Up

 

EPICYCLE

 

31st July

News from around the web:

The challenge of place-shifting - earlier this month I predicted that the Slingbox would become one of the summer's hottest gadgets, but I have to admit that I wasn't expecting that some of the heat would be of a legal nature. The media industry excels at feeling threatened by new technology, evidently.

What time is love? - I've linked to wrist watches with bizarre and unfathomable displays several times, in Epicycle, and although I doubt I'd ever wear one myself I have to admit that I'm very fond of the idea. Courtesy of Boing Boing, two new offerings from Nooka do nothing to change either impression...

Die, Diebold, die - just when you thought you'd heard all the bad things about the notorious electronic voting machines, it turns out that they can be rebooted into at least one alternative and uncertified (so potentially crooked!) firmware using nothing more exotic than a small screwdriver...

Gone in 60 milliseconds - the latest generation of electronic car locks based around radio keys are upsettingly insecure, it seems, and the traditional combination of hackery, social engineering, and widely-known security back doors renders many modern cars less secure than their older siblings.

Safe at any speed - a trial under way in six districts of Paris is delivering fibre optic data connections capable of carrying 2.5Gb/sec downstream and 1.2Gb/sec upstream, shared between Internet access, digital television, and telephony. Makes the UK's ADSL Max look pretty foolish, doesn't it...

Now you see it - the bandwidth of the human eye has been estimated (following experiments on a disembodied guinea pig retina!), and it turns out to be capable of passing around 10 millions bits per second - equivalent to a 10BaseT Ethernet connection!

More from the music mafia - just when you thought it was safe to go back to the Internet, the recording industry has found a new way of harassing its customers and fans. This time the victims are sites that publish the guitar tablature ("tabs") that teach musicians how to play songs. Senseless...

Vista upgrades - Microsoft has published an upgrade matrix showing which version of the current operating systems can be upgraded "in place" to which version of the upcoming Vista OS, and which versions will need a "fresh install", thus losing all settings and configuration.

Previous versions - and talking of Vista, the existing Recycle Bin functionality is being significantly extended via the little-known "Volume Shadow Copy" services that are already present in Windows XP and Server 2003. It does seem that it will be very hard for users to accidentally lose data, now.

The shape of things to come - at Tom's Hardware Guide, an article on the future of the PC graphics subsystem has some interesting mock-ups of an external graphics unit. Although CPUs are (finally!) getting cooler and less power-hungry, GPUs are the exact opposite and this is an interesting idea.

It's all about the Xeons - Hardware Secrets presents an overview of the entire Intel Xeon CPU range - and some research suggests that although the new Core CPUs do still use a socket 604 form factor, there probably isn't an easy upgrade path from my current 3.06Ghz P4 Xeon chips. Rats!

Calendar girls - most geeks agree that there ought to me more women in IT (and not just for the obvious reasons!) but I have to admit that this wasn't quite what I had in mind. However, rumours suggest that the Australian Computer Society, previously a sponsor, has now withdrawn support...

The fabric of the universe - another science fiction idea has come to market, with the launch of a range of flexible fabric keyboards for use with palmtops, smartphones etc. Unrolling to the size of a laptop keyboard, it weighs a mere device 65gms and communicates via Bluetooth.

 

30th July

All the news that's fit to 'blog.

Question time - last month the EFF published a list of "tough questions" to ask representatives of the RIAA and MPAA, and this has evidently nettled the president of the Songwriters Guild, Rick Carnes. As could be predicted, his response displays a lack of understanding of the law and of the rights of the consumer, and annoyingly biased interpretations of the policies of both the EFF and of the music industry.

An unusual decision - Microsoft has announced that it will start charging users $1.50 to download the current beta of Office 2007, complaining that the 3 million downloads since it was released in May is more than five times what was expected: "the fee helps offset the cost of downloading from the servers", said a Microsoft spokesperson. Presumably the EU's whopping fine has put the fear into the company's accountants?

A loss leader - other sectors of the company are evidently flush with disposable income, however, as the Entertainment and Devices Division is backing the upcoming Zune music player and its online services to the tune of "hundreds of millions" of dollars over the next 3-5 years, with no expectation of profits until at least the end of the 2007 fiscal year. Unseating iTunes and the iPod from their number one slots is going to be a daunting challenge, though, even so.

Prophecies of doom - Sony, on the other hand, seems far less confident about the future of their PlayStation 3. The launch date has already slipped from to November of this year, following difficulties with the Blu-ray optical disk drive, and now the gaming division's VP is warning that thanks to increasing component costs the profit margin on what is already an extremely expensive console may be shaved down to almost nothing.

Where is Nixon when you need him? - I have been predicting for several years that the current Western obsession with tapping into new markets within China would come back to bite the firms in question, and this week's rumours of a clampdown on foreign-owned internet companies must be causing a stir in the corridors of Yahoo, eBay and Google. Foreign companies must already allow Chinese investors to own 50%, and now they could find themselves restricted even further.

Email's popularity waning - an article at ConsumerAffairs.com reinforces the meme that home users are losing heart with conventional email because of the ever-increasing levels of spam, malware and viruses, instead turning to "hotter" mediums such as instant messaging and the various social networking sites. I suspect that this is just one of the usual ebbs-and-flows of Internet use, however, rather than any significant move away from the format.

And, finally, the road must roll - beat author Jack Kerouac wrote the ground-breaking novel "On The Road" on long rolls of paper taped together, and the final draft was a scroll 119 feet long. The work was the result of a three-week creative frenzy, without paragraphs or page breaks, and considerable editing was required to mould it into a more conventional form. However, a new publication celebrating the novel's 50th anniversary will restore a number of sections cut because of references to sex and drugs, including a different beginning and ending, together with the real names of characters who ended up as pseudonyms in the final version. It isn't yet known whether the new imprint will return to the original continuous format, however - that would be quite something!

 

29th July

The blogging bug seems to have bitten the other members of my team, suddenly, with one having started his own earlier this week and another bemoaning the fact that he doesn't have enough time to document the many gripes, complaints and affronts that he feels he ought to. Evil Troll has borrowed heavily from my own style in Epicycle, but as the author is something of a web diva in his spare time I suspect that it's far more cunning under the hood. Hmmm, maybe there's stuff there that I can steal...

Meanwhile, some extremely random links, gathered carefully at dawn from the dewy meadows of the Internet, and served on a bed of wild rice. Mmmm. Suddenly I'm hungry...

"I think she was my second-grade teacher" - via The Sideshow, an extremely unusual fish provokes some amusing and informative discussion.

The Comic Critic - it's hard to imagine how we have survived without having the latest (and not so latest) movie blockbusters reviewed in an acerbic strip art format.

A bad year for Dell - five years ago they could get away with it, but these days news of yet another exploding laptop spreads across the web faster than the flames from a burning computer...

The view from on high - somewhat more professional than my own efforts in the eighties, this guide to kite aerial photography tempts me to exhume my 6' Pearson Roller.

Flying cursor - and talking of kites (is it that time of the year again?) this wonderful quad-line model is one of the most simple and yet spectacular designs I've seen of late.

More than they can chew - the MPAA has sued multimillionaire software company CEO Shawn Hogan, who has taken exception to this and is prepared to fight them tooth and nail.

The bug guys - Boing Boing brings news of a pair of online insect identification services. Handy if you're being menaced by something unspeakable and need to know whether its safe to swat.

Exploiting the Internet - domain name kiting is a growing problem, and with news of a major scam involving the new .eu domains just breaking it seems as if the entire sector is corrupt to the core.

Uncommon Goods - geek jewellery of all kinds, from cufflinks based on Philips head screws, to earrings inspired by DNA helices and necklaces shaped like hydrocarbon rings.

The raw materials - design consultancy Inventables advises on new materials and technologies that are becoming available, and some of their example concepts are extremely plausible.

iTunes bad - the copy protection built into Apple's music service is bad for both the music industry and the consumer, says Cory Doctorow in a column at InformationWeek.

And finally, wheels within wheels - you can now play the original Doom first-person shooter on a representation of a computer terminal within the contemporary Doom 3. Old-skool gamers will doubtless remember the Maniac Mansion game embedded within the sequel Day Of The Tentacle, probably the best graphics adventure ever written before the genre became unfashionable.

