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28th February

Short and sweet, tonight - it's been one of those days...

The ethics of wireless - although a surprising number of privately-owned WiFi networks are still open and unsecured, there is a growing legal threat to their use by unauthorised persons, and Nate at Ars Technica is ruminating on the implications for the future.

Driver evolution - Anand Tech is looking at the performance changes brought by several years of development of ATI's Catalyst driver suite, not only for the current X800 model but also for the aging 9700 Pro, and has made some interesting discoveries.

Writing CDs - at Tom's Hardware, a comparison of the two competing technologies that allow text and images to be marked on the top face of a CD disk, "LightScribe" from HP and Lite-On, and "LabelFlash" from NEC.

The needs of the few - an Australian copyright agency is proposing to tax schools for the use their students make of the web, in spite of the fact that the majority of the pages aren't Australian, aren't intended for profit, and aren't created by its members.

 

27th February

Over the last couple of months I've been experiencing a glitch with the text entry subsystem of my Motion LE1600 tablet, and although it's hardly critical it's certainly annoying. When entering cursive text in the tablet input panel, it attempts to recognise each word as it is written and displays the result just underneath. If it doesn't correctly identify the written word (and actually that's surprisingly rare, even with an obscure handwriting style!) one is supposed to be able to click on the result and either choose from a list of similar alternative words or edit the individual letters. However, at some point before christmas this stopped working for me, probably as a result of installing a Windows update or some 3rd-party application, although unfortunately the exact cause was never clear.

However, a few days ago I tracked down a description of those exact symptoms at Microsoft's web site, and some related discussion in the forums of the excellent Tablet PC Buzz web site - the fix is to disable the "Automatically insert text after a pause" setting in the Tablet Input Panel's configuration options, and J.R. "Bob" Dobbs is your uncle.

Unfortunately in my case that option was already disabled, but as I'm no stranger to Windows' little ways I enabled it, exited the TIP config dialog, then went back in and disabled it again, hoping that this would correct an incomplete registry setting or similar. To my delight that seemed to work, but when I used the handwriting mode again the next day, after hibernating and resuming the tablet, it seemed to have worn off! I set and cleared the option again, and once again it seemed to fix the problem, but by now I'm fairly confident that it won't last through the next reboot. This needs some looking into...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Zen clears up at the ISPAs - my ISP, Zen Internet, has won three awards at the UK's  Internet Service Providers Association awards: best heavy business broadband provider, best uncontended service and best business ISP. I can certainly vouch for their quality of service, but given that they charge around four times as much as some of the more popular ISPs I would expect nothing less!

Hardware for the jet set - the latest range of dual-core laptops from motherboard specialist Asus comes in carbon fibre, aluminium, and even leather - and another option is designed by Lamborghini and allegedly based on the radiator grille on the rear of a 1970 Muira. One assumes that the superficially similar licensing deal between competitor Acer and Ferrari is purely coincidental...

Hacking the Xbox - at the Xbox Linux project, a fascinating article on how the security systems in the original Xbox were bypassed. I was especially taken by the trick of using the antique A20 Gate feature to bypass the restrictions brought in by Microsoft's first attempt to fix the system's security flaws, a hack which has allegedly remained a mystery to the company to date!

The downfall of Skype - users of the popular VoIP service are noticing that the quality isn't what it used to be, with silences, buzzing sounds, and repeated sounds. The cause of these problems is likely to be the Internet providers' growing hatred of peer-to-peer applications of all varieties, thanks to the significant bandwidth they can consume, and the traffic shaping they're implementing to restrict it.

And finally, all is not rosy for Mac security - it hasn't been a good month for the Mac OS, it seems, with a number of exploits for recently discovered vulnerabilities emerging. Admittedly, the OSX.Leap.A worm requires too much user interaction to spread efficiently, and the InqTana worm and its two variants are proof-of-concepts attacks that are not currently found in the wild, and even though the Safari and Mail weakness is rather more serious, no examples of websites exploiting the flaw have yet been reported... However harmless these particular exploits actually are, however, we're still looking at five separate attacks created in only a few weeks, and it's absolutely clear that the glory days when Mac users could relax in the knowledge that there computers were safe from attack are definitely over. My advice to them is to patch early and patch often, and buy some anti-virus software - or they're going to end up considerably more vulnerable than the justifiably paranoid and suspicious Windows users.

 

26th February

Well, it looks as if my problems with Mark Woolley and Special Airsoft Supplies are not going to be as easily resolved as I had hoped (he's threatened me with legal action even before I've written anything here, which seems like a fairly indicative statement of his intentions!), and I'm really sorry that I didn't see the many and varied warnings about his trading practices on the forums at Arnie's Airsoft, UK Airsoft Community and elsewhere, before it was too late. Unfortunately I have the feeling that, as with my similar dispute with Area 51 Airsoft a couple of years ago, this one is going to run and run, and when I have a moment I'll create a specific page in the ever-expanding Griping section. Watch this space to see how the saga unfolds...

Meanwhile, something for the weekend:

High voltage - at what is apparently one of the premier electricity geek sites, some marvellous pictures of the sparks created when the esoteric components of national grids fail.

Pretty PCs - Dan is complaining again, as although he doesn't want to buy a Mac, he wouldn't mind a PC that looks like one...

M4 project - at last, another distributed computing project that has tickled my enthusiasm, an attempt to decrypt three of the remaining signals from the wartime Enigma code machines.

More power - Wired reports that recent advances in the microlithography processes used to fabricate silicon wafers will bring 5GHz processors to desktop PCs within the next few years.

Digital origami - Microsoft Watch speculates that the "Origami Project" web site just registered by the Seattle giant will be the home for an iPod-killing ultra-portable multi-function device.

Woz on Jobs - Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has spoken out on the company's current strategy, and he isn't very impressed by the obsession with the iPod  or the switch to Intel CPUs.

 

25th February

It's been a busy but successful day working on a friend's PCs, repairing a malfunctioning HP OfficeJet scanner/printer, upgrading the wireless network in a laptop from 11Mbit to 54Mbit, setting up VNC to allow the laptop to be controlled from another system when docked, and installing my surplus 19" Iiyama monitor to replace an old Belinea 15". Highly productive, but somewhat wearing, so only a few quick links tonight - the first batch courtesy of the ever-wonderful Boing Boing.

Bent paperclips - at NASA's Ames Research Center, 80 PCs running artificial intelligence software have "evolved" the unusual design of the antennae to be used on a series of small satellites.

No second-hand hardware - from April it will be illegal to sell used electronics that are more than 5 years old in Japan, without a special license that is only likely to be issued to major retailers.

Quantum weirdness - a quantum computer at the University of Illinois has solved a problem without running the program written to solve it, perfectly illustrating the weirdness of quantum computers.

Petri dish gardens - some marvellous patterns of bacteria grown in changing environments, encouraging them to form some surprisingly beautiful fractal-like patterns.

The dangers of cell phones - more threatening than the usual worries over RF, four .22 calibre bullets fired from a concealed mechanism. It may be as dangerous to the user as the target, though.

A grain of common sense - courtesy of a user at Arnie's Airsoft, a scan of an article from the Daily Telegraph on Saturday 18th, which illustrates the complete failure of the UK's gun control laws.

Your own Batcave - these Arizona architects specialise in hidden passageways, revolving fireplaces, and secret doors - opened in best tradition by pulling a candlestick or pressing in a book.

Testing body armour - at shooting site The Box O'Truth, some informal tests of Level IIIA Kevlar fabric - and it performed pretty much as expected, completely preventing handgun rounds from penetrating.

Voting irregularities - an investigation of the electronic voting machines used in elections in Florida's Palm Beach County during 2004 found over 100,000 anomalies in the logs. Horrifying...

Accommodating Albert - add your own text to the famous picture of Einstein writing on his blackboard at the Institute Of Advanced Study at Princeton in the fifties.

