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31st January

I am continuing to foam gently at the mouth over the depressingly immature behaviour of the owners and moderators of the Airsoft Community Forums following the recent disappearance of major UK supplier Airsoft Dynamics. As I commented a few days ago, it's not surprising that tensions are running high given the sums of money involved and the complete silence on the part of AD themselves, but a competent moderator (let alone a team of five of them!) should be more than able to maintain order without abusing their position or behaving like a playground bully. Instead, these particular mods seem determined to descend to the level of the people they are bitching about, and in the dozens of posts they have made so far none of them have contributed anything more worthwhile to the thread than the people they are flaming.

Here's a couple of typical examples, from "SuperModerator" (Is it a bird? Is it a plane?) Paddy:

"If you post crap about Airsoft Dynamics in the wrong place, or post irrelevant comments on the existing threads, I will call you a cunt, or anything else for that matter. If any bystander feels they have a problem with my language, I suggest they return to their convents or little boxes full of cotton wool"

and

"The way I see it you are a gobby little cunt trying to do a 'big I am act'. Well, find yourself another stage to ponce around on. Go on to another forum if you want rep points and webwanks"

Well, quite. He does like that "c" word, doesn't he... He also comments:

"I am concerned at the number of new members making their first posts in this thread. Someone is obviously organising this, it is all too neat..."

Do I detect a distinct note of paranoia, there? Someone is organising what, exactly? On the whole, people don't need to be encouraged into trying to find out what has happened to hundreds of pounds of their hard-earned money, but if his immediate reaction is to detect a conspiracy behind the fully justified concern from AD's anxious customers then perhaps it explains his rather unstable overall demeanour... Does he line his camo hat with tinfoil to block government mind control rays as well, one wonders?

One especially crass technique that I've been surprised to see in these threads is editing the post of a user that has been deemed unworthy without adding the usual tag to show that this has happened - so anyone reading the thread later sees the hapless miscreant saying something completely perplexing such as "I will learn not to stick my nose in where it isn't wanted" or "Perhaps I'll think before posting unrelated comments again". In my opinion that's a cheap trick, and in fact I don't remember ever seeing a moderator of a serious discussion forum doing that in an online career that pre-dates the Internet.

In the meantime, between abusing the less mature posters and criticising the few people who have actually made an attempt to provide sensible legal or financial advice, some of the mods have also managed to come out with a number of extremely dubious statements - including some which I suspect may well come back to haunt them in the coming months, such as this one from Beaker:

"We have no connection to AD, nor is UKASC responsible for how they conduct their business"

This depends on exactly how one defines a "connection", of course - rumours suggest (and the design style rather confirms) that forum owner Comega actually designed the Airsoft Dynamics web site and that AD have (at least at some point) paid the hosting charges for one or more of the UKASC servers... Also, the front page of the ASC Portal contains banner adverts for AD (as do a number of the other pages), and the UKAN forums (owned and run by the same team) have a conspicuous "proudly sponsored by AD" banner, or similar, at the top of every page! That sounds like distinctly like a connection to me...

Of course, these are exactly the sort of arrangements that one would expect to find between the retailers and the community in a niche hobby such as airsoft (it's in everyone's interest to help keep the hobby popular and profitable) and certainly don't imply any formal relationship, but on the other hand it's disingenuous and actually somewhat insulting, as well, to deny all links when in fact they're plain to see! Given the above, it does occur to me that we're seeing something of a collective guilty conscience: while I am happy to accept that UKASC has no significant financial connection with Airsoft Dynamics, it's quite clear that the various protagonists are both friends and industry colleagues, and from the general level of angst and venom displayed by the UKASC staff they must be suffering from considerable embarrassment that everything has gone so badly pear-shaped for the company - especially when at least some of them undoubtedly know far more about what is going on than it is appropriate to discuss in a public forum at this stage.

Another from Beaker:

"We are also not responsible for other people's comments whether they are in breach of our rules or not"

The infamous Demon vs. Laurence Godfrey lawsuit strongly suggests otherwise, as some of the statements made by forum users about the owners of AD are certainly verging on the libellous - but bizarrely it is not those posts that are being withdrawn by the mods! Instead, they are picking off the people who annoy them most, which may be a good way of letting off steam (and, boy, from appearances they must have a lot of steam to let off!) but is a very poor way of keeping yourself out of court as a complicit publisher of character defaming statements.

So to "Beaker", "Taffy", "Paddy", "Comega" and, especially, the forum co-owner "Fluffy" (who currently uses a picture of Mary Whitehouse as his avatar, a face I was already thoroughly tired of seeing before he adopted it), I make a suggestion: get a firm grip on your tempers and start behaving in a way that befits the community leaders that you obviously consider yourself to be - and do it quickly, too, before you end up looking even more foolish than you do already...

 

30th January

Oh, look - the start of another week, and nearly the end of the month already. Gosh, where does the time go...

Women demand tougher abortion laws - a survey organised by UK pollsters MORI poll found that 47% of women believe the legal limit for abortion should be cut from the current maximum of 24 weeks, while a further 10% think that abortion should be banned completely. I'm only hazarding a guess, here, but it's hard not to speculate that those 57% who wanted to make life harder for their sisters have never had to worry about unwanted pregnancy following rape, or a contraception failure, or even just the after-effects of a misguided one-night-stand. Would many of those women change their point of view if it was their own bodies and their own futures they were voting on? I rather think they might...

MS sues over anti-spyware scam - Microsoft has joined forces with Washington State's Attorney General to sue New York-based Secure Computer, purveyor of a large proportion of the annoying pop-up adverts that claim to have discovered spyware on your computer. The suit alleges that the software, which costs $50 and merely changes a few registry and policy settings, is at best useless and at worst can actually decrease the security of the PC. I really hate these adverts, though, as they are deliberately designed to look like the sort of alerts that are generated by security software and by Windows itself, and it's so easy for inexperienced but conscientious users to clog up their systems with damaging junk while thinking that they're doing the right thing. Go, Microsoft!

The problem with time - the argument between the supporters of astronomical time (derived from the movement of celestial bodies and favoured by astronomers) and Coordinated Universal Time (based on the vibration of caesium atoms and beloved of physicists) continues to simmer, and the addition of the leap second that synchronises the two right at the end of 2005 has threatened to bring it to the boil. Many scientists are growing increasingly disaffected by the need for leap seconds, as they involve considerable efforts to recalibrate electronic equipment and so are basically a pain in the neck, but without them the standard time will drift further and further from the actual rotation of the Earth and in the long term the effects would be bizarre to say the least!

You paid how much? - two of the big names in the world of wrist watch engineering, both with something of a reputation as enfants terribles, have collaborated on a new design which can only be described as both revolutionary and bizarre. The numerals inscribed on the circumference of cylinders remind me strongly of the 1950s-style desktop calendars, and the overall shape is somehow reminiscent of the primary drive between the engine and gearbox of a vintage motorcycle. I'm not actually sure that I like it, I have to say - but at a price of $220,000 each that ambivalence probably isn't something I'm going to have to worry about overcoming.

Approximately speaking - this watch, however, is something that I'm definitely rather fond of. Instead of fussing with millisecond accuracy it presents the analogue of time in a format that is extremely appropriate to everyday usage - it has a textual display that offers statements such as "Slightly After 6", "Nearly 9 Forty Five" and "Just Before 7", using an accuracy of plus or minus three minutes. Given that this kind of fuzziness is exactly what most people need most of the time, and that in any case many watches are either hopelessly inaccurate or simply poorly synchronised, the false precision presented by modern timepieces is largely illusory. My ideal watch would be able to flip between this wonderfully-human mode for everyday use and a digital mode for the odd occasions when I actually needed to time something.

Gorgeous engineering - at the home of the wonderful Crab Fu video (go on, take a look - you know you want to) a sub-page has some of the most wonderful steam-powered working models I've ever seen. They're like a cross between a Lego Technics set and something from one of China Miéville's novels - a radio-controlled tank, centipedes and crabs, a rowing boat that rows itself, and several others. It's a pity that the photographs don't show more close-up detail, but at least  there are generous handfuls of video clips to make up for it.

 

Lisa:         Dr. Hibbert, I thought you'd located another kidney for Grampa?
Hibbert:   Larry Hagman took it. He's got five of them now! And three hearts! We didn't want to
                  give them to him but he overpowered us!

 

- The Simpsons, Kidney Trouble.

 

28th January

Thought for the day:  If one is a devotee of Jamaican reggae, apparently ska bands such as Byron Lee and the Dragonaires count as classical music. Lee shares a characteristic of many of the great names of that era, no matter what part of the world they come from and what style of music they play, in that he is still recording and still gigging after fifty years in the music business - compare that with the "stars" of the last twenty years, the majority of who fade into obscurity as soon as their hit fades from the charts. Are they still playing? Have they retired from the music industry? Nobody knows, and frankly most of the time nobody cares... Give me a working professional, devoted to his craft and driven by his love of music instead of his thirst for fame, any day of the week.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Rats and sinking ships - former Veritas chief exec Gary Bloom is to leave Symantec following what is described as an "orderly transition", suggesting that others share my misgivings about the acquisition. I'm certainly thoroughly underwhelmed by the first Symantec-branded version of Backup Exec, which has completely failed to address a number of annoying little user interface bugs.

Missed point error in line 1 - the new anti-hacking laws that the Home Office is working on include a clause which will ban the development, ownership and distribution of so-called "hacker tools". Unfortunately, no provision is made to exclude legitimate network management utilities such as password and data recovery tools, security scanners, and stress-testing systems.

Gone but not (quite) forgotten - erstwhile console manufacturer Infinium insists that it hasn't actually given up on its plans for the Phantom console (now overdue by several years even by conservative estimates), but given that it has just had to borrow $5 million to manufacture a wireless keyboard and mouse combo I'm still not holding my breath...