 

27th July

The UK division of auction site eBay banned airsoft and replica guns from their service a year or two ago, so I was interested to see an announcement of a new service designed to fill the niche. The idea behind Auction Airsoft is a good one, I suppose, but I'm afraid that I just can't take it seriously at this stage - one of the first announcements on the site forums is that the owner/operator has "lost his internet connection for up to a week", and so won't be able to activate any new accounts. It isn't a good start, and until the site gains more of an aura of professionalism I think I'll stick to the more established sales forums at Arnie's and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I was surprised to read at Yahoo that Microsoft is intending to distribute the upcoming Internet Explorer 7 via the Automatic Updates facility - not just as an optional upgrade, as with previous versions of IE, but as a High Priority update that in some cases will install without the user really being aware that it will happen. In spite of the horrible security issues with IE6, many of which are fixed in the new version, I don't think that this is a terribly good idea. However, the Yahoo article contains quotes from a certain Peter Wood, apparently the chief of operations at penetration testing firm First Base Technologies.

On the face of it, a manager at a pen. testing company would seem to be an odd choice for discussing workstation security updates, and indeed Mr Wood betrays his ignorance of modern Windows operating systems and networks almost immediately:

"For SMEs who do backups and virus updates overnight, Automatic Updates aborts that completely, as it logs out during backup sessions," said Wood. "SMEs running client-based antivirus and backup require people to be logged in to run the updates, but that won't work if the machine has been rebooted by Auto Updates."

Firstly, any enterprise worth the name (the "E" in "SME") should definitely be running Microsoft's Windows Server Update Services rather than letting their PCs and servers connect to the online updates service individually. It's free, easy to configure, doesn't require a dedicated server, saves massively on network bandwidth, and provides complete control over which updates are delivered to which computers and when - together with full feedback and reporting on the status of the systems requiring and receiving updates across the network.

Secondly, even that short extract contains a number of factual errors. Automatic Updates does not reboot a PC after updating unless specifically set to do so, and, indeed, it doesn't even have to install the updates automatically in the first place - with a few mouse clicks it can be configured to download but not install them until instructed to, or even just to notify that updates are available for download. Generally, once an update has been installed the system nags the user incessantly until he or she finally gives in and reboots, which is certainly annoying but doesn't interfere with scheduled tasks.

Also, in my extensive experience of backup and antivirus updates, users do not need to be logged in for these processes to run. Even the humble Windows Backup tool runs as a background process under the task scheduler, let alone more feature-rich offerings such as Retrospect and Nova. In fact, it is considered best practice for a user to deliberately log out at the end of the day if client-based backups are in use, avoiding problems with open files etc being skipped during the backup run - as well as avoiding the risks of the cleaning staff or night watchmen having a good old poke around on an unattended PC! Most modern antivirus tools are also service-based, and so are just as able to perform their own updates whether a user is logged in or not.

In other words, Mr Wood's advice is gibberish, and given his his next suggestion, that "businesses turn to alternative browsers such as Firefox and Opera" it seems clear that his agenda is not so much concerned with computer security as with (as usual!) the ever-popular sport of bashing Microsoft. I am thoroughly fed up with seeing 3rd party browsers being touted as the universal solution to computer security - they aren't, and all the fussing and fuming of the open source evangelists won't make them so.

 

25th July

I had a spare couple of hours today while I was waiting for the water board to arrive and look at my pipes, so I got on with the robot. I managed to find time for some more systems tests at the weekend, which finally proved that, in spite of some annoyingly contradictory steps in the instruction manual, I had indeed managed to assemble all the servos correctly. I also synchronised the infra-red remote control and ran the 'bot through some of the supplied demonstration moves, which are indeed as cool as the various online videos suggest.

I decided to install the add-on grippers from Bauer Independents before tackling the wiring and although they needed careful attention to make sure that the right and left modules were installed correctly, just as with the Robonova itself, assembly was actually perfectly straightforward. The aluminium shapes are obviously very precisely manufactured, and they wrapped around a pair of extra servos without any problems. The end result has an impressively strong grip, thanks to the powerful 9 Kg/cm servos, and I expect they'll be capable of delivering a nasty nip... Well, after all, what robot is complete without implacable steel claws with which to terrorise the fleshy ones?

Arranging and securing the wiring was a fiddly job, as expected, but I managed to route the bundles neatly along the limbs, and the plastic "back pack" that protects the circuit board hides a multitude of sins. There is space behind the board for a fair-sized bundle of wires, though, and I'll do a little more tidying once I've installed the next batch of sensors. The first one on the list will be a tilt sensor to detect when the 'bot has fallen over, and also whether it is lying on its front or on its back, and trigger the appropriate subroutine to stand it up again. I also have a pair of piezo gyroscopes which will help to prevent it from falling over in the first place, but from what I've read they will take a little more tweaking and tuning than the tilt module.

And there he is! The grippers don't change the overall appearance very much, but they certainly increase the potential functionality. A 'bot that can't pick things up is little better than a turtle, after all, and as in the long run I hope to equip him with a basic image recognition system the end result will be a device perfectly suited to molesting visitors to my home. Not "search and destroy", perhaps, but at least "search and annoy"...

 

24th July

A few days ago Boing Boing linked to what sounded like a fascinating video of people recreating the classic Space Invaders game, made by Guillaume Reymond of the Swiss design group NOTsoNOISY, but by the time I got to the YouTube page that had hosted the video Reymond had already ordered its removal. This seemed rather odd to me, especially given the paucity of information at the group's project page (there isn't even a still picture!) as videos of this nature are usually intended as PR pieces and in that case it tends to help if people can actually see them! The other reason why it seemed odd is that, once something has even briefly appeared on the web, you've pretty much lost control of it - and sure enough, in comments, Harry has kindly provided a link to another video site that is hosting the Space Invaders movie. It's not bad, I guess...

Meanwhile, some random links for another warm start to the week:

Naming and shaming - human rights organisation Amnesty International has accused Yahoo, Microsoft and Google of "violating their stated corporate values and policies" by assisting the Chinese government to censor the web and arrest dissident online writers.

Growing a conscience - and talking of corporate values, Microsoft has published the principles by which the company is going to operate in the future: freedom of choice for manufacturers and customers, greater flexibility for developers, and full interoperability for users. Hmmm...

Hacked in public - a banner ad that ran on MySpace and several other sites over the past week used the WMF vulnerability to infect unpatched PCs with adware. It is believed that up to a million PCs may have been infected, in spite of a patch for the flaw having been available since January.

Fall guy wanted - the Home Secretary is looking for a Chief Information Officer to oversee an apparently endless series of government IT disasters, and given that he is already committed to have developed a "Home Office-wide IT strategy" by December 2006 they'd better get their skates on...

The next generation - The Register has an overview of the latest Skype phone, a sleek little wi-fi unit with a colour LCD display to display the contacts list. I suspect that the ubiquitous Olympia half-Skype/half-landline unit is still the best option for most people at the moment, though.

PlusNet rantings - the troubled ISP's marketing director, Marco Potesta, has ended the company's official presence on the forums at ADSLGuide by posting a long, angry diatribe against the customers who have dared to complain about what they perceive as poor service and support.

The failings of antivirus - an art6icle at ZDNet claims that the big-name antivirus systems are actually less likely to detect new viruses and trojans than the less well-known software, as the virus writers are specifically targeting their code to bypass or disable the market leaders.

Fighting the RIAA - Ray Beckerman is one of the few lawyers who has taken a stand against the bully-boy recording industry association's "reign of terror", and not surprisingly he has a very low opinion both of their tactics and of the so-called "evidence" that they present to support their lawsuits.

Exploding laptops - rumours are circulating that Dell have significantly down-played the incidence of their recent problems with laptop batteries overheating and catching fire, with "dozens" of cases known to them rather than just the three that they have admitted to.

Snatching domains - a report at eWeek suggests that at least one of the WHOIS services on the web has been compromised in some way, with searches for unregistered domains being relayed to a squatting agency who then attempts to steal it out from under the nose of the prospective registrant.

 

22nd July

This weather control thing is starting to get freaky... I was intending to buy an extra fan today, to cope with the perpetual heat wave, and as soon as I went out it rained for the first time in three weeks.  [Aside: Ok, I'm gonna need an inflatable boat, over here, and a copy of the Twilight Zone theme?]

Elsewhere, it looks as if the operators of the Airsoft Community UK group of sites have thrown their toys out of the pram once more, replacing the main pages with an abusive message and disappearing completely for several days. I've been hyper-focussed on robotics over the last week so missed all the drama, and as I write this the site has returned apparently intact - but without the nominal owners. I've never had a high opinion of the people responsible for these sites, and this latest behaviour certainly doesn't change that. Frankly, they seem to behave like a bunch of sulky children - and imagine how this makes the so-called "airsoft community" appear to the MPs and Lords that are currently reviewing the hobby in the light of our opposition to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill...

