30th June

I've haven't had many comments since I incorporated the HaloScan system into these pages, but there has been a steady trickle and I'm usually very interested in the opinions and feedback posted. My link to an article on the unexpectedly rapid conclusion of a Mac hacking challenge has evidently aroused the ire of a wandering Mac fanboy, however, and he decided to try to take me down a peg or two:

Hmmm, bit over-impressed with a Mac hacker who later admitted that he had an account on the machine previous to it going live.

When the account was removed, the Mac stayed on-line unhacked for - oh - 3 months.

Never mind, retreat into your PC-centric world and deny it happened and that Bill Gates is your father..... buhahahahahahaha

 - Your only reader

I'm always interested in debating the great OS Wars, and as I've been using computers since the late seventies (forget Mac OS vs. Windows - I grew up on CP/M vs. DOS) I think I'm entitled to an opinion or two. Of course, there's little point in trying to hold a sensible discussion with a waterhead like this, but as he decided to use an ad hominem attack rather than providing facts to illustrate his claims my pride has been stung - and futile or not I am going to try to set the record straight. The poster declined to leave his name, of course, so I shall take a leaf from Slashdot's book and refer to him as "Anonymous Coward".

Leaving aside the invective and just focussing on the content of his posting, Mr Coward seems sadly misinformed about what actually happened. To begin with, his assertion that the "hacker later admitted that he had an account on the machine previous to it going live" seems to be a basic misunderstanding. He didn't see the need to support the statement with a link, but I've spent the last hour skimming through a fair selection of Mac forums (boy, there are a lot of bitter, angry people there!) and I can't find anything at all that agrees with him.

It seems likely that he has become confused by the fact that everyone who wanted to try their luck in the contest was provided with a user-level shell account on the system by the contest organiser, and although this was certainly unusual (and, in fact, most of the Mac evangelists claimed that this was setting the cross-bar way too low to make the contest sensible) nevertheless the hacker who broke in so quickly managed to elevate this limited access to root privileges without difficulty and at that point the Mac was his oyster.

Whatever the wisdom of the shell accounts, though, the elevation of user-level access to root privs is a serious issue in any operating system, and the fact that the hacker accomplished this using a previously unknown vulnerability (some security experts claim that there are a lot of these!) should have been ringing alarm bells rather than prompting angry denials. Certainly, the brave individual who launched the challenge seems to have learned a number of lessons - in fact, his web site says just that, and given such a spirit of open disclosure it seems odd that he wouldn't have mentioned if the hack had only been achieved by an end-run around the security systems in the way that Mr Coward asserts. Given this, and my own research, I'm quite confident in dismissing the allegation completely.

The second claim, that the Mac stayed online un-hacked for three months, is more easily refuted. The contest organiser's own web site says:

"rm my Mac" was online for one month, between February 22nd and March 22nd 2006

and I think that's fairly clear, don't you...

So, where does that leave us? My suggestion in the original posting that no OS is inherently secure is obviously just as valid as ever, and in fact most of the big names in computer security are on record as saying the same. The Ars Technica article that I linked to attracted a couple of pages of comment, which is unusually brief for such a provocative topic - but the facts of the hack were undisputed and the discussion focussed largely on the eccentric approach of providing shell accounts in a hacking contest. Elsewhere, since my post in March a significant number of new vulnerabilities have been found and patched in OS X (in fact, in that respect so far it has not been a good year for Apple - see Epicycle passim) and although the Mac evangelists are still burying their heads in the sand I'm firmly convinced that sooner or later there will be a major, major security breach that affects a significant proportion of the Internet-connected Macs worldwide.

And then there is Mr Coward, of course, who right now is doubtless boasting to his fanboy friends about the "Windoze luser" that he dissed... But given the above I rather think that I'm having the last laugh. In fact, Mr Coward put it very nicely himself:  buhahahahahahaha.   :-)


29th June

The problem with having two monitors is that sooner or later one finds oneself looking at them and thinking "Yes, it's good. It's very good. But wouldn't three be even better?" Fortunately I don't have to worry about my bank balance right now, however, as my motherboard is stuffed to the gills and there's no room for a second graphics card, but when I take the plunge and swap to a PCI-Express system (probably early next year, once Vista is here) then I think a third display is definitely on the agenda.

Meanwhile, as I daydream about a 3840x1024 pixel desktop, tonight's links:

A rope in case - a Swedish company is offering file-sharing insurance that will pay all your fines if you are sued by the RIAA for copyright infringement - and will give you a free T-Shirt into the bargain.

Legacy curtains - this enterprising techie has used a large stack of antique punched cards (Fortran source code, it would appear) to make a set of vertical blinds for his bedroom.- Boing Boing founder

Making the switch - Boing Boing founder and life-long Mac fan Cory Doctorow is making the move to Linux and Intel, and his comment about always buying two Apple computers at a time is priceless.  :-)

Carving out a niche - I've linked to various accounts of people who have baited Nigerian scammers, but this genius managed to persuade one to carve him a wooden Commodore 64. Amazing...!

The desktop of tomorrow - the Dynamics Graphics Project at the University of Toronto has released a video of a 3D desktop metaphor using gestures, and for a change it does quite seem plausible.

Bigger disks - Western Digital have settled a class action suit over the way they describe the capacity of hard disks, an issue that has become significantly more relevant as drive sizes have increased.

Sony dissing MS - the level of anti-Microsoft sentiment emerging from Sony's senior executives seems to be increasing as the PS3 launch grows closer, and most of it is complete rubbish...

And, finally, it may soon be possible to look inside the atom - new developments in laser technology can produce pulses of coherent UV light around 100 attoseconds (10-18 seconds) long, and when processed through highly specialised optics the interference patterns created are at a sufficiently short wavelength as to make it feasible to observe the motion of individual electrons within a molecule. Needless to say, given the strictures of the Uncertainty Principle  this is a pretty astounding notion, and it will be very interesting to see if anything come from it in the real world.


28th June

I've wanted a larger USB flash memory drive for a while, and when I noticed today that Freecom had updated their rather wonderful credit card design to higher capacities and a USB2 interface it seemed like a good opportunity to retire the 128Mb freebie I was given after whoring for Microsoft at the Exchange 2003 launch. The price listed on Freecom's generic European web site is 50.90 (about 35), which is a little steep for a 1Gb module but not unbearable given the unique form factor. However, as I proceeded through the shopping process I was asked to choose my country, and in the final stages I suddenly noticed that I was being charged 53.49 instead, almost 20 more than I was expecting. That's a mark-up from the EU price of 50.90 to a staggering 77.52, and I won't stand still for a gouging like that! I'll shop elsewhere for something that will probably be somewhat less elegant, but will definitely be better value. The bandits...

Elsewhere, the usual random titbits of news and gossip:

Steampunk - at Make, a fascinating interview with I-Wei Huang, creator of the marvellous Crab Fu animation, who apparently has a side-line in creating delightfully retro steam-powered robots.

Incremental CD - performance artists The Realists are selling their latest opus as a pair of blank CDs, together with the rights to download the media to fill them as it is released every other week.

Defending Microsoft - an article in house organ MCP Magazine advises partners and industry professionals on how to argue against the company's ubiquitous opponents and detractors.

Domestic design - LED lights that plug into a USB port have proliferated since Kensington first released their Flylight, but as far as I'm aware this is the only one to come with a lampshade!

Object recognition - Plasma Online has a comprehensive database to help identify PC anonymous expansion cards etc hardware from their PCI ID string or FCC approval number. Very useful!

Security template - at the Concurring Opinions blog, a convenient guide for the media to use when reporting the latest horrendous civil liberties transgression by the Bush government.

