31st January 2007

It's been one of those days, and is shaping up to be one of those weeks as well, so I'm just going to toss out a few quick news links and call it a night. Sometimes, cross-training into plumbing seems so very tempting - and it might mean that I could repair my own washing machine, too, which seems to have failed in the middle of a batch of black dyeing. Not ideal...  :-(

The old guard passeth - Microsoft veteran Jim Allchin leaves the company today after 17 years. He left Banyan (a long-forgotten company specialising in network operating systems) in 1990 to work on Windows NT4, and has managed teams responsible for almost every version of Windows since then, including his swan-song Vista. He left Microsoft on the day of the official launch but, oddly, I can't find any mention of whether he is retiring or moving on to pastures new.

Never say die - meanwhile, Steve Ballmer has dismissed rumours that Vista will be the last Windows client OS, saying that Microsoft has "plenty more where that came from". Some people are claiming that the day of the monolithic OS has passed, with future offerings being based on web services and some kind of thin client, but us old-timers have heard that all before - and several times, at that....

Sticking it to The Man - Sony BMG has agreed to pay victims of their rootkit up to $150 compensation for the damage the software caused, and will be obliged to inform consumers of any limitations included on future CDs and to refrain from secretly installing software without the user's consent.

Small mercies - Apple has been forced to compensate the online journalists who it sued last over alleged leaks about new products, paying more than twice the legal fees they incurred in defending themselves. Most importantly, the court's ruling states that there is no legal difference between online and print journalists, and that Apple's suit to discover their sources should never have been brought in the first place. Hah!


30th January

So Bill Gates is all over the media today, thanks to the Vista launch, and I found myself shaking my head over the introduction to a story on Channel 4 news: "five years in the waiting is Vista worth the hype?" In fact, apart from breathless announcements like that I haven't actually noticed much hype about Vista in the mainstream media - the extended public beta seems to have diffused the fuss somewhat, and from what I remember the launches of Windows 98 and Windows XP were far more noticeable. The irony of Channel 4 itself enthusiastically hyping the product while questioning the value of said hype amuses me...

While I wait for the UK showing of Chairman Bill's appearance on last night's Daily Show, therefore, a few news links - and I promise that hardly any of them have anything to do with Microsoft.

A new hope - Ars Technica founder Kyle Bennett has written an interesting article on migrating from Windows XP to Vista, and it's extremely refreshing to find a viewpoint that, like mine, is generally in favour of Microsoft and their products.

Down but not out - fans of the Commodore Amiga have always been die-hards, as evidenced by the fact that a new version of the venerable operating system has just been launched (together with a new hardware platform to run it on) many years after the original manufacturer expired in chaos.

Mobile computing - I have enough trauma hooking up my Palm to play audiobooks in the car, but for those with more nerve my favourite hardware supplier, Ayr-based Kustom PCs, has opened an entire department catering for in-car computing.

A poor show - two geeks at an industrial robotics firm hooked up the wireless remote from a Wii console to a large robot arm, and then brandished things with it. Unfortunately the lag between moving the controller and having the arm respond is painful, and its hardly a good advert for their skills...

Mac revisionism - I stumbled across Folklore.org by accident, today, but the site has some fascinating articles about the development of the Macintosh. The only one I've read so far is written by Mac Finder creator Bruce Horn, which attempts to dismiss the widespread idea that much of the Mac interface was inspired by work at Xerox PARC. The differences between the two  outweigh the similarities, Horn says, but I think that argument is rather specious - the Mac was a far less sophisticated system overall that the Xerox Star, and it would have been impossible to implement a GUI in the same way without resulting in a product that cost far too much to ever be successfully marketed: we know that was the case, thanks to the example of the Lisa! Nevertheless, Horn was a key player at both Apple and Xerox, and the article (and doubtless the rest of the site, too) is certainly worth reading.


29th January

With the official launch of Vista scheduled for tomorrow, it seems fitting to start off with a few items about Microsoft's latest Great White Hope:

Caveat upgrader - the installation of Vista on my own Motion LE1600 tablet went very well, yesterday, but at ZD Net's "All About Microsoft" blog some of the early-adopters have contributed tips for making sure that other transitions are equally smooth.

The party's over - "Upgrade" versions of the new Vista OS can only be installed over the top of an existing Windows XP, it has emerged, and the old practice of using an upgrade CD for a fresh install by providing the previous OS's CD as validation will no longer work.

Guilty until proven innocent - The Register has asked columnist Thomas Greene to evaluate Vista, but when the terms "bloatware monster", "overhyped and confusing", and "Microserf" appear in the introductory article, it's clear that he's made up his mind long before ever actually installing it...

Over here - the infamous "Get a Mac" adverts, featuring John Hodgman and some annoying bozo, are crossing over from the US to England. The cast has changed to the alleged "comedy duo" Mitchell and Webb, but the odd claim that PCs are only fit for boring office tasks hasn't changed.

Only Google could go to China - search engine magnates Sergey Brin and Larry Page have admitted that their decision to bow to Chinese government pressure and censor their search engine was a mistake, bringing the company's "Don't Be Evil" motto into question.

A difference of opinion - although the media industry thinks that illicit downloading of music and movies should be punishable by multi-million dollar lawsuits and destruction of computers, much of the American public seems to view the act as equivalent to minor traffic offences.

A fistful of sock-puppets - the problem of shill bidding on eBay is as great as ever, according to a report in the Times Online, and in spite of the auction company's claims a recent change that hides the identities of bidders in auctions for over £100 has made it harder to spot dubious bids.

Best of the web - 1Up has compiled a list of the 101 best free games available online, and a quick look through suggests a number of very interesting possibilities, such as a Wing Commander clone set in the Babylon 5 universe. If only I had the time to play games!

Dancing minions - Pictaps lets you draw a stick figure (or something more elaborate, if you have the patience and artistic ability) and then have it dance on a podium surrounded by dozens of identical copies. The effect is certainly impressive.


28th January

Catching up on some news from around the web while the tablet is upgrading to Vista in the background... So far, so good!

A palpable miss - the Woot! blog brings us some of the less impressive moments from this year's Consumer Electronics Show, including a number of butt-headed spelling mistakes.

A fat profit - industry analyst iSuppli suggests that Apple's profit margin on the iPhone could be as high as 50%, although given that it's still vapourware it may be too soon for such estimates.

Corporate violations - British Telecom is still not complying fully with the licensing terms of the Linux OS embedded in its new Home Hub router. Full story at the Home Hub Blog.

Charity begins abroad - Cisco is donating $6m of its high-end video conferencing systems to five Middle Eastern governments, apparently to "improve future standards of living". Come again?

Everything here is real - eBay has announced that it will no longer permit auctions for virtual items and real estate in online games, cutting off a flourishing cottage industry.

