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30th November

It's been a thoroughly annoying day, with dead computers coming out the wazoo.

Sometimes the temptation to cross-train into plumbing (especially given the apparent level of demand in this neck of the woods!) is almost overwhelming. Decades of experience has suggested that plumbing is no less wet than some moments of my career in IT, certainly...

Before I head off to buy a Mario-style boiler suit and practice sucking air through my teeth, then, a small handful of links:

The rootkit post-mortem has begun - I have no idea why I though that I could stop reporting on the apparently endless saga of Sony's DRM rootkit, as it's still far too interesting to ignore. Business Week has a long and highly informative article on the sequence of events behind the scenes.

Losing or gaining? - In the wake of another industry analysis report claiming that Microsoft are losing money on their new Xbox 360 (the figure being bandied about varies between $310 and $525 per unit) Microsoft are insisting that actually they're making a small profit!

DualHead2Go - I briefly mentioned the cunning new laptop dual display adaptor from Matrox last week, but now there are full reviews at primo geek sites AnandTech and Bit-Tech and it looks as if it works very well.

 

29th November

Apparently finding a plumber in East London is comparable to finding a sasquatch or a yeti, and the earliest anyone can come to look at my central heating is Friday morning. It's proving to be a cold week in hell. Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Why the rootkit is good - [Yum, this 386 motherboard is tasty]. The Tech Zone thinks that the fall-out from Sony's recent misadventure in DRM may be a good thing, not only by weakening the status of DRM within the industry but also by bringing the entire issue to the public's attention.

Not quite the rootkit - meanwhile, it turns out that Sony's earlier attempt at CD copy protection, MediaMax, could well install itself permanently even if you don't agree to the pop-up license agreement. Whether that little "slip" is accidental or by design is not clear as yet...

MIT's $100 laptop details emerging - an ambitious project sponsored by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte to flood the developing world with low-cost laptops is coming close to fruition, with details of both the hardware and the software now starting to emerge.

Massachusetts dithering over Microsoft - the state's controversial and highly publicised decision to move away from Microsoft's proprietary Office suite to the open source equivalent may not actually happen, it seems, especially now that MS are trying to open their file formats further.

Cybercrime more profitable than drugs - computer-related crime generated a higher turnover worldwide than drug trafficking, last year, and a new reports suggests that it is set to grow even further as the use of technology in developing countries expands.

For the toolbox - unstoppable copier is a last-ditch recovery utility designed to read data from damaged CDs and floppy disks, and elsewhere MajorGeeks has bundled the entire Microsoft XP PowerToys suite into a single zip file to make download easier.

Connector reference - at Tom's Hardware, a comprehensive guide to the various connectors, interfaces and ports found in IT hardware, updated to include all the modern parallel and serial expansion buses.

Lego D&D - the Brickquest site gives instructions for building dungeon floor plans from Lego, and it's neatly done. We used to do this back in the late seventies when D&D was new and cool, but this particular recipe is rather more convenient than anything we came up with, I think.

 

28th November

Only a couple of months ago, in the summer, I was cursing the excessive heat that my fat-ass Latitude C840 laptop emits and contemplating asbestos underpants, but tonight I'm grateful for as much waste heat as it will emit. My central heating went AWOL over the weekend (the coldest days so far this year, naturally), and thanks to the assumption that a plumbing maintenance company with a glossy web site and a pair of well-publicised email addresses might actually read their mail once in a while I'm still waiting for it to be fixed. Tomorrow I will resort to the old-fashioned tactic of ringing round adverts in the local yellow pages, and needless to say Olympic Plumbing will not be one of the candidates.

Fortunately, perhaps, my teeth are chattering too much for me to be able to mutter about it under my breath all evening, so here are some random news links while I wait.

That darn rootkit - I guess I'll have to eat that ICL motherboard, now, as this one is too good to pass up: courtesy of Boing Boing, it emerges that the author of the much-lamented DRM software was in the habit of trolling the developer newsgroups begging people to write code segments for him. Sad...

DRM losing money? - and while I'm munching on silicon and phenolic resin, one more story. Contrary to the last report I quoted, an article at Ars.Technica suggests that in fact consumers are starting to boycott CDs protected by DRM, if only because it makes ripping to their MP3 players annoying.

Thinking inside the box - companies that are trying to make the office more appealing by providing games and fringe benefits are missing the point, according to business guru Douglas Rushkoff - they should simply make the work itself more enjoyable and appealing. I'm really not sure about that...

The Symantec Effect - a mere three months after the giant software conglomerate gobbled up little Sygate, manufacturer of a free personal firewall, they have discontinued all of the Sygate products! Could this have anything to do with the fact that they have a decidedly non-free product of their own?

Chilling effects - a new study suggests that a third of the "take-down notices" used to remove media from the web under the DMCA are either thoroughly malicious and groundless (often businesses targeting commercial rivals), or are so badly worded that they are not actually legal.

Going down fighting - Sharman Networks, current owner of the controversial Kazaa P2P software, may be under pressure from all sides but they haven't given up yet, and the music industry's case against them is being considerably hampered by failures of their expert witnesses to attend court!

Useless innovation - troubled by champagne corks ricocheting around the room? Just attach this canister to the neck of the bottle, slip a pin into the cork, and at the top of its trajectory it will deploy a small parachute and "drift down harmlessly". I just want you to know that I'm shaking my head, here...

 

26th November

To nobody's surprise, links:

Flexible power - a multi-way power strip that can cope with voltages from 100 to 300V, and with a wonderful variety of sockets to cope with pretty much any mains plug in the world.  Made in China, apparently they're all the rage in Iraq, where they can be bought for a couple of dollars.

DWP call centres "in meltdown" - the day after EDS agreed to pay out £71 million compensation for the Inland Revenue's disastrous Tax Credit system, news has emerged that their new computerised call centres for the Department Of Work And Pensions are performing just as badly.

Alien hackers - some balloon-head at FermiLab is spreading a scare story that aliens will use the SETI@home project to infect our computers with dastardly extraterrestrial viruses, thus displaying his complete ignorance of both the SETI programme and how computers work. Arrant gibberish...