 

23rd February

My Ergomounts M3 LCD monitor stand arrived today, thanks to extremely quick service from the supplier Keyzone - and it's very nice to be able to praise a company here after all the problems of the last few months! It arrived in one large, heavy box, which opened to reveal a series of boxes nesting inside each other like an unusually rectilinear Russian doll, each one containing an assortment of oddly-shaped metalwork and little bags full of screws, bolts, washers and brackets - and another smaller, box.

Assembly was not for the faint of heart, and there was a surprising number of unused parts left over afterwards - presumably for the more exotic three and four-screen varieties. However, everything did fit together very nicely after some puzzling over the instructions, and the build quality throughout is excellent. It's all steel (and good quality steel at that, if I'm any judge), with all the surfaces nicely powder coated - the end result is both elegant and functional.

In spite of my fears, the desk clamp is extremely solid - as is the rest of the stand, for that matter, although some of the components had to be tightened together quite enthusiastically to achieve this, especially the joint where the cross-piece attaches to the upright. It took some fiddling to get the monitors mounted at the angles I wanted, too, as there are so many degrees of freedom that choosing which ones to adjust in which direction took some thought and experiment - but I'm happy enough with the first attempt and there's plenty of scope to tweak the layout if I need to.

And there it is! The footprint is absolutely tiny (a few square inches - the base of the stand is hidden behind those yellow Post-It notes!) and I have more desk space than ever before. The monitors are absolutely rock solid, with no hint of vibration in normal use and only a slight movement with even an enthusiastic shaking of the desk itself. The mount added a couple of hundred pounds to the cost of the two monitors, but I'm extremely pleased with the outcome and would highly recommend both the manufacturer and the supplier to anyone contemplating a multi-monitor configuration. Good stuff!

Meanwhile, elsewhere, a logo seen on the side of a truck on the M25 motorway yesterday - "The Number 1 for solar protection products". It's certainly nice to know that somebody out there is doing what they can to protect the sun...

 

22nd February

When it comes to computer hardware, so far it really has been one of those years... I finally decided on a dual-DVI graphics card based around the NVIDIA GeForce 6800GT chipset, but although it arrived incredibly quickly I think that unfortunately the thing is faulty - I get display corruption right from power on, with the BIOS and POST screens marred by odd colours and missing or scrambled characters. I've tried all the usual things (removing all other cards etc in case of a peculiar conflict, disconnecting the optical and tape drives, checking the power supply, you name it) without any improvement, and the problem goes away completely when I re-install the old Radeon graphics card... My gut feeling is faulty memory, and I'm hoping that the supplier comes to the same conclusion and doesn't insist on a lot of pointless trivia before issuing an RMA. I'm a bit gloomy about this, tonight, as it's the latest in a long series of similar annoyances - but still, at least I saw the same screen corruption on both displays simultaneously, which was kinda cool...  :-)

While I sit here and sulk, then, some quick links:

More nastygrams - an anagrammed version of the famous London tube map has been removed from it's original site after threats of legal action from government department Transport For London.

Tinfoil hats - the president of a Canadian university has banned WiFi from the campus because he is concerned about the health risks - although no such ban has been enforced on cell phones!

Scanner nears - the half animated/half live action movie of Phil Dick's wonderfully bleak novel "A Scanner Darkly" is due for release in July, and to whet our appetites a new trailer has been released.

OS X leaking - an "extremely critical" security vulnerability has been unearthed in the Mac OS, and as before it's exactly the sort of thing that the fanboys used to rip strips off Microsoft about...

And finally, more griping - although, for a change, not from me! A consortium of IT companies has filed further complaints with the EU against Microsoft, alleging that it "threatens to deny enterprises and individual consumers real choice". Now, I'm a consumer, and I run the IT systems for an enterprise, and I really don't feel that my choices are being denied at all! If I don't want to use Windows I can choose any one of several dozen Unix and Linux flavours, including Mac OS X... If I don't want MS Office I can use OpenOffice or StarOffice, and if I don't like Media Player I can install Winamp or an equivalent. For nearly everything I would care to do with a computer there is a non-Microsoft alternative (and in the odd cases where an application hasn't been ported to the other OSes that's hardly Microsoft's fault!) so the question I would like answered is, exactly how are my choices being denied?

No, what we're seeing here is the IT industry's current favourite trick when competing on a level playing field is failing: throwing a legal spanner into the works to soak up Microsoft's money, attention and resources - especially when you can convince a government to do it for you! The companies behind this new action are IBM (still desperately trying to make a profit from their heavy investment in Linux), Oracle (their database goes head to head with MS SQL Server, and CEO Larry Ellison is a long-time enemy of Bill Gates), and Sun (their hardware and operating systems are the only real competition to Microsoft in the enterprise server market) so it doesn't take an MBA to realise that they all have a lot to gain from getting Microsoft into even greater trouble with the already punitive EU.

It annoys me greatly that these claims are made under the guise of protecting me and other EU computer users, though. As far as I can see the consumer has never had more scope for choice in selecting a hardware platform, an operating system and a set of applications to run on it, and if said consumer was so very unhappy with Microsoft then they would go right out and buy a Mac or a Linux box instead. After all, I keep hearing how perfectly wonderful both those operating systems are compared to the buggy, insecure, old-fashioned Windows, so there's plenty of scope to vote with one's chequebook... What I do not need is IBM, Oracle and Sun trying to screw the competition under the pretence of looking after my best interests, and I will keep voting that way with my chequebook, and with my company's, as long as I consider that Microsoft's products are the most suitable choices.

 

21st February

The UK satellite television company Sky has just launched its new Sky By Broadband service, free for existing customers, which allows selected movies and sports programmes to be downloaded to one's home PC. It seemed interesting, so I signed up and installed the client last night, leaving it to download a couple of trial movies overnight.

Something that I only discovered after installation, however, is that the distribution mechanism is based around the Kontiki software, a peer-to-peer grid not dissimilar to BitTorrent, so other users downloading a movie that I have already acquired may be taking all or part of it from my PC, uploading through the narrow back-channel of my ADSL without providing me with either notification of this activity or a convenient way to prevent it. Sky didn't make this at all clear either on their web site or during the installation process, and I only stumbled across the truth when I was searching the help files for something else. I certainly don't like the idea of becoming a distribution node for multi-gigabyte video files, and in fact I don't think this strategy is appropriate for many of their other users either.

Given that the movies automatically delete themselves after 30 days, can only be viewed on a PC with an active internet connection so that the DRM license embedded in the Windows Media files can be validated, and in any case are of fairly poor visual quality (I played the first few minutes of the Aliens Special Edition movie, and the compression artefacts were extremely obvious) the decision to uninstall it again came rapidly. Having done so, however, I noticed that the Kontiki application KSERVICE, a Windows background service that provides the P2P facility, did not actually uninstall - so in theory I could have been helping Sky to distribute their content in perpetuity even though I had given up on the facility myself! In the end I had to remove it manually after a reboot, using the useful SRVINSTW tool from the Resource Kit - which is not something the average user would be able to do...   [Update: The windows folder also contains a subdirectory named \KDX, and the KHOST.EXE file that lives there is called from HKLM\Run, so that also needs removing manually. Grrrr...]

And while I'm griping about poorly thought-out software, my experiences with SAP at the office are proving equally painful. The thing gives every indication of not having been updated at any point in the last decade: for example it is unable to address a print queue with a space in the name, and can't be installed on a server with a fully-qualified domain name of longer than 31 characters. These are thoroughly antiquated and arbitrary restrictions, absent from most Windows software since the mid-nineties, and would be a cause of some considerable merriment if I was hearing about it from somebody else - but having to change perfectly reasonable naming conventions on my own network to accommodate such poorly-written software is definitely not funny. Feh!

Elsewhere, it's link time again...

Tape not dead - Sun insists the death of magnetic tape has been greatly exaggerated, and thinks the market is set to keep on growing; but the vice-president of the Data Management Group is hardly likely to say anything else following their $4.1bn acquisition of tape specialist StorageTek...

