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31st October

I'm currently reading a biography of Sun Microsystems co-founder and CEO Scott Mc Nealy (the man who once described Microsoft supremos Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates as "Ballmer and Butt-head") and it made me think of this old anecdote from net.god Keith Bostic's mailing list back in the heady days of 1994, contributed by Wendell Craig Baker:

What makes my friend's job so ugly is that he doesn't only work with just any strain of Unix - he works with Solaris. And he doesn't just deal with just any braindead users - his users are the executives at Sun Microsystems.

Let me tell you about Sun Microsystems. At Sun, there's a long history of executives playing pranks on one another. For April Fools, these rowdies would play tricks like putting a golf course (complete with putting green) in Scott McNealy's office, or floating Bill Joy's Ferrari in one of the landscaped ponds. Things have come a long way since then. Now every day is April Fools, and my friend doesn't like it one bit.

VP: "Admin!! What the fuck is this thing running on my machine?"
Admin: "It's Solaris, sir."
VP: "Get it off of my machine at once!"
Admin: "But sir, Ed Zander told me that you should be running Solaris now."
VP: "Zander, huh? I'll fix him. Is he running Solaris?"
Admin: "No sir."
VP: "Why not?"
Admin: "If he ran Solaris, he wouldn't be able to get any work done"
VP: "Very well, restore my machine to SunOS, and put this Solaris crap on Zander's machine"
Admin: "But sir..."
VP: "That's an order! And tell him Scott gave you the directive himself!"
Admin: "Yes, sir"

Zander: "Admin!! What the fuck is this thing running on my machine?"
Admin: "It's Solaris, sir."
Zander: "Get it off of my machine at once!"
Admin: "But sir, Scott McNealy told me that you should be running Solaris now."
Zander: "McNealy, huh? I'll fix him. Is he running Solaris?"  ...

And I thought I had it tough.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

The truth about cables - Dan of Dan's Data has always been a staunch opponent of the pseudoscience used by hi-fi companies to sell cables costing hundreds of dollars per foot and other voodoo audio hardware, but it's often seemed that he was a lone voice in the wilderness. It's very nice to see that he now has able support from geek site Audioholics, who are systematically dismissing strongly-held myths such as the requirement to "break in" interconnects. More power to them!

Zombies in the news - Microsoft has identified thirteen organisations that are using large groups of so-called "zombie" PCs to distribute spam, and is currently trying to track down the people behind the scenes in order to proceed with legal action. Given their extensive influence and resources it seems likely that they will have some considerable success with the targets they have already identified, but unfortunately given the scale of the problem this is merely a drop in the ocean.

ID cards under fire again - opponents of the government's fundamentally flawed ID card proposals are having to wait in line to register their displeasure, these days, with the latest criticisms coming from a number of senior civil servants including Government Chief Information Officer Ian Watmore. At this stage it seems that only the PM and the Home Office are in favour of the scheme, and as they are clearly intending to pass a proportion of both the immense costs and the numerous difficulties onto other government departments they are rapidly running out of support elsewhere in Whitehall.

Blunkett still in the doghouse - only a few weeks after his last little scandal, the disgraced David Blunkett is mired in yet another. This time he has emerged that during his (regrettably brief) absence from the cabinet he took an extremely lucrative job as a director of DNA testing firm DNA Bioscience, a fact which he "inadvertently" ommitted to mention to the committee that oversees such appointments. Given that apparently this was the second time he had made this "mistake" in only two months, and that he was officially warned after the first "oversight", the only sensible conclusion I can reach is that he is corrupt, sleazy and moreover incompetent as well. He should resign.

 

30th October

Given that buying and selling airsoft replicas (although not, at this stage, owning them) is likely to be illegal in Britain once the Government's woefully misguided Violent Crime Reduction Bill has passed into law, I'm allowing myself to splash out a little while I still can. My latest acquisition is Tanaka's replica of the Remington 700 bolt action rifle, in a "take-down" form as seen in all the best sniper movies.

This is a second-hand piece, and the previous owner has lovingly assembled a full kit into another of those useful aluminium gun cases: an enormous Mojji Hornet 3-9x 50mm illuminated reticule sniper scope, a Versa-Pod style tactical bi-pod, a pair 10 round magazines and a leather sling. Everything the discerning psychopathic sniper could ask for, in one easy to carry package.

The front end slips into the stock, rotates 90, and locks solidly with a cam when a lever is pivoted back flush into the foregrip. The scope clips on at one end, pivots 90 and snaps into place. Slide in a magazine, cycle the bolt, and you're ready for the Federal Marshals - it's just ten seconds from opening the case to a bloody last-stand in the window of a book depository building...

In use the replica is extremely pleasant to shoot and consistency seems excellent once the gas in the magazine has warmed up to room temperature. The bolt action is smooth and positive, if longer than the .22LR rifles I used to shoot as a young pup, and the trigger pull is amazingly short and light as befits its role as a long-distance target rifle. I've only put a couple of magazines through it so far, doing extremely well with the first one and disgracing myself with the second thanks to overconfidence - apparently I'm really out of practice with long arms!

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

More debased technology - this unusual device is connected via Bluetooth to a nearby cellphone, and triggered into a pattern of activity when a specially-encoded SMS message is received.  :-)

Networking COM ports - possibly an application who's time has already passed, but IP-COM allows a serial device to be shared over a network by attaching to a specific TCP port. Cunning stuff.

Beatles lyrics reworked - just when you thought it was safe to go back to the computer room, the BackBytes column in Computing magazine has been running a competition...

Web Two Point Oh! - choose a name and product for your connected technologies startup with the aid of this handy online generator: "RSS-based dating via shockwave torrents", coming right up!

Bastard EULAs - at the new daily 'blog at Tom's Hardware Guide, some of the more totalitarian and unpalatable license agreements from Microsoft, Claria, Apple, Pinnacle, and others.

Lies and the UK government - the ID card scheme is proving to be a fertile ground for deception, spin and downright untruth, such as the recent announcement that the cost will be kept down to 30.

New maps of Hell - the vast majority of the world's DNS servers are open to attack, according to a scan of 1.3 million servers by net performance firm The Measurement Factory.

Intel kills Indian CPU - the surprise announcement that Intel is cancelling the multicore "Whitefield" server processor range is a massive blow to the company's Indian design and manufacturing arm.

A mouse with RAM - just when you thought you'd seen everything, the Razer Copperhead gaming mouse has blue LEDs, seven buttons, a 1MHz scan rate, and 32KB of on-board memory. Gosh!

Pictures of sound - Project C-90 is collecting images of one of the classic eighties icons, the audio cassette, and I'm amazed at how many of them I recognised immediately even twenty years later.

And finally, lethal housewares - even replica guns are unpopular these days, thanks to government lies and media hysteria, but apparently this hasn't stopped a succession of avant-garde designers from producing lamps and vases inspired by (or even made from) firearms of various types.

 

29th October

I'm making up for lost time... What with one thing and another, opportunities to post have been few and far between over the last week, but now the weekend is here and even though I'm fighting with a 'flu/cold bug the backlog is starting to nag at me. To assuage the guilt provoked by my traditional Protestant work ethic, therefore, here's a bumper crop of random news links:

Follow the bouncing ball - Sony's advert for their new Bravia LCD television features 250,000 rubber powerballs being bounced down one of San Francisco's famous hills - and, amazingly in this day and age, there were no computer graphics involved!

RIM coughs up for JPEG patent - BlackBerry PDA manufacturer RIM has joined a growing number of companies who have agreed to license the JPEG image compression technology from Fogent, who grabbed and then somehow successfully defended the patent back in 1997.