Symantec blocks "audit tool" - Symantec are refusing to sell the infamous L0pthCrack hacking tool (now rebadged as LC5 after Symantec's acquisition of one-time hacking group L0pht) to customers outside the US, citing government regulations covering export of encryption technology.

Schneier on security - courtesy of ZDNet, some worthy sound-bites from the security guru, including his take on ID cards (useless), cybercrime vs. cyberterrorism (one is being largely ignored while the other is being over-hyped) and the likely future outcome (massive erosion of civil liberties).  <sigh>

Pong clock - a wall-mounted flat panel displaying a perpetual game of Pong, with each game taking exactly one minute and the player scores displaying the current time. I'm browsing for a wall new clock myself, at the moment, but I think this one might be a little outside my price range...

iTunes domain dispute ends - the fierce argument between Apple and Ben Cohen, a former teenage dot-com millionaire, over ownership of the itunes.co.uk domain is over. Cohen has renounced all rights to the domain after adjudication determined that his claim was an "abusive registration".

Very large machines - a Quicktime VR virtual tour around CERN's amazing Large Hadron Collider, the accelerator that is going to take particle physics onward into the 21st century. Don't miss the buttons on the right of the control strip that skip on to the next view in the sequence.

Out of the frying pan - the disgraced ex-director of FEMA, the US government agency that so mismanaged the recent hurricane disaster in New Orleans, has founded a disaster planning firm to help companies avoid the sort of errors for which he and his agency were responsible.

Completely batty - Project X-Ray was a bizarre World War II plan to attack Japanese cities using a million bats armed with tiny incendiary devices, but the idea was workable and thanks to an endorsement from President Roosevelt himself ("This man is not a nut") it almost became a reality.

And finally, Total Hadrware 99, something I stumbled across while searching elsewhere. It's a massive database of technical specifications for motherboards, expansion cards, hard disks etc. - jumper settings, board layout, pin definitions, you name it. Unfortunately, as the name suggests, it hasn't been updated since 1999 - but even so it's an impressive and potentially extremely useful resource for those working with antique PC hardware. I used to have access to the extremely expensive commercial equivalent of this resource (what was that called?) when I worked for a PC building company back in the early nineties, but I think actually this publicly accessible service is even better.

 

25th November

A few quick links, but before that what I promise is going to be my final word on the Sony DRM/rootkit saga - and if it isn't, I'll eat the motherboard from an ICL DRS M50 workstation.

Much has been written since the rootkit was identified earlier this month, and recently it's been suggested that this strong reaction from the Internet community and elsewhere is actually persuading the company to abandon this kind of clumsy, intrusive DRM. However, it turns out that the effect on the bottom line, the only thing that really counts to an organisation this size, has actually been minimal or even completely non-existent! Sales of the "protected" CDs have been unchanged since the story broke, few if any CDs have been returned to the stores, and profits for all concerned are as fat and bloated as ever. Given the general public's continuing ignorance and apathy over computer security, this shouldn't really come as a surprise - with figures suggesting that a quarter of UK computers are seriously compromised by genuine, intentional malware, something so benign in comparison is hardly likely to arouse much enthusiasm.

It's very easy for well-connected geeks to assume that everyone feels as strongly about issues of electronic privacy and civil liberties as we do, but it is also far from accurate. It's clear that the fuss online has peaked for the moment, and even though I expect a renewed burst of publicity both online and elsewhere when the various lawsuits start to kick in, I have the feeling that we've already passed the peak of public interest - and without the active involvement of the CD-buying public, there isn't even a chance of Sony (or any other media company) changing its long term strategy. The best we can hope for, I think, is that they'll be more careful not to break our computers with the next version of the software - but in fact I'm not holding my breath even for that. DRM is here to stay, and it's likely to get worse and worse as time goes on.

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

The holiday season - At BBSpot, signs that you're having Thanksgiving dinner with a geek. At number one, "the turkey is given the opportunity for a saving throw before being butchered". Indeed.

Engineers on high alert - the service department of copier manufacturer Canon is bracing itself for the usual wave of alcohol-induced damage as office revellers attempt to photocopy their hindquarters.

Modular data storage - a new range of external hard disks from quirky storage specialist LaCie is shaped like giant, stackable, brightly-coloured Lego bricks.

X-rated - courtesy of ZDNet, a guide to getting a technical job in the adult entertainment industry. Running the network for a large commercial porn site would certainly be an interesting challenge.

Not like in the movies - shooting a padlock off is far more difficult than Hollywood makes it seem, according to these tests, and in fact if you only have a handgun it's hardly even worth trying.

Black box diagnoses crashes - a new appliance maintains a running history of all user activities on a misbehaving PC to identify the cause of crashes in .Net and J2EE applications.

Pencil carving - another of those "who knew?" crafts, these remarkable pieces from a pair of Japanese artisans are the most intricate work imaginable given the rather challenging medium!

Inconsistencies - just the thing for those of a nit-picking persuasion, an extremely comprehensive list of all the errors, inconsistencies, cock-ups and just plain stupidity in Star Trek.

SANS top 20 vulnerabilities - it's that time of the year again, so the security organisation has published their annual summary of why sysadmins should be biting their fingernails right about now.

Dan's Data letters #155 - it's very good to see Dan back to his old prolific self after a rather a prolonged dry spell over the summer - and it looks as if he's annoyed the quacks again.

And finally, a kind of musical ransom note - type a sentence into this cunning Swedish web page to have it sung to you using words taken from different songs. The overall result is extremely effective, and somewhat bizarre, suggesting an audible equivalent of the movie-style ransom notes made up from different fonts cut from newspapers and magazines. The database is already fairly extensive, but if it's missing a word you want to use you can submit a song title that you know contains it. I think this is a marvellous idea, and I've been having great fun typing in whole lines from songs to hear them sung back as a mash-up of many voices. Fascinating.   :-)

 

24th November

A random selection of random links.

Magnificent obsession - an extensive collection of music videos made by splicing together scenes from movies and television shows: Star Trek, Buffy, Sherlock Holmes, Starsky And Hutch, Quantum Leap and Star Wars, to name but a few - and with an equally varied selection of songs, too... The videos are the work of a husband and wife team, and are a undoubtedly a remarkable achievement.

