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EPICYCLE

 

31st August

I am already thoroughly fed up with applying Windows service packs and firmware updates to Dell servers, and I've only done three out of around 100. This is going to be a very long project...

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the web:

Nothing new under the sun - so Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the original World Wide Web, has spoken out against the absurd hype that is building up around the so-called Web 2.0. The allegedly new and revolutionary principles in use are barely different than those that embodied the original concept, says Berners-Lee, who warns against repeats of the empty business models that caused the dot-com crash at the turn of the millennium.

The past and future of interfaces - at Bit-Tech, a brief history of computer interfaces from punched cards to 3D trackballs, and then a look at some of the possibilities of the new multi-touch interfaces being developed by NYU's Jeff Han and others. Microsoft and Apple are both working on practical aspects of multi-touch, with Photosynth from Microsoft Live Labs being one of the more interesting.

Killer NIC - I mentioned Bigfoot's $279 specialist gaming NIC a month or two ago, and now that more information has leaked out my scepticism is not diminished. Running embedded Linux from a 400MHz processor, it's designed to offload some TCP processing tasks from the CPU, and although in a high-throughput server NIC there clear improvements to be obtained from that, in a single user environment any benefits are probably largely illusory. One of the features highlighted in the preview is the ability to "add up to 41ms to your reported ping time" -which pretty much sums it up.

Fake searches - two "researchers" at NYU have created a Firefox plugin that attempts to conceal the content of a user's Internet searches by drowning the real ones in millions of dummy ones. Every 12 seconds it sends searches for random English words to Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL, and although that may well serve to obscure the genuine requests the effect that widespread use of this tool could have on both Internet bandwidth and the search engines themselves is horrifying to contemplate. I hope that they re-think this and abandon such a potentially destructive concept.

AIW cancelled - no sooner has the ink dried on AMD's merger with Canadian graphics hardware manufacturer ATI, it seems that the venerable All-In-Wonder range is to be cancelled completely. I'm sad to hear this, as although the performance of the ATI Radeon and their competing NVIDIA GeForce GPUs has leap-frogged each other for the last five or six years, only ATI had a single card that provided accelerated graphics, television, video capturing, TV output, and even remote control of  your PC. I've only recently defected from ATI to NVIDIA, having used their boards since the Mach 64 in 1994, and that was only because I couldn't actually find anywhere that would sell me the X800XT All-In-Wonder I was lusting after!. I think ramping up production to the point where people could actually buy your product would be a much better bet than abandoning the line due to poor sales...

Xbox 360 expands - as promised, Microsoft has been working hard on improving the level of backwards compatibility for older Xbox games, and a further 39 titles have now been added to the list. In contrast, Sony seem to be working overtime to annoy their fans, and the long wait for the ever-diminishing PS3 is not being made any more palatable by lofty pronouncements such as "the next generation doesn't start until we say it does!". Let the seller beware...

And, finally, crawling nasties - the editorial staff at ZDNet Australia is not at all happy with their Intel-based MacBook Pro laptops, with all four systems having experienced various unpleasant problems, ranging from poor battery performance to warped cases and strange wireless symptoms - as well as the sort of annoying whining sounds usually heard from Mac owners themselves rather than their computers. As could be predicted, the article's reader comments start right in with personal abuse from a die-hard Mac fan. Apple's once famous quality control may be dying on its feet, but some things never change...

 

30th August

It's that time, suddenly, with a combination of factors meaning that I can no longer hold off from installing Service Pack 1 on the 100-odd Windows Server 2003 systems at the office. We're moving an Exchange server onto the SAN this weekend, and the SAN agent is much happier on an OS patched with SP1 - which means that I'm much happier if we upgrade the other two Exchange servers in the site as well, and that means upgrading all of them with the latest Dell BIOS, firmware, drivers and systems management software to match the service pack - and all this is because the darned users are determined to preserve every single email that lands in their mailboxes, however trivial, ephemeral or pointless, for the mandatory seven years! This time last year we had a 16Gb information store and a 20Gb online archive, twelve short months later the main IS has grown to around 60Gb (together with an overflow of almost 16Gb on a secondary Exchange server) and the archive has bloated out to 1.9 million emails taking up an impressive 170Gb.  <long, heartfelt sigh>  Users - can't live with 'em, can't bury their mutilated corpses in a shallow grave in an abandoned railway tunnel...

While I labour over service packs and updates and firmware long into the evening, then, some links to occupy the waits during reboots:

For all eternity - Microsoft has agreed to extend support for the venerable NT4 operating system and the equally obsolete Exchange V5.5 email server, along with the somewhat more contemporary SP1 flavour of Windows XP. Subscribers to the Custom Support Agreement program will receive security updates and bugfixes for at least another three years, giving a twelve or thirteen year lifespan that has to be completely unprecedented in the microcomputer industry.

Supporting violence - to nobody's great surprise, a Louisiana judge has joined his colleagues in California, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota in rejecting a proposed state-wide ban on the sale of "violent" video games to minors. So far, every state that has attempted to legislate in this way has found itself blocked or reversed on constitutional grounds and, indeed, last month Illinois was ordered to pay $510,000 in legal costs to the three gaming industry groups who fought the proposals.

Raised on robbery - a young man who arranged to buy a turbocharged Mercedes through an eBay auction was held up at gunpoint when he met the alleged seller in Dagenham to finalise the deal, and was relieved of the 5500 in cash he had brought with him. Unfortunately eBay is fast becoming a test bed for new varieties of crime, as well as all the old favourite scams, and the age-old phrase "caveat emptor" has never been more appropriate.

Jumping the gun - in an unusual move, the Wi-Fi Alliance marketing association is planning to certify its own 802.11n wireless hardware before the specification is officially ratified by the IEEE. Demand for the next generation of wireless systems is heavy, and with manufacturers such as Belkin eagerly selling so-called "pre-N" hardware of dubious provenance and compatibility, there would seem to be some benefit for at least an interim standard to be defined at this stage.

A step backwards - the pope has convened a seminar with senior clergy to determine the Catholic church's position on evolution, following what seems to be a shift in policy towards creationism and Intelligent Design. I am dismayed to hear this, as John Paul II was extremely progressive in this area, and a number of contemporaries shared his opinion that evolution is "more than a hypothesis". The new pope is a conservative, unfortunately, and has a taste of the dark ages hovering around him.

Apple must act - two Chinese journalists are being sued for defamation by electronics giant Foxconn following their article exposing working conditions in the Shenzen plant that assembles iPods and other consumer electronics. Journalists' rights organisation Reporters Without Borders has asked Steve Jobs to persuade Foxconn to abandon what appears to be a purely retaliatory lawsuit, and one which has already caused the two journalists considerable hardship even before coming to court.

Another of the old guard - William Norris, founder of the mainframe company Control Data, died last week at the age of 95. CDC was one of the "seven dwarfs" of the IBM mainframe era, but can fairly claim to have created the first ever supercomputer, the CDC 6600 (the the brainchild of Seymour Cray), which at its launch in 1964 was at least ten times faster than anything else on the market. I used a Cyber 70 sometime around 1980, though, and found it eccentric and obscure in the extreme!

Hackable Juice - the Juice Box is a funny little palmtop media player from the toy company Mattel, which never really took off at the time and can now be found for sale on eBay and elsewhere for just a few dollars each. However, it is emerging that they are remarkably open little devices, with the ability to be tweaked into running a stripped-down Linux OS, at which point the world is pretty much your oyster... Early projects include remaking the Juice into a digital picture frame, for example.

Piracy is rife - Steal This Film is a documentary on the burgeoning piracy movement that is taking hold in Sweden, including the Pirate Bureau think-tank, the Pirate Party political organisation and, of course, the notorious Pirate Bay BitTorrent site. As a people the Swedes tend to be fiercely independent, and the US-backed raids on Pirate Bay, together with the threats of trade sanctions that followed, are being viewed as a serious attack on their national self-determination.

 

29th August

Link like you were blogging in the early days of a better nation...

Papercraft arsenal - this wonderful Japanese site has a huge collection of replica pistols, cunningly fashioned from folded paper. Some are a bit ropey, but others are really rather impressive, and the patterns are available for download. Meanwhile, elsewhere, New Zealand collectibles maker Weta is working on a range of beautiful steampunk rayguns, due for release next year. They look absolutely gorgeous, and I'm really hoping that I've forgotten about them completely by the time they ship...

More PR disasters - serving only to reinforce the stereotypes of marketing departments, this list of respectable web sites with unintentionally dubious names is a classic. I am amused to note that although I have spent considerable time at tech forum Experts Exchange, I never noticed the pun in the domain name!  [Note that this link will almost certainly be blocked by corporate web filters, so if you don't want to attract the attention of your neighbourhood sysadmins...]

His just deserts - 21 year old Christopher Maxwell has been jailed for 37 months for creating a botnet of hundreds of thousands of PCs to distribute spam emails. He fell back on the usual defence - "I am a 21-year-old boy with a good heart and I made a mistake. I never realized how dangerous a computer could be" - which has absolutely no credibility in this day and age. He certainly realised how much money could be made, though, receiving around $100,000 from the spam companies.

