31st March

It feels like a good day for an angry song...

I dreamed I saw Phil Ochs last night
Alive as you or me
Says I to Phil, "you're ten years dead"
"I never died" says he
"I never died" says he

The music business killed you, Phil
They ignored the things you said
And cast you out when fashions changed
Says Phil "but I ain't dead"
Says Phil "but I ain't dead"

The FBI harassed you, Phil
They smeared you with their lies
Says he "but they could never kill
What they could not compromise
I never compromised"

"Though fashions changed and critics sneered
The songs that I have sung
Are just as true tonight as then
The struggle carries on
The struggle carries on"

With the song of freedom rings out loud
From valleys and from hills
Where people stand up for their rights
Phil Ochs is with us still
Phil Ochs inspires us still

 - Billy Bragg, paying homage to the great protest singer.


30th March

I've just started reading "What The Dormouse Said", by veteran IT journalist John Markoff, an account of the strong influence that the sixties counterculture had on the nascent personal computer industry. I'm still only on the first chapter, but already there have been a number of fascinating sound-bites, such as this one from the engineering guru Vannevar Bush in 1945:

"Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, 'Memex' will do. A Memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."

That sounds like a fair description of my Palm Tungsten T3, which hit the market some sixty years after Bush's idea was published in Atlantic Monthly. At that time (and for many years afterwards) nearly everyone was envisioning a mere handful of very large computers to fulfil the entire world's data processing requirements, and the idea of any kind of personal computing device was purely fantasy. No wonder they called him a "futurist"...

Less impressive, however, is "The Iron Maiden", presumably the final book in Piers Anthony's long-running "Bio Of A Space Tyrant" series. Regular readers of Epicycle may remember me holding forth on the first five books last year, and grudgingly admitting that they were... ah... interesting, if only for the unusual plot device in use. This later story is a disappointment even by the rather minimal standards of the first books, however, being as it is a complete re-telling of the entire story, as a high-speed précis, from the point of view of one of the secondary characters. It's hard to see quite what motivated the author to write this book, actually, as although it could have brought a fresh new perspective to the story (cf. Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Shadow", which re-tells the story of the brilliant SF novel "Ender's Game" and yet is an extremely worthwhile and successful book in its own right) in fact it is simply boring. There is little that is new, much that is simply repeated and re-hashed, and only sheer inertia has kept me ploughing through.

The only reasonable justification for writing this book would be a severe financial crisis, but as Mr Anthony's apparently endless "Xanth" series continues to sell well (presumably by the yard?) that can hardly be used as an excuse in this case. All I can say is that I really hope the "Bio" series doesn't spawn yet another sequel, as I'm the sort of person who would feel the need to buy it to complete the series and by this stage I'm sure that I would regret it...


29th March

Well, it looks as if in spite of their spirited opposition over the last two months, the House Of Lords has now caved in to the UK government over their plans for compulsory ID cards. Although the decision is being described as a compromise, as far as I can see in real terms nothing much has changed - until 2010 people applying for a new passport will be able to opt out of having an ID card, but even so their details (including biometric information for fingerprint, iris and face recognition technology) will still be entered into an ID card database!

I have absolutely no faith in the government's ability to deliver such a sophisticated IT project at all, let alone on-time and in-budget, and the likely outcome is a long, costly partnership with the same incompetent consultancy firms that have so effectively screwed up all the other government IT projects over the last twenty years, resulting in a massive and fatally flawed white elephant that will nevertheless contain (a woefully inaccurate) list of personal details that will be repeatedly hacked, leaked, corrupted and misused - without doing anything at all to protect the citizens of the UK from terrorism, crime and illegal immigration in any of the ways that the government are claiming it will.

<long, heartfelt sigh>

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

A piece of history - what appears to be a genuine WW2 Enigma encryption machine is up for auction on eBay, and considering that this particular model is 65 years old it's in extremely good condition. As I write this the bidding has reached over $13,000 after only three bids, and with another five days to go I wouldn't be surprised if that figure doubled - although around 100,000 of the various models were constructed, a surprisingly small number have survived...

Fractal lighting - I'm not sure how common the twin-lamp socket adaptors are in the UK, but these designs for multiple-branching chandeliers and table lamps are certainly attractive and innovative. I especially like the final one, "Nimbus", using 44 adaptors and 48 low-wattage bulbs - very pretty.

All too true - one of the best designs I've seen in months, this "DRM is killing music" T-shirt is based on the vintage anti-piracy logo from the eighties, a claim that the last twenty years have proved to be as false as all the current allegations about media sharing. The shirts are reasonably priced (less than £10 including shipping to England), and I can never resist a geeky design on a black background.

Defeat this! - and talking of copying, I came across a neat little device to remove the Macrovision protection from DVD and VHS signals, integrated into a SCART-to-SCART cable rather than the usual clunky little free-standing boxes - although shortly after that I came across an even more elegant design, with all the electronics apparently built into the housing of the SCART plug itself.

More modding - I hadn't come across US modding company CrazyPC, before, but although a browse around their site doesn't show anything particularly new or exciting they do have a good range. It's started me thinking about the plans I had for acrylic and mesh side panels for the Infinity4 case, though, and I may well pull my finger out and do something about that at some point soon.


28th March

Just a few quick news links, tonight, as I'm not feeling very inspired...

Feeding back - Microsoft has opened a new web site to allow the public to report bugs and make suggestions for Internet Explorer 7, currently in beta, and future versions. The similar Bugzilla facility for Firefox etc shows that these facilities are not always especially useful to the developers, however.

IE7 stands alone - and talking of Internet Explorer, apparently the new version won't be so closely-coupled to the Vista operating system as previous versions have been. The comments to the brief DailyTech report are mostly the usual ignorant bigotry, however...  <sigh>

Apple vs. Apple - the long-running battle between the computer company and the record label continues, with a third suit reaching the British High Court this week. The iTunes service firmly links Apple Computer to the music industry, now, which may contravene the settlement to the second suit.

Lenovo under the microscope - a US government agency is calling for an investigation into the Chinese computer company, following suggestions that 15,000 PCs that are being supplied to the State Department could be equipped with some kind of monitoring systems.

Double your fun - industry watchers are predicting that Intel's forthcoming 64 bit quad-core "Kentsfield" CPUs will hit the market sooner than expected, probably early next year. With the war against AMD becoming increasingly fierce, this could provide a significant gain for Intel.

Buy it later - eBay is facing a Supreme Court case over their "Buy It Now" facility, a feature which allows vendors to bypass the auction system and sell for a fixed price, which the small e-commerce company MercExchange claims is an infringement of two of their patents.

Download a movie, go to jail - the German government is considering a law that would criminalise people who download music or movies, providing for up to two years in prison. As usual, the media pressure groups are behind the proposal, insisting that the industry will go bankrupt without it...

Spam Down Under - a new industry code has been adopted in Australia, obliging ISPs (including global companies operating in the country) to bear some of the responsibility for preventing spam - including limiting outgoing mail messages to "reasonable" levels.


27th March

So we hit SMS with a stick until it promised to behave, then started bringing the services on the central server back online. All seemed to be well, although we noticed later on in the day that one of the processes we'd started had reached out across the WAN and re-enabled the services on the secondary servers, thus confirming our earlier impression that SMS was fixing itself. We asked the users to leave their PCs powered on, this evening, and I've just connected in to disable the packet-shaping that was preventing the SMS services from flooding the network, so hopefully by tomorrow morning all the clients will have caught up with themselves. If there still seems to be a high level of traffic, I'll re-enable the traffic management and repeat the exercise again tomorrow evening - I think a slow-and-steady approach will be best, this time.