Not quite what it seems - the news that billionaire Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is to donate $100m to charity sounds thoroughly worthwhile until you realise that it is a court-ordered settlement following allegations of insider trading. Ellison made $900m profit selling shares in the company just before the stock price halved back in 2001, a move which some have found highly suspicious...

iSuppli lifting the lid - the engineering analysis company has stripped down the new Xbox 360, and has determined that the components alone cost a third more to manufacture than the console actually sells for. Costs are expected to fall as the console goes into full-scale production, but the inevitable price drops that will come over its lifespan will probably compensate for that.

EDS settles after Tax Credit debacle - the consultancy will stump up £71.25m to settle a dispute with the Inland Revenue following the disastrous system it attempted to install in 2003. The failed project joins a large number of other doomed systems created by EDS and its equivalents - but don't worry, the UK government still trusts them with the DWP, Offender Management Service, and MOD...

Public divided on ID cards - even as support within the government for the fatally flawed ID card scheme is waning, a new poll suggests that  the general public are starting to reconsider as well. Initial surveys showed that people had fallen for the Home Office spin, but it seems that the more people hear, the less they like the idea, and public approval is now down to around 50%.

Falling from grace - notorious anti-computer games advocate Jack Thompson has lost his license to practice law in Alabama following bizarre behaviour stemming from his allegations that the game Grand Theft Auto was directly responsible for a teenager shooting three police officers in 2003. I'm hoping that this will soon be followed by the revocation of his license in his home state of Florida.

Korea confirms Apple probe - the controversial deal between Apple and Samsung over flash memory for the recent iPod models is to receive official scrutiny from the Fair Trade Commission. It is alleged (probably by competing MP3 player manufacturers!) that Apple received discounts to well below market price thanks to an extremely large up-front order, which certainly does seem plausible...

 

23rd November

Somewhat to my surprise, I appear to have bought myself another tape library, a Quantum-ATL P1000. I've been looking to upgrade my little seven slot Dell PowerVault 120T for a while, thanks to the ever expanding bulk of data on my home server, and this model has been at the top of my shortlist as one of the most plausible cost/capacity ratios on the second hand market.

They're common enough on eBay, but generally change hands for somewhat more than I'm comfortable paying for second hard tape hardware and often have some minor but annoying flaw (no key for the front door is the usual one) as well - but as I haven't been under any real pressure to upgrade I generally put in a low bid just in case. This time, however, the library appears to be complete and in extremely good condition, and when it came down to it I was the only bidder and won the auction at the opening price, a very reasonable £250.

This particular example of the breed is fully-loaded, with four DLT 7000 drives and 30 tape slots, giving a capacity of over a terabyte before compression and a maximum throughput of around a gigabyte per minute. The model also has an unusually sophisticated onboard management system, complete with a high-res LCD touch-screen GUI on the front panel - although it will remain to be seen whether giving a tape library this much of a brain is actually a good thing...

I'll retire the PV120T now (anyone want a cute little desktop tape library? Only two owners - one completely unknown but the other ever-so careful!) and when combined with the beloved VXA autoloader on my desktop I'll have a near-line capacity of around 1½Tb. Damn, but I love tape backup!  :-)

Meanwhile, I've just started reading William Gibson's latest novel, Pattern Recognition, the first story that isn't science fiction (or, at least, not overt SF with nanotech and virtual reality and AI) and to my amazement it feels more than anything like an Iain Banks novel, especially his recent works, Dead Air and The Business. I'm a huge fan of both authors, and as far as I'm aware have read pretty much everything they've ever written, and to me the similarity is inescapable - I have to keep looking at the cover to make sure that Bill's name really is there instead of Banksie's.

I'm still in the early stages of the story, but in spite of the bizarre crossed-over writing style I have to admit that the plot is already showing clear signs of similarity with one of the recurring themes from Gibson's linked cyberpunk stories, the patterns that can be found in the way that humans interact with data - Bobby Newmark looking for the shape of the Matrix, Laney seeking the nodes around which society pivots, and of course the emergence of the AIs as self-aware, self-motivated entities in their own right. It will be fascinating to see where the story goes - and equally fascinating to see if it still feels like a Banks novel when it gets there.

 

22nd November

Back in the harness with some random links - some of this, some of that... But none of the other, as I do have standards to maintain.

Keeping the lid on it - a four-way elastic band designed for holding boxes closed, an excellent example of the "I could have thought of that" school of invention.

From the horse's mouth - über craft tool manufacturer Dremel has their own online store, now, and for a change the prices seem comparable with those of their regular distributors.

That time of the year again - all your christmas shopping needs catered for, courtesy of the geeks at Ars.Technica - games, gadgets, computer hardware and more.

After Duchamp - an exhibition of flower-shaped urinals and other nature inspired sculptures by San Francisco artist Clark Sorensen. Thanks to Ros (who described it as "taking the piss") for the link.

Take back the standard - the Public Patent Foundation is launching a legal challenge to the notorious JPEG patent currently owned (and zealously enforced) by Forgent Networks.

Protecting your vote - the EFF is fighting to prevent the seriously flawed Diebold voting machines from receiving an exemption to legislation requiring their source code to be made available for scrutiny.

It's rude to share - a highly dubious agreement to pass personal data on European air passengers flying into the US to the Department of Homeland Security will violate data protection legislation.

Very tiny machines - a sudden flurry of doll's house synthesisers: a Moog Modular, a Theremin, and Rick Wakeman's entire 1970 keyboard suite. Pointless, but marvellous all the same.

 

21st November

Home again, home again, jiggidy-jig! Devon was as cold as usual, and it's nice to be back in the relative balm of sub-tropical Essex. Until tomorrow, then, when things have settled down a bit, a small handful of lightning-fast links while I'm waiting for something that is late:

It's that rootkit again... A class action brought by the EFF, and another lawsuit from the State Of Texas, bringing the total to around seven. Meanwhile, Boing Boing reports that various cats have been put amongst various pigeons inside Sony, with big-name artists fuming and label heads condemning DRM in all its forms. Elsewhere, Orrin Hatch, notorious mouthpiece of the recording industry, has reaffirmed his belief in destroying people's computers to teach them a lesson.