Meanwhile, some high speed links for the weekend:

Quotables - at the WikiQuote spin-off site, an episode-by-episode list of all the most memorable lines from Matt Groening's Futurama, the best cartoon ever to feature a holographic opera.

The sincerest form of flattery - hackers and 'bot writers are using classic open source collaborative development techniques to polish their code, according to security company McAfee.

Fear, uncertainty and doubt - just when you though it was safe to go back to the supermarket, researchers at Amsterdam's free university have raised the spectre of an RFID virus.

Missing the point - on a related note, none of the speakers at a US Senate Caucus on RFID technology made any significant mention of the massive potential risks to privacy and security!

Less than nothing - Dan is up on his soapbox again, this time speaking out against the current obsession with the largely irrelevant resolutions of consumer digital cameras.

Common sense - the short-range FM radio transmitters that many people use for listening to MP3 players through their car radios may be legalised at last, but I'm wondering about the fine print...

Difficult to detect - a new flavour of rootkit is starting to emerge, and although its use of the Windows NT Alternate Data Streams feature is hardly new, it is still a worrying development.

AOL Retention Manual - the transcript of a frustrating attempt to close an AOL account that was circulating earlier this year is made clear after the leak of the official cancellation process manual.

Dramatic imagery - it's time for the Wellcome Trust's annual Biomedical Image Awards again, as as always some of the pictures are remarkable - as are the implications of the research they document.

Step away from that hub - Boing Boing has unearthed a USB hub cleverly disguised as a classic movie self destruct button, complete with a key and a plastic cover with a death's head. Marvellous.

A good idea, poorly executed - a Swiss media agency has recreated two classic arcade games using people, but they seem to have chosen to make it impossible for people to watch the videos...

Tourist remover - a free service from Snapmania compares several scenes of landmarks and monuments and removes information that changes from scene to scene, removing the distractions!

A win for the EFF - a federal judge has denied motions to dismiss the suit brought against AT&T over their collaboration with the NSA in their illegal domestic surveillance program.

Follow the money - and talking of which, it has emerged that faux-President Bush personally blocked a review of the spying program by the Justice Department. That swine should be impeached now.

And, finally, have you ever wondered how much caffeine you would have to ingest, in the form of various popular caffeinated drinks, before it killed you? I have to admit that I haven't, but several of my friends seem seriously addicted to the stuff and I guess they should be checking out this vital service without delay.

 

20th July

I'm just finishing Jerry Kaplan's book Start Up, the autobiography of his ill-fated pen-based computer company GO Corporation, and it's certainly been an eye-opener. I can vaguely remember the company's meteoric rise to prominence in the late eighties and its equally spectacular failure in the early nineties, but the story was far more convoluted than I realised back then and it's been a fascinating read.

It's clear from Kaplan's account that he was well and truly shafted by Microsoft, who did pretty much everything they could to scupper the company (and, indeed, Kaplan launched an anti-trust suit against them that ended earlier this month with his claims being dismissed) - but it was very interesting to note that they were screwed over just as much by Apple, and about ten times as much as IBM, who were nominally their development partner! With the three of the biggest names in the industry all working against him, GO's demise was inevitable, and it ended up being absorbed into AT&T, one of its major investors, without ever really making any significant sales.

That is not to say that the company had no effect on the market, though - Kaplan recruited a group of highly talented and visionary engineers, programmers and designers, and between them they conceived and laid out all the fundamentals of the pen-based computing interface. This was revolutionary given that, in spite of the recent launch of the Macintosh, text-based operating systems were still very much the norm at the time, and after GO's demise their work guided all the companies that were to follow them in the pen market and many others who were experimenting with applications styled after real world metaphors.

Aside from the bitter corporate in-fighting, it seems likely that the fate of the company was sealed by the limits of the electronics hardware available at the time - given the size and weight of LCD panels, memory modules and batteries in 1989, when GO first demonstrated its pen-based computer, it speaks volumes of the talent embodied in the company that the device could be held with one hand, let alone that it managed to demonstrate a fully working graphical multi-page notepad interface at all.

It's interesting to note that the companies who tried to enter the market after GO had serious difficulties of their own - the Apple Newton never really became a workable proposition, IBM's Pen OS/2 was as much of a non-event as the rest of the range, and Microsoft's Windows For Pen Computing was a useless waste of space. Indeed, the entire non-keyboard market languished until the rise to dominance of the Palm Pilot at the end of the millennium, and it's only now, twenty years after GO was founded, that the hardware and operating systems have matured sufficiently to provide a user experience comparable to Jerry Kaplan's dream. I don't imagine he is at all happy that it is Microsoft who finally brought it to market...

 

19th July

Thanks to a rather disturbed night, last night, I've had an unexpected opportunity to start on my robot kit and have made good progress. I was woken up at around 1:30am by scratching and rustling sounds that were obviously an animal climbing in through the open bedroom window. As soon as I started to move it shot out of the room and ran downstairs, but although I followed it (armed with the nearest thing that came to hand, a floor mop!) it holed up somewhere and I never did see what it was - a cat, a rat, one of my local squirrels, who knows! All I could do was open the doors onto the garden, close all the inside doors, then go back to bed and hope it let itself out again.

Instead, I was woken up again an hour later by more scratching noises from downstairs, so I grabbed the mop and headed down to do battle once more - again, no sign of it, but by that time I was wide awake and so decided that I might as well put in a few hours on my robot kit and take the day off work to recover. There hasn't been any more sign of the mysterious critter today, so I guess it must have finally escaped outside when it heard me coming down the second time.

In the meantime, however, as all my other kits seem to have started with a set of disembodied limbs, what better way to begin the latest project:

As is now common with humanoid robot designs, the servo casings are an integral part of the limbs themselves, with each segment consisting of a rigid aluminium bracket bolted around the servo, and connected to the actuator horn of the next servo in line. The servos are purposed designed for this robot, with a number of different casings to facilitate this direct connection design, and at a rated 9 Kg/cm they're unusually powerful for this type of hobby robot. Indeed, the manuals and online forums are dotted with warnings about getting fingers caught in the moving joints, and as the aluminium brackets are thin and quite sharp I can certainly see the risks...

With three servos per leg, one in each foot and one more at the hip, this gives the robot an extra degree of degree of freedom compared to a human and the legs can fold back on themselves in a kind of squatting position. The 180 range of motion of each joint allows acrobatics that only the most flexible of humans could achieve, including a rolling motion rather reminiscent of the Star Wars guard droids! There are already some neat karate-style programs on the forums, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else I can devise.

I have to say that although the instructions looked perfectly satisfactory when I was flipping through them, as the project has progressed I have realised why there have been a number of grumbles on the enthusiast forums. There are four or five actual errors, where labels have been transposed or photographs inadvertently mirrored, a few places where one diagram directly contradicts another, and a number of other areas where the exact orientation of a component is just plain obscure. I spent the first six hours absolutely convinced that I had assembled the legs wrong, because of all this, and even after half an hour of careful testing I still can't shake that feeling and will have to re-check everything tomorrow when my brain is firing on all cylinders again.

The MR-C3024 controller board was developed by the Korean company MiniRobot, contains 64Kb of flash memory and supports twenty four servos, forty digital IO ports and eight analogue ones - that's a very powerful little circuit board! The basic robot uses sixteen servos and one analogue sensor, so there's plenty of room for further expansion. I intend to make good use of this capacity, and have already ordered an extra pair of servos for the grippers, a pair of gyros to improve dynamic stability, and a tilt sensor to detect when everything has gone pear-shaped and trigger the robot to stand up again. Other possibilities are IR or sonar ranging modules, cameras and LCD displays and, at the top of the list, a Bluetooth radio module to replace the wired serial connection and the IR remote control. Talk about all-singing, all-dancing...

I need to check every last detail of the assembly to dismiss that nagging fear of reversed servos, and then recalibrate the neutral positions a little more carefully than my first attempt. The development software that comes with the robot provides useful graphical tools for these tests, and there is also an excellent 3rd party utility, MECH Pupeteer, which allows various pre-programmed movements and positions to be triggered for active testing. Before I get to that last stage, however, I need to route the cables from the sixteen servos to the controller PCB and affix them neatly in place, which is going to be extremely fiddly but highly worthwhile. For now, though, I'm charging the batteries and resting my hands, which are suffering somewhat from securely tightening several hundred tiny screws, nuts and bolts. Further updates imminently, and hopefully some video too!