This is only the second problem we've had with SMS since we installed it hot off the presses in autumn 2003, and as the first glitch was a database problem caused when the built-in SQL backup system conflicted with an external agent-based backup I can't really blame that on SMS itself. It's an extremely powerful, flexible system, and some of the additional bolt-on modules (such as the facility for automatically updating the drivers and firmware of Dell PowerEdge servers) are real time-savers. If your network is of sufficient size and complexity to justify a management system this sophisticated, I'd recommend it without reservation - but make sure that you have some real expertise on hand to install and configure it, as it is by no means a trivial application.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

More hot hardware - Sun's new T2000 server, nicknamed "Coolthreads", is based around an eight core CPU with a total of 32-threads, drawing a miserly 72W of power. Full details at AnandTech.

Chopper PC - in my misspent youth I was heavily into the custom bike scene, and the "Sportster" styling this PC is inspired by was always one of my favourites. It's an impressive piece of work.

LED fridge magnets - with a seven foot server cabinet in my kitchen I've never felt the need to add extra electronics to my appliances, but this recipe for LED-based fridge magnets is certainly cunning.

A literal interpretation - a small business asked Dell to supply a pair of PCs and "something to link them together", and Dell responded by selling them a PowerEdge server. Marvellous...

DRM interop spreading - following the French governments announcement about legislation to ensure compatibility between different audio DRM products, it looks as if Denmark is set to follow suit.

Apparently unconnected - The Movie Timeline is a chart of events from a large number of different films, from 4,000,000 BC to 865,427,810 AD. It's thoroughly pointless, but fun all the same.

Computer misuse - a new report suggests that 17% UK businesses suffered staff misuse of web access, and 11% misuse of email. Personally, I would say that the real figures were closer to 100%...

Silly Walks Generator - I don't think this is new (it probably dates back to the "Complete Waste Of Time" and "Holy Grail" CDs a few year ago) but it's a must for Monty Python fans anyway...

And finally, an inspiration for my programmer friend Mike - when the development manager of Russian software house Cognitive Technologies came across a market stall selling pirate copies of his company's products, the resulting altercation ended up in a boxing match - which the manager won convincingly over three rounds. The Register suggests that this might be an appropriate solution to other IT industry disputes, such as the current battle between Microsoft and the EU...


26th March

A generous handful of random news links for the weekend, starting with further examples (as if we needed them!) of the stupidity and short-sightedness of those in power in the corporate world...

IP madness - more absurd copyright excesses from the Union Pacific Railroad, which has threatened to sue anyone who puts their logo on a model railway, anyone who takes photographs of their trains, and even artists who paint pictures of them. It's hard to see what they expect to gain from this...

Music poisioning - proving that they have learned absolutely nothing from Sony's highly-publicised rootkit debacle, EMI have released CDs in Brazil that contain DRM software that installs itself whether you agree to the license or not, and then can't be properly uninstalled again.

Promoting innovation - a consumer advocate group has sued Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the popular online role-playing game World Of Warcraft, after Blizzard invoked the DMCA to prevent a fan from selling a strategy guide to the game on eBay.

The fool of Tuttle - the city manager of Tuttle, Oklahoma fired off a series of threatening messages to the manufacturer of the Linux OS hosting the town's web servers, accusing them of hacking, after a configuration error by an unrelated ISP resulted in the default Apache web page being displayed.

Jobs on DRM - in spite of his outspoken condemnation of the French government's new legislation on interpretative DRM, in fact it doesn't seem significantly different from Steve's own stance of a couple of years ago. It's nice to see that the famous Jobs Reality Distortion Field is as powerful as ever.

The evils of Wikipedia - the user-edited online encyclopaedia is in hot water yet again, having found itself in the middle of a long-running dispute between scientific journal Nature and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Suing spammers - New York state's bulldog attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, has sued the promotions company Gratis Internet for selling the personal details of millions of web site visitors to three major spam agencies despite a guarantee of confidentiality.

SpaceX test flight fails - the maiden flight of the Falcon 1, a low-cost semi-reusable launcher developed and financed by PayPal founder Elon Musk, ended around a minute after launch when the liquid oxygen / kerosene-fuelled vehicle blew up. The exact cause of the failure isn't yet clear.

Letters to Dan - including discussion on whether the authorities can track down grow-lights being used for illicit horticulture, and getting hold of mercury and aerogel for use in perverse science experiments. He's like a straggly-haired version of the Usenet Oracle...

Massively parallel hacking - only a few hours after going live, part of Sun's much-vaunted commercial grid computing service was targeted by a denial of service attack. Sun claims that the damage was "minimal", but other reports suggest that the demonstration facility was driven offline completely.

Not with a bang - and talking of hacking, in spite of the Microsoft's announcements of bomb-proof security in the Xbox 360, a video is circulating showing a game apparently running from a copied DVD-R disc. The company has broadly confirmed the claims, and will "respond appropriately".

Survival of the fittest - small programming house Introversion Software (creators of the notorious hacking game Uplink, and who describe themselves as "the last of the bedroom programmers") has won the grand prize at the Independent Game Festival for its strategy game Darwinia.

And finally, who could resist hardware that allows one to look like a complete idiot whilst simultaneously allowing one to make a complete nuisance of oneself? This eBay auction is for a pair of polymer crash helmets with a built-in megaphone speaker, made in the 1950s and apparently used in a music video by The Happy Mondays. As I write this the bidding has passed £200 (around $350) but with three days to go before the auction ends I expect the final price to reach at least twice that. Marvellous kitsch...


24th March

Having stopped and disabled the SMS Executive service on both the central server and the distribution points at our regional offices, yesterday, I was considerably surprised this morning when I discovered that at some point during the night the services had been re-enabled and re-started, and that SMS was now functioning nearly normally again. None of us could track down any external mechanism that could have caused this to happen (such as a service state definition in a group policy that we might have forgotten) so the only sensible conclusion is that some low-level component of SMS itself must have noticed that the services had stopped, and deliberately rectified what it interpreted as a fault. Microsoft have been talking about self-healing technology in applications such Office 2003, of course, but this is the first time we've seen anything like this behaviour and I have to admit that I was both disconcerted and impressed. It made me think of the movie Wargames, where the computer phones Mathew Broderick back to remind him that they still haven't finished the game, and as the SMS server lives in the same cabinet as our email and fax servers I'm half expecting it to contact me over the weekend to complain...

Apart from our adventures with such unusually resilient network management systems, it's been somewhat of a trying week elsewhere at the office. We're taking on a small army of developers for our imminent SAP and Siebel systems, and in order to make space for them we've had to give up the department's store room and work room, relocating several tons of assorted hardware to a pair of smaller rooms five floors down and the full length of the building away. I have to admit that I'm somewhat demoralised by this, as when we moved into the current office area less than a year ago my team and I expended significant time and effort designing, building and arranging a complete storage system for the room, and to have to rip the whole thing apart and move it so soon is far from ideal... Unfortunately the company's internal politics have had a strong influence, and although a large office just across the corridor is empty and unused for all except a couple of days a month, offending its nominal occupant is evidently less desirable than placing some of the company's busiest staff pretty much as far away as possible from the resources they need to do their jobs. Ah, well - these things are sent to try us...

In order to fit all the hardware and accessories into the smaller space, however, we've had to have an unusually enthusiastic spring-cleaning session, and this afternoon that resulted in a stack of a dozen or so obsolete 3Com switches and hubs. I sent an email out to the local users offering them free to anyone who wanted them, and almost immediately the vultures started to descend. A mere ten minutes later the whole lot had been eagerly seized and carried away, and there were still plenty of disappointed visitors - we could have disposed of two or three times as many as we actually had!