Kevin Bachus leaves Infinium Labs - and another christmas is about to pass with no sign of the Phantom games console. Even for vapourware, this one takes the biscuit...

Two threads good, four threads bad? - another scare about Intel's HyperThreading technology has surfaced, suggesting that SQL servers and similar may suffer badly under heavy load. Hmmm.

Go-faster graphics - ATI have launched the latest in their venerable All-In-Wonder line, the X1800-XL. It looks as if it's going to be PCI Express only, which still leaves me hunting for the rare X800-XT.

Prostitution by any other name - employees of dating site Match.com have been posing as romantic prospects (both online and in person!) in order to persuade members to re-subscribe to the service.

 

17th November

I'm heading off to the wilds of Devon for a few days, so this is the last update until after the weekend. Maybe when I get back the continuing saga of That Damn Rootkit will finally have died down - but until that happens Boing Boing is keeping us all in the picture with an updated version of their timeline, and a link to security diva Bruce Schneier's rather pointed comments on the changing reaction of the big IT security companies to Sony's little gizmo.

Elsewhere:

Dan on 3D printers - an idea whose time has finally come, it seems - and in a couple of Dan's wonderful throwaway links, a look at a pair of very interesting robotic creatures.

Inside 1984 - a Chait/Day insider tells the story of the famous Macintosh advert that aired during the Superbowl, and has since become one of the great icons of the computer age.

Atari laptop - and talking of classics, this 1987 vintage Atari 800 XE has been reworked into a clamshell format, stuffed to the gills with wood grain and brushed aluminium. Marvellous work!

Breaking spaghetti - an interesting little puzzle that I first came across in Richard Feynman's memoirs, the unexpected way in which dry spaghetti shatters, has finally been analysed and modelled.

Stage Tree - inspired by the genetically engineered organic rocket boosters in Larry Niven's "Known Space" stories, this all-wood model rocket can reach around 2500 feet.

Folding stuff - the age-old challenge of folding a sheet of paper seems to be progressing: it was 7 times in my youth, and 8 until recently, but now an enterprising  teen has managed 12 times!

Payment in kind - New York techie "Ray Digerati" is advertising his services on Craigslist in exchange for sexual favours, and has no shortage of customers. Hell, it's always worked for me...  :-)

Rude hardware - and talking of rude things, this addon for the iPod is another classic debasement of technology. I approve in principal, but find it hard to endorse yet another damn iPod accessory...

And finally, a bad day for ID cards - the House Of Lords has voted to reject the ID Cards bill in its present form, demanding tighter controls over the organisations that would be allowed to use the cards to check a person's identity. They also expressed concern that the Home Office would not reveal the total cost of the proposals, and coming as it does right after the ex-MI5 chief Stella Rimington said that the cards would be of no use in the fight against terror, this has to be seen as a severe blow to the Government's plans. Excellent news, indeed.

 

16th November

I've just treated myself to a new cellphone to replace my ageing Motorola T250, and for the first time in as long as I can remember I've found myself dazzled by technology. It's not the phone itself, as although it's a wonderfully compact, feature-rich and downright cool little device, that's exactly what I was expecting from the various spec-sheets and reviews.

Instead, the thing that has left me slightly open-mouthed is the memory card, one of the new micro-SD format "TransFlash" modules. I hadn't even heard of this format until I was shopping for phones, but I've seen a lot of memory cards over the years and as I wasn't expecting anything very special I didn't investigate further...

That little black flake in the middle (next to the SD-sized adaptor that allows it to be used in conventional card readers) is 512Mb of memory! Half a gigabyte, in something the size of my little fingernail. It was only a couple of years ago that only my biggest, most powerful servers had that much RAM, and now I'm adding it to a cellphone in a format that could be blown away completely if somebody opened a window!

On reflection it's nothing that I haven't seen evolving over the last few years, as full-sized PCMCIA flash memory cards were replaced by Compact Flash, then SD/MMC; and as capacities easily doubled every year or so - but even so I have to admit that I'm impressed. It doesn't seem plausible that the form factor will shrink much further, as it's damn fiddly already, but it's reasonable to assume that both capacity and performance will increase steadily until the next big thing arrives.

Meanwhile, the DRM saga that just won't die:

Wired calls for Sony boycott - are Sony replacing Microsoft as the company everyone loves to hate?

Recall for rootkit CDs - Sony has bowed to public pressure and is recalling the notorious disks.

Removal makes things worse - Sony's DRM uninstaller leaves a system even more vulnerable!

Elsewhere - yes, there really is still an elsewhere, in spite of Sony...

Risk with Google Maps - the classic board game brought neatly up to date. Clever stuff.

Sun's new UltraSPACR T1 - eight cores, with four threads each, and it still only uses 70w of power!

A world without Windows - what would things have been like without Bill's baby?

Security acronyms running wild - ISAKMP flaw in IPSec allows DoS attacks against VPNs.

New crackdown on file sharing - the IFPI has filed 2100 new lawsuits, calling the culprits "dinosaurs"

MS moving up - forthcoming versions of Exchange and Windows Server may be for 64 bit CPUs only.

Rolling your own cellphone - major new advances are as likely to be found in garages as R&D labs.

Supermarket tabloid headlines - via a link on Dan's latest letters page, the best of a bad bunch.

 

14th November

Links... fish-heads... who can tell the difference any more?

Squashing driver bugs - it turns out that a significant proportion of the Windows crashes for which Microsoft has been blamed for so long are actually caused by badly-written 3rd party device drivers, so the company has created some highly innovative software to help developers check their code.

XBox backwards-compatibility - and talking of Microsoft, the long-awaited details of the Xbox 360's support for existing games has finally been announced. Two hundred will be supported at launch (although there are some notable exceptions), and additional titles will be added via future updates.

German IT firm bans complaining - web developer Nutzwerk Ltd has changed its employment terms to demand that employees refrain from being grumpy, surly or complaining, and the MD has suggested that anyone who isn't feeling cheerful in the morning enough stays at home. Hmmm.

TANSTAAFL - the "free" laptop being offered as an incentive by a US Visa card issuer is likely to end up costing several hundred dollars more than the hardware would cost to buy off-the-shelf from Dell, especially if you're not already heavily in debt to the company. Caveat emptor, indeed...