Insecurity blanket - the latest scandal to hit disgraced e-voting manufacturer Diebold is the revelation that pictures of keys on their web site have been used to make real keys that open the machines.

Es are bad - electronic voting machines in Europe are just as flawed as those in the US, of course, and in the UK the Open Rights Group is trying to raise public awareness of the risks.

EULA madness - the backlash against bizarre and unfair licensing terms is gathering momentum, with the latest offerings from ReasonableAgreement.org coming in various fashionable varieties.

Evil is as evil does - the heads of the RIAA and the CEA have clashed over fundamental policies, culminating in the CEA veep suggesting that the recording industry "makes itself look evil". Brilliant!

All too real - the New Your Times has picked up on the meme that the imminent wave of high definition porn movies could expose every pimple, pore and wrinkle in ghastly detail.

Soft white underbelly - the Month Of Apple Bugs nears an end, and Ars Technica trys to look past the gnashing of fanboy teeth to see the bigger picture: so far, there are no fixes from Apple.

A sad anniversary - it is forty years since the Apollo 1 capsule fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom and astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee, and there are still lessons to be learnt.

A remarkable statistic - Microsoft says that 22% of Windows installations scanned by the WGA tool failed their authenticity checks, and actually the real figure is likely to be higher still.

Another remarkable statistic - similarly, net.god Vint Cerf claims that a quarter of all Internet-connected PCs are part of a botnet, and this is starting to affect the operation of the Internet itself.

The OS formerly known as - as if the endless corporate rebranding of Palm itself wasn't enough, the current owner of the Palm operating system is renaming the latest version to "GarnetOS".

Format wars - the emergence of players supporting both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray does not mean that there won't be a battle for dominance between the two formats, according to Ars Technica.

The jackals are gathering - The official launch of Microsoft's new OS is tomorrow, and to mark the occasion the usual suspects have revived their accusations of unfair practices with the EU.

Serendipity - the over-the-top DRM forced on Vista by the media industry may actually mean that amateur content has better image quality than expensive commercial media.

Bad traffic - the sudden spikes of traffic that occur when a small blog is mentioned at one of the big sites may look impressive, but it's not as useful as a smaller quantity of regular readers.

War is come down - when Microsoft offered to hire an independent expert to check for inaccuracies in Wikipedia entries, the response when he mentioned it on his blog was vicious and extensive.  :-(


27th January

I've been using the "official" BitTorrent client since I started moving away from the first generation P2P networks a year or so ago, on the grounds that the person who invented the torrent protocol and, indeed, the concept itself, would probably have the best and most complete client. I'm no longer convinced that this is the case, however, as in spite of regular and frequent upgrades the application seems to be getting flakier and and more annoying as time goes on.

In the last couple of months I've started to notice that my PC seems to run very slowly when the application is open, with both the shell and network performance feeling very sluggish and congested. Any torrent client opens a lot of TCP sockets, of course, but in this case I have the feeling that it just doesn't use them as efficiently as such a demanding network application should, and software capable of choking a 3GHz dual-CPU server-class system connected via a high-end DSL connection has to be viewed with at least one raised eyebrow.

As well as this, recent versions seem to take a disturbingly long time to initialise when the application is launched, and a queue of a dozen paused torrents is sometimes enough to stall it for several minutes! There are also a number of oddities with the 2nd generation user interface, which often fails to update itself after a torrent is removed from the queue until the application window is moved or otherwise manually refreshed, and the progress bars for stalled torrents tend to show exactly the same state as the torrent immediately above them in the list. Even more annoying, some torrents never seem to start at all, with the client returning a pair of error messages that are both a) completely obscure to me and b) completely undocumented in the help files and FAQs.

With more and more legitimate software being distributed via the torrent protocol (I downloaded the latest version of the Nero CD burning software in this way when the company's FTP site was offline last week), it seemed time for a change, and fortunately these days there is a bewildering variety of clients to choose from.

I rejected Azureus immediately, as although it is certainly feature-rich (overly so, some reviews claim) it is written entirely in Java and long, bitter experience has shown that this is rarely a good idea for anything other than web applications - and not even then, a lot of the time. Unfortunately this also ruled out the performance-optimised Bit Tyrant client which, although tempting, is based on the Asureus code. Moving on, the popular BitComet has a reputation for manipulating the Torrent protocol to its own selfish ends that has now lead to clients being blocked from connecting to certain other torrent software, BitTornado's author is clearly some kind of anti-Microsoft bigot, and none of the other offerings seemed to have anything much to recommend them. After a little poking about I settled on μTorrent, and so far my experience has been excellent.

The interface is far more integrated than that of the official client, with all of the low-level information (precise details of the peers in the swarm and the files in the torrent, for example) that BitTorrent hides in a secondary window available instead on a set of readily-available tabs in the lower part of the screen. These tabs also provide information that BitTorrent does not, such as graphs of the overall transfer speeds and a system log - very handy!

Perhaps most important, a selection of torrents that had repeatedly generated the afore-mentioned errors from BitTorrent, proving almost impossible to connect to, burst into life almost immediately under μTorrent and downloaded at impressive speed, leaving me wondering what on earth it was that the official client didn't like about them! This alone would have made the switch worthwhile, but the improvements to the GUI and the overall functionality, together with the complete lack of apparent performance degradation even with five torrents transferring happily in both directions, makes recommending μTorrent something of a no-brainer. If you're struggling with the official client, give it a try.


25th January

The management apologises for the unexpected outage over the last week, and regrets that real-life intervened with a vengeance. In an attempt to compensate, therefore, tonight's Epicycle brings you the long-awaited Alien Autopsy Edition.

My Test Tube Alien showed no sign of expiring two weeks after hatching (that's equivalent to fourteen alien years, the web site assures me) but it had stopped growing just before completely filling its jar and it seemed time to take a closer look at what makes it tick. Extracting the beastie from the jar was something of a challenge, however, as the lid had been sealed with a generous bead of glue and in the end I used a junior hack saw to cut around the circumference just below the rim.

The body was some kind of medium density polymer foam, as I had expected, absorbing water like a sponge to allow the alien to expand in all directions once hatched from its protective cocoon. It was obviously calculated carefully so that it nicely filled the jar when fully grown, approximately doubling in size over the two week period. The polymer was as slimy and unappealing as one would expect after several weeks immersed in a solution of some unidentified metal salt, but fortunately it only took one quick slice with a surgical scalpel to sever the neck before moving onto the more interesting parts of the cadaver.