An object lesson - a parody of what the minimalist iPod packaging might look like if it had been designed along the lines of Microsoft's products - and it was created by MS staff as a warning...

Wireless law - an Oregon man has been charged with theft of services for regularly connecting to a coffee shop's open wireless network while sat in his car outside. I do NOT approve of that.

Religious spyware - the fundamentalist Christian video game Left Behind contains spyware which collects various gaming and personal information and sends the data back to the publishers.

The future of DVD - an article at online AV magazine Audioholics suggests that the new high definition DVD formats have failed even before they have been properly launched.

Irrelevant - CNN Money has published a list of ten movers and shakers who, in spite of being rich and influential, don't actually matter in the real world. Interesting to see Linus Torvalds among them...


26th June

Epicycle was offline all afternoon and evening, yesterday, along with every other site on my hosting service FastHosts and a large number of other sites and services based in the Cotswolds. Although hard facts were few and far between yesterday, the truth finally emerged today and actually it was somewhat less likely than any of the rumours of botched Cisco router upgrades and data centre emergencies that were being batted around on Sunday.

In fact, the problems were caused by malicious damage caused to a pair of fibre optic cables that formed part of NTL Telewest's backbone near Bristol, cutting off Fasthosts' Gloucester-based facility as well as Internet and cable television services to around 100,000 consumers in the area. Given the timing of the damage, just an hour before the England vs. Ecuador World Cup football match, some have speculated that this was terrorist action carried out by anti-football fanatics, but having seen any number of BT's neighbourhood comms cabinets smashed open and spewing their brightly-coloured guts out onto the pavement it seems just as likely to be another of those random acts of violence so beloved of teenagers everywhere.

Fasthosts has announced that it will "upgrade" its network over the next couple of weeks, presumably by adding additional backbone feeds via a different supplier, but given that they had a not dissimilar failure back in 2001 one would have thought that they would have learned the lesson of putting all their eggs in one basket long before now. Most of the company's 250,000-odd web sites are run by small businesses, and as the outrage happened well outside of regular office hours I suspect that they won't be that fussed this time, but it will be interesting to check the figures again in a few months and see how many voted with their feet.

Elsewhere, some random links...

Safe at any speed - the Sawstop circular saw stops automatically when the blade touches human flesh, retracting into the saw table faster than the eye can see. I have to admit that I can't for the life of me imagine how that works, but it's exceedingly clever and very impressive.

Heroine in a half shell - Charles Darwin's tortoise Harriet, the oldest animal in the world, has died in its home at the Australia Zoo near Brisbane at the age of 176. Darwin collected the beast on the Galapagos Islands in 1835 during his historic voyage on the Beagle.

Too much time - the power of collaborative web-based projects has been proved time and again, so it should be no surprise that an attempt to decipher the rather obscure lyrics of the closing song of the 1999 South Park movie rapidly reached an informative consensus.

Back from the grave - and talking of TV animations, I am delighted to report that my all-time favourite, Matt Groening's Futurama, is to return with a new series of at least 13 episodes. Although the show had a somewhat cool reception when first aired, it has since gained a (well-deserved) cult following.

Mean-spirited - Apple's current anti-PC campaign features author and Daily Show stalwart John Hodgman in the role of a boring, office-bound PC, but Slate's Seth Stevenson finds the character more sympathetic than the trendy hipster representing a Mac, almost a parody of the image.

Art imitating art - an inspired designer in the multiplayer online game 2nd Life has created a virtual homage to Robert Heinlein's classic short story "And He Built A Crooked House", complete with the exasperating geometry that threatens to trap the story's characters.

Oriental wisdom - Ken Kutaragi, president and CEO of Sony's video gaming division, is acquiring quite a reputation for spouting arrant gibberish in support of his PlayStation creations, my favourite being his justification for not bundling a hard disk with the PS3.

And, finally, MTV has published their list of the ten most influential computer gamers, and although the No 1 slot is rightly taken by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins (better known as web comic artists Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade), to my delight that annoying twit Jonathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel is nowhere to be seen. Having seen his stupidly grinning mugshot seemingly plastered across every item of gaming hardware over the last year, I am sincerely hoping that he is rapidly on his way to well-deserved obscurity.


24th June

Today's burning question: Why is Jamaican dancehall reggae the only genre to have recognised the musical potential of the stadium air-horn?

Meanwhile, while we all ponder... Back last autumn I wrote about a rather unsatisfactory experience I had when shopping with high-end hardware supplier Performance PCs (and the brush off I received from the company owner Hank Baron), so while browsing through the search terms that have brought people to this site, last night, I was especially interested to see several along the lines of "performance pcs hank baron". Following the search back to Google showed that the two entries discussing my problems were at numbers two and three in the list, and that number one was also a complaint. In fact, it was several complaints, as once the thread at modding site Xtreme Systems was underway a number of other disgruntled customers chimed in with extremely similar stories. I was especially struck by a quote from the aforementioned Hank Baron, who responded to a customer's complaint that a component had arrived broken with the statement "we do not have time to inspect everything out of the packing prior to shipment". I have to admit that I had been starting to weaken somewhat in my resolve to stay away from Performance PCs, as they do have an extremely good product range, but reading that has reminded me of exactly what I was so displeased about. It serves once again as a reminder of how powerful web-based communities and resources can be in affecting people's buying decisions: caveat vendor - let the seller beware...

Closer to home, apparently one of my local water suppliers Thames Water has missed their official target to reduce leaks and wastage for the second year running, in spite of increasing prices to the consumer by an average of 24% and achieving a 31% rise in annual profits to 346 million before tax. Consumers in the area supplied by Thames are already banned from using hosepipes because of the current drought, with bans on washing cars and watering gardens possible if the hot weather continues, and there are even threats of shutting down the water supply and making people queue at public standpipes - something that hasn't happened in England since 1976.

Although the money the company has raked in can't substitute for a lack of rain, of course, it certainly could have been used to finance replacement of the crumbling Victorian water mains at a faster rate has been achieved to date, and yet the government regulator OFWAT lists Thames as having the highest leakage of any company in England and Wales - a staggering 894 million litres per day, representing a third of the water it pumps!

With such poor performance compared to such significant profits, one doesn't have to look much further afield for an explanation than the usual duo - the greed and incompetence of corporate executives (apparently the CEO takes home a salary of 800,000 a year), and the greed and irresponsible attitude of their shareholders. When the Thatcher government first raised the possibility of privatising the national water companies in the late eighties, serious concerns were raised about placing such a critical resource into the hands of organisations whose first priority would be to the shareholders instead of to the public. As with all the other Conservative government privatisations of the eighties and nineties, however, we were assured that this would not be a significant factor, and that the improvements to efficiency and management that would come from the proven experience of the private sector would make up for the requirement to make a profit. As with all the other privatisations, of course, these benefits were entirely mythical and the water monopolies were used purely as a license to print money.

As it happens, Thames Water is currently owned by the German utilities group RWE, the third largest water company in the world, and who are apparently extremely keen to dispose of their lame duck as quickly as possible - ostensibly to focus on its electricity supply business, but I would imagine that the spectre of the hefty fines that could be imposed by the regulator OFWAT (up to 10% of the company's 1.39 billion turnover!) if Thames continues to miss leakage targets certainly can't be helping...

It is interesting to note that RWE's desire to sell is likely to make the local situation worse, however. Last  month Thames refused the Environment Agency's call for them to apply for a drought order which would have banned all non-essential water use - this could have staved off the threat of standpipes later on this summer, but at the cost of highlighting the company's failings to prospective buyers: a public outcry from customers against such waste and inefficiency is hardly good PR when a sale is in the offing. In an industry that is apparently considerably less clean than the product it supplies, presumably a shiny image is everything.