Dell plagued by bad caps - a significant number of Optiplex GX270 and GX280 motherboards manufactured between April 2003 and March 2004 are experiencing premature hardware failures caused by substandard capacitors, and the company is starting to feel the financial pressure.

Spyware not "spyware" - RetroCoders, the manufacturers of a utility that allows covert monitoring of another's PC activity, is resorting to legal threats in an attempt to deter security and anti-virus companies from analysing and detecting their product as spyware. They certainly have chutzpah!

Exposing media malware - at Boing Boing, a comprehensive timeline of the saga of Sony's DRM rootkit, since its discovery on October 31st. It's been a busy couple of weeks, but I think the subject has been pretty much done-to-death by now...

And finally, the end of the universe, and not a restaurant in sight - The latest theory on the ultimate fate of everything suggests that we might all get sucked into a giant wormhole. The so-called "phantom energy" (a form of the largely hypothetical dark energy that could be responsible for the puzzling acceleration of the rate of expansion of the universe) trickling into a wormhole will cause it to swell up so much that it eventually engulfs the entire universe. Ah, well, I suppose that's slightly better than proton decay making everything fall apart, or the classic "heat death" where everything just runs down and stops, or the expansion reversing so that the universe reverts to a singularity and crushes itself, or any of the other possible outcomes suggested so far. It's a dangerous place, the cosmos...

 

13th November

Oh, boy, the saga of Sony's DRM rootkit is going to run and run, with the newsbites coming thick and fast over the last few days. Microsoft has decided to class the software as malicious in their Anti-Spyware and Defender products... Further research has shown that a PC is still vulnerable to hacks using the DRM libraries even after the uninstaller has been used... The DRM software itself actually violates copyright law by failing to adhere to the licensing terms of the LAME MP3 encoder that is bundled with it... A second DRM tool has emerged on other Sony audio CDs, and it looks just as bad as the first one... The EFF has translated the 3000 word end-user license agreement that goes with the rootkit to reveal that Sony is pretty much attempting to hamstring their customers.

As Boing Boing puts it - "If you want to have a safe experience with Sony music, you'd better acquire it by some means other than purchasing it."

Indeed.

Elsewhere (although it's easy to forget that there is any other tech news, right now!)...

A small axe to grind - Corning has a list of highly plausible arguments for switching from copper data cabling to fibre, but it should be remembered that they are one of the world's premier manufacturers of fibre optic cable and hardware...

A kinder, gentler way to say "no" - when someone hits on you for a phone number or an email address, give them one of these automated rejection services. I have to admit that I've never had a problem with strangers pestering me for my contact details, but it's certainly a marvellous idea.

DIY camera - a complete kit of parts to assemble your own compact 35mm camera, thoroughly familiar to anyone with an interest in model making. (Thanks to the wonderful Babelfish for the real-time translation - it does at least as well as the majority of Japanese technical authors...)

The truth is out there - for years loons and weirdos have had to construct their own brain-wave shielding devices from general principles, but at last help is at hand from the über-geeks at MIT, who have published a ground-breaking study on The Effectiveness of Aluminium Foil Helmets.

Court freezes spyware outfit - California-based Enternet Media, who tricked 600 weblog authors into distributing extremely malicious spyware which then used infected PCs to distribute itself further, has been served with a temporary restraining order while the FTC prepares a case against them.

"I told you so" department - an effective new Linux worm is starting to circulate, targeting vulnerabilities in software typically found on web servers. Media hype and fanboy propaganda aside, the next few months will illustrate exactly how secure the majority of Linux installations really are...

 

12th November

Links. They're probably better than fish-heads, but your mileage may vary...

The lamentable state of US Politics - at Harpers Magazine, a history of the Iraq war told entirely in lies, courtesy of text quoted verbatim from senior Bush Administration officials and advisers. Meanwhile, at Truthout, a comprehensive analysis of some of those lies, and why the administration's current attempts to blame Bill Clinton are just so much hot air. And veteran counter-culture artist Ralph Steadman has a thing or two to say, as well, in his unique and wonderfully offensive style. (Thanks to The Sideshow, one of the first and foremost left wing political weblogs, for the links.)

Anti-spyware becomes "Defender" - Microsoft's security tool is coming close the the end of its protracted beta phase, it seems, if the fact that it has grown a name is anything to go by. Whether this name change will impact the combined Microsoft Client Protection suite that so aroused the ire of Symantec last month remains to be seen - but unfortunately, for me, Defender will always be a 1980s computer game...

Retro scratching - the wisdom of connecting an old record deck to an equally old PC clone is questionable, but many would consider going on to connect it to one or more web sites so that every page view spins the record a certain distance clockwise or anti-clockwise (producing a sound that probably defies description), to be a complete debasement of technology. As usual, I thoroughly approve.  :-)

The naming of Wi-Fi - in spite of widespread rumours to the contrary, it doesn't stand for "Wireless Fidelity" (that doesn't mean anything, and even if it did the 802.11 protocol doesn't involve anything comparable to the original audio term) and was just a buzz-word chosen by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance for marketing purposes. Retro-fitting acronyms into a word that never used to stand for anything has always been a bee in my bonnet, and these days Wi-Fi is one of the main offenders.

Virtual flash mobs vs. 419 scammers - the online activist group Artists Against 419 devote considerable time and resources to tracking down the fake banking sites used by phishing scammers, but when official approaches to the ISPs hosting the sites prove unproductive they are not beyond using more dubious methods, for example orchestrating impromptu denial of service attacks based on the real-world concept of a flash mob.

Atari hit with massive lawsuit - simulation guru Chris Sawyer, the author of classics such Transport Tycoon and Rollercoaster Tycoon, alleges that Atari owes him many years of unpaid royalties, and because of their suspiciously slippery behaviour in dodging these claims he is calling for a full audit of Atari's accounts. I've always been a great fan of Sawyer's games, and wish him the best of luck with this.

Second-hand Microsoft licences - a UK firm is selling Microsoft product licenses bought from companies closing down or going into receivership, and to the great surprise of myself and others Microsoft has confirmed that the purchase and re-sale of these licenses is perfectly acceptable. This is extremely unusual in an industry where the first clause of the small print is usually "non transferable", and the other UK licensing sources have greeted the news with some considerable annoyance.