A closer examination showed not only the two brass electrodes at the base of the antenna, but also a third near the tip of one of them. I'd guessed that the first two were measuring the electrical conductivity of the water in the jar, prompting the control circuit to flash the LED in different patterns when the gradual topping up the water level caused the concentration of the salt solution to decrease, and this still seems likely. The function of the third electrode is something of a mystery, but it could be the mechanism by which the system is powered up when its cocoon dissolves away - I'm pretty sure that it wasn't flashing away to itself all the time it was enclosed, as that would risk the battery discharging long before the alien was hatched. On the other hand, it could also be triggered into activity by the light sensor to the left of the LED - without considerably more depth of understanding of electronics than I possess, its anyone's guess...

Getting into the plastic skull was even harder than getting into the jar, as the plastic itself was surprisingly tough and the ever-present glue formed a tough bead around the seam where the two halves joined. The hacksaw and some careful persistence did the trick in the end, however, and its secrets were exposed to my eager gaze.

There were no real surprises, of course - the PCB sits on top of a fair-sized watch battery, and a bunch of wires lead off to the antennae, the LED, and the light sensor. There are no obvious ICs on the circuit board, although the two larger capacitors are hiding a strange hemi-spherical blob, about 6mm across and 3mm high, that I couldn't identify. As well as the usual handful of discrete components, there are a pair of little cylindrical objects (towards the rear of the PCB) that I think may be tilt switches - certainly, the things knows when it is being agitated or inverted, and flashes its LED in obvious protest!

The afore-mentioned lack of electronics savvy pretty much brings the project to an end at this point, but it was certainly an interesting toy both to play with and to vivisect. It has a similar appeal to a Tamagotchi, I suppose, but the fact that it is a physical object rather than a blob on an LCD screen, and the interesting addition of two-way communication with the interactive web interface makes up for the comparatively simple ways that it can be engaged with. I'd certainly recommend it as a present for a technically-aware teen.

Meanwhile, I'm left with an open cranium worthy of Hannibal Lecter, the LED embedded in its forehead still flashing away urgently in orange to indicate its lack of food, so I'll pop that in my display cabinet to see how long the battery lasts - or until my long-suffering girlfriend, who has been somewhat creeped-out by the thing while it has been sat on the kitchen windowsill, quietly throws it out while my back is turned...


18th January

I've just picked up a neat little gadget that has gone some considerable way to tidying the clutter of cables associated with my girlfriend's impressive array of tech gadgets, a "Family Charger" branded under the improbable name of "Mr Handsfree". It's essentially a three way mains adapter, complete with its own power switch and fuse, with a set of adjustable cradles at the front to hold phones, MP3 players, PDAs and the like. A device's original charger is plugged into one of the sockets, and the power cable is neatly coiled up in a lidded compartment in the base of the unit with a trailing end emerging to connect to the device as it sits snugly in the cradle. It can sit on a desktop, the way I'm using it, or the cradles can be rotated through 180° to allow wall mounting.

In use the charger performs exactly as expected, and is certainly of adequate quality for something that costs less than ten pounds. The only problem that I encountered was that even though several of the marketing photographs show the unit holding what is clearly a modern Palm of some kind, in fact the cradles will not open nearly wide enough for my girlfriend's Zire 72s and some thoroughly warranty-voiding modification was required. Two screws granted access to the interior of the cradle mechanism, and a tiny hacksaw blade and a generous blob of superglue allowed the jaws to open as wide as required - if at the cost of never, ever closing again...

I bought mine from the manufacturer's own e-shopping site, and considering that the company is based in Belgium shipping couldn't have been any faster - I only placed the order on Saturday, and it was delivered on Tuesday! Definitely recommended.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Crest of the wave - The latest V7 of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser has reached an estimated 100 million installations only a few months after being launched, making it the second most widely-used browser after IE6, and use is set to grow even further with the launch of Vista in a few weeks. Of course, the fact that Microsoft has distributed the upgrade as a critical update via the online Windows Update service has gone a long way to boosting uptake, and a number of anxious enquiries from colleagues at the office have shows that it has the habit of sneaking onto PCs without the owner even being aware that it was being installed! This is certainly a reasonable approach, given the great improvements to security that the new version brings, but it has to have skewed the figures considerably...

The fall and rise of Captain Crunch - love him or hate him, John Draper is one of the icons of the seventies Silicon Valley computing culture, but his complete lack of business acumen has left him unable to capitalise on his notoriety and these days he is in severe financial difficulties.

A fading star - some analysts are suggesting that demand for Sony's PS3 is slackening already, with plentiful stocks of the console in many stores while Nintendo's Wii, launched at almost the same time, can't be found for love nor money. Well, maybe for love, actually...

It all comes round again - Symantec's new "SONAR" security product will sound very familiar to anyone who used computers in the early nineties before the current signature-based virus scanners became popular, as it looks for virus-like behaviour rather than specific known viruses.

The spirit of Tesla - at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas two companies demonstrated cordless power systems designed to recharge small appliances without cables - and one, from Powercast, was a genuine wireless system operating over distances of up to three feet.

Host and be damned - plans by notorious torrent site The Pirate Bay to buy the self-proclaimed principality of Sealand are unlikely to come to anything, suggests a legal expert, as not only are Sealand's claims invalid, but in any case TPB's activities may not comply with the conditions of sale.

Evolution in action - one of a gang of the thugs responsible for trashing an Edinburgh Burger King in December posted a cellphone video of the crime on YouTube, and as he obligingly attached his full name it didn't take police long to track him down and arrests followed soon afterwards.

The vultures are circling - at The Register, Guy Kewney wonders how Apple would cope if Steve Jobs has to resign following persistent allegations of misconduct over highly dubious stock options. I really do wonder if Jobs is replacing Bill Gates as the IT figurehead that everyone loves to hate...

Not in front of the children - the latest offering from UK roboticist Kevin "Captain Cyborg" Warwick is a disembodied head which tracks humans as they move around the room, and the ethics committee at Reading University has deemed it too spooky to be shown to anyone under the age of eighteen!

Berman exposed - the new chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Intellectual Property is the infamous Howard Berman, sponsor of a bill that would have allowed the media industry to attack people's computers with impunity. Ars Technica investigates the man behind the myth.

Serenity unleashed - the HD DVD of the cult SF movie has been ripped and posted to the net as a torrent, a 19.6GB EVO format file. This release marks the opening of the floodgates, I'm sure, but also the failure of yet another butt-headed copy protection mechanism

Cats out of bags - it's been obvious for a long time that the media industry's obsession with DRM is less about preventing large-scale piracy than about preventing legitimate users from copying media from one format to another for their own use, and finally they seem to be admitting it in public.

And finally, at the WikiHow project, how to make a Starship Enterprise out of a floppy disk - from the same people that brought you instructions for making SIM card earrings, swimming safely with piranhas and smoking a cigarette. Indeed.