Imitation malware - a small scandal is brewing following the revelation that tests of anti-spyware software performed by the US Consumer Reports organisation didn't actually use any actual spyware during the testing process, instead utilising a malware simulator in a way which even the simulator's manufacturer recommends against. Not terribly impressive, really...

I've always said as much - Internet security organisation StopBadware.org has classified the new V9 of AOL's client suite as possible malware, thanks to its annoying habit of silently installing a raft of what may well be unwanted software (the usual culprits, a pair of AOL toolbars, QuickTime and RealPlayer - the latter of which is a highly intrusive app in its own right) and does not uninstall cleanly when removed.

Get ahead - for the hardcore network geek, diagrams of the packet headers of the IP, TCP, UDP, and ICMP protocols. It's been a while since I had to worry about anything down on such a low level (not since the days of the crawling horror that was Netware/IP, in fact) but I would have killed for such clear schematics back then. Well, I would have killed the team responsible for Netware/IP under pretty much any pretext, of course!

Linux oops - a recent update to the Ubuntu Linux distribution caused the X Window subsystem to fail on boot, throwing users back to the command line until the patch could be manually uninstalled. The community's response is mixed, ranging from amused tolerance to the sort of venom usually reserved for Microsoft. As I've commented before, when such an ardent fan-base feels that it has been badly treated in some way, the mood can switch completely and surprisingly fast.

Art mirroring life - an enterprising player in the Eve Online multi-player game set up a bank, paying interest on in-game money deposited with him and offering loans to players needing investment capital. This all sounded very worthy, and attracted considerable quantities of the game's currency, so I was greatly amused to hear that the banker has just absconded with around 790 billion ISK and is now on the virtual lam, believed virtually armed and virtually dangerous. Marvellous...  ;-)

 

27th August

So it's the end of August at last, and we're assured that the long-awaited Optimus Mini Three keypads are finally being sent out from the secret underground headquarters of Studio Art. Lebedev in Moscow. Designed as a technology demonstrator and cash cow in advance of the full-sized Optimus OLED keyboard which caused such a stir when mock-ups were demonstrated early on in the year, each of the three buttons on this neat little unit is a 2cm 96 pixel square Organic LED screen capable of being independently programmed to show icons, status displays, animations, and whatever else those cunning Russian geeks can dream up. The idea is very appealing, and I placed my order when the it was first announced in March - and then suffered through several slips in the launch date with not a little trepidation (forking over a fair amount of money to a Russian web site is not without its tense moments!), but late last week I received an email claiming that shipping was underway at last. Evidently a few models were sneaked out ahead of the main shipments, however, as there is already a video clip floating around, some pictures at Gizmodo, and tech toys site Think Geek has a mini-review of a production sample even if they won't be available to buy there until mid-September. Ben at Ars Technica has already dismissed the idea as "tiny, awesome and mostly worthless", so watch this space for my own opinions.

Dan has been looking at interesting technology, too, and is bemoaning the lack of consumer-level Network Attached Storage devices which are capable of spinning down their hard disks during periods of inactivity. The 10,000 and 15,000 rpm enterprise drives I use at the office are tough old beasts that can survive continuous operation year-in, year-out (and in any case are so massively redundant that one or even two failures in an array isn't usually cause for concern) but consumer drives are made of less stern stuff and their poor little bearings have a comparatively short life span. With this in mind, Dan's quest for a home NAS box that will last longer than the drive's warranty seems very worthwhile, and with the Thecus N5200 he may have found a contender. With my home server stuffed to the gills with one internal and two external RAID-5 arrays I usually sneer at the idea of a NAS appliance, but I have to admit that I do find the Thecus units tempting. Dan also pointed me to some remarkable sculptures by Bathsheba Grossman, which he has apparently been lusting after as much as the aforementioned NAS box. Inspired by the mathematical curiosities beloved of topology geeks, they're made from such advanced techniques as direct-metal 3D printing and subsurface laser damage imaging. They are truly remarkable (if eye-wateringly expensive!), and I can see why an ber-geek like Dan would be smitten.

 

25th August

I've been reading Merrill Chapman's "In Search Of Stupidity", a commentary on 20 years of IT marketing disasters, and it's proving both informative and enjoyable. Like most geeks of my generation I've read endless books on the big names in the industry - histories of Microsoft, Sun and Apple, biographies of their founders, stories of the semi-mythical inventors of ENIAC and LEO, and accounts of wonderfully doomed startups like Jerry Kaplan's GO Corp. However, there's a distinct lack of information on some of the firms that were the stars of the micro industry in its youth, and yet somehow have faded into complete obscurity, to the point where these days many of my colleagues will never even have heard their names... How did Ashton-Tate (allegedly named for founder George Tate's pet parrot) parlay their domination of the early database market into complete obscurity in less than a decade? Why did MicroPro release two different versions of WordStar into the same market sector, promoting them both at full speed until the competition tore the company apart? It's fascinating stuff, and Chapman's writing style is witty and fast-paced. Recommended.

How the other half lives - unlike the majority of the music industry, the Canadian record label Nettwerk has a revolutionary policy of putting customers and musicians first... They encourage fans to remix current hits from files freely distributed online, assist people who are being sued by the RIAA, and provide a wider range of services to their artists for a smaller cut of the profit. And this isn't some little tin-pot hippy outfit, either -  with hot names such as Barenaked Ladies and Avril Lavigne on their books, the company is going from strength to strength. I wonder if it will catch on?

Packed full of power - the IT press seems to be full of batteries, right now... The fallout from Dell's series of small explosions continues, and now Apple has joined them with a recall of 1.8 million batteries used in some of their iBook and PowerBook models. Meanwhile, claimants in the class action suit against Apple over the incredibly short life span of early iPod batteries are discovering that a "free replacement" is going to cost them $30 for shipping and warranty. Elsewhere, the big names in the industry are coming together to draw up standards for Lithium-ion batteries for laptops and handheld devices, including electrical, physical and safety specifications. Current committee members include Dell, HP, Apple, and Lenovo, and I would hope that other companies will join as well - this is an area where a universal standard could be of great benefit to both manufactures and consumers.

The IT media sector has been all a-buzz, too, with news that Apple has agreed to pay Creative a $100 million settlement for their infringement of a patent covering the use of an expanding tree of options in the interface of a digital music player. I think the patent is thoroughly spurious, myself, but Apple evidently decided that paying to license the concept would be preferable to fighting the suit in court. Elsewhere, early reports that the media companies had persuaded Microsoft to omit HD video support from the 32bit versions of Windows Vista (thus preventing legitimate HD DVD playback and encouraging pirated content) turned out to be something of a misunderstanding. Although Windows itself will not be certified for HD,  the usual 3rd party players from companies like InterVideo and CyberLink will be stuffed full of enough restrictive DRM to please the media cartel.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of Clyde Tombaugh spinning gently in his grave. I haven't been paying a lot of attention to the astronomy news of late, so I was somewhat startled to hear that the body formerly known as the planet Pluto has been demoted to a mere "dwarf planet" at the recent meeting of the International Astronomical Union. This leaves the solar system looking decidedly thinned out with only eight official planets, and a picture at Boing Boing suggests the most likely possible outcome. I think I may invest in an umbrella...

I'm told he is a comedian - I've never really been able to see the appeal of Ricky Gervais, and both The Office and his recent much-hyped Simpsons episode left me with a decidedly neutral expression... I have to admit that I find the two internal training videos he made for Microsoft equally bland, as well, but for some reason they're all the rage right now. Microsoft are hopping mad, of course, and the videos have already been removed from YouTube at their insistence - but as I write this they can still be found at Google Video so if the idea appeals you'd better get over there before anybody notices them.

And finally, just when you thought you'd seen every damn-fool USB device under the sun, an enterprising Japanese maniac has installed six 5 port USB cards in a tower PC case, and wired their outputs together to make a 75W electric hotplate. It boils rice, grills beef, and probably fries the damn motherboard as well given half a chance. Have I mentioned recently that some people have far too much time (and far too many USB cards, too, it seems) on their hands?

 

23rd August

It has been an annoying day... misunderstandings with management, argumentative neighbours, flakey tape libraries and to round the day off nicely a flat tyre on the way home. Sometimes one wonders why one bothered getting out of bed in the morning. Grrrrrrr.

Liquid fallout - the War On Moisture claimed its first victims when 19 airport workers and TSA agents at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were hospitalized following exposure to some kind of toxic vapours, probably as a result of indiscriminate mixing of liquids confiscated from passengers.

Disproportionate risks - Australian airline Qantas has placed restrictions on how Dell laptops can be used on their planes, in the hope of avoiding IT-related explosions - although an article at Yahoo! Tech suggests that there are plenty of other things to worry about first, such as dying by falling out of bed.