Support for ID cards dwindles - in the wake of the UK government's smallest ever majority in passing the bill through the House Of Commons, both the Information Commissioner and Microsoft have revealed grave concerns about the security of the data that is to be stored.

Spam blogging - with conventional email spam dwindling somewhat following continued improvements in filtering technology and a number of high-profile convictions, the latest assault comes in the form of fake blogs, created automatically and stuffed with links to dubious web sites.

BBC browser stats - the war is over, it seems, and - sorry - it looks like Microsoft has won. Even in the face of a growing number of competing operating systems, the vast majority of visitors to the popular BBC web site use MS products. And with Vista due next year, it's hard to see that changing.

Another Apple cockup - the boys from Cupertino are losing their touch, it seems, with PowerBook and iBook power supplies suffering from a critical design flaw that can lead to the tip of the power connector breaking off inside the laptop - something that is extremely fiddly or expensive to repair.

One track minds - Microsoft has warned that the software industry is woefully unprepared for the emerging multi-core processors, with a distinct scarcity of applications written to support a multi-threaded environment - something that will not be news for SMP enthusiasts such as myself.

Watching the mighty fall - if you listen carefully you can actually hear Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's teeth grinding at the news of yet another critical security flaw in the company's DBMS - this time, a broad-spectrum weakness in the way that passwords are encrypted within the security subsystem.

EPS12V modular PSU - I'm extremely happy with my Seasonic S12 power supply, but if I was still looking this new unit from Silverstone would definitely be of interest. It's one of the growing number of fully-modular units, but the first I've seen that supports the dual motherboard EPS12V standard.

Clementine visits the moon - NASA have released some of the data gathered by the highly successful lunar mapping probe in the form of a dataset for their World Wind 3D mapping application. Accurate to a resolution of 20m, the huge bulk of images have taken since the 1990s to process.

And finally, no guts, no glory - following on from the recent knitted DNA strand comes this even more wonderful knitted human digestive system, anatomically correct down to the gall bladder and the appendix. I have endless respect for people who can dream up this kind of thing...

 

27th October

I came home yesterday to discover that although my desktop PC was apparently working correctly, and could be driven quite happily from the laptop via VNC, nothing could persuade my beloved Iiyama 19" LCD monitor to display a picture! Some testing with spare components borrowed from the office ruled out the graphics card as the source of the problems, and further fiddling showed that the monitor would display an analogue signal via either of its two inputs, but not a digital one. It still isn't clear whether the problem is with the monitor's circuitry or the digital signal cable, but I can scrounge from work again and test the latter tomorrow.

Either way, however, I can take advantage of Iiyama's marvellous 3 year on-site warranty, which thanks to the comparative stinginess of all the other manufacturers will probably be the first time I have been able to even think about a warranty repair for a major piece of hardware. On the downside, however, this actually comes at rather an annoying time, as I was on the point of upgrading my equally-beloved Radeon All-In-Wonder 9800 Pro to ATI's latest (and probably final AGP model), the AIW X800 XT. This card supports dual displays, and I'd been intending to splash out on a matched pair of the current equivalents to my Iiyama AS4821, the ProLite H1900.

I could buy the H1900s by simply handing over a couple of major limbs to Scan or WStore, but amazingly the All-In-Wonder version of the X800 graphics card seems completely unavailable in the PAL version suitable for use in England, well over six months after the glowing reviews started appearing in the IT press. For some bizarre reason ATI only ships its own versions of the card to the North American market, instead relying on Far East manufacturers such as Sapphire and Connect 3D to supply the European market, and evidently they're running behind. Unfortunately for this particular card I can't even import, as the ATI-badged versions are NTSC only, a complication I definitely don't need...

So I suppose I will investigate to see if Iiyama's warranty is as good in the flesh as it is on paper, and wait until the AIW card has not only hit the market but also cooled down a little from it's doubtless extortionate initial pricing - and by that time the H1900 LCD panels may even be a little more reasonably price as well. Ah, but I hate being sensible...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Napster has nothing to sell - the beleaguered online music service is trying a brave new marketing strategy, stressing that you're only renting music from them and will need a lifetime subscription if you want to keep listening to it! Given the company's uncertain legal future, that really doesn't sound like a sensible investment, to me...

Motile molecules - a research team at UC Riverside has created an organic molecule that actually walks, unbonding one of it's "legs" from a copper substrate, flexing its little molecular bonds so that the leg pivots forward, then planting it firmly down again before repeating the cycle with the other leg. This is an astounding achievement, and the possibilities for nanotech based on this are immense.

Too much time? - a somewhat less momentous discovery comes from a physicist at CERN, who has proved mathematically that if a four-legged patio table is wobbling on an uneven surface, turning it around its axis will probably produce a stable configuration. This seems to have been somewhat of a hobby-horse for the researcher in question, and the proof is the result of ten years' work...

Knitted DNA - and talking of debased science, this knitting enthusiast's site has a wonderful pattern for a DNA strand, complete with the classical representation of the GC/TA base pairs. It does seem to me, however, that the helix is actually going the wrong way...?  <cough>

 

26th October

The whirl of activity continues, so I'm just going to post a handful of random links, and you'll have to survive without the dubious benefits of my turgid prose to accompany them...

Monad command shell - the new MS scripting engine that will ship with the Vista operating systems.

Asymmetric bookshelves - they look... ah, interesting, certainly, and even have a built-in seat.

An end for light bulbs? - a side-effect of quantum dot research, stirred into LED polymer.

The Word of Dan - the latest letters column. Short, this time, but always worth reading.

New wireless threats - various flavours of man-in-the-middle attack are becoming more common.

"DVD Jon" back in the US - Johansen will be working for maverick entrepreneur Michael Robertson.

Talking dirty - audio erotica is growing ever-more popular, and I imagine Apple will claim credit...

Movie props - Master Replicas are one of the premier manufacturers of SF and fantasy replicas.

Tarting up the elements - Mendeleev's traditional periodic table is now too boring, apparently...

 

24th October

Just a meagre handful of random links, tonight, as it's all been a bit of a whirl. I'll catch up tomorrow - unless it's another whirl, of course, which right now does seem rather likely...

Nuts 'n' bolts - at PureOverclock.com, an article on the new Liberty 500W PSU from Enermax, but what starts off as just another power supply review suddenly becomes unusually informative, with a quick run-through of the process of converting mains AC to low voltage DC, and which physical components on the PCB are responsible for each stage. Useful stuff.

Seen everything now department - a dedicated editor for your HOSTS file? Not quite as silly as it sounds, perhaps, given the current popularity of blocking advertising embedded in web pages and known spyware sources by redirecting them to 127.0.0.1. It should be noted that the way the HOSTS list is parsed is not terribly efficient, though, and a giant, bulging file listing every known source of online annoyances will do little for one's TCP throughput...

Elegant servers - I'm very fond of my racks of gunmetal Dell PowerEdge systems, resplendent with their soft blue "everything's OK" lights, but these new 19" server cases from home theatre PC specialist Silverstone put them to shame... They're 3U designs, in the usual black brushed aluminium, and have a 7" touch-screen LCD built-into the front panel. They're not really server-spec by my standards (no hot-swappable drive bays!) but it's certainly a step in the right direction.

 

23rd October

Every week or so I receive an email about something I've written here, asking for more information or advice. The usual topics are the Pioneer DRM-5004x CD library, how good the Koolance PC3-736 water-cooled chassis really is, or, the perennial favourite, how to fit a three-point tactical rifle sling. I've always taken the time to reply, but this can be quite an involved process when someone has asked multiple questions about a complex subject, and I often have to send photographs (especially in the case of the three-point sling, which is far easier to illustrate than to describe in words) to clarify what I've written... And the response? 95% of the time, there's no reply at all. Not even a quick "thanks". Nada. Zip. Nothing.