Creative anachronisms - the latest theme at the excellent Worth 1000 digital image manipulation site is another in the popular series of Time Machine contests. My favourites include Chaplin with a RoboRaptor, a Model T hot rod, and a hip-hop Ghandi. There seem to be a surprising number of entries that have dropped modern weaponry into vintage American Civil War photos, too - fun!

And finally, the truth is out there - machinima are short animated movies created by hijacking the 3D engine from a 1st-person shooter or adventure game, in this case World Of Warcraft, and the latest example of this increasingly popular genre uses a group of bizarre humanoids to reveal a poorly-kept secret. I'm not usually a fan, but this one has a certain something...

 

27th January

A few quick links to end the week, starting with a definite flavour of copyright  violation and DRM - surely one of the defining themes of the first part of the 21st century:

Vista tightens the screws - Microsoft has decided to completely prevent the use of unsigned drivers in the forthcoming version of the Windows OS, which is likely to cause problems both in the early days of the adoption and for users of less common hardware throughout its lifespan.

Music industry good guys - major Canadian music-management company Nettwerk has agreed to cover the costs of defending a 15-year-old sued by the RIAA for allegedly sharing an Avril Lavigne track, on the grounds that "the current actions of the RIAA are not in the artists' best interests".

Dire warnings - a parody of the threats at the start of DVDs, which is witty and yet chilling at the same time: "unlawful duplication of this media carries a maximum penalty greater than that of many violent crimes ... proceeds from the sale of this media may be used to arrest your children".

RIAA on dubious ground - many of the file-sharing cases are legally flawed, it seems, as simply making copyrighted media available is not sufficient to prove guilt -instead it needs to be shown that that a third party took advantage of that availability by making a copy for themselves.

Gates vs. Jobs - Bill may be reviled as an evil monopolist, and Steve worshipped as the coolest of entrepreneurs, but one of them has donated billions of dollars towards solving global health problems. Regular readers will recognise a theme that I've been trying to propagate for several years...

Second-hand satellite - astronauts on board the International Space Station have filled an old Russian space-suit with electronics and batteries, and put it into orbit. It transmits status information (generated in real time by a speech synthesiser) on the publicly accessible shortwave bands.

 

26th January

The wages of sin...

I own a single share in Microsoft US, bought during the federal anti-trust hearings as a way of putting my money where my mouth was, and today it earned me another dividend.

Now all I have to do is decide between that holiday in the Seychelles I've been promising myself and a new BMW 8-series... While I vacillate, therefore, some assorted links:

On the spot - the BBC invited the public to pose questions for the music industry execs, and to nobody's surprise their answers are the usual mealy-mouthed lies, evasions, and dogma.

Magnificent devastation - while I was researching last night's rant about General Groves, I came across these galleries of photographs of atomic bomb tests. They're beautiful, but chilling as well...

God copyrighted - the Vatican has decided to impose strict copyright on all papal pronouncements, applying not only to the speeches of the current pontiff by also retroactively over the past 50 years.

The wonders of DRM - security researchers at Princeton are demonstrating that the copy protection on audio CDs is mostly very poorly conceived and implemented, and can easily be circumvented.

Intel Macs disappoint - Apple is claming that the new Macs are four times faster than the Motorola-based G5 models, but benchmarks suggest that the improvement is actually more like a quarter...

Plan B emerges - with opposition to the seriously flawed ID Cards scheme mounting, the Home Office seems to be is working on a drastically cut-down plan in case the  worst happens.

Under lock and key - this plastic treasure chest may look like something designed to decorate a fish tank, but in fact it connects to a PC via USB and will open open if you enter the correct code.

Stardust webcam - for those you can't get enough of the "bunny suits" in the Intel Mac adverts, a live view of the clean room at the Johnson Space Center where they're analysing the space dust.

Then and now - the front page of Woz's web site has photos of him and Steve Jobs, and the contrast between the old hippie and the ruthless predator he partnered with has never been so vivid.

Too much time etc - a knitted power cable may not be very useful (especially not an American standard knitted power cable!) but somehow it looks really good and I would love to have one...

Extendable thumb -  using a prosthetic addon to help me read had not occurred to me before, but actually  this book-holding-open-gadget seems like rather a good idea.

 

25th January

I've just been watching Day One, a long drama-documentary about the Manhattan Project, and unlike all the other accounts I've read of the project the main characters were mostly the military men who organised and managed it - specifically General Leslie Groves, who was placed in charge by President Roosevelt at its inception.

The film's makers (or maybe the author of the book on which it was based) were obviously rather impressed with Groves, and in one of the early scenes he marches into an office at Berkeley where a group of scientists are trying to calculate the mass of uranium that would be required to reach a critical mass, and immediately corrects the equations of the (un-named) junior scientist at the blackboard who had written Avogadro's number as 6x1024 instead of 6x1023. Given that the room also contained Leó Szilárd, the man who conceived the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, Nobel prize winner Enrico Fermi, widely regarded as the best experimental physicist of his era, and Eugene Wigner, one of the foremost experts on the nucleus of the atom, this defies belief. For any of them to have failed to notice a mistake in such a fundamental value would have been inconceivable, let alone the entire room full of physicists together. Nevertheless, the General announced that he had taken the algebra and trigonometry courses at West Point twice and so was therefore just as educated as a physicist with a Ph.D. (conveniently ignoring the fact that a doctorate generally requires the production of new and original work, whereas the mathematics taught at a military academy does not) and then swept out, leaving the egg-heads looking suitably chastened...

This scene pretty much set the tone for the rest of the film, and on the whole the scientists were portrayed as rather awkward, egotistical and annoying people, with little awareness of the importance of their work and all sorts of undesirable (and possibly even disloyal) attitudes. I'm sure that there is actually an element of truth to that, of course, and in any case I suppose it serves as a useful contrast to the accounts of life at Los Alamos told by Richard Feynman and others, where the military are lampooned as foolish, inflexible zealots who have no conception of how science is done. However, the way the movie represented some of the century's finest physicists as fools, often being peremptorily ordered from the room by Groves so that he could demonstrate that he could do their job better, really ticked me off. I have no idea whether this was an accurate account of his behaviour or merely a fabrication of the film-makers, but it had me gritting my teeth through most of the movie...

One thing that is clear, however, is that it was Groves himself who made the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan cities. Many of the Manhattan Project scientists began to lose faith in the ethical basis of their work once the war in Europe had been won, and by the final stages of the Pacific war even the US government was vacillating over whether to simply invite Japanese officials to a demonstration of the newly-completed weapon instead, or at the very least to give them warning and time to evacuate the target city - but Groves was both adamant and well-connected, and in the absence of any strong opposition at the highest levels it seems that he prevailed without any great difficulty, personally organising every detail of the missions that delivered the bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To date, he remains the only man ever to order the use of nuclear weaponry against human beings - and unlike many of the scientists who worked on the project he seems to have had absolutely no problem at all in living with that dubious distinction. While I was researching Groves it also emerged that he devised the idea of using depleted uranium in munitions, so I guess we have him to thank for the widespread health problems that NATO military personnel have been experiencing in the last decade, as well as the estimated 200,000 people who died as a direct or indirect result of the two atomic bombs themselves.

Selah.

 

24th January

[Early Edition]  A scandal seems to be brewing in the word of airsoft with widespread reports that major UK retailer Airsoft Dynamics has stopped responding to telephone and email queries and shows every sign of having gone out of business. Nothing has been seen or heard from the company since the start of the year, it seems, and reports suggest that the shop is closed and empty. The web site shows no sign of any problems, however, and indeed is apparently still accepting orders as of yesterday evening - there are several forum posts from people who placed an order only hours before coming across the topic discussing the company's possible demise, and as you an imagine they are pretty ticked off about that.

The probability is that the company's owners have been forced to declare bankruptcy or similar, and have been advised not to issue any statements or discuss the situation until the legal and financial status has been clarified officially - but if that is the case then I really do think they should have removed the web site altogether, or at the very least disabled the shopping basket function. Taking new orders and debiting people's credit cards or bank accounts under such circumstances is certainly not proper behaviour...

Even less impressive, however, is the attitude of the Airsoft Community Forum moderators in the topic where this issue is being discussed. Tensions are running somewhat high, as could be expected considering the average age of the participants and the sums of money that can be involved in airsoft purchases, but even so I would expect the moderators to maintain order and stability without descending to the same level as the participants. Instead, they suddenly seem to have lost their collective tempers and started swearing, bitching, and handing out forum suspensions to anyone who dares to say something they don't like. I have to admit that I've never been very fond of the forum's management style (the entire site scores over the excellent Arnie's Airsoft only in being updated rather more frequently) and have been dubious about their motives since their somewhat mysterious acquisition of the competing UK Airsoft Network site a year or two ago, but it's a shame to see that they can, indeed, sink even lower in my estimation... After all, these are the people that the police, the press, the government and the anti-gun lobbies notice when they dip into the forums to size up the opposition to the VCR Bill, and based on today's little outbursts I expect that they will be smiling quietly to themselves at the sight of everyone bickering and fighting about who said what to whom, instead of uniting against the people that are trying to ban the hobby they claim to hold so dear. It's very sad.

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

This neat little gadget is an ultrasonic cleaning tank, picked up on eBay from the memorably-named Wallace And Grommit, a vendor who, unlike the supplier of my tape library, I would have no hesitation in recommending. It's towards the higher end of the consumer-grade models, and whilst it doesn't have quite the oomph of the sort of devices I used to watch engineers using to degrease the components of gas turbines back in my salad days, with a 70W 42KHz transducer and a capacity of 1.4 litres it's also considerably more effective than the little cup-sized units often seen advertised for cleaning jewellery.