Dissing the RIAA - Weird Al Yankovic has released his contribution to the perpetual battle between the music industry and their customers...  It doesn't matter if you're a grandma / Or a seven year old girl / They'll treat you like  / the evil hard-bitten criminal scum you are.

Taking action - Microsoft has launched a legal offensive against "typosquatters", who register domain names such as "microzoft.com" to raise revenue from adverts placed on the bogus web pages. This is good news, I'd say, as the problem is becoming increasingly widespread and annoying.

Slapped harder - a judgement that found Microsoft and Autodesk guilty of infringing a patent concerning product activation has been upheld at appeal, and in fact the award has been increased by an extra $25 million! It's another bullshit lawsuit, unfortunately, along the lines of the Eolas decision.

No to neutrality - the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission opposes legal measures to enforce net neutrality, claiming that its proponents have yet to demonstrate how the telcos could act anti-competitively. Given that the telcos have a long history of doing just that, it's a strange attitude.

Suing Google - the Brazilian government is suing Google, claiming that pages on its social networking site Orkut are being used for planning criminal acts and promoting child pornography, and that the search company has refused to provide information about the users in question.

Apple downloaders - at least five staff at Apple retail stores have been fired after admitting that they downloaded the new OS X 10.5 "Leopard", which had been released to developers at a recent Apple conference but which of course had since appeared on the P2P networks. Seems harsh, to me...

An inspector calls - following reports of the appalling working conditions in the Chinese factory making iPods, Apple sent an independent team to inspect the plant. They found that conditions were generally good by local standards, but that there were definitely areas that needed improvement.

Why you should care - six years after the passage of the controversial and restrictive RIP Act, ZDNet is kind enough to explain it to us in words of one syllable. Some of us were actively involved in the campaign against the Act, of course, and so feel vaguely insulted by such a flippant article.

And, finally, marketing aimed specifically at women may finally have  gone too far, with Sony's release of unpleasantly pink editions of the PS2 and PSP, and Antonio Riello's line of weaponry for gangsta girls. The latter includes Desert Eagle and Beretta pistols with fur grips and pastel or gold features, designer sniper and assault rifles, and even hand grenades with bling! I don't know whether I'm more disturbed by the firearms or the pink consoles, though - both are fairly horrifying...

 

22nd August

I mentioned the other day that I was reading Merrill Chapman's "In Search Of Stupidity", and a chance reference there to eighties British computer company Acorn lead me right down memory lane.

In the summer of 1982 a friend and I sat down to write a computer game on the BBC Micro he owned (I was still using a highly-expanded ZX-81 at the time, with my own "Beeb" due that coming christmas), and after some brainstorming and false starts we settled on a clone of the popular arcade classic Centipede. Our version was called "Killerpede", with my friend writing the majority of the core code, my contribution the sprites and graphics, and another friend (soon to become a television silhouette commenting on Britain's first highly-profile computer hack) creating the background music, a maddeningly catchy rendition of "Teddy Bears' Picnic". I'm not quite sure when the idea of actually selling the thing came to us, but it was clear from the fledgling computer magazines that the creators of the games we were playing ourselves were not much older and wiser than we were, and in due course a demo tape was sent off to the the main UK software houses.

The quality of home computer software was very patchy at the time, with many software houses publishing any old cruft that they were sent, but with my friend's tight, assembly language core routine and my knack for squeezing the most out of the meagre eight colour graphics, Program Power (later "Micro Power") recognised a good thing when they saw it and added the game to their burgeoning stable. Although we had deliberately changed the name to avoid attracting the attention of the arcade game's owner, the giant Atari, things were a touch more fast and loose in those days and I had copied the original graphics to the best of my ability. This lead to an urgent call from Program Power some time after the contract had been signed - they had shown a copy of the game to Atari, it emerged, and unsurprisingly the lawyers had come down on them from a great height.

I don't remember why I wasn't so heavily involved in the second version of the graphics (perhaps I was away on holiday at the time?) but my friend re-vamped most of them himself, moving the game from its traditional woodland setting to deep space, and replacing the segments of centipede with little robotic spaceships that moved in close formation - together with a change of name to "Nemesis", a word I had just discovered thanks to my voracious appetite for reading. The changes lead to a dispute from which our friendship never quite recovered, unfortunately, as when the cheque arrived (it was only a few thousand pounds, I think, but that was a lot of money to a pair of schoolboys!) he decided that my overall contribution had been pretty insignificant in comparison to his, and so he deserved the lion's share of the profits. I was expecting something closer to half, unfortunately, on the grounds that we had started the project as partners, and eventually our parents had to step in to mediate between us...

Almost 25 years later, however, I am absolutely delighted to find that not only has the game not been completely forgotten, but that in fact is is actually quite highly regarded! A review on the extremely comprehensive Beeb fan site The BBC Games Archive says:

"This is a really good version of the classic Centipede game, the graphics are nice and smart, the mushrooms are replaced by strange 'things' which shrink when you shoot them, and it is very fun to play. Probably the best Centipede clone on the Beeb!"

How nice! The "strange things" were asteroids, of course, which got smaller each time they were shot - which made a damn site more sense than the shrinking mushrooms of the original game!

Fired by this burst of nostalgia, and the fact that the game is widely available (as are pretty much all other home computer games from that era) on abandonware web sites, I started looking for a BBC Micro emulator in order to try it out. It was widely acknowledged that the shareware pcBBC was the best in the field, but unfortunately my experience was less than rewarding - having downloaded the necessary system ROM images (nominally copyrighted but in fact readily available online), upon running the emulator it didn't display anything except a performance bar in the top left, and had to be closed again manually... This symptom was completely undocumented, but when, as an experiment, I moved the ROM images out of their default folder in an attempt to trigger an actual error message, the entire Windows GUI locked completely and I had to restart the PC using a remote shutdown tool! Your mileage may vary, of course, but I certainly won't be trying that one again!

As an aside, and a completely unprecedented one at that, it turns out that the No.2 software house of the era, Superior Software (the manufacturer's own software arm, Acornsoft, was of course the top seller, with Program Power at No. 3) is actually still in business. As Superior Interactive they sell modernised PC versions of some of their classic games, such as the ground-breaking and wonderfully addictive "Repton" series, making them pretty much the only survivor of the once-flourishing British microcomputer industry. Good for them!

 

21st August

A few random links...

Domestic bliss - a quick plug for one of the web's great phenomena, Mil Millington's "Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About", now in its sixth year and still (somewhat to Mil's surprise, it seems) going strong. It even spawned a novel, and perpetual rumours of a movie.

Gamer porn - A hoax, or a sharp operator cashing in on a previously unexploited market segment? "Whores Of Warcraft" purports to be a soft-core site inspired by the popular online game, and the Coming Soon banner displays a pair of scantily-clad barbarian girlies holding pointy things.

The Frankenstein Syndrome - "Animator vs. Animation" by Alan Becker uses the GUI of the Macromedia Flash authoring app as the arena for a fight to the death. I haven't seen anything quite this neat in Flash since the Xiao Xiao stick figures fighting a few years ago.

Farewell to Phantom - the notorious games console, one of the industry's great pieces of vapourware, has disappeared from the website of the equally notorious Infinium Labs. the only legacy is the name, which is hanging on as a brand for a keyboard and an online gaming service, as well as the new name for the company itself! I would have thought it was something of an albatross, myself...

Raymond urges compromise - open source evangelist Eric Raymond has urged the development community to contemplate "painful compromises" when it comes to dealing with proprietary platforms and formats, especially in the growth area of media players, or else the desktop OS will be doomed.

No more "pod" - Apple is taking a leaf out of Google's book, it seems, sending nastygrams to at least two companies who are using the word for their own products - in this case such wildly unrelated products as a laptop case and a vending machine addon. I don't approve of this kind of shotgun trademark action, but if it lead to less use of that damned word in the media sector I have to admit that I won't be sorry...

On the other hand - in clear contrast to Google's protectionist ethos, however, search rival Yahoo is actually encouraging people to "have fun with our brand" by remixing the logo and the site's functionality to suit. The King Missile homage is just plain bizarre, though...

Trying times for PlusNet - last week the ISP had a major outage when power problems at Telehouse cut off large quantities of their services, only a day after having to reveal that it had permanently lost some CGI configuration data and that it was suspending the process of migrating customers to unbundled lines from Tiscali. One wonders how many more crises the company can survive...

An inside job - a researcher at security specialist LURHQ has infiltrated a specially designed PC into a major botnet in an attempt to understand the command and control mechanisms, and his work shows how flexible and powerful even relatively primitive bot software can be.

Speaking out - the UK Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee has condemned the way that the major search engines are helping the Chinese government to censor the country's Internet feed as "morally unacceptable", and has called on the government to pressure China to change their policy. Given the current Western love affair with China (or with China's money, to be accurate!) I can't see this happening...

Nordic anger - following the lead taken by the French government, consumer agencies from Norway, Denmark and Sweden will meet this week to discuss a possible lawsuit against Apple, on grounds that the lock between iTunes and the iPod player violates contract and copyright laws.