I have to admit that I find this pretty insulting. I'm under no obligation to help with these queries, but I do like to help and having tried to do so the least I expect is to have my response acknowledged. I don't expect fulsome praise - after all, they may not actually agree with what I've said! - but I do expect something! I'm trying very hard not to let this basic lack of manners dissuade me from taking the time to reply in future, but I wonder how long this will last before I give up in frustration. In the meantime, though, it's very tempting to sign up these rude SOBs to the most annoying and offensive spam mailing list I can find (and believe me, having been online with the same email address since the dawn of the 'net I'm on a fair few of those myself) just to vent my spleen...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Spectacular but puzzling - avant-garde artist Elizabeth Hickok has created an enormous three dimensional model of San Francisco, moulded entirely from Jell-O. This leaves me with only one thought on my mind - Why? Why, why, why, oh why? I think we're back at the old adage about time and the amount of it one has on one's hands...

Stripping down - industry analysis company iSuppli Corporation is rapidly becoming the place to go for the inside skinny on the manufacturing cost of today's consumer gadgets, and their latest foray into gratuitous disassembly covers the iPod Nano and the new Gameboy Mini. To nobody's great surprise, both cost far less to manufacture than their  premium selling price suggests...

 

22nd October

Saturday linkage.

Intelligent design reaches Australia - the federal education minister Dr. Brendan Nelson has thoroughly proved his unsuitability for the post by stating that he has no objection to ID being taught in schools down under - a view which is not supported by the 70,000 scientists who have signed an open letter condemning the idea as unscientific claptrap.

Fear & Loathing In Mos Eisley - Hunter Thompson meets George Lucas... It ought to be good, but unfortunately it misses the mark. The incredibly muddy soundtrack doesn't help, as even though I know both F&L and Star Wars intimately I still couldn't make out many of the words. If HST had a grave, you'd be able to hear him spinning in it...

Apple in the doghouse, again - the pretty yet absurdly fragile iPod Nano is the subject of Apple's latest visit to court, following widespread problem with scratches to the display screen. The situation hasn't been helped, I gather, by the fact that the Nano's optional protective case wasn't made available until well after the player itself had launched.

What goes around, comes around - following his high-profile spat with the creators of the online comic Penny Arcade, anti-games loon and some-time lawyer Jack Thompson is under investigation for unethical behaviour. Fans of the strip have swamped the Florida Bar Association with complaints about Thompson's rabid faxes and phone calls, and he is likely to face a disciplinary committee.

And finally, how hard does it have to be? - I've upgraded the hard disks in a whole bunch of laptop PCs, recently, varying from Dell Latitudes of various types to Motion's new LE1600 tablet, and all of those procedures involved undoing one or two screws, opening a little hatch or pulling out a little caddy, and swapping the drives over. Performing the same upgrade with Apple's PowerBook laptops, in contrast, is so complex that it requires an article at Bit-Tech to provide the instructions. Having to remove the entire shell (with a significant risk of causing cosmetic damage in the process, it seems) in order to swap a hard drive is just plain silly, but it's entirely consistent with Apple's time-honoured strategy of locking down their hardware as far as possible and has more than a little to do with their constant struggle for market share. I'll stick with Dell, I think...

 

21st October

I am very much looking forward to the first weekend in recent memory that I don't have to work even one day, let alone both... It's been a bear of a month, thanks to the simultaneous computer room refurbishment and installation of twenty new serves for our SAP implementation, but fortunately the worst of both is now out of the way. Not before time, either - my usual cheerful disposition around the office is starting to fray, somewhat, and a few more weeks of this would likely see me running amok in the computer room with our rubber mallet, scattering builders left and right before me and screaming about plaster dust, until my PFYs caught me in a net and locked me inside an unused server cabinet...

While I still retain some scant vestiges of sanity, then, a few quick links to end the week:

Brain bending - a three-dimensional model of a four-dimensional object that casts a three dimensional shadow. And it's pretty, too!

Free net telephony - following the recent acquisition of Skype, the CEO of eBay predicts that sooner or later all calls will be free. That's a bold statement, at this stage of the game.

"Very tiny machines" - a working car chassis just 4 nanometres across, with Buckyball wheels mounted on a working carbon-compound suspension. Next stop, a nanomotor to power it!

Environmentally friendly - a PC case made from die-cut cardboard, and somewhat surprisingly it actually looks rather neat. It would certainly make modding rather easier...

Blackberry thumb - repetitive strain injuries are nothing new in IT, of course, but the tiny yet surprisingly useable keyboard on the Blackberry PDA seems to be one of the worst offenders.

Trouble at mill - following their spat with Cogent last week, backbone ISP Level3 is back in the news again following major problems routing to Verio, another tier one service.

A history of fraud - a fascinating account of the ATM problems that plagued the UK banking industry in the early nineties, as related by an old acquaintance of mine from the Cix conferencing system.

Classic debasement of science - dipping things in liquid nitrogen then shooting them with a gun in front of a high-speed camera? I'll buy that for a dollar!

A damn shame - a Chinese human rights activist has slammed Yahoo founder Jerry Yang after his company's actions lead to a dissident journalist being sentenced to ten years imprisonment.   :-(

 

20th October

Following a day filled with crises of all types, from builders running amok in the computer room to troublesome fibre channel interfaces and perplexing SAP clusters, I have totally had enough of this week. Unfortunately, I have to do pretty much exactly the same thing tomorrow, which is rather a pity.

In the meantime, then, while I still retain the last vestiges of sanity, some quick links...

Ofcom clears Bulldog - following what appears to be a genuine intention to rectify some of the heinous problems that have been afflicting their users this summer, Bulldog is now off the hook.

Dan on mouse pads - the oddly-named RantoPads are so exotic that they come with their own zip-up carrying cases. Dan approves, it seems, but I can't say that I'm convinced myself...

Two heads not better than one - when multiple biometric tests are combined, the weaker factors can actually damage the reliability of the stronger one, something the UK government should be aware of.

Virus wars - the so-called rootkits, off-the-shelf hacking tools that can be customised with the user's choice of payload, are becoming increasingly proficient in disabling antivirus and security software.

Bioweapons in DC? - following a recent anti-war protect, sensors around the city detected the bacteria F. tularensis, cause of the disease tularemia, and numerous infections have been reported.

Google loses UK rights to GMail name - in a reverse from most recent rulings, the giant has lost to a relatively small company - IIIR were asking for 35 million, and Google just wouldn't pay that much.

Musical spreadsheets - a real blast from the past, this one, using Fourier transform formulae within an Excel spreadsheet to produce polyphonic musical notes. Very 1984...

Get lamp - and talking of 1984, from the man behind the BBS Documentary (I really want a copy of that!) comes a history of the text adventure. You are in a maze of twisty little weblogs, all alike...

London map - the OpenStreetMap project is compiling an open source map of the world, and to swell their funds a little they're selling a poster compiled from GPS data submitted by London travellers.

 

19th October

I've just been watching The Chronicles Of Riddick, the SF movie starring Vin Diesel, and after some lacklustre reviews I was surprised by how good it actually was. It has to be said that the plot is nothing especially new (there are strong overtones of David Lynch's Dune, most of the SF prison-break movies, and of course The Matrix) but it's not without its twists and turns and the movie does have considerable style and visual appeal - in the end I was quite riveted. The character of Riddick is cool and acerbic, as well as being impressively violent and indestructible, and to my mind is probably Diesel's best role to date. There's also an unusually large amount of very competent computer graphics (exotic landscapes and cityscapes, and gorgeously baroque spacecraft and monumental interiors heavily inspired by the sculptures of Adolfo Wildt) and plenty of the now-obligatory martial arts fight sequences, which are equally competent and exciting. Diesel's own form seems reminiscent of the Filipino style Escrima, a refreshing change from the usual Japanese staples.