Computing from beyond the grave - an enterprising educational toy company has revived the Digicomp, a build-it-yourself mechanical computer from the 1960s. I have to admit that I've never seen this particular beastie before, but apparently it has something of a cult following.

The many faces of Vista - tech sites across the web are discussing the news that the next Windows OS will be available in six different versions (and another two without Media Player for the European market), but according to Ars Technica they may be a touch premature.

 

20th February

The fruits of our labours on Friday evening - a Salicru Dual-Power 50KVA UPS, with separate battery cabinet (the two weigh about 1400kgs together) and bypass switch panel. And just look at the size of the cable feeding power into the UPS - now that's an impressive bit of wire! Of course, all that juice will only keep the servers up and running for around half an hour, so if the diesel generator doesn't cut in before then... well, let's just say it would be bad...

Disasters aside, however, things are currently looking very reassuring. The existing seventy-odd servers and the infrastructure are drawing around half of the working capacity, so even when we add another twenty-odd servers for Siebel next month there should still be adequate overhead for future growth and for the unexpected. That will make a nice change - for the last few months I've been anxious every time I plugged in the vacuum cleaner in case it was the proverbial last straw that broke the inverter's back, and that doesn't do my nerves any good.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Demoted - the CEO of Sony BMG, Andrew Lack, has been moved down to chairman of the board after months of criticism, including complaints from stockholders about excessive fees paid to artists and the high-profile scandal over copy protection software in audio CDs.

Porn police - two uniformed members of the Homeland Security Department entered a public library in Bethesda, Washington, and announced that they were there to prevent the patrons from viewing pornography using the library's computers. Needless to say, that is not within their jurisdiction.

Swiss roulette - a box of twelve bullet-shaped chocolates, one of which contains a concealed surprise in the form of a hot red chilli pepper. This is a fascinating idea, but I'm finding it hard to see what their target market is... Hell hath no fury like a boyfriend scorned?

Use both hands - this demonstration video of a touch-sensitive display backed by some extremely interesting software is strongly reminiscent of the wonderful VR user interface in The Minority Report. It is being developed at New York University, but apparently has been patented by Apple.

Many Dells - and talking of computers in films, I saw a trailer for the new Harrison Ford movie Firewall, and my eye was immediately caught by the gunmetal wall of Dell PowerEdge servers. I have a fair few of them myself (eight cabinets' worth) but that server room is a whole order of magnitude bigger...

Bullying - and talking of Apple, this time, the company that used to be "insanely great" (and is now arguably just insane) has invoked the DMCA to shut down message boards on a site where Mac OS X enthusiasts were discussing how they could install the operating system on non-Apple hardware.

Persistent spam - at Boing Boing, news that the brewing company Miller searched for and tracked down a user who had given them a disposable email address for a contest, and sent him spam at his permanent address! More details courtesy of Brian McWilliams, author of Spam Kings.

And finally, the story of a tourist who lost her camera but was then contacted by the people who found it - only to be told that they had taken a liking to it and did not intend to give it back. It's an odd little story, but what interested me was the range of comments left at the blog, which ranged from the disturbingly vitriolic ("I am currently praying for her 9-yr old to die via a slow and painful death") to the overtly racist ("let's humiliate those Cannuck scumbags!"), from the needlessly suspicious ("what proof do you have that it was yours?") to the possibly helpful ("transporting stolen property through US customs is probably another crime") - as well as an offer from Worth1000 founder Avi Muchnick to buy her a new camera! It's an amazing range of responses and, honestly, you could write an entire psychology PhD thesis from this one page...  <shaking my head>

 

19th February

In spite of having been a user of the Audible digital audiobook service since its inception in the late 90s, I hadn't realised that a new UK division had launched last year until I stumbled across a reference in an article on the future of the service in the face of possible competition from Amazon. I've occasionally encountered licensing restrictions that preventing me from downloading certain audiobooks outside the US, and there is a lot of audio content from organisations such as the BBC that is rarely available outside the country, so this seemed like an excellent idea, but unfortunately there are some serious usability issues that may make the idea a non-starter for me...

The sinking feeling started when the UK site didn't recognise my login details, and the FAQ directed me to an "advice for current US customers" entry which revealed that I couldn't use my existing account details because the two sites "access the same database". Now, to me that would seem like a good thing - they both use the same database, so I can login to either service with the same details, right? Wrong! Not only would I have to create an entirely separate account, but in fact I would have to use a different email address to do so - when I tried to create a UK account I was told that the email address already existed and so couldn't be used, thus proving that a) the two services do indeed share the same database, and b) that this really, really hasn't been thought through very well.

When you consider the transparency that exists between eBay and PayPal in the two countries, for example, the strong links between Amazon US and Amazon UK, or the apparently seamless international ease of Apple's iTunes service, this all feels very amateurish and cobbled-together indeed. Ideally I would expect to be able to login to either site with the same account details, and use the same pre-paid credits to download media from either. Instead, it turns out that I would need to maintain two completely separate accounts with different names and email addresses, and would also need to purchase an additional monthly subscription for the UK site, thus doubling my costs without (as I already listen to as many audio books as I can in any given month) doubling the value received.

Incidentally, I hadn't actually intended to create a UK account at this stage, as the sinking feeling was starting to deepen, but when I tried to submit a request for information and advice about signing up I discovered that I could only do so if I was already a member! Hmmm.

Meanwhile, it's that time of the year again, so I re-potted all my cacti. A very appropriate job for a wet Sunday afternoon, as working with green things (especially after several weeks of intensive work with decidedly inorganic computer networks) made me think of spring. Man cannot live by silicon alone...

 

18th February

It was an eventful evening at the office, yesterday, with a new 50kVA Sailcru DualPower UPS being delivered to replace the existing 30kVA unit, the latter rendered somewhat inadequate by the addition of twenty-odd Dell servers back in the autumn at the start of our SAP implementation and running at 110% of capacity since then. The new UPS and its external battery cabinet together weigh something in the order of 1400 kilos, and getting them up the ramp onto the raised floor of the computer room was an interesting exercise, involving several types of hydraulic jacks, a ramp, and eight people pushing. Getting the old unit back out of the room again only took two people, but as they proceeded to topple it over onto its front in the process that can be considered as one of the less successful stages of the operation! We were planning to re-use that UPS at our disaster recover site, and as the fall encouraged the heavy rectifiers and capacitors to migrate from the back of the cabinet to the front it will now need to be rebuilt from top to bottom, which I think may well be a challenging project - fortunately one in which I won't be involved...

Equally challenging, however, is the continuing quest to complete the dual monitor system on my desktop PC at home. I'm still vacillating between an ATI and NVIDIA graphics card to support the second display, but in the meantime both are sitting on my desk with their bases occupying an annoyingly large surface area between them. The obvious solution is to replace the supplied stands with a special dual display mount, a fairly easy option given the near-universal VESA standard that specifies the attachment points of LCD and plasma panels, and given the constant demands on my desktop real estate a very attractive one as well.

There are a couple of big names in this field in the UK, the rather confusingly named Ergotron and Ergomounts, and at the bottom of their product ranges both have very nice dual screen stands. As if it wasn't hard enough choosing between them, however, each stand comes with a number of mounting options, so as well as dithering over graphics cards today I'm also trying to decide between a free-standing base, similar to one of the originals, or a mount that clamps on to the edge of the desk like a giant Anglepoise lamp. The latter will take almost no desktop space, but I'm concerned that with a pair of 19" panels attached it might not be quite as sturdy as I'd like - I'm a fairly heavy typist (my colleagues at the office insisted I switch to Dell's QuietKeys keyboard design when it came out a few years ago) and the last thing I want is my monitors wobbling and vibrating as I work! Oh, the agony of indecision...

