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31st May

Links: you want 'em, I've got 'em.

Recycling - I don't remember seeing many PCs being recycled for other purposes, and I expect the fanboys would make a lot of the fact that it seems to be a common fate for Apple hardware. In the wake of the classic aquarium conversion, Boing Boing has a couple of ideas for the G series.

Know-nothing bozos - at the Bit-Tech forums, the news that Microsoft are to develop their own image format has met with the expected reactions of "how dare they corrupt another open standard?" and it isn't until half-way through the second page that somebody mentions Forgent and their JPEG patent...

Spam-free spam - following some speculation on spam messages with no apparent advertising content (I've always assumed they are the result of an incorrectly programmed spam robot, myself) the old mystery of the "numbers" radio stations has attracted some renewed attention.

Flaming laptops, Batman! - stories of incendiary iBooks are bad enough, but to have the fire actually caught on video is enormously bad for PR - and as this particular battery model wasn't included in the recent hardware recall one wonders how many more potentially fatal iBooks are lurking out there.

ASCII maps - this marvellous screen-scraper acts as a front end for Google Maps, converting the original graphics to ASCII characters in classic green-on-black. I have to admit that it's almost completely useless, but one has to admire the ingenuity and retro chic...

No to DRM! - one of the highlights of last week's WinHEC conference at Seattle was a protest timed to coincide with Bill Gates' keynote speech. Demonstrators dressed in hazmat suits stormed the entrance, hoping to bring awareness about the restrictive rights management features in Vista.

Virtual realities - from a domino topple using books, created in the online fantasy game Elder Scrolls / Oblivion, to a fully-functioning interdependent ecosystem created in Second Life, it seems as if the one thing people are not doing with online games is playing the games!

BMW Audio Books - the car manufacturer has commissioned a series of short stories from an interesting selection of contemporary writers, available to download free as audio books, all of which feature the marque in some way.  I'll let you know if they're any good.

 

30th May

I finished the latest SF3D / Ma.K model over the weekend, and I'm very pleased with the way it turned out. The model is the "Konrad" Armoured Fighting Suit, and like the SAFS model I built last month it's obviously inspired by Heinlein's classic Starship Troopers novel.

In the SF3D universe the AFS is an earlier design than the fully-enclosed SAFS, which left me facing the unenviable task of painting the human component of the system as well. This isn't something that I'm particularly good at but the end result is certainly adequate, especially when obscured somewhat by the tinted (and carefully abraded) windscreen.

I chose a slightly lighter colour scheme than for the SAFS, but kept to the general military drab with rust, oil and mud motif. As usual, it seems odd to work so hard on airbrushing a smooth and even finish of the base coats only to deliberately muss and distress it afterwards, but the initial effort is worthwhile and I've managed to achieve a pleasingly businesslike appearance overall - if only at the cost of completely destroying several paintbrushes during the dry-brushing in the final stages.

The base is another WWII diorama from Models In Motion, and although at 1/35th scale it's not a perfect match for the 1/20th fighting suit the discrepancy is hardly obvious considering the futuristic context - who's to say that there isn't an appropriately-sized tracked vehicle elsewhere on the battlefield, after all! And talking of which, although I have another couple of similar armoured suits in the pile, for the next kit I've decided to try something different, the "Jerry" Heavy Armoured Fighting suit - a small tank on legs - which at the same scale is a somewhat larger and more demanding model. Watch this space as the build progresses.

 

29th May

A few quick links before I head back to the silicon face again tomorrow...

Police DP is rubbish - the latest report from the Birchard enquiry into intelligence failures within the UK police has revealed that almost half the forces audited so far are guilty of sub-standard data quality management and poor performance in entering data in a timely fashion.

Inexplicable events - a hapless eBay seller has been driven almost to distraction by an ever-increasing stream of annoying, pointless, irrelevant and just downright perplexing questions. It seems to have something of the flavour of a flash mob, and I suspect a hidden organiser behind the scenes...

Recycling - Envirofone is offering good money for unwanted cell phones, or vouchers from catalogue shopping company Argos if you'd prefer. The value of anything more than a few years old is minimal, however, with even the most recent of my MotorolaTimeports commanding a meagre 1.05.

JPEG patent revaluated - the controversial patent awarded to Forgent Networks in 2002 is currently under review by the US Patent and Trademark Office, and some of the claims in the patent have now been rejected on grounds of existing prior art - which throws the entire patent into doubt.

Symantec insecurity - a serious flaw has been revealed in Symantec's AntiVirus Corporate Edition, potentially allowing a remote attacker to take control of an entire PC. The company was at pains to point out that the home version of the product was not affected, which somehow makes it better?

The tables turn -  beleaguered P2P hub Torrentspy has taken the unprecedented and decidedly gutsy act of suing the MPAA for conspiracy and invasion of privacy, following allegations that the organisation hired a hacker to penetrate the Torrentspy network and steal confidential data.

Government hangs up - a 3% tax on long distance phone calls has been repealed after over one hundred years, heralding a small decrease in costs and a refund for the last three years. It was enacted in 1898 in order to fund the Spanish-American War, so it's probably about time...

eBay taxes loom - the Inland Revenue is to turn it attention to high volume dealers on the popular auction site, many of whom have conveniently forgotten to register for VAT or to declare their additional income. Ask not for who the bell tolls...

Classical superheroes - the latest contest at Photoshopping site Worth 1000 is to set superhero characters in a fine art context, and as always some of the entries are extremely good. My favourite is Batman and Superman reflected in Escher's glass globe, both imaginative and well executed.

 

28th May

The weather today made a pleasant change from the week's continual showers, so I was out bright and early staining the timbers on the new plant trellis a deep mahogany colour. I put two coats on, which took three or four hours in total, and for much of the time I had a grey squirrel to keep me company. It was surprisingly unafraid and inquisitive, climbing up and down the woodwork and plants only a few feet from me, and even venturing onto the timbers I'd just painted. I hope it doesn't mind mahogany feet!

I lost track of it towards the end of the job, but when I went upstairs to photograph my work from the top window I saw it sprawled out on the flat roof, perfectly camouflaged against the grey surface - I don't think even a chameleon could have done better. Its pose is decidedly reminiscent of a predator stalking its prey in the African veldt, but as I haven't noticed herds of nuts and berries travelling to my water feature to drink presumably it was just enjoying the afternoon sun, something that has been conspicuous by its absence over the last week. It's kinda neat having it around, though, especially as it seems so bold, and I think I might rig up a feeder high on the trellis to watch the acrobatics.

 

27th May

I've just discovered that Desmond Dekker, one of the most influential musicians on the ska scene of the sixties, died yesterday of a heart attack at his home in Surrey. Best known for the perennial favourite "Israelites", the first international hit by a Jamaican singer and by the far the biggest until the heyday of Bob Marley a decade later, in fact Dekker had little commercial success and was actually declared bankrupt in 1984. However, he has been credited as a major inspiration by a host of Jamaican musicians that followed in his footsteps, and is mentioned in an unusual number of songs by other artists, ranging from West Coast punkers Rancid to The Beatles' "Ob La Di Ob La Da".

Although I love "Israelites" itself, these days I always think of the advertising campaign for Maxell cassette tape that featured it, parodying Dylan's famous video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" to suggest that the song's somewhat obscure lyrics would be perfectly comprehensible if only it was recorded on the right media - it's been ages since I've seen it, but the memory still makes me smile. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to listen to some classic ska.

Meanwhile, something for the weekend...

Time travel - a fascinating project by the increasingly useful mySociety.org, and funded by the UK government's Department Of Transport, to produce maps with isochrones (lines of constant time) to illustrate travel time between various locations in Britain. And it's pretty, too!

No to DRM! - digital music player manufacturer iRiver has taken the bold step of allowing users to disable the Microsoft "Plays For Sure" DRM system in order to regain the full functionality of their devices. The company is not a major name in the market, though, and it may only be a token gesture.