 

18th July

I've found my Slingbox to be an extremely impressive device, feeding television signals around the house and over the Internet with a minimum of fuss and an extremely impressive image and sound quality. There is something of a furore brewing on the company's support forums, however, following their decision to add encryption to the media stream in the latest beta firmware. The addition has broken a popular third party utility that allowed programs to be recorded locally, and people who have purchased both products are less than happy. A post by one of the company's founders claims that the change was made to "secure your rights and privacy as a consumer", which is obvious hot air, and speculation is rife over whether the real agenda is to avoid possible DMCA suits from the ever-watchful media industries or because Sling is planning on selling their own recording add-on at some future date. A number of people are also insisting that, in spite of the company's firm claims to the contrary, the addition of encryption has had a negative effect on the video quality, which is further muddying the waters.

Meanwhile, every few pages a pair of trolls (or perhaps a single troll and his sock puppet) are posting highly critical statements about the Slingbox itself, attacking the picture quality, the usability and the functionality in comparison to something called the TV2Me. From what I've read this system can certainly beat Sling's offering in a number of ways, but considering that it costs $5000 (apparently it is a Dell PC containing a purpose-built video capture card, but even so!) that's hardly a surprise... Elsewhere, a product from video capturing specialist Snappy, the HAVA Video Streamer, competes with the Slingbox on its own turf, and when compared it seems to have both pros and cons. With the HAVA and Sony's Location Free offering, and doubtless more to come, this is rapidly becoming a crowded market niche!

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Inappropriate action - it looks as if the Indian Government has ordered the country's ISPs to block major blogging services Blogspot, Typepad and Geocities, on the highly spurious grounds that they are being used by terrorists: a typical twitch reaction by technologically ignorant politicians.

A blow for the RIAA - the first of three court cases arising when the music industry's victims refused to roll over and admit defeat has been dismissed, following their failure to supply information requested by the court. Two other mothers have also chosen to fight back, and their cases will be heard soon.

Apple backlash? - the company has had a significant quantity of bad publicity over the last few months, with exploding batteries and concerns about the conditions in their Chinese factories, but the apologists insist that there's no consumer backlash and that their 4% market share is as safe as ever.

Big bad blue - a Washington legal firm has filed a lawsuit alleging that IBM has made more than 42000 attempts to gain unauthorised access to it email system, a claim that I find extremely hard to believe. It seems far more likely is that a unusually determined hacker is spoofing IP addresses...

Gaming NIC - something else I find hard to believe is the claims that the Killer NIC accelerated network card will have a dramatic improvement on the performance of online games. The bottleneck in this kind of system is always the WAN link, and throughput onto the LAN is largely irrelevant.

Security concerns - Microsoft has withdrawn its Private Folder add-on following widespread speculation that home users would forget their password and lose access to all their data. Given that the Encrypting File System feature has had this risk for years, the worries seems a touch spurious.

Egg on face - security company McAfee has admitted that there have been serious flaws in the Common Management Agent component of their ePO enterprise antivirus management system, and that they had fixed one of them only by accident, without even realising that it was there. Oops!

 

17th July

My friend Mike has been into amateur robotics since the heady days of Logo-driven turtles in the early eighties, and when he saw my recent mention of Gakken's elegant animatronic creatures apparently he decided to encourage me to take a step up the ladder. His suggestion that I visited one of his favourite UK suppliers, Active Robots, has achieved far more than a single step, however, as their front page had a picture of the Hitec Robonova-1, one of the hobby's current hot items, and I fell in love with it immediately. It's terribly expensive, of course, but is also extremely sophisticated and flexible - its arms and legs are driven by sixteen purpose-designed servos, and the microcontroller has plenty of spare channels to support additional servos, gyroscopes, tilt sensors, accelerometers, ultrasonic distance sensors and whatever the extremely active user community can devise, hack, and attach to the chassis with the ubiquitous pads of double-sided foam tape.

The robot is available either ready-assembled or as a kit, and although the pressures of time meant that the former was tempting I decided that I would gain a far greater understanding of how it all worked if I built it myself - and as I've already ordered an extensive suite of add-ons and extras, including a set of 3rd party grippers which even allow the robot to climb a rope, that experience will almost certainly be vital.

My programming days are long gone, of course, but I can probably blow enough dust off my memory to use the BASIC-like development environment, and while I'm starting out there are a number of GUI-based tools that will help me get to grips with the thing. It's clear that with sufficiently cunning code, though, the 12" robot can really since and dance - literally, in the case of the latter. Other demonstration videos show it performing karate and gymnastics moves, and repeatedly wrestling a RoboSapien to the ground. I am really looking forward to playing with this...   :-)

 

16th July

Although I placed an order for one of the fabulous Gakken Machamo centipedes after reading only the first few paragraphs of the review at Dan's Data, there seems to be somewhat of a drought at the moment and I'm still waiting. Knowing the vagaries of Hobby Link Japan, however, I also ordered its cousin the crab, which is evidently less popular and arrived a couple of weeks ago. The assembly process was certainly challenging but was also very rewarding, and the only low point is that my kit seems to have included a defective motor and instead of scuttling happily back and forth it just sits there. HLJ were immensely helpful, however, and a replacement is on its way from Japan (completely free of charge) as I write this.

The lure of the centipede is undiminished, however, and as HLJ are obviously finding difficulties in obtaining stock (they were Dan's suggested supplier, so it's quite possible that his review has generated several thousand orders and temporarily emptied their distribution channels) and in the last few weeks I've been casting the net somewhat wider. There are usually plenty of US-based eBay sellers offering the kit, usually for at least $120 even before shipping costs are added on - this does not compare favourably to the $90 (or around 50) inclusive that HLJ are charging, which is one of the reasons why Dan recommended them!

However, a tip from a colleague at the office (he's just bought a crab, as well, and is lusting after the centipede) suggested that there were a few UK suppliers, and a more thorough search turned up educational toys supplier MindWare, and as their price including shipping is a relatively reasonable 74 I was prepared to absorb the difference for the sake of actually being able to obtain the kit. Of course, having placed the order I'll probably find that they don't have any in stock, so just in case I've kept the original order with HLJ active. Of course, again, this probably means that I'll end up with two of the things, but given their popularity I expect I'd be able to sell the second one locally or - and here's an idea! - keep both and have mechanical centipede battles! SRL, eat your hearts out...

Meanwhile, a handful of links that have been waiting patiently while I've been feeling too lazy to blog them:

Man of Steel - earlier in the month I linked to ObscuredTV, an excellent and growing archive of television documentaries, and in comments Chris has alerted me to the addition of a batch of Mark Steel's wonderful "Lectures" series, still sadly and mysteriously unavailable on DVD.

Interpretation of dreams -  after working perfectly for two weeks my ADSL Max connection has started dropping the line again, and while looking around for other victims I came across a useful explanation of what some of the obscure enumerations in a DSL router's status pages actually mean.

Not all that - the Fish4 web site has been offline recently, and while I would hardly agree with The Register's description of their announcement as "The greatest error message of all time" it does cast a shadow over the much-vaunted Sun enterprise servers and their associated support services.

Sniffing out malware - it isn't widely know that Google's search engine can be used to find binary strings as well as ASCII, but content filtering service Websense has used this facility to unearth thousands of web sites hosting malicious code such as the Bagel and Mytob worms.

The sound of flip-flopping - after last week's unexpected decision by eBay to ban payments via the popular 3rd party service Nochex, the auction company has suddenly and silently reversed itself and reinstated them. Neither action has yet been explained, according to a Nochex spokesman...

Wired united - although it probably isn't widely known, the online news web site Wired is always been owned by a separate company from the printed magazine itself, but after eight years the transfer of the web service from Lycos to Cond Nast finally brings them together under the same virtual roof.

Old fashioned craftsmanship - I have acquired a passing interest in watches and clocks from my father, and so it was a delight to read this lavishly illustrated account of the design and manufacture of a traditional mechanical wristwatch, which left me shaking my head in admiration.

Smart phones, stupid users - and article at The Register laments the poor experience that many hi-tech cell phone users have with a new handset, especially when it comes to the complexities of GPRS browsing, mobile email, MMS and, worst of all, the stupidly over-hyped 3rd generation services.

The Llama man - eccentric computer games creator Jeff Minter is something of an icon to anyone who started out in home computers during the late seventies and early eighties, and a reprint of an article from Retro Gamer discusses the effects he had on the nascent gaming industry.

Rugs - Polish artist Janek Simon has a wonderful line in traditionally woven Caucasian and Armenian-styled carpets, with decidedly non-traditional designs. Via VVORK, a gallery of modern art which I will certainly be keeping an eye on - some are very reminiscent of Laurie Anderson's 70s installations.

Inexplicable advertising - I'm told that this is an advert promoting Firefox at the expense of Internet Explorer, Netscape (is there still such a beast, these days?) and Apple's Safari, but I'm afraid that the witty, sophisticated humour that everyone else apparently sees there is completely lost on me...