Because I've been thinking so much about display technology, recently, the spectre of colour correction has reared its ugly head again. I've never been obsessed with calibrating my printers and displays, but as I spend a fair bit of time in PhotoShop the techie in me won't let me ignore it completely, so I use the correct ICC profiles for my hardware and aim for the rudiments of calibration at least. This is something of a hit-and-miss process, however, and I've always been interested in the little optical widgets that assist with the task. The first such device I came across was the Colorvision Spyder, and the latest versions are still a leading light at the consumer and prosumer ends of the market. Recently it has been joined by a new range from Pantone, the Eye-One, and both brands now have three models ranging from the over-simplified to the over-complex. The former seem to be somewhat crippled even by my fairly low standards, with a single fixed gamma value and a limited range of colour temperatures, and as a hardened techie I would probably prefer the "pro" models with a few more options to scratch my head over. This brings the cost to somewhere around £170 - £180, however, which seems a little steep for something that I would use once and then put away in a drawer for the foreseeable future, and as I can normally manage a "good enough" calibration by hand I doubt that I'll buy one this time, either. Hmmm, maybe I could form a consortium of friends to share the cost with. Any interest?

 

16th February

I'm starting to despair of ever finding a PAL version of the ATI X800XT All-In-Wonder graphics card I'd set my heart on, and so I'm casting the net a little wider. If I give up on the onboard TV tuner that is only found on the AIW models, there are a number of alternatives... Many of the X800 series have some degree of video-in/video-out support, which will provide the majority of the AIW functionality, as do the somewhat quicker X850 and the noticeably quicker X1300 models, the latter probably the fastest chipset that will be available for the now obsolete AGP bus. Abandoning the AIW model also opens up the possibility of dual DVI outputs rather than the usual DVI and VGA, which would certainly be tempting given the pair of shiny new 19" ViewSonic VP930 monitors that are currently gracing my desk - one sadly black, thanks to the current lack of an appropriate dual display graphics card!

As dual DVI models from ATI are strangely concentrated at the lower end of the performance spectrum, I've actually started looking at cards based on the NVIDIA 6600 and 7800 chipsets as well. This is something of a learning process, as apart from a brief foray into the Voodoo 2 and 3 series cards in the late 90s, I've been using ATI chipsets ever since the glory days of the Mach 64, and thanks to the deliberate obfuscation in terminology I'm finding it very hard to compare GPU features between the two manufacturers. I haven't as yet found a single card that will meet all of my modest requirements - AGP bus, dual DVI, VIVO support, compatibility with a Koolance water block, and blisteringly fast - but there are a number of compromise candidates and as they're mostly a fraction of the price of the X800 AIW I was planning for I don't mind the idea of buying something as a temporary measure to get both monitors up and running. Watch this space...

Elsewhere:

The War on 'Blogs - as part of the recent Homeland Security Department exercise "Cyber Storm", designed to test its response to devastating attacks over the Internet from cyber-terrorists, anti-globalisation activists, black-hat hackers, and bloggers. Yes, you heard me, bloggers. Um, OK.

Robotic slime - it had never occurred to me to connect a small six-legged robot to a photo-sensitive slime mould such that the mould's movements direct that of the robot, so I'm very glad to hear that a team at the University of Southampton has come up with the idea on their own.

The Gang of Four - the US Government has been holding hearings on the ethical responsibilities of US internet firms operating in China, and there were some strong words - but reformed hacker group Cult Of The Dead Cow doesn't think they were nearly strong enough.

The robot vanishes - a spookily lifelike simulacra of SF author Philip K. Dick has disappeared en route from a commercial airliner, and given the irony of a PKD replicant apparently making a break for freedom I have the feeling that fans of the author have somehow staged a practical joke...

Ripping is bad, M'kay - the RIAA has toughened its stance on making digital copies of a CD that one already owns in order to listen to the music on an MP3 player, directly contradicting statements made in court, and on their web site, that in fact such behaviour is considered to be fair use.

 

15th February

In comments, Niall reports that he is having exactly the same problem with German hardware supplier NGenX aka Hardwarearea.com - he placed an order with them at the start of the month and has had a disappointing lack of response since then, prompting him to raise a complaint with PayPal. Given that I have been sending several email messages per day to all their various addresses and several more via the contact form on the web site, and attempts to reach them by phone and fax have been met with a recorded message in German, it seems highly likely that the company is in the process of going out of business.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in these circumstances, the web site is still intact and accepting orders - but based on the current evidence there seems little chance that these will be honoured and my advice would be to avoid the company at all costs. I am going to have to join Niall in attempting to recover my money via PayPal, which unfortunately is likely to be a long, drawn-out process, and as as this is the third failure to acquire an ATI X800XT All-In-Wonder video card I'm starting to think that, as with the illusive Iiyama monitor, I should give up and look for something else instead. How annoying!

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

The truth about ENIAC - Computerworld has interviewed the co-inventor of the pioneering digital computer, J. Presper Eckert, and he dispels a number of the myths that have grown up around the project - including minimising the contributions made by mathematician John von Neumann.

More in implanted RFIDs - further details are emerging of the access control devices implanted in a pair of techies employed by security monitoring company CityWatcher.com, including a quote from anti-RFID loon Katherine Albrecht, who considers them the biblical Mark of the Beast...

History of the hard disk - courtesy of CNet, a pictorial series starting with IBM's 1956 5MB System 305 drive and progressing to the femtoscale heads developed by Hitachi in 2003. Oddly, though, the latest innovation to hit the market, the capacity-doubling perpendicular recording, isn't mentioned!

How flame wars start - according to research published in a social psychology journal, people think they've correctly interpreted the tone and implication of e-mail messages 90 percent of the time, but thanks to near-ubiquitous egocentricity in fact their success rate is only around 50%.

 

13th February

After a busy day interviewing new candidates for the PFY vacancy (two of whom had sufficiently similar names that before the interviews we speculated that it might be the same person trying to maximise his chances) and man-handling three new Dell server cabinets up into the computer room without significantly crushing any of my current PFYs, I only have energy left for a handful of quick links:

Peculiar pens - Dan displays his flexibility once more by reviewing some of the more unusual writing implements on the market. As usual, the myriad of links that populate the article are a source of fascination in their own right.

The evils of aspartame - I've been concerned about the health risks of the now ubiquitous sweetener since talking to a biochemist in the eighties, and as it seems more and more likely that the manufacturer bought its FDA approval I see no reason to change my mind now. Via The Sideshow.

Internal identification - video surveillance company CityWatcher have demanded that employees who need to access the company data centre have RFID chips embedded under their skin, a move that has far more to do with the company's public image than any genuine increase in security.

Red cross idiocy - at Boing Boing, more coverage on the threats made by the Canadian Red Cross against companies that use the famous icon on medipacks in video games. I know that a charitable organisation like this has so many better things on which to spend the money donated to it.  :-(

LPs by laser - the idea of using an optical pickup instead of a diamond needle to play vinyl records isn't new, but the ELP Laser Turntable is the first hardware that even comes close to the consumer market - although at a starting price of around $15,000 only the truly obsessed need apply...

High-definition disappointment - enthusiasts who have paid the significant price currently demanded for graphics cards that promise HDTV support are likely to find that their investment has been wasted, as only fully-approved OEM-built systems will support the HDCP copy protection scheme.

New air record - millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett has set a new record after flying 26,389 miles (76 hours and 45 minutes) without refuelling, following an emergency landing at Bournemouth when the GlobalFlyer plane experienced a serious electrical failure on the final approach to Kent airport.

And finally, The Art of the Brick - Lego guru Nathan Sawaya has some remarkable pieces on his web site, including a near life-sized "Han Solo in Carbonite" from "The Empire Strikes Back". Sawaya comments: "I built the sculpture so it can break down easily into smaller parts, thus making it mobile. Because, like most people, I like to take large sculptures of people frozen in carbonite with me whenever I travel".  I have to admit that I'm slightly puzzled as to why the sculpture is only seventy inches tall, though - if you're going to make something that large, with 10,000 grey Lego bricks, adding another few inches to make it truly life-sized would seem to be almost obligatory! Thanks to The Sideshow for the pointer.