Rainbow warriors crack password hashes - the insecurity of wireless networks protected by WEP and WPA is now widely known, but it's rather upsetting to find that a new approach has rendered the common technique of password hashing almost as vulnerable. By building a massive database of possible hashes (admittedly a process that takes expertise and considerable time) hashed passwords saved on disk or passed over a network can be decrypted almost instantly. Unfortunately, the has tables are now wide available both commercially and in the data underground, so this bears keeping a very close eye on.

Torvalds throws another tantrum - the pressure is getting to Linus, it seems, given his latest rant about last minute additions to the upcoming new version of the Linux kernel. If developers are tardy, he says, he will "refuse to merge, and laugh in their faces derisively". Fighting words indeed, and ones that have already attracted raised eyebrows from some of the key developers, such as SCSI subsystem guru James Bottomley - themselves at the mercy of other programmers further down the food chain.

Rocket men back in the news - two former rivals for last year's Ansari X Prize, Canadian-based firm PlanetSpace and Romanian aerospace company ARCA, are teaming up to develop a next-generation spacecraft with an eye to the ongoing (and still keenly-contested) X Prize Challenge. Meanwhile, California-based XCOR Aerospace is planning to fly its EZ-Rocket from the Mojave Spaceport to California City eleven miles away, setting a new distance record for point-to-point rocket-powered take off and landing. At the controls will be the veteran Dick Rutan, co-pilot of the Voyager non-stop around-the-world flight in 1986.

 

10th November

I am hopping mad, tonight, and the target of my venom is UK communications provider O2 (motto "A Place Where Loyalty Is Rewarded"), who have just stolen all my text messages!

I use an online service on their web site to send SMS text messages from my PC, as I find cellphone handsets themselves to be one of the worst input methods for text ever devised, and for this privilege O2 charges me £4.50 per hundred messages, paid in advance. The service tends to languish un-used for much of the time, but recently I've been sending a fair few of them thanks to a blossoming relationship with someone who doesn't use email (yes, they do apparently exist - imagine my surprise!) and in the course of one such session I thought to check my account details.

As I had suspected, I'd never got around to changing my address when I moved house last year, and while I was doing that I noticed that the cellphone number they had on record was equally outdated. I corrected this, more for completeness than because it was actually necessary, and that was where the problem started...

On re-entering the main page I suddenly realised that my balance of 65 unused messages had suddenly disappeared, and the two dozen or so email messages exchanged with the O2 helpdesk over the next week revealed that a) this was expected behaviour if I changed my telephone number and b) there was nothing they were going to do about it.

I am extremely offended by this. The value of the loss is relatively trivial at only £2.92, but the principals of ethical business they have flouted are anything but! It's absurd to expect that merely updating account details will result in the loss of a pre-paid service, and even if by some bizarre systems quirk that had to be the case, it is surely the responsibility of the company to warn me before I go ahead and click that final "OK" button. For their helpdesk just to wave this away with "You have amended your mobile number and have lost your text messages. Sorry we cannot refund you for that loss" is completely unacceptable, and represents exactly the sort of shoddy customer service that really, really, really annoys me.

Fortunately, for those who have been annoyed by large corporations, help is now at hand from the UK Courts Service, whose Money Claim Online site allows one to register and process a case at a Small Claims Court without ever having to leave your desk. It costs £30 to register a claim for a sum of this magnitude (a cost which will be recouped in full if the claim is won) and although it may seem eccentric to risk ten times more than the amount owed to me, I am riding high on a wave of outraged principals and I'm prepared to take the chance.

Watch this space for news of my progress!

 

9th November

So my PFYs and I were gathered with one of our pet consultants reviewing the recently-completely MOM 2005 installation, and apparently the development team, seeing us all huddled together in earnest discussion, were trying to decide on the best collective noun for a group of network techies - they came up with either a hub or a cluster, both of which sound just right.

Back at home, monitor manufacturer Iiyama thoroughly lived up to expectations with their unusually generous three year on-site warranty, turning up on time with a 19" LCD panel to replace my faulty unit. Some testing of my own had suggested that it was the monitor's digital interface circuitry that had failed, as it was working perfectly well via an analogue cable and dongle (if considerably less crisply than I had become used to from the purely digital signal path!) and Iiyama took this report pretty much at face value, offering a replacement with a minimum of fuss and bother. Presumably the monitor they sent me is a refurbished unit, as that model hasn't been in production for at least a year, but it certainly doesn't show and in fact it lacks the pair of stuck pixels that the original had when I bought it! I call that a result, and it pretty much guarantees that the next LCD panel I buy will also be from Iiyama. Highly recommended.

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

People vs. the RIAA - a determined Oregon woman has decided to stand up to the RIAA's campaign of bullying and intimidation, and as well as refusing to give in to their outrageous demands for compensation she is actually counter-suing for RICO violations, fraud, invasion of privacy, abuse of process, electronic trespass, violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, negligent misrepresentation, the tort of "outrage", and deceptive business practices! I am absolutely delighted to hear this, and I am confident that this will be the first of many such cases. Thanks very much to Arnie of Arnie's Airsoft for the tip.

A bad day for the Gubernator - California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger discovered that he couldn't participate in his own state's election today, as the notorious Diebold voting machines believed that he had already cast his vote - and then he went on to lose on all eight of the propositions in the special election he had called to prove to the state's Democrats that he had the mandate of the people. Hah!

Scopes II - a court case concerning the teaching of the so-called "theory" of Intelligent Design in schools, potentially as important and far-reaching as the infamous Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925, is at an end, with the full verdict expected by January. Meanwhile, the school administrators of the Dover, Pennsylvania school district who launched the case have been driven from office by a landslide in the local elections. I guess the people have spoken in Pennsylvania as well as California, yes...?

More on the infamous rootkit - Sony are reaping what they sowed in the form of at least two class action suits, and lists are emerging of all the CDs infected by their DRM trojan,  Meanwhile, at Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow puts his 2¢ worth on the industry's "Underpants Gnomes" business model...