A heart full of neutrality - the topic of Net Neutrality is much in the news of late, and an article from Princeton engineering professor Ed Felten illustrates not only why the outcome of a multi-tiered service could be highly undesirable, but why true neutrality would be very difficult to enforce.

Star Chamber - unfortunately I suppose this should have been expected, but the Bush government has managed to get all the NSA wiretapping suits transferred to the highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court process, which I gather doesn't even hear both sides of the evidence!

And, finally, the eerie glow of science - at the weblog of organic chemist Derek Lowe, an impassioned plea to PR photographers: "When we hold up Erlenmeyer flasks to eye level to see the future of research in them, which we try not to do too often because we usually don't want to know, rarely is this accompanied by an eerie red light coming from the general direction of our pockets. It's a bad sign when that happens, actually."

 

13th July

Anyone searching for addresses of publicly accessible NTP time servers in the UK, or for that matter any other information about computer time synchronisation, will doubtless have been frustrated to discover that almost every page is a thinly-disguised advertisement for radio clock manufacturer Galleon Systems. A good example is the domain www.atomicclockrugbymsf.co.uk, which looks very official (it even uses the call-sign of the Rugby atomic clock radio broadcast service in the address) and seems like an authoritative, informative service until you actually start clicking on the oh-so-tempting links at the bottom of the page. At that point you find a distinct lack of useful information, and instead one of an endless series of pointers to Galleon's real site, where they will try to sell you an expensive device to do something that can usually be done for free...

In the interests of liberating information from its corporate shackles, therefore, the real home page of the National Physical Laboratory in Rugby, guardians of the MSF atomic clock, can be found here. The publicly accessible NTP servers themselves are ntp1.npl.co.uk and ntp2.npl.co.uk, and although it's perfectly possible to use a server at your local ISP (although in general only the old guard actually make such a service available) they're almost certainly just synching with Rugby in some way themselves so you might as well cut out the middleman. Pop this into your Server 2003 domain controllers, or into the Control Panel object in Windows XP, and your local time will be synchronised to an accuracy of around 20ms, which is probably enough for all but the most anally retentive.

Now, as it's later than I'd realised, a few oddments from around the web:

Sucks and blows - computer hardware manufacturers often talk about "turbocharging your PC", but evidently this creative modder took them literally. He installed the sort of compressor normally found under the hood of a Japanese street racer to provide forced air cooling into an appropriately decorated mid-tower PC case. It's a beautifully realised project. The pointer came from the latest column at Dan's Data, by the way, a review of Lian Li's new PCS80 "silent" case.

Banning standby - the UK government is planning to outlaw the "standby" facility commonly built into domestic electronics equipment, as part of a program to save energy and cut emissions over the next twenty years. It is well known that a device in standby mode is often barely less power hungry than when it is operating fully, and the government report claims that in fact devices in standby use 8% of the country's domestic electricity. The ban is just one of a number of similar measures designed to target homes and offices, and it is hoped that together they will cut emissions by up to 17%.

Tuesday's story about the BPI's demands that UK ISPs C&W and Tiscali revoke the Internet access of people who they claim are file-sharers has taken an interesting twist, with Tiscali speaking out firmly against the BPI's tactics. Describing the letter as a "media ambush", the ISP says that the BPI announced their demand to the press before it had actually been received by them, and has dismissed the so-called evidence provided (a list of IP addresses and a few incomplete screenshots, with nothing to link one to the other) as inconclusive and inadequate. They have replied to the BPI to explain how the law works and why they will not take action without more conclusive evidence.

Attacking the mothership - the BPI's tactics of legal blustering and outrageous demands are obviously influenced by their bigger brother the RIAA, and back in the US the EFF has put together a list of tough questions to ask representatives of the entertainment industry... Why are the lawsuits continuing? What has happened to all that money? Why are they so set against technological development? There are nineteen question in all, and together they perfectly sum up the entire case against the draconian restrictions and bullying tactics that typify the industry associations.

 

12th July

I'm fiddling with a couple of new wireless network cameras, this evening, so there's only time for a handful of quick links.

UK GPRS - a colleague at the office pointed me to this page on configuring the annoying little WAP browsers in cell phones and PDAs. This is exactly the sort of information that is hard to track down in a hurry, so having it all in one place is really useful. Thanks, Ian!

Security scares - in an column at Infoworld Roger Grimes paints the most pessimistic and depressing picture of computer security I can remember seeing in a decade or more. Proliferating malware, flawed security software, unpatched computers and endless spam. Maybe we should give up now...

Extravagant claims - a scientist working at the Harvard Medical School has coated DVD discs in light-sensitive tailored proteins, producing a storage capacity of around 50Tb. He claims that this will "eventually eliminate the need for hard drive memory completely", which I think is probably wrong.

iPod killer - rumours about Microsoft's MP3 player are circulating thick and fast, and an article at the Seattle Times suggests that it's merely a small part of a wide range (currently code-named "Argo") of Xbox-branded digital media devices and services. Interesting stuff...

Stealing Linux - I've never liked Larry Ellison, but the outspoken Oracle CEO has sunk to a new low of bare-faced effrontery with his statement that he is going to edge Red Hat out of the market in supporting their own software: "we can just take Red Hat's intellectual property and make it ours".

Doomed ID - in spite of the government's assurances that the ID Cards scheme will go ahead unchanged, The Register thinks otherwise, citing government emails leaked to The Sunday Times this weekend that show clear signs of panic.

No to Nochex - as well as ruling out Google's new Checkout electronic payment service, eBay has also banned the well-established Nochex system. No clear explanation has been provided by the auction company, but their sudden announcement has left a number of sellers hopping mad.

And, finally, forced migrations - an article at ZDNet suggests that today's termination of official support for Windows 98 will encourage its users to switch to Linux instead of upgrading to Windows XP, but given that 98 users are mostly either thoroughly non-technical home users or businesses running specific legacy software that won't work on any other OS, I think that's completely wrong. The latter don't have a choice, and any of the former who are going to upgrade because of the end of life (and actually I doubt they'll even know about it!) will probably just go out and buy a new computer at PC World - and you can bet that if so it won't be running Linux...

 

11th July

So, we have a sneaky little piece of software released by a major operating system company, originally labelled as a security update but which has now started to attract attention because of the unexpected way in which it scans a user's computer and transmits the results to the manufacturer several times a day. The company says that it's harmless, and indeed beneficial, but it's under fire from online privacy advocates because there were no warnings about this behaviour before installation and there is apparently no legitimate way to prevent the data from being collected and sent.

If you think I'm talking about Microsoft's notorious Windows Genuine Advantage tool you'd be wrong, as this is a new utility from Apple, which is designed to check that the Widgets installed into the Mac's Dashboard (widgets are little utility add-ons which add richness and features to the shell) are the genuine article and not malicious 3rd party code. After all the righteous indignation generated by WGA, recently, it's always useful to be reminded once more that Apple is really no different from Microsoft themselves or, indeed, any other modern corporate. I'm telling you, wait five years and see what happens to the "insanely great" company of the eighties glory days... It won't be pretty.

While I climb down from my soapbox, then, today's snippets of news.

None so blind - apparently the media company ABC is hoping to disable the Fast Forward button on future digital video recorder products, in order to prevent consumers from skipping over the adverts... And, amazingly, the marketroid in question doesn't think that people will object to this!

Inside spyware - an article at MSNBC showcases spyware company Direct Revenue, which makes an estimated $2 billion in revenue by tricking people into installing their highly intrusive and often damaging advertising software.

Sneaky bastards - and talking of adware (which is going to be as big a problem in the second part of the decade as viruses were in the first) the latest trick is to embed download code in video clips that appear in fake MySpace profiles created for the purpose.

New for old - this enterprising but wonderfully eccentric programmer has created a new game cartridge for the venerable Atari 2600 games console, and the site even has pictures of computer gaming pioneers Nolan Bushnell and Ralph Baer by way of endorsement.

Turned down the iPod - documents filed as part of Creative's patent suit show that Apple approached the company to investigate basing their new digital music player on the market leading Creative Nomad, but when Creative refused Apple was forced to develop its own platform from scratch.

MRAM - Motorola spin-off Freescale has announced that they have gone into volume production of the long-awaited Magnetoresistive RAM modules, the technology expected to replace Flash memory in the next generations of MP3 players, smartphones, removable storage cards etc.

