experiences are fairly typical, but I've persevered through the appalling early software releases, the useless wireless networking in the first revision, the annoyance of sending it back to Germany several times for "reworking" (for a fee, of course!) and finally a handful of broken solder joints that I ended up fixing myself. All in all, I was not very impressed...

As it stands the hardware itself finally seems to be working correctly, but it has to be said that the software still leaves something to be desired. Fortunately, other people have noted its shortcomings too, and some of them are software developers. Something I've just stumbled upon is the ShowCenter Plus Pack, and this adds a few interesting new facilities, but although Pinnacle's software looks quite slick and polished these days it still isn't very feature rich.

Recently I've been testing the open source Oxyl~Box, which apart from being linguistically rather too German for ease of use, is superior in almost every way to Pinnacle's own offering, and probably the best alternative if you're disappointed with the bundled application. Other 3rd party servers are Open Showcenter and SwissCenter (although I've yet to look extensively at either of those) and Neuston's Media Center is also fully compatible, as their Virtuoso MC-500 appliance uses the same Sigma Design REALmagic CPU (if you can call it that!) as the ShowCenter itself.

It's well worth exploring some of the alternatives, especially considering that Oxyl~Box can apparently co-exist quite happily on the same server system as the original ShowCenter software. Current versions will even perform the firmware upgrade and configuration tasks that until now have been unique to the original app, and given how little one has to lose by switching I'd strongly recommend doing just that.

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Operation Salami Drop - a Newark deli is trying to help the troops, but doesn't the concept of shipping two tons of decidedly unclean food into an Islamic country seem to be a little bit... tactless?

The dangers of MP3 - another article on the risks to hearing associated with personal MP3 players, although I remember this going back to the eighties when the Sony Walkman first became popular!

Firefox exploit demonstrated - two flaws in the open source Firefox browser can be combined to render the host PC vulnerable, according to Secunia, who have rated the risk "extremely critical".

Apple's Safari browser compromised - a proof of concept virus attacks the newly released Tiger OS, and it seems likely that genuine malware will follow soon. A bad day for the anti-Microsoft camp...

Personal supercomputer - the Orion Multisystems DC-96 contains 96 interconnected 1.2 GHz processors, giving an impressive peak capacity of 230 gigaflops from the fridge-sized unit.

Fooled by hype - protestors are complaining about the "Nano-Tex" coating used in clothing from Eddie Bauer, in spite of the fact that the brand name owes far more to marketing than to science!

Knights Armament resource - everything you ever wanted to know about the KAC Modular Weapons System, with all sorts of techy details of the wide variety of barrel and foregrip options.

 

8th May

Just some random links, tonight.

Oh, the irony - OpenX is a special tool for opening those incredibly annoying plastic blister packs, and it really looks the business. As Boing Boing points out, though, it comes blister-packed itself...

But who would use one? - and talking of gadgets, if not nearly as useful, a telephone line powered... uh... "personal massager". Well, it could be worse - at least it's not another stupid USB device!

Microsoft U-turns again - the fracas over anti-discrimination legislation is making Microsoft spin like a top, right now, and this time they've announced full support for any future proposals. Will it last?

Mars probe spotted - the wreckage of the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander, which crashed when its engines failed during re-entry in 1999, has been found after examination of photos taken by later probes.

US restricts computer access - in another butt-headed attempt to protect the country, computers of more than a certain processing capacity have been ruled off-limits to foreigners without a license.

Software crackers jailed - four British members of piracy group DrinkOrDie have been sentenced following a worldwide crackdown. Unusually, all of them held fairly senior positions in the IT industry.

Lies and damn lies - apparently HP's ousted CEO, Carly Fiorina, is now on the lecture circuit discussing what was apparently "the most successful hi-tech merger in history".  <cough>  Bullshit.

New Palm leaked - a few scant details of Palm's new handheld, the LifeDrive, have appeared on a listing at Amazon.com. It certainly looks pretty, but I've been fairly unimpressed with recent models.

And finally, a marvellous photo of Odyssey, the command module of the Apollo 13 spacecraft. It's taken from an unusual angle, and so gives an interesting perspective on the hardware - as my space-guru friend Mike said, "When you consider that the CM was the tiniest part of the Apollo-SV stack, that picture really makes you aware of the size of the thing". The photograph is the work of Daniel Bayer, and his gallery has more wonderful, breathtaking images (mostly landscapes, but plenty of variety in between them) in one place than I've ever seen before. Thanks to The Sideshow for the original link.