What goes around, comes around - Michael Lynn, the ex-Cisco techie who caused so much fuss earlier in the summer by exposing a serious weakness in the IOS firmware that drives the company's ubiquitous routers, has accepted a position at security appliance manufacturer Juniper. The timing of the announcement is unlikely to be a coincidence given that Cisco finally patched the vulnerability just last week...

C&C bundle - games company Electronic Arts are to release a giant compilation of every title in their long-running Command & Conquer strategy series, a dozen games spanning a decade of development. The series has always been among the best in the RTS genre, but I have to admit that it's rather a strange idea...

Cunning Matrox adaptor - this neat little gadget allows computers that don't usually have support for multiple monitors to split a single high resolution image across two displays, giving the authentic dual head experience - if your hardware is supported...

More modding - another fine piece of work from the UK modders at Bit-Tech, and via [H]ard|OCP an unusual PC with the 5¼" drive bays turned through 90° to be accessible from the side of the case.

 

7th November

Inspired by my friend Mike, one of the England's premier fans of zombie movies (he's just been bemoaning the fact that he only has twelve of the sixteen English language versions of the movie Dawn Of The Dead), tonight's Epicycle is a special all-undead issue. Many thanks to Mike for so many wonderful links...

Urban Dead - A massively-multiplayer, massively-low tech online game... Play a human character fighting for survival in a city overrun by the undead, or a zombie stalking the runs in search of fresh meat. This is great fun, and has been keeping me entertained for several weeks, but the points-based movement and combat prevents it from taking over one's every waking moment.

Zombie pinups - grotesquely gorgeous, provocative putrescence, beauty and braaains... One rung further down the ladder from goth softcore sites like Suicide Girls...

My pet zombies - does your life seem incomplete without a life-sized zombie mannequin standing in a corner of your bedroom? If so, then you're in luck!

Book Of The Dead - recommended by Mike, a complete history of zombie cinema, from its dawn in the 1930s to the recent resurgence of the genre.

The Federal Vampire And Zombie Agency - working for you since 1897 to keep America safe from the undead.

Twilight Creations - manufacturers of a series of excellent zombie board games, one of which I crushed Mike like a bug at the other week.  :-)

Homepage Of The Dead - a site devoted to the undisputed master of the genre, George A. Romero. This is the canonical resource for Romero's movies, I'm told.

The Zombie Survival Guide - in the event of a real zombie attack, this is definitely the book to have in your library. Packed full of practical advice to fighting back against the undead.

Land Of The Dead - Romero's latest epic, made twenty years after the third movie and set in a world where the zombies won... Reviews have been mixed, I gather, but it still comes recommended.

Zombie Infection Simulator - written by the creator of the Urban Dead game, this simulation tracks the spread of the plague through a closed community. A fascinating project.

Zombie Squad - a public outreach arm dedicated to spreading awareness of the perpetual risks from the undead in YOUR community. Be ready when they come for you...

All Things Zombie - a wide-reaching zombie fan site, covering movies, books, toys, games and comics. It looks extremely comprehensive.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there seems to be a loud pounding on the door... Hang on a mo while I see what tha

 

5th November

After four hundred years one would think that the time-honoured tradition of celebrating Guy Fawkes night would have become sufficiently divorced from the event it commemorates, the attempt to assassinate King James I and the English government by blowing up the Houses Of Parliament in 1605, but apparently in these days of Islamic fundamentalism and ever more stringent anti-terrorist legislation some commentators have found themselves unable to resist making the obvious comparisons. I am not one who looks to the past, on the whole, and I've never found myself defending long-standing institutions such as Bonfire Night simply because they are old, but in this case the argument against smacks of the absurdist political correctness from the nineties and I have little sympathy with it.

Here are some gratuitous fireworks, then, and a toast to a bumbling Elizabethan terrorist who, in best English tradition, is remembered purely for his monumental failure.

Thanks to Dick Christoph for this wonderful animation

Before the explosions start outside, then (and before I add to the cacophony myself with carefully timed bursts from a replica MP5 submachinegun), some quick news links:

Websense makes hash of Microsoft - the web censoring service briefly blocked the MS downloads area following its accidental misclassification as a marijuana-related site.

Dutch tax on MP3 players - controversial plans to impose a levy of €3.28 per gigabyte of capacity have been revised, but the basic approach of treating all users as criminals remains.

Linspire's Korean PR - if Microsoft follows through on its threat to withdraw from the country following anti-trust allegations, Linspire have offered to flood the entire country with its cheap cut-down Linux.

Wireless idiocy - New York's Westchester County is considering legislation to completely prohibit open wireless networks, on the bizarre grounds that they're a risk to the operator's data security!

Microsoft vs. Apple, again - MS is providing XBox 360 support for music stored on a USB-connected iPod without working with Apple at all, something that may cause considerable friction at Cupertino...

More on Sony's DRM - guru Mark Russinovich, who originally broke the news about the malware, has determined that a recently-released patch to remove the tool may actually crash the system!

 

4th November

A few very quick links:

Dan on mouse mats - when you need a mouse pad the size of Iowa. More letters, too.

Bass gods - I had no idea that musical instruments like this existed. Fascinating!

MS buys into VoIP - could eBay's recent acquisition of Skype have anything to so with this?

Justice seen to be done - an LA man is on trial for hacking into 400,000 PCs to install adware.

Smart pumpkin - building a PC into a pumpkin, and then teaching it to fly. Briefly...

Apple stock rockets - Symantec and SGI may be in the doldrums, but not Cupertino.

Breathalyzer audit - drunk-driving convictions may be overturned if the source code isn't released.

Cisco fixes IOS - the bug that caused so much fuss back in the summer has finally been patched.

 

3rd November

All the news that's fit to 'blog:

SGI delisted - the manufacturer of high-end graphics workstations has had its shares removed from the New Your Stock Exchange listing following an apparently unstoppable slump over the last few years. Once the undisputed leader in its market niche, the company's downfall has followed a series of questionable technical decisions and quality control problems, as well as their failure to react to the emergence onto the market of significantly less expensive PC and Linux-based graphics systems. SGI was one of the great names in the nineties, and it's sad to see them in such dire straits.