Apple vanquished - regular readers will know that I'm no great fan of the company's attitudes these days, but even die-hard Mac enthusiasts should be glad that their attempt to remove online news sites from the "Shield Law" that allows journalists to protect their sources has been dismissed by the court.

Ofcom chief bales - Stephen Carter, the head of the UK's media and telecoms regulator, has resigned three years after joining the organisation. He has been heavily criticised over his 414,000 salary while in office, especially following a 1.4m severance package from his previous company.

EU considers e-tax - supporters of the EU's attacks on Microsoft may change their minds following the announcement that the Union is considering bolstering its funding by taxing all email and SMS messages. Regardless of the ethics of this idea, to me it sounds thoroughly unworkable in any case.

Cloaking - I've just been watching the epic documentary "How William Shatner Changed The World", so it seems unusually timely to come across a pair of scientific papers discussing the possibility of building the "cloaking device" beloved of the Star Trek series.

And finally, Conservative peer Lord Northesk has vowed to fight new proposals to extend the Computer Misuse Act to cover creation and distribution of software that could be used for hacking or other malicious activity, on the grounds that it will criminalise the authors and users of genuine network analysis and forensics software. His main fear seems to be that the police IT units will be denied access to the software they need to fight crime, but I am far more concerned that corporate network staff will no longer be able to obtain and use utilities such as Nmap and AirSnort because they can be used for malicious activity as well as for legitimate security auditing. Given the recent threat of implementation of the key recovery clauses in the equally controversial RIPA, things are looking pretty bleak for the working sysadmin right now.

 

26th May

This morning I received, out of the blue, a mail message from someone who had disastrous business dealings with Dee Sheldrake back in the bad old days of Area 51 Airsoft, and had seen my web page on the various problems I experienced. Although Sheldrake is still loosely connected to the UK airsoft industry there's little point in dunning him after all this time, but it serves as an excellent reminder of how the Internet has changed the way that companies and individuals can be held accountable for dubious behaviour. People talk and share information, even after many years, and it's no longer just enough to move to another town and set up again under a different name... These days escaping a bad reputation takes more drastic measures.

And talking of which, it's probably time for an update on my frustrating experience with Mark Woolley of Special Airsoft Supplies. I returned the unwanted SVD springer replica at the end of February, and the Post Office tracking showed that Woolley himself signed for the parcel on the 1st March. What followed was a long sullen silence, as in spite of a number of increasingly terse email messages from me I heard nothing back from him at all. I'm still curious as to why he thought he would get away with doing that, actually - it would seem to be the height of self-delusion to assume that I would just write off a debt of around 660 and chalk it up to experience...

After initial enquires with PayPal proved as fruitless as expected, some research online pointed me to The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000, a relatively recent law that covers, among other things, purchases made over the Internet. The key clause in this case is the provision of a "cooling off period" of seven working days from the day after the goods are received by the buyer, during which they can be returned unconditionally. Whatever the rights and wrongs of our particular dispute, this law applies regardless, and gives the seller one month to make a full refund.

Accordingly, I waited for a month, and when I had still heard nothing I registered a claim with the HM Court Service's Money Claim Online facility, which had been extremely productive in my dispute with telecoms company O2 back at the start of the year. Because the item had been returned within the statutory period the claim was presumably quite straight-forward, and as Woolley apparently did not attempt to defend the suit a judgement in my favour was returned a few weeks later without further paperwork. Evidently he chose to ignore this, as well, and after leaving a reasonable time for him to get in touch I used the Money Claim service to request that a warrant be issued for recovery of the sum - which had now grown to almost 740 thanks to the court costs.

So far Woolley has seemed able to dodge the court bailiffs, however, and given the reports I've received from other customers it seems that is used to avoiding unwanted attention - apparently he always has a family member answer the door to "screen" callers before admitting that he's at home, and habitually has the telephone set to the answering machine to do the same. Now, call me suspicious, but this does rather sound like the behaviour of somebody who is familiar with unhappy customers and is always expecting the worst...

Putting aside the suggestion made by a previous victim (one of several with whom I have been in touch recently), that I turn up at his door with several large friends and "refuse to take no for an answer", I seem to have two options. Firstly, I can leave the matter in the hands of the court bailiffs, who are reportedly somewhat over-worked and under-motivated and so may never achieve anything on my behalf. Alternatively, I can place the matter in the hands of one of the many commercial debt recovery services that have sprung up in this era of easy credit, and see what they can offer. They have somewhat less legal power than the official bailiffs, I gather, but to compensate are probably somewhat better motivated given their usual policy of "no recovery, no fee". I suspect that I will give the official channels a little longer (it is wise not to expect rapid results from British justice, after all!) and then throw him to the jackals. If the television is to be believed, professional debt collectors look and act like Vinnie Jones in a Guy Ritchie movie, and right now that's just fine with me...

It has to be said that the current griping thread at Arnie's Airsoft (just one of a number on the various UK airsoft forums) has comments from several people who have had perfectly smooth dealings with Woolley and SAS - however, it nearly always emerges that they have bought directly from him at a show or by visiting his house, and in my opinion this is the only way that you should conduct business with this man. Hand him the cash when he hands you the goods, if you must, but at this stage I have to recommend that you avoid doing business by post, phone or Internet for any sums greater than you can afford to lose.

 

25th May

The first day back in the office after a couple of days of holiday is always somewhat frenzied, but today made me wish I was back up a ladder wrestling with timber: I had dying hard drives, failing disk images, unreasonable users, annoying deadlines and perplexing servers. Sometimes cross-training into plumbing seems so attractive... And after the aircon flooded the computer room for the second time in a week, last Monday, it's hardly any less wet either.

Elsewhere, some links:

Locking down - rumours were circulating that Sony were intending to prevent PS3 games from being sold on the second-hand market, but even though a company spokesman has dismissed the suggestion I have to admit that I'm not 100% convinced. The company's previous behaviour in this area should be kept in mind when speculating on future policy...

The Battleship - one of the classic computer industry fables describes Steve Jobs' outrage when, after his ignominious departure from Apple in the mid-eighties, a fan asked him to sign his Apple Extended keyboard. It's great to see a picture of the object of his contempt posted on Flickr, with both Steve's and Woz's signatures on the underside.

Insectilicious! - Dan briefly mentioned the Gakken Mechamo Centipede a while ago, but he's finally succumbed and has provided a full review... I lasted about three paragraphs before heading off to HobbyLink Japan to place an order for myself. Dan recommended the supplier too, and as to the best of my knowledge he's only ever made one mistake I thought I'd give them a try.

Hi-tech craftsmanship - Peter Dickison is one of the most talented and innovative custom case designers on the PC modding the scene, and following his spectacular Orac3 case he turned to an project inspired by the doomsday devices employed by Hollywood movie bad guys. After a long wait "WMD" is now finally complete, and it can only be described as stunning.

Very tiny machines - one of my PFYs pointed me to this neat little miniature PC, and at 5 cm on a side this one is even smaller! The Japanese blurb seems to suggest Linux as an OS, but I'd have a damn good try at getting Windows on there, myself, and with what appears to be a regular compact flash memory card slot in one side it could certainly provide enough storage space.

 

24th May

My apologies for the lack of updates here over the last few days, but I've been somewhat distracted with a DIY project. At the rear of my house is a little patio underneath a framework that supports sprawling laburnum and wisteria plants, both of which produce a surprising quantity of foliage. It was built by the house's previous owners, but the timber they used was somewhat below standard and last summer the trellis started to sag alarmingly under the weight of the plants. I'd intended to do something about it long before now, but when the coming of spring provoked the usual growth spurt and the framework started to feel decidedly rickety I realised that something needed to be done right away. I tracked down some suitable half-round timbers on eBay last week, then threw myself on the mercy of my friend Mike. He's not fond of DIY projects, I know, but is also extremely capable and evidently couldn't think of a plausible excuse at such short notice.