22nd June

A handful of industry news links for your edification and delight - most of them seem to be on legal and DRM themes, tonight:

Fighting the RIAA - the Consumer Electronics Association has criticised the media industry for what they describe as "fear-mongering" over the satellite radio, quoting historical opponents to new media technology dating back to John Philip Sousa's dire predictions on the effects of the player piano.

An unpalatable truth - the VP of Real Networks has suggested that Linux distributions must embrace mainstream DRM standards if they want to become a viable consumer OS, or risk relegation to the data center, an idea that is roundly dismissed by the Free Software Foundation.

No to DRM - Files Are Not For Sharing is a cartoon by Matthew Baldwin and Will Guy, using the somewhat unexpected metaphor of a bizarre mutant cat to lampoon the media industry's equally bizarre stance on copying music and movies.

Piracy under debate - at the Wall Street Journal, an email debate between a senior MPAA executive and a law professor specialising in intellectual property and First Amendment issues. The latter's argument is that DRM does nothing to prevent commercial piracy, but merely interferes with fair use.

International pressure - via Boing Boing, the text of the letter from the MPAA that triggered the Swedish government's raid on torrent tracker site ThePirateBay, mentioning demands by the American Embassy and making what can only be described as veiled threats if action isn't taken...

Above the law - the EFF are awaiting a hearing in their suit about the NSA's domestic spying program, following the government's argument that even if their actions are ruled illegal, the court could not proceed because it could not acknowledge the existence of such secret operations!

Lies and statistics - the telco lobbyists are still lying through their teeth about net neutrality, claming in an animated PR cartoon that the Internet can't possibly develop and grow unless they are allowed to charge extra for use of the high bandwidth pipes used to deliver popular services.

No phoning home - although the WGA anti-piracy tool is perfectly reasonable at heart, the fact that it regularly contacts Microsoft to confirm that a genuine Windows is still genuine has aroused some considerable ire, but there is now a 3rd-party addon which disables this questionable behaviour.

Damned if they do - Sunbelt Software has accused Microsoft of stifling innovation with its competitive pricing of anti-spyware and anti-virus tools, claiming that they are undercutting the competition by as much as 60%. I think this may say more about the competition than about MS, though...

Transparent accounting - I've always had a dislike for software house Computer Associates (even after they cunningly rebranding themselves as CA) and the news that one of their former executives attempted to buy customers' silence over a company accounting scandal has failed to change that.

Seagate swallows Maxtor - the storage giant's acquisition of its smaller rival has been approved by both US and EU anti-monopoly bodies, in a process that a company exec has admitted was "surprisingly smooth and quick". Six thousand Maxtor employees have already been laid off...

The next big thing - suddenly everybody is talking about ultra-wideband communications, otherwise known as spread-spectrum radio. It's not a protocol so much as a technology concept, and is likely to be used to pass existing standards such as Bluetooth and USB over a fast, resilient wireless link.

As the crow files - at DSL Zone UK, a useful little utility that accepts your postcode and calculates the distance to the nearest telephone exchange. The locations of exchanges used to be closely guarded by BT (in the interest of national security, allegedly!) but ADSL seems to have changed all that.


21st June

My squirrel has been back again, and although it hasn't yet noticed the feeder I installed earlier in the month it's certainly as bold as usual: today it treated me to an impressive display of gymnastics by climbing straight up the wall of the house only a few yards away from where I was standing with the camera. In fact, there are two squirrels visiting my garden at the moment (unlike this one, the second has an extremely threadbare tail that makes it easily recognisable), and given their reputation as voracious predators where nuts and seeds are concerned it's something of a mystery to me why neither has found the squirrel feeder, hung from the trellis only a couple of yards away. I've tried sprinkling a few peanuts on the patio underneath the feeder, but although I've seen them snacking on those several times this week apparently it has never occurred to either of them to look upwards to see where they fell from...

Meanwhile, the ever-useful ADSL Guide has an informative summary on the state of BT's somewhat troublesome ADSL Max roll-out. It's clear now that the Max product was still very much unfinished when BT decided to start offering it to consumers, and it seems likely that the success of high-speed local-loop unbundled connections from the likes of Bulldog and Be had thrown them into something of a panic. Anecdotal reports in the various user forums suggest that there are still a number of problems, as well, with suggestions that the higher packet priority allegedly offered by the Office Max products is actually something of a fantasy...

Regular readers might remember that I've had my own problems with Max, as even after BT resolved the nationwide BRAS capping glitch, I was finding that the connection would display intermittent bursts of errors and drop the line to resynchronise every few hours. Having fiddled around myself for a week or two, re-terminating the connections in my wallbox and experimenting with disconnecting analogue phones and switching off my wireless LAN and video-sender hardware for a while in case it was RF interference, I eventually gave in and logged a problem with my ISP, Zen. I haven't actually heard anything much back from them so far, but as I write this the line has been up for 28 hours, definitely a new record, and the numbers of CRC and HEC errors logged are still only in single figures rather than tens or even hundreds.

Between line drops, however, although the actual transfer speed varies somewhat between 4.5 and 5.5Mbit due to the growing bugbear of contention, it's at least twice as fast as my previous 2Mbit line for only 5 per month more, and I think that's a good deal. Now if only BT can reliably keep my line synchronised for more than a few hours at a time, I will be a happy bunny indeed.


20th June

I may not have a leg to stand on, but at least the same can't be said for the Ma.K. kit I'm currently labouring over. They were a touch fiddly, as could be expected from the fully articulated design, but a satisfying stage to have completed - although I have to admit that I only skipped forward to the legs because the prospect of assembling the chassis itself is still somewhat daunting!

A few random links:

Blocked at source - apparently journalists in the LA Times newsroom have their Internet access filtered by the Websense system, and having administered a system running this software myself I am fully aware of how arbitrary and restrictive their database is. All the news that's fit to print, indeed...

More on censorship - following last week's reports that Yahoo applies the most stringent censorship of the Chinese search engines, Boing Boing contributors based in the country have provided further details on the limitations that they are encountering.

Microsoft wins in court - just for a change the computer giant has benefited from a legal decision rather than being penalised by one, as the recent ruling that permits eBay to continue using a patented process has been applied to a dispute over the Windows product activation mechanism.

Bypassing the law - it is emerging that US federal and local law enforcement agencies are avoiding the fuss of obtaining subpoenas or warrants to obtain private information and instead are using commercial data collection services, many of whom admit to having gathered their data illegally!

Silicon-based clock - at the excellent Think Geek, another little gem... this fob watch contains a compass and a scale model of Stonehenge that works as a sundial, allowing not only the local time to be calculated, but also providing the dates of the winter and summer solstices.

Camera zapper - researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a system that scans for the CCDs in digital cameras, and then "neutralizes" (i.e. destroys) them with a laser. Possible applications include preventing unauthorised videos from being made in movie theatres.

Wings of fury - the idea of flechette ammunition is nothing new, but the application of the concept to 6mm airsoft BBs is certainly interesting. These rounds are designed for use in the official RAP4 shell-ejecting airsoft replicas, but I think that they should work in my Area 51 hybrid as well. Interesting...


19th June

Thanks to some unexpected free time I've had the opportunity to play with some new software today, a little utility that rips and transcodes DVDs into a format suitable for use on my Palm Tungsten T3. There are a few of these on the market, and having played with a demo of one that crashed immediately every time I tried to launch the Windows application, I settled instead on the Palm Media Studio from Makayama Interactive. The Windows component of the application is low on frills but businesslike and efficient, ripping an average DVD in around 45 minutes on my system, and there are a few settings that can be tweaked to set the aspect ratio of the source media, or isolate particular segments of a multi-feature DVD, if required.