I'm somewhat puzzled by how keen our staff were to acquire this sort of hardware, as my advertisement clearly warned that they were large and noisy, so not really suited for a home network... Given that neat little Netgear unmanaged switches can be picked up for a few tens of pounds, something like that ought to be far more appealing to the average home user than these rather industrial, fully-managed (and so potentially rather problematic) 3Com units - but I guess that whatever it is, to many people the lure of free computer hardware is surprisingly strong! We did flirt with the idea of offering a small stack of Bay ARN routers in the same way, but as even the techies in the department couldn't think of a use for something like that we decided not to expose ourselves to the inevitable lectures on exactly what an IP router does, and why the questioner really couldn't use one with their Xbox, so in the end they found a new (if temporary) home in the skip. It's always a pity to throw out hardware like that, but sometimes there's just no real alternative.

Even after a week so full of computers, however, the weekend promises to be more of the same - tomorrow I'll be installing an Iomega Rev drive to backup a friend's laptops, and after that I have to replace a failed hard disk in the array on my desktop PC. Last time I had a disk failure I bought a pair of extra drives to sit in the case as cold spares, so at least the hardware is ready at hand, but replacing a drive in the middle of the water-cooled stack is far from trivial and I'm not looking forward to it. When it comes to computers, it really has been one of those weeks...


23rd March

Our SMS installation continued its attempts to own the entire WAN, today, but two of my PFYs put their heads together and came up with a cunning way of firmly throttling back the unwanted traffic with our Allot NetEnforcer packet-shaping appliance. It's been a tense few days, as it's currently the business month-end period and the users were on the point of burning me in effigy out in the car park, so their solution was extremely welcome. An approach like that has only brushed the problem under the rug, of course, but our support company is working on a plan for gradually re-awakening SMS after the weekend, and directing the clients back to the correct local distribution points, so hopefully all well be well after that.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Pots and kettles - Apple has released a scathing response to the proposed French DRM interoperability law, describing it as "state-sponsored piracy", but their own stance on music piracy and copy protection is hardly whiter-than-white and this hypocrisy rather smells of sour grapes...

Out on their ears - BT has joined the growing list of UK ISPs to penalise customers who make excessive use of their broadband connections, but rather than capping them in some way the monopoly has chosen to disconnect around 4000 users permanently.

Dell levels the playing field - "I liked it so much, I bought the company". Dell's own range of gaming PCs hasn't yet made much impact on the market (is it surprising, with prices as high as $10,000?) so their acquisition of gaming specialist Alienware is one way of reducing the competition.

Speaking out - a Microsoft blogger has criticised Apple for their approach to security following the recent chain of patches to fix problems with other patches. Microsoft has made great progress in their products' security, of late, but this is bound to cause something of a stir amongst their opponents...

Career-limiting moves - another MS blogger has turned his attention inwards, however, with strongly-worded suggestions to to slim down the Redmond giant, end the frequent delays to software ship dates, reduce bureaucracy and management in-fighting, and get the back into focus again.

Private lives - via [H]ard|OCP (which has started using permalinks at last!), news of an annoying little bug in Firefox which makes private data from one user of a PC available to others - and which seems to have had a fatal effect on the relationship of the person who discovered it...

Hot hardware - UK telco O2 is recalling the first of their own-brand phone handsets, the X1, because of a risk of them catching fire while recharging! Users will receive the later X2i model free, and interestingly calls made from the faulty handsets will actually be blocked in another few days.

Cruel and unusual - gamers who misbehave in the online role-playing game Roma Victor face having their characters crucified and displayed in public spaces for other players to mock and throw things at. I have to say that raised an eyebrow or two, here...

Heavy ordnance - I've never felt the need to fire an entire toilet roll from a home-made propane cannon, but it's always good to know that, should the urge take me, full plans for this and a selection of other implausible but impressive weaponry are available online.


22nd March

It's been a tough couple of days. Yesterday was merely busy, but today was perplexing as well. For some reason our Microsoft SMS 2003 installation, hosted on seven servers scattered around the country, decided to capitalise on its highly distributed nature by bringing the entire network to its knees. As far as we could see, the remote servers decided that they had been held back for too long by only being permitted to distribute updates to clients on their own local subnets, and so took the bold step of servicing the central site as well - over the narrow channel of a set of ADSL links, which flooded the entire WAN and soon had the helpdesk phones lighting up like a christmas tree...

It took a while before we realised what was going on, but as cancelling an SMS distribution can be extremely difficult once it is in full spate it seemed to me that the best bet would be to allow the process to continue to completion, but throttled back by some traffic shaping on our WAN links so that it didn't interfere with the business too much. Unfortunately, in spite of the best efforts of my PFYs this approach was only partially successful, so just before I left (long after most users had given up in frustration and gone home for the day) we disabled the bandwidth management and left SMS to its own devices. I'm hoping that it will sort itself out overnight and that the remote servers will be somewhat more amenable to management tomorrow, but if we're still having problems at least it's nice to know that expert advice from the company that designed and implemented the SMS infrastructure for us a couple of years ago is only a phone call away. I always sleep easier knowing that...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Secret lives - In an article claiming that a disproportionately high number of Goths go on to become highly paid and highly skilled professionals in later life, advice on spotting whether your managers and colleagues used to wear a cape and eye-liner...

Missing link - Dating from 1975, the Faber-Castell TR3 has a traditional slide rule mounted back-to-back with an electronic calculator. Designed to ease the transition between the analogue and digital worlds, it nevertheless came too late to save the company.

Cool robots - Via a link from Dan's Data, a trio of extremely interesting robot kits. The only problem is deciding whether to buy them one at a time or all at once, but Dan has promised to post a review of the centipede imminently so I guess I'll force myself to wait.

Decline and fall - for several years it has been an article of faith amongst much of the PC tech community that Intel's processors are beaten hands-down in performance, power requirements and price by AMD's offerings, but since the launch of the Pentium D the situation has started to change.

Hot or not - at The Register, a review of an elegant twin drive external SATA enclosure from LaCie, offering an impressive terabyte of storage space, and one of the first Blu-ray optical disk writers from Samsung, a pre-production version which rather fails to impress.

In two minds - via Boing Boing, more on the media industry's current obsession with copyright, with the revelation that sometimes a company's marketing department will be uploading video clips to the popular sites at the same time as their legal departments are suing to have them taken offline again...

And finally, found by accident while I was looking for maps of Middle Earth, Tolkein's Lost Sequel to Lord of the Rings - which for some reason makes me think of this wonderful cartoon in the Bob The Angry Flower series, portraying the day after the end of Ayn Rand's epic novel Atlas Shrugged...


20th March

A few quick links after a busy day... Mostly via the always excellent Boing Boing.

Truth and beauty - if you ever wondered what a Shakespearean sonnet would look like when converted into the obscure programming language ActionScript, then look no further...

Revenge is sweet - gamers torturing their in-game character get their come-uppance in real life. It's neatly done.  :-)

Theft of language II - following the furore on the attempt by Marvel and DC Comics to steal the term "super-hero", fantasy author Will Shetterly has created a weblog for his new hero Supervman.

Dada law - and talking of fantasy authors, Neil Gaiman has received a bizarre and deranged nastygram, allegedly from a lawyer, complaining that he has illegally linked to a web site...

But not forgotten - and, still talking of fantasy authors, who knew that the great medieval writer Geoffrey Chaucer is alive and well and hanging out at Friendster.