Taking down the old structure took only a few minutes, with some of the wood literally rotting away in our hands. It obviously wasn't particularly good quality to begin with, and the replacement timber is not only rather more heavy duty but (hopefully!) also rather better preserved. The idea of cutting the twelve foot lengths down to size was a touch daunting, however, so I treated myself to a new toy: a Black & Decker Scorpion reciprocating saw. This certainly made short work of the cuts, and was pleasingly easy to use - but the vibrations as it sliced through the relatively green timbers were fairly awesome at times and Mike was shaken around like a jelly on a plate steadying the ends.

We cut all the parts to size and pre-drilled holes for the carriage bolts that would hold the lengths together in a grid pattern, and then had to make the decision as to whether assemble the structure on the ground and then lift it onto the supports intact, or build it in place piece-by-piece. I favoured the latter, and Mike the former, and in the end I talked him round. Lifting the entire frame would have been a tough job for just two people, I think, but I have to admit that assembling it in mid-air was not without its problems either - I had to re-drill a couple of the holes when slight misalignments elsewhere compounded into a difference of around an inch in the final row of joints.

During this process Mike was steadying the ladder for me, which put him in an excellent position to be hit on the head by anything I happened to drop while working - a selection of items ranging from nuts and washers to a medium-sized hammer. He had to choose between looking up and getting a face-full of sawdust, or looking down and being unable to dodge the incoming unguided missiles, so it's something of a miracle that he survived intact and I expect he's been glad to get back to his desk in one piece, today!

In the end neither of us received anything worse than scraped knuckles and the odd blister, and the end result was very satisfactory. It looks nicely elegant and airy, and yet also feels reassuringly solid - a definite benefit once the plants, which I had to cut back extensively to allow us room to work, notice what they're missing and start to make up for the loss. All that remains is to stain it a mahogany brown to match the patio tiles, which I had hoped to do today. Unfortunately it showered intermittently all day, and every time things had dried out enough to work and I thought about going outside the skies opened again. Hopefully the coming weekend will be somewhat less damp!

Many thanks to Mike, without who this would not have been possible - although as he uses the patio when he slips outside for a cigarette, and has been increasingly anxious about the trellis collapsing on him (thus proving conclusively that smoking is indeed bad for one's health), it's safe to assume that he had something of a vested interest in the project...

Meanwhile, elsewhere, a generous handful of news links to make up for the drought:

Now it's Symantec - the voracious software company is accusing Microsoft of infringing their intellectual property rights over the Volume Manager product they acquired with Veritas.

Pots and kettles - following Creative's claims that Apple has infringed patents covering the user interface of their MP3 players, Apple has counter-sued on the same grounds.

Legal wars - the growth of the so-called "Web 2.0" community services has led to a matching growth in the lawsuits brought against them, and a new site aims to document the various battles.

Stone home - following a bizarre Microsoft anti-piracy campaign which involved sending out stones in boxes, a campaign has started to reunite them with the company.

Lies, damn lies and the RIAA - according to the recording industry, the money they lose every month because of illicit downloads via the Pirate Bay P2P site exceeds the GDP of France...

Botmaster jailed - a US hacker was sentenced to almost five years for hijacking over 400,000 computers and co-opting them to send out spam, display adverts and launch DoS attacks.

Leaks like a sieve - European ISP Wanadoo has accidentally released the personal details of thousands of its users on its web site, and took a surprising time to properly secure the data.

RIPA starts to bite - six years after it was introduced, the most controversial part of the appalling Regulation Of Investigatory Powers Act is likely to be implemented by the government.

Dear NSA - contrary to widespread belief amongst the left wing worldwide, the US National Security Agency is our friend, and only has our best interests at heart.

MS disses open source - the European VP and CTO of Microsoft has described open source software as neither "reliable or dependable", which even I admit is rather a sweeping statement...

On the market - the co-founder and chairman of business intelligence system manufacturer SAP is pimping the company around, with possible buyers including IBM, Microsoft and Google.

Contracting market - Seagate has completed its acquisition of rival Maxtor, bringing the once-diverse hard disk industry down to just a handful of manufacturers.

Vista demands - Microsoft have released the minimum and optimum hardware specs for Vista, and as usual I suspect that both should be taken with a pinch of salt.

DIY watches - courtesy of the excellent Instructables DIY tech site, plans for making your own binary LED wrist watch. Subsequent firmware upgrades will add all sorts of extra functions.

And, finally, geek chic - if you ever wanted a T-shirt that telegraphs your heart rate and skin temperature to a friend via Bluetooth, or jewellery that emits fragrances in response to remote sensors, or a hoodie with a built-in microcam to document the things that excite you, then you're in luck. These garments, and many others, are the center pieces of a conference-cum-fashion show that was held in Italy last week, and some of the ideas are actually rather interesting. Thanks to The Sideshow for the pointer.

 

20th May

After a rather puzzling week, my DSL Max upgrade seems to have taken effect at last. The scheduled migration date was Monday, and when I checked the BeWAN DSL card in my firewall that evening it had already retrained at 832Kbps upstream and 8128Kbps down - impressive figures and, together with the low attenuation and noise margins I was seeing, a very reassuring sign. My actual download speed was still the same as the pre-migration 2Mbit pipe, but some investigation of the FAQs showed that this was expected behaviour while the systems at BT's exchanges calculated the maximum rate my line would support - a process that could take three days or more.

However, by Friday evening it was still firmly capped at 2Mbit performance, and I was starting to worry a little. Another check in the Zen and ADSLGuide forums showed that a number of other early-adopters were seeing the same issue, and various people were offering advice on bizarre techniques for kicking the automated RAMBO signal analysis routines into action - forcing multiple reconnections by rebooting the router, for example, or artificially creating line noise to lower the sync speed. These went firmly against the advice from Zen's tech support, however, and I wasn't tempted - the process could take up to ten days, according to the FAQs, so I resigned myself to sitting it out.

However, this morning another browse through the forums pointed to a story at The Register that revealed the existence of a bug in RAMBO which caused exactly this symptom, and fortunately a fix was already being applied. Sure enough, when I checked the ADSLGuide speed tester things were looking very different:

The net result of this is that I can download binary files at speeds in the region of 800Kb/sec, which I'm quite happy with - and as the RAMBO process will try different sync rates and settings until it finds the maximum reliable throughput there's a chance that it could even rise a little over the next few days. The business DSL lines are prioritised over the home connections, too, so in theory my transfer speeds will fluctuate less at peak times than those of the consumer-level IP Stream Max offerings. Time will tell...

 

19th May

So my IT director decided that I didn't have enough Dell servers to play with, and in the guise of providing a platform for the company's Siebel implementation he generously ordered another couple of dozen to keep me happy:

Which needed another pair of gigabit port modules for our Cisco Catalyst core switch, a major re-cabling project to connect them all up, and another PFY to look after the ever-expanding infrastructure:

And, of course, some more GBICs to hook them up to the SAN, together with an upgrade to the McData fibre channel switches to permit the expansion:

And then some more disks for the SAN itself, taking us to around 6Tb of storage on 50 spindles, together with an additional pair of DAEs to hold them:

And before we knew it we'd spent around 260,000, in addition to the 250,000 we spent on the SAP hardware and systems last autumn.

Needless to say, Dell are very fond of me right now.

I don't imagine that the same can be said for our finance director...

 

18th May

What a day... I'm going to spend the rest of the evening lying on my back and groaning quietly, but not before the regular round-up of all the news that's fit to 'blog:

New beta - Microsoft has just released a public beta of Media Player 11, and as I was feeling brave I installed it on my desktop XP system at home. The installation was painless (it didn't even demand a reboot), and the new look makes a change, but it's definitely still a beta... I stressed it a little by working through a folder containing a few dozen gigabytes of odd video clips awaiting sorting, and it crashed several times in the space of a couple of hours, once taking the Explorer shell down with it for good measure. There is an extensive list of new features, and it's certainly worth a look, but be warned that it's not the most stable of beasts at this stage.