First looks at Longhorn - at AdminPrep, Brian McCann has been looking at the second beta of Longhorn, the next generation of Windows server OS, and it looks very plausible. This is the first I've seen of Longhorn, but I have to say that so far it seems to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

ID card scheme may be delayed - I am pleased to see that the Home Office has admitted that they are "reviewing" the timescale for the thoroughly impractical, highly intrusive and deeply flawed implementation of compulsory biometric ID cards.

Pulling the plug - in response to pressure from the BPI, the UK branch of ISP Cable & Wireless is likely to close the accounts of 42 users who have been accused of sharing music files across the P2P networks; a similar request has been made to Tiscali concerning 17 of their customers. Given that no legal action has yet been taken, let alone a court ruling having been obtained, this seems extremely premature. Does the concept "innocent until proven guilty" carry no weight with these people?

And, finally, Louisiana has joined 21 other states in banning Internet hunting of live animals, where a remote-controlled gun is used to kill semi-tame animals via a web site. I have absolutely no clue why anyone would want to do this ( I have no desire to shoot animals, but if I was going to I'd damn well want to be there in person!), but it doesn't seem to be morally different from any other form of commercial hunting and it's hard to see why it should be treated any differently in the eyes of the law.

 

9th July

I've spent the morning stripping and rebuilding my pair of VXA Autopak tape libraries, and it seems to have been a successful operation. I mentioned a month or two ago that I had acquired another library second hand when my first one started to misbehave, and although some transplant surgery removed the basic problem I haven't been very happy with the way the new library has been behaving. The picker mechanism is noticeably more rough and noisy, and when the door is opened to change the tape magazine the library doesn't come back online again afterwards. The latter was especially annoying, as thanks to the vagaries of SCSI termination that meant I had to reboot the PC every time I needed to swap tapes in and out!

Extensive testing this morning showed that it was a fault in the main PCB of the original library that was causing the original problem, however, so I swapped the best picker unit back into that chassis, along with the bar code reader and the best drives, and then installed the PCB from the new unit. Working inside this model of library (it's actually a rebadged SpectraLogic 2000 "TreeFrog") is a touch fiddly, but I'm getting the hang of their little ways and right now the original unit seems to be working very nicely. It's reassuring to have a second unit for spares, too, as I have a considerable investment in VXA media and on the whole I've been very happy with these models.

Meanwhile, some snippets of news to finish up the weekend:

Hacker thrown to wolves - an independent computer consultant who poked his nose far further into the FBI's network than his legitimate access permitted is likely to be sentenced to a year in prison, proving (once again) that publicly embarrassing the director of the FBI is very, very foolish...

Another series of tubes - further down the hall in the corridors of power, the merciless but thoroughly-deserved lampooning of Senator Ted Stevens continues at Iowahawk. Dang those pesky internets! [Update: and there's more - this one is going to run and run, I'm sure...]

WGA suits - Microsoft's anti-piracy tool is this months cause celebre, and the latest development is a second lawsuit alleging that the tool is spyware. Personally, I think the suit's claims are spurious, as although the PR was grossly mismanaged it doesn't actually do anything that can damage a PC or collect any significant personal information about its user. Meanwhile, at Ars Technica, Ken Fisher is speculating about Microsoft's reasons for designing the software in the way it has - and it seems that the company's plans for in-place upgrades of Vista are the key.

Meanwhile, only milliseconds after firmly denying any plans to go toe-to-toe with Apple in the MP3 player and downloadable music market, it has emerged that Microsoft is almost certainly intending to do just that. Interestingly, the rumours suggest that if you're already an iTunes subscriber, Microsoft will provide for free any songs you have already purchased, significantly easing the transfer from Apple's heavily-locked-in environment - if only to what will probably be an equally heavily-locked-in equivalent from MS...

An over-crowded market - and talking of MP3 players (or whatever you call them now that they play video as well), the new offering from flash memory specialists Sandisk has launched their own range. Bit-Tech has been looking at the 4Gb version and apparently it's really sweet. Look out, Apple...

Drive recall - things are somewhat less rosy for one of Sandisk's main competitors in the USB memory storage market, however, with Lexar recalling a large batch of their JumpDrive memory sticks, which apparently have a tendency to (as is now increasingly fashionable) burst into flames.

Month of browser bugs - security researcher H.D. Moore, co-author of an exploit analysis application, is intending to release details of a new security vulnerability in one of the popular web browsers every day during July. As I write this, the score stands at six for IE6, and one each for Apple's Safari and the Linux version of Firefox. It's a fascinating idea, and with three weeks still to go I suspect that he might cause a few raised eyebrows for developers of all religions...

Unusual evangelists - in a thoroughly unexpected move, UK anti-virus company Sophos has released a statement urging home users to consider switching to Macs in order to protect themselves from what they describe as the "malware onslaught". Given that the company makes (presumably) a decent profit from selling software designed to protect PCs against said onslaught, and that it was only a couple of months ago that they were emphasising the growing risk from OS X malware, this seems like a curious business strategy, and like Jeremy Reimer at Ars Technica I have to confess to being a touch mystified about it. Presumably time will make their strategy clearer...

Classic browser games - for fans of old skool gaming, Classics Reunited has a growing collection of seventies and eighties arcade games ported into a browser format. Current offerings include Donkey Kong, Pacman and, of course, the original Taito Space Invaders, with more promised. I've just been playing Asteroids, and the look and feel is wonderfully evocative of the original, even down to the hollow, booming explosions. An excellent way to fill a spare five minutes...

 

8th July

This funny-looking little thing is a Slingbox, and I predict that it's going to be one of this year's hot gadgets. Convergence has been an interesting area of computing, recently, but to date the vast majority of attempts to link home AV systems with a home computer network have been fatally flawed - my Pinnacle ShowCentre is a very good example. We're pretty much at the third generation of products now, however, and Sling Media seems to have delivered the goods at last.

The Slingbox has a built-in digital terrestrial tuner, and although it can act as a stand-alone video source and distribution system, its real strength lies in re-transmitting the feed from a satellite set-top box or PVR. It accepts a composite or S-video AV input, compresses it into a WMV stream and then transmits the result across any TCP/IP network. The client software runs on Windows or (an additional purchase) Windows Mobile, although a Mac version is imminent and I expect that support for other platforms is on the horizon.

The first cunning thing is that the client communicates with the Slingbox to adjust the video compression dynamically to suit the available bandwidth, maximising quality whether the two ends are a few metres apart on a 100Mbit wired segment or a few thousand miles apart on a flakey wireless connection in a cheap hotel. I have to admit that I've only been able to test the former, at present, but the forums are full of people who have tried the latter, and worse, with considerable success.

The second cunning thing, and I think that this is the killer feature in this case, is that the client can also communicate with the Slingbox to pass control signals back to the original video source via an external IR emitter - and it already has not only a built-in database of codes for a good selection of AV hardware, but also working representations of their remote controllers. Click the menu button on an accurate copy of my Sky+ remote control, and a second or so later I'm looking at the menu on screen.

This means if you have a PVR and Internet access in some shape or form, you really can watch last night's Big Brother from wherever you are in the world, and even pause and rewind to marvel at home-grown porn star Lea Walker's bizarre and remarkable... ah... assets. Truly a great step forward in the endless quest to debase technology.

Watching a television picture on a computer screen is nothing new, of course (my desktop PCs have had this facility since the days of the original WinTV card and the ill-fated 3Dfx Voodoo 3 3500) but it's mostly been localised to a particular PC. The Slingbox decouples the facility, however, and makes it available to the entire local network - and, thanks to the best implementation of UPnP I've seen to date, access from the Internet is apparently almost as easy. The installation software located and configured the port forwarding on my Linux-based Smoothwall firewall appliance without any difficulties, and if it can talk to something that esoteric so readily, then garden variety DSL routers should present no great challenge.

In use it takes around five to ten seconds for the client and server to negotiate and the data stream, and this time-shift is maintained after the connection is established. Since I replaced my All-In-Wonder multimedia card earlier this year I've been using an AverMedia USB TV tuner to feed the picture from the Sky+ PVR to my desktop PC at the other side of the room, and I'm used to having to mute the sound on one end or the other to avoid the half-second echo effect that the processing overhead creates. The delay with the Slingbox is noticeably longer, however - about seven seconds on a wired network segment at home, which makes switching my attention from PC to TV and back as I move around a rather unusual experience!

The CPU overhead on my desktop PC is only about 5% to display a widescreen picture occupying around half of the screen, and the bandwidth required for this varies between 700 and 1400 kbps. The resulting picture quality isn't significantly worse than that of the S-Video feed via the AverMedia USB tuner, and given the added convenience of the on-screen remote control there's very little to choose between them.