 

11th February

I'd like to start off by thanking my colleague Richard for not only reporting a dead link on the front page of this site, the Java applet that illustrates the idea of epicycles so well, but tracking down its new location for me as well. As a reward, I shall try to avoid crushing you under several thousand kilos of new Dell hardware on Monday!

Meanwhile, last night I realised what's wrong with The IT Crowd - they don't have any damn network! Evidently they have some cunning way of supplying data services to an entire corporate using nothing more than a pile of eviscerated monitors and a Commodore Pet, a talent that so far has escaped me. I hope my finance director doesn't watch it, or he'll start to wonder why we keep wanting to waste all this money on servers and stuff! The show does have its moments, I guess (the voice-activated tape deck hooked up to the phone is classic BOFH humour) but on the whole the appeal is somewhat elusive and after three episodes I'm not really expecting that to change. The high point of the last episode, in fact, was spotting the little cluster of online activism stickers contributed by Boing Boing frontman and EFF luminary Cory Doctorow.

Elsewhere, back in the real world (unpleasant and annoying though it is) today's news roundup starts with a handful of stories from the ever-informative Ars Technica:

Microsoft under fire - Vista isn't even close to shipping, yet, but apparently one OEM (the smart money says HP) has already registered a complaint with the US Justice Department that the setup screen isn't sufficiently customisable to let them stuff it full of adverts for their 3rd party software.

Another standard under attack - in a case eerily reminiscent of Forgent's grab of JPEG compression technology, AT&T has suddenly announced that it owns key patents used in the MPEG-4 video format and has started threatening companies such as Apple and DivX with lawsuits and triple damages.

Still beating that drum - an MPAA spokesman has revealed that actually DRM is only intended to help keep us honest, as without limits on what we can and can't do with the media we've purchased we would throw our morals to the wind and become hardened copyright pirates. The insulting bastard...

Wikipedia in the news - or, to be exact, never out of the news, these days... The latest cause célèbre is that of the family of German hacker "Tron", found dead in mysterious circumstances, who have sued to prevent his real name being used in entries on the German version of the encyclopaedia.

Japanese whale meat scandal - as the "scientific research" excuse has always been an obvious fabrication I'd always assumed that they wanted to eat the stuff, but if there's so much on the market that they're selling it as dog food the only sensible conclusion is that they just like killing whales.

OpenOffice rift with Sun - I'm starting to have the impression that the open source movement is slowly but surely tearing itself apart... With Microsoft less of an evil empire than they used to be their unifying effect is lost, and that just leaves a lot of strong personalities and companies trying to make a profit...

The soft fluffy side of the NSA - after the unfavourable publicity that followed the revelation that they've been spying on American citizens as if wiretapping was going out of fashion, the NSA have created set of cartoon characters in an attempt to convince the next generation that their motives are pure.

Bionic vision - an impressive new technology embeds tiny electronically-controlled lenses within an eyeglass lens, programmed at manufacture to correct irregularities in the structure of the eye at a far higher resolution than traditional corrective lenses, potentially doubling the range of normal sight.

Artificial ball lightning - the phenomena of ball lightning has traditionally been extremely obscure, but a team working at Tel Aviv University has used the magnetron from a domestic microwave oven to create artificial pulses about 3cm across and lasting some tens of milliseconds.

Short of web space - courtesy of guimp, "the world's smallest web site", a set of classic video games each implemented in a square 18 pixels on a side. They're actually surprisingly playable, but after less than a minute with the pinball game I thought my eyes were going to fall out onto my desk!

Hard disk scratching - inspired by a set of recordings provided by Hitachi to illustrate the sounds made by a failing disk drive, Gizmodo launched a contest for the best music that could be created from them. The winner is a wonderful two minute trance track reminiscent of mid-era Kraftwerk.

 

10th February

I had a call from Scan Computers this morning to tell me that actually they wouldn't have any stock of the illusive Iiyama H1900 monitor for at least two months, so I contacted Iiyama's UK sales office to find out what the hell was going on. Their reply confirmed the report from After Hours last week, in that the parent company has been bought by the Japanese firm MCJ (also known as Mouse Computers, apparently - not a name I've come across before) and most of the production lines have been closed down while the acquisition is taking place. Whether this really came about because of Iiyama's financial difficulties, as was suggested on the Bit-Tech forums, is not clear at the moment - but the LCD display market is extremely cut-throat at present and I really don't think that having your products disappear from the world market for three months or so is going to be something they will get over any time soon.

Certainly, they've lost me as a customer - Scan suggested a consumer-level model that they seemed to think was equivalent, but a quick look at the specs suggested otherwise and somewhat reluctantly I started looking at other brands. US manufacturer Viewsonic seem to be receiving good reviews across much of their model range, at present, and as it turns out that I really can buy two of their VP930 model for only a little more than the price of a single H1900 I'm giving them a try.

The supplier I chose, Micro Direct, is currently claiming that they can deliver the Viewsonic units on Monday evening - I don't have any specific reason to doubt this, at the moment, but I don't think I've shopped with them before and I have to admit that after the last few weeks I am feeling rather sceptical just on general principles. However, as I still haven't managed to make contact with NGenX / HardwareArea as yet (their fax number seems to end up at a recording in German, which I consider to be unhelpful) about my missing Radeon AIW X800XT, at this rate there's going to be nothing to connect the new monitors to anyway! I am muttering quietly to myself, again, tonight...

However, I do want to thank my original supplier, After Hours, for doing their best to keep me up to date and informed, and for refunding my money the next day (unprecedented speed!) when I finally decided that I didn't want to wait. I am less impressed with Scan, of course, as once again they have managed to sell me something that they didn't have in stock, all the while insisting that they did. Tsk!

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Inventors honoured - this year's inductees into the hall of fame include the inventors of coaxial cable, the helium-neon laser, the contraceptive pill, the caterpillar track, fibreglass, and the Internet.

Lego Babbage - building even a simplified Difference Engine from Lego is a challenging project, and this design by Andy Carol is definitely going to be worth paying attention to as it progresses.

Piracy doesn't matter - the BBC's series of questions for media industry heads continues, and one answer reveals that movie downloaders actually buy as many DVDs as anyone else! Oops!

Red Cross loons - more intellectual property madness, with the Canadian Red Cross threatening legal action against companies that use the famous logo on health-packs in computer games!

Wikipedia detective work - the exposure of the recent Capitol Hill editing scandal follows some impressively cunning and methodical investigation by the encyclopaedia's techies.

Copying Sky+ - courtesy of the Digital Spy forums, a utility to read the proprietary PVR disk format to allow it to be cloned onto a new drive. It's still in early beta, but the idea is certainly promising.

 

9th February

I was so busy ranting about the three companies that are currently jerking me about, last night, that I completely forgot that there are actually four. I often tell Internet shopping sceptics that I've made at least a thousand transactions with Internet-based vendors of all sorts with only a very small proportion of disappointments, and that's true, but I can't remember a time when I've had so many problems in such a short time.

The latest disappointment is European PC hardware supplier NGenX, trading as the hardwarearea.com web site, from whom I ordered an ATI Radeon AIW X800 XT dual-display graphics card to match the equally problematic Iiyama H1900 display I'm currently waiting on. In best tradition, they debited my credit card, sent me a little flurry of confirmation emails, and then lapsed into the sort of sullen silence with which I have become extremely familiar over the last week. Emails to all their various addresses have been completely ignored, as have messages sent via their web site, and although there is obviously a fair bit more I can do in an attempt to attract their attention I'm starting to get a nasty taste in my mouth.

My latest requests for an update from Special Airsoft Supplies have met with an equally disturbing silence, too, and if you listen carefully tonight you can actually hear me gritting my teeth...

Meanwhile, in an attempt to distract myself, some random links:

Skype becoming elitist - the latest version of the popular IP telephony app supports multi-way video conferencing, but only if you have an Intel CPU, and a fairly spiffy dual-core one at that!