The modular car - Dan Rutter is holding forth on hybrid cars, clearly illustrating once again why he really is a geek's geek... Although his primary focus is on PCs and electronics, he seems to possess a breadth of knowledge of all things technical and engineering that is matched only by its depth. He writes with great clarity and much wit and humour, and litters his articles with a fascinating and eclectic range of links. Every so often I dip back into his archives at random, and often find some gem that I had overlooked - in this case, a field guide to CPU coolers written as a follow-up to his massive survey of the field.

Missed point error in line 1 - An article at UK tech news service The Register is titled "Copyright reforms strike a balance in Oz", but I'm afraid that it only serves to illustrate how poorly the writer understands the issues surrounding DRM and the boundless ambition of the media industry. For a considerably better informed viewpoint, a summary of the reforms at Boing Boing shows that what appears to be the long-awaited legislation for "fair use" will instead place surprisingly heavy restrictions on viewing habits. For example - Australian viewers will at last be able to legally record a television program for later viewing, but they will only be able to watch it a single time before the DRM disables it...

Their day in court - Apple are spending as much time litigating as Microsoft, these days, and this time the plaintiff is Creative Labs, who are alleging infringement of a patent covering menu navigation techniques and organisation of files on a portable music player. A similar suit brought by Contois Music and Technology last year is still in progress, and iTunes and the iPod are increasingly becoming the targets of legal action. Has Apple become the equivalent of Microsoft in this area, in that it's easier to sue them than compete with them? Certainly, Creative are their main competitor in the MP3 player market, and would doubtless do anything to get ahead...

Spore closer - a few months ago I mentioned the new "game" from Sims guru Will Wright, having sat open-mouthed through an hour-long video of him demonstrating some of its concepts and the early graphics. Attendees at last week's E3 consumer entertainment show were treated to an updated demonstration, and if anything it seems to be getting better and better. The game is positively grandiose in scope, allowing the player to develop his own life form from a single-celled organism, through primitive society and civilization, right up to a member of a space-faring civilization colonising other worlds to start the whole process again. I'm really looking forward to seeing the game, but although Amazon is already taking pre-orders the launch isn't scheduled until next January!

 

17th May

Although the story is actually a few weeks old, I've only just started coming across references to a major security breach at an un-named UK online retailer, resulting in the loss of many thousands of credit card details to hackers and scammers. I have a particular interest in this story, as one of my cards was amongst those those stolen, but evidently it was used almost for fraudulent purchases very soon after the leak so rather than a polite letter from my card issuer informing me of the problem and enclosing a replacement card, I had to go to all the fuss of detecting and reporting the unauthorised transactions myself.

The retailer in question has not yet been named, but it seems that they had stored the card details in an unencrypted form on a public-facing e-commerce server, and once this server had been compromised the data was freely available. Obviously, this represents a serious lack of security awareness on the part of the company's IT staff, and is also a tremendous breach of trust on the part of the retailer.

The story was broken by the online tech news service Silicon.com, who are currently appealing for help in exposing the retailer in question. Nothing in UK law obliges a company to inform its customers when such a security breach occurs, and left to their own devices it is unlikely that either the financial organisations or the retailer itself would release the information. However, a law in California obliges companies with customers in the state to notify them in the event that personal data is compromised, and the site is hoping that someone living there will have been affected and so be able to force the issue.

Having checked back through my own records, however, I have my own suspicions as to the source of the leak... I hadn't used that particular card very often, this year, and only two purchases were from anything that could be described as "a UK-based retailer" - one a major electronics and hobby supplier, and the other one of the biggest names in e-commerce. I will be very interested to see if either of them finally come clean...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Spam or ham - it seems that some people are far worse at spotting spam than modern computerised filtering systems, but that probably comes as no surprise to someone who has administered a corporate email system.

Superdense magnetic media - tape backup is far from dead, it seems, thanks to advances made at IBM's Almaden Research Centre which promise data densities of up to  8Tb per square inch when the technology reaches the market in the next five years. Wow!

Apple update woes - by now it is abundantly clear that in fact Apple is no better than Microsoft at detecting security vulnerabilities in its products and releasing working fixes for them. One of their latest attempts not only fails to fix the flaw, but is causing additional problems for many users.

Hospital phone rip-off - a new report has described the cost of telephoning hospital patients in their beds as "exorbitant", and with charges of up to 1.50 per minute it's easy to see why hospitals perpetuate the myth that cell phones can interfere with medical equipment.

Stress testing - another new report suggests that IT support is the world's most stressful profession, and while I agree that it's certainly no picnic I suspect that there are others far worse, and readers of The Register seem to agree with me.

A reprieve for eBay - the US Supreme Court has overturned an earlier ruling against eBay which could have prevented the auction site from continuing to use the "buy it now" facility, apparently covered by a pair of patents owned by MercExchange.

Only for emergencies - the US government's DARPA research agency is somewhat famed for its kooky ideas, but a device designed to fire a man onto the top of a five storey building in less than two seconds is up there with the best of them.

Two for the price of one - Microsoft has come up with an interesting marketing tactic, suggesting that rather than waiting to pay a massive $600 for Sony's upcoming PS3 console, you can get both an Xbox 360 and a Nintendo Wii handheld for the same money.

Knuckling under - anti-spam outfit Blue Security is to abandon its controversial strategy of "pushing back" following a massive counter-attack by the Russian spammer PharmaMaster. The Israeli company is worried that continuing its efforts might cause real damage to the Internet.

Search and destroy - the "Erazer" Trojan searches for folders commonly used by P2P file sharing apps and deletes any media files found in them. Would it be safe to speculate that the various media industry associations may have had some kind of influence over its creation?

No remorse - the SEC has accused the founder of Infinium Labs, erstwhile manufacture of the mythical Phantom games console, of sending junk faxes to tens of thousands of investors in the hope of inflating the company's share price and so allowing him to make a killing by selling his own shares.

Smartphones vs. PDAs - an editorial at Tom's Hardware wonders why the consumer market is still buying phones with PDA functionality rather than PDAs with phone functionality, but having watched my own users struggle with their disappointing XDA handhelds I don't agree with their argument.

Chinese chip fraud - a highly regarded home-grown DSP for cell phones turns out to have been a regular Motorola Freescale chip with the logos and serial numbers removed, a deception practiced by the dean of Shanghai's Jiaotong University School of Microelectronics.

 

15th May

Ah, the start of another week, and this one brought a pair of Unisys engineers to help add some extra disk enclosures into our EMC SAN environment, providing storage for the twenty-something Dell servers we've been installing recently to host our Siebel implementation. The timescales for this project are somewhat pressing by this stage so we actually did a large part of the work ourselves last week, leaving the visiting engineers only a day's worth of work to fill the two days that had been budgeted. To their credit, they didn't try to spread the job out over both, but zoomed ahead with all due speed, and by the time I left for the day all the disk groups, LUNs and FC zones had been configured and the sparkling new volumes were available to the servers. Next, I expect that a bunch of Siebel consultants will come along and clutter up all those nice neat systems with their untidy software. Sheesh, it's always the way...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Bells and whistles - my space-geek friend Mike sent word of a set of film clips just released by NASA, covering the descent of the ESA's Huygens probe through the atmosphere of Titan, and its eventual soft landing. Aside from the impressively high quality images of a previously unseen part of our solar system, the video is fascinating in itself. The imaging team, based at  has University of Arizona, has used some very clever techniques to incorporate a vast amount of information into a single media stream, including not only the composite formed from multiple narrow field images taken with various different types of sensors, but also animation to illustrate the probe's behaviour in the atmosphere and even audio tones to give information on the sensors that were in operation at any point in time. It's an impressive piece of work, even if the surface of Titan proves (as usual, I'm afraid) to be somewhat dull...