17th January

All the fuss with my Palm earlier this month has renewed my interest in a device that had faded into the background somewhat as a reliable but fairly boring tool, and since then I've splashed out a little upgrading various applications to the latest versions and looking around to see what is new and cool. One of the newest and coolest products in its niche is the Softick Audio Gateway, a driver intended to correct the disappointing lack of A2DP support in the Tungsten T3's Bluetooth stack (an omission still present in the latest T5 and TX models, amazingly!) and allow use of wireless stereo headsets and other similar gadgets.

The application is still very much under development, with new releases emerging every few weeks, and although the list of officially supported headsets is still quite short anecdotal evidence suggests that in fact compatibility is generally excellent. This is confirmed by my own experience, as I've just successfully tested it with another new purchase, the neatest little stereo Bluetooth headset I've yet to see.

I'd love to be able to recommend this device by name, but unfortunately it is almost completely anonymous. The eBay auction where I found it doesn't give any manufacturer details at all, and the slim manual and packaging are equally unforthcoming. In fact, the only identifying mark I can find anywhere is the ID that appears when the device is paired with another Bluetooth client, the gnomic BS-109. A web search points to Chinese company Iton Technology as a possible manufacturer, but their web site doesn't actually list this model so who knows...

Although the publicity photograph I've borrowed above doesn't show it, in fact the smoothly contoured casing is split into two spring-loaded parts, forming a clip to attach it to a pocket or lapel. This places the volume control in easy reach, and as usual dangles the microphone under the user's chin. The device can act as a mono phone headset as well as providing full stereo for music and, according to the manual, smartphones with onboard MP3 players can switch between the two automatically when a call comes in.

The headset comes complete with a USB charger cable and a pleasingly small adapter to convert it to a mains plug, and all-in-all I'm very pleased with the build quality. The sound quality provided by the Softick extensions is equally good, delivering perfectly clear stereo even in the harsh environment of a computer room filled with servers and wiring. Battery life is claimed as 4 hours in use, which is probably far longer than I can comfortably wear this sort of earphone, and 160 hours in standby - although I will be more interested to see how long it holds a charge when powered down, something that has so far proved a disappointment with similar Bluetooth devices which never seem to be powered when I need them. Aside from that possibility, however, at this stage it is highly recommended.

The Softick Audio Gateway works so well that it started me looking around for a Bluetooth cassette adapter once more, and as before the search has proved essentially fruitless. My car has a thoroughly traditional radio/cassette player, and as I skipped straight from audiobooks on tape to the digital variety on my Palm I've never felt the need to upgrade to a CD player. At present I'm using an equally traditional wired cassette adapter to connect the Palm, and although the stereo seems to have the ability to support an auxiliary input socket the possibility of making a wireless Bluetooth connection instead has always been of interest.

A handful of companies have announced just such a modern equivalent of my cassette adapter in the last year, but for some reason neither have actually brought their products to market - and the latest piece of vapour, the Abe BT 80C announced last year, has also apparently died through a perceived (but not, I would say, genuine) lack of commercial interest. I shall keep an eye open, of course, but the idea of an auxiliary input socket actually seems somewhat more practical to use, if not quite so sexy, and is well worth investigating. Watch this space...


16th January

I spent the day at our disaster recover site in Welwyn Garden City, north of London, shoe-horning a pair of servers into a rack to provide an emergency fail-over system for our cash cow Oracle database. The work itself went smoothly enough, aside from the usual minor panics over wrongly-terminated cables and wrongly-sized cage nuts, but gaining access to the building was made far more entertaining by a sticky door that required an extremely enthusiastic kick before we could leave again and an incredibly pernickety alarm system that required repeated fiddling and fussing before deigning to arm itself. There are days when cross-training into plumbing seems ever more appealing...

While I sit back and dream of the delights of PTFE tape and copper elbow joints, then, a few random news snippets from around the web:

Behind the curtain - the recent surge in "pump-and-dump" stock spam has been traced to the growing Russian bot-herders, and a report at eWeek describes how a security researcher gained access to some of their working data, revealing a surprisingly sophisticated operation.

And here's why - at Slashdot, a post linking to the analysis of the botnet prompted the usual flood of patent schemes to "fix" the spam problem, and in turn that prompted a response in the form of a neat checklist that covers all such  harebrained ideas.

Arrant bastards - sales and marketing company Spoke is amassing a vast list of personal and private contact details, many of which have been extracted from subscribers' Outlook address books behind their backs. In comments, the Spoke VP defends his company's actions, but is then roundly rebuffed!

Not a good year - "intellectual property entrepreneur" Leo Stoller created a bunch of low quality clipart then launched groundless lawsuits against companies who he claimed were infringing his "trademarks". He is under fire from both the USPTO and the courts, now, and the outlook is bleak.  :-)

Even Bigger Brother - the UK government has revealed grandiose plans to integrate many of the disparate databases in use by various public agencies, which given their appalling track record on IT is sure to be a disaster in all possible ways, even aside from the horrendous civil liberties issues.

Locked up tight - the backlash against the designed-in limitations of Apple's new phone continues, and Boing Boing finds it ironic that a company with a long-running "switch" ad campaign should be so committed to what it calls the "roach motel business model".

The short happy life of the brown Oxford - meanwhile, Penny Arcade laments the brief rise and imminent fall Microsoft's Zune media player, which would probably be a smash hit if it wasn't even more stuffed with restrictive DRM than the iPod. The music industry has a lot to answer for, as always.

Obsolete media - I've seen audio turntables that connect to a computer via USB to digitise old LPs, and although I've been a touch dubious about the sound quality the idea is certainly neat. Equally so is a cassette tape player that is installed into a 5¼" drive bay, and I have to say that I'm tempted...

Travesty - a Connecticut teacher is facing 40 years in prison after being found guilty of exposing children to pornography on a classroom computer, in spite of the fact that the lewd popup windows were almost certainly caused by an adware infection that she had already reported to her supervisors.

In convenient roll form - geek clothing store Jinx.com is selling loo roll emblazoned with the name of everyone's favourite recording industry association - although it looks more than a little institutional and would probably be best saved for display purposes...

Practical jokes - The early days of the space programme were notorious for pranks and in-jokes ("Are you a turtle, Wally?") but I'd never seen anything about the Playboy centrefolds that ground crews sneaked into the Apollo 12 in-flight checklists. Marvellous stuff!