Outrage - an update on the mother who lost custody of her son after participating in an event organised by the Church Of The Subgenius has new legal representation, and things are looking up.


19th March

ping -n 1 vasili

A few months ago the tech news was full of eye-catching pictures of the Optimus keyboard, a spectacular prototype with miniature OLED displays built into the keycaps to allow it to be completely customised with full colour animated images. The buzz has faded recently, but the Russian design house behind the concept has been busy in the meantime and they're about to launch a three button keypad using the same technology, probably mostly intended to bring in some working capital for the main event. At around $100 it's extremely expensive for a keypad (and the price is set to increase after launch, too!), but the mock-ups on the web site are certainly appealing and I found it impossible to resist pre-ordering. The release date is scheduled for June 15th, but that has already been postponed by a month since I placed the order a week ago and I suspect that it may be quite a while before I see anything concrete. Watch this space - but don't hold your breath...

Meanwhile, a quick plug for a pair of my favourite science fiction authors, Ian McDonald and Iain M Banks. In actual fact I've only read two of McDonald's 15-odd novels, the linked pair Desolation Road and Ares Express, but I found both of them to be thought-provoking, highly innovative, and thoroughly captivating. In contrast, I think I've read pretty much everything that Iain Banks has written, in both his SF and his "mainstream" genres (and even his treatise on the distilleries of Scotland) and although not all of them are literary gems, the majority of them are exceptional works in their own way. For the last two decades Banksie has has written one book per year, loosely alternating between the SF and the non-SF, which is an exceptional achievement for any serious author. (In fact, I'm told that actually he only takes a few months to write a novel, which must be a great annoyance to fellow authors who sweat blood over each and every page...) Unfortunately, he has decided to slow down a little, currently, so following the publication of his latest SF novel (The Algebraist, another truly remarkable book) in 2004 we can't expect the next SF story until next year - although presumably there will be a non-SF novel sometime before then.


Theft of language - comics publishers Marvel and DC are staking their claim to the word "super-hero", having jointly filed for the right to use it as a trademark. I am assured by my local experts that they did not invent the term, and trying to monopolise it at this late stage is amoral and greedy.

The Comedy of IP Overkill - as if on cue, an article at the progressive investigatory magazine Mother Jones lists some of the more absurd effects of the corporate stance on intellectual property rights, which would indeed be funny if they weren't gradually eroding the rights of the consumer world-wide.

Alternatives to software piracy - equally timely, UK hardware site Bit-Tech is looking at how much money a hardened software pirate would have to shell out if he decided to clean up his act overnight. Would free software suffice to replace the big names? The author thinks so, but I'm not convinced.

Holding hands - the AlphaGrip is the latest in a series of alternative input devices, this time combining the functionality of a keyboard and a mouse in something that looks like a games controller on steroids - and like its predecessors it is probably destined to be forgotten inside the year...

Outside the box - slightly more likely to succeed (although probably not much!), is an external ATX power supply that connects to the PC's components via a pass-through mounted in the PSU bay. It has large heatsinks to allow it to run silently without a fan, though, which may be of some appeal.

Intel cooling - the chip giant has never been very innovative when it comes to cooling their CPUs (somewhat surprising considering how hot the Pentium 4 series runs!) so although their entry into water cooling is something of a surprise at least the hardware is reassuringly conservative.  :-)


18th March

A handful of random news articles tonight, starting with a few on the evils of DRM and the media conglomerates that demand it:

Hardasses - the RIAA, MPAA, BSA et al have categorically rejected a proposal to let the public break DRM that "threatens critical infrastructure and endangers lives", clearly illustrating once again exactly where their priorities lie: they want to make money and preserve their monopolies, no matter what harm those policies cause to the consumer or anyone else.

Slamming - meanwhile, a representative of the MPAA came under heavy fire from delegates at the SXSW Interactive music and media conference in Austin. Criticism came from end-users, independent media companies and artists, who raised extremely valid points about the inflexibility, lack of common sense and sheer bloody-mindedness of the current industry policies.

The truth - meanwhile, the Canadian Record Industry Association has released a study in which they conclude that P2P music downloaders are actually very good customers for commercial recordings, and that the P2P networks don't actually cause any significant harm to the industry. This is not the first report to reach this conclusion, but it's unusual to find the viewpoint coming from inside the industry...

The Shadow knows - the EFF has issued further warnings about the Google Desktop personal search software, as the "Search Across Computers" feature will store copies of the user's documents on Google's own servers to allow searching from a number of PCs. Given the recent attention paid to the search company's data by the US Government, this can hardly be considered to be secure.

On again, off again - in spite of the fact the that House of Lords has just voted again to stand by amendments that would have made Identity Cards voluntary in Britain, MPs have voted again for compulsory cards. This is the third time that the Commons has decided to stand against the will of the Lords, and the scene is now set for a constitutional debate on the future role of the Lords themselves.

Very tiny machines - researchers at Caltech have created a 3D map of the North and South American continents, a few hundred nanometres across, using a single strand of viral DNA folded back and forth over rows of double helices in a template shape. The shape is maintained by DNA "staples", short strands linking across the long length to stop it unravelling.

Times past - magnetic media specialists Memorex and Verbatim have launched a new range of flash memory sticks, apparently intended to be the final nail in the coffin of the venerable floppy disk. The look is decidedly retro, inspired by a 1970s mainframe tape reel, but the capacity is a miserly 16Mb and I doubt that's going to make much headway in a market crammed full of gigabyte modules.


17th March

Links, from the sublime to the ridiculous - and all points in between:

From the early years - I told one of my PFYs to mount a scratch monkey, yesterday, and realised from his blank look that most people these days have never heard that grisly little story. There are two versions extant, but I can't track down the NASA space suit testing variation right now...

Rear entry - The UK government has threatened to cancel an order for US-built Joint Strike Fighter aircraft unless the contractor releases the the source-code for the jets' firmware, as there are concerns about the risk of back-doors that would allow the US to remotely disable them!

Security weakness - the US House Government Reform Committee has issued its most recent scorecard for cyber-security among government agencies, and apparently the Department of Homeland Security has received the lowest possible score for the third time in its three-year history.

Power-hungry DRM - listening to music protected by DRM draws more power from an MP3 player's batteries because of the additional computation necessary to decrypt the files and verify their licenses, and can shorten battery life between charges by as much as 25%.

Star spotting - a new hand-held telescope from astronomy specialist Celestron uses GPS location detection and digital image processing to automatically identify celestial bodies, give directions to particular stars, and provide appropriate information via both text and audio.

Decoding fruit - I'm not sure that this applies in the UK, but in America the little sticky labels found on fruit bear numbers that identify its provenance: conventional fruit has four digits; organic fruit has five digits starting with a nine; genetically engineered has five and starts with an eight.

More on Blackstar - the Aviation Week article on the mysterious US government space plane has aroused considerable controversy, with accusations that the author has pretty much made it all up! One such article, in The Space Review, certainly doesn't pull any punches...

Only a matter of time - the tech web sites are buzzing with the news that an enterprising pair of anonymous hackers have managed to persuade an Intel-based Mac to run Windows XP, modifying the boot loader to allow it to coexist with OS-X. Thanks to my colleague Chris for the pointer.

Money for data - a new virus encrypts a user's documents and then directs the victim to pay $300 into an e-cash account in return for the password that will unlock the files. This is a clear sign of the increasingly commercial orientation of malware, compared to the previous purely malicious motives.

Breaking Apples - Apple has released the third security update so far this month, apparently to fix problems caused by the second update - which was designed to fix problems caused by the first! Wasn't this exactly the sort of thing that earned Microsoft such vicious opprobrium in the nineties?