 

19th August

In 1962 the science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote the first of what would become known as his "three laws", stating in an essay included in Profiles of the Future that:

"When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong".

To Clarke's ever-increasing smugness, this law has been proved fundamentally correct again and again, and yet somehow distinguished but elderly scientists continue to ignore its ramifications completely. I'm sure that computer programming guru Joel Spolsky would not relish being described as "elderly", of course, but in the comparatively young science of computing he certainly counts as one of the old guard - and so he should know better...

I've just started reading Merrill Chapman's "In Search Of Stupidity", a fascinating book that examines some of the unbelievable marketing disasters that have left the last forty years of the IT industry littered with corporate corpses at the sides of the Information Superhighway, and the aforementioned Mr Spolsky has written the introduction. In it, he proves Clarke's First Law once again, with the following unequivocal statement:

"When Pepsi-pusher John Sculley was developing the Apple Newton, he didn't know something that every computer science major in the country knows: Handwriting recognition isn't possible."

To prove that Joel was talking out of his ass, I wrote that last paragraph on my Motion LE1600 tablet PC, running Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, and it recognised my handwriting (which as anyone can see is a long, long way from Spencerian!) with perfect accuracy and without, apparently, breaking into the silicon equivalent of a sweat.

Now, to be fair to Joel, he wrote those words in 2003, and the software which has just delivered such a smooth and functional recognition facility to me was still a few years away. Or, to be more accurate, the hardware capable of supporting that software was still a few years away, as modern Pentium 4 and equivalent CPUs are so incredibly powerful by the standards of their predecessors that they can perform tasks such as this with what amounts to spare CPU cycles, while playing a DVD and recalculating a spreadsheet in the background. The Newton's notorious failures were really caused by this fundamental lack of processing power, a deficiency that could barely be overcome in a full-sized desktop PC when that sad creature was introduced in 1993, let alone in a palmtop. This limitation was side-stepped very effectively by Palm with their Graffiti formalised alphabet, of course, which is why I carry a Tungsten T3 in my pocket these days instead of an Apple iPad...

However, I really don't think that this is an excuse. Anyone who has been in IT for even half as long as Joel Spolsky should be extremely wary of stating so dogmatically that something isn't possible (except perhaps for Bill Gates becoming best buddies with Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, of course, which I will bet my Microsoft share is never going to happen!) as not only are even low-end desktop PCs putting the so-called super-computers of the 1980s and 1990s to shame with their raw processing power, but there are still legions of bright young techies beavering away in corporate R&D departments, university laboratories and even suburban bedrooms to produce the next thing that is going to raise all our eyebrows - and with all that in mind I certainly wouldn't care to stick my neck out as far as Joel did...

Meanwhile, still in the world of IT... Given the open source community's widespread derision over Vista's delays and withdrawn features, it is instructive to note that exactly the same thing has just happened to Firefox... The launch date of version 2.0 has slipped a month to October 24th, and several new features that were present in the alpha release have been postponed indefinitely. Interestingly, in the article's discussion thread at Ars Technica a tip from one of the development team suggests that the new version won't actually be any more stable than the current release, which even he admits is somewhat flakey - although as could have been predicted it seems that 3rd party extensions are responsible for majority of the problems. Microsoft's policy of enabling support for huge swaths of random hardware from around the world has always been one of the Achilles' Heels of Windows, and the way that Firefox allows its users to install random addons from home-grown programmers of dubious provenance is apparently causing much the same sort of problems for its official developers. Talk about pots and kettles...

 

17th August

British IT industry journal The Register has analysed the alleged terrorist plot that was exposed last week and finds something of a credibility gap. The liquid explosive that lead to such a pointless and draconian ban on taking drinks and cosmetics onto planes was apparently triacetone triperoxide, better known to explosives geeks as TATP, and although it can be made in a laboratory setting with merely reasonable levels of skill, equipment, and care and attention, the article suggests that manufacturing the explosive from its components in an aeroplane toilet would be out of the question. In order to inflict more than cosmetic damage on the plane, a significant amount of the explosive would have to be manufactured in situ, a process that could take several uninterrupted hours while the ingredients were slowly and carefully mixed, and then left to dry thoroughly! Failure to follow the recipe in any of several ways would produce something with the destructive power of merely, say, a Dell laptop...

Evidently I am not alone in mistrusting the government's claims that a "massive terror plot" was averted at the last moment - an article in The Guardian suggests that although many of the people interviewed recently by the mass media on the streets of London are willing to give up any and all of their civil liberties in order to "help the government fight the war on terror", in fact a surprising number of them turn out to be foreign tourists. The reaction of the locals is considerably more reserved, it seems, having been let down too many times before (the missing WMDs, the shooting of de Menezes, the ricin plot, and the embarrassing Forest Gate raid to name just a few) to automatically accept what the government has told them.

Indeed, given that at the time of the police raids no bombs had been constructed, no plane tickets had been bought, and many of the alleged plotters didn't even possess a passport (which considering the notorious inefficiency of the Home Office department responsible for issuing them would mandate a significant delay at this time of year!) it seems impossible that we were only days away from another atrocity as the government and the slavish news media have claimed. It has been alleged that pressure from the White House was behind the sudden decision to launch the raids, and as Andrew Sullivan comments, "I wonder if Lieberman's defeat, the resilience of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the emergence of a Hezbollah-style government in Iraq had any bearing on the decision by Bush and Blair to pre-empt the British police and order this alleged plot disabled".

In any event, the security services have received permission to detain the suspects until next week for further interrogation, and given the scarcity of hard news right now it will be interesting to see if they decide to release any information that actually reinforces their case rather than casts doubts over it.

 

16th August

A few random links:

No more Googling - apparently the search company is sending legal threats to various media organisations demanding that they refrain from using the word "Google" as a verb. Given that the word has now been included in various prestigious dictionaries, I think it's a losing battle.

Just plain careless - NASA has admitted that a year of searching has failed to locate a number of significant recordings from the Apollo program, including the master of the first moon landing. The chances are that the tapes may have degraded into uselessness in any case, however.

Sneaky  - You Tube users have raised concerns over the site's connections with the address sharing service Plaxo, famed for enlisting its users to send spam-like messages to their acquaintances. A representative from Plaxo says that they have reformed, however, and that all is above board.

Virtual theft - Microsoft has warned that a new breed of malware attempts to steal login IDs for online games such as World Of Warcraft. Some in-game objects command a substantial real-world value, and stolen characters possessing them are believed to be changing hands on the black market.

Protectionism - the Chinese government has prohibited foreign cartoons from being shown on television during prime time, the latest in a series of measures intended to protect domestic animation studios. The policy has served only to increase the demand for pirated DVDs, however.

Caring, sharing RIAA - the bullying music industry association has announced that it will drop the lawsuit it threatened against the children of a deceased alleged file sharer, citing their "abundance of sensitivity". I don't think that anyone who has ever dealt with them would recognise that description...

Battling lord - civil liberties proponent Andrew Phillips, the former Lord Phillips of Sudbury, complains that the controversial RIP Act was the first piece of legislation he saw when he joined the House in 1998 and that he was still debating its flaws just before he resigned his seat last month.

No unpleasant stretching - I've been haunting the site of Russian design house Art. Lebedev for news of the shipping of their long-awaited Optimus Mini Three OLED keypad, and while I was browsing around I came across this excellent advice on not deforming typefaces in his bible of design tips.

Still banging the drum - the controversial and unpleasant Florida attorney Jack Thompson has challenged game publisher Take-Two to provide a demonstration copy of their imminent (and almost equally controversial) game "Bully", or to face a lawsuit intended to ban its release.

Fiddling about - Pipex-founder Pete Dawe is looking for hardware hackers to further the development of his latest project, a "bare metal" Unix-based multimedia device called "BabelBox". The unit is deliberately no frills to encourage collaborative development and innovation in spite of its limitations.

Swedish DarkNet - the Scandinavian computer underground is still fuming over the police raids on torrent site The Pirate Bay, and their latest reprisal is a commercial service to mask IP addresses behind a middleman, providing what purports to be completely anonymous web browsing.

More incendiary laptops - Dell has been forced to launch another battery recall program, the third in two years, following reports of explosions and fires in their D series laptops. As manufacturer of the cells inside the battery pack, however, Sony has offered to share the cost of the replacements.

 

14th August

A busy start to the week - venturing twice out to collect backup tapes from our secure store in the rain, running additional fibre optic cables for the SAN that turned out to be almost too short, wrestling with the continuing debugging of an Exchange backup job that takes longer to pre-scan than to copy to tape, and being evicted from a succession of meeting rooms while trying to find somewhere for the team to catch up with each other. I'm glad that I have a day off booked tomorrow to recover!

The tubes are full - last month I predicted that Senator Ted Stevens' speech opposing net neutrality would run and run, and those creative types out there on the Internets haven't let me down. The latest offering is a 404 Not Found parody, although I could have done without the endlessly repeating song.