The Palm application is actually an open source viewer, the Core Media Pocket Player, and it seems to do a very respectable job. It can automatically rotate the video to fit the T3's widescreen display, and the resulting picture is smooth and clear. Obviously, given the nature of the heavyweight compression used to shrink a full-length DVD movie into 150Mb of over-sized postage stamp, there is a degree of MPEG artifacting, but it's certainly not obtrusive in most scenes and the four very different DVDs I have tried so far are all extremely watchable. The built-in amplifier and speakers of the T3 are not the best (my Samsung D600 phone seems noticeably louder and clearer in hands-free mode, and my friend Graham's late-model Treo PDA is better still) but the sound is certainly good enough in spite of that and use of headphones or external speakers would help further.

The software costs $29.95, but during the football World Cup there is a 15% discount (something that, to my annoyance, I was not made aware of when I purchased it at the Handango store) so I guess the wretched sport is good for something, at least... Either way, however, being able to stuff at least five full-length movies onto a 1Gb SD card costing less than twenty quid makes the software a very worthwhile investment - recommended.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Bugging the politicians - telemarketers have started ringing the secure emergency phones used by US state governors and similar, and they don't like it. One wonders if this will provide enough incentive to overcome the pressure applied by the marketing lobby to keep such cold-calling legal.

May the cube be with you - PC cases from Lian Li have always been among the best on the market for high-end systems, but until now their largest offerings have been in a traditional full-tower format. Their new modular cube case is extremely impressive at first glance, though, and is very capacious.

Top of the flops - at Microsoft Watch, a list of the company's Top 10 doomed and failed projects. Some are obvious, such as BOB, the smart wristwatch and Windows ME, but where did they come up with the curious idea that Microsoft should have released their own version of Linux...?

Doomed projects - a new problem has emerged in the troubled systems run by HM Revenue & Customs, resulting in the "temporary" loss of national insurance contributions from some 500,000 taxpayers -  and the department is asking for help from those affected in repairing the damage!


18th June

A few quick links to wind up the weekend:

No visible means of support - Microsoft has issued a reminder that it is ending support for Windows XP SP1 in early October, less than four months away. After this, security updates and incident support will only be available for the SP2 version of the OS, so we'd all better get our skates on.

Burning up - at DX Gaming, an interesting article on the power consumption of the modern gaming consoles, both when active and when in standby mode. It's not terribly surprising that the Xbox 360 is well ahead of the competition in this regard, as it has more horsepower than the rest put together.

Dangerous Dan - more letters for the Aussie tech guru, and this time the bozos are out in force - he has to steer people away from re-inventing the fibre-channel wheel, frying their data using  DISKPART, and killing both themselves and their PC by using mercury in the cooling system...

Very tiny machines - the TechEBlog gadget news site has published a list of their Top 10 Strangest Mini-sized devices. Some are obviously just R&D exercises, but are impressive even so - the ultra-portable projector, for example, and Citizen's miniature robots.

Stretching the hardware - Microsoft has released the requirements for a system to run Vista Premium to its fullest extent, and they're certainly demanding: SATA 2.5 hybrid hard disks with 50Mb NV cache, for example, and a fully HD-compliant video  and audio subsystem. Gosh!

Wild rumours - Microsoft has repeatedly denied any planes to manufacture their own MP3 player to go head-to-head with the iPod, but a story at AppleInsider claims that this is not the case. They don't provide any significant details of either the device or their sources, however, and I'm not convinced.

Lies and statistics - at 12.4bn the cost of the UK's health service IT programme is set to double, but this doesn't mean that it is over-budget: the Department Of Health always knew that it was going to cost this much, it seems, even when they were steadfastly insisting that it would only cost 6bn...

Going green - my friend Graham's company appiChar, a consultancy that specialises in system design and support for charitable organisations, has become one of the first UK companies to go "carbon neutral" PCs by planting enough trees to offset the CO2 produced by its computer use.


17th June

I've really been enjoying building the Ma.K. models over the last couple of months, and as soon as I finished the AFS "Konrad" I started on the next one in the pile, the Heavy Armoured Fighting Suit "Jerry". This is a larger and rather more complex model, and has been quite challenging even at these relatively early stages. The little three-fingered manipulator arm, for example, consists of nine interlocking, pivoting links inside its corrugated rubber shroud, giving the flexibility of a tentacle!

The next stage is to assemble the two halves of the body shell, and as this seems to require the growth of several additional limbs to position and hold all the other components that must be integrated into the assembly at the same time, I'm saving that until tomorrow. Watch this space for an update on progress...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

TV adverts - I'm not sure how long this site will last once the copyright holders notice it, but right now, at least, the Ephinx site has a good collection of recent UK television ads, not all of which have been aired in the London region as yet. Thanks to The Sideshow for the pointer.

Whizz for atoms - images of individual atoms arranged in interesting patterns by a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope are fairly run-of-the-mill, now, but I think it's important to remember exactly how staggering, how wonderful, this technological achievement really is. I mean - actual atoms!

Outlet mall - I'm rather pleased with my little desktop power and data pod, so I was impressed to see that the excellent Cableorganizer.com has a whole range of similar devices. Of course, none of them are compatible with UK mains power, but hopefully we'll see 240V equivalents soon.

The worst of the worst - not only does Yahoo! censor the Chinese version of its search engine, as widely reported elsewhere, but in fact it has emerged that it censors more than any other search facility available in that country, even the native portal baidu.com. Not very impressive, is it...

Aftermath - the raid on torrent tracker site ThePirateBay has caused all sorts of fuss, including attacks on a Swedish police web site and copious complaints to local politicians, especially since it emerged that the raid came about following pressure from the US government and media cartel.

Insourcing - UK energy supplier Powergen is cancelling the contract for its outsourced Indian call centre and creating a new facility of its own, 1000 strong, in this country. Overseas call centres are increasingly a source of customer complaints, and I think that other companies will soon follow.

The future - At Dan's Data the Oz tech guru is pontificating again, this time on why the long-heralded smart house is still a long way away and why, when it does finally arrive, it should on no account contain an Internet-enabled refrigerator.

Genuine disadvantage - Microsoft's anti-piracy checker "Windows Genuine Advantage" is not a popular addon, it seems, with a number of rather sneaky habits, but it has to be said that the majority of problems are encountered by people who are using a pirated copy of Windows...


16th June

It's that link again...

Elonex winding up  - following Time's demise last year, another of the old-timers of the UK microcomputer industry has gone into receivership. I used to buy add-ons for my BBC Micro from Elonex back in the mid-eighties, and their PC clones were common in small offices in the nineties.

Gates stepping down - Chairman Bill has announced that he is going to further distance himself from Microsoft over the next two years, in order to devote more time to the impressively effective charitable foundation he runs together with his wife Melinda.

Pinhole - a decommissioned military aircraft hanger in California is being converted into the world's largest pinhole camera, with a 31' x 111' negative that will be exposed for ten days before being developed in a swimming pool of solution.

The ethics of ubiquity - the potential of ubiquitous computing (the widespread use of location aware embedded technology) is powerful and fascinating, but it raises a number of worrying civil liberties and ethical issues which are discussed in a presentation from tech guru Adam Greenfield.

Road signs remixed - many of these Photoshopped road signs are fairly appalling, of course, but scattered among them are some real gems and fortunately most of them have made it to the favourites page. I was greatly amused by "Quantum Junction - Get In Both Lanes"...

RIAA confusion - apparently the RIAA has started threatening YouTube users who have posted videos of people singing and dancing to their favourite songs, but unfortunately it seems that hoax take-down notices are now being circulated and this is only serving to muddy the waters.