The wrong Guy Kewney - both online and print media are suddenly full of the story of the London cabbie who was hauled onto a TV interview to discuss the Apple vs. Apple ruling in the mistaken belief that he was the veteran IT journalist. One has to admire the anchorbimbo's persistence in the face of an obviously flustered and rambling interviewee, but I would love to have seen Guy's face when a long wait in reception ended in the revelation that someone else had just done his spot for him! I gather that they did interview Guy, in the end, but then decided that one of him was enough for one day and so roped in my old schoolmate Rupert Goodwins to discuss the case instead. I would have liked to have seen Guy's face when he heard that, as well...   <snig>

 

14th May

I've just started listening to the audiobook of Daniel Wilson's "How to Survive a Robot Uprising", and it's a real hoot. Written as a self-help guide for the inevitable day when the robots rise up to overthrow the yoke of their human oppressors, in fact it is a cleverly-disguised overview of the current state of the art in the science and engineering of robotics. Advice on how to evade detection on the street neatly illustrates the problems inherent in computerised vision systems, for example, and a section on the futility of engaging in hand-to-hand combat with an enraged robot reminds us of the considerable speed and power of modern effector systems. I'm only a few minutes into the audiobook, and it's already made me laugh out loud several times - recommended.

Save your Confederate money - the growth of high-tech industries in China and India has caused the price of copper to soar on the open market , and last Friday the Royal Mint issued a warning against melting down 1p and 2p coins for re-sale as scrap metal. In theory these coins should be worth around double their face value, but actually since 1992 they have been made of copper-plated steel and so are worth considerably less, so anyone who embarks on a large-scale smelting operation is going to be in for a nasty surprise...

Like a thief in the night - in the small hours of Saturday morning the US Department of Justice filed a motion to dismiss the suit brought against telco AT&T by the EFF (which alleged that their collaboration with the NSA to spy on American citizens was illegal) on the grounds that such activity is a state secret. Given that it has been front page news throughout the country that hardly seems plausible, but the motion was accompanied by heavyweight declarations from the directors of the NSA and NI. Is it possible, perhaps, that the latter have an axe or two to grind...?

Not quite far enough - Apple has just released its third major patch this year for OS X, addressing an impressive 31 security vulnerabilities, but an independent security researcher claims that the list doesn't include further critical weaknesses that he has reported to Apple and is threatening to make the details public. Surprisingly, the company has not yet appointed a chief security officer to coordinate and oversee their efforts, and a growing number of industry watchers are starting to suggest that the company just doesn't seem to be taking security as seriously as a modern OS manufacturer ought to.

A second look at Aperture - the first version of Apple's flagship RAW image editing software received wide-spread and thoroughly deserved criticism after its launch last autumn, and considering the Mac's traditional placement in design and publishing houses this must have been a real blow to the company. The application had all the signs of a seriously hurried and inadequately-tested project with more bugs than a cheap New York apartment building, some of which were capable of seriously messing images up beyond recognition... Six months later, however, V1.1 has been released, along with a reduction in list price from $500 to $299, and a follow-up review at Ars Technica suggests that although it is still far from perfect (there is a significant number of bugs, the documentation leaves much to be desired, and some basic features are still missing) it is no longer the worthless, over-priced application that it was at launch.

 

13th May

A few quick links...

PhysX & You - at [H]ard|OCP, a useful editorial on why the much-hyped Ageia PhysX accelerator is mostly just a gimmick right now. It reminds me strongly of the early days of 3D accelerators...

Art for art's sake - for the Mac user who has everything... Well, everything except highly magnified impressionistic oil paintings of elements of the Mac OS X GUI, that is. Pointless, but kinda neat.

On the bandwagon - the upcoming Word 2007 will feature built-in blogging, it seems, and to everybody's surprise the HTML it generates is actually clean, readable and sophisticated.

Cute yet functional - how to dismember a remote control and build it into a soft toy, resulting in a bizarre homunculus sort of thing that would probably give most children nightmares...

What's hot - A student at the Max Planck Institute has devised a method to identify the "hottest" topics in physics research by scanning abstracts of scientific publications. Nanotubes are No. 1, by the way.

Qwest stood alone - unlike its competitors, the giant telco resisted the NSA's demands for customer telephone records, at least until CEO Joseph Nacchio left the company in June 2002.

Living space - via Boing Boing, the output from NASA's seventies studies on large-scale self-sustaining space colonies, complete with some absolutely wonderful artistic representations.

A terrible sense of deja vu - Deviation is a short machinima film about an online game character's existential crisis over the futile cycle of violence that seems to have shaped his entire existence.

Stuff you should want - Dan has been reviewing gadgets again, and as usual there are some real gems. I loved the spray can straw holders, especially...

Slightly over the edge - fed up with inaccurate writing about him and his life, cult author Douglas Coupland has begun to emulate the person who the fans have created. Or is it just his latest novel?

 

12th May

So I discovered completely by accident last night that my ISP and DSL provider, Zen Internet, has finally caught up with the rest of the industry by offering 8Mbit ADSL pipes based on BT's IP Stream Max Premium service. I was beginning to despair of them ever offering anything faster than the 2Mbit which is now considered entry-level, and although I agree with the legion of adoring  fanboys that are forever droning on about Zen's quality of service in the forums, that was becoming an increasingly minor consideration... Imagine my mixture of delight and irritation, therefore, when an unrelated visit to their service forum last night showed that actually they'd been offering an 8Mbit package since early April, but just hadn't bothered to tell me about it! Presumably they were assuming that I would visit every day, on the edge of my seat in the hope of the electronic equivalent of good news from the Vatican, whereas I was assuming that they might be a touch more proactive than that about maximising their potential revenue stream...

Sarcasm aside, though, their Office Max 8000 package is still unencumbered by the bullshit download and bandwidth caps that plague almost every other provider, and is only a few pounds per month more than the 2Mbit offering I have at present. Of course, at 79 per month ex-VAT it still costs at least three times as much as lines from all the other ISPs on the market, but for a heavyweight Internet user like me it is probably worth it given the unrestricted access and relatively low contention rate. I've signed up, now, and should start seeing the benefits some time next week when the ten day rate-testing phase begins.

Interestingly, something else I noticed on the support forum was another user complaining that he has suddenly and mysteriously lost the ability to authenticate via PPPoE and has had to reconfigure to use the more conventional PPPoA instead. I solved my own problem last month by switching from a Zyxel 660R in bridge mode to a BeWAN PCI DSL card installed in the PC running my Smoothwall firewall, which supports the card in native PPPoA mode, but that was only working around the problem. It's not clear to either of us why these changes should have been necessary, as both BT and Zen deny that anything has changed, but it's perfectly clear that something has - and that it's not at the user end, either!

Meanwhile, a few random news clippings to end the week:

McAfee crying wolf? - a anonymous column at ZDNet accuses security vendor McAfee of trying to scare Mac users into buying its products by exaggerating the number of OS X security risks, and claims that CERT's year-end summary for 2005 shows nothing of any significance. This may well be true in the strictest sense (although I remember blogging about a number of nasty vulnerabilities which could easily have led to an exploit being created) but he obviously hasn't bothered looking through the alerts for this year as well or he would have spotted several flaws equivalent to the worst that have ever affected the Windows OSes. In my opinion many Mac users still have their heads firmly in the sand when it comes to security, and articles written by people with their heads equally firmly up their asses only serve to exacerbate this...

New Zealand not for sale - I've seen a few bizarre auctions on eBay over the years, but a listing for the entire country of New Zealand has to be one of the more outlandish. The bidding started at an extremely reasonable one cent, and had reached $3000 (is that Australian or US dollars, one wonders? It makes a significant difference!) before eBay noticed and cancelled the auction, so it's too late now to see under what terms the sale was being offered, specifically whether it was just for the land or if the people were included as well. There would be pros and cons to either, I suspect... (Thanks to my director, Nick, for the pointer.)

Geekologie - I was drawn to this recently-launched tech blog by news of a urine-powered battery being developed by researchers in Singapore, but there are a number of other fascinating entries ranging from an upcoming portable DVD player with a flexible folding screen, to a room full of disconcerting robotic balls, and a mirror that displays what you'll look like when you're old. I certainly can't see that latter gaining favour with anyone I know (all of whom feel that old age is advancing quite fast enough already, thank you very much) but I have to admit that as pure technology it's an interesting idea...