In use it actually works very well, as long as you understand the limitations of the ultrasonic process itself. High frequency pressure waves travelling through the water form tiny air bubbles via a process called "microcavitation", and the shockwaves produced when the bubbles implode under the pressure physically dislodge dirt and grime from the surface of the material being cleaned.

What the process will not do, however, is to remove the tarnish from the surface of jewellery, for example - this is the result of a chemical reaction and so will not be affected by any mechanical cleaning process, which is the reason why so many people who have bought an ultrasonic cleaner for this purpose end up badly disappointed. Having said that, it is very good for removing dead skin cells etc from all the nooks and crevices, and my silver rings are looking wonderfully sparkly even without any chemical treatment. Of course, it's possible to use various types of cleaning fluid in the ultrasonic tank, but care must be taken to ensure that the reagent doesn't attack the structure of the unit - unlike the industrial units, which are usually large chunks of stainless steel, the plastic cladding of home cleaners may be rather more sensitive to strong chemicals... At present I'm using plain water with a squirt of washing up liquid (lowering the surface tension improves cavitation as well as further loosening dirt etc), but if I can find an appropriate solvent I shall probably give that a try as well.

One tip that isn't usually mentioned in the instructions of the consumer-level items is the importance of degassing the fluid first. Even regular tap water contains a significant quantity of dissolved gasses, and this can "cancel out" the cavitation process until it has been forced out of solution. Fortunately the remedy is simple - just run the unit for a few minutes (there is often a distinct change in the tone of the sound emitted) before adding the items to be cleaned.

So far I've used it to clean my rings, my watch strap, my glasses, the bolt assembly from a sniper rifle and a couple of electric shavers, and the results have been very pleasing. In fact, pretty much the only thing that I haven't cleaned is whatever it was that first made me think "hmmm, I could do with an ultrasonic cleaning tank for this" - and for the life of me I can't remember what that actually was!

All-in-all, although there seems to be a justified degree of pessimism about the results that can be obtained from the cheapest cleaners on the market, the slightly more powerful consumer models can certainly give good results as long as you know what to expect. I'd say that they're a highly worthwhile purchase if you have enough things that need regular cleaning - although once word spreads you can probably expect a steady stream of friends bearing contributions of their own...

Recommended.

 

23rd January

Today one of my colleagues brought in a little pamphlet from the golden years of the British computer industry, "The A.B.C. Of Electronic Brains". Written for the BBC by Leon Bagrit of Elliott-Automation Ltd (eventually subsumed into GEC and then ICL, and long-forgotten outside of the British Computer Society's historical computing geeks), it has enough coverage of Elliott's own hardware and systems that it almost counts as advertising, but it's a fascinating document nevertheless. My colleague used a reference to a programming symposium to date the booklet to 1960, a pivotal year when transistors and ferrite core memory was replacing valves and delay lines, and magnetic media was just beginning to encroach on the dominance of paper tape and punched cards. Some of the illustrations are remarkable, such as a magnetic disk drive that looks more like the flywheel from a medium-sized truck that had collided with an oscilloscope and (I swear I'm not making this up) has what is very obviously a drain nozzle for emptying some kind of fluid out of the system - but some are delightfully prosaic, including an aerial photograph of a thoroughly non-descript brick industrial unit captioned "a building used to house a computer"...

Mr Bagrit turns out to have been something of a visionary, however, as although his prediction for the likely speed of future computers is somewhat conservative (he suggests clock speeds in the order of tens of megahertz, which probably seemed extravagant forty-odd years ago but pales into insignificance beside the cheapest low-end home PC) he's actually very daring when it comes to the potential size of the hardware. In a year that the science fiction author Isaac Asimov was writing about Multivac, a computer so large that is was built above Niagara Falls in order to use the river as a heatsink, Leon Bagrit wrote:

"One can quite soberly think of reduction in size to a point where a computer is made the size of a packet of twenty cigarettes. This may be attained by using printed circuits, printed by electron microscopes. Space travel will demand a reduction in size of computers to be mounted in spaceships".

It's interesting to note that hardware used by the world's space programs is notoriously conservative, and that instead it is the consumer electronics industry that has provided much of the drive towards miniaturisation, but apart from that I think his description is a good match for my Palm Tungsten T3 handheld.

Meanwhile, back in the future:

Google takes a beating - a day after reports of its refusal to bow to a Justice Department subpoena hit the news, Google's shares fell by 8.5%, or $36.98 a share, to a mere $399.46. The search company has refused to hand over data compromising a random sampling of one million URLs from their web database, and the text of each request entered into the search engine over a one-week period. The subpoena forms part of the administration's efforts to revive the seriously flawed COPA online pornography law, which was struck down two years ago by the Supreme Court, and is a classic example of the sort of measure which is irrelevant to the stated problem while actually hiding a right-wing fundamentalist attempt to incorporate their morality into the legislature.

And talking of which - following the terrible news that only 4 out of 5 major search engines will allow the US government to see private user data on demand, the newly-formed Patriot Search will guarantee that the law enforcement community sees your search results as soon as you do.

Imation acquires Memorex - "Is it live, or is it... ah..." Another long-established name vanishes from the IT industry, and as with the majority of the many other mergers and acquisitions over the last decade I'm convinced that the end-user that will suffer in the long run.

Duelling jumbos - the dialog of this fan-made commercial for the Xbox is perhaps a bit too German for most people, but it's extremely funny all the same. (And yes, Mike, I know they're not actually jumbos, but that was too good a caption to resist!)

And finally, from the safety warning in the front of the manual for the Iiyama H1900 LCD display: "Stop operating the monitor when you sense trouble, or if you notice any abnormal phenomena". The instructions suggest calling the support line, in that eventuality, but from the sound of it the Ghostbusters might be a better bet... Now, if you'll excuse me, my spider-sense is tingling.

 

21st January

A link! A link! My kingdom for a link!

Well, maybe not my whole kingdom... but certainly a dubious 256Mb SODIMM that I have lying around on my desk.

See-through data-  I've always admired the hard disks modded by brave souls who replace the top cover with a transparent window to reveal the mechanism inside, but it's not something I would have risked doing. Enter Western Digital, however, who have done just that with their new Raptor model.

Bizarre GMail "feature" - email addresses at Google's free mail service may be created using dots to separate names, but apparently the system itself doesn't pay any attention to them - so while two different users can sign up as "fred.smith" and "fredsmith", they'll both end up with the same address!

Big Brother is indexing you - it has emerged that of the 3 million or so records in the UK government's National DNA Database, 24000 belong to juveniles who have never actually been cautioned or charged with a crime - together with more than 120,000 adults who are equally innocent.

Your credit rights - courtesy of the BBC's Watchdog consumer affairs program, an extremely useful guide to the UK's Consumer Credit Act and how to go about claiming redress if you have paid by credit card for goods or services that were unsatisfactory in some way.

Unofficial iMac tablet - Apple seem to be a little tardy with the release of their tablet format iMac, but when they finally ship they'll have stiff competition from technology company ThePlaceForItAll, who rebuild iBooks into tablet format and end up with something that looks extremely slick and polished.

Australian Lensman - Dan's latest opus is surely one of his longest articles (the preamble is certainly the longest), so by the time you find out what he's reviewing you'll have learned a lot about lenses - and as usual, his copious embedded links are as informative and amusing as the article itself.

Genuine innovation - the rather unappealingly-named "Slanket" may not be the best blanket ever, as the advertising claims, but it's certainly a cunning idea - an over-sized, fleecy blanket with built-in sleeves, allowing chilly geeks to operate technology while shivering in unheated lofts or whatever.

And finally, apparently science is 'not for normal people' - a new survey reveals that although UK teenagers value the role of science in society, and respect the scientists themselves, they have a very strange picture of what a career in science would be like. Scientists are "constantly depressed and tired", it seems, and all wear "big glasses and white coats" - and none of them are female. It's not quite clear to me where these ideas come from (surely it can't all be Hollywood movies? Jeff Goldblum's scientists seem to wear spiffy leather blazers and dashingly open-necked shirts, mostly!), but of this attitude is as prevalent as the survey suggests it's easy to see why the numbers of children taking A-levels in physics, chemistry and even maths has declined steadily and significantly over the last ten years.

 

20th January

I'm thoroughly worn down after last night's tirade, and while I'm recuperating for a fresh assault on that damn tape library tomorrow you'll have to survive with a handful of random links to end the week:

How not to respond - a recently discovered vulnerability in part of the BSD Unix security subsystem will not be fixed in the Open BSD version of the OS, and their attitude is raising a few eyebrows.

Corporate corruption - carriers BellSouth and Verizon are up to all sorts of shenanigans, it seems, including offering Yahoo the chance to pay to have its web pages load faster than Google's...

More media industry bastardry - and talking of corporate greed, the UK trade association PACT wants to collect what amounts to a tax on digital video recorders such as the TiVo and Sky+ devices.

Following the money - Ars Technica looks into the recent scandal over the in-game Subway advertising that appeared on some privately-run Counter-Strike servers.

Moo FX - a marvellous set of freeware JavaScript routines to provide basic but eye-catching animated text effects on a web page.

Converting video to video - at PCStats, a useful guide on transferring VHS tapes to DVD, a process that can provide a number of pitfalls (mostly codec-related) for the unwary.

Iraqi invasion text adventure - tasteless, perhaps, but witty all the same... At the Defective Yeti blog, the invasion re-cast as a text adventure from the classic era of PC gaming.

Stardust and golden - the spacecraft's aerogel collector has been opened, and a cursory examination suggests that it has captured far more, and far larger, particles than anyone expected.