Blame Apple - in the wake of protests against Apple's iTunes DRM, the fanboys are bleating that it's not Apple's fault... But Seth Schoen from the EFF has shown that in fact Apple's embrace of the technology has been enthusiastic, abusive and thoroughgoing, not just a response to market forces.

Cancellation - following the recently publicised recording of a user trying to cancel his AOL account, some general advice on the best approaches has been posted at Boing Boing, and it has just emerged that the AOL employee in question has now been fired.

Pointed DNS - reverse DNS lookups on the domains registered by the notorious torrent tracker ThePirateBay reveals some snide little digs at their nemeses from the media industry. Among others, you can find "hey.mpaa.and.apb.bite.my.shiny.metal.ass.thepiratebay.org". Heh!

More geek chic - these cufflinks made with a snippet of UTP cable and a spare RJ-45 connector are cunning, but I think that the way they're attached is a bit clumsy. In the odd emergency I've made my own out of twisted pair coiled around on itself to form something more traditionally shaped.

Absurdity - the UK's upcoming Violent Crime Reduction Bill is a thoroughly pointless and counter-productive piece of legislation, but it pales in comparison to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban paints that could be used to make real weapons look like brightly-coloured replicas.

And finally, the Fake Detective is a remarkable resource which for some reason I've only just come across, in spite of it being around ten years old. It has always surprised and amused me that one of the most common search terms used by visitors to Epicycle is "Dolly Parton topless", following a single reference, more than four years ago, to a fake picture of the busty country star hosted on another site. I was puzzling over this again while looking through my stats a few days ago, and it occurred to me to try to determine how widespread this particular image was.

Instead, I came across a site that represents one man's magnificent obsession with exposing faked celebrity images of all types, from the downright obscene, through the highly bizarre, to the merely spicy. Each one, and there are currently around five hundred, comes with an overview of the techniques used to create the fake and, whenever possible, the original images that were used to construct the composite. It's a fascinating collection, and while some of the fakes are crude and unimaginative others are as finely crafted as any commercial art forgery, giving rise to the inevitable speculation as to why anyone should spend so much time and effort on something so trivial.

The Detective, Ed Lake, is evidently somewhat paranoid about his bandwidth bills and has prominently requested that people do not link directly to his site, but in spite of that he's well-indexed in Google and an appropriate search will unearth him in short order. The site is well worth a look, for whatever reason...


14th June

I'm starting to think that, like Douglas Adams' Rain God, I have some kind of link to the local weather patterns. Last year, having suffered through weeks of temperatures in the high twenties I finally gave in and bought an air conditioner - and a week or so later, the day before I finally had the exhaust vent installed in the wall, the summer ended for all intents and purposes. Although there were a few more hot days after that the newly-connected aircon was pretty much ornamental for the next nine months.

This year, of course, the air conditioned lounge threw the furnace-like bedroom into stark contrast (especially with the heat from a medium-sized computer installation following the laws of physics by migrating upstairs), and after some investigation online I ordered an evaporative cooler - although these designs are not quite as effective as a refrigerative unit, without the noisy compressor they're a lot more suitable for a bedroom.

Only about an hour after I received a phone call to confirm the delivery date, however, I found myself in the heaviest rainstorm I have ever experienced. I was driving along the A13 towards East London when the sky started to darken into an extremely unsettling shade of greenish-grey, and within minutes the road was awash and the windscreen wipers were struggling even at their highest speed. By the time I drove through East Ham some of the streets were under six inches of water and things were getting a bit anxious, especially when the tarmac surface burst open to emit a massive fountain of dirty water and one of the cars in front of me fell into the hole!

A few hours later when I was driving home, however, the floods had subsided and everything had pretty much dried out, but today's sunshine has been decidedly subdued and given that the new cooler is due to arrive tomorrow I can't help but wonder...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Cancelling AOL - it's widely known that escaping from the online service's clutches takes a firm approach, but this recording of an argument with a vindictive call centre employee is far worse I would have expected.

Mac stains - it has not been a good few months for Apple's hardware division... After the various fire and explosion warnings, reports of odd discolourations on the white casing of MacBooks are proliferating, as are reports of nasty leaks in the liquid cooling systems of the G5 desktops.

Oh, the shame - and talking of Apple, an article in Wired discusses the news of the wretched working conditions in the Chinese factory that manufactures iPods. It has to be said that Apple are far from alone in this, but their sanctimonious attitude does leave them somewhat more open to censure.

Copyfighting - presumably in response to the media industry's dubious new "Captain Copyright" character, the EFF has released their own animation, "The Corruptibles". It's not actually very good, I have to say, but the message is clear and every little helps.

Pulp fiction - Slate has commissioned new covers for six classic novels, including Moby Dick ("Primitive pirate passions were a prelude to death!") and Alice In Wonderland ("One girl's drug-induced descent into dreamland debauchery"). Great stuff...

See-thru - somewhere in the morass that is Flickr, a gallery of laptops with wallpaper images of the view immediately behind the screen. They look wonderfully surreal, but I suspect that the effect would be ruined if everything wasn't lined up just so.


12th June

Hot! Hot! Hot! Looks like the weather will break tomorrow, though, which will be something of a relief to a pasty-skinned Celt such as myself, even if it comes as a disappointment to my hot-blooded Caribbean inamorata...

Some quick links, then, before either myself or the air conditioner melts in the heat:

The march of progress - perpendicular storage disk technology has arrived, and arrived with a bang. Seagate's new Barracuda has a cavernous 750Gb capacity, and it's clear that this is only the start.

SAP blamed - disastrous implementations of the enterprise resource planning system are nothing new, of course, and Cadbury's estimate of 12m losses is fairly routine for the early phases.

In the dog house - the anti-DRM protestors have turned their sights from Microsoft to Apple, this week, which is especially appropriate given Steve Jobs' outrageous U-turn over the last few years.

Fighting DRM - EFF founder John Perry Barlow has been arguing DRM and the music industry with MPAA chairman Dan Glickman, and all indications are that Barlow carried the debate.

Free beer - a group of Danish free culture activists have put their money firmly where their mouths are, with the release of a pair of open source beer recipes.

Life in the old dog - IBM is targeting the PR for its z/series mainframes towards university students, providing mainframe courses and, indeed, mainframes themselves in the hope of arousing interest.

Sport for free - in spite of threatening letters from the notorious legal firm Baker & McKenzie, Wired magazine has helpfully provided instructions on watching the football World Cup online for free.

Football madness - and on a related note, the UK's TV Licensing Authority has announced that if employees watch football online without a television license their directors could be legally liable.

Jumping ship - the well known and influential Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble is to leave the Seattle giant for a start-up that is podcasting interviews with technology industry luminaries.

Science fiction - Wired's regular "Found" feature, this month, is a bookshelf that has apparently fallen intact through a time warp. It's a pity that these little gems don't have an index of their own, though.

Science faction - on a similar note, The Institute For The Future (founded in the late sixties by a group of ex-RAND Corporation researchers) has published its latest list of potential big sellers.

Jpod - it's not often that an author writes the counterpoint to one of his own books, but apparently Douglas Couplands's new work is very much the antithesis of his 1995 novel "Microserfs".


11th June

Would you send a laptop hard disk through the mail wrapped only in a piece cut from a plastic anti-static bag and the thinnest padded envelope imaginable? No, neither would I, but the person I've just bought said hard disk from on eBay is insisting that this is perfectly adequate:

The facts speak for themselves, however, as the disk arrived with a number of large, impressive dents in the top casing, and having seen them I wasn't at all surprised to find that having installed it in a USB enclosure it just made a sad little clicking noise and wouldn't even come online.