Hacking signage - courtesy of the always-remarkable Zug (the world's only comedy site, remember), yet another adventure in urban pranking. This enterprising contributor came across a series of dot matrix traffic signs unattended at the side of the road, and as the access passwords were helpfully written inside the control boxes he was able to not only make his mark in large glowing letters, but also to prove his chutzpah when challenged by a passing pedestrian. Full marks...

 

11th May

It's been a busy time, this week, hence the unusual scarcity of updates... I've spent a lot of time working with one of my PFYs extending the network infrastructure to cope with an additional 24 servers for our Siebel implementation, including a long evening earlier in the week adding additional gigabit network ports to the Catalyst 6509 switch at the heart of it all. Having decided to take a break from it today, therefore, I found myself repairing one of the tape libraries on my home network instead - very much a busman's holiday! I mentioned last month that my trusty VXA Autopak library had given up the ghost, and that I was trying to source another for spares. I managed to find a couple of likely candidates on eBay, and after some vacillating between the one in the US and the one in Australia the deal was done and it duly arrived last week. I've been putting off doing anything with it since then, however, as without any clear idea of exactly what was wrong with the original one it was hard to know where to start the repairs.

The symptom was obvious, in that the picker completely failed to perform its customary end-to-end calibration and inventory pass on power up, instead remaining perfectly still and flashing its multi-colour LED an ominous red. This lead me to suspect either a failed motor or a faulty logic board, and under normal circumstances I would have swapped the entire picker mechanism from one library to the other. However, somewhat to my surprise and irritation the Autopak library seems to be almost entire riveted together, and aside from removing the top and bottom covers there's almost nothing else that can be dismantled: everywhere that most manufacturers would use a screw or a bolt Spectra Logic, the actual designer of the hardware, has used a rivet instead!   [Update: Although Exabyte's documentation for this model is extremely sparse, thanks to service manuals on Spectra Logic's own web site I have just discovered that the picker can be removed after all, and without drilling out rivet heads at that!]

All I could think of doing, under the circumstances, was to move the two VXA-1 drives from one chassis to the other, then remove the picker's cover in situ and install the barcode reader module that was missing from the new chassis - fortunately these are designed to be field-replaceable units and slotted in and out fairly readily. Some offline tests suggested that everything was working well enough, and after a quick reboot Backup Exec sprang into life immediately and started catching up on a fortnight's worth of queued backup jobs. It's quite a relief, and considering that the next project today is to replace what appears to be a failed hard disk on my girlfriend's laptop, it certainly serves to remind me exactly why I go to so much fuss to make sure my own data is safely backed up...

Meanwhile:

Missed the boat - Kent Newsome thinks that it's pointless trying to establish a new blog, as the marketplace is completely saturated: there just aren't enough readers left with time on their hands!

Old is bad - a new survey suggests that using obsolete computer hardware in the workplace is a major source of employee dissatisfaction and stress.

Peer review - the US Patent Office has started a project that allows the public to conduct the initial review of new patent applications, hopefully cutting down on the current backlog.

Security nightmares - a security consultant has been charged with computer misuse offences after discovering vulnerabilities in a University of Southern California web site.

Tool time - San Francisco's Ace Motor Speedway has once again played host to a remarkable drag race for model vehicles driven by power tools.

Deep pockets - the creator of the Ubuntu Linux distribution funds the project with "a few million dollars a year" of his own money, but as the founder of Thawte Consulting it seems that he can afford it.

0wned - between the hackers and bot nets, the spyware pushers, the music industry and of course Microsoft and the other big software houses, it seems as if everybody is trying to take over our PCs.

Unreasonable demands - Canadian citizens who want to fill out the national census online must comply with an unusually dogmatic set of OS, browser and software requirements.

Guns, lots of guns - the latest contest at the excellent Worth1000 Photoshopping site is for representation of firearms and other weaponry morphed into everyday objects.

Islamic hoax - more on the video game alleged to be a terrorist training tool, but which was actually an innocednt demo created by a thoroughly Western gaming enthusiast...

Sky+ Drive Copy - the utility for copying the contents of a Sky+ PVR to a new hard disk is out of beta, and looks to be an extremely useful tool.

And finally, I suspect that the hard-core Linux fanboys are gnashing their collective teeth over the latest pronouncement from their messiah Linus Torvalds, who once again has spoken out in a manner that definitely doesn't conform to the party line. The Linux kernel is becoming increasingly buggy, he says, with new problems being unearthed faster than existing ones are being fixed. Of course, this directly contradicts the official wisdom on open source development projects, which pretty much denies the possibility of any bugs at all, let alone an ever-growing number in the kernel itself, and I suspect that this is another nail in the coffin that the zealots are doubtless already building for Linus' reputation. When one has assembled an army of zealots, even if only by accident, one has to watch very carefully for the inevitable fall from grace...

 

8th May

Some news links and oddments to start the week:

Online gambling in question - a US Senate subcommittee has approved a bill that could result in a complete ban on Internet gambling. Even if the bill is signed into law, however, in this day and age it isn't clear how US citizens could reliably be blocked from sites based outside the country.

Apple vs. Apple - to many peoples' surprise, the judge in the The Beatles trademark case has ruled in favour of the computer company, leaving music label Apple Corps seeking an appeal and Steve Jobs trying unsuccessfully not to crow in his victory.

Terrorist hype a myth - after the shrill stories about Islamic fundamentalists using computer games to inspire and train terrorists, it turns out that the "game" in question was just a mash-up video created by a fan of the game Battlefield 2.

MS eyeing up Yahoo! - according to a report at CNN Money, Microsoft is discussing the possibility of acquiring a major stake in the web portal company. Given the current climate, however, I suspect that Google are already planning to protest to the various anti-trust regulators.

Time and again - "How many times have you bought Star Wars?", asks Techdirt, and although in my case I don't own a single copy it's clear that the plethora of boxed sets, special editions, theatrical releases etc etc are intended only to squeeze the maximum possible revenue from the opus.

The pain of customer service - Aaron at THG has been having problems with the hard disk in his Dell desktop, and unfortunately his experiences with Dell's customer support have been less than impressive - and my own experiences with their corporate support aren't any better.

TSA madness - following reports that the US Transportation Security Administration has prevented State Department diplomats, serving military officers and security-cleared government officials from flying, Hannibal at Ars Technica reveals his own rather unsettling experience with the organisation.

Debating "Intelligent Design" - many scientists are reluctant to debate the absurd ID tripe for fear of lending it gravitas, but following the release of his pro-science documentary film "Flock Of Dodos" botany professor Tom Givnish has done just that with leading ID proponent Jack Cashill.

Blasts from the past - at the Fosfor Gadgets blog, the start of a series of "then and now" comparisons. The first examples include mobile phones, computer storage, car audio, and video games. Oh, the nostalgia...

Computer desk bed - rather reminiscent of the classic fold-up Murphy Bed, beloved of Hollywood movies from the fifties, this computer desk folds into a bed when not in use, cunningly leaving the shelf holding the PC hardware perfectly horizontal as it transforms.

Quad core from Intel - the upcoming Itanium CPU, codenamed Tukwila, will not only have more cores than you can shake a stick at, but will also share a new standard FSB interface that will give an upgrade path from Xeon to Itanium in the same motherboard socket.

Improbable glasses - wearable display devices in the form of glasses have been on the market for a decade or more, but even though the technology has always seemed adequate they have never caught on, and somehow I suspect that the latest offering from Mirage Innovations will be any different.

 

7th May

Today's big news is of the first crack to appear in the much-hyped Chip and PIN credit card authentication mechanism, and although anyone with an eye for computer security has been extremely doubtful of the claimed benefits I have to admit that even I am surprised to see it failing so quickly... The BBC reports that the giant oil company Shell has suspended all Chip and PIN payments at its 600 petrol stations UK-wide and fallen back on the traditional signature method, following credit card fraud amounting to more than 1 million in only a few months. Interestingly, BP seems to be encountering a similar problem, as well, so either petrol stations are somehow more vulnerable to this type of crime or this is the tip of an extremely large iceberg that is just about to surface...