You don't have to have watched the prequel, Pitch Black, although that does help a little bit with the background (and of course it's a tolerably good movie itself - if with pretensions of Aliens et al that it doesn't really manage to live up to) but as I gather that scripts exist for a further two movies in the series it may yet build into quite a respectable canon. Recommended.

Meanwhile, closer to home, it seems that the patented Symantec Kiss Of Death is already making its mark on the recently acquired Veritas Backup Exec product. We were having problems applying Service Pack 1 to an installation of V10.0, today, and having talked to the support bods they recommended that we install the current full release over the top, moving from build 5484 to 5520 in one go and so avoiding the need to install a whole bunch of updates.

We did that, but having re-run the Veritas Update utility to check for anything still outstanding, I was surprised to see not only three minor patches but also a requirement for Service Pack 1 all over again! It turned out to be a completely different Service Pack 1 for the new build, and another three hotfixes - one of which was actually numbered the same as a hotfix for the previous build in spite of having a completely different function!

So, in other words, in spite of the fact that both builds are described as "V10.0", in fact they have a completely independent set of service packs and updates. This is unusual, bizarre, and very confusing - and as it is not something that Veritas have done in any of the previous versions over the last five years or more it's hard to conclude that it's anything other than the Symantec Effect... The bastards...

And now for something completely different - links:

Fractal food - it's an article of faith among chaos enthusiasts such as myself that fractal shapes are repeatedly found in nature, but somehow it always tickles me to actually see such perfect examples as these photographs of the Romanesco cabbage. It's absolutely spot on...   :-)

Cracking the printer code - with the help of countless volunteers who sent in test prints, the EFF has deciphered the identification code stealthily included in the output from the Xerox DocuColor colour laser printer. This particular data includes the printer's serial number and the time and date on which the page was printed, and it's likely that models from other manufacturers will hide similar information.

The Melloman - a fresh take on a deliciously retro idea, this musical instrument uses a bank of fourteen Sony Walkman tape players, each of which runs a continuous loop of a particular musical note. A piano keyboard switches the output in and out of the amplifier, providing a reproduction of the Mellotron sound made famous by countless progressive rock bands of the sixties and seventies.

Standing up to The Man - the EULAlyzer reads software license agreements so you don't have to, and alerts you to anything particularly sneaky or dangerous. Given the degree of arrant corporate bastardry in the industry these days, and the recent legal ruling that shrink-wrap license agreements are indeed binding and enforceable, that sounds like a excellent utility...

Transparent armour - "ALON" is a ceramic (actually aluminum oxynitride) with lighter weight than any conventional armour glass and vastly superior strength - to the point of withstanding a .50 cal AP round from a sniper rifle without significant penetration. Cool!

Unhappy birthday - in spite of having been composed waaay back in 1893, the famous song is still very much under copyright and cannot be performed in public without permission and payment of an appropriate fee... So it's probably only fair to bombard the current owner, AOL Time Warner, with requests to perform the song and tip-offs if you suspect that it's being sung illicitly...

Groin-Grabbingly Transcendent - courtesy of the Wonderful World Of Wikipedia, a list of made-up words from venerable cartoon series The Simpsons... beginulate, craptacular, cromulent, knowitallism, sacrilicious and superliminal. Marvellous stuff, bettered only by Dogbert and Dilmom cheating at Scrabble in the animated "Dilbert" series.

 

18th October

Links. Get 'em while they're fresh.

Or, at least, not too stale...

Musical boobies - BT Futurology, a self-styled "top think-tank", claims that in the future MP3 players will be embedded in womens' breast implants. Uh, we're gonna need a net over here...?

Mostly 'armless - a fancy dress costume of Dr. Octopus from the Spiderman canon. It's a marvellous piece of work, and the creator has a catalogue of other designs that are almost as impressive.

Uneasy bedfellows - a "mash-up" poem formed from a combination of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and Dr Suess's "Horton Hears A Who". I have to admit that it has a certain something.

Jarhead - more DIY, this time a deliciously spooky head in a jar. Rather than the usual solid model, it uses a printed picture, created by a game skinning program, wrapped around the inside of the glass.

Nothing to see here - Dan has posted a short article on the physics of digital camera sensors, and why (as usual) there's nothing much new under the sun.

Say "no" to SP3 preview - an unofficial roll-up of Microsoft's pre-SP3 hotfixes is attracting criticism from both Microsoft and Windows gurus, but the creator is sticking to his guns.

A blast from the past - the oldest 100 .com domain names still in registration - no real surprises at the top of the list (IBM, DEC, HP, Xerox, Intel and Sun) but a lot of oddities down near the bottom.

Bad patch - and talking of Windows updates, one of the latest batch is causing some difficulties to users who have attempted to harden their system by tweaking the security on the Windows folder.

Pots and kettles #79 - Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to fight a lawsuit against a new California law that restricts the sales of violent video games to minors, somewhat ironic considering his career...

Hoist by his own petard - anti-game loon Jack Thompson says that his offer of a $10,000 charitable donation was just "satire", so Penny Arcade has donated it on his behalf. Marvellous...

"Too much time" department - a machine to cut toast soldiers to a high degree of accuracy, avoiding all that tedious, archaic messing around with a knife.  <shakes head>  Geeks - you have to love 'em.

 

16th October

Just a few random links, tonight...

ID card pricing - the Home Office has announced that the cost of a stand-alone ID card will be 30, with the combined ID card and passport at 93. Even if these figures are accurate (and as you can imagine I don't believe that for a moment) the cost to the taxpayer in general will be far greater.

Spilling errurs - I've picked up a few bargains on eBay myself when a spelling mistake in the listing has led to the item failing to show up in the majority of searches, and now there's a site designed to help track them down automatically.

Wooool! Wooool! - zombies are the flavour of the month right now, it seems, so I suppose that a retelling of George Romero's classic "Dawn Of The Dead" with knitted zombies shouldn't come as a surprise. Some people do indeed have far too much time on their hands.

Pots and kettles - Internet animation studio JibJab were happy to run to the EFF for aid when they were sued for infringing copyright last year, but it seems they're surprisingly intolerant when some of their own material is recycled...

I, Robot - at the excellent Photoshop showcase site Worth 1000, a contest to add robots or cybernetic components to classic works of art. As usual, there are some marvellous entries, showing wit and imagination as well as technical ability.

Life Hackers - analyses of the working patterns of modern office workers reveal somewhat alarming statistics on the brief lengths of time that can be devoted to any one task before an interruption comes, but surprisingly it seems that in some cases this can actually improve productivity.

Expensive art - set your digital camera on a long exposure, then throw it up in the air... And if it survives the experience you might end up with a rather interesting photograph. I don't think this is a technique I shall be experimenting with myself, though - I rather prefer my Canon G5 intact.

And finally, some cool hardware - Creative's new motion-following web cam is reviewed at Trusted Reviews, and Thermaltake have announced a very interesting new PC power supply, with local distribution units that can be placed in the drive bays and elsewhere in the case. What a clever idea!

 

14th October

It would be nice if it was the end of the week, but unfortunately I'm due back in the office again tomorrow to shut down the entire network so that the UPS can be moved. My ambition right now is to have a weekend spent playing with only my own computers - but at this rate I'm not expecting to achieve this until sometime in 2006. Ho hum...