When I reported this to the seller the response was rather unexpected: "I am sorry to hear that you are dissatisfied with your purchase, however, I am a private seller and nowhere on my auctions do I offer refunds. However I will give you the benefit of the doubt and agree to a 50% refund."

Needless to say, I was not impressed by this. Whether she is a private seller or not, it is still her responsibility to ensure that items she ships out are safely packaged, and a quick look around the Post Office's web site reveals (not entirely to my surprise!) that the recommended packaging for computer components is a rigid cardboard container and at least 2cm of padding all round. When I pointed out these facts her response was somewhat bizarre: she accused me of being "aggressive" towards her, and even went so far as to suggest that I had damaged the disk myself in order to have an excuse to send it back!

She did eventually offer a full refund, but only on the condition that I left positive feedback for her. This demand really annoyed me, as there was no way I was going to say nice things about someone who behaved like that (especially with no guarantee that she wouldn't leave thoroughly unpleasant feedback for me in return right afterwards) and given that we were only talking about a sum of less than 40 I tried an experiment...

Carefully removing the top cover showed clear circular marks on the surface where the dented metal had scored across the topmost platter of the disk. However, as it happens I have another hard disk of the same model, and knowing that there isn't usually data recorded on the top platter of a drive of this type, I borrowed the undamaged cover from the other drive and hooked it up to the laptop again. I wasn't completely surprised when the drive spun up and was recognised correctly by Windows, but what was unexpected was to find a complete, working (if somewhat virus-ridden) Windows XP environment, complete with all the data of a regular home PC installation - photos from a digital camera, personal letters, downloaded music (Mtley Cre and Les Miserables? How eclectic!), pirated software and games, and even a university dissertation (somewhat trivial, in my humble opinion) on web site design for a cinema!

This started me thinking, as nobody in their right mind would sell a hard disk without making at least some effort to remove their personal data, and even though none of the methods that an average user will employ are actually worth much, in this case it was fairly clear that nothing had been attempted at all! I found this significant, and given her unexpected willingness to accuse me of fraudulent behaviour I formed a theory of my own: if one has a dead laptop disk drive (damaged in some bizarre fashion by collision with a blunt object), and an absence of morals, maybe it would seem clever to sell it on eBay and then send it out in deliberately inadequate packaging so that the Post Office would take the blame for the damage. As the drive was apparently completely dead, it wouldn't be possible to delete the data it held, but on the other hand it wouldn't seem as if there was a need to, either! I certainly wouldn't bother with a scam like this, but eBay attracts all sorts and doubtless somebody would...

Right now the drive seems to be working Ok in its new clothes, but it's obviously had a hard life (whatever the cause!) and I'd never trust it to retain any significant data. This leaves me in something of a quandary, as although there's no way I'm going to leave this woman positive feedback on eBay I really don't want to keep a hard disk with such a dubious history either. I guess I shall have to think about this a little...


10th June

After bemoaning the fact, yesterday, that our SAN system has been made obsolete by Dell's new server range even before entering full production status, I discovered today that the situation is both better and worse than I'd realised. We've been planning some upgrade work on the SAN, recently, but although Dell suggested today as a possible date we declined on the grounds that the rest of my team would be terminally distracted by the football. This message seems to have become lost within the labyrinthine management structure of Dell and their subcontractors Unisys, however, as this morning I received a call from the security guards at the office to say that our regular engineer had arrived and was waiting for me. This was something of an annoyance, but the work really needed doing and so I dropped everything (not literally, I hasten to add, as I was up a ladder with a power drill at the time doing some work on the new trellis) and rushed in to meet him.

While we were waiting for the rather tortuous FLARE upgrade to proceed, he mentioned the new CX3 range that has replaced the CX500 models that we're using, and as they are based around the latest 4Gb/sec fibre channel standard (as well as using point-to-point switching rather than a serial access method of data transfer) they beat the internal SAS drives of the new PowerEdge servers hollow. The bad news, of course, is that our SAN hardware is even more obsolete than I'd realised - apparently the entry level CX3 model is the equivalent of our mid-range CX500, supporting more disks, bigger disks, and faster disks for the same money. Perhaps I won't mention this to my management...

Meanwhile, here's my new squirrel feeder. It came from bird food specialist Haiths, who presumably stock it on the grounds that it's the only way of keeping the damn rodents away from the bird feeders they also sell... I filled it with regular pre-shelled peanuts, as customer comments elsewhere suggest that most squirrels discard the more exotic nuts and seeds in specialist mixtures in favour of the peanuts, so why pay more for less... Now I sit back and wait for the squirrel to return, so watch this space for photos, with luck!


9th June

So I walked past someone showing a new salesman around, and in response to a question I heard him tell the newbie "Oh, he's something in computers..."  A disk drive maybe, or a memory module? If I had to choose, I think I'd be a fibre channel HBA, probably one of the expensive QLogic ones that Dell is so fond of stinging us for recently. Having said that, though, Dell's new 9th Generation rack servers, the 1950 and 2950, have made the jump from conventional Ultra 320 3" SCSI drives to SAS 2" drives running at a blistering 3Gb/sec - and given that during the last year we've dropped several hundred thousand pounds on a SAN based around 2Gb/sec fibre channel interfaces, the ability to host up to 2.4Tb of high-speed local storage in a miniscule 2U chassis is fairly depressing...

Power corrupts (again) - Towards the end of last year's Canadian elections it became obvious that Sam Bulte was not going to be re-elected to the post of Heritage Minister, and so the big businesses that had caused her political downfall switched their attention to Bev Oda, the new favourite and eventual winner. It is emerging that a significant portion of Oda's campaign funding came from the very groups that now seek support from the Minister on key policy issues.

IIS gains ground - Microsoft's web server IIS continues to encroach on Apache's market share, gaining an additional 4.25% over the last month while Apache lost 3.25%, leaving Microsoft and Apache holding 29.7 percent and 61.25 percent total market share respectively. In the last three months Apache has lost 16.7% of the market, although part of this comes from the switch of parked domain company GoDaddy to IIS.

Vista coming near - it's always a good sign when Microsoft releases the first fully-public beta of a new operating system (I still remember the Win95 Beta 2 with great fondness) and yesterday we reached that stage with Vista. According to reports the new release is very slick, and definitely ready to use in testing and enthusiast environments even if not quite ready for production as yet.

Funky iPod - at Ars Technica, a quick look at what must be the most unusual and peculiar speaker system on the market. The FUNKit DJ is essentially an iPod dock with some bolt-on animation consisting of a robot DJ that scratches a pair of little turntables, flashes LEDs in time to the rhythm, and periodically interjects appropriate DJ-esque catch-phrases. I don't approve of the iPod cult at the best of times, but if I was an owner I would pay good money to avoid being given one of these...

Odd priorities - with the hurricane season due one would expect the state legislature of Louisiana to have better things on its collective mind, but evidently not... The highly dubious anti-video game crusader Jack Thompson has persuaded them to enact a law banning the sale of violent video games to minors, in spite of the fact that every other similar attempt has been struck down due to First Amendment issues.


8th June

A few quick links for a blazing hot day. After last week's constant drizzle, summer has come with a vengeance...

The next vapourware - every year I see a new press release about some kind of 3D monitor technology, accompanied by enthusiastic reviews on the hardware sites, but somehow nothing ever comes to the market. An article at CNet suggests that the time is right, but I'm still not convinced...

Disgruntled staff - the IT manager of US investment bank UBS Paine Webber is in court accused of planting a logic bomb that disabled around 2000 servers in 400 of the bank's offices, and I'm amused to see the forensics company @Stake (once the hacking group L0pht) involved in the trial.