The home of the fee - Apple is in the dog-house, it seems, following their announcement that they will join other big suppliers by setting up a business branch on Guernsey to exploit a UK tax loophole.

Another look inside the Intel iMac - a touch Japanese around the text, perhaps, but the pictures speak for themselves. It really is a funny-looking set of components, compared to the systems I'm used to.

 

Hermes:  Number 1.0, I hereby petition you for an emergency sort-and-file, under regulation 2 point...

Number 1.0: [waggling his finger]   Don't quote me regulations! I co-chaired the committee that reviewed the recommendation to revise the colour of the book that regulation is in! We kept it grey.

Futurama episode #23 - How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back

 

19th January

Regular readers of Epicycle will know that I wasn't at all pleased with the tape library that I recently purchased from "bujji0" at eBay, and in fact I've been unhappy with every stage of the transaction from start to finish. Having mulled it over for a while I eventually decided that I had no choice but to leave negative feedback and, just as I expected, this immediately earned a negative response in return in spite of the fact that I fulfilled my side of the bargain perfectly - I paid promptly, didn't complain when the library was shipped from Canada ten days later than I had been promised, and managed (somehow!) to remain perfectly courteous in all my communications even when it became clear that I was being royally screwed over the deal. My only fault was in daring to object to being screwed...

I started to realise that things had were going wrong when the library was finally in transit, and the details I was sent referred to delivery at Heathrow Airport. I questioned this, and was met with a stony denial that anything else had ever been implied or agreed. However, the majority of our exchanges had been sent via eBay's own internal messaging system, which provides a semi-permanent record - a fact the seller must have overlooked when he edited the copy he forwarded to me by adding a line that mentioned the airport. My own copy, like the one held on eBay, was certainly unambiguous, with no suggestion that shipping would be anything other than door-to-door as usual...

I really wanted the library, though, and as by now I could feel myself being stretched over a barrel I gritted my teeth in an effort to remain polite, and asked for the information I would need to process the import myself. What was returned were a few brief details of an un-named shipping agent (the telephone number turned out to be unobtainable, and neither of the two airway bill numbers were actually valid) together with the helpful advice that "they might charge a fee". I should say they might! Once I had finally tracked down the freight company myself, in fact I paid a total of £317 for the customs duty, which of course I was expecting and had budgeted for, and the administration charges and local delivery fee which I most certainly had not!

I suspect that what probably happened was that having given me an estimate for shipping before the auction ended, when it came down to it the seller realised that he had badly miscalculated and that the cost of delivery to my home address would destroy his profit margin - and so he chose the cheapest shipping option possible and pocketed the difference. After all, with three thousand miles between us he probably reasoned (quite correctly!) that there wouldn't be a lot I could do about it...

I have to admit that once I had finally tracked down the freight company, UTI Worldwide, they were extremely helpful. Various forms were faxed back and forth, a large part of my bank balance was redistributed and, this now being Christmas Eve thanks to the long delay in shipping, delivery was arranged as soon as their offices re-opened in the new year.

The long-awaited delivery provided the next bone of contention. For a piece of delicate computer hardware the size of a large filing cabinet and weighing over 430lbs, I would have expected something more than a single sheet of regular bubble wrap and some sticky tape - but that is exactly how it had been shipped. Having had a couple of similar if smaller items arrive from overseas with serious damage sustained en route I specifically inquired about how the library was going to be packaged, and such inadequate protection was not at all what I had been promised! It is a testament to the unexpected care with which it must have been handled in transit that it wasn't completely destroyed by the time it got to me, and in fact the only obvious damage was a bent metal supporting bracket sustained at some point when the library had been laid down on its back.

Once the unit had been wrestled into my kitchen-cum-computer room, though, the next problem became clear. The seller didn't pack the internal mechanism at all, leaving the robotics to slide freely around on their bearings and allowing most of the removable tape magazines to fall out into the interior of the cabinet (some even lodging behind the revolving carousel, from where they were extremely difficult to extract) and it seems likely that the effect of these big plastic frames bouncing around inside caused the hardware damage that has so far rendered the library completely unusable. A handful of bubble wrap would have prevented that problem completely, but as it stands the robotic picker assembly seems to fail its calibration routine when the unit is powered on, which automatically takes the library offline and turns it into nothing more than a giant paperweight.

I certainly haven't given up yet (although I have to admit to being very disillusioned with the whole thing at present), but this kind of opto-electro-mechanical hybrid is extremely difficult to debug and repair, and it might well end up being beyond my capabilities - and given how much I had paid for the damn thing by the end of the whole sorry saga that would be a real annoyance.

So here's a big "fuck you" to bujji0, otherwise known as Shree Ramayanam, who has ripped me off good and proper, and left me with no recourse except to hope that this account inspires any future customers to double-check the exact details of delivery and packaging and be very sure that they are getting what they expect - my own experience suggests that he doesn't possess the sort of ethical behaviour and common sense that more than two hundred other eBay transactions have lead me to hope for and, indeed, that I normally receive.

Caveat emptor.

 

18th January

It's That Link Again... Some random stuff:

A long wait - Microsoft are not intending to release the Service Pack 3 for Windows XP until 2007, echoing the release of the final SP4 for Windows 2000 long after XP was in wide use, and tying in nicely with the recent announcement that XP Home support will run until some time around 2008.

Corporate bloat - more on the incredible mish-mash of trial and bundled software that clutters up new PCs from the big manufacturers - and don't forget, this was what your taxes have paid for in the various anti-trust lawsuits around the world...

The day of the fox - Firefox now has 20% of the European market share, according to a new report, and more than 30% in some countries. I was extremely sceptical, initially, but a quick look at my own stats shows 25% of visitors are using the browser, so I guess there may actually be some truth in it!

iPod survival lessons - I'm amazed to find that some people are prepared to pay significant amounts of money to be taught how to use an iPod - the device that has been hailed far and wide as the epitome of user interface design.

Did I see that? - In-game advertising continues to reaches new low points, with adverts for the Subway sandwich shops being sneaked onto walls and cliffs in the popular Counter-Strike online combat game. Needless to say, the game's creators are not especially happy about this.

From the bizarre to the ridiculous - William Shatner continues to surprise, with news that he has just sold a kidney stone for $25000, having turned down lower offers on the grounds that his "Star Trek" tunics have sold for more than $100,000. He intends to donate the money to charity.

First look at the Intel iMac - it may look just like previous models from the outside (and it's not an especially impressive look, at that!) but the internals are significantly different from either regular Macs or PCs. Time will tell, once the Intel-native apps start arriving, how it will behave in the real world.

A little piece of history - Hawkwind lynchpin Dave Brock reading extracts from Hunter Thompson's Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas - although it was sourced form AM radio before being transferred to cassette tape and finally being digitised so unfortunately the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired.

Clashes over ID cards - the House Of Lords has demanded full details of the projected costs of Tony Blair's flawed scheme, which has caused a flurry of protests that doing so would actually drive the cost up... In spite of the fact that the government has claimed that the costs are already fully transparent!

 

17th January

I shocked myself, this week, by paying more than £20 for a battered old paperback book with a cover price of £1.50 - and a scrawled pencil "25p" on the back from some long-ago second hand shop. The book is "Hype", a novel written by avant-garde poet and musician Robert Calvert (closely associated with space rockers Hawkwind in the glory days of the seventies Ladbroke Grove scene) to accompany his album of the same name, and these days it's as rare as... well, it's rare enough for someone to pay £20 for...

Part of the problem is, of course, the incredible ease with which online emporium Amazon allows one to spend money with them. Having wondered if they had a copy of the novel to go with my CD, it only took a few mouse clicks to find out that no, it was long out of print - but that I could create a pre-order that would hover like a hawk over the company's second-hand Marketplace section and descend on a copy as soon as it emerged blinking into the light. A year or so passed, and every few months the system would sadly inform me that it still hadn't found anything, but that maybe if I offered a little more money...? Another few clicks re-energised the pre-order with a ceiling a couple of pounds higher, and then I would forget about it again...

Until yesterday, that is, when an email suddenly arrived telling me that I was now the proud owner of a second-hand copy of the novel, and that £19 plus shipping had been snatched away from my credit card. I have to admit that this caused a raised eyebrow, as I was expecting the opportunity to confirm or refuse the purchase (that will teach me not to read the small print!) and at that price I would have had second and probably third thoughts - but the book arrived this morning and it's a bit late for that now! Ah, well - I suppose I can always hang on to it for another few years and then sell it on at a profit.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Dining room in a box - the Mealbox is a Japanese-style table and stools that come apart like a giant wooden (and carbon fibre) jigsaw to fit into a neat little box. It's so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel - but as no price is shown I expect it's equally expensive, too...

Elevator seeks - a new concept in lifts for tall office buildings, the grandly-named Destination Floor Guidance System allows passengers to enter their desired floor at a kiosk and then assembles the most efficient combination by grouping them together into specific lift cars.

More copyright madness - the family of Martin Luther King Jr. is jealously guarding copyright to his speeches, including the famous "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963, and their scale of charges is such that many schools cannot afford to play it to their students. I really doubt Dr King would approve...

Picking hardware for Media Center - I'm idly contemplating a Home Theatre PC to replace the fatally flawed Pinnacle Showcenter I've been tinkering with over the last couple of years, and this guide at UK hardware site Bit-Tech is an excellent source for anyone considering building such a system.

Antique computer brochures - during the PC boom of the eighties I wrote to dozens of computer companies requesting brochures, but unlike Kim Moser's I don't think any of mine survived until the Century Of The Artichoke. Ah, Ventura 2.1 - before it was snapped up by Xerox. Nostalgia...