 

7th May

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

 - Matt Groening  (Who actually attributed it to Nietzsche)

 

6th May

I am pleasantly surprised, today. I wanted a telescopic sight for my Marui-based SR-25 AEG, and the only one I could find that was sufficiently knobbly, brutal and businesslike for my taste was the relatively new and rare Samurai 3-9x40 Rail Scope. It looked good, but at only $60 I was unconvinced - that really isn't very much money for a zoom lens scope with an illuminated reticule, and a poorly-made optical sight is rather worse than no sight at all. Aside from that, I had some misgivings about ordering from UN Company again, as I had an annoying problem with a previous order - but I couldn't find the particular model I wanted in stock anywhere else apart from Den Trinity, where it was rather more expensive. It did look nice, though, and with the current favourable exchange rate $60 really isn't very much, so I went for it.

The transaction with UN Company went perfectly smoothly this time, and now that I have the scope in my hot little hands in fact it's a very nice piece of hardware. Everything is metal except for the zeroing knobs and the reticule illumination control, and it's fairly solid, well-finished metal at that. The mount is integrated into the rails that form the sides of the tube, a standard dual-clamp mechanism that is tightened down with a pair of allen screws.

What can be seen of the optics are glass instead of plastic, which is a considerable relief, and the image is sharp and bright enough that it's highly likely that the internal lenses are glass as well. The zoom ring is smooth (if just a little stiff at the moment) and even at the maximum 9x magnification I'm not seeing any significant optical weirdness - certainly no spherical aberration, which is often a feature of cheap lens systems. Best of all is the illuminated crosshair reticule - it's switchable between red and green, and each setting has five brightness levels ranging from subtle to gosh! The effect is excellent.

Isn't it pretty!  :-)  It's added half a kilo to the weight of the replica, too, and as the gun already has a metal body on top of that massive SR-25 RAS front-end, it is now officially bloody heavy. The next job is to sight it in, of course, and hopefully I'll be able to do that without attracting too much unwelcome attention from the neighbours.

Elsewhere, some links...

Vintage hardware with a twist - at Photoshop contest site Worth 1000, some marvellous entries as usual. I loved the car radio and the Palaeolithic multitool, but they're all good...

Hollywood calling - the two UK-based owners of a website which links to BitTorrent content that has fallen afoul of the MPAA have been summoned to appear before the District Court of New Jersey.

Cisco announces Wi-Fi tracking - initially only for their Airespace range of access points, but soon to be extended, the system will allow any 802.11 device to be pinpointed to within around 5m.

VAT payable on data transfers - unlike information sent by traditional paper methods, the same data sent electronically is subject to the 17.5% VAT, thanks to a little known EEC Directive from 1977.

Wireless telephony re-invented - combining the relatively tried-and-tested Voice Over IP technology with the upcoming WiMAX wireless standard will bring huge changes to the entire telecoms industry.

 

5th May

The Sideshow reminds us that today is the anniversary of the shootings at Ohio's Kent State University in 1970, and although it may seem like a long time ago and a long way away, it's not something that we should let ourselves forget. Given the growing tension between activists and the British government over the last twenty five years, it seems likely that the only reason we haven't seen a similar tragedy in this country is that until recently our law enforcement officers did not routinely carry guns - but thanks to Bush and Blair that is changing, with more and more policemen not just armed with handguns or even SMGs, but instead carrying military assault weapons such as the H&K G36. That's serious firepower in comparison with the Ohio National Guard's WW2-era Garand M1 rifles...

What would have happened during the miner's strike of 1984-85, the poll tax protests of 1990, or even the persecution of the "travellers" in the mid-eighties, if the police involved had been armed with pistols, let alone the range of weaponry available to them in today's media-hyped and government-sponsored climate of fear? The routine level of police brutality and the tendency for massive over-reaction displayed then makes it perfectly clear that if the police had been armed, we would have seen corpses on the streets - and not just a few of them, either. The current generation of protestors and political activists may well be taking their lives in their hands in a way that has never before been the case in Britain, and as I remember Kent State I can't help but feel a sense of foreboding.

Elsewhere...

In spite of the rumoured upturn in the global IT industry, the giants are still tightening their belts. IBM is cutting up to 13,000 jobs, many in Europe, and Hewlett Packard are continuing the strategy that earned previous CEO Carly Fiorina the nickname of "the pinkslip princess", with around 2000 workers taking "voluntary" redundancy instead of waiting to be downsized with extreme prejudice at a later date.

Meanwhile, hardware guru Dan Rutter's fearless stance on exposing quack technology has certainly brought the loons out of the woodwork again. This week's letters page at Dan's Data has contributions from a fervent supporter of a ludicrous battery enhancer gizmo, whose claims for the product are even more over-blown and implausible than those of the manufacturer, and a representative of the old guard in the shape of a homeopathic medicine evangelist who can't even spell the name of the concept she is defending. It always impresses me that Dan can stay so polite and reasonable in face of abuse from these idiots - I know I couldn't!

More than 170 London businesses have withdrawn their support from the city's controversial 2012 Olympic bid, following the failure of the London Development Agency to provide a realistic budget to relocate them from areas that would be demolished to build various Olympic venues. It's good to be reminded that not everyone in London is as gung-ho to win the bid as Mayor Ken Livingstone claims.