Leaving aside the unusual and somewhat plasticy styling (and, after all, the thing can be discretely hidden down in the bowels of the AV cabinet), I've yet to find any problems with either the hardware or software. The documentation leaves something to be desired at present, however, with no mention at all of either Control Mode or activating the internal free-to-air tuner to name but two. Fortunately, as is often the case with such cool hardware toys, there is a flourishing online community that has already addressed these particular lacks with handy guides.

At present the only authorised UK supplier is PC World, and it's worth noting that although I didn't bother paying extra to speed up the advertised 5-7 working day delivery, in fact I placed the order on Tuesday evening and it was delivered on Friday morning. Your mileage may vary, but unless you're in a tearing hurry it might be worth sticking with the cheapest shipping option.

 

6th July

To my considerable annoyance my desktop PC is still crashing periodically, with comprehensive screen corruption, and I'm no closer to pinning down the cause. It doesn't seem to be directly related to the ambient or internal temperature, and a reinstall of the latest NVIDIA ForceWare suite has pretty much ruled out a corrupted driver. I've even removed vaguely related items like the VNC Mirror Driver, which is clutching at straws somewhat, but at the moment I'm annoyingly short on ideas. Tsk.

To mask the sound of brains being racked, then, some decidedly random links:

Way back when - surely the precursor to all those dumb USB devices, an advert from a 1985 edition of Microcomputer magazine features an addon for the venerable Commodore 64 which controlled a miniature espresso machine. Only in Italy...

Checkout checked out - Google's new electronic payment facility (already the cause of a few raised eyebrows thanks to its unusually broad restrictions) has been banned for use on eBay because it lacks a "substantial historical track record". This seems a touch flimsy to me, and it's hard not to think that they're simply trying to maximise their revenues from PayPal and protect their near-monopoly.

Sartorial elegance - for the fashion conscious paranoid, designer tinfoil hats. They're certainly... ah... different, but now probably isn't the time to mention last year's study by the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department at MIT, which revealed that actually tinfoil headgear tends to amplify ambient radio signals rather than screening them out...

Non-compliance - Ithe EU has decided that Microsoft has not adequately complied with their absurd demands to release proprietary information to the company's main competitors, and is now contemplating exactly how excessive the fines will be. Given that we're talking about millions of Euros per day, backdated, flooding unto the Commission's coffers, and that said competitors have been eagerly lobbying behind the scenes for just such a decision, this was not unexpected...

Sky rockets in flight - a touch late for the 4th, but this neat little Java applet is one of the better representations of fireworks I've seen, and has an element of interactivity as well.

Online ClearType tuner - users of Microsoft's ClearType font smoothing (and if you have a laptop or a desktop LCD display then this is well worth a look!) should already be aware of the Control Panel utility that tweaks the smoothing for the best results with a particular set of eyes and a particular LCD - but the same functionality is now available online as a browser-based app, which is definitely the most convenient way of configuring the system. Recommended.

Blast from the past - a fascinating set of photographs taken in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, showing the night-time city skyline illuminated by the glaring light of above-ground atomic bomb tests at the Nevada Proving Ground. The images have a spooky, unreal quality that is quite eye-catching.

 

5th July

The latest of my Ma.K. kits is almost finished, and I'm very pleased with the result. There were a number of fairly challenging moments, especially the step where the two halves of the body shell are joined together, incorporating eight other components between the two parts in a move that requires an implausible number of hands. The resulting fit wasn't perfect, either, and I needed to fill a couple of the seams with a thin smear of Milliput before painting. On the whole, though, these Nitto kits are extremely well-made and designed, with good quality mouldings and a fascinating handful of springs and wires to add those finishing touches.

There are probably a few tweaks and twiddles left, and I might add a second layer of weathering in brown to represent mud splashes, especially on the feet and lower legs. I have to finish painting the diorama base, too, a nondescript 8"x12" rectangle of muddy ground that will probably end up holding a pair of kits next to each other. I'm still really enjoying building these kits, and as before I'm all ready to dive right into the next one - in fact the pile is growing instead of shrinking, as in the last couple of months I've bought another handful. With the exception of a handful of fighting suits (boringly similar to the ones I've already built) I have most of the series, now, and that should keep me going for a while.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

Like a sieve - a couple of weeks ago I mentioned my irritation with my local water company, Thames Water, and although it has emerged today that they have escaped a substantial fine from the government watchdog Ofwat, at least they have agreed to immediately spend an extra 150 million fixing leaks. We are assured that this sum will be subtracted from the shareholders' dividends, and not higher prices, but I have to say that I am not completely convinced...

Holy Office, Batman! - three new vulnerabilities have been unearthed in the open source OpenOffice suite, and as usual they are exactly the sort of flaws that Microsoft-haters have vilified MS Office for throughout the years: a Java sandbox with embarrassingly leaky sides, macros that can run arbitrary hostile code without the knowledge of the user, and yet another classic buffer overflow attack. It all sounds very familiar... Patches have already been released for these issues, but not as yet for StarOffice, the commercial equivalent from Sun Microsystems that is based on the same code base.

Prime Minister's question time - organizers of an online interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin have solicited suggestions for questions to ask with rather surprising results. As well as the expected queries on government policy and the country's role on the world stage, a surprising number were somewhat off the wall, with 8,600 contributors asking if he planned to employ "giant, humanoid war robots" and a further 7,300 interested in his position vis--vis Cthulhu, the evil alien god of the H. P. Lovecraft mythos. This has the hallmarks of a organised Discordian campaign, I would say.   :-)

Suing Yahoo - the International Federation of the Phonographic Industries has announced its intention to sue Yahoo China over the access it allows to pirated music. Unlike the Western versions of yahoo, the Chinese service (60% owned by the Chinese Alibaba.com trade directory) has features expressly designed to facilitate access to dubious music downloads, and the IFPI has already sued the other major Chinese search engine Baidu for similar features. Given that China has not signed most of the international copyright and intellectual property agreements, however, it's hard to see how the IFPI hopes to make any progress - especially when it may well be completely outside of its jurisdiction!

And, finally, great balls of fire - Dan has added a pair of letters pages in the last week, and has posted some photographs of the Wimshurst machine he purchased after the last drive for donations.

 

4th July

The PC has been stable since I cranked the fan speed up last night, so it does seems to have been purely a heat issue. It's another baking day today, however, so even though the noise level is a little annoying (still only a loud whisper, but much more than I have become accustomed to!) I'll play it safe and leave it on over-ride until the weather breaks - hopefully tomorrow. Until then, here's the other half of last night's aborted news links:

A series of tubes - following the laughably ignorant explanation of the issues of Internet bandwidth and net neutrality provided last week by Republican Senator Ted Stevens, as could be predicted the wags are out in force and working hard to pillory him. My current favourite is this creative commons T-shirt design, illustrating the Senator's misconception perfectly...

Firefox vs. IE - the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has an interview with Blake Ross, the 21 year old co-author of the popular open source web browser, and to my surprise he's not as dismissive of Microsoft's new IE7 browser as I would have expected. He claims that the upcoming Firefox V2 will jump ahead of IE again, however, and I'll be very interested to see what he has in mind.

Beta 3 - and talking of Internet Explorer, the third public beta was release a few days ago and so far it looks like another very workable build. Microsoft have said that the browser is feature-complete at this stage, so all that remains for the release candidate is the usual bugfixes and cosmetic tweaks. There are lots of technical details of the new build at the IE Blog, together with tips and tricks for using it.

Oh, dear... talking of Microsoft (so nothing new there, then) the Windows Genuine Advantage add-on continues to provoke all sorts of fuss both directly and indirectly. Just to add fuel to the flames, a new worm is propagating via AOL instant messaging which purports to be the WGA tool, and threatens the user with appropriately dire consequences if he tries to uninstall it. Very timely...

Slippery when dry - meanwhile, on the hardware front, Seagate has patented a method of heating a hard disk in order to (somehow!) cram more data into the same surface area of platter, and to go along with this they have developed a perpetual self-lubricating system, based on nanotech tubes built into the casing, that prevents the hot disk components from seizing up as nature intended. Bizarre!

Invisible PSU - the picoPSU is a 120W PC power supply in approximately the form factor of the ATX power supply connector on a motherboard. It is fed by a fairly standard external 12V "brick" transformer, the sort of unit that would power a high-end laptop, and as well as its diminutive size it has the great advantage of leaving most of the heat-producing components outside the case.