Hot hardware - we had a junk fax advertising USB coffee warmers come into the department the other day and one of my colleagues, knowing my love for being rude about pointless USB gadgets, dropped it on my desk. This particular device is especially pointless, I suspect, as it looks identical to one another colleague showed me a month or two ago - which overloaded the USB subsystems of both of the two PCs he tried to connect it to. Probably one to avoid...

Dazed and confused - the BSA seems to be taking on a decidedly unfamiliar aspect as a protector of the consumer, calling on governments to abandon the "private copy levies" that are added to the cost of blank media and recording devices on the highly spurious grounds that all buyers are going to use them to make illegal copies of things. These are the fees that effectively killed both Digital Audio Tape and CDR-Audio, if you remember, and we're still paying these surcharges on devices such as scanners, printers, and CD and DVD recorders. The BSA says that these levies are superfluous in this age of DRM-protected media but, as The Register points out, it could also be argued that DRM itself is superfluous if we're already paying extra on the grounds that we are making copies!

Bulldog embraces bitch-site - in a move unprecedented in the IT industry, troubled ISP Bulldog has announced that it will be working closely with its own criticism site, My Bulldog Hell, in order to rectify the problems with both the service itself and, especially, the customer support. In an age when all the other companies afflicted with a griping site are resorting to legal action to get their detractors banished from the web, this is certainly a brave move - but it will be interesting to see exactly what emerges from such an uneasy partnership.

Foaming at the mouth  - Penny Arcade's latest strip is apparently inspired by an altercation they're having with the anti-video game campaigner Jack Thompson, who seems to have taken exception to their response to a bizarre challenge he has levelled at the games industry. Thompson has said that he will donate $10,000 to charity if anyone creates and markets a game in which the central character hunts down and murders employees of the video game companies he blames for inciting America's youth to crime. On the face of it this seems loopy enough, but if Thompson's general attitude is represented accurately by PA then he's a man to be avoided on general principles. Needless to say, the rest of the anti-gaming lobby is falling over itself to play down any connection to Thompson, which is probably a sound move...

 

13th October

The aircon team and our project manager worked their socks off overnight, and by mid-morning the first of the two cabinets was online and blowing a nice blast of cold air up through the raised floor. By the time I left for the day we had removed all the temporary units and powered up a bunch of the new servers, and the ambient temperature had dropped from the low thirties to around 19C - I think that's a result.   :-)

If I read the technical specs correctly, each unit produces a maximum airflow of 3.3 m per second (that's a remarkable 11880 m per hour!) from three 4 kilowatt fans, providing a sensible cooling capacity of around 30kW. The idea is that each one has sufficient power to cool the entire room, providing a comfortable level of redundancy in case of system failure or, more likely, runaway global warming turning Essex into a tropical swamp.

There's still a fair bit of work to do in commissioning the second unit and wiring up some monitoring and alarms, and for some reason the vents in the floor aren't available yet and so we have a nice set of mantraps in the shape of those lifted floor tiles, but I think we're finally making progress again. This weekend brings the last major phase of the project, from my point of view at least, when we relocate the UPS and its external battery cabinet (together weighing around two metric tons!) into the computer room, and after that it's "just" tidying up. It's been a long, hard slog, but the new room is looking extremely professional and it really has been worth the trauma.

At least, I keep telling myself that...

"This installation has a substantial dollar value attached to it."

Meanwhile, some random links:

A Swiss Army Knife for the bedroom - the Anderson Ultimate Bed has dozens of drawers built in, bedside tables, a TV stand and lamps installed in the headboard. Good for small rooms, I guess...

Support for ID cards collapses - The Register reports that support for the government's ID card scheme amongst the directors of large businesses has slumped from 75% two years ago to a mere 45% this month. It has also emerged that the Home Office has already spent over 20 million on the wretched scheme, a predictable 12 million of which ended up in the pockets of PA Consulting, a frequent partner in the UK government's wildly unsuccessful and costly IT projects.

iPods, iPods everywhere - I was amused to hear about Apple's launch of the new video iPod, given that the industry press over the last week has been full of pundits explaining how they couldn't possibly be about to launch anything like that. Elsewhere, this wooden iPod case is really rather lovely, and this set of instructions for expanding the capacity of an iPod Nano to a generous 200Gb is marvellous.  :-)

SciFiPatch.com - as the name suggests, they sell embroidered patches from TV and movie costumes, including Star Trek and Star Wars, of course, but also less common items from Aliens, Stargate, Outland, Starship Troopers, Space 1999 and many others.

Danger in the palm of your hand - hot on the heels of the first Trojan for the ever-so-popular Playstation Portable (pretending to be a BIOS downgrader, it actually spanners your PSP beyond any practical repair) comes the first virus for the Nintendo DS - which does pretty much the same. Both are only a risk to users attempting to run pirated or hacked software, though...  <snigger>

Singing Rodents Of Unusual Size - a musical of The Princess Bride? I have to admit that I'm a touch dubious, even though William Goldman himself is collaborating on the script...

Colourful quarks - having spent years when I was younger getting used to the idea that the properties of subatomic particles weren't really anything to do with their rather euphemistic names, along comes somebody to illustrate exactly what they would look like if they could actually be seen. It's a neat idea.

Hobbies crossing over - it's probably a bad sign when my various hobbies start converging, but a series of articles at UK geek site Hexus.net is covering the sport of airsoft skirmishing. I'm rather surprised to see no mention of the fact that the entire sport is in severe jeopardy thanks to the government's upcoming Violent Crime Reduction Bill, though!

And finally, a wonderful strip from Penny Arcade - "We may never know who baked your PSP into this flaky crust..." Revenge is sweet, it seems - especially when there is honey involved.

 

12th October

I spent a while looking through my web stats, yesterday, and found myself with decidedly raised eyebrows at some of the search terms relayed via Google. It does make me wonder; what exactly were they hoping to find when they typed in these particular words...?

linus torvalds per cheek seat licensing
animated gif batman's gibberish
kent state p2p firewall mac
remove picture of woman on the screen

This one had me especially puzzled, as it's gibberish on so many levels:

nasa space shuttle crashed because nasa spent too much time building robosapien

And these show a degree of faith in the abilities of a search engine's text parser that is wholly unjustified at the current state of the art:

my pc says my maxtor one touch is unallocated
explain to me the meaning of Thatcham Approved

And finally, a plain old typo - but as I'm still waiting for two large Daikin aircon units to be delivered for the computer room at work, it seemed especially appropriate... I think I could do with one of these:

daikin heat pimp

"She cool you long time, white boy..."

Indeed.

Meanwhile, ex-Home Secretary David Blunkett is in the news again after another "honest mistake" lead him to use House Of Commons stationary for a personal letter - something that is strictly forbidden - as well as "neglecting" to disclose a personal financial interest in the planning permission dispute the letter concerned. A government spokesman has reaffirmed the PM's support for Blunkett but, especially after the new UK TV channel More 4 chose a barbed satire of his sex life as its very first programme, one does wonder if they're starting to find him more of an albatross than an asset.

And talking of butt-headed politicians, the Home Office has published an "impact assessment" of the controversial Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which admits that the proposed measures to ban replica guns are both unnecessary and unworkable. There are already adequate laws in place to address the problem, the document admits, the new proposals are unlikely to significantly improve the levels of crime, and the cost to both the police and the replica industry will be prohibitive. Of course, these facts make absolutely no difference to the politicians, who are charging forward with the bill regardless of its merits. I suppose I shall have to write to my MP again, but he's an ardent Blair-ite and I have no real hope of influencing him in any way. It's a damn shame.