Dot matrix music - reprogramming the firmware of old Epson printers to play music is undoubtedly a worthy task, but definitely one undertaken by people with far, far too much time on their hands. Do watch out, though - the site's scrolling floral background is a real eyesore.

 

16th January

It's Monday, and I've spent the day wrestling with the upgrade of a rather recalcitrant set of Backup Exec managed media servers to the new version 10.1 / 10d (Symantec don't quite seem to know what they actually bought from Veritas, and the name vacillates somewhat across their documentation), so have little energy left over tonight... Have some quick links while I recover:

Apple advert a rip off - the new Intel-based Mac ad bears a truly uncanny resemblance to a pop video by The Postal Service (although not an advert for the US Post Office, as the Wired headline claims!).

Siberian funds scams - Nigeria is out of fashion now, it seems, with the bright young scammers opting for the colleagues of Russian oil tycoons instead of the wives of deposed African dictators.

Hi-tech Mercedes - the new S-Class has an onboard radar, automated acceleration and braking controls, and night-vision... and a $100,000 price tag to match.

Quantum microchip - a new semiconductor designed at the University of Michigan contains an ion trap holding a single cadmium atom, the spin of which can be manipulated and read by a laser.

Microsoft extending Home support - just has expected (Mike and I were talking about this only last week) MS has extended the support period for XP Home to two years after Vista ships.

ASC releases spyware guidelines - the Anti-Spyware Coalition has released its guidelines on which characteristics could legitimately lead to an application being classified as spyware.

Hasselblad's new digicam - think your 12 megapixel digital SLR is something to boast about? If so, the new 39 megapixel offering from the high-end medium format specialist will put you in your place.

A very expensive fan controller - Innovatek's rather cheesily-named "Fan-O-Matic PRO" has an impressive spec (although the software leaves a lot to be desired) but costs as much as a cheap PC!

USB turntable - not quite new, but certainly a cunning gadget: a record deck that connects via USB and comes with software designed to rip from vinyl to MP3. Very tempting, if it works well enough...

 

15th January

Something for the weekend, Sir?

Dan buys a new PC - Dan had a close encounter with a lightning storm, and one of his systems didn't survive the experience... but geeks see this kind of event as an opportunity rather than a crisis, and he's written up a very detailed description of his shiny new purchase.

Microsoft and Apple, sitting in a tree - hot on the heels of the recent announcement of a five year development program for the Mac version of Office, comes news that the two companies will also be collaborating on the next versions of Virtual PC to allow Windows apps to run on the Inte Macs.

Dissing the PC - not so rosy, this weekend, is the relationship between Apple and Intel following a TV advert for the new Macs: "The Intel chip: for years, its been trapped inside PCs, inside dull little boxes, dutifully performing dull little tasks, when it could have been doing so much more".

A one trick pony - just when you though it was safe to go back to your music collection, Apple Insider brings news of yet more iPods. The company has applied to the Hong Kong IP Property Department for the rights to the trademarks "iPod Hi-Fi" and "iPod Boombox". Enough, already!

More zombies than you can shake a stick at - a new report from CipherTrust suggests that last month as many as 200,000 computers per day were infected by malicious code that turned them into sources of spam email, with China and the US leading the list of infected systems.

Pots and kettles #437 - following the discovery of rootkit-like cloaking components in its Norton SystemWorks product, Symantec is calling for an industry wide effort to define what the term "rootkit" actually means - presumably, in this case, "anything but our software"...

WTF? - I mentioned Steve Gibson's already dubious reputation last week, but it's hard to tell whether his claims that the recent Windows WMF vulnerability was actually a deliberate back door inserted into the OS by parties unknown will help or harm it... Needless to say, MS hotly denies the accusation.

A musical treat - prominent MS blogger Robert Scoble reports that some of the new sound effects in the Vista OS are being recorded by guitar diva Robert Fripp, co-founder of King Crimson and frequent partner with digital music pioneer Brian Eno, who created the startup sound for Windows 95.

 

14th January

The telecoms company O2 annoyed me, back in the autumn, so I sued them - and yesterday a cheque arrived for the princely sum of £62.92 in full settlement.

I've been using their web-based SMS facility for many years, even though I no longer have an airtime contract with them, and one day in November after sending a message I noticed that some of my personal details were badly out of date. I updated my home address and my phone number without difficulties, but when I returned to the status page my pre-paid balance of £2.92 was mysteriously absent. A long, drawn-out, and frustrating exchange of emails with their customer services team followed, the upshot of which was that having changed my personal details the balance I had paid to them had simply been deleted, and they were not prepared to refund it.

I was extremely cross about this, as even though the sum involved was trivial the idea that they should just be able to steal my money like that, with no justification or warning, was unacceptable. Normally I would have had no option but to grit my teeth and try to ignore it, but unfortunately for O2 I had just heard about the UK court service's new Moneyclaim facility, an online version of the small claims court process, and I decided to give it a try.

Registering and filling in the online form to create a new claim was quick and simple, except for the challenge of stating the particulars of my case in the unusually small number of characters permitted. At this point I was asked to pay a £30 fee to file the claim, and although I blanched a little at spending ten times more than the amount in dispute, it would be refunded if I won and I felt that I had a strong case - and, besides, there was a principle at stake!

O2 had fourteen days to reply to the claim with an admission or a defence, and when I hadn't heard anything after three weeks or so I moved on to the next stage of the process, requesting a legal judgement to be issued that ordered the company to pay up or else! This was duly done, and I waited another couple of weeks to see what transpired. What did transpire was that somebody at O2 sent the original claim form back to me, without comment or explanation - I still can't decide whether this was a complete failure to understand the legal process, a mistaken belief that actually they were suing me, or just an indication that they intended to ignore the claim!

Whatever the reason, it only served to annoy me further, and I moved on to the next stage of the claim process, requesting that a warrant of execution be issued to obtain the money. This involved a second payment of £30, and again I blanched somewhat, but I've always found it easy to throw good money after bad and, dammit, there was still a principle at stake!

The next event was a letter from the bailiff's office stating that they had been to the O2 corporate headquarters but that there was nobody there, an idea that I found rather hard to credit (were they all hiding behind the furniture until he went away, like characters in a seventies sitcom?), but a few days later, while I was still mulling this over, a letter arrived from O2 apologising profusely and enclosing a cheque for the original amount plus full costs.

I consider this a result for the proverbial little guy against the proverbial giant corporate, and an excellent validation of the Moneyclaim service - but it's also a clear illustration of the poor behaviour of many of these big corporates: O2 shouldn't have lost my money in the first place, and they certainly shouldn't have refused to refund it after what was clearly a mistake in their online systems... And wasn't wise to ignore my initial claim, either (did they hope I'd get discouraged and go away?), as that doubled the eventual cost to them once I'd requested the warrant.

In my experience too many customer complaints are handled by staff who have been given insufficient flexibility to deal with the problems they encounter, and inadequate authority to resolve them - and with a facility like Moneyclaim in place to provide a mechanism to pursue grievances like mine, I think these companies may start to find that they just won't get away with as much as they're used to... And I think that's a very good thing for the consumer. Sue and be damned!  :-)

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Vista vs. XP - at the oddly-named BentUser, an excellent comparison between the current and imminent versions of Microsoft's desktop OS. There are a number of significant changes, as expected, and I do think that some of them will make a real difference in day-to-day use.

Telemarketing counterscript - an excellent way of annoying telephone sales callers is to play them at their own game, and this script echoes the sort of flowchart that the call centres use. I can't imagine that most of them would put up with it for very long, but it's more fun than just hanging up the phone.

A laptop with provenance - up for sale, if the price is right, a very unusual Mac Powerbook... Bought from a part-time crack whore in a dubious deal, heavily customised with an eclectic assortment of stickers (I love the "Got VAX" sticker on the corner of the lid), and looking for a good home.

Another friendly corporate - Volkswagen has joined the growing list of companies that seem to think that threatening their most loyal fans is a sensible idea, artist Don Stewart was forced to remove from his web site sketches of fantastical VW Beetles after threats of legal action. Sheesh...

No two alike - Kenneth Libbrecht, a physics professor at the Caltech, has been studying snowflakes, and his wonderfully vivid photomicrographs do nothing to dispel the meme that, although there are seven basic patterns, every flake is indeed different.

 

13th January

"A fear of weapons is a sign of retarded sexual and emotional maturity"  - Sigmund Freud

When I first become interested in collecting airsoft replicas it soon became apparent that there were a handful of replicas which I coveted so deeply that, even though they were eyebrow-raisingly expensive, I would probably end up owning sooner or later... The Piper M134 Minigun was one of them, and I tracked one down for myself back in the autumn, leaving only a light machine gun such as the M60 or M249 and the wonderful Soviet Dragunov SVD squad support rifle.

Various SVD airsoft replicas exist, and unfortunately they're all horribly flawed in some way... The vintage PDI has an external gas feed (in common with most if its contemporaries), has notoriously fragile internals, and is in any case almost impossible to obtain. The G&P replica has poor range and accuracy thanks to its complete lack of hop-up, has equally fragile and eccentric internals, and, of late, is almost as hard to locate. Glossing over the bizarre Frankenstein's Monster produced by modifying an electric AK-47 with addon parts, the only other alternative is the recently launched AtoZ springer - and while by all counts it's not a bad replica at all, it is still a springer - and to a gas purist such as myself that's just beyond the pale.

The G&P replica is listed by most of the Far East suppliers for between $1100 and $1200 without the matching POSP scope, which is rather more than I want to pay for something that is essentially only a display piece, so I was amazed and delighted to find that UK supplier Special Airsoft Supplies was advertising them for a comparatively reasonable £485. At the time they were advertising the PDI replica as well, and as this was frankly unbelievable (gossip at ClassicAirsoft.net suggests that only 100 were made) I checked with them before allowing myself to get excited. Sure enough, the PDI was a fantasy of their stock control system, but the G&P was indeed available at that price - along with the scope and spare magazines. Common sense warred with greed for all of a second or two, and then the order was placed. Watch this space next week for all the glossy photographs...