And finally, seeing the light - the Cypress Industries LED network patch cables are an interesting approach to the perennial problem of tracing patch cables in a crowded and untidy network cabinet. They have LEDs embedded in the custom-designed RJ45 plug at each end, which are powered by connecting a battery pack to one of them - an extra pair of wires in the cable carries the power to the other end as well, and both light up. I have to say that to me it just doesn't look very elegant, however, and I'm wondering if a better approach would be to run a length of fibre optic light guide along with the twisted pairs and energise it with a small torch or similar - after all, having just plugged the battery pack in you know where one end of the ends is already, so having it light up is somewhat redundant. All one needs is to be able to spot the other end, and a more passive system would not only be a touch less complicated but also require a rather less kinky design of RJ45 connector. Just my 2 worth...

 

3rd July

Something of an aborted entry tonight, as my PC seems to be wilting in the heat as much as I am. Although the coolant temperature has been fairly stable around its usual range of 37-39C, the graphics card is showing definite signs of overheating with intermittent screen corruption followed by a complete system lockup. Having already re-typed some of tonight's links twice, therefore, I've decided to call it a night and then crank the fan speed on the Koolance hardware up from its automatically throttled setting of around 3 or 4 to an unusually audible 7 out of ten. This has dropped the coolant temperature down to 33C, and it will be interesting to see if this resolves the problem.

Something positive - I rarely have anything good to say about the British government (or any other government, for that matter!) so it makes a change to be able to praise them for a significant financial contribution to an extremely worthy cause. MySociety.org, creator of the FaxYourMP and WriteToThem services which assists citizens to contact their members of parliament, is the recipient of a grant for around $200,000 from a project backed by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the somewhat disgraced John Prescott. Given that the services MySociety offers must make life somewhat harder for many politicians by enabling people to badger them incessantly, I think that's a very right and proper thing to do - especially given the Labour government's alleged commitment to "transparency". Heh, maybe now they'll be able to afford to replace their decidedly sluggish PHP-based web server with something more responsive from Microsoft...   :-)

Tangled up - A bill that would have introduced some basic measures of net neutrality has deadlocked in the US Senate, and given the apparent level of ignorance about the nature of the Internet in that body I guess it's not really surprising. Senator Ted Stevens, stand up and take a bow...

V for Vendetta - not to be outdone by its American counterpart, the British Phonographic Institute is flexing its muscles ready to take on the Russian AllofMP3.com music download site. The High Court has given the BPI permission to commence legal proceedings against site owner Media Services.

Better than bullion - the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad is busy congratulating itself, today, following the sentencing of seven men who had attempted to steal around 4.5 million worth of Cisco network hardware from a warehouse belonging to Comstor UK in Cirencester on Christmas Eve.

A win for Bill - one of the last of the rash of anti-trust lawsuits brought against Microsoft in the nineties has been dismissed, with a judge dismissing a case brought by the long-defunct pen-computing company GO. By coincidence, I'm reading Kaplan's book on Go, "Start Up", at the moment.

Hooks and loops - the giant purpose-built data centres that Google is constructing in the wilds of Oregon are terribly impressive, but I'm still puzzling over their trade-marked use of Velcro tape to hold their servers together. It all sounds very iffy, to me...

Inside Scoble - the departure of Microsoft's primo blogger for an unknown media distribution company has caused something of a stir, and in an interview at Wired he discusses keeping on top of the all-pervasive tech news and views by use of blogs, RSS feeds and, of course, podcasts.

 

2nd July

A few random links to end a baking hot weekend:

Bypassing the Great Wall - a researcher at the University of Cambridge has made an interesting discovery about the technical structure of the firewall that filters the Chinese people's Internet access. Rather than acting as a blocking proxy, as does Websense et al, instead it simply closes undesirable TCP connections by sending reset packets to either end. If both ends ignore these reset commands the connection will work correctly, and this may well prove to be a weakness than can be exploited.

Documentary evidence - ObscuredTV is an online archive of television documentaries, and although they admit that there may be some issues with copyright (and I think they're right!) it's certainly a useful resource. I stumbled across it while trying to find Mark Steel's marvellous series of lectures (bizarrely, not as yet available on DVD) and although those are still on the waiting list there are a few dozen others already on line to be streamed. Well worth a look, although you have to register for full access.

A step in the wrong direction - just when you thought it was safe to go back to the electronic library, notorious copy-protection company StarForce has announced a new DRM system for e-books. StarForce has something of a reputation within the games community thanks to the adverse effects its software can have on PCs, as well as for their legal threats against its critics, and Cory at Boing Boing (one of said critics!) has doubts about the basic wisdom of DRM e-books in any case.

A loophole for Apple - the French government's controversial legislation on DRM interoperability has been approved, but at the last minute a clause was added which allows proprietary copy-protection techniques to be maintained as long as the agreement of the copyright holders can be obtained. As one of the copyright holders of most music or songs is usually the original composer, this may force Apple and others to renegotiate their (generally unfavourable) contracts with the artists themselves.

Some like it hot - The Register is reporting on the ICANN's conference in Morocco, and it seems to have been something of a non-event. Indeed, most of the article is spent on covering some of the net.gods, including the apparent fall from grace of Internet figurehead Vint Cerf, and wild speculation on the shape of the Internet had Jon Postel stood up to the US Government instead of caving in to their legal threat over control of the domain registries.

The last mile - veteran IT journalist Robert Cringely has an idea to bolster the concept of net neutrality while at the same time providing more bandwidth than you can shake a stick at. His suggestion is that communities should organise together and take out a loan to finance the installation of fibre optic cable to every home, connected directly to the closest Internet backbone. He claims that this would be cheaper than current DSL lines, as well as faster, and would help break the telcos' stranglehold.

 

1st July

I mentioned that I was looking at USB memory sticks the other day, and in the end I picked up a neat little SanDisk Cruzer Micro. I'd wanted something a little more elegant than the run-of-the-mill rectangle design, and the way that the USB connector retracts into the body of the of the drive after use really took my fancy. I'm impressed with the hardware, certainly, but I can't say the same about the "software" that was bundled with it. I haven't heard of U3 before, but it seems to be a standard for embedding an autoboot system and menu application onto a compatible flash memory device so that when it is inserted a program runs to allow rapid access to any U3-compliant applications installed onto the device.

In use, this means that when you insert the memory stick you actually get two new drive letters appearing in the Explorer, one a pseudo-boot partition containing the usual AUTORUN.INF and the U3 EXEs, and the other a general purpose partition for storing apps and data as normal. A menu icon then appears in the tray giving access to the installed applications and, optionally, one or more of those applications automatically execute. For example, my Cruzer came with a password manager, a virus scanner I'd never heard of ("AVAST"? Really? As in the traditional pirate cry?) and a trial of the Skype VoIP application.

It's a nice idea for some users, I suppose, but I tend to use these memory sticks as a bucket for moving raw data to and from servers etc, and the last thing I want when I'm working on a recalcitrant server is for my memory stick to automatically install a bunch of proprietary drivers and applications. The extra drive letter is a bit of an annoyance on a crowded sysadmin's management workstation, too, and what with one thing and another I decided to remove the U3 software and revert to the plain, old-fashioned bucket o' data approach.

This is where things started to get interesting, as I couldn't address either partition directly via the Windows Disk Management tool (see, I told you it was non-standard!) and the minimal instructions that came with the device (basically, "plug it into your PC") didn't give any technical details about U3 at all. A quick search turned up their web site, however, and in the technical support area I found a page of instructions for uninstalling the system.

This is where I started to become a touch offended, as in order to download the application that would perform the uninstall (yes, I had to download an application!) I had to click through a bunch of "Are you really sure?" menus and provide both personal details and an explanation of why I didn't want to retain the facility! When I finally did manage to download it, it made me agree to as long and complex a license agreement as I've ever seen in the PC world before finally consenting to remove the software and return my drive to a virgin state.

Oh, and removing the U3 software is an irreversible process, as well... It's installed by the manufacture of the hardware, and end users can't download a re-installer should they change their mind. Presumably this is to avoid people installing it on unlicensed hardware, as I suspect that in spite of the hyped "U3 Compatible" branding, in actual fact the system would work on any USB memory device, but that seems like a rather draconian method to me. I won't miss the thing myself, certainly, especially given how intrusive I found the whole process, but at the office everybody and their dog is carrying at least one memory stick these days I have the feeling that I haven't seen the last of the U3 software.

 

Another unprepossessing month in the stats, last month, further confirming my impression that the site has found its natural level again. I'm still too proud to whore myself around the major-league tech sites (although I have to confess that my resolve is wavering, sometimes) but without that or some incredible stroke of luck I seem doomed to languish in the doldrums of around 250 hits per day for all eternity. Something must be done...

 

 

Vote for Epicycle!

 

 

 

 

 

Weblog Archive