A history of graphics - an impressively thorough account of the development of 3D graphics acceleration technology, from the first small steps in 1996 to the current war between ATI and NVIDIA.

RMS on online IP - open source figurehead Richard Stallman is a known opponent of DRM, of course, but recently it has emerged that he is also less than impressed with Creative Commons.

Bit-Tech on Bill - the UK tech site examines some of the Microsoft founder's predictions for the future of technology, and finds that his record is no better and no worse than most other pundits.

MS vs. EU - it looks as if Microsoft may be stalling in the hope that a forthcoming appeals hearing will rule against the entire ruling, but the Commission itself does not appear to be playing fair.

New robotic pet - hot on the heels of the RoboRaptor, and nipping at them as it goes, is the new Pleo from Ugobe. Sporting 38 sensors, 8 processors, and 14 servos, it's a significant piece of hardware!

Apple eying up Palm? - the industry is never short of rumours about Apple acquiring other companies or being acquired itself, but the idea of it buying the troubled Palm Inc. does make a certain sense.

Airsoft calculator - courtesy of a forum regular at Arnie's Airsoft, a cunning little utility to calculate all sorts of useful figures for airsofters - muzzle velocity,  projectile drop, theoretical range, etc.

 

8th February

I've just finished reading "The Victorian Internet", by Tom Standage, and it was an interesting and thought-provoking book. He describes the invention of the telegraph in the middle of the nineteenth century, covering both the technology itself and the people behind it, and as the title suggests he sees many parallels with the creation and growth of the global computer networks 150 years later. The ability to send messages around the country or around the world in minutes rather than months transformed all levels of society in many countries, from the American tycoons doing business across the continent to the African tribesman who found their country carved up by solders following orders telegraphed from their governments in Europe. The epilogue makes the point rather neatly:

Today, we are repeatedly told that we are in the midst of a communications revolution. But the electric telegraph was, in many ways, far more disconcerting for the inhabitants of the time than today's advances are for us. If any generation has the right to claim that it bore the full bewildering, world-shrinking brunt of such a revolution, it is not us - it is our nineteenth-century forebears.

Time-travelling Victorians arriving in the late twentieth century would, no doubt, be unimpressed by the Internet. They would surely find space flight and routine intercontinental air travel far more impressive technological achievements than our much trumpeted global communications network. Heavier-than-air flying machines were, after all, thought by the Victorians to be totally impossible. But as for the Internet - well, they had one of their own.

Closer to home, I am suffering considerable annoyance from my own Internet, or more accurately from a trio of organisations using it for what purports to be business:

First on tonight's sin list is Scan Computers, who have annoyed me on a number of occasions in the last few years. I've been trying to find an alternate supplier of the Iiyama H1900 monitor, as After Hours don't expect to receive any more Iiyama units until the middle of the month, and when I noticed that Scan was listing the model as available from stock I requested a refund from After Hours and placed an order with Scan. I should have known better! Just as before, my order zoomed swiftly through the first few stages of the process, with a shipping date of the same day, and then it stalled for the few hours which have now become very familiar.

Sure enough, the next I heard from them was an email saying that "due to a temporary shortage in stock" my order could not be shipped until at least 14th February - in other words, pretty much the same date that After Hours were estimating! I am extremely annoyed by this, as the site clearly and categorically showed that the model was in stock - or I would never have placed the order! It seems very early in the year to nominate Scan for my Fantasy Stock Control League again, but as they've done almost exactly the same thing three times in the last six months I don't see that I have any option.

Next up is Admil, with whom I placed an order for tape storage cases back in December of last year. I was assured that they were in stock, so I faxed them my credit card details and was promised delivery the next day. The order didn't arrive however, and the subsequent two months have been one excuse after another: the courier lost them, the shipment from the US has been delayed, the moon is in the seventh house, etc etc.

I wouldn't mind that so much (these things do happen, after all), but I have had to chase and chase and chase even to be fobbed off with excuses. Each time I was told "Sorry, mate, I'll get on it right away" and then there was a sullen silence until the next email I sent a week later! They have two more days, now, and if I don't have a set of Turtle tape cases clutched in my hot little hands by close of business on Friday then that's another order I'll be cancelling and another company I will not be dealing with again.

Finally comes Special Airsoft Supplies, putative supplier of my SVD replica - I haven't completely given up hope on them, but right now I have to admit that the signs are not promising. Last Monday I was told that the replica had arrived from Hong Kong and was going to be shipped out the next day. When it still hadn't arrived by the end of the week I enquired, only to be told that actually they hadn't been sent the distinctive telescopic sight that is one of the weapon's characteristics. I really don't understand why I wasn't told this to begin with, and the fact that I had to chase them before they admitted it does not bode well. They offered an alternative model that I was not especially happy with, and having declined that I have heard nothing at all so far this week. There is a significant amount of money involved in this deal, however, and I really hope that it doesn't turn into the sort of experience that ends up being described in excruciating detail on this site - but I have prior experience of small UK airsoft suppliers and I have learned to recognise the signs that everything may be about to go very, very pear shaped. Watch this space - and wish me luck!

 

7th February

I have been thoroughly underwhelmed by the new TV comedy series The IT Crowd, but to my surprise I seem to be in a minority. In spite of the fact that the show was created by Graham Linehan, justly famous for the marvellous nineties sitcom Father Ted, it doesn't seem to have any of the wit and sparkle of its predecessor and the first two episodes, shown back-to-back last Friday evening, pretty much failed to provoke a smile throughout.

The stereotypes are to be expected of course, as that's how sitcoms work - the brainless MD spouting management-speak, the unscrupulous female exec desperate to climb the corporate ladder at any cost, and of course the techies themselves, who serve to remind us that anyone who works with computers is either a maladjusted antisocial nerd, or, well, a different type of maladjusted antisocial nerd. The show's only saving grace, so far, is that neither of the geeks bears any resemblance to me, so to my relief I'm safe from unflattering comparisons...

Given all this, I've been surprised to see the show lauded by people like Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing, who's mention of a "screamingly funny running gag" (a fire broke out, and nobody really knew how to cope with it) almost makes me wonder if he was watching some special American version of the show with extra humour.

I will go on watching it, I expect, if only to avoid missing out on the references in the office the next day, but I'm not expecting to be too impressed with the rest of the series. Still, the first three episodes are available online as streaming Windows Media, and of course can be downloaded via the various P2P networks as well, so you can make up your own mind.

Meanwhile. elsewhere:

The oldest profession - players in the popular online game Second Life have a reputation for pushing back the frontiers of gaming, so I wasn't at all surprised to hear that not only are there highly successful in-game prostitutes but also web sites that review and rate them. I have to admit that the appeal of any aspect of online gaming still escapes me somewhat, let alone that of virtual hookers...

Playing Wikipolitics - the Washington Post has more details on the latest Wikipedia scandal, concerning the rash of staffers who have sanitised their congressman's profile to remove anything unfavourable. This has generated quite a stir, as usual with recent stories concerning the site, especially as at the moment Capitol Hill IP address ranges have been blocked from editing entries.

The missing link - a survey organised by Novell (who have now re-invented themselves as Linux evangelists) suggests that the lack of ports of major applications such as Adobe's PhotoShop is slowing down the adoption of the open source OS on the desktop. I am amused to hear this, as I'm thoroughly fed up with hearing the lawn dwarves bleating about how The GIMP is a PhotoShop killer...

How the other half lives - I've seen a lot of modded PCs over the last few years, but I don't remember any modded Mac systems that weren't either April Fools jokes or fish tanks. However, the "Minitosh" is a  modern G4 Mini motherboard stuffed into an old 68000-era Mac Plus chassis, complete with that wonderfully retro greyscale display. I hope this is the start of a movement in its own right.

Print your own meat - definitely one for the "you can't make this stuff up" department, news that tissue engineers at the University of South Carolina have managed to print out strips of bacon using a modified inkjet printer. The ultimate goal is to build artificial tissues and even entire organs, but the largely two dimensional format of bacon makes it a useful structure to practice on!