Although the idea of replacing something that you have (the signature) with something that you know (the PIN) has useful security benefits, in fact the current implementation of Chip and PIN is seriously flawed. To begin with, especially during the long transition phase when people have been unfamiliar with the technology, it is absurdly easy to watch the slow, careful entry of the PIN over a user's shoulder in the queue at a checkout. Most of the entry pads used in Europe have a screen to help prevent this, but for some unaccountable reason those adopted in England do not, which means that a criminal only has to snatch a wallet or handbag outside the store to use a credit card freely, without even having to go to the bother of forging a signature!

Secondly, as the PIN is only used in bricks-and-mortar shops, sufficient details can be obtained from the card itself to allow "cardholder not present" transactions for online or telephone purchases, and given that this type of transaction has always made up the bulk of card fraud it is hard to see how this can ever change without 100% adoption of card readers - a scheme that UK banks seem to have no clear plans to adopt. Indeed, there are a number of banks and building societies whose ATMs are still using the traditional magnetic strip to read the account details from cards, rather than the much-vaunted Chip, and given the ease with which data can be read from a mag strip using cheap, readily-available devices, again this invalidates any perceived benefits from the new technology.

I will be watching very closely to see what happens in this area over the next couple of weeks, and even thought banks and big corporates are both traditionally loath to discuss fraud in any but the most general terms, abandoning (or even suspending Chip and PIN operations is not something that can easily be glossed-over. Watch this space...

 

6th May

The success of the little Ma.K. kit I built last month left me keen to begin the next in the stack, and thanks to an early start this morning I ended up with time on my hands. This time I chose another of the Heinlein-style fighting suits, the Konrad, a slightly earlier model according to the back-story. The design of the kit is somewhat less sophisticated as well, with only a single degree of freedom in joints where the SAFS kit has two or even three, but this meant that I was able to complete all four limbs in around four hours - not a bad start at all.

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Cyworld - Korea's current online obsession, a weird hybrid of weblog, chatroom, dating service and The Sims. Apparently it's already so well known that it took my (decidedly non-technical) mother to bring it to my attention...

Boot Camp not all that - an article in PC Magazine suggest that although Apple's new OS switcher works perfectly well, it's an application created more for purposes of marketing and publicity than because it will actually serve a useful function.

The web seems to be full of money, today, with an article on how to work-around Photoshop's dislike of processing scanned images of banknotes, and elsewhere digitised versions of both high denomination US and foreign currency just to save you the bother of scanning them yourself.

Piracy lies - the MPAA's claims of the financial loss due to piracy may be hard to believe (even harder than usual, that is!), but as they have elected to keep the study that generated those implausible figures secret it will be rather hard to contest them directly...

The moral low ground - meanwhile, their blood brothers in the music industry are still throwing stones at their own glass houses, with news emerging that Warner Music Group is currently facing fourteen separate lawsuits over alleged price-fixing and collusion with the other industry giants.

Spam king fined - and talking of the low ground, arch-spammer Sanford Wallace has been hit with a $4 million fine after the FTC's suit against him over his deceptive and highly damaging spyware programs was upheld.

No to wiretapping - and talking of the FCC, the EFF recently brought a suit against them for their attempts to force communications providers to include facilities for monitoring by law enforcement, and fortunately the judge was extremely sceptical about the Commission's defence.

RFID hacking - although big business seems to be inordinately found of the idea of RFID technology, in its present form it is woefully insecure and as could be expected the high-tech criminals are starting to devise ways of exploiting these weaknesses for considerable financial gain.

%&*#@! - one of Microsoft's multitude of patents includes a system for detecting and filtering out spoken swearwords in real-time, which would be extremely appealing to the media companies who live in fear of a careless word on a live broadcast getting them in big trouble with the FCC.

So many standards - the VESA has ratified a new specification for a combined high-definition audio and video interface, using a "micro-packetized" unidirectional protocol to achieve a bandwidth of 10.8Gbps - and as could be expected in the current climate it is also completely DRM-ready.

And finally, even though I've already linked to it once, this wonderful strip from Penny Arcade is well worth a second look: "We may never know who baked your PSP into this flaky crust..." Revenge is sweet, it seems - especially when there is honey involved.

 

5th May

Today's little drama arrived when two of my PFYs pulled up a floor tile in the computer room to lay some network cables for a new server and discovered an inch of water as well as the bundles of CAT5 they were expecting. It emerged that one of the two giant aircon units installed during the refurbishment last autumn had decided to pump several gallons of water into the floor space, and that the sensor cable carefully placed to detect just such an eventuality had completely failed to trigger the alarm. Given that the water was sloshing around only a few millimetres from a large quantity of 16A commando power sockets my PFYs wisely declined to bail out the water themselves, but a phone call to our building services bod eventually resulted in the arrival of a mop and a bucket - and then, following our raised eyebrows and dubious expressions, a wet-and-dry vacuum cleaner that managed to suck up the worst of the flood in fairly short order. When I left this afternoon we were still waiting to hear back from the company that installed the aircon systems, as apparently the units are merely covered by their initial warranty rather than by a formal maintenance contract with defined service level agreements - which is not quite the same thing...

In the end, I doubt that any damage has been done (except to our nerves!) but it was a real stroke of luck that my PFYs decided to run some cabling today rather than getting on with one of the myriad other projects that are currently screaming for their attention... If the water had risen further over the weekend it would certainly have flooded the power sockets connecting the server cabinets, and the results of that could have been genuinely catastrophic. I don't actually know what happens when a 50KVA UPS shorts out into one hundred Dell servers, but I hope never to find out at first hand.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I picked up another trio of the little Star Tales models, probably the last ones I'll buy from the current production run. This week's acquisitions are Skylab orbiting above a beautiful pink sunset, the Soviet Soyuz 19 rocket leaving the pad, and a rather grisly one of the doomed Mir re-entering the atmosphere in a trail of flame. I wasn't sure about the last one, I have to admit, but actually it is rather striking and serves as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of space technology.

 

4th May

Google has joined the growing community of companies that would rather use the might of the US and European anti-trust regulators to intimidate and hobble Microsoft than attempt to compete in the open marketplace. This week they registered what are rather puzzlingly described as "informal" complaints to both government bodies about the search facility built into the Internet Explorer 7 beta, but my own experience strongly suggests that their claim is completely bogus.

IE has included a primitive search feature since V4, but it has always been closely tied to MSN Search and so of limited use without some low-level hacking. When I installed the new browser, however, one of the first things I noticed was that the search engine used by the new toolbar-style search could be customised extremely easily, and in fact there was already an pre-defined entry for Google (my engine of choice since the demise of Hotbot), which I selected right away. It took a few days for me to adapt to opening a blank tab and then typing into the search box rather than opening a new page on Google itself, but the end result is exactly the same and in many ways is a little more convenient.

Google's complaint is that when the IE7 browser is installed, it will inherit the AutoSearch settings from the previous browser version, which of course in nearly all cases is MSN. This gives Microsoft an unfair advantage, they say, and although they don't seem very forthcoming on what they would prefer presumably they would rather that the browser came pre-set to their own search engine instead!

Their strategy to overcome this claimed bias is clear, however, and certainly doesn't require legal action - during a visit to Google a few days after installing the browser I actually received a pop-up message from Google itself offering to add an entry for its search engine to IE's built-in list. I was a little surprised, but put it down to either beta-syndrome or an updated and somehow improved version of the definition, and duly selected the new offering as my default - an operation which took only a single click!

Given this, it's extremely hard to see exactly what grounds Google has for complaint. Whereas previous versions of IE required the user to tweak the registry to change a fairly primitive search facility to use an alternate engine, the new IE7 allows it to be done with only a couple of mouse clicks - and if the user doesn't do this manually then it's clear that Google are quite able to prompt the change any time a visit is made to one of their ever-expanding range of online services. In fact, the only limitation I have found is Google's own, in that that as yet there's no option to specifically add Google UK, my local version of the search engine which allows easy regional searches.