A hollow victory - the British equivalent of the RIAA, the BPI, is planning to sue Russian music download site AllofMP3.com in the UK courts, but although they may well win their case the smart money reckons that a ruling wouldn't affect the site itself one little bit...

Booth babes - it's that Computex time of the year again, and with some of the US-based IT trade shows clamping down on the use of scantily dressed models to lure the geeks in, it's good to see that the tradition is still alive in the Pacific Rim.

Google hangs its head - the search company has admitted that it has "compromised its principles" in its relationship with the Chinese government, long after it was plainly obvious to everyone else. Given founder Sergey Brin's oft-stated motto of "do no evil", at this stage they have a lot of making up to do.

WGA, phone home! - it has emerged that Windows Genuine Advantage, Microsoft's new and increasingly prevalent anti-piracy tool, contacts MS servers every day to pass a small packet of data. Microsoft has stated that as the program matures from its pilot phase, this interval will be increased.

A day at Owl Farm - courtesy of TalkLeft, a visit to the home of the late, great gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The house, well known from frequent references in his writings, has been preserved as a monument by Thompson's second wife, Anita, who has started her own blog as well.


7th June

A bumper crop of odd news links:

Rosen rethinks - the former head of the RIAA, initiator of the strong-arm tactics that are currently still so much in vogue, seems to be mellowing in her old age. In a recent article she questions the wisdom of suing your customers, and casts doubt on the usefulness of the entire concept of DRM!

iTunes illegal - the Consumer Ombudsman in Norway has upheld complaints that Apple's iTunes, and other DRM-based online music stores, have discriminatory pricing, unreasonable terms and conditions, and overly-restrictive copy protection.

Common sense - "Linux is insecure. Open source is insecure. Windows is insecure. All software is insecure.". Just when you think that you're lucky to have found such wisdom from a Linux publication, however, you read the comments and are plunged back into the world of the "Windoze Suckz" fanboy.

Why phishing works - a new paper from a team at Harvard presents an extremely depressing (but I suspect extremely accurate) explanation of why the increasingly prevalent phishing scams are proving so very successful at tricking the average Internet user.

DIY routing - thanks to their unauthorised use of open source components in one of their popular wireless router model ranges, Linksys were obliged to release full details of the operating system. This has spawned a number of replacement firmwares, some of which are extremely sophisticated.

More power! - Tyan's new "personal supercomputer", the aptly-named Typhoon, has four removable motherboard units, each with a pair of dual-core Xeon CPUs and 12GB of RAM. The boards are coupled using Windows or Linux clustering software, and prices will start at around $10,000.

Format wars - the battle between the new high-definition optical storage formats, HD-DVD and Blu-ray, is starting to become reminiscent of the VHS vs. Betamax war in the 1980s. The smart money suggests that the issue will be decided in the PC market before reaching the the consumers.

Flaming cameras - as if life for the consumer wasn't dangerous enough with Apple iBooks bursting into flames at the drop of a hat, Hewlett-Packard has been forced to issue a recall for almost 700,000 of its Photosmart R707 digital cameras following a similar tendency to spontaneously ignite.

2,000-year-old computer -  new studies of the Antikythera Mechanism, an intricate device consisting of more than 30 bronze dials and wheels that was recovered from a wreck in the Greek islands, suggests that it may indeed have been designed to calculate the movement of the planets.

Long time, no see - the Long Now Foundation, brainchild of ex-Disney imagineer and parallel processing guru Danny Hillis, has opened new offices in San Francisco, including a new prototype of the infamous clock.

Becoming Magneto - I've linked to a number of excellent articles in Wired recently, and this account of experiments with magnets implanted in fingertips is equally fascinating if somewhat more squeamish, as the testers have developed the ability to accurately sense magnetic and electromagnetic fields.

And, finally, malware running amok - when a friend of Steve Ballmer complained that his PC was running badly, the Microsoft CEO enlisted his techies to investigate. They found it to be infected with more than 100 pieces of malware, some of which were nearly impossible to eradicate, and the scale of what is probably a fairly typical problem has opened a few eyes in the Seattle giant. It will be interesting to see whether the company's newly-launched Windows Live OneCare subscription security service will catch on and, if so, whether it will help address the problem.


5th June

Last week the management of the tech 'blog Boing Boing were sent a bizarre letter from UK solicitors Baker & McKenzie, threatening them with legal action if they dared to host any video of World Cup football games. It's clearly a mistake, as any regular reader will know that Boing Boing is one of the least likely sites on the web to concern itself with conventional sports, and given that the firm of UK solicitors in question has already had a brush with media ridicule last year one would have expected them to be a touch more careful, but it's a clear illustration of the rabid paranoia infecting the media industry at present... I have to admit to watching the first ten minutes of Saturday's England vs. Jamaica match on Saturday (those who know me will understand the reason for this rather bizarre and uncharacteristic behaviour!) but on the whole I firmly endorse the opinion of one of Boing Boing's readers, who has created a rather pointed little video clip to illustrate that there are many more important things in life than football... Hear hear!

Meanwhile, to stave off yet another rant about those stupid England flags that have recently appeared on houses and cars all over London and Essex like some kind of flapping, patriotic rash, some odd links:

Rubik's hypercube - the only way I could solve the original Rubik's Cube was by taking it apart and reassembling it in the correct arrangement, so I didn't even follow the link to this five dimensional virtual equivalent for fear that my brain would simply melt and run out of my ears.

A cold day in hell - the UK's All Party Parliamentary Internet Group, following significant input from the Open Rights Group, has published a very sensible and reasonable set of recommendations on the implementation of DRM in British law. Only time will reveal if the government pays attention, though...

Universal radio - Matt Ettus's USRP project is a software-defined radio, interfaced to a Linux PC via USB, which can receive pretty much any type of radio signal - analogue and HD television, AM and FM radio broadcasts, GPS - all at the same time. It's a fascinating project.

The power of eBay - the online auction firm has become tremendously rich over the last few years, and as usual with such financial success comes matching influence in US political circles. Their lobbying machinery is fast becoming a serious force in state legislatures across the country.

Ballmer speaks - nobody can accuse Microsoft CQO Steve Ballmer of beating about the bush, and in this interview with industry newsletter CRN his emphasis on a particular buzzword, in this case "quality", is wonderfully typical. Sorry, Steve, can you run that one by me again?  :-)

No MS iPod - and talking of Microsoft, I suspect that Apple and Creative are resting more easily tonight following official denials that the company is planning to create their own portable music player. With the iPod such a hot fashion item, I suspect that it would be a tough market to break into.

Online parking - using a cellphone or handheld PC to reserve and pay in advance for a car parking space in a crowded town center sounds like a wonderful idea, and after various pilot projects in Maryland and California the technology looks likely to spread rapidly.

The better mousetrap - this ad-hoc mousetrap idea is probably not especially new, but it's clever anyway. Some of the comments are amusing for various reasons, too, ranging as they do from the duck-squeezingly humane to the downright evil.

And finally, a losing battle - it must have been completely obvious to Aussie tech guru Dan Rutter that he was banging his head against a brick wall, but his attempts to communicate some scientific common sense to a complete idiot are entertaining all the same, and I suppose the urge to knock some enlightenment into a head or two is sometimes overpowering.


4th June

I've been fiddling with the Exchange email systems at the office all through the weekend, and have succeeded in generating around 20Gb of additional disk space. This will keep us out of danger for a few months, if at the cost of reducing the overall system performance a touch, but it's clear that we'll have to move the Information Store to the SAN sooner rather than later and simply throw disk space at it. Hoping that the users will help us out in any significant way increasingly seems to be a naive expectation, so we're left with the often doomed approach of addressing a human problem with a technical solution. It's an unenviable position, and I have to admit that I'm feeling a little disillusioned by it all this evening.