 

6th February

Things in the office have moved into high gear again, as even before last year's SAP system is actually in production we've started to plan the the twenty five additional servers that will host the company's Siebel implementation - and one of the small but important details I have to take care of is thinking of names for them all! Unlike some of sysadmins I always choose descriptive names, which may be boring but certainly helps one to determine which server does what - anyone can tell that PRINTSERVE hosts print queues, STORAGE and DATAVAULT are file servers, and SYSMAN runs Microsoft's Systems Management Server... Trying to remember in the heat of the moment whether it's Jupiter, Jehovah or Juno that runs the malfunctioning Radius authentication system is a challenge I can do without.

It's been suggested that having such descriptive names makes it easier for a hacker to map and navigate the network, but it seems to me that if an intruder is far enough inside the firewall to be able to browse server names and connect to them at will then the battle is probably already lost... The risk of making life slightly more convenient for a hacker is more than outweighed by the ease with which authorised staff can find their way around, and with the network growing to over one hundred servers once the Siebel systems are in place that's a significant factor.

An acquaintance who manages a similarly sized network is amazed at how we can possibly cope with what has grown into a honest-to-goodness enterprise-level computer installation - he has a team for routers, switches and network infrastructure, another team to drive the servers and applications, and a third to worry about security and anti-virus. In comparison, I have me and a pair of PFYs, trying to be jacks of all trades - with the promise of a third PFY to come, at last, after two years of battling with management. I have to admit that I find this a touch disheartening, as the SAP team is hiring consultants and developers as if they were going out of fashion and yet my colleagues and I are expected to provide all the services of the outsourced mainframe that SAP and Siebel are replacing, and more, pretty much in our spare time. We'll do the best we can, of course, but I can't shake the feeling that if it all goes horribly wrong (and SAP, especially, does have a reputation for doing just that) then I will be the one up against the wall with a blindfold and a last cigarette - and I'd hate to have to take up smoking again.

Meanwhile, links:

Musical mapping - the London Underground map reworked as a diagram showing the creator's idea of the relationships between and influences of the last hundred years of music. It's an interesting idea, but there are certainly a whole bunch of grumpy bastards in the article's comments...

Cthulego - In his house under the bed dead Cthulhu waits dreaming... This exquisite Lego diorama has the fearless adventurers, an airship, fighter planes, an assortment of ghastly Lovecraftian horrors and, of course, the Great Old One itself. Marvellous.

Vapourware awards - it's that time again, and Wired have released their list of last year's products that never came to market. An article at Bit-Tech suggests that the tech web sites and magazines are encouraging vapourware by pestering manufacturers for review samples earlier and earlier.

Trouble in paradise - I'm hearing all sorts of unsettling things about the monitor manufacturer Iiyama, recently... The company who is still trying to source my ProLite H1900 LCD says that stock is stalled right across Europe because of a corporate takeover, and postings in a thread at Hexus claim that the Japanese parent company is in some kind of bankruptcy process. This is something of a surprise to me, as Iiyama have traditionally been one of the market leaders in both CRT and LCD displays, with regular appearances in the A-lists of most of the major IT publications. However, many of their models are targeted at the demanding graphic design markets, with prices to match, and possibly they've finding that the relatively small sales of high-end units can't sustain a slump in sales down at the increasingly cut-throat consumer end of the spectrum. I'm starting to have second thoughts about my own purchase, too, as apart from the fact that I could buy two 19" panels from a manufacturer like ViewSonic for the same price as one from Iiyama, if the company is experiencing problems their famous 3 year on-site warranty may not be quite so plausible - and that's a major selling point for me... It's a tricky decision, but my supplier has offered a refund any time I get fed up with waiting, so I have time to vacillate some more.

 

Zapp:   The key to victory is discipline, and that means a well-made bed.
              You will practise until you can make your bed in your sleep.

Fry:       You mean while I'm sleeping in it?

Zapp:   You won't have time for sleeping, soldier! Not with all the bed-making you'll be doing.

  - Futurama, "When Aliens Attack"

 

5th February

Something has been attacking my garbage bags, recently, and living on the outskirts of London as I do I had assumed that it was a rat. I looked up from my desk today, however, to see the real culprit nosing around, and managed to snap a few photographs through the window before (as I expected) it noticed me moving about inside and turned into an orange streak down the length of the garden.

Taking photographs through a double-glazed window and a net curtain doesn't tend to produce the best results, as modern cameras are so intelligent that they are easily fooled into providing the most bizarre focus, lighting and colour artefacts, so I reached for my trusty copy of Kai's Photo Soap to see what could be salvaged. Soap is by no means the ultimate in image manipulation, but for flawed snapshots it provides the ability to do a "touch up" job with a few mouse clicks, without the need to spend an hour tweaking the gamma, saturation and mid-tones in Photoshop. The best photo turned out to have the worst colour cast, unfortunately, and is rather beyond the scope of second-tier tools:

Photo Soap is a digital image enhancement tool created by veteran PhotoShop guru Kai Krause, and was originally published by his specialist graphics software company MetaTools, later renamed MetaCreations after the purchase of another old-time software house Fractal Design. Shortly afterwards, the wave of acquisitions that swept through the software industry in the late nineties resulted in the majority of the company's products being sold to Corel. This happened during  the mania for diversification that also saw Corel acquire a number of great software applications, only to dump them again soon afterwards, and sure enough a few years later Corel sold it on to ScanSoft, itself now renamed as Nuance. Just to make things even more confusing, MetaCreations has since renamed itself as ViewPoint, with a severely reduced product portfolio, and Krause himself has gone into seclusion in a castle in Germany, heading an organisation named Byteburg which is a design school, a software house, or a business incubator depending on who you talk to. Krause himself is less than forthcoming...

This leaves anyone who is trying to find updates and support for Photo Soap with a bit of a puzzle, as the original MetaTools V1 is now long-forgotten and the V2 distributed by ScanSoft no longer appears in their product listings. A service pack exists for the V2.5 branded by Nuance, but the actual software is no longer available to purchase and as far as I can see if I ever wanted an updated version I would actually have to pirate it! Bizarre...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Stuffing Google - BMW's German web site has been removed from Google's index following the discovery of all sorts of illicit Javascript "doorway pages" that display different content to search-engine crawlers in order to fool them into ranking those pages more highly. I find the motive for this rather puzzling, as I doubt that people use Google to choose a new car ("I searched for 'Mercedes', but it showed me a BMW page so I guess I'll buy one of those instead") and it's hard to see what they hoped to gain. Ah, the mysteries of marketing...

Analysing video games - this fascinating experiment involved recording fifteen runs of the veteran sideways-scroller "Gradius" and superimposing them, giving a picture of how different people approach the same game. In many cases the tactics are extremely similar (nearly everyone took the same path over an obstacle, for example, rather than the apparently just as attractive route underneath it) but there were always one or two spaceships that differed wildly  from the fuzzy cloud of the majority.

 

4th February

It has not been a good day for tape drives. I finally managed to stir myself into investigating the lame duck Exabyte 690D that I was griping about last month, only to have the intermittent power supply problem that had disillusioned me on the last attempt turn into a fairly permanent one. Right now it won't actually boot the electronics, let alone the robotic hardware, and so has gone from a lame duck to a completely limbless one. There's a vague chance of sourcing a replacement power supply, but even if I do manage to locate one somehow it's possible that the fault is in the power distribution PCB (which has a fairly sophisticated brain of its own, according to the maintenance manual) instead of the PSU itself, so I could easily be throwing good money after bad - or, more accurately at this stage, bad money after very bad... And given that there's still the unknown problem with the robotics calibration even if I do fix the power issues, I have to admit that I'm starting to lose hope.

