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
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
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
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
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.
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
|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?
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,
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
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.
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!
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
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
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...
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.
than they can chew - the MPAA has sued
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.
the Internet - domain name kiting is a growing problem, and with
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
(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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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...
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
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
And, finally, have you ever wondered
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
I'm just finishing Jerry Kaplan's book Start
Up, the autobiography of his ill-fated pen-based computer
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
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
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...
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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
Location Free offering, and doubtless more to come, this is
rapidly becoming a crowded market niche!
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.
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!
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
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
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 -
in the case of the latter. Other demonstration videos show it
moves, and repeatedly
wrestling a RoboSapien to the ground. I am really looking
forward to playing with this... :-)
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.
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
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 Condé
Nast finally brings them together under the same virtual roof.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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."
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
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
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
Now, as it's later than I'd realised, a few
oddments from around the web:
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
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.
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.
I'm fiddling with a couple of new
network cameras, this evening, so there's only time for a
handful of quick links.
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,
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...
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.
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...
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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...
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
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
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
people who have tried the latter, and worse, with considerable
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
This means if you have a PVR and Internet access
in some shape or form, you really can watch last night's
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
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
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.
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
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...
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
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
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
are extremely well-made and designed, with good quality mouldings
and a fascinating handful of springs and wires to add those
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
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-à-vis Cthulhu, the evil alien god of the H. P. Lovecraft mythos.
This has the hallmarks of a organised Discordian campaign, I would
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
pages in the last week, and has posted some photographs of the
Wimshurst machine he purchased after the last drive for donations.
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
A series of tubes - following the laughably ignorant explanation
of the issues of Internet bandwidth and net neutrality provided last
week by Republican Senator
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
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.
- 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
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!
- 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.
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...
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
37-39°C, 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 33°C, and it will be interesting to
see if this resolves the problem.
- 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...
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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...