15th January

I spent most of today cleaning a virus infection from the laptop of a senior manager, and it proved to be a nasty little bug. The McAfee AVERT labs classify it as "Win32/Virut.A", but don't seem to rate it very highly as it's assigned to the low risk category - but it had infected over 5700 EXEs on this PC and proved more than capable of putting up a good fight when I came to remove it so personally I'm inclined to disagree... Although the virus is relatively recent, only coming to light a few months ago, it seems to have a very traditional ethos - it doesn't use any rootkit or stream techniques to hide itself, instead relying on its ability to append its code to every damn file on the hard disk to frustrate removal attempts. It's payload is bang up-to-date, however, opening a back door in an infected PC to receive commands via an IRC server that will incorporate it into one of the ever-growing botnets.

It's not quite clear how the bug found its way onto this particular PC, as it was well equipped with a corporate grade software firewall and freshly-updated anti-virus software - but the user had connected it to his home broadband via a USB ADSL adapter lacking any kind of NAT or firewall functionality, so the PC's security software was the only line of defence. A software firewall on its own can never guarantee long-term protection, of course, and in this case it must have glitched for just long enough to let the virus in, at which point the payload disabled both firewall and virus scanner, leaving the PC - how do the younglings say it? - well and truly 0wned.

Although the virus immediately shut down all of the removal tools I tried to use initially, fortunately it didn't seem to know anything about the McAfee command line scanner, which allowed me to clean the primary infection well enough after a few false starts. After that I resorted to the Windows Recovery Console to replace the infected EXPLORER.EXE that was spreading the virus on every boot, and then it was just a matter of booting back into Safe Mode and, now that the malicious code was no longer running in memory, using the more flexible Windows-based scanner to sweep and disinfect almost every EXE on the hard disk. Just to double-check I fired up a copy of Knoppix from CD and used F-Prot to sweep the Windows folder, but by that stage all was well.

We've strongly suggested to the user that he replaces his USB DSL modem with a nice little integrated modem/router/firewall - the Netgear DG834G springs to mind - and I hope that he acts soon. It's a dangerous network out there, and man cannot survive on software alone.

Back at home, a couple of odd pictures... The first, very odd! My Test Tube Alien is definitely growing, as I had suspected: its body is made of some kind of spongy polymer which is slowly absorbing water from the container, and the ugly little thing is gradually expanding to fill the tube. I'm not sure what will happen when the pressure starts to build up! I think the thing may have some kind of motion detector, too, as when I added some more "food" powder through the aperture in the top, today, a gentle shaking to mix it in a little resulted in an agonised green flashing from the LED in its forehead. I await the autopsy with interest...

The second snap is one of a pair of little wooden stands I built to position sensors under the computer room aircon units. We've been getting some rather unpredictable results from the airflow sensors on our new environmental monitoring system, but now that they're firmly mounted directly in the airflow all seems to have settled down nicely. The stands were made from a couple of off-cuts of wood from the B&Q bargain bin, and cost a grand total of £1.39. It was only after I'd finished spraying them the obligatory flat black that I realised I had just reinvented the kitchen towel holder, but I could never have found a pair of those for so little money so the company got a good deal in any case.

Elsewhere, a few links before I head off to not think about computers for the rest of the evening:

How soon they forget - now that the iPhone is, what, a whole six days old, the initial gloss is apparently fading... An article at Betanews describes it as a "gigantic disappointment", citing it's obligatory two year contract with provider Cingular and the thoroughly locked-down operating system, and the hackers are already lining up and rubbing their hands at the thought of a new target with known security issues and pervasive always-on networking.

Chalk and cheese - with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both in the public eye last week, the Canadian Globe And Mail is comparing and contrasting. Chairman Bill's presentation at the CES show in Las Vegas was "tired, flat" and "poorly-rehearsed", the columnist thinks, whereas he was obviously very impressed with the boundless energy and enthusiasm displayed by the 51 year old Jobs - in spite of the pressure of the ongoing SEC investigations.

Gone but not forgotten - AGP graphics cards are something of a figure of fun in the geek forums, these days, but for people with a significant investment in their current motherboard and CPUs, as with my dual 3GHz Xeon desktop platform, there's a lot to be said for wringing every last month of service from existing hardware before finally upgrading to a modern dual core PCI Express system. In a two part article, Tom's Hardware Guide investigates the options.


Saturday 13th

One of my favourite souvenirs from the wild and woolly days that marked the dawn of the publicly-accessible Internet is a somewhat dog-eared (in a purely virtual sense!) copy of the Usenet net.legends FAQ from 1993, now something of a museum piece. While browsing through Wikipedia on the track of something completely unrelated, therefore, I was delighted to find that many of these almost-forgotten characters have been lovingly documented in a series of entries on Usenet People, Internet Culture, and of course the Net Legends themselves. It's impossible to capture the real flavour of Ludwig Plutonium, Serdar Argic or Robert McElwaine from the dry text of an FAQ (the Internet at the start of the nineties was an adventure in communities unlike anything before or since, no matter how hyped and popular the so-called Web 2.0 has become) but if you were there then you owe it to yourself to dip into these entries to smile and shake your head at how things used to be.

While doing just that myself, I was amazed to discover the birth date of the notorious James "Kibo" Parry, author of "Happynet", one of the first memes to sweep the net from edge to edge almost overnight. As a newbie making my first tentative forays out from the world of the FidoNet bulletin boards he always seemed like one of the grand old men of the Internet, so to discover that he is actually a year or so younger than I am was both hilarious and somewhat unsettling!

Elsewhere, some quick links:

The plot thickens - the specialists at Outlaw think that Cisco's "iPhone" trademark might be about to expire in Europe, thanks to a failure to actually use if for a product during the past five years. Gosh!

Blast from the past - meanwhile, G4 reminds us that even Linksys' VoIP phone isn't the original holder of the "iPhone" trademark, thanks to Cidco's 1998 home telephone-cum-web browser.

Under scrutiny - elsewhere, the federal investigation into the Apple stock options scandal has finally widened to include Steve Jobs himself. I have the feeling that Jobs is fast becoming the new Gates...

A small step forward - music giant EMI has announced that it will no longer be producing music CDs infected with sneaky copy-protection mechanisms capable of damaging their customers' PCs.

Flagging down - on a related note, US Senator John Sununu has proposed legislation to prevent the FCC from ever bowing to media industry pressure by introducing a broadcast flag system. Excellent!

Cracking job - two Princeton encryption specialists are investigating the recent claim that the AACS copy protection mechanism used in HD-DVD and Blu-Ray has been cracked.

Down with Canada - the odious Bev Oda, minister responsible for taking massive bribes from the Canadian media industry, is hoping to pass new copyright legislation surpassing even the US DMCA.

Defective by design - A suit has been filed in Ontario claiming that certain models of Dell Inspiron laptop are suspiciously prone to failing from over-heating just after their one year warranty expires.

Changing their spots - in the wake of earlier allegations by the LA Times, the Gates Foundation is launching a review of their investment policy - although they claim that the two are not connected...