Elsewhere, Star Wreck is a movie-length sci-fi parody, the end-result of seven years of work by five Finnish fans and over 300 extras, assistants and supporters. It's heavily influenced by Star Trek, as the name suggests, the humour is described as "rough-and-ready", and from the trailer the special effects and computer graphics seem to be the equal of any big-budget Hollywood production. The main problem is that the film's soundtrack is in Finnish, which is not unreasonable given the origin of its creators, but which unfortunately is a language understood by rather fewer people than speak Klingon. There is a version subtitled in English, but I have to admit that it's somewhat of a deterrent even so... Still, it's available as a free download (if rather a large one at over half a gigabyte) and it has to be worth a look.

 

11th October

I read the geek news site [H]ard|OCP almost every day, and on the whole it's a very good source for a certain subset of IT news. The main drawback, however, is that occasionally one of their contributors is so thoroughly wrong-headed and bigoted that it makes me grit my teeth and email them to complain.

The last time was a butt-headed crack at the expense of President-elect Al Gore and the myth that he claimed to have invented the Internet, this time (the site doesn't use permalinks, for some unimaginable reason, so it's the entry headed "The Story of The First Internet Worm" on Sunday 9th October) it's an attack on veteran programmer Robert Morris. The clipping links to a trivial little article elsewhere that manages to cast Morris as not only a criminal but stupid with it, in direct contrast to everything that I've read from more informed and contemporary sources - although I suppose the author can be almost be forgiven, as his resume claims that he's only been "active in the security industry for 10 years" and so the heady days of the early Internet back in 1988 are probably so much ancient history to him...

The writer at [H]ard|OCP, however - a certain Rich - certainly cannot be excused. It seems likely that he hasn't heard of rtm before, and so has based his comments purely on a quick scan of a noticeably biased article - at least, I hope this is the case, as otherwise he's just profoundly ignorant, but either way the course of action he recommends is so thoroughly misguided and offensive that it really made me angry:

"Id like to round the boys up, get some blunt objects, and wait in the bushes by this guys house. Maybe wed have less viruses if the penalty was to be strung up, and repeatedly kicked in the nads?"

Unlike every single virus and worm author since 1988, rtm was unique in being able to claim naive innocence as a defence. Back then nobody (except maybe John Brunner) realised how fast these programs could propagate, and how much damage they could do to the computers they infected. As the worm spread across the world this soon became abundantly clear, but not before the cat was well and truly out of the bag... Morris was horrified, but by that stage there was little to do except turn himself over to the authorities - something else that sets him apart from the spotty adolescents that came after him. Although comments at the time were often somewhat acerbic, in fact there has never been any suggestion that he intended to cause the damage he did, and indeed it is arguable that his worm provided the first wake-up call to server administrators and network analysts that something needed to be done. There's no particular sign that they heeded the call, unfortunately, but that's a horse of a different colour...

A word of advice to Rich, though - in future, it would be best to check your facts before inciting violence towards highly respected members of the computer science community. As well as being illegal in many countries, it also makes you look very, very foolish...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Hyper-threading dual-core Xeon - Intel have released the first dual core chip with Hyper-threading, initially at a relatively meagre clock speed of 2.8GHz.  <rubs hands together>  How soon before we see dual CPU boards that will support these chips, I wonder - a quad motherboard in the same form factor as my current system would be an impressive toy, although at present it would mean stepping up from the workstation versions of Windows to the server OS, which is not without its problems in a desktop environment.

Vintage hardware for sale - what must be one of the world's finest collections of antique computer hardware is up for sale at eBay. The Freeman PC Museum comprises more than one thousand items, ranging from PCs to calculators and games consoles, but the owner is now selling the entire collection (over 6000 pounds of hardware and accessories!) because of ill-health. It would be a tragedy if someone doesn't step forward to give this a good home...

Boots on the other feet - rumours are circulating that Apple is going to be investigated by the Korean Fair Trade Commission following allegations that Samsung illegally discounted flash memory modules to below market rates in order to secure the massive contract for the new iPod Nano. Apple has so far declined to comment, but as one of the main players in the Microsoft anti-trust witch-hunt it will be interesting to see how they react to a little of their own medicine. As I repeatedly said during the Microsoft case, they weren't actually guilty of anything that the other big players in the IT industry don't do... Or any other industry, that that matter.

 

10th October

It's been a frustrating weekend. The new aircon units for the computer room were supposed to have been installed, but after several hours hanging around on Saturday and then the same again on Sunday, they still hadn't been delivered - and some investigation this morning revealed that they were still in Turkey!  ("Turkey?"  "Yes, Turkey."  "Oh, OK then.")  As the temperature when I arrived this morning was over 30 and climbing, I decided that enough was enough. We turned off all the servers that weren't actually directly involved in feeding data to the end users, sent the Dell consultants who were due to install the SAN backup software away again, and made a big fuss. This attracted the attention of various directors, and by lunchtime we had a full set of anxious contractors, a pair of heavy-duty portable units and a collection of giant aluminium air ducts - and the temperature was a mere 26, a new record for recent weeks, if still around ten degrees higher than I'd like. Unfortunately, sometimes drastic action is the only way of making progress...

Meanwhile, some apparently random links...

How could he resist - the license plate GOO61E is up for sale on eBay, and The Register suggests that after recent events the irascible Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer would be the perfect buyer.

Cannot find zerver - the Zelle online catalogue may have a rather confusing pseudo-retro style, but they also have what is undoubtedly the finest geek jewellery I've ever seen. Beautiful work!

Flying Spaghetti Monster brooch - and talking of jewellery, a neat little FSM broach made from silver wire and beads - complete with His Noodly Appendage. It's been a remarkably successful meme.

Worse than useless? - anti-spam authentication techniques such as SPF and Sender ID are so easily circumvented as to be pointless, according to a controversial report from a security consultancy.

Damn fine coffee, and hot - Everything you ever wanted to know about the cult TV series Twin Peaks - except, perhaps, when the long-awaited Season 2 will finally ship on DVD...

PlusNet paranoia - the ISP that everybody loves to hate has accused one of its most critical ex-customers of illicitly obtaining an extensive database of subscribers, a charge that he strongly denies.

Google/Sun alliance not a threat - Microsoft has dismissed the recent announcement of a partnership over OpenOffice as marketing hot air, and from what I can see they're quite right.

SMS kettle - surely a strong contender in any pointless technology contest, PG Tips is about to launch a kettle that you can switch on via a cell phone. I would like to think that this is a hoax...

 

8th October

We had a minor crisis in the computer room yesterday, when one of the decorators working on a newly built wall decided to start sanding down several acres of plasterboard ready for painting. By the time I realised what was going on the entire room was thick with fine white dust, and I had to round up my team to grab cloths and vacuum cleaners and salvage the situation as best as we could. Unfortunately, somewhere during this work one of my PFYs snapped this picture with his PDA's camera, showing me down on my knees carefully cleaning a trio of obsolete DEC Alpha servers.

The Alphas are something of a sore spot for me, as they take up a disproportionate amount of space, and place a disproportionate load on the UPS and aircon, than their meagre processing power actually warrants. They host a legacy system for one of our finance groups, and I'm longing for the day when it's ported onto a modern platform and I can give the Alphas the send-off they deserve - a shallow grave in an abandoned railway tunnel is the favourite, at present...