Old but gold - just to prove that the social networking sites are not the exclusive domain of teenagers, as it may appear from the almost universally adolescent content to be found there, a 79-year old British videocaster has found his 15 minutes of fame at YouTube.

Open vs. Closed - an article at the Financial Times by intellectual property guru James Boyle suggests that many people are irrationally biased against open source software and non-copyrighted media, and will frequently make poor decision on the relative merits of the two concepts.

The backstroke of the West - I remember this from when the movie came out last year, but my ber-manager pointed me to this bizarrely subtitled pirate Chinese DVD of Revenge Of The Sith, today, and it's well worth linking to again. Captions there be, mangled they are.

Breeding passports - at last week's Black Hat security conference Lukas Grunwald demonstrated that he could read and copy information embedded in the new German smart passports, but The Smart Card Alliance (who one must admit have something of an axe to grind!) claims that this is irrelevant.

Browser see-saw - a report from consultancy Janco Associates suggests that although Internet Explorer is slowly losing market share to the 3rd party browsers, people are not switching to Firefox nearly as fast as they were earlier in the year. Security scares and incompatibilities may be to blame.

PS3, just say "No" - when one of the editors of the Official PlayStation Magazine announces that she will be buying an Xbox 360 instead of a PS3, you know that the platform is in trouble. Long delays, lack of games, hardware disappointments and that horrendous $600 price tag - is it really surprising?

Going silver - it's the 25th anniversary of the launch of the IBM PC, and I'm feeling very old today as I remember being shown the first model to reach Britain during a visit to the IBM Customer Center in Bristol. However, my colleagues all agreed that I am indeed very old, so I guess that's OK, then.

OpenOffice insecurity - a report by the French Ministry Of Defence criticises the open source office suite in no uncertain terms, claiming that it is at least as vulnerable to attack as the Microsoft product, and in some ways significantly more so. Expect an angry dismissal from the fanboy community...

Who's stealing now - and talking of the fanboys, Windows journalist Paul Thurrott has analysed Steve Job's sarcasm-riddled Leopard launch and suggests that many of his allegations of copying are far from accurate. True to form, the article immediately produced a spirited rebuttal from the Apple camp.

And finally, the news that a computer journalist was recently mugged for his cellphone in central London has brought some suggestions for protecting your personal tech, ranging from the stereotypically right-wing American (I carry a Glock, and I'm just waiting for somebody to try mugging me for my freakin' iPod!) to what c19an only be described as "The Walken Defence", inspired by th19e actor's cameo appearance as Captain Koons in Pulp Fiction. Both approaches leave me somewhat speechless...

 

13th August

More details on the alleged "terrorist atrocities" are emerging, accompanied by truly incredible statements from British government ministers to the effect that the ever-increasing threat of terrorist attacks is completely unconnected to their policies. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett has said that people who blame the country's foreign policy for the terrorism are making "the gravest possible error", for example, and Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander adds that "no government worth its salt should allow its foreign policy to be dictated to under the threat of terrorism". It's the standard party line, of course, and to be expected, but I feel insulted to be so blithely assured that the UK's enthusiastic involvement in the Iraq war and its aftermath has not provoked the anger of Moslem extremists in this country and others, and so the violence which results from that anger.

Meanwhile, an anonymous but highly-placed source within the British government claims that in fact the bombing attack was not imminent, that surveillance of the suspects began months or in some cases even years ago, that no explosives had actually been manufactured yet, that some of the men didn't even have passports and so could not possibly have boarded a plane, and that the arrests were made earlier than planned following pressure from the American government. In other words, the security services did not really believe that the terrorists presented a significant threat at this stage, and had not intended to act! Given that this information has appeared only a couple of days after the arrests, and given that it usually takes weeks or months before even some of the truth about this kind of operation emerges, I have the feeling that in time we will discover that this entire affair has been carefully managed in order to further some hidden political agenda.

Elsewhere, security guru Bruce Schneier points out that it is a waste of time and resources "to defend against what the terrorists planned last time"... None of the security measures put in place after 9/11 would have thwarted this plot, had it ever gone ahead, and a long-term ban on liquids and gels will only serve to make passengers thoroughly miserable - let alone the absurd prohibition of laptops, PDAs, books and magazines. "We can't keep weapons out of prisons", comments Schneier. "We can't possibly keep them off airplanes". In fact, one of David Maki's Wondermark cartoons sums it up very neatly, with the fundamentalists brainstorming new tactics: "It's not about how many dozens of imperialists we can kill... It's about how many millions we can inconvenience for decades to come".

 

12th August

I'm a voracious reader, and since I started living on my own a few years ago I make the most of the peace and quiet by listening to audiobooks while I'm in the kitchen cooking in the evenings. I've been a subscriber to Audible since the company's early days (although the new UK version has failed to impress), which gives me two books per month to fill my daily commute and the evening chores, but I'm always on the lookout for additional media and the recent fad for podcasts has been something of a bonus. When I saw that someone was podcasting Cory Doctorow's fascinating SF novel "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom", therefore, I grabbed it to put aside for a dry spell. Cory has podcast a number of his own short stories, but DAO is wonderful and I was really looking forward to hearing it.

Just such a dry spell arrived today, and unfortunately the recording was a great disappointment. The producer, Mark Forman, was reading the novel "cold" without any preparation, and that led to a halting delivery which I found rather jarring in places. I could have overlooked that, however, and even overlooked the rather distracting background music that permeated the entire reading, had he not decided to add complete music tracks to punctuate the story in the oddest of places - at one point, in fact, apparently right in the middle of a paragraph! I wasn't wild about the songs themselves, which didn't help, but by the end of the first chapter it felt as if there had been more far music than words and my patience didn't survive until chapter two... Cory has released the majority of his stories under the Creative Commons license, which can allow others to "re-work" licensed material to add a personal flavour, but it certainly isn't mandatory and if the end results aren't any better than this it shouldn't be encouraged.

Meanwhile, while I make up for all that intrusive music with some extremely mellow Artie Shaw, some snippets of news and stuff from around the web:

A blast from the past - while I refreshing my memory about Laurence Godfrey, yesterday, I came across a copy of the antique net.legends FAQ, and was reminded of some long-forgotten names: Serdar Argic, Rob McElwaine, Ludwig Plutonium, Dan Gannon... Ah, those were the days...

Another nail - Sony's PS 3 is looking less and less desirable every time I read about it, and the latest news is that even though it will come equipped with a Blu-Ray optical disk player, it probably won't be able to play HD movies because of a failure to comply with the stringent HDCP copy protection.

The curse of neutrality - venerable government accountability pressure group Common Cause has released a second list of organisations purporting to be pro-Internet activists, but which are actually funded and controlled by the telecommunications industry to fight net neutrality. The sleaze of it all"

Spam obits - some people may indeed have too much time on their hands, but occasionally the results are well worth it... William Ridenhour is writing obituaries for the bizarre randomly-generated names found in the faked reply to fields in spam emails, and some of them are a real hoot.

Muzak - just when you thought is was safe to go back to the MP3 player, a compilation of some of the horrendous music that has spread around the Internet in the last few years - The Hampster Dance, All Your Base, Badgers, and a bunch of others that (to my great relief) I somehow managed to avoid.

The RIAA are all heart - one of the victim's of the RIAAs seemingly endless campaign of consumer harassment was selfish enough to die before they had managed to screw any money out of him, and so they are going after his children - if after waiting a couple of months for them to "grieve". Gee.

Just in case - the Gubernator has deployed 300 California nation guard to the state's airports in case any of the arrested liquid bomb terrorists manage to escape their high-security detention centres and flee to the sunshine state. As Cory says, "armed, nervous teenagers" - yes, that will really help.

 

11th August

A few quick news links to round off a busy week - the majority of which are courtesy of The Register and Ars Technica, two very different sites but both stalwart providers of IT industry news and gossip.

More on the plot - whatever the realities of the bomb plot uncovered this week, it doesn't really look as if the American security services are very impressed... The Register wonders whether it's because the risks have been exaggerated, or because the US government just doesn't care any more.

Up before the beak - Dell is facing legal action in China following allegations that some of their new Inspiron laptops shipped with the inferior T2300E version of the Core Duo CPU - the difference is the lack of the virtualisation facility to run multiple simultaneous operating systems, which is hardly critical.

Up before the beak #2 - security appliance specialist Juniper is in trouble, as well, and is likely to be de-listed from the Nasdaq share index following its admission of extensive "irregularities" over stock options issued to executives last year. This is becoming increasingly common, it would seem:

Up before the beak #3 - an internal investigation at Apple may well reveal similar discrepancies over that company's stock options, too, and there are suggestions that Steve Jobs himself could be questioned if the probe expands further. Activities of this sort aren't exactly illegal, but...

The RIAA is annoying - so says the Consumer Electronics Association, which is finding the industry pressure group increasingly hard to deal with. Although they are demanding restrictive measures such as the Broadcast Flag, for example, they have no real plan for its implementation.