A step backwards - the US Supreme Court has rejected EFF founder John Gilmore's challenge to the law requiring domestic air travellers to show ID before boarding their planes.

Password policy - security guru Bruce Schneier has written a definitive guide to choosing a secure password, specifically with the increasingly efficient offline cracking applications in mind.

DIY CNC - in the US, Sears is selling an $1800 desktop milling machine controlled by a PC, capable of automatically producing simple designs in wood, plastic, and other soft materials.

The 4th generation - the latest version of the LTO Ultrium tape format has been announced, delivering an increased native capacity of 800Gb, and 50% better performance to match. Oooh!

A broken pencil - speculation is rife that Apple will be porting their Safari web browser to Windows, but at this stage of the game it's very unlikely to have any impact on the dominance of IE and Firefox.

Opening up - the manufacturers of the popular MMORPG Second Life have released their code as open source, eventually permitting "citizens" to migrate between different online worlds.

The old in-and-out - and talking of the online world, The Register has a long article on the main entertainment practiced by the "citizens", namely (do I really have to tell you?) sex in all its forms.

Fontalicious - the 2006 Epica design awards include a complete pinup calendar by design studio Taylor Lane, featuring hot babes composed entirely of typographic fonts. It's really clever!

Periodic Table of Condiments - if you can hear a faint noise in the distance, it's probably the sound of 19th century Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev spinning in his grave...

Authority figures - the infamous "torture" experiments performed by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961 are being given a new lease of life in virtual reality using computerised avatars.

Gone, but not forgotten - the influential counter-culture writer Robert Anton Wilson finally died on Thursday, after a long illness, but at least his last few months were made as comfortable as possible.


Friday 12th

A maintenance man came to look at a problem with my central heating boiler, yesterday, and almost before I had opened the door fully he was announcing that he couldn't work on the boiler or else he'd have to condemn it! The system vents out under an open porch in front of my house, and initially he was convinced that this didn't allow enough clearance for exhaust gasses to escape and so was a serious risk. Fortunately I had the boiler's installation and maintenance manual to hand, and after we'd restarted my heart and picked me up off the floor (that is not something one wants to hear first thing in the morning!) he read through it and finally conceded that in fact everything was indeed installed in accordance with the manufacturer's requirements. Imagine my relief!

Although I explained the symptoms as clearly as I could (not much heat, and a small, irregular flame visible through the viewport instead of the usual steady roar of the full burner, his first action was to check the cold water tank in the attic. This was fine, just as I had expected (I had a shortage of hot water, but not of water in general!), and next he proceeded to dismantle the time clock in the bedroom closet, provoking it into emitting an annoying buzzing noise which later had to be fixed with careful tightening of screws and a squirt of WD-40. After some head scratching, back at the boiler itself he decided that a faulty solenoid was not opening the main gas supply on demand - the small flame I had been seeing was just the pilot light, and as could be predicted this was making a fair poor job of heating my entire house...

This seemed a reasonable diagnosis, but apparently it wasn't likely that he could obtain a replacement part that day and my agonised look at the thought of taking a third day of my precious holiday for the same trivial problem persuaded him to investigate further. Fortunately, while he was fiddling with the controls on the boiler he noticed that pushing the PCB in a certain place would switch the gas flow on and off on cue, and eventually he found a dry solder joint on the wire leading to the same solenoid he had fingered earlier. Five minutes with a multimeter and a soldering iron fixed the problem, and all now seems to be well again.

It's not clear to me whether the initial investigations were standard fault-finding techniques that just seem eccentric because of my lack of understanding of hot water systems, or a failure to approach the diagnosis in a logical manner, or even deliberate red herrings designed only to push the time taken to do the job into the second hour. Once he had found the real problem he fixed it quickly and competently, but I've never had any faith in my ability to spot any but the most blatant of cowboy tradesmen and I just can't tell... In the meantime, however, at least the house is toasty-warm again, much to the relief of my long-suffering girlfriend, who was born in Jamaica and is yet to adapt to the rigours of the British winter.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Armed response - Cisco's PR department has released a chatty little blog entry explaining their lawsuit against Apple for using the "iPhone" trademark without permission, and their argument is, of course, perfectly reasonable. As they point out, Apple is currently suing over products that merely begin with the letter "i", let alone copying the entire name - and now that the boot is on the other foot, on the face of it (if you'll excuse my continued metaphor) they don't have a legal leg to stand on.

The Black Cloud - an expose in the Los Angeles Times claims that some of the investments made by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are acting in direct opposition to the philanthropic works that the Foundation is undertaking. The article cites examples such as the Foundation's financial stake in Italian petroleum company Eni, owners of an oil refinery in Nigeria that has been blamed for causing widespread respiratory diseases amongst the nearby population - an area in which the Foundation is paying for vital polio and measles vaccinations. To say the least, this is a damn shame...

Feet of clay - one of the throw-away links at Dan Rutter's new weblog points to an article published at Salon a few years ago, where Donna Minkowitz laments the fact that although she loves the writing of the prolific science fiction author Orson Scott Card, she hates the man's political and sociological viewpoints. I have to admit that I feel just the same, as although I own the majority of his books and delight in the publication of a new one, I find his rabid anti-gay sentiments absolutely abhorrent. I have to admit that little of this, or of his staunch Mormon religious beliefs, ever find their way into his writing, but even so the knowledge that he thinks this way sometimes threatens to take the shine off them...

Autonomous piracy - infamous Swedish torrent site The Pirate Bay is hoping to purchase the self-declared principality of Sealand, a World War II gun platform situated seven nautical miles out in the English Channel. Sealand has insisted on its status as an independent sovereign state since the late sixties, but recently the owners have fallen on hard times, in spite of recent attempts to set themselves up as a data haven exempt from UK and US legislation, so an acquisition by the Swedish torrent-mästare might be just the ticket. It will be fascinating to see if this comes off!


Thursday 11th

So the Apple iPhone was launched on Tuesday, and as could have been predicted it has polarised the web - the fanboys are convinced that it will absorb the entire communications market within a few months and drive all competitors before it as Apple steamrollers its way to eternal dominance of all things cool and technical. The less hot-headed are daring to mention the flaws, such as the fact that at present it is only available tied to a two year contract from Cingular, one of the less popular US providers, and even with heavily discounted pricing it's still an eye-watering $599 for the 8Gb model.

Another small problem, as mentioned in Epicycle passim, is that the "iPhone" trademark is actually owned by Cisco (acquired with their purchase of Infogear in 2000), and is currently in use by their subsidiary Linksys for a VoIP handset launched in December. Reports suggest that Apple and Cisco have been in discussions over licensing the name, but that no agreement had been reached at the time of the announcement at MacWorld - and, indeed, today Cisco announced that they will sue to protect their trademark. The networking giant will be a fierce opponent, and together with the long-running lawsuit over the Apple name itself one wonders if Steve Jobs' legendary arrogance has finally written a cheque his company can't cash?