My dislike for these systems is well-known in the department, and to forestall the inevitable blackmail attempts on the part of my PFY I'm forced to 'fess up and admit that yes, that is indeed me caring for my own personal digital bugbear. The Alphas were fine computers in their day, and the early models contained some genuine technical innovations - it's not their fault that they should have been replaced at least five years ago, and while I have the wretched things in my care I do feel obliged to treat them with a degree of compassion. It's the least I can do.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, Symantec has registered a complaint with the EU's anti-trust regulators about Microsoft's renewed assault on the security market following the announcement of their integrated antivirus and antispyware product Microsoft Client Protection.

I have to say that I think this is pretty rich. Symantec has spent the last fifteen years vacuuming up approximately half of the world's small software companies (Computer Associates seems to have bought the other half), starting way back in 1990 with the acquisition of Peter Norton's pioneering system utilities, and progressing through once-proud names such as Central Point, Delrina, Quarterdeck, Powerquest, Sygate, and most recently storage giant Veritas - to name but a few! Oh, and incidentally, the overwhelming opinion amongst the techies I know is that few of the products acquired by Symantec in this way have actually benefited from the rebranding....

Given this, it seems to me that any accusations of monopolistic behaviour on their part are at best a nasty case of pots and kettles, and at worst an even nastier case of sour grapes. As one of the main players in the computer security market, a position gained not by technical innovation or solid customer service but simply by having deep pockets, it's perfectly reasonable that the company is anxious about any increased competition - but reacting to the threat by running to tell tales to the teacher is hardly good business practice.

I'm afraid it's just another example of what I have started to think of as the Eolas Syndrome - if your company can't succeed on its own merits, sue Microsoft instead - or, in this case, try to persuade the EU to do your dirty work for you. Bah!

 

7th October

It's been a bit of a whirl this week, thanks to the seemingly perpetual computer room refurbishment at work, and I've built up something of a backlog of news items and random links. Let's get them out of the way before they're stale:

Duct tape band aids - for workmen who think that traditional plasters look too wimpy, presumably?

What is the fairest OS of all? - a four-section wall mirror shaped exactly like the Windows logo!

Camera in a pill - further advances in incredibly intrusive monitoring hardware, now with pincers!

Fooling Alan - if a putative AI mimics its partner during a Turing Test, it seems more human.

Monitoring Microsoft - the UK professor advising the EU anti-trust case has a clear anti-MS bias.

Corporate bullying - BT is trying to close down a web site that is complaining about its service.

LED feet - slippers with LEDs and a bunch of electronics; impressive, but somewhat puzzling...

FAT patent rejected again - Bill's brainchild has been turned down on an administrative technicality.

Spam stock tracker - monitoring how much money you can lose with spam-advertised penny stocks.

Eastern European electronics - marvellous collections of Soviet-era computers and calculators.

Know your enemy - Microsoft is trying to understand Linux and Linux users.

Quake in your pocket - Quake 3 Arena has been ported to the Pocket PC, but it's not very quick...

"In case of sonic attack on your district" - something to wake up heavy sleepers... or the dead.

Unreasonable behaviour  - Yahoo gutted a comms company, luring away 12 out of it's 13 engineers.

No crisis - the MPAA is perpetuating the myth that the movie industry is dying because of file sharing.

Pots and kettles - music royalties organisations claim that iTiunes doesn't pay the artists enough!

 

6th October

Last week I linked to an interesting little site called "Strange eBay", showcasing some of the more bizarre and unusual items and services up for auction. This morning, however, I received an email from the site's proprietor, asking me to change my site to point  to the new name and domain - Way Out Auctions.com - instead. eBay had complained about his use of their name, he told me, and so of course he did what anyone else would do when faced with the prospect of Mr Burns' alcove full of high-priced corporate lawyers - he gave in and changed the site's name straight away.

I really hate to see this happening, but unfortunately it's becoming increasingly common. I do accept that companies and organisations want to protect their trademarks, and that in fact they are required to protect them to a certain degree in order to retain them, but there are limits to how far it is sensible to take this. For example, in the last couple of years we've seen an extensive series of legal threats made by the movie studio Time Warner against teenagers who have set up fan sites to discuss the Harry Potter stories. None of the victims actually had any intention to mislead visitors into thinking that they were official representatives of the company, and none of them were trying to make any money from the site - instead they were just expressing their love for the stories and encouraging others to do the same, which surely could only be a good thing for all concerned!

Aside from the corporate bullying by eBay in this case, a quick search turns up a multitude of such cases - QVC, Easy Group, Virgin, Game, Apple - once you start looking, the list seems endless, and the only common factor is that there is no sign of any malicious intention on the part of any of the victims. The majority of these cases ended up with the smaller company giving in before the threats, but as there was no real grounds for legal action nobody really gained anything except for the lawyers. Maybe that's the real driving force behind this policy?

Oh, and  <blush>  I bought another gun. It's a replica of the M41a Pulse Rifle from the movie Aliens, a set of plastic and metal parts that wraps around Marui's WW2 Thompson submachine gun to give it a futuristic makeover. I had it sent to the office in order to avoid yet another trip to the Parcelforce depot and so had to resist the temptation to go on a thoroughly bloodless rampage through the department, instead waiting until I got home before discovering that the M100 power upgrade that supplier Zero One Airsoft fit to their ready-made version gives a wonderfully fast, flat trajectory in comparison to my stock SR16. I shall have to investigate that further.

I'll post some more details when I have a spare moment - at this rate, sometime in 2006... Busy busy.

 

5th October

After languishing somewhat for a couple of weeks, the work on the computer room refurbishment has resumed with a vengeance. This evening saw six of us manhandling a couple of leftover server cabinets and our PBX from a little island of the old raised floor onto the newly built sections, using a pair of long wooden planks to lift them like a sedan chair! This process was not without its anxious moments, but in the end it worked out very well - I'm always impressed with how ingenious and resourceful a team of mixed techies can be when faced with challenges like this (and with two network geeks, a couple of the desktop team, a manager and our DBA we certainly were a mixed bag!) and actually we're getting really good at this stuff.

This weekend sees the installation of the new aircon systems (sorely needed, after the 30 temperatures in the room today!), and the weekend after that we're moving around two metric tons of UPS and battery cabinet across a corridor and up a ramp into the computer room. That's going to be another interesting challenge, I think...

More tomorrow.

 

3rd October

There's never an expert around just when you need one, of course, but one usually turns up in plenty of time to correct your mistakes once you've published them to the entire world! One of the programmers at the office is an old-school mainframe guru from the days when dinosaurs roamed the computer room, and he remembers using the IBM 40x series punch card tabulators at the end of their lifespan in the late seventies. Richard Feynman wouldn't have used the model 403 seen in the movie, he assures me, as it wasn't launched until 1948 - in spite of the model names, the 405 came first and it is more likely to have been the model used at Los Alamos.

In fact, the geeks at Columbia University's computing history group seem to think think that the model in the movie was probably a 402, in spite of the large 403 nameplate on the front. Perhaps whoever restored the beastie so beautifully couldn't lay their hands on the right one - when even the computer museums are relying on contemporary photographs and technical diagrams, a full restoration of any electromechanical hardware from this period must present a significant challenge.

Matthew Broderick elbow deep in the plugboard of the tabulator, the sort of DIY installation that IBM would still be just as annoyed about even sixty years later - he really does look like a young Feynman, though, doesn't he!

Thanks very much to Chris for the corrections and a bunch of truly fascinating links.

 

2nd October

I've just watched the apparently little-known movie Infinity, an account of the early life of the remarkable physicist Richard Feynman and his tragic relationship with his first wife Arline. The movie starts with Feynman's father explaining inertia to him as a child, one of the classic anecdotes from the Ralph Leighton book "What do you care what other people think?", and ends with Arline's death and the Trinity atomic bomb test in 1945.