The cost of stupid legislation - an Illinois law to restrict the sale of violent and explicit video games was found unconstitutional last year, to nobody's great surprise, and the Entertainment Software Association has just been awarded $644,545 in legal costs they incurred opposing it.

Down with social networks - aside from the hugely exaggerated threat of paedophiles and sexual predators, it seems that sites such as MySpace present a more concrete risk with a new report from ScanSafe suggesting that as many as 1 in 600 profile pages hosting some form of malware.

To the point - an image taken with a field ion microscope shows the individual atoms that make up the very tip of a tungsten needle, and even that incredibly fine point is rounded and irregular. Most interesting of all, some of the atoms are wandering lazily across the surface of the metal.

And, finally, trouble is brewing on the UK parenting site Mumsnet following threats of legal action over statements posted in the forums there... The alleged victim is a controversial baby-care expert who claims that some of the messages are defamatory, but as they include allegations that she "straps babies to rockets and fires them into south Lebanon" I'm not convinced that her suit would actually stand up in court: as I understand it, statements that are patently false are not usually found to be sufficient in cases like this. The whole affair is rather reminiscent of the infamous Laurence Godfrey vs. Demon suit back in 2000, in fact, the outcome of which was a great disappointment to most of those who were following the case.

 

10th August

So it seems that the British police and security services have foiled a major terrorist plot targeting aeroplanes flying between Britain and the US, and following this I expect we're supposed to forgive and forget the incompetence and dubious nature of the Forest Gate raid in June, in which an apparently innocent man was shot "by accident" (and what on earth are we supposed to make of the subsequent allegations that he was involved in child porn?), and the comprehensive campaign of lies and misdirection that followed the murder of Jean Charles De Menezes on the London Underground last year.

This time it is alleged that a gang of at least 21 terrorists were planning to bomb somewhere between six and ten transatlantic airliners, using liquid explosives assembled in mid-flight from common household ingredients - although other reports say that the explosives were made from "an energy drink" and were to be triggered using an MP3 player or cell phone. I'm still shaking my head in puzzlement over that one.

Of course, in the wake of this the measures adopted "for our protection" by the airline security organisations are draconian and incredibly restrictive - a complete ban on all carry-on luggage, except for a transparent bag containing a few specifically permitted items - and the list of items that are specifically prohibited includes magazines, books, laptops, MP3 players, large wrist watches, glasses cases, and, of course, all liquids and gels. Even baby foods are only permitted if another passenger is willing to sample them first - presumably to avoid suicide drinkers! At this rate, the authorities aren't going to rest until every airline passenger has to travel stripped naked, drugged with tranquilisers, and handcuffed to his or her seat. Sheesh!

After decades of lies and cover-ups by a succession of Labour and Conservative governments, I am sad to admit that by now I have reached the stage where I automatically mistrust anything that politicians, government ministers or civil servants say and do. Announcements of terrorist atrocities, whether real or imaginary, whether realised or thwarted, are inevitably followed by sweeping legislation that we are assured is vital to protect the country and its citizens, but in fact is purely designed to enable ever more repressive and restrictive government. As has been argued again and again, to take just one example, the mandatory identity cards so beloved of the Home Office will do little to prevent either international terrorism or illegal immigration (the exact target tends to vacillate depending on the current focus of the tabloid media) but will be a marvellous way of keeping close tabs on the largely law-abiding population.

In spite of the hype and fear, there actually aren't that many terrorists in the world and they don't really have much chance of killing as many innocent civilians as, say, the US and UK coalition forces have killed in Iraq. What they can achieve, however, is spreading terror (hence the name, yes?) and in fact many of the current Western governments find that ability sufficiently useful for their own ends that sometimes it seems as if they are actively working alongside the terrorists to make their populations as fearful as possible. A recent report from the Cato Institute makes very interesting reading...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Safe searching - the inadvertent publication of the search histories of more than 650,000 AOL users serves as a clear reminder that anything we type into those friendly little white text boxes can be taken down and used as evidence against us. Some of them are certainly thought-provoking, though...

The evils of packaging - an article at Tom's Hardware Guide (the site is as patchy as ever, with some real gems, some dross, and some, like this one, kind of in the middle there...) covers some of the everyday annoyances caused by badly thought-out packaging materials.

Is that an iPod in your pocket? - another classic debasement of technology, the OhMiBod is what I shall euphemistically describe as a "personal massager" which connects to an MP3 player or other music source and vibrates in time to the music. Well, indeed.

Too much time on their hands department - just to prove that it isn't only nerds and geeks that really ought to find themselves a hobby, a Yorkshire farmer has created a 32 acre "maze" intended to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Star Trek. He probably shouldn't give up his day job...

And, finally, nit-picking - security company Symantec have been holding the current Vista beta up to the light, and they don't like what they see. Their latest complaint is that a hacker could disable the mechanism that blocks unsigned driver software from being installed by modifying the core operating system files, which is probably true but largely irrelevant - if an attacker is able to patch the binaries of any operating system, then when it comes to security all bets are off... Perhaps their negative attitude isn't surprising, given that Microsoft is moving in on what they consider to be their own core market with Windows Live OneCare, but it's hard to take this kind of griping seriously.

 

9th August

Another tense day at the silicon face, so while I sit here quivering gently you'll have to suffice with a handful of random links:

Empty messages - at Boing Boing, Cory links to an article on the rise in spam-free spam, bulk email filled with English prose harvested from random sources, but without any actual advertising. Some think these are system failures within the spam nets, but the alternative is somewhat more sinister.

Beautiful creatures - Portuguese designer Joo Pedro Carneiro has created an extremely eye-catching concept for a portable computer, with dismountable keyboard and digitising tablet. His web site is equally pretty, but suffers somewhat from the usual form-before-function disease...

Maternity - at Tom's Hardware Guide, a useful article on choosing a PC motherboard. Although labelled as a "beginner's guide", in fact it's informative throughout and serves as a useful updater for those who aren't quite up to speed with LGA 775 sockets and the latest Northbridge technologies.

Sneaky fakes - courtesy of eBay, a guide to spotting counterfeit SanDisk memory cards. I've noticed a few of these myself, mostly in auction listings that looked suspicious for other reasons as well, but eBay suggests that as many as 95% of the higher capacity cards are fakes. Caveat emptor, indeed!

Various sorts of swine - author and investigative journalist Greg Palast has turned his attention back to the scandals in BP's Alaskan oilfields, following the wonderfully convenient timing of their "sudden" discovery of corrosion in the pipeline - and the advice to "follow the money" is as useful as ever.

TiVo sucks - the ground-breaking PVR manufacturer has been in bed with the media companies since their adoption of the Macrovision copy protection standards, and the occasional mislabelling reveals exactly how restrictive the proposed Broadcast Flag legislation will be if it is enacted.

Skimming overseas - A Sri Lankan criminal gang has been caught following an extremely successful scam involving British credit cards. In order to avoid the Smart-Card security measures (such as they are!) the cards were cloned and used in India, where readers still rely only on the magnetic strip.

Leela eviscerated - I prefer my computers to look like computers, on the whole, but as regular readers will know I am a huge fan of Matt Groening's SF comedy animation Futurama, and so of course this PC modelled on his heroine Leela (from the creator of the similar Bender project) caught my eye.

 

8th August

A somewhat traumatic day at the silicon face, with a quirky backup server, a malfunctioning automated DVD burner/printer, strange adventures with a 3G wireless card, and the sudden departure of one of our SAP and Siebel project managers. It certainly makes for an interesting life! While I catch my breath ready for more of the same tomorrow, then, some odd news links from around the web:

See through - up-market catalogue shopping company Hammacher Schlemmer is offering a transparent two person kayak, with a hulk made from a polycarbonate resin formed around an aluminium alloy framework. It looks marvellous - as does their inflatable private island.

Down with WEP - the original wireless security standard has been creaking at the seams for several years, but news of a new form of attack that can crack through the protocol in just a few seconds has to be the stake through its heart. I've finally made the move to WPA at home, and so should you...

Protecting printers - a number of recent exploits directed against the humble networked printer has culminated in a presentation at the BlackHat security conference suggesting that they should be given the same attention as servers and workstations when it comes to security and patching.

Electric - at the wonderfully-named Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, a design for what must surely be the simplest electric motor possible - a battery, a short length of wire, a wood screw and a small disc magnet. It can spin at more than 10,000rpm, too, which is pretty damn impressive...

An ear for the unusual - the Oddmusic site features a gallery of decidedly unusual musical instruments, including sound samples of many of them. I was somewhat disappointed at the complete omission of any of Laurie Anderson's innovative home-grown instruments, though.

Malware on parade - an offshoot of the infamous hacking group Cult Of The Dead Cow has created a repository of malware intended to allow security researchers (or anyone else, presumably?) to obtain examples of malicious code for research. I can't help thinking that no good will come of this...

At the mercy of a giant robot - a bitter licensing dispute between the city of Hoboken and a company that owns the software controlling an automated car parking garage has lead to hundreds of parked cars being imprisoned inside the multi-storey structure.