Next-gen DVDs to boom - even before the format has shipped, Warner Home Video is expecting sales of next-generation media to amount to $750 million in the last quarter of this year - rather in contravention to the many prophecies of doom and gloom emitted by the MPAA and their ilk...

Blu-ray too expensive? - others are less optimistic, however, with the CEO of one of the minor media companies claiming that the cost of re-releasing movies on the new disc format is going to be prohibitively expensive for all but the largest industry players.

And finally, pretty things both large and small: little men cunningly fabricated from the wires inside CAT5 network cables, and a wonderful nebula twisted into the shape of a DNA double-helix by the magnetic fields from the super-massive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Cool!  :-)


16th March

I managed to fix the problems with the wireless LAN, but I'm still not sure why I needed to! My 3Com OfficeConnect router took a dislike to the wireless video sender that beams the digital TV signal from my Sky+ box up to the television in the the bedroom, which was causing a complete failure of the network as well as some annoyingly loud interference on the television. It's not unknown for devices like these to argue with each other, as they both use the unlicensed 2.4GHz band, but as in my case the two have been happily coexisting for over a year it's something of a mystery why the router decided to hop to a slightly different channel than it has always used before. At least, I think that's what happened, as when I switched the video sender and receiver to the other end of their limited range of frequencies both systems started working perfectly again! However, after all the fuss and bother of the last few days I'm glad just to have it working again - now all I have to do is work out why the USB TV interface I installed last week has suddenly stopped producing any sound. It really is one thing after another, right now...

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

Enigma codes falling - the second of the three Enigma coded transmissions intercepted during WW2 has been decrypted by the M4 project, and turns out to have been a routine observation report. The remaining message may be harder to decode, however, as it seems to be in an unknown cipher.

Now you see it - following rumours that the US military's semi-mythical "Blackstar" two-stage-to-orbit  spaceplane project has been cancelled, Aviation Week has published what little is known about the vehicle, together with some informed speculation. Thanks to Mike for the pointer.

Dan on stuff - it's very nice to see Dan's Data being updated rather more frequently, of late, with a new batch of letters, an article discussing the ticking time bomb that is lurking within our external USB disk enclosures, and a review of one of the components of that bomb, a USB to IDE adapter.

Lifestyles of the rich and famous - and talking of USB gizmos, another in the short but growing list of wildly extravagant geeks toys is this gold-plated USB memory stick. Available in either 14 or 18 carat gold, with optional diamonds, prices start at £2000 for a gigabyte. I'll take two...

Microsoft seeks openness - in what appears to be a perfectly reasonable request, the beleaguered software company is asking for the forthcoming anti-trust hearings to be carried out in public, rather than the closed sessions the EU is insisting on. What have they got to hide?

At the Core - Intel's new microprocessor architecture has already become something of a talking point thanks to its inclusion in the forthcoming Sony PS3, and UK hardware site Bit-Tech has an approachable but informative overview of the technology.

Zimmermann's new toy - the electronic privacy guru has designed a new system to allow any SIP VoIP voice stream to be encrypted, avoiding, as Boing Boing puts it, "three-way calls with the NSA". Given the fuss that PGP caused in the nineties, I expect this will also cause something of a stir...  :-)

Malta dubious about CCBill - the company responsible for managing the billing for countless adult web sites is registered in Malta, a country that takes institutionalised religion to a level rarely found in the Christian world. As can be imagined, this is raising some questions...    [Note: link not work safe]

Survival of the fittest - via an hour-long video, news of a new concept from Will Wright of simulation specialists Maxis. "Spore" starts the player out as a protozoa, which can be evolved and developed into a complex multicellular organism in a rich environment populated by the creations of other players. If the species proves successful it can mate and evolve further, and eventually can become sentient - at which point the game becomes something more along the lines of The Sims and Sim City. Ultimately the player's tribe can compete with tribes of other organisms in a manner reminiscent of world builder games such as Civilization, and then terraform, colonise and even invade new worlds and solar systems! It's a fascinating idea, and appears to have massive scope and flexibility, and I will certainly be checking it out when it launches, presumably some time later this year.


14th March

Back from the dead... I borrowed a little Netgear DSL router to carry out some further tests, and to my considerable annoyance it connected without problems, so I ripped my regular Zyxel 660R out of the infrastructure and plugged it into my laptop for a debugging session it would never forget. Extensive tests proved that I could connect perfectly with the router in any one of a number of variations on the conventional routing mode, but when I switched into the bridge mode I've been using for the last year (basically the unit acts only as a DSL modem, with the Smoothwall firewall providing PPPoE authentication and routing services) it was as dead as a dodo. Given that I hadn't done anything at all to my configuration for weeks or months before the problem occurred, this pretty much has to be a change made either at my ISP, Zen, or by BT themselves. Neither seem willing to admit anything incriminating, of course, so I'm left here scratching my head...

I don't mind using the Zyxel in router mode, really, but it's kind of messy, uses an extra IP address in my jealously-hoarded legal range, and leaves the router itself a little more open to attack than in the slimmed down bridge mode - and all in all it just doesn't sit comfortably with my techie nature... I've been meaning to pick up a dedicated DSL modem for a while, however, and this seems like a good opportunity - I can experiment with the modem without losing connectivity for longer than it takes to move a CAT5 cable from one device to the other, which after the data drought of the last four days has a strong appeal.

Now I'm off to take a look at my wireless router, which seems to have started sulking since the temporary introduction of the Netgear wireless device to the network, and is currently doggedly insisting that everything is perfectly OK while completely refusing to allow any clients to connect. I'm starting to feel like the Dilbert episode where he loses the knack...


13th March

Still no DSL, tonight... BT are running various tests, and I've been swapping out cables and rebooting routers just in case, but so far without improvement.

However, as a change from griping about online suppliers, I want to mention a couple that go a long way to restoring my currently rather shaky faith in e-commerce. Over the last few months I've placed a fair number of orders with Videk and Lindy, two well-established UK suppliers of computer peripherals and comms hardware. They don't carry the kind of range that the big consumer-oriented suppliers such as Misco or Dabs do, but they cater extremely well for network professionals and serious hobbyists, and their catalogues include many components that are rarely seen elsewhere.

Their prices are reasonable, often surprisingly so, and their online stock indicators so far seem to be 100% reliable - if they say something is in stock, it is, and following my rather disappointing experiences with Scan over the last year (to name but one!) this is a real bonus. They are also impressively fast: if I place an order mid-morning, it is usually on my desk by mid-morning the next day, and that's without paying anything extra for express shipping - and considering the minimal time from placing the order to receiving it, they send out a generous number of status messages in between to keep me up informed of its progress.

Based on my experiences to date, I would have no hesitation in recommending either of them. There are other similar companies (Homestead springs to mind, and also comes recommended) but I tend to check Lindy and Videk first and I'm rarely disappointed.


12th March

A quick update on the problematic online transactions I was griping about last month. The computer web site Hardware Area (the store front for German retailer NGenX), who accepted my order for a graphics card, took my money, and then settled into a long, sullen silence, is now displaying a message claming that they are offline for "maintenance work on the server". The dates given are 3rd March to 15th March, and although as a sysadmin myself it's not at all clear exactly what sort of maintenance work could take almost two weeks, I will be very interested to see what happens on Wednesday when they are due to reopen. My purchase came with an additional guarantee from European Commission-sponsored "safe shopping" organisation Trusted Shops, but at the moment they are as unresponsive as Hardware Area itself and it's anyone's guess what will happen for the other people who have been affected by this apparent disappearance. Right now, I would advise anyone contemplating dealing with either of these two organisations to weigh up the possible risks very carefully...