At Ars.Technica, an excellent article on the history of the GUI, from Douglas Englebart's mouse in the late sixties, through the Alto computer and Smalltalk at Xerox PARC in the seventies, and then on to Apple, IBM, Microsoft and all the other imitators. The next time someone tries to tell you that Microsoft stole the GUI from Apple, remember that everybody was guilty of stealing it from Xerox.

And, finally, for the geek who has everything - well, everything except for a scrolling LED belt buckle, that is... They seem to be available rather more cheaply on eBay, too, and in additional colours.   [Note to my friends: If you ever catch me wearing something like this, please put me out of my misery]

 

4th May

Yesterday The Sideshow linked to an article by SF and fantasy author Orson Scott Card, with the comment "Why is Orson Scott Card dancing on Star Trek's grave?". It's a fair question, but I'd take it further, as having read the piece it seems to me that Card has lost the plot entirely. Now don't get me wrong - I'm a huge fan of the majority of his work, and his linked Ender and Bean stories may well be my favourite SF series overall, but this particular article has me foaming gently at the mouth from a combination of factual errors and bizarre, unreasonable assertions. For example:

As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s

The 1930s; really? Does Card actually remember the sort of stories that were being published in the 1930s? I would suspect not, as I never noticed anything in the original Star Trek that particularly reminded me of John W. Campbell, E.E. Smith, Olaf Stapledon or the other luminaries of the period. Now, if he'd said the 1950s, then yes, I could see his point - there's a lot of the spirit of Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber and A. E. Van Vogt in the TOS episodes, which is unsurprising as these were probably some of the authors who influenced the relatively unknown scriptwriters working on the show. Actually, a number of the better episodes were written by established names in the field, such as Harlan Ellison's The City On The Edge Of Forever, Norman Spinrad's The Doomsday Machine or Theodore Sturgeon's Shore Leave - and to suggest that any of those writers were trapped in the 1930s is just plain silly.

Charlie Kaufman created the two finest science fiction films of all time so far: "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

Well, I've watched "Being John Malkovich", and found it whimsical, charming and entertaining - but by no means the finest SF film of all time. And as for "Eternal Sunshine", that was apparently such a spectacular movie that it passed completely under my radar, and although I know the name I hadn't even realised that it was SF! The IMDB review somehow makes it sound like one of the formulaic Robert Sheckley novels that I've usually been rather disappointed by, and while I'm willing to accept that it's probably not that bad, I somehow doubt that it's all that... Most Top 10 lists seem to mention such offerings as Blade Runner, Alien, Dark Star, Brazil, or The Matrix - tastes vary widely, of course, but there have been so many stunning SF movies made in the last thirty years that choosing as the best two from the same writer smacks of dogma.

So why did the Trekkies throw themselves into this poorly imagined, weakly written, badly acted television series with such commitment and dedication? Why did it last so long? Here's what I think: Most people weren't reading all that brilliant science fiction. Most people weren't reading at all. So when they saw "Star Trek," primitive as it was, it was their first glimpse of science fiction.

Oh, dear... It's hard to know where to begin. I know a fair few hardcore Trekkies (yes, I know they prefer "Trekkers", these days, which is why I don't use the term...) and the single thing they have in common is that they all read. A couple of them don't read much else but Star Trek novels, I admit (and, boy, are there a lot of those these days!), but nevertheless - and the majority have eclectic but wide-spread reading tastes not only outside the Star Trek canon, but outside SF in general... Roman history, Victorian railways, romantic poetry, human psychology, political theory, you name it. A fair number of them write, too, on equally diverse subjects.

To broadly condemn Star Trek fans as non-readers is not only inaccurate but insulting, and as that assertion is one of the focal points of the article I can't help but conclude that his entire premise is rather too flawed to be of any value.... I shall go on reading his books (the latest in the "Shadow" series is downloading from Audible as I write this) but I'm afraid that from now on I shall have to reserve the right to bitch about "The Mormon", as two of my notable fan friends call him, whenever I can persuade someone to sit still long enough to listen.

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Desktop fab - 3D printers are a technology whose time has come, it seems, and rather to my surprise interest is especially high in developing countries.

Online action painting - fancy yourself as a budding Jackson Pollock? The ArtPad lets you throw a bucket of paint with the best of them, and you can even hang your work in a virtual gallery afterwards!

More on MS anti-discrimination stance - and now it's turning ugly, with the hate-filled, bigoted evangelist who started all the fuss accusing Microsoft execs of lying about the original meetings.

The chemistry of water cooling - an extremely useful pair of articles at Overclockers.com, with the full skinny on the thermal properties, wetting, corrosion, turbulence and unwanted life forms.