And, finally, conclusive proof that scientists should not be allowed to work late by themselves in the lab... At Stanford University Dylan Stiles found himself with time on his hands while waiting for a sluggish evaporation to complete, and before you could say "nuclear magnetic resonance" he was analysing the chemical composition of his own earwax. Obviously, it's a short step from there to breeding a mutant army of radioactive drosophila with which to take over the world, and on the whole I think that is to be discouraged. Dylan's blog is a hoot, though, as well as being extremely informative, and if you're a fan of organic chemistry it's well worth a look.

 

7th August

A few random links for a wet afternoon.

Questionable Behaviour - consumer electronics store Circuit City has launched an automated service to transfer customers' DVD to their iPods at $10 per disc - but ripping a DVD is actually prohibited under the highly-restrictive DMCA legislation and it's only a matter of time before the MPAA notices...

Honey trap - a subtle way of discouraging neighbours from piggybacking on one's wireless connection by using a Unix-based firewall's IPTables configuration to redirect and reprocess their traffic in various startling ways. Oh my god, its full of kittens!

Altered carbon - French researchers have discovered that burned seaweed makes extremely high-quality electrodes in high-power capacitors, thanks to the higher density of the carbon composite obtained when compared to electrodes made from traditional materials such as activated charcoal. 

The curse of neutrality - whatever the legal status of network neutrality, in future it will be important to monitor ISPs traffic handling habits, and a toolkit from TCP guru Dan Kaminsky will police this by producing packets that appear to come from a particular carrier or a particular class of application.

The eye of the beholder - Work Friendly reformats a web page to look like a MS Word 2003 document, allowing the disgruntled or distracted employee to surf right under his manager's nose with impunity. The network Nazi in me wants to add this site to my company's web filter right away...

Lost - after what has obviously a lot of hard work over the last month, UK ISP PlusNet has admitted that the 700Gb of messages that were accidentally deleted from their main email server are gone for good. I feel great sympathy for the techies involved, and hope that their jobs are not under threat...

Banging the drum - having spent the last few years failing to inspire fear over the Raw Sockets facility in Windows XP (talk about a storm in a tea-cup!), the ever-alarmist Steve Gibson is now screeching because the TCP stack in Vista has been re-written from the ground up - surely a good thing...?

Giant robot - Mike pointed me to a video of a giant, walking mecha robot built by an enterprising Japanese fan-cum-engineer. It looks a touch tacky in places, I have to say, but is certainly a remarkable feat nonetheless - and strongly reminiscent of the last Ma.K. kit I built!

Insecurity blanket - research by UK insurance company Halifax suggests that more than 2 million Britons regularly leave their houses unlocked when the go out, and up to 17 million leave doors open while they are at home. The homeowners surveyed seem to have little idea of the rise in street crime...

Hitch-hikers - plywood cut-outs of silicon valley pioneers Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard, William Shockley, Robert Noyce and others are making their way cross-country towards the ZeroOne festival in San Jose, and their progress can be tracked on Google Maps via embedded GPS modules.

And, finally, vicars in a twist - Symantec's Norton Antivirus has flagged part of Visual Liturgy, an application widely used by Church Of England vicars, as spyware, causing anxious moments within the religious community. On receiving the warning, one vicar jumped to the conclusion that his personal financial details had been compromised and immediately cancelled all his credit cards, an action that will take him weeks or even months to reverse. Call it schadenfreude, but I find that greatly amusing. Thanks to The Sideshow for the pointer.

 

5th August

I had been looking forward to building a Gakken Mechamo Centipede, but thanks to a stock shortage in my usual supplier by the time it finally arrived my attention had moved on to somewhat more sophisticated robotics. Nevertheless, when it finally arrived my interested was rekindled and I set to work. Although the kit has more components than the crab, the vast majority of them are actually identical (32 legs, for example!) and in some ways it was easier to assemble. Armed with this impression I didn't pay quite as much attention to the instructions as I could have done...

Anyone who has built the centipede will recognise that the picture above shows a fundamental mistake. Although the instruction manual goes out of its way to say that the design is basically symmetrical, in fact it definitely isn't - the struts that make up the two "backbones" are asymmetric front and rear, with different sized "valleys" on each side of the gearbox, and as the next picture shows they ought to be arranged so that the left and right sides are reversed when compared to each other. This didn't come to light until I was about to join the two, and so I had to strip and rebuild one side completely! This is fairly unusual in models of this type, so keep an eye out for it if you're building one yourself - the assembly instructions are actually very good, overall, but this is an definite pitfall.

Each of the little cranks are actually bent as well as being offset from their neighbours, which forces the legs to pivot backwards and forwards on a bearing point at their "hips" as well as the more conventional up and down movement that a straight crank would provide. This gives a circular motion to each foot, reminding me strongly of the movement of the oars in a rowing boat. There is a set of few video clips in the review at the excellent Dan's Data which illustrate the gait very well.

Like the Gakken crab I built a month or two ago the mechanism is actually very smooth in operation. Although all the bearing surfaces are metal-to-metal without lubrication, the design includes tiny steel bushes in the appropriate places and the parts are cut accurately enough that nothing is under stress when assembled correctly. They certainly are very well thought-out kits...

Look at all those legs! In action the movement is wonderfully fluid and naturalistic, just as Dan suggested in his review, and his estimate of a top speed of mph seems about right - it's certainly not going to break any records in the robot Olympics... The "track braking" steering method works very well, spinning the model smoothly on its axis with only minor damage to the carpet - and it leaves "footprints" a lot like tank tracks, in fact!. As Dan comments, it is indeed a little tricky to keep the centipede walking in a straight line, thanks to the layout of the micro-switches in the remote control, but somehow that's part of the fun.

I can certainly recommend all the Gakken Mechamo kits, although it has to be said that the centipede is the cream of the crop. The crab scuttles very appealingly, but only in straight lines backwards and forwards, and the inchworm is also (if I may make the pun) a touch pedestrian. They're all fun to assemble, though, and given how cheaply they can be found at Far East suppliers (they are considerably more expensive in Europe and the US!) all three are worthwhile if you like the concept.

I found my Crab at the excellent HobbyLink Japan, Dan's favoured supplier, but they have been unable to obtain stock of the centipede for several months now and eventually I placed my order with a UK company, Mindware, instead. I have to say that I can't really recommend them based on this one experience, though: their online ordering process somehow scrambled the delivery address I provided badly enough that having read the confirmation I had to email them to correct it, and then they ended up delivering it to the invoice address instead by mistake - after a delay of almost three weeks rather than the five to seven days promised, thanks to "a problem with our systems"... Your mileage may vary, but I doubt that I'll be shopping with them again.

 

4th August

I discovered today that you really can teach an old dog new tricks, and I'm feeling quite pleased with myself. My fevered brain decided that it would be a perfect time to upgrade my Cobalt Raq 4r web server appliance with a new operating system, and having discovered the semi-commercial StrongBolt Linux from UK specialist OS Office, based around the Centos distribution (itself a clone of the even more commercial Redhat Enterprise Linux - RH are no longer the darling of the Linux world, it seems, having dared to ask money for their services) and providing all the features and security of a modern OS. My Raq has been something of a paperweight since I bought it, and given that I was intending to use it to host the WebCamSat network camera server I've been playing with for the last few months an update of the aging and now unsupported Sun/Cobalt operating system seemed very appropriate.

The Strongbolt OS installs over the network from a PC booted from a specially-configured Linux CD, and unfortunately my Raq didn't seem to want to talk to it, hanging at a "Loading kernel..." message when it should have been busily upgrading itself. A search of the Strongbolt forums suggested that erasing the disk partitions might help on the dual-drive Raq 4r models, so I popped them out of the well laid-out case and I hooked each of them up to my Windows 2003 server in turn (the oldest PC in the house and the only one with a readily-accessible IDE interface!) to blow them away. This didn't actually improve matters, so I donned a false beard to avoid attracting attention amongst the Linux experts and ventured into the Strongbolt support forums to ask for advice.

An answer came back within a couple of hours, with the suggestion that I might need to update the Raq's ROM (in my case from 2.3.35 to 2.10.3 ext3) to cope with the later OS version. Although I explained that I was a Linux newbie, the instructions I was pointed to evidently assumed a fair degree of experience with the OS and I have to admit that it took me several hours to puzzle through them. Everything I could find about the update process elsewhere seemed to require either a fully-working Raq to run an update package on (which I no longer had, having erased the disk partitions!) or another PC running Linux with which to perform all sorts of esoteric command line tasks. Fortunately, the Strongbolt installation environment contains an appropriate terminal emulator, Minicom, and even though the laptop's own Windows partitions were inaccessible it seemed likely that I could use a USB memory stick to make the new ROM image available to the Linux environment.

The first hurdle was connecting the Raq and the installation PC via a null-modem serial cable. I haven't had to use anything this primitive in several years, and considerable searching through my crates of spares was required before I finally found enough cables, gender changers and adaptors to manufacture a 9 pin female-to-female that would do the job. The end result can only be described as an affront to god, and the fact that it worked at all is a testament to how tough the traditional serial comms protocols really are.