Meanwhile, UC Berkley's Stardust@Home programme is an interesting new twist on the old distributed processing projects. NASA's Stardust spacecraft returns to Earth on Sunday, after a 2.88 billion mile round-trip to the comet Wild 2 and, assuming it survives its record-setting 28,860 miles per hour re-entry, work will start on analysing the particles of cometary and interstellar dust it has collected en route. Unfortunately, the density of matter in deep space is such that the project designers only expect to find around 45 grains of material - and as the aerogel collector has a surface area of around a square foot and the dust particles are likely to be around 1 micron across, this is quite a challenge! Berkley is co-coordinating a collaborative system whereby members of the public can help to search the 1.6 million individual images generated by a high-magnification camera with a field of view smaller than a grain of salt, and while I haven't participated in anything like this since we cracked the RC5-64 encryption algorithm back in September 2002, this one is sufficiently different to attract my attention. Berkley isn't signing up just everyone, though, and apparently some kind of test will be required to prove that you have the optical acumen required to find needles in haystacks, but I've pre-registered and we'll see what happens once the collector has been photographed and they're ready to start the search.

 

12th January

Over the last few days we've had a nasty glitch with the cash-cow Oracle servers that were upgraded from NT4 to Server 2003 last weekend, and as usual any problems with those particular systems provoke much tension within the department - and, indeed, in the company as a whole. Thanks to sterling service by my network support team, the DBAs and my immediate manager, however, we've implemented a work-around solution that isn't too horrible, and this will keep things running smoothly enough while the problem is researched and a proper solution found. Annoyingly, it looks as if I'll have to pop into the office for a few hours this coming weekend, as well, to replace an expired battery in the array controller that holds the majority of the company's general data. There really is no rest for the wicked...

In the meantime, while I sit here and groan gently, some links:

Paul Allen's PDPs - apparently the Microsoft co-founder has an impressive collection of vintage DEC minicomputers, and his latest venture, PDP Planet, is a portal for information on DEC systems as well as providing live telnet access to some of his babies.

FAT patents upheld - you can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the open source community, tonight, following the news that Microsoft's rights to its FAT filing system have been confirmed by the US Patent And Trademark Office

PS3 may cost arm and leg - an article at CNN's Money.com speculates that the upcoming PS3 may cost as much as $500, even more than Microsoft's Xbox 360. Sony has declined to comment, but the inclusion of the cutting edge Blu-Ray technology does suggest a substantial manufacturing cost.

Windows on Mac - in contrast to the original reports, Apple have stated that they will not deliberately prevent users from installing a Windows OS on their shiny new Intel Mac hardware. Meanwhile, the two companies have signed a five year deal over further development of MS Office for Mac.

CDR longevity scare again - burned CDs may only last a couple of years, according to a "storage expert" at IBM Deutschland. This is not really news, of course, and is one of the reasons why I persist in using allegedly obsolete magnetic tape media both at home and at the office.

Netflix settlement "unacceptable" - the FCC has roundly criticised the controversial outcome of the recent suit against the DVD rental company, which ended up making millions of dollars for the lawyers but leaving the dissatisfied customers uncompensated in any real sense.

 

Leela: "Oh, Lord, he's made of wood! What now, Bender?"
Bender: "I got a downgrade! I'm a steam-powered wooden robot, just as nature intended!"

 - Futurama episode #70, "Obsoletely Fabulous"

 

10th January

This cute little pink thing is a water-powered clock, a late christmas present from my über-geek friend Mike. As the name suggests, it's powered by water with a little salt added, although apparently you can substitute fruit juice, beer, tea, coffee, fizzy drinks or, presumably, anything else that will act as an electrolyte for what is probably a simple zinc chemistry. It's described as not needing a battery, which is not really true as of course the battery is simply built into the casing, and if they are zinc-based cells then it certainly won't last forever - but the process of electrode decay is relatively slow and if they've used a generous lump of the metal it could easily last for a year or two. Time (excuse the pun) will tell.

Meanwhile, I'm currently reading Ayn Rand's massive Objectivist opus Atlas Shrugged and, contrary to everyone's expectations (not least my own!) I'm really enjoying it. I wouldn't deny that the writing can be melodramatic, overly-wordy, and stilted, but it's also rather a good story - part adventure, part detective mystery, part dystopian science fiction novel, part love story, and, of course, a large part political and moral manifesto. I have certain sympathies with Rand's worldview (the heroes and heroine are set against a corrupt, incompetent, overpowering government controlled by equally corrupt and incompetent corporates and special interest groups - which bears an eerie resemblance to the current regime in the US) so even when the dogma starts to drag on a bit at least it's dogma that I find acceptable, and it doesn't usually grate on the nerves too much.

I've deliberately avoided reading discussion about the novel in case it spoils the plot, and I'm on tenterhooks to see how it all works out. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I discovered that you could buy things'n'stuff inspired by the book - stickers, mugs, glasses, ashtrays, mouse pads and, of course, the obligatory T-shirts. Some of them are decidedly so-so, but some are rather nice - the Rearden Steel shirt, especially, has a classical art deco design that matches the novel's setting very well, and I think I might treat myself.

Elsewhere, some links:

The evils of DRM #437 - because of the alleged rash of movies leaked ahead of their official cinema release, the MPAA has started using heavily encrypted DVDs and special players when sending out films to review - but this has lead to Spielberg's new opus missing its chance to win a BAFTA.

Mr Popularity - although I've been using Steve Gibson's security products for ages, I've been aware that he isn't universally liked and respected. I hadn't realised that there was quite so much bad feeling out there, though, and the GRCSucks.com site certainly doesn't pull punches.

Linux not so great - the meme has always been that Linux will make the most of any old computer hardware you have lying around, running well on systems that Windows won't even look at, but actually it seems that it's not quite as simple as that, with few real differences between the two OSes.

Hot babe - this server monitoring tool takes a unique approach, displaying a drawing of a fully-dressed woman when the CPU utilisation is very low... as activity increases her clothes fade away and she finishes totally naked when the system activity reaches 100%. Marvellous...  :-)

What is dual core? - is a dual core CPU just a package which happens to contain two chips, as with Intel's Pentium D, or do the CPUs actually have to be linked internally rather, silicon to silicon, rather than communicating over the regular bus external to the package? And, for that matter, do we care?

Interview with Billg - Engadget has been chatting with Bill, and the topics under discussion include Vongo, the upcoming video download service, and various aspects of how Microsoft's latest products are integrating digital media into the home.

Blocking spam is legal - I was extremely glad to hear that even if a spam email is itself perfectly legal (i.e. it complies with the letter of the largely pointless CAN-SPAM act) the spammer can't legally oblige his victims to read the damn thing as some kind of bizarre First Amendment right.

Skype speakerphone - I've seen a number of dedicated Skype handsets recently, and some of them are really rather good. This hands-free unit isn't quite up to that standard, according to the review at Bit-Tech, but as it's only £20 a few shortcomings with sound quality can probably be overlooked.

 

9th January

Ros reminded me that today is the fourth anniversary of this weblog, but I'm busy tonight so I shall celebrate by not posting anything here. Think of it as a Zen koan.

 

Mu.

 

8th January

There's no rest for the wicked, they say, so evidently I must have been somebody especially bad in a previous life. I spent the morning in the office, helping our DBA migrate a large Oracle database from the old Compaq NT4 servers on which it has been running for the last five years to a pair of Dell PowerEdge systems running Server 2003. I have to admit that the Compaqs have given sterling service over the years, though, with "five nines" reliability and nothing worse than the occasional disk failure, but although the hardware was probably sustainable for another few years it wouldn't have run the more modern operating system very well and a complete replacement was definitely the best option. It does leave me with something of a problem, however, as I have four of the old Compaqs and although I can't immediately think of a use for them they're slightly too good just to throw out - but they weigh 75lbs each and, as always, storage space is at a premium. Answers on a postcard, please...

Meanwhile, links:

Abusing Intel - a segment at the usually excellent Boing Boing relates how some butt-head sent a message to Intel criticising their new logo in fairly coarse terms ("YOUR NEW LOGO SUCKS"), and then was outraged when all he got back was a form letter from their PR flacks. Exactly what did he expect - a personal apology from Andy Grove? This really wasn't worthy of the publicity it was given.

Dreaming of electric sheep - this screensaver generates animated fractal shapes and then breeds them together with those generated on other PCs around the world to form hybrids. It sounds fascinating, but what puzzles me is the size - the download is 200Mb, and considering how compact genetic and fractal algorithms usually are it's hard to see what is causing that bloat!

Multiple personalities - a new handheld from DualCor combines a 400MHz Intel PXA263 running Windows Mobile with a 1.5GHz VIA running Win XP Tablet Edition. The two CPUs each have a separate partition of the RAM and flash memory, but share the 40GB hard drive to allow data to be accessed by both. It's an interesting idea, but I do wonder at the size of their prospective market...

A flash in the pan? - although flash memory is becoming cheaper and more capacious every year, it still isn't ready to take over from hard disk technology in anything other than the smallest form factor device, and even the CEO of memory manufacturer Micron thinks that it will take another five or six years before the technology will replace hard disks in full-sized laptop and desktop systems.

Taxed until the pips squeak - now that virtual objects and services in online games are starting to change hands for significant (some would say excessive) sums of real-world money, governments are starting to realise that they're missing out on an opportunity to extract additional taxes from their citizenry, and it looks as if existing laws will cover online trading quite comprehensively.