Unfortunately Mark Woolley, proprietor of Special Airsoft Supplies, is proving equally hard to get a response from. I returned the unwanted ATOZ replica a couple of weeks ago, and the ParcelForce online tracking service shows that he signed for it on Wednesday 1st March. It's been almost two weeks since then, but there's still no sign of the refund I asked for and no response to my subsequent email enquiries either. It's hard to see what he expects to gain from ignoring me like this, as I'm certainly not going to write off a debt of almost £700, and unless I hear something reassuring from him very soon I shall have to consider legal action. It's all very annoying.

Also annoying is the recent failure of my DSL connection - it dropped the line around midday yesterday, and now my Smoothwall firewall is failing to establish the PPPoE link. According to the diagnostics from my ISP, Zen Internet, the BT hardware at the exchange is sending out cells but not receiving any reply from me, and according to my own diagnostics the Smoothwall is timing out while waiting for PADO packets from the exchange - this is the sort of problem that has both sides blaming the other, but I've tried everything I can think of at my end and now it's up to BT. Unfortunately they're likely to move at their usual fairly glacial pace, and with a less than clear-cut problem like this it could be a couple of days before they even get around to taking a look! I still have dialup access, of course, but it's not the same and updates here may be a bit more sparse than usual until we've tracked the problem down. Wish me luck!


10th March

A generous handful of random news items to end the week.

They're not too quick, but they're not too slow, either. Think of it as Goldilocks and the three links...

iPod gaming - installing Linux on an iPod and using its tiny screen to play an emulation of the classic Pacman game might seem thoroughly pointless, but that leaves us without an appropriate word to describe building an equally tiny arcade machine cabinet to hold the iPod while you play...

Better than life - satellite TV channel Sky One has long been the best source of The Simpsons in the UK, and their new advert promoting the show has just leaked onto the net. It's a re-creation of the opening sequence, using actors to portray the famous animated characters, and works rather well!

More on Origami - in spite of the unusual level of speculation and hype that has surrounded Microsoft's new GUI for ultra-compact tablet PCs, the company is firmly behind the project, although analysts don't expect it to have any real impact until 2008.

High hopes - the space elevator is one of the classic science fiction concepts (see Epicycle passim), but every so often an otherwise reputable scientist calls for the establishment of a project to actually build one. Interestingly, the projected cost seems to shrink every time I see a reference, though.

Adding insult to injury - following the success of the lawsuit it helped to bring against Sony, the EFF has set up web pages to help the victims of the infamous rootkit-bearing CDs clean their computers and get their fair share of the class action settlement.

"But you need the special lap" - the new gaming laptop from UK manufacturer Rock has a 19" screen (yes, you heard me!) and a pair of GeForce 7800 graphics cards running in SLI. Unsurprisingly, it weighs 6.5Kg, which doesn't include the presumably equally beefy external power supply...

A new twist - The Register brings news of the latest development in advance fee scams, in which the more familiar locations of Nigeria and Eastern Europe have been replaced by Manchester, where deceased contractor Fred Williams has left £50 million in the First Union National Bank UK. Indeed.

Debugging - I've just stumbled across a wonderful resource, a massive online database of faults and solutions for televisions and VCRs. Simply choose make and model, then the problem, and it will tell you that there is a dry solder joint at resistor R23 or a blown capacitor at C17. Fantastic!

Water, water everywhere - the extremely successful Cassini spacecraft, currently orbiting Saturn's moon Enceladus, has sent back clear evidence of liquid water spewing from geysers on the frozen surface. This is a fascinating development, and of course raises the possibility of life once more.

Another milestone for Microsoft - the company has just registered its 5000th patent, granted for technology which allows spectators all over the world to watch other people playing video games, and it's quite possible that in future this could become as popular as watching sporting events is now.

Concern over iBill data - speculation is rife that adult web site payment clearing house iBill has lost personal and financial details of seventeen million subscribers, following the discovery of what appear to be customer lists on phishing-orientated web sites. The company is denying the loss.

Too damn fussy - and finally, talking of adult web sites, the webmaster of the popular fetish site Bondage.com was surprised when manufacturer Texas Memory Systems refused to sell him a solid state memory array for his SQL server because it didn't approve of the use to which the hardware would be put. It must be nice to run a company with such solid sales figures that you can afford to turn away an order worth $36,000 - especially in a segment of the market that has proved to be extremely tenuous over the last twenty five years...    [Note: link probably not work safe...]


9th March

We've had far too many quick links, recently, so here are a handful of somewhat slower ones instead:

Mozilla makes money - the Mozilla Corporation is making money from the Firefox open source browser, apparently, although getting the company to admit it apparently requires chains and crowbars to prise the information out of them. Initial reports claimed that the company made a profit of $72 million last year, but although this figure was denied by a board member, he did reveal that it is the right order of magnitude. How all that money was actually earned is equally unclear, considering that the software is free to download and use, but it seems likely that a significant proportion comes from the built-in Google search box. In one of those processes that seems to create money from thin air, when a user activates the search box a code is generated allowing Google to track the user's clicks on their site. Clicking on a paid advertisement from the Google results page not only brings revenue to the web site, but also the source of the search box which brought the user there. Are these clicks enough to generate tens of millions of dollars? Mozilla aren't saying, and in fact they seem decidedly embarrassed and defensive to be making money out of open source software at all - certainly, the purists would frown on this kind of sound business practice, and of course there is already anxious speculation that the Mozilla codebase will eventually be reverted back into a commercial product. With the imminent launch of Microsoft's IE7 (already looking fairly slick even in beta form) it's going to be an interesting year for Firefox.

Z Machine runs amok - researchers working with the remarkable plasma fusion generator at Sandia National Labs had something of a surprise when they changed from using the usual tungsten wire core to one made from steel. The plasma temperature soared to more than 2 billion Kelvin, far hotter than the interior of a star, and the exceptional temperature was maintained even after the plasma would usually have stagnated and begun to cool. Most surprising of all, the energy released by the reaction was actually greater than the 20 millions amps of current used to vaporise the core sample, and it is believed that as the plasma forms it is soaking up energy from the separate magnetic field that compresses it. Unlike the tungsten-sourced plasma, the steel sample seems to vaporise unevenly, causing vortices that absorb additional energy from the magnetic field that is smoothing them out. This additional energy, over and above the that of the current that creates the plasma in the first place, is what is pushing the temperature up so high and sustaining it for so long. This could be a real breakthrough in an area that, in spite of its great promise, has been somewhat frustrating of late.

How the mighty fall - an over-confident Mac fanboy exposed his OS X PowerPC Mac Mini to the Internet and issued a challenge to all comers. The inevitable result was that the system was thoroughly hacked and 0wned after a mere six hours, although the hacker claims that actually it only took him around twenty minutes to obtain root access to the system, using a privilege escalation on top of a little-known vulnerability in the SSH subsystem. Of course, the other fanboys are blaming the system's owner for making the system insecure by configuring various features that aren't enabled by default, but in the real world Internet-facing systems do have various apps and services running on them (that's rather the point, yes?), and in my opinion that's a spurious defence. In any case, it should serve as yet another warning to the Apple zeo rest on their perceived (and largely illusory) laurels - although I have a definite feeling that they'll learn less from this than users of other operating systems, most of whom already know that it's a dangerous, scary network out there...