There's no doubt that on the face of it Apple's latest offering is just as cool, slick, and fully-featured as the company's devoted fans had hoped, but the cellphone market is extremely cut-throat in comparison to the computer industry, at least in Europe, with customers swapping handsets and providers almost on a whim, and breaking into it is not a trivial exercise - just ask Sendo! Aside from that, a significant proportion of high-end converged smartphones are purchased by corporates to allow remote email access to a mobile workforce - and the people making decisions in this sector are not going to be impressed by kool toyz but instead by user-proof unbreakability, remote management facilities, and compatibility with MS Exchange or Lotus Notes - so marketing the new phone like an iPod will carry little weight there.

Meanwhile, closer to home, I took the plunge and set up one of the more perplexing of my christmas presents, a Test Tube Alien. The first stage in its life cycle is a mysterious white cocoon in a clear plastic jar, and I spent quite a while staring at it before I started to work out what it might be. To wake it up one adds water through a little hole in the top of the jar, and then retires to a safe distance while whatever forms the cocoon fizzes and foams energetically and finally dissolves away.

After some enthusiastic fizzing a green glow starts to show through the bubbles, and eventually an ugly little plastic alien bug thing emerges. The green glow is replaced by a flashing red light coming from an LED embedded in the bug's forehead, and at this stage it is ready for its first feed.

The alien comes with three sachets of an unidentified white powder, and after hatching the first of these is dissolved in water and poured into the jar. After this the thing behaves rather like a wet Tamagotchi, in that it has to be fed by further infusions of the powder, and cared for by being exposed to the correct 50:50 ratio of light and darkness.

Once the water had cleared a closer examination showed a small circuit board containing an IC and some discrete components inside the bug's head, as well as the LED and what appears to be a light sensor. The keen-eyed will also see two little shiny pinpoints near the base of the antennae in the picture above right, and presumably they are contacts measuring the conductivity (doubtless affected by the powder in the "food" sachets") and level of the water - if these fall outside preset parameters it will cause the LED to change from red to green; similarly, the wrong lighting ratio will make the "heart beat" flash faster or slower as well.

As if this wasn't fun enough in itself, you can register your alien online and so gain access to a web page that will communicate with it. Holding the jar up to the screen allows a flashing pattern displayed in a browser window to signal to the bug via its light sensor, and the bug can return information by flashing its three-colour LED in patterns that are then manually entered into the web page to be decoded - it's rather like diagnosing a faulty PC via its BIOS beep codes! Having entered this information the web page will provide the bug's age, state of health, and whether it has been neglected or abused.

I never succumbed to the Tamagotchi craze, and I have to admit that the Test Tube Alien is really just more of the same - but the fact that it's a little more solid than the intangible blob on a Tamagotchi screen adds appeal and I'll lavish my attention on it until I've run out of its "food" - at which point it will be time for the traditional alien autopsy so that I can have a better look at that PCB...  :-)


Tuesday 9th

Good grief, I've been writing here for five years, today.

And they said that blogging never catch on! Hah!


Monday 8th

My Palm seems to have been behaving today, but I don't trust it quite yet. I don't know why it started trying to hotsync continually like that, or why it stopped again, so there's little reassurance that the problem won't resurface when I least expect it! Ah, don't you just love technology... 

While I wait nervously, then, some snippets of tech news from around the web:

Evolutionary not revolutionary - HaHaUK has a pictorial survey of handheld games devices, from the Milton Bradley Microvision in 1978 (I remember pictures, but nobody I knew could afford anything like that!) to the Nintendo DS Lite almost 30 years later. It's surprising how little the look and feel has changed, in many ways!

Apples and oranges - at Ars Technica, a fascinating article on the differences between the Xbox 360 and the PS3 in their best HDTV display modes. On paper the specifications of the Xbox are streets ahead, but in use the differences are slight, at least for current games and media.

The shock of the new - and talking of the Xbox, rumours are already starting to emerge about what is purported to be the third generation console, code-named Zephyr and allegedly containing a 120Gb hard disk and a HDMI graphics interface.

Kicking and screaming - something else which is about to be brought up to date is the UK pop charts, which will be extended to cover online music purchases, which at present are only included in a very limited way, as well as over-the-counter sales.

Legal mumbo-jumbo - the boot is certainly on the other foot for Apple, this month, with another lawsuit arriving from the defunct Napster Inc. The company is claiming that video sales at the iTunes Store infringe their patent from 2001 - and just for good measure they're including Google in the suit as well.

The selfish meme - the wonderfully-named "BitTyrant" is a BitTorrent-compatible application that doesn't play nice, sacrificing the much-vaunted collaborative ideals of the web in exchange for improved download speeds. Where do I sign up?

Recording industry vs. The People - the RIAA has has had something of a setback in its hard-fought campaign to keep its wholesale pricing details confidential, grudgingly admitting in evidence during one of their ongoing cases that the widely estimated 70¢ per track is "in the correct range".

Flouting the law - a survey by direct marketing company CDMS claims that 31% of UK companies do not comply with unsolicited email legislation, but the Information Commissioner's Office says that this is an exaggeration. My own experiences tend to side with the former, however - and as I manage the email servers for a medium-sized corporate I've seen a lot of spam...

Decertified - Ciber, Inc, a US organisation that tests voting machines, has had its credentials revoked after failures to follow procedures has caused it to certify insecure machines. This seems like a step forward, but given that this information came to light last July one has to ask why they have been permitted to continue operations since then...

The sound of stupidity - the spirit of avant-garde composer John Cage is alive and well, it seems, in a silent cellphone ring tone soon to be available at a telco near you. I'm all for a touch of Dada, but I require a certain level of functionality from my tech and this really doesn't make the grade.

Measuring the Apocalypse - thanks to fundamentalist Christian idiots in the US there has been more talk about the end of the world in the last few years than there was in 1999, so this breakdown of the possible existential risks is ideal for printing out as a handy wallet-sized reference guide.

And, finally, the Indexed blog is has a wonderful collection of mathematical humour in the form of Venn Diagrams. Some of their are a touch more opaque than others, but they definitely raised a giggle or two - and at least someone has finally found a use for the damn things!


Sunday 7th

I've had all sorts of fun and games with my Palm, this weekend, and as with the battery replacement that began this saga its been something of a roller-coaster. I managed to find another Tungsten T3 going cheap on eBay, and the plan was to combine its motherboard (with the battery socket intact) with the majority of components from my original PDA, the alloy casing of which was in somewhat better condition.