Behind the curtain at Apple - an ex-Apple insider describes the hard work behind the scenes that makes Steve Jobs' keynote speeches look so smooth and effortless - but I was especially tickled to realise that the speech in question preceded the launch of Mac systems without the DVD creation facilities that the keynote hyped, and almost ended up in a class-action suite for misrepresentation...

Google's new DRM a mystery - the company seems very reluctant to release details of the DRM technologies incorporated in their new video downloads service, and that probably isn't a good sign. It will be interesting to see where it sits in comparison to Microsoft's relatively open approach and the extremely closed tactics adopted by Apple, currently the largest supplier of protected media content.

 

7th January

The PVR disk upgrade went very smoothly this afternoon, and as there doesn't seem to be any information covering the particular Sky+ 160 model that I have, I thought I'd provide some notes.

Meanwhile, as the hard disk slowly fills up again, a few links:

London bomb victim speaks out - John Tulloch, one of the commuters caught in last year's terrorist attack on the underground is a professor of media studies and so is extremely well placed to analyse the ways that the government and the media have capitalised on the attacks for their own purposes, but without actually achieving anything to make the populace of the city any safer.

SCO fighting on - the litigious "software company" is broadening its attacks on Novell over SuSE Linux, claming copyright infringement, breach of contract, unfair competitive practices and more. I'm feeling smug, tonight, as I predicted at the start that these suits would drag on for ages and ages, while the fanboys and lawn-dwarves were expecting it all to fade away in a few months or a year...

Apple's loose lips - web pages describing new versions of  their multimedia authoring software briefly appeared on their site ahead of the expected product launches at next week's MacWorld conference, leading to the usual flurry of speculation and surmise. It will be interesting to see if Apple sues anyone (or, indeed, themselves) over the slip and the subsequent rumours.

USAF planning war in space - the Air Force is looking for games company to write a simulation for training in what it describes as "counterspace operations", meaning military action against enemy satellites - although commercial spacecraft, neutral countries' systems and even weather satellites are apparently fair game as well. Oh, dear, I think we've wandered into a science fiction plot...

The shame of PearLyrics - the author of the iTunes addon for locating music lyrics, driven offline at the end of last year by legal threats from media giant Warner/Chappell, is still waiting for permission to resume distribution. In spite of receiving a personal apology from the company's European chairman, as far as the author knows the various cease-and-desist orders are still very much in force.

By hyperdrive to the Red Planet - the US military is considering testing the principle behind a highly speculative gravity drive that, it is claimed, could allow a spacecraft to reach Mars in just three hours. Many scientists have utterly dismissed the theories, however, and the two main proponents have been at the center of considerable controversy since their joint work was first published in 1980.

ColdPizza at GrokLaw - the legal resource site has posted a parody of the unbelievably restrictive and offensive license agreement included in the latest CD from ColdPlay - "You are licensed only to permit the one-time travel of food product through a single digestive system in the conventional direction". I just hope that the band in question can see the funny side of all this publicity, as well...

Why open source projects are not publicised - there are many more large-scale migrations to open source system than is widely believed, according to an article at ZD Net. There are various reasons for this, including commercial secrecy, the need to maintain relationships with previous suppliers, and, perhaps most significantly, to minimise the PR damage if it all goes horribly wrong!

BBC offers classic news - 80 clips ranging from England's football World Cup win in 1966 to the fall of the Berlin Wall are online at present, as part of the Beeb's stated objective of releasing as much of its own material as possible to the British citizens who have funded it over the years, and as with the previous pilot project access is limited to UK web users.

Windows XP Home obsolete soon - the Home edition won't benefit from the additional two years of Extended Support that the business-oriented Pro edition will receive, which means that it will reach the end of its life-cycle on 1st January 2007. After that date, no further security updates will be issued for the OS, which may cause considerable problems for users who haven't yet upgraded to Vista.

Water cooled Xbox 360 - some people would consider it the height of braggadocio to so heavily modify a games console that many are still queuing and waiting for, but this neatly-realised project at [H]ard|OCP is a notable achievement all the same. The 360 is not nearly as cool-running as its predecessor, and the project is as functional as it is elegant.

 

6th January

I'm about to upgrade the hard disk in my Sky+ PVR, which has lead to a frenzy of copying onto DVD all the things that I've recorded over the last few months but haven't had time to watch. One of these was the documentary Alchemists Of Sound, an account of the golden years of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop from its inception in 1957 until the invasion of the voltage-control synthesisers in the mid-seventies. It was a fascinating program, full of bizarre post-war technology and marvellous anecdotes, but one thing that struck me was that far more of the staff were women than I would ever have expected. The meme suggests that the "backroom boffins" of the fifties were exclusively men, but in fact some of the Radiophonic Workshop's best output in the fifties and sixties came from women such as Delia Derbyshire, creator of both the sound effects and the arrangement for the classic Doctor Who theme, or Maddalena Fagandini, a diva of the magnetic tape techniques that formed the basis of much of the Workshop's output.

These women were not only musicians and composers, but highly-skilled engineers as well - Daphne Oram, for example, invented the "Oramics" technique of precisely controlling the sound output from an oscillator by drawing lines onto a set of 35mm file strips, a truly inspired hybrid technology that offered a degree of flexibility unmatched by all but the most sophisticated analogue synthesisers.

The unexpected appearance of these innovative, forward-looking women really struck a chord with me, as one of the other documentaries I've been catching up with recently was the television version of David Bodanis' book E=mc²: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation. If I had been asked before watching the program to name female scientists that could plausibly be linked to Einstein's work, I would have thought of Marie Curie immediately, and then stalled somewhat... However, in presenting scientists who he feels made significant contributions either to the foundations upon which Einstein built his equation, or to the theories that were developed from it, the author has chosen a number of remarkable women as well as well-known male scientists such as Maxwell, Faraday, Rutherford, and Fermi.

One was Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, forced to flee Hitler's Germany at a critical moment of her career, and yet who nevertheless discovered the process of nuclear fission from experiments performed by her colleague Otto Hahn. In spite of initially refusing to believe her theories, communicated to him by letters from her exile in Sweden, Hahn eventually gave in to her rigorously presented calculations and, indeed, ultimately managed to claim the vast majority of the credit for her work himself... Also featured was the18th century French mathematician and physicist Émilie du Châtelet, who discovered that the kinetic energy of an object is a function of its mass and velocity (the equation ke = ½mv² is still firmly embedded in my memory from schoolboy science), and who's translation of Newton's classic Principia Mathematica is still regarded as the standard version in France.

By now my interest in female scientists had been thoroughly piqued, and so by the time the program reached the segment on the French revolutionary-era chemist Lavoisier, responsible for the impressively rigorous work that showed how atoms and molecules combine and recombine during chemical reactions, I was actually even more impressed by the contributions of his wife Marie-Anne - she acted as his laboratory assistant, his publicity agent and political advisor, his fund-raiser, his data processor and his translator, as well as ably collaborating on the scientific work itself! Now that's versatility...

Over the last fifty years there has been continual discussion about the best ways to encourage women into the sciences (I thoroughly approve - there's something about female geeks and techies that pushes my buttons :-) and I think this particular documentary would do an excellent job of presenting role models to inspire the next generation of schoolgirls - maybe even more than the book on which it was based, as the actors certainly portray their subjects very effectively. By the end of the program even I wanted to be like Mme. du Châtelet, dammit, so one can imagine the inspirational effect it could have on a fourteen year old girl...

 

5th January

Griping, tonight... Not that griping is uncommon, here, of late - there's a lot going on to gripe about.

Corruption in low places - apparently several members of the Canadian parliament (from both the Conservative and Liberal parties) are in bed with the recording industry associations, having received significant levels of funding from both Canadian and US lobbying groups. If anything the Canadians are even more brazen about their affiliations than their American cousins, with one MP taking thousands of dollars in contributions and then introducing absurdly restrictive copyright legislation immediately afterwards! For an industry that is constantly whining about their crippling losses from piracy, they certainly have more than adequate resources when it comes to bribing politicians...

More RIAA scare tactics - and talking of the evils of the recording industry, it seems that the RIAA is using the web site of the now-defunct Grokster P2P service, forced offline in November following the result of a long, drawn-out lawsuit from MGM, to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt. Visitors to the site, now just a shell, are informed that their IP address has been logged and left with the message "Don't think you can't get caught. You are not anonymous."  Given their stated intention of destroying PCs owned by P2P users, one wonders how long it will be before they just infect the page with malware on the grounds that only the guilty would ever go to a site like that...

TomTom threatens TamTam - and talking of stupid and counter-productive legal action, the eponymous manufacturer of the popular TomTom satellite navigation systems has successfully prevented a small independent software developer from producing utilities to allow the GPS units to be used with Apple Mac computers. This is a bizarre move, as TomTom do not provide any Mac support themselves and one would have thought that this could only help to boost sales of the hardware. After all, how many Mac owners will buy a PC just to maintain their GPS system? Answers on a very small postcard - that's all you'll need.

 

"We'll make these rioters regret their folly - this prison will make Abu Ghraib look like the Four Seasons! Smithers, we'll need electrical wire, a hood, and someone who can really point at genitalia..."

 - Montgomery Burns, The Simpsons episode #349, "The Seven-Beer Snitch"

 

4th January

I've spent most of the day fiddling with an annoyingly recalcitrant Exabyte 690D tape library while a plumber hammered away upstairs ripping out and replacing half of my bathroom to repair what had at first seemed to be a minor leak. He knows roughly what I do for a living, and at one point while he was taking a break he asked me why on earth I was spending my day off up to my elbows (literally, in this case) in malfunctioning computer hardware, on the very reasonable grounds that he certainly wouldn't fix pipes on his day off... The only answer I could give was that fixing computers could be fun, as well as work - that it could be a hobby interest in the way that some mechanics restore vintage cars and some engineers build tiny working steam engines. I don't think he was at all convinced by that, though, and after a day of slaving over a hot tape library, not only without curing the problems I set out to fix but also discovering or maybe even causing a few more, I'm becoming less convinced of it myself...