WiMAX coming closer - the new 802.16 wireless standard is already badly overdue, having been initially ratified back in 2001, but Intel have announced that they will have laptop network interfaces ready to ship by the end of this year. It's not clear whether they mean PC-card devices, however, or mini-PCI modules for use internally - but as no similar announcement has been made about chips for the matching WiMAX access points the question may be somewhat moot...


8th March

A random handful of links:

Alternative DRM - rather than using a bunch of PC-damaging copy protection, small indie record label Matmos is enclosing a heartfelt note asking people not do do anything bad...

Corporate bastardry - anyone who wants to add Intel's DTCP-IP to their application (it's DRM by any other name, by the way) had better read the small print of the agreement very carefully indeed...

Homeland Absurdity - the excesses of the US DHS continue, with a report that a retired Texas schoolteacher is now under investigation for paying more than usual towards his credit card bill.

Staying one step ahead - as usual the Internet scammers are at the leading edge of technology, with redirection techniques designed to keep phishing pages online even when web sites are shut down.

Caveat emptor - another of those nasty little eBay scams, designed to trap the greedy and the unwary... This may look like a 20" LCD monitor, but actually it's just a list of retailers that sell it.

Dangerous to know - the infamous Captain Crunch, one of the original phone phreakers from the wild days of the seventies, has started a video weblog covering hacking and computer security.

Mystery solved - Microsoft's Origami project, about which much there has been so much speculation of late, turns out to be a new GUI for Intel's ultra-miniature tablet PC. It's rather disappointing...

Another nail in the coffin - the phantom of cold fusion remains elusive, it seems, with widespread and complete failures to duplicate the work of the latest proponent after four years of experimentation.

And finally, Microsoft vs. The World (again) - MS has accused the newly-formed OpenDocument Format Alliance (lead by the usual culprits, IBM, Sun, Red Hat, Oracle and Novell) of stirring up a standards war to hide the fact that their OpenOffice and Star Office applications have fallen badly behind in terms of functionality. Having looked at Star Office briefly last year, I'm inclined to agree - and tonight I'm wondering how long it will be before the Gang Of Four launches some kind of legal action complaining that Microsoft's Office XML file format is harmful to the consumer.  <sigh>


7th March

Blissful silence rules again... I didn't feel like going into the office and slaving over troublesome computers, today, so I stayed at home and slaved over them instead. The noise from my new GeForce 6800GT dual-DVI graphics card has been bugging me since I installed it at the weekend, as in best NVIDIA tradition that one small fan is louder than the four 120mm fans elsewhere in the case put together! I'd already ordered a Koolance water block to suit the new card, so with a few hours unexpectedly available it was time to void that warranty.

Removing the stock heatsink and fan assembly from the card wasn't complex, but there was certainly a surprising number of small screws to undo! The review of the Koolance unit at System Cooling had a useful step-by-step guide, though, so there were no surprises. The only head-scratching was due to the right-angled aluminium strip running along the top edge of the card in the XFX version of NVIDIA's reference design. This keeps the card from flexing, which is an excellent idea with a relatively long, heavy card like this, but would have fouled on the connectors for the coolant tubing in my configuration.

I had originally intended to cut a slot out of the strip with my trusty Dremel, but while I was measuring the section to be removed it occurred to me that simply reversing it so that the protruding side was on the rear of the card instead would be a better idea - it was far less fuss, works just as well, and this way I haven't done anything permanent if the card happens to expire while still in warranty!

Installing the Koolance unit was as easy as removing the stock hardware. This model actually uses the same low-profile water block that I was using on the previous Radeon 9800 card, with the addition of a chassis holding one of those new-fangled heat pipe things running from each memory chip to the next. The two are connected together in some arcane manner inside that blue alloy duct, and the coolant enters and leaves via a pair of the freely-rotating screw-on connectors that are one of the Koolance trademarks - the latter always feel disconcertingly loose and wobbly, but the ones in my system have been 100% reliable in spite of that. The assembly tightens down onto the card with the usual four thumbscrews, and the end result seems reassuringly solid and businesslike.

Although the low-profile Koolance design leaves the first PCI slot free for use, mine is occupied by an Adaptec DuoConnect USB2/Firewire interface card with unusually long component pins on the reverse side, and as I was a little concerned that the metal shield over the water block would short something out I slipped a rectangle of thin card into the gap. It may be a touch Rube Goldberg, but it works nicely and it was free...  :-)

The longest part of the project was draining enough of the coolant to avoid a small blue flood, and weaving the tubing in and out of the maze of data cabling inside the case. I decided to use completely new segments of tubing to avoid any risk of leaks where it had deformed inside the connectors, but as usual dipping the tip of the poly tubing in hot water for a few seconds softened it up and allowed it to slip over the barbs without fuss. Having plumbed everything back together I refilled the reservoir, then disconnected the main power feeds from the motherboard and used the neat little bit of insulated wire that Koolance supplies to start the PSU up manually, allowing the air to work its way out of the system while I double-checked for leaks.

Having reconnected the power supply the system booted up perfectly, and in a few minutes I was anxiously watching the temperature monitoring graph in the NVIDIA control panel. These on-die thermistors are notoriously inaccurate in real terms, but as I only really wanted to compare the performance of the new unit to that of the stock cooler it was good enough. In fact, I am extremely pleased with the results - as well as the blissful silence, the card is running at only ten degrees above ambient temperature when idle, and is around twenty degrees cooler under load than it was before. The airflow over the old heatsink must have been fairly poor, as my case design is not really intended for air cooling of the critical components, but even so it does illustrate the significantly greater efficiency of water cooling in general. The reviewers at System Cooling found almost identical results, and their tests showed that with the Koolance unit in place they could over-clock the card to an impressive degree, well above the timings of the top-of-the range 6800 Ultra model... It's certainly something to think about.

In the meantime, though, I'm happy to have the best of both worlds, again - although to achieve both performance and silence I've had to sacrifice the multitude of audio-visual inputs and outputs to which I have become very accustomed during many years of using ATI's Radeon All-In-Wonder models. To replace this functionality, an external USB TV tuner and video capture module is on its way to me as I write this - but that's a story for another day.


6th March

It's been something of a long, annoying day at the silicon face, so you'll have to survive on a few snatched links.

NIFOC - a survey from firewall manufacturers SonicWall claims that 10% of teleworkers do so nude, and that a further 9% feel guilty for being away from the office...

Strange Lego - old favourites like the frozen Han Solo and the Difference Engine, together with newcomers such as functional model of an air conditioner and a working harpsichord.

On 3DMark - an article discusses the latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark as a company, and the changes facing consumer 3D graphics now that Windows Vista is imminent.

Lords reject ID cards - Tony Blair's intrusive, costly, and pointless compulsory ID cards scheme has been defeated by a majority of 61, returning the bill to the Commons for further debate.

Robotic burro - engineering company Boston Dynamics is developing a quadrupedal robot to act as a work-horse for the military, powered by a petrol engine and capable of trotting at over 3mph.

The word from Down Under - Dan is back, with letters (he's dissing the health kooks again, something at which he is enormously good) and a very odd looking light bulb.

Rear entry - Microsoft has denied that it is building secret back doors into the encryption mechanism of Vista, and one of their senior crypto developers has confirmed the official stance on his weblog.

And finally, "President" Bush may have mastered the iPod (he can pirate music with the best of them, even if he can't talk about it coherently) but apparently Tony Blair is still a technological no-hoper who relies on his daughter to download songs for him.  <sigh>


5th March

It's that link again:

The Woz is not for turning - Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak recently gave an interview which contained some criticism of Apple's current direction, but once it had been published he denied having done so! The interviewer insisted that his transcript was correct, however, and released a recording that supports his claims, leaving the fanboys arguing bitterly over what Woz actually meant.