I had to mount the USB flash drive manually (trial and error showed that it is the device named SDA1) and then used what appears to be an open source clone of the venerable Norton Commander DOS file manager to browse to the ROM file and determine the exact path to enter into Minicom. Two Minicom sessions are actually required, one to place the Raq in ROM update mode and the second to transfer the image - and to my considerable dismay both sessions initialised with all sorts of worrying error messages. However, the process itself worked extremely well in spite of that, and on rebooting the new LCD animations immediately showed that the upgrade had taken correctly. In fact, this entire process has been full of what appeared to be critical error messages, on both the Raq and the installation PC, but most of the time whatever I was doing seemed to work regardless - my impression is that Linux is just a real old woman of an operating system, constantly fussing about things that don't necessarily matter that much...

The next phase was the install of Strongbolt itself, carried out from the installation PC via a CAT5 cross-over cable. I'd left one of the Minicom sessions open, so was able to watch all manner of status messages scrolling by on the terminal window as the system was prepared, the kernel installed, and then a pre-defined series of updates (would you believe 190 of them - nothing has changed!) was applied to the OS - and which allowed me to discover that the patching process had hung while installing a GLIB update. I couldn't think of anything else to do, so after ten minutes or so with no activity I simply rebooted the Raq to start the installation process again from scratch, and this time it passed that point successfully.

Leaving the Minicom window open turned out to be vital, as a few minutes later the Raq tried to reboot itself and hung with a Kernel Panic (the Unix equivalent of the Windows BSOD) having failed to find a boot device. Fortunately the Strongbolt installation notes hinted at something like this in a dual drive system, and having used the LCD buttons to set the boot device to md1, presumably the RAID-1 virtual container, the Raq started correctly and the process continued. The next phase was the installation of the Blue Quartz interface, and open source descendent of Sun's Sausalito management GUI - and this consisted of more than 200 separate modules. After another anxious wait this process too finished, and the Raq's LCD cleared and displayed the IP address 192.168.0.254, conveniently accessible on my network since I moved away from using valid external addresses a year or two ago. Pointing a web browser to that address let me connect to Blue Quartz and begin configuring the server, and although there's a lot more work to do on both the Raq and the firewall's DMZ configuration, I think the worst is now over.

Meanwhile, while I was waiting for advice on the forums, I decided to upgrade the Raq's CPU. The original Raq 4 units came with a 300Mhz AMD K6-2, and although my system seemed to have grown a 450MHz chip at some point in its past I had a spare 500MHz part (the final and fastest model in the range) and it seemed like a plausible upgrade. Installing the new component would require a change to enable a 5x clock multiplier in place of the 4.5x or 3x of the slower CPUs, but this can be done by the somewhat unorthodox method of slipping a tiny U-shaped length of fine wire into a pair of adjacent holes in the Socket 7 CPU socket, making a bridge between two pins. For my specific upgrade path the appropriate holes are highlighted below, but this will probably vary depending on the exact Raq motherboard and the exact CPUs before and after, so careful research will definitely be required. Although the chance in performance will be fairly minimal, it's nice to know that with the fastest CPU, a generous 512Mb of RAM and a pair of 80Gb hard disks my Raq is pretty much fully loaded and capable of dealing with whatever I decide to throw at it.

Back at the software, the next stage was to connect via a Telnet session to the Linux shell (I used the freeware version of Token 2, as it often connects to Unix-like platforms more readily than HyperTerminal) and update the system again using the cutely-named "Yellow dog Updater, Modified" - better known as YUM. This has to be run from the root account, it seems, and for some reason I couldn't login directly as the root user (this is where my lack of Unix experience can cause stupid little problems that would never occur to people writing instructions for this sort of thing!) but I'm not a complete tyro and a quick SU seemed to do the job. YUM lacks the graphical appeal of Microsoft's update tools (although I gather there is a GUI wrapper somewhere) but it seems to get the job done - the only caveat is that it doesn't seem easy to apply anything less than the full list of available updates, although doubtless some investigation of the myriad command line switches would help there. YUM offered to install another 157 patches (that's on top of the 190 already installed during the Strongbolt installation, and remember that this is only a slimmed-down version of Linux designed as a lightweight OS for web server appliances!) and after a reboot I was looking at a system that purported to be as secure as any server can be.

Now I have to work out how to port the Java-based WebCamSat server across from my Windows domain controller (not an ideal system to host a semi-publicly accessible facility, I know!) which is going to present another interesting challenge. Watch this space for more head-scratching...

 

2nd August

From around the web:

Where do balloons go? - at Penny Arcade, Gabe and Tycho return to one of their more surreal plotlines, featuring the unfathomable Twisp and Catsby - and by the way, Catsby is not the cat... Elsewhere, a couple of my favourite strips, pig waxing and tangled webs.

So you don't have to - I gather that Auctioning4u has actually been around for a few years now, but the service is new to me and I love the idea. Although I'm a regular buyer on eBay, I've yet to take the plunge into selling, mostly because of the fuss of packing things up and shipping them out.

Not for the impatient - a blog entry at the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society describes the famous pitch drop scientific experiment, running continuously since 1927, and the comments suggest a handful of other experiments that have been running even longer.

No risk, no worry - Apple's latest update to OS X patches an impressive 26 security vulnerabilities, including 17 which could expose the system to execution of arbitrary hostile code. Surely nobody reading that can possibly think that Macs are still inherently safer than computers running Windows?

Loose lips - and talking of which, a demonstration at the Black Hat 2006 security conference will show how a Macbook laptop can be attacked via the wireless device driver and completely compromised in less than a minute. The same flaw exists in certain Windows wireless drivers, too.

The times they are a-changing - modern women have lost their taste for diamonds, according to a study quoted in Information Week, with 75% claiming that they would prefer a flat-screen television instead - and apparently women are now buying almost as many tech gadgets as men.

Backed into a corner - attendees at the Siggraph computer graphics conference were able to grill the VP of Sony's Digital Policy group about DRM and fair use, although he seems to have held up well under the barrage of decidedly pointed questions and even agreed with a number of the complaints.

A brief time in the limelight - AMD claims that it now has 25% of the server CPU market, and IBM has just announced that their new range will also use the upstart's chips. Intel's new Core-based 51xx Woodcrest Xeons are extremely impressive chips, though, and I predict that AMD will slump again.

 

1st August

I was very surprised to read an article at Windows Secrets, describing a baseline for PC security, which contains the line "Windows Update and Microsoft Update are no longer recommended". The justification for this rather outrageous statement is an article by the same author, Brian Livingston (didn't he have more hair last time I saw his picture on a book cover?) griping about the evil that is Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage component. Now, I'm perfectly willing to admit that Microsoft have seriously shot themselves in the foot over WGA, and that both the software and its PR could have been handled about 1000% better, but I refuse to believe that it is the "intrusive sales gimmick" that Livingston claims. It installed on all my home PCs, with minimum fuss and bother, and I haven't heard a peep out of it since then - although maybe that's because, presumably unlike many of the people who are complaining so bitterly about it, I have installed legal, purchased versions of Windows rather than using dubious copies, black market clones, or CDs "borrowed" from friends or employers...?

In order to avoid this "Microsoft-sponsored spyware", therefore, Livingston recommends that everyone switches over to Shavlik's HFNetChkPro, the latest in a long line of highly regarded patch management tools. This approach has a number of serious flaws for the home user, though, in my opinion - first and foremost is that this is commercial software, priced at $24 plus $6 per year maintenance, per computer. In my case, that would represent initial costs of more than $100 for my own home PCs, plus another $125 or so for the systems I manage for friends and family - all in order to avoid using a free service which has never, ever, given us any problems.

The second main flaw is that, at least the last time I saw them (several years ago, before Microsoft's SUS, WSUS and SMS tools made them completely unnecessary on my office networks), Shavlik's patch management tools are complex! And by that I mean complex enough that I had to puzzle over them for a significant period of time before finally managing to successfully patch a single remote server. The idea of my father or my girlfriends being able to use systems like this at home is laughable, whereas they have all coped perfectly well with Windows Update in its various incarnations, and which has managed to deliver enough patches, in a timely and approachable fashion, to keep their systems safe and secure ever since the days of Windows 95.

I think Mr Livingston's articles are little more than the ever-popular Microsoft-bashing, which is suddenly fashionable again since the fuss over WGA, as aside from such politics as far as I'm aware the only people who are even slightly inconvenienced by this add-on are people who are inadvertently or deliberately using pirated software - Microsoft offers a free replacement OS to the former, if they can show that they bought the illicit copy in good faith, and quite reasonably has little patience with the latter. What exactly is the problem, here?

 

A so-so month in the stats, but I'm beginning to think that the overall trend since the start of the year is downwards again and I suspect that I am going to have to take drastic measures - read Epicycle or the kitten gets it?

 

 

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