The business end of the robotic picker assembly, responsible for moving tape cartridges between the magazine slots and the drives. The two gripper pads which hold the tapes are arrowed, and the barcode LED and sensor, currently the main source of concern, are circled. Although there's nothing obviously wrong with the barcode module, it doesn't seem to be able to read barcodes and, since lunchtime, it also doesn't seem to be able to read the calibration targets that help the robotics keep track of their position within the library. The latter is rather serious, as in order to prevent the physical damage that could occur from trying to insert a tape into a mounting bracket or similar instead of a tape drive, if it can't calibrate itself on power-up the library refuses to complete its self-test and hangs in an error mode that converts the unit into 430lbs of paperweight. Something that heavy is extremely proficient at managing papers, but doesn't actually achieve anything that a brick wouldn't for a thousandth of the cost...

Working or not, however, it is indeed a thing of beauty. There's something about a set of neatly looped SCSI cables that really brings a smile to my face, and every so often when work behind the front panel was not proving rewarding I would wander around to the back of the unit and admire them.

As usual with this kind of hardware it employs all sorts of hybrid technologies (electro-mechanical components in the robotic picker and tape carousels, and opto-electronics in the aforementioned barcode reader and the calibration system) as well as a disconcertingly complex modular electronic assembly for managing the SCSI bus and tying the whole thing together. It's a challenge to work on, even with a full set of maintenance manuals downloaded from Exabyte's unusually comprehensive support pages, and I have to face the possibility that it has simply worn out and died. I'm very good at taking things apart, checking them and cleaning them, and putting them back together again, but that strategy won't help at all in the face of a blown transistor or a failing selenium diode... Component-level electronics has never been my strong point, unfortunately, and at a certain point in fault-finding exercises like this I come hard up against a brick wall.

I've stopped for the night, now, and will have a think about it for a while before plunging back into the fray again at the weekend. This is a difficult problem, but I certainly haven't given up yet, so watch this space!

 

3rd January

For a change, all the news that definitely isn't fit to blog...

Easy travel to other planets - a 41-year old British woman has "married" a dolphin named Cindy in a ceremony at the Israeli port of Eilat, claiming that it's all for love (as opposed to perverse but surprisingly common unnatural lusts, as everyone else suspects). I always knew that dolphins couldn't be trusted - they come out of the oceans, take our jobs, steal our women... Something ought to be done.

Two heads better than one - up for auction at eBay, a two-headed albino rat snake - notable more for it's unusual longevity than it's extra cranium, as most similar oddities don't live for more than a few months. Apparently the starting price was an impressive $150,000, but I haven't actually been able to track down the auction to find out what it went for in the end. Notice also that as usual various nasty little scammers are auctioning pictures of said snake in the hope of fooling the unwary - the latter not being something of which eBay apparently has a shortage...

The Toy - I came across a very similar idea around three years ago, but that particular company vanished completely after the initial blaze of publicity and as far as I know the item was never marketed. The intervening years have lead to some technological advances, though, and this updated offering from another British company (unless it's the same one?) seems rather more slick and elegant. What is it? You'll have to look and see - but probably best not from the office...

 

I used to think that the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body - and then I realised, "well, look what's telling me this"...   - Emo Phillips

 

2nd January

After yesterday's focus on the evils of the media industry, today's selection is generally rather lighter, although it starts with something of a personal disappointment:

Not a bang but a whimper - I was extremely fond of avant-garde musician Thomas Dolby back in the eighties, so was rather sad when a chance encounter at Wikipedia revealed that he has now mostly given up real music, and instead writes ringtones for cell phones. Dear, oh dear...

Does my ass look big in this? - the age-old question (to which there has traditionally been no right answer) is about to be solved by the appliance of the scientific method, as a team at Heriot-Watt University has begun a study on how women's clothing affects the look of their posteriors.

Sideways bike - the humble bicycle gets a fresh approach in this offering from an Irish engineer. He claims that the front-back balance sense used to ride this bike is more finely tuned than the left-right sense usually employed to ride a bike, but I do wonder about the risk of a terminally stiff neck...

The Model Citizen -  fairly new web site devoted to space and science fiction modelling. It doesn't compare to the breadth and depth of resources such as Starship Modeller or Ninfinger Productions, but he's done some very nice work all the same.

Faster than a speeding bullet - Bill Gurstelle's new Technology Underground Blog is shaping up to be a fascinating site, and today he raises the possibility that the first man-made object to leave the earth's atmosphere was actually hardware ejected from an underground nuclear test at Los Alamos.

Seasonal variations - 44 photographs taken over the course of a year from a window of a house in Sweden, overlooking a picturesque woodland scene, bound together into a video sequence. It's a simple idea, but very effective and neatly produced.

Stranger than you can imagine - at New Scientist Space, a fascinating list of things that do not make sense: some classic problems such as the horizon effect and the mysterious dark matter and energy, and new ones such as the acceleration of the Pioneer probes and the "impossible" tetraneutrons.

A busy year for science - at CNet's News.com, a review of the some of the year's high and low points:the fragility of technology during natural disasters, NASA worrying about the shuttle and planning for Mars, and significant progress in autonomous driverless vehicles.

Old Skool Games - an e-zine that reviews games from the classic video game systems of the eighties and nineties, providing "a written and graphical record of what games used to be like before things such as 3D processors and broadband internet".

And finally, a list of U.S. Army acronyms and expressions - just what you need when you're REMFing in the DFAC, waiting for a SLUF or a BUFF and hoping that things don't get JAAFFU'd when you're just a day and a wake-up away. Indeed.

 

1st January

Good grief, but it's 2006 already! I'm starting to think that we need a chart comparing the predictions of science fiction to the considerably more tardy state of the real world, so that we can see how far we're falling behind. Leaving aside the fact that by now I should be driving a rocket to the office instead of a BMW, in the last decade we ought to have discovered a mysterious black monolith on the moon, begun an interstellar war that will last a thousand years, and started the process that will end in all of humanity running a brain-based virus that supports an emergent artificial intelligence - to name but a few. Given that we seem to be lagging more as each year passes, it might help get us back on track (I want my copy of Resuna, dammit!) if we knew the exact areas to which we needed to devote additional funding and study.

Meanwhile, back in the poor excuse for a future that we seem to be stuck with at least for the moment, some links - starting with the continued and every-expanding saga of the music industry and its fight against, well, pretty much everyone and everything:

The DRM that wouldn't die #1 - the Attorney General of Texas is expanding the lawsuit against Sony BMG to include CDs protected by SunnComm MediaMax, which are actually far more prevalent than the XCP discs that have caused all the fuss, and in some ways are rather more intrusive as well.

The DRM that wouldn't die #2 - meanwhile, some industry analysts are speculating that Sony may have broken US law (specifically the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) by installing software that "exceeds authorized access", and so could be subject to criminal prosecution as well as civil suits.

Music sales slide, again - in spite of the crushing blows against piracy that the music industry keeps assuring us they're achieving, people are still buying fewer CDs - and given how hard the RIAA is fighting against even legal download services, it's amazing that the situation isn't even worse!

RIAA lawyers bullying again - not their victims, this time, but instead browbeating witnesses in the suits brought against alleged music sharers. According to court transcripts a fifteen year old girl was encouraged to commit perjury in order to prop up the industry association's weak prosecution case.

Bastard DRM - and just to prove that Sony aren't the only evil-doers in this arena, the new Coldplay CD from Virgin not only comes with some fairly horrible copy protection software, but also one of the most insulting and restrictive disclaimers seen to date.

Bucking the trend - unlike most other "civilized countries", who seem to be intending to tighten the screws on fair use until it starts to bleed, Australia is actually introducing legislation to completely legalise recording television programs and copying music as long as it's only for personal use.

Cory on life and the EFF - über-geek Cory Doctorow has given up his full-time position with the EFF in order to concentrate more on his writing, and given the exceptional quality of the stories he's written to date that can only be a good thing.

London estate spies via TV - not content with having more CCTV surveillance cameras than you can shake a length of coax at, one London borough is planning to make the feeds available on a local TV channel, complete with a rogues gallery of known crims to assist the viewers to identify them.

Time-lapse phonography - the first of a new genre, we're told, this 37 minute musical opus is comprised of every No. 1 song from the Billboard Top 100 squashed together into one long track. It's a fascinating idea, but I suspect it may be a symptom of having too much time on one's hands...

100 greatest gadgets - and finally, what I hope will be the tail end of this year's crop of "best of" lists: courtesy of PC World, an extensive collection  of technological innovations from the last fifty years. Highlights include the Sony Walkman, the PalmPilot, the Motorola StarTac cellphone, the Regency TR-1 transistor radio, the PhoneMate answering machine and many, many more. From such an unusual source this is an unexpectedly interesting and thorough article, and is well worth browsing through.

 

The Fall and Rise of the Epicycle Weblog... It's been an exciting year in the stats, as while the previous three years have showed alternating gradual and rapid climbs as I became better and better indexed around the web, this year shows a yawning gap in the summer when I finally relocated the site to its own named domain, thus dropping out of all the search engines for an annoying couple of months. The recovery is still in progress, and while I'm not sure that I'll return to the dizzying heights of this time last year unless I attract more attention from the major league bloggers, it's been reassuring to watch the figures steadily creeping up again this autumn - evidently I must be doing something right.

 

 

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