As far as I can see this is the corporate version of a frivolous lawsuit. There's no genuine grounds to claim anti-competitive behaviour, as in fact it's easier than ever to change to an alternate engine, and as far as I can see this is just another tactic in the increasingly bitter war between the two companies - Microsoft is already in deep trouble with the EU regulators, and with the record-breaking fine imposed last year currently under appeal it's hard to see Google's complaint as anything but an attempt to sway the court's opinion. It's a very shabby tactic for a company that claims (if with ever-decreasing credibility thanks to its continued cosying-up to the Chinese government) to have a heart and a conscience...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Dan on scams - more letters from the incomparable Dan Rutter, and this time he's focussing on one of his favourite topics. The final missive must have tried his patience somewhat, though, I'm sure...

Keyless entry - some of the latest car security systems are vulnerable to high-tech hacking techniques using laptop PCs to decrypt the wireless unlocking codes.

More Mac faults - the PowerBook Pro series has already had a fairly extensive history of manufacturing problems, but now Apple are quietly recalling a number of batteries as well.

Going critical - a trivial syntax error in part of the source code for X Windows has caused a serious security weakness, potentially affecting all Linux, Unix and Mac OS X systems that use the shell.

Oops! - Specialist data storage facility Iron Mountain has mislaid backup tapes belonging to at least two major customers, but claim that it isn't a problem as "criminals wouldn't be interested" in them....

Dvorak on MS (again) - the IT pundit was railing against Internet Explorer last week, but now he's turned his scorn on the entire company, listing eight reasons why it is "dead in the water".

And finally, a new PSU - Seasonic has released an updated version of the excellent S12 power supply series that I'm currently using, with longer cables and more connectors. As the rather miserly length of some of the 5" device connections was really the only problem I found with the device, this really does make it an extremely impressive piece of hardware. I can't quite justify replacing my first generation model, right now, but if I had anything even slightly resembling a good home for a spare PSU I would do so in an instant... The ever-useful Silent PC Review has all the details.

 

3rd May

A generous handful of links, tonight, ranging from the pointless (if fascinating) to the ridiculous (if desirable).

Obsoletely fabulous - at the Computer History Museum, an impressive collection of brochures from the dawn of the IT industry, ranging from the 1950s to the early 80s.

Business technology - somewhat along the same lines, the Early Office Museum is an online collection of documents and hardware since the dawn of business management in the 19th century.

More wooden PCs - after yesterday's craftsman-made hardware, today's offering is very much less polished. It has a certain rough-and-ready charm, though, I have to admit.

BT acquires Dabs - only a year or so after the purchase of its rival Simply Computers, the major retailer Dabs has been bought out by British Telecom for an undisclosed sum.

Dumb Hollywood computing - the Wall Street Journal is discussing those movie moments that make geeks and techies grit their teeth and rant to their partners...

Better late than never - a report from the Gartner Group suggests that the upcoming Vista OS will be even later than expected, but Microsoft insists that they're still on track for release in January 2007.

Personalised spam - if spambots used some simple data mining techniques on the PCs they have infected, the messages they generate could be made to look extremely convincing.

Fighting back - Israeli company Blue Security is using distributed agents to send messages back to the spammers, and (predictably) this has started a war which has knocked their web site offline.

No immunity - Mac users are finally having to wake up and smell the coffee, with yet another OS X virus targeting a weakness in the Safari web browser to allow arbitrary shell commands to be run.

In the balance - the European Court of First Instance is deliberating whether the European Commission actually has the authority to impose that outrageous fine on Microsoft.

That infernal industry - Penny Arcade speculates on the ultimate fate of games programmers, and on the probable origin of the name of Nintendo's new Wii console.

A slap on the back - engineers working at NASA's Huntsville test ground have achieved a record duration for a test firing of the promising but highly problematic LOX/methane engine technology.

Greased lightning - a robot designed by a joint European team has set a new record for speed-walking, thanks to its use of a neural network to optimise its leg movement.

Online biscuits - I've never felt an overpowering urge to spell anything out in biscuits, let alone the writing of Albert Camus, but suddenly it seems to be all the rage.

The soft weapon - I've never felt the need to fire teddy bears from a gun, either, but this time I have to admit that the idea has a certain appeal. I'll take two, please.

 

2nd May

A few quick links - and they're random ones, too!

Natural computing - an gallery of hand-crafted PC cases, mice and keyboards made from wood. I'm strongly reminded of the Futurama episode where Bender gets a downgrade...

The electronic office -  a British designer has created an impressive high-tech concept for temporary transportable office space but, frankly, if it catches on I'll eat the heatsink from a PIII Xeon CPU...

Spam fink - one of the world's major spammers has been arrested, and there is speculation that he will attempt to barter his apparently considerably knowledge of the hacker underground to the Feds.

Blowing hot and cold - another in the apparently endless secession of barely-useful things to connect to a PC's USB port, this beverage heater is at least different in that it can actually cool drinks as well.

Epson closing the door - the printer manufacturer has prevented four online retailers from selling "unauthorised" third-party ink cartridges for its printers, claiming that they infringe in its IP.

User unfriendly - for the geek who has everything, including a building full of annoying and frustrating users: a Mag-Lite torch with a built-in .410 calibre shotgun... Yes, indeed.

Corporate ethics - A story in The Times claims that pharmaceutical companies are systematically promoting fear about non-existent illnesses in order to increase sales of their products.

 

1st May

Another month, another dollar.

Hammerhead - a marvellous Lego contraption designed to throw CDs, a task it performs hard and fast enough to shatter them! It uses a pair of rapidly spinning truck wheels at the business end, coupled with a multi-disc loader mechanism controlled by an RCX micro-controller brick, and in action it's a joy to behold. Marvellous ingenuity...

The Incredible Machine - and talking of ingenious devices, this virtual Rube Goldberg machine uses the graphics and soundtracks from several classic Nintendo games as the setting for a neat little bit of animation. I will join everyone else in noting that, yes, the ball's physics is a touch dodgy in places, but it's a neat idea and that doesn't seem to matter much.

Manual labour - the appropriately (if somewhat unimaginatively) named UserManualGuide.com is a extensive repository of online instruction manuals for consumer electronics, home appliances, and the like. I tested it by looking for one of the less likely items I could think of, the Icom IC-2E amateur radio transceiver I used to play with in my salad days, and low-and-behold there it was! I'm impressed.

Web on TV - The UK's satellite television monopoly, Sky, is obviously determined to shoe-horn itself into every nook and cranny of the media industry, and its latest tactic involves encouraging website owners to port their pages to a form suitable to display via TV set-top boxes. Unfortunately this involves translating pages into the WTVML format, which is allegedly an open standard but in practical terms appears to have been tightly sewn-up by Sky themselves. Colour me dubious...

Cartesian timepiece - I've seen a bunch of unusual geek wrist watches in my time, and although I've never been tempted myself I've often watched in perplexed delight as one of my PFYs speedily decodes his binary LED device. This latest offering might challenge even his reflexes, however, as it uses a pair of intersecting lines on a graph to indicate time to within five minutes, plus a secondary set of four LEDs to narrow it down to the nearest minute. "What time is it? Uh, hang on a mo..."

BBS banners - Marshall McLuan said that one generation's tools become the next generation's art, and this aphorism seems to carry across into the world of IT as well. The ANSI banners that adorned the front pages of bulletin board systems during their heydays in the eighties and nineties used to convey functional information about telephone numbers and baud rates, but now they are just part of an extensive collection at Penguin Pete's weblog. Oh, the nostalgia...

 

A somewhat disappointing month in the stats... I feel woefully neglected.

Link to me! Link to me! This time next month, I want a spike on that graph sharp enough to impale myself on, OK?

 

 

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