TSA eBay scam - all the items confiscated from airline passengers by the Transportation Security Administration in the name of safety are being sold off - including a terrifying purple sombrero hat...

Tiger problems - the new version of Apple's OS has a number of serious IP connectivity flaws, as apparently they didn't think to include tiny, insignificant companies like Cisco or Microsoft in their beta programme...

 

3rd May

More quick links, as I have no energy and no heart for anything more, tonight.

The end of Budmonkey - there was a site selling cannabis online? What marvellous chutzpah!

Bennett Robot Works - cute little robot sculptures made out of all sorts of retro oddments.

Pork spammed - Manchester's chief constable was receiving over 2000 spam messages per hour.

Go for deployment - the Mars Express probe has finally started to unfold, ready to scan the surface.

Dan has resurfaced after a hiatus, with more letters and a rant on the future of display technology.

And, finally, audible revenge - a CD of sound effects designed to annoy your neighbours - a drill, a party, drumming children, domestic arguments, you name it... and it makes me think of this:

Lenny: "There's nothing like revenge for getting back at people"
Carl: "Oh, I don't know... vengeance is pretty good, too"

   - The Simpsons

 

2nd May

Just a few very quick links, tonight...

SCO, Groklaw and Monterey - an article at The Register clears up a mystery that never was, and then a second article has some more information, some contributed by people involved in the doomed project. Just when you think the whole SCO thing has burned out, up it flares again!

Tax the iPod! - another butt-headed idea, equivalent to the tariff that killed DAT and Audio CDR.

Revolver Tech - at Arnie's Airsoft, an excellent guide to the internals of Tanaka's Pegasus revolvers.

Illuminati Leather - what self-respecting secret society would be without their logo on a jacket?

Fundamentals of the sciences - "If you could teach the world just one thing", asked Spiked.

Rube-Goldberg technology - a 3D printer made from Meccano and a hot glue gun. Classic!

Pastures new - hackers are increasingly turning their attention to targets other than Windows itself.

Testing, testing - a neat little network cable tester, right down at the bottom of the market.

The lights, man, the colours! - wavelength-agile lasers are the next big thing in optics, it seems.

 

1st May

So, as planned, I spent most of Saturday afternoon elbow-deep in technology. In a PC with this many components changing the power supply is quite a task, I'd rather have left it until I was able to transplant the whole system into the new case I'm planning, but the voltage on the 5V rail was sinking and sinking and I was getting all sorts of stability issues. Anything that stressed the hardware acceleration of the graphics card would crash it instantly, completely corrupting the screen display, and under load I was getting upsettingly frequent momentary failures on one or more the SATA disk channels - the hardware RAID meant that my data was safe enough, but having half of one's drives drop offline spontaneously is not good for the nerves.

Out with the old... I had to remove the top fan in order to provide clearance to slide the PSU forward, and while I was there I pulled the top window out completely, gave it a thorough clean, and taped it back into place again. I don't know how long it will last, as my cleaning woman seems to be a touch heavy-handed while she's dusting and the Perspex tends to sag downwards after a while, but it looks better in the short term, at least. I also had to disconnect a whole raft of wiring, as when I first built the chassis the power supply was pretty much the first thing I installed and so its cabling was at the lowest archaeological level, as it were.

And in with the new... At this stage it looks as if a squid has crawled into the chassis and died. The PCP&C unit has a different selection of power feeds than the old Antec, including a pair of SATA connections which were quite handy as far as they went - but each connector was alone on the end of its cable, which isn't particularly efficient. The manufacturers are going to have to start gearing up for SATA in a big way soon, once optical drives and other internal devices start moving to the new bus, and at that point we're definitely going to need a lot more than two connectors.

And there we are. The DigiDoc reports a nice high, stable voltage on both 5V and 12V rails, and it looks as if all is running nicely. The wiring isn't quite as neat and tidy as the previous incarnation, but as I'm planning a migration to a new chassis in the next month or two there didn't seem much point in being anal about the fine details. The next incarnation is likely to be a bit less complex, too, with luck - with water cooling for the CPUs and disk drives I can do away with a proportion of the fans, and so a proportion of the fan and temperature monitoring cables as well. Of course, I'll be adding a bunch of water hoses in their place, so it will be interesting to see how it all works out.

 

Meanwhile, back at the stats... Well, I suppose that could have been worse - visits up a bit, page hits up a bit more. I wonder what the next month will bring?

Oh, and I passed 100,000 hits sometime around mid-April, which is considerably earlier than I was expecting. I have to admit that it's slightly bizarre to think that more than 100,000 people (one hundred thousand!) have come to this site and read something that I've written, even if they only thought "no, that's not what I was looking for" and clicked off somewhere else again - although the average visit length is around a minute, so there evidently aren't too many of those... If I was double-jointed I would be able to pat myself on the back, but as it is I shall just have to settle for looking smug.

 

 

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