Symantec shares collapse - more traumatic news from the stock market comes with a drop of more than 20% in the software giant's share price following simultaneous announcements of a $251m second quarter loss, the surprise departure of its CFO, and a gloomy sales forecast. Unlike the news of SGI, I'm not at all sentimental about problems with Symantec, but as they've recently vacuumed up a number of the companies that provide core components of my office network I have to admit to a degree of concern...

Row over Sony CD malware - the recent exposure by Windows guru Mark Russinovich is causing all sorts of fuss, of course, but the response from First 4 Internet, the creator of the copy-protection system in question, is quite predictable. They insist that deliberately hiding intrusive, resource-hogging software on peoples' PCs is perfectly reasonably behaviour, and claim that full removal instructions are available for anyone who contacts the company's helpdesk to request them - although, of course, in order to do that one needs to know that the stuff is actually there!

Missed Point Error in line 1 - a "security researcher" has released the news that most of the current anti-virus scanners will fail to detect malicious code if... wait for it... the malicious code in question is changed slightly from its standard form. This is perfectly true, of course, and is the argument that has been used against signature-based virus scanners since they were invented back in the mid-eighties, but isn't really the earth-shaking news that Andrey Bayora seems to think it is - and some of the comments on the Full Disclosure security mailing list are decidedly acerbic...

Still banging the drum - the media industry doesn't care who it targets, it seems, in its endless quest to harass innocent people in the name of copyright protection. The latest victim is a 67 year old man who is being sued for up to $600,000 in damages after his 12 year old grandson downloaded four movies (three of which the family already owned on DVD) via the Internet file-sharing service iMesh. The PR fallout from this sort of legal action will be horrendous, though, and with more and more people standing up to the MPAA and the RIAA I'm surprised that they still feel the "lesson" is worth it.

Netflix settlement sucks - in an unusual move, users of the online DVD rental service are encouraging their fellows not to agree to a class action lawsuit that has been brought in their name. The suit claimed that users could not make "unlimited rentals" as advertised, and when the court found this allegation to be true (it's actually in the Ts&Cs, in fact!) the plaintiff was awarded a token $2000 in damages. His lawyers, however, will receive a decidedly un-token $2.5m and opponents of the settlement are afraid that this will be compensated for by a global increase in rental charges next year - but if 5% of the users register an objection, the suit will be cancelled.

Greek police display complete ignorance of spam - a well-known Swedish software developer has been arrested in Greece following complaints made by a business contact who received spam messages soon after meeting Rick Downes and his wife. These people evidently think that spammers travel the world collecting email addresses manually one by one, which would be an extremely funny mistake if it wasn't for the fact that Downes is facing possible criminal charges because of it. Note that this is coming from the country that a few years ago arrested a bunch of plane-spotters on suspicion of spying after they dared to take photographs during an air show... Do they have something against geeks and nerds, one wonders? Sheesh!

Teen escapes email bombing charge - A British teenager who allegedly flooded his former employers' email system with five million messages has escaped trial after a judge ruled that the attack did not fall foul of the Computer Misuse Act. Even though the barrage caused the mail servers to crash, the Act only covers "unauthorised access" and  "unauthorised modification" of a system and as it was deemed that the proper function of a mail server is to receive and process email, sending messages to it is legal whatever the ultimate intention. This technicality highlights how IT has changed since the CMA was framed fifteen years ago (and it was a poorly thought-out piece of legislation even then!) but although a reform is obviously required I have no confidence that the current government will be able to create something adequately balanced to replace it.

 

1st November

Today's nomination for the Lionel Fanthorpe Self-Aggrandisement Award is UK ISP Zen Internet, thanks to this extract from their monthly newsletter:

But by the end of that year (1995), people were beginning to take a lot more notice of 'The World Wide Web' and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like CompuServe, America Online and Zen Internet offered customers Internet access for the first time. ... Zen launched with a network capable of supporting up to six simultaneous dial-up users.

I am greatly amused by an ISP that apparently owned less modems than I did at the time listing itself alongside CompuServe... As the first (and for many years the only significant) UK ISP, Demon are the only company who are allowed to talk like that, and although they had a damn site more than six modem lines in 1995 even they paled in comparison to the global might of CI$... Sheesh!

Meanwhile, back in the future, more griping:

Sony hacking your PC - a detailed analysis by Sysinternals guru Mark Russinovich shows that copy protection secretly installed by an audio CD from Sony BMG has all the characteristics of the worst malware, and as well as going out of its way to hide its existence, removal is a tricky job even for an expert and may well damage the functionality of the operating system. Shame on them!

Supremes shun Microsoft - The Register reports that the US Supreme Court has rejected an appeal to examine their legal dispute with Eolas Technologies, the one-man company formed purely to sue Microsoft over a highly tenuous patent concerning embedding program objects in web pages - and for which it has won an outrageous settlement of $521 million. The court's decision means that the case will continue at a lower level in the Court Of Appeals.

Axed TV series tops polls - a poll organised by newscientistspace.com (the space news site spun-off from New Scientist magazine) has returned the bizarre result of judging Buffy-creator Joss Whedon's Firefly series as four of the top five "Greatest Ever Sci-Fi Works Worldwide". Given the many and varied omissions from these results, it seems clear to me that the popularity of the canon is due much more to the recent high-profile movie release keeping it in the public eye than to any innate greatness... And with a surprisingly small total of 4260 votes there has also been massive potential for some judicious ballot box stuffing on the part of the program's fans.

 

Well, there's a pleasant surprise! This time last month I was bemoaning my disappointingly limp prowess in the stats, but now the picture is looking decidedly more rosy. The daily hits and page views climbed steadily throughout the month, starting down around fifty per day and rising to an average of over one hundred. This has almost doubled my monthly figure and, assuming that the new level persists, next month is likely to be a little better again.

The trend was becoming obvious after only a week, but it took me a while to work out what was actually happening - my tracking data showed a significant increase in referrals from Google's image search facility, something that with hindsight has been absent over the last few months. My hypothesis is that although Google's text-based index updated itself relatively soon after I juggled my domain names around back in June, the image database takes considerably longer to update and only started to point to the new URLs around three months later.

The figures are still less than half those of the heady days back in the spring, but I have to admit that I'm cheered by the trend.

 

 

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