Having given up on the Exabyte, at least for today, I decided to resurrect the trusty old Dell PowerVault 120T seven slot library that has been keeping my data safe for the last few years - only to have the drive crash and eat a DLT tape as soon as I ran an inventory job. So I am muttering quietly to myself as I type this, and wondering exactly what it is about tape hardware that I usually profess to love so much...

Meanwhile, some links:

Strategic erotica - a chess program where the pieces take each other in more than just the usual way, the second version of LoveChess has pieces modelled on Egyptian mythology instead of the Greek theme of the original. The target market is rather obscure to me, though, as serious players tend to be extremely conservative in their choice of chess programs while players of erotic games would probably prefer something a little less challenging!

Government inflates ID theft risk - in their desperate hunt to find some way of justifying the increasingly unpopular plans for a compulsorily ID card, the Home Office has claimed that ID fraud costs Britain £1.7bn annually - but an independent investigation by online business newsletter Silicon.com reveals that the claims have been significantly exaggerated and many of the figures quoted have actually nothing to do with ID theft. Busted!

Linus on DRM - I mentioned a few days ago that Linus was refusing to re-issue the Linux kernel under the new GPL V3.0 because of its stance on DRM, and since then he has elaborated somewhat: "Notice how the current GPLv3 draft pretty clearly says that Red Hat would have to distribute their private keys so that anybody sign their own versions of the modules they recompile, in order to re-create their own versions of the signed binaries that Red Hat creates. That's INSANE."

Music piracy by magic - the RIAA continue to impress with their degree of competence in targeting file-sharing lawsuits, by suing a New York woman who has never owned or even used a computer. Meanwhile Hillary Rosen, former head of the organisation, is joining forces with another ex-industry figurehead to form a consultancy on piracy issues, and is likely to advise the RIAA themselves on how to outrageously inflate their claimed losses in order to better persecute their victims.

JPEG patent in question - the controversial patent acquired by Forgent in 1997, a multi-million dollar revenue stream for them since then (especially from the makers of digital cameras), is to be re-examined by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Figures suggest that around 70% of patents that are approved for re-examination are changed in some way, but it is far less usual that a patent is actually invalidated completely.

The global marketplace - details of the infamous WMF vulnerability that caused such a scare over the christmas holiday period were being touted around the Russian hacker underground as far back as the middle of December, with an asking price of $4000 for full details of the exploit. Apparently none of the erstwhile vendors really understood the significance of what they were selling, however, and it took a couple of weeks for any interest to materialise.

 

3rd February

Just an administrative entry, tonight - I'm testing a comments facility using the ubiquitous Haloscan service. Leave me a note so that I can see if it works!

[Later]  It does indeed seem to work, and after some vacillating and some tweaking I've managed to render it nicely unobtrusive as well. I have to admit to being a touch nervous, though - I don't get a great deal of feedback from these pages, on the whole, and given my habit of being a touch outspoken at times this may well be opening a can of worms labelled "Extra Wriggly". We shall see...

 

2nd February

And I thought yesterday was cold! Brrrr! While I wait for my C840 to do its work and warm up my lap, therefore, some links to keep the CPU running at maximum speed...

Doing it old skool - this terminal emulator resurrects the 1970s, complete with uneven brightness in a choice of green or amber, a warped, flickering display, and even simulates the lag from a slow baud rate. My only disappointment is that at present it's Mac-OS only.

Good worms - the idea of beneficial self replicating code is rearing its ugly head again, and while the theory is interesting I'm extremely dubious about the implementation: the lesson of rtm is always with us, and it's impossible to rule out the unexpected.

No anti-virus in Vista - Microsoft have announced that although the new OS will contain basic anti-spyware protection and a significantly stronger firewall, the anti-virus components will only be made available separately as part of the OneCare security service.

No GPL 3.0 for Linux - Linus Torvalds is not fond of the updated GPL license, it seems, and is insisting that he will only permit the kernel itself to be distributed under the previous V2.0. The sticking point is the complete ban on DRM, which Linus considers to be "insane".

Pots and kettles - The MPAA is being forced to justify its actions after reports that it has made unauthorised copies of a documentary about its own actions, distributing it internally in spite of a specific injunction from the director and copyright holder not to do so.

Another Wikipedia scandal - a Maryland newspaper has revealed the extensive incidence of government workers making changes to unfavourable entries about the politicians they work for, apparently often at the behest of those politicians.

20 years of viruses - this month marks the anniversary of Brain, a boot-sector virus that infected only 5.25-inch 360k floppy disks. I remember viruses running on the Amiga a year or two earlier, though, which as far as I'm aware was the first platform on which the idea was implemented.

Scratch-built spaceships - take two aspirin bottles, a toilet roll tube, and a couple of drinks bottle caps, and produce something reminiscent of the Sulaco from the Aliens movie. It's wonderfully knobbly and crenulated, just as a good spaceship should be, and is really rather impressive.

And, finally, farewell to booth babes - visitors to the E3 games convention in Los Angeles later this year will have to survive without the scantily clad girlies which have been one of the show's regular attractions for years. The organisers insist that the dress code has always been on the books, but that it is only now being enforced, presumably in an attempt to avoid further tarnishing the rather shabby reputation the games industry has acquired over the last few years. Any company flaunting the rules will be subject to a $5000 fine - although that's small potatoes in comparison to the advertising budget for a major league computer game and it will be interesting to see if the ban is respected.

 

1st February

February started with a bitterly cold day, at least in the wilds of Essex, and I have the definite impression that it's going to get worse before it gets better. My lap is toasty warm as I write this, however, thanks to the pre-Centrino Pentium 4M in my venerable but somewhat bloated Latitude C840, which is one area where it scores over the more recent technology. While I dread the coming of summer, therefore, some links:

The evils of RFID - the US State Department has postponed its plans for passports containing RFID chips in the face of significant public opposition, but one wonders if the way that it posted the personal details of many of the people who submitted their concerns (including names, email addresses and phone numbers) on its web site was really an accident... Some of the posted comments are classic green ink material, however, especially those from the right wing fundamentalists.

An RFID by any other name - meanwhile, closer to home, the UK government is falling over itself to avoid using the tainted term "RFID" when talking about its plans for high-tech ID cards and passports - although of course the difference between an RFID device and a "secure smartcard chip with a radio frequency contactless interface" is even less than the difference between a Home Office minister and a lying bastard.

More DRM malware - just when you though it was safe to go back to the PC, news is spreading of the undesirable habits of the copy-protection software StarForce, used in games from a number of major software houses. According to reports the side-effects of this annoying malware can range from performance and stability issues to actual physical damage to optical drives, but the manufacturer is denying everything and threatening lawsuits all round.

EFF vs. AT&T - the online rights group is suing the telecomms giant following its role in assisting the National Security Agency to execute illegal warrantless wiretaps against American citizens, including granting access to its 300 terabyte "Daytona" database of caller information. I support the EFF in their suit, of course, but I have to admit that AT&T probably didn't feel that it had too many options when the super-spooks came calling...

Another myth bites the dust - an extensive study of the effects of mobile phones on medical equipment has found that, as many people have suspected for a long time, there aren't really any. Following this, the Singapore hospital that carried out the trial has switched 500 doctors from pagers to cellphones, resulting in massive savings in time and resources. At the same time, a study at the Yale School Of Medicine has shown that medical professionals communicating via cellphone actually reduces the number of errors in the care provided.

 

Somewhat to my surprise, it's been a very good month in the stats, with an additional 3500 visits over last month taking the numbers to within a whisker of the current record, set this time last year. As usual, I have other webloggers to thank - a generous handful of tantalising references from Avedon Carol at The Sideshow, a link to my notes on "Atlas Shrugged" from Glen at A Brooklyn Bridge, unprovoked appearances in a number of blogrolls (usually way down in the undergrowth, but it's a start) and even a mention in an article that was briefly on the front page of the popular tech law site Groklaw. If this goes on I'm going to need to buy a bigger graph - although it will be interesting to see if it's a momentary spike, as last January's was, or if the growth will continue.

 

 

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