While I sit here clenching my teeth, then, some quick links:

PirateBay lives - as promised, the torrent tracker site is back online again only a few days after being raided by the Swedish authorities. It is believed that the US government pressured for the raid...

Tech firms condemned - Amnesty International UK has criticised Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco for their overt support and assistance to the totalitarian Chinese government.

NUJ calls for boycott - in a related story, the UK's National Union of Journalists has called on its 40,000 members to boycott all Yahoo's services because of the company's actions in China.

Net censorship - a parody web site criticising a Canadian politician for dubious financial contributions made to him has been taken offline in somewhat mysterious circumstances.

Letters to Dan - the Australian ber-geek is back with his 166th letters column, covering mobile phones, voltage conversion and the utter stupidity of DVD copy protection.

In-game craftsmanship - many of the objects in the online game Elder Scrolls: Oblivion are somewhat bland, it seems, so this enterprising modder has started recovering all the books.

Net2Phone sues Skype - it's not clear why the IP telephony company has waited this long, but the cynical would say that it simply wasn't worth suing until the competition was bought out by eBay...

Ransom hackers safe - none of the UK police forces or organisations seem very interested in perusing the creator of the Archiveus virus, in spite of an obvious avenue of attack.

Steal your own Pollock - a neat little online toy that produces scribbles reminiscent of the work of the abstract impressionist artist turns out to have been sneakily plagiarised from an earlier creation.

History of oil -  Robert Newman has come a long way since The Mary Whitehouse Experience, as this lecture on the influence of oil on the West's military policies demonstrates.

Bigoted judiciary - I am pleased to see that the travesty of justice that ended up with a member of the Church Of The Subgenius losing custody of her son looks like it may soon be resolved.

Copyright Violation - the new logo of the Canadian copyright propaganda agency is far from squeaky-clean itself, with obvious thefts from superhero art and unauthorised use of material from Wikipedia.

Fighting back - a fraudster who sold a misrepresented and defective laptop on eBay now has a revenge site devoted to him, courtesy of the personal data that he foolishly left on the hard disk.

Geek chic - this phenolic resin business card is certainly a neat idea (I liked the "prototyping area") but I have to say that I think it would look better in the usual card proportions.

School games - as could be expected, technically-aware teens are enjoying the challenge of circumventing the web content filtering systems installed in schools and public libraries.


2nd June

A year ago the information store on our main Exchange 2003 email server was constantly threatening to reach the 16Gb barrier imposed by the product's Standard Edition, so we paid a small fortune to upgrade to the unrestricted Enterprise Edition... Following this the only barrier was the 72Gb disk volume holding the databases, and as that seemed comfortably remote we finally gave in to pressure from the company's management and removed the highly unpopular mailbox restrictions that had been the only thing standing between us and regular, complete email failures.

After more than two decades working in tech support I have acquired a healthy respect for the ability of data to expand to fill all available storage, but given that we have an email archiving system in place that sucks anything more than a few months old (depending on size) into a separate database elsewhere on the network it didn't occur even to me that a mere 750 users could generate enough email to grow the information store to almost 60Gb in such a short time! This is exactly what they have done, however, and as they've ignored all requests (ranging from the polite to the decidedly pointed) to perform some housekeeping on their mailboxes we've finally been forced into a set of emergency fire-fighting measures to avoid a catastrophic loss of email services that would probably end up with me being fired.

The goal is to free up a large amount of disk space to allow for growth of around 1Gb every week or two, and as I write this I've completed the first batch of changes: relocating the transaction logs to another disk volume, removing the safety net of the deleted item retention period altogether, and upgrading all three Exchange servers with SP2 well ahead of the planned schedule to make use of a new feature that has allowed me to move the public folders wholesale to a different server. The next step, and this is the long boring part, is to run an offline defrag to compress the database and recover as much disk space as possible. The huge bulk of the IS requires the temporary file to be created on a different server, and even with beefy dual P4 Xeon hardware and gigabit network links between the two my first estimates are that it will take at least eight hours to perform the procedure. It's going to be a late night...

In spite of all this I'm only expecting to recover around 15Gb, so the longer term solution is to relocate the information store databases to a volume on our SAN, where endless disk space and hot-resizing will remove the restrictions and allow the servers to be rearranged back to their ideal configuration again - but of course this is just moving the problem around and the real issue is that unless they are bludgeoned over the head on a weekly basis an average user never, ever deletes anything! To listen to someone insisting that they simply cannot survive without every single message in a mailbox well in excess of of a gigabyte is extremely frustrating, and it's hard not to suspect that their attitudes would be very different if we were still talking about paper documents instead of electronic ones!

Meanwhile, elsewhere, the big political news today is the publication in Rolling Stone magazine of a long article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the theft of the 2004 US presidential election. It became clear almost right away that there were many things wrong with the election (and I have to admit that for me it still rankles every time I see Bush's cheesy "I got away with it" grin on television) but I don't think that many of us realised exactly how crooked and illegal the whole affair really was. At The Sideshow Avedon Carol plumbs some of the murky and noisome depths, and even if you can't face the length of the original article you should at least read her edited highlights - this is one of the great political crimes of the last few decades and, shamefully, the mainstream press world-wide has not given it the coverage that it truly deserves.


1st June

Good grief, we're almost half way through the year already! Time seems so compressed, these days - personally, I blame computers.

While I brake to a halt, then, some random links:

Ransomeware - the Archiveus virus encrypts data files until the victim purchases drugs from one of three online pharmacies, but it's an amateurish piece of work and apparently the key is actually hidden inside the virus code. One wonders what is happening to the pharmacies, though, which are presumably implicated in some way?

PirateBay under fire - the popular and outspoken torrent site has been raided by the Swedish police, their servers have been confiscated, and two of the site's organisers are in custody facing charges of breaching copyright. Although the MPAA was quick to issue a jubilant press release, the site's front page now claims that they'll be back up and running soon from another country.

The Spying Game - controversial IT journalist Thomas Greene infiltrated the super-secret ISS World Conference, the mecca for wiretapping, high-tech surveillance and covert data mining. The delegates are hardly discrete, though, and Greene has some remarkable and unsettling stories to relate. Any one concerned about civil liberties should read his article - but only when sitting down...

Beta syndrome - this series of photographs documents the bizarre process required to delete a shortcut in the current public beta of Vista. Part of it is the additional security measures and hand-holding that the OS introduces (see Bruce Schnier's rant from last month) but I suspect that the majority is classic beta syndrome and will doubtless vanish in the next release.

Emergency surgery - I'd missed the stories about the increasing number of iPod hard disk failures until this report of a hapless user who fixed his "click of doom" (where have I heard that phrase before?) by hurling his player from a 3rd story balcony. Apparently it only works for an hour or so before failing again, but presumably if you're a dedicated Apple fanboy that's not the end of the world.

Classy actions - at Ars Technica, an interesting overview of the class-action lawsuits that are becoming increasingly common in the high tech and media industries. Examples cited include the CD price-fixing and Sony rootkit suits, and the lower profile actions over various problems with Apple's iPods and the DVD rental service NetFlix. Who won these cases, and who actually benefited?


It's that time of the month again, and this time the stats are fairly bland. It looks as if I've definitely reached a fairly stable level again, with between 250 and 300 visitors per day - a little more during the week and a little less at weekends, so presumably a good proportion of my readers should be working instead! Nevertheless, it's clear that I shall have to do something spectacular if I want to make any headway - perhaps this would be a good opportunity to fake my own death?



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