The part of Feynman is played by Matthew Broderick, and he manages it surprisingly well. It has to be said that he doesn't really capture Feynman's wildly exuberant enthusiasm for science, but he was so much larger than life that any attempt to do that might easily have come across more as caricature. He does bear a strong resemblance to the young Feynman, however, especially in the Los Alamos scenes towards the end of the movie - that hairstyle! - and all-in-all it's certainly a fair attempt at the role. Broderick directs, too, and as his mother Patricia Broderick was the scriptwriter it was obviously a family project... I have the idea that one or both of them may have been sufficiently touched by Feynman's life and works that the movie was something of a homage to a person they respected and admired.

I almost became terminally distracted, though, when one of the Los Alamos scenes showed Broderick's character working on an IBM punched card tabulator of a type I'd never seen before. Although there are many anecdotes about the computing processes Feynman developed for the Manhattan Project, it had never occurred to me to look into the actual hardware in use at the time and with an unusual type-bar printing system that rippled up and down this particular device really caught my eye. Fortunately a clear model number on the front panel allowed me to track it down in a few moments, and although I can't be sure that the IBM 403 in the movie was really a model that Feynman would have used, it's certainly contemporary and in any case it was marvellous to see such a wonderful old icon restored to a working showroom condition.

Elsewhere, some quick news links:

Computerised beer mat - a pressure-sensitive mat that automatically orders a refill when the glass placed on it is approaching empty. Invented by German scientists, as could probably be expected...

Verisign and the Crazy Frog - following their acquisition of ringtone company Jamba!, they have been finding it  expensive to comply with regulations that their own dubious practices have provoked.

XP not quite dead yet - apparently there will be a third service pack for Windows XP, to be released sometime after the Vista launch and probably containing certain minor features from the new OS.

Demon in the doghouse - users of the once-respected ISP are foaming at the mouth over what seems to be unusually poor broadband performance, and have created a protest site to voice their concerns.

Patent Office upholds Eolas patent - to my considerable annoyance (and presumably that of Microsoft, too), a re-examination of the controversial patent has affirmed its validity.

Bad boy Moore - the Intel founder has revealed that he became interested in science principally because of the the appeal of blowing things up, which seems to be rather a common motivation.

Share a file, got to jail - the Canadian music industry association is banging the drum again, this time claming that file-sharing is a "gateway drug" that leads to other, more serious criminal behaviour.

A very odd moon - photos of the moon Hyperion, taken from the highly successful Cassini probe, show that it has a surface structure strongly reminiscent of pumice stone or a natural sponge.

A busy week in space - elsewhere in the news, a Soyuz mission to the ISS, the installation of SpaceShipOne at the Smithsonian, and a new offering from John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace.

Retro audio - a car-style cassette player, installed in a 5" drive bay and controlled by a serial connection. Unusual, perhaps, but actually I think it's rather a good idea.

From the ridiculous to the ridiculous - and talking of retro, just when you thought you'd seen everything that could be plugged into a USB port, here's a miniature 1960s glitter lamp... Why, oh why?

And finally (thanks to The Sideshow for the link), String Spin is a pair of neat little online graphical toys, rather reminiscent of a cross between string art and a Spirograph set.

 

1st October

I've been looking for webbing to spruce up the M134 minigun backpack, and stumbled across an excellent overseas supplier. Best Buy Buckle & Button International Ltd is based in Taiwan, and unlike the majority of Taiwanese companies I've dealt with their name is perfectly descriptive rather than eyebrow-raisingly whimsical by Western standards - my previous PC case was made by Super Flower, for example.

They have an good range of straps, buckles, fasteners and other oddments in ABS plastic, and in fact the only difficulty was in trimming down my order to a sensible quantity for a first transaction from an unknown overseas company. In spite of that restraint, however, I ended up with forty feet of webbing, twenty feet of Velcro, and ten each of the appropriate fittings to turn the raw materials into functioning straps and attachments - which cost me just $50, noticeably cheaper than anything I could have found in the UK. Shipping was a meagre $11, and considering it arrived in less than a week (helpfully labelled "commercial sample" to avoid import duty!) I think that was an absolute bargain.

Needless to say I was very pleased with both the products and the level of service, and I've emailed the company to tell them so.

Unfortunately I was not nearly so impressed with my last transaction with US hardware modding specialist Performance PCs, previously one of my favourites. I wrote a little about this a few weeks ago when the order arrived, but as the company has declined to reply to my email messages since then I think an entry on my griping page is probably in order.

Although I am extremely pleased with the Seasonic S12-600 power supply itself, the replacement acrylic cover that Performance PCs fitted is far from satisfactory. The double-sided tape used to secure it to the frame was already peeling off when it arrived, part of the cover itself had fallen off and was loose in the box, the fan screws were unevenly threaded, and in general the fit and finish were very poor indeed. A quick examination suggested that significant fiddling would be required to rectify the problems, and as time was tight I refitted the original metal cover in order to install the PSU sooner rather than later.

I emailed the company to point out the problems, but received a reply from founder Hank Baron that can only be described as a brush-off:

"We don't make the PSU covers", I was told, "some just fit better then others" and there's "not much we can do about this".

Now, apart from the fact that the product description on their web site directly contradicts this, stating that the covers were specially designed by the company, in any event it actually seems like a pretty poor excuse. I don't suppose they make the vast majority of the rest of their stock, either, but I would still expect it to meet basic standards of quality and suitability no matter what the source!

Certainly, the description is positively glowing in its enthusiasm for the product - claims which, in my example at least, seem thoroughly inaccurate when looking at the hardware in the flesh:

"The foam tape works extremely well and will not fall off"

It had on mine... About an inch of it had unpeeled completely, and that was even before the unit had warmed up to operating temperature and the glue had softened even further.

"This solves the problem of the sides pushing out on the acrylic cover and leaving an unattractive gap on the bottom of the power supply."

But not, of course, if one of the lock strips fall off even before the unit is even installed...

In fact, I only bought an add-on cover on the basis of those claims and the equally reassuring picture, having been less than impressed with the look of the other replacement PSU covers I've seen. As a pre-installed option fitted by the company, I do feel that could reasonably expect a similar quality of finish to that shown in the photo, and that is not what I got.

The smart thing for the company to do, given that the cover cost a mere $15 of my $260 dollar order (part of a total of over $1100 that they've had from me in the last six months!), would have been to issue me a credit note for that amount. It would have placated me completely, and in any case pretty much guaranteed that I'd order from them again - if only to redeem the credit. Ignoring my complaint, however, has instead guaranteed that I won't shop there again unless I have absolutely no alternative, and given that US competitor Frozen CPU has an extremely similar product line and that my favourite UK company, Kustom PCs, is rapidly expanding their range to match the American suppliers, it's unlikely that it will come to that.

As I've said before - on the web, your competitors are only a couple of mouse clicks away.

 

I have to admit that I'm disappointed. When I started rearranging my domain names back in the spring I thought that my stats would soon build back up to their usual level of around 6000 hits per month, but instead I seem to be stalled at around a third of that. It's not clear why this is happening, as Google seems to have re-indexed the new domain name just as well as it had the old Cix host, and I've resubmitted manually to the same second and third tier search engines that I did before... It's a bit of a mystery, and to a stats-whore like me it's also a bit depressing. I've been posting here for almost four years, now, pretty much as long as the word "weblog" has been in existence, but right now I'm starting to wonder why.

Oh yeah, life goes on
Long after the thrill of livin is gone...

 - John Mellencamp

(Huh! I remember him back when he used to be plain old Johnny Cougar)

 

 

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