DoJ to probe music download prices - possibly inspired by the investigation launched by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the US Department of Justice has started to examine the download pricing policies of the major music labels. There is suspicion that the labels have colluded by imposing terms and conditions on the download companies to prevent significant competition.

Symantec under attack - users of the Norton Firewall and Norton Internet Security products can be evicted from IRC channels just be typing the words "startkeylogger" or "stopkeylogger" into the channel. These keywords are used by the botnet client Spybot and, as the software cannot recognise the harmless context, when it detects these strings it severs the connection immediately.

Microsoft attacks EU conspiracy - following recent complaints of anti-competitive behaviour from Microsoft's main rivals, Sun, IBM, Oracle and Novell, the company has criticised EU staff for having "inappropriate contact" with representatives from the companies. My well-known pro-Microsoft stance aside, I'm inclined to agree - there's far too much money at stake to take any of this at face value.

PCs not dull, admits Apple UK - television adverts for the new Intel-based Macs have been modified for the UK market, removing a pejorative reference to Wintel-type computers. Apple has a history of problems with the UK's Advertising Standards Authority, most recently over its claim that the G5 was the most powerful personal computer on the market, and it looks like they're playing safe...

AOL defies the opposition - the giant ISP is determined to continue with its "GoodMail" pay-to-send-mail service, in spite of universal criticism from other ISPs and Internet organisations, who consider it a first step towards balkanising the global email system. An AOL spokesman has dismissed these fears as "balderdash and piffle" - it's always nice to see a reasoned and well-constructed argument...

Telescopes will be worthless - a senior Cambridge astronomer has warned that astronomical observations from ground-based telescopes will be impossible by the middle of this century, if cloud cover caused by climate change and the high altitude condensation caused by the boom in cheap air travel continues as predicted.

And finally, T-shirts inspired by The IT Crowd, and Penny Arcade has gone over to the dark side...


They say that books
Are the way that
The dead
Talk to the living

 - Laurie Anderson


3rd March

Now that's more like it. Unlike the first one, the second XFX GeForce 6800GT card I was sent worked perfectly, and I was up and running on dual displays quicker than one could translate the Book of Macabies from Hebrew into Lithuanian. I bought the card from an eBay vendor that turned out to be a front for Propellerhead, the support company for XFX products in this country, and they replaced the faulty card without a quibble - which is just as well, as from what I read on the forums XFX do not have the best quality control when it comes to their memory chips...

Ripping out the last remnants of the ATI Catalyst drivers was a fairly smooth process, as was installing the NVIDIA ForceWare suite. I still haven't quite decided which of the various dual display modes will suit me best, and there's a lot of fiddling with window sizes and positions to come, but the additional real estate is marvellous it's already proving to be a highly worthwhile purchase.

The new graphics card certainly is noisy, however, really living up to my expectations of the stock coolers fitted to NVIDIA's hardware. Fortunately this is only temporary, as the manufacturer of my water cooling hardware, Koolance, have a water block specially designed for the 6800 series of cards, and the review at the excellent specialist site System Cooling suggests that it is as well made and efficient as the rest of their products. Unlike the initial batch of hardware I bought a year ago, this time I don't have to order direct from Koolance in the US - one of the familiar UK suppliers, Tekheads, is a major distributor and has them in stock around as cheaply as they can be found used on eBay. One is on its way to me now, and is likely to lower the operating temperature of the GPU (my case isn't really designed for air cooling, and I'm surprised that the fan is keeping the card as cool as it is at present) as well as restoring my blissful silence. I've obviously become spoiled in the last six months, since the replacement power supply removed the last significantly noisy component.

In the meantime, I put on the classic folk-rock album Sedgemoor, from seventeenth century military music divas Strawhead, and drowned the fan noise with blaring brass horns. Marvellous stuff.

Sound the trumpet, sound the charge!
Now Monmouth's come to Lyme, boys
And James' men in fear will flee
With Monmouth and God with us!

- Strawhead Monmouth Landed in the West


2nd March

It's time to post a picture of Steve Ballmer, I think.

Just because.

I like Steve. He's kind of the corporate equivalent of Hannibal Lector. Offend him, and he'll eat your liver... Although he probably wouldn't bother with a Chianti, nice or otherwise.

Closer to home, some random links:

Upgrading Vista - apparently it's going to be possible to switch from the basic version of the upcoming OS to one of the more advanced variants, just by popping in the original CD and entering a license key purchased online. It certainly sounds convenient.

Xbox 360 crisis over - and talking of Microsoft, apparently the annoying shortage of the new games console is ending, and the company is now on track to sell between ten and twelve million units by the end of the year.

An unholy match - AMD is dubious about the strengthening ties between Skype and Intel (when the VoIP product launches on a Pc with an Intel CPU it permits 10-way conferencing calling, but with an AMD CPU it only enables five-way) and is contemplating an anti-monopoly suit.

New toys from Apple - with emphasis on the word 'toys'... MacWorld 2006 saw the launch of two new Mac Mini units, now running Intel processors,  and leather cases, remote controls and hi-fi speakers for the iPods that now seem to be the company's main focus.

A new Bamboo Curtain - China seems to be taking steps to place itself even further outside of the mainstream Internet, creating three new Chinese-character top-level domains and the independent hierarchy of DNS servers required to support them.

Browser patent scuffle - Microsoft has released an update to Internet Explorer that changes the way that the browser handles ActiveX controls, hoping to limit liability in a long-running dispute with Eolas Technologies, a company created solely to earn a fast buck from the suit.

Anti-cellphone paint - and talking of earning a fast buck, a new development in nanotech paint will enable organisations to selectively block RF transmissions from cell phones and wireless networking devices inside their buildings, allowing them to make staff or visitors pay to receive connectivity.

Crumpled paper - with rumours about Microsoft's somewhat mysterious Origami technology flying thick and fast, and an almost complete absence of hard facts, some MS watchers are starting to worry that the hype will doom the project long before anything can be shipped.

The ins and outs of Vista - in contrast to Origami, however, there's a lot of hard information about Vista circulating, and a long article at ExtremeTech discusses the improvements and new features. It looks great, and I'm already planning the development of my main home system with Vista in mind.


1st March

Good grief, it's March! The year is racing along.

A few quick links, as I'm busy again...

Emergency surgery - at Mobility Guru, a useful and fascinating guide to replacing a damaged laptop LCD screen. It's a fiddly job, certainly, but could save hundreds of pounds if you're brave enough.

Free light - a Japanese construction company is planning an office building designed to save running costs by collecting light energy with solar panels and emitting it at night via banks of LEDs.

Cat piano - a seventeenth century design for a musical instrument featuring cats, carefully selected to emit a different note when "stimulated" by a sharp object. I definitely approve...   :-)

Power drain - at the increasingly useful X-bit Labs, a survey of the power demands of a wide range of modern graphics cards, from the excessive to the downright absurd!

Viruses plague business - the majority of security incidents encountered by UK companies are still caused by viruses, and even now some seem woefully unprotected.

The plural of virus - and talking of which, I always used to use the word "virii", but a fascinating article at the ever-wonderful Wikipedia confirms the error of my ways.


Not a bad month in the stats, again, especially considering that it was such a short one - just a whisker less than January in the number of visits, and a little more in the number of page hits, the latter being a new all-time record. Given that the traffic over the month has been very steady at around 300 visits per day, I think I've found my natural level again - at least until I finally get Slashdotted for my rants about Apple and Linux!



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