The swap went smoothly enough, and having run a hotsync to reinstall all my apps and data, just as with the original battery upgrade I sat back and congratulated myself on having saved the day. An hour later, however, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the Palm seemed to be syncing again, and a look through the logs showed that it had been doing so every couple of minutes since I left my desk. I tried various twiddles and tweaks without improvement, and while I was doing so the wretched thing kept trying to sync at every available opportunity, even when it wasn't actually in the cradle! A search online failed to come up with any close matches for the problem, but by this time I was wondering about a poor connection or a short-circuit inside the Palm producing the same result as the button on the cradle being pressed (especially given that even when it was powered off it would still wake up and attempt to sync) and the best thing seemed to be to take it apart and check everything again.

By this time opening the darn thing up was getting fairly routine, although it was hard to miss the fact that throughout the process it was powering itself up every minute or so in a vain attempt to sync again, and it wasn't until I disconnected the battery that it finally lapsed into unconsciousness. I checked all the connections, smoothed the ribbon cables, and generally poked and prodded it, and when I finally connected the battery again all seemed normal. My relief was short-lived, however, because as soon as I hotsynced again the cycle resumed, and at this point I decided to give both it and myself a break. The Palm didn't get much of a rest, of course, as it kept waking up and trying to hotsync every minute or so, and by the time I got back to it later on the battery was down to about half charge!

Another, more comprehensive, search online proved almost as fruitless, and although I was still hoping for some kind of software fix the only real clues that emerged hinted at a hardware problem instead. This seemed to be confirmed when a further strip-down showed that at one stage it tried to hotsync when the battery had only just been connected, leaving it at factory defaults and pretty much ruling out any kind of application conflict or corruption - and as the lower part of the casing, complete with the hotsync connector, was sitting elsewhere on my desk it seemed to rule out anything but a motherboard problem as well.

The outlook seemed fairly bleak by then, so after some more fruitless twiddling I put it on one side and plunged back into the T5 vs. TX debate, which was also looking fruitless. Both models have some glaring deficiencies - the brand new TX is 100MHz slower than my three year old T3, for example, and neither of them use the latest versions of PalmOS, Bluetooth, or USB!  <shakes head>

At around this point, however, I noticed that the T3 didn't seem to be trying to sync any more, and although I've poked and prodded it extensively since then I can't now reproduce the problem. This strikes me as thoroughly bizarre, as a few hours earlier nothing I did could halt the perpetual sync attempts, and I hadn't knowingly done anything that should have helped. Only time will tell whether the problem really has gone away, but given my complete lack of enthusiasm for the newer models I really, really hope that it has. Cross your fingers for me!

In the meantime, mostly for form's sake, a small handful of random links:

Inkless pen - this solid metal pen uses a soft alloy nib which leaves a mark reminiscent of pencil, but it's permanent and waterproof, and with no ink of any sort the pen itself should last almost forever.

Old Lore's Almanack - at Wired, Lore Sjöberg is making predictions for 2007, including the ultimate fate of Google, the truth behind the Wii, and the future of the RIAA's endless series of prosecutions.

The sound of silence - I'm not quite sure why, but this enterprising director has created a montage of the first three Star Wars movies as a silent black-and-white movie. It has a certain something, but...

Speaking watch - another marvellously useless wristwatch, this Japanese offering has a traditional analogue telephone on its face. To find the time, the user must dial 117 (the number for the speaking clock in Japan) to hear a robotic voice announce the time... Presumably in Japanese?


5th January

Ahhh, the end of the week at last - although there's no rest for the wicked (or for sysadmins, wicked or otherwise) and I expect to spend a proportion of the weekend connected to the office networks upgrading some of the last few outstanding systems with Server 2003 SP1 and the latest Dell firmware and drivers to match. I've upgraded eighty-something servers over the last couple of months, and there's still a dozen or so to do - but of course by now they are all the awkward, fragile or potentially problematic ones, and I'm not looking forward to the final stretch. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it... And for reasons I don't fully understand that somebody turns out to be me!

Before I fire up the KVM remote client, however, some news from around the web:

Farewell p-mail - the creator of venerable freeware email system Pegasus, David Harris, has run down the curtain on the software after seventeen years of active development, blaming "ongoing difficulties with funding". It's a real shame to see another old-timer go to the wall, but in these days of free 2Gb Gmail mailboxes the biggest surprise is that Harris has managed to maintain both a loyal customer base and his own enthusiasm for so long.

Fighting back - following a Taiwanese court's decision that Luxpro's Tanger MP3 player is not a rip-off of the first generation iPod Shuffle (although I have to admit that to me it certainly looks like a direct
copy!), the manufacturer has launched a countersuit for $100 million in damages for loss of "valuable market opportunities" arising from Apple's legal action.

Radio silence - Ofcom's plans to auction off wireless spectrum currently used by analogue TV channels will have a significant impact on wireless communications systems used in theatres that occupy the spaces between the channels. A modern stage show can use these frequencies for radio
microphones, lighting control and automation, and the regulator's plans will require them to move to a new aloocation or abandon use of wireless systems altogether.

Blue for you - Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been extremely coy about his Blue Origin private spaceflight project, but following a successful test flight the cat is starting to creep out of the bag. The first test vehicle, Goddard, is an unmanned VTOL somewhat reminiscent of NASA's DC-X project, which achieved a height of 285 feet before returning to a perfect soft landing on the same pad from where it launched.

Accessorising - and talking of Amazon, the US division has just launched a new site selling nothing but handbags and shoes, Fortunately it doesn't ship outside the US at present, but when it does I shall have to use a straitjacket to restrain my girlfriend, as handbags and shoes are to her as esoteric computer hardware is to me... To the point where I've had to give up my prized walk-in gun cabinet to give her space to store them all. Oh, the sacrifice!

The drowned world - an article in the Telegraph discusses what would happen to London if sea levels rise by a mere 39", or 1 metre, as some experts predict will happen over the next century. The map accompanying the article shows The City, Central London and the West End completely under water, and in my neck of the woods Barking and Stratford are on the banks of the newly expanded Thames estuary. It's a sobering thought...

Sad times - to the great disappointment of liberals everywhere, the newly appointed chairman to the House Intellectual Property committee is none other than Howard Berman, a notorious extremist in the pocket of the media industry. For example, Berman once proposed a bill to allow copyright holders to remotely destroy a computer if its owner was suspected of infringing copyright, and to immunize them from liability if they targeted an innocent user's computer by mistake.

Flouting the law - A while ago it emerged that D-Link had based the firmware of its popular DSM-520 media player (as well as a number of their network routers, as it happens) on Linux code covered by the GPL. Under these circumstances the open source license obliges manufacturers to publish their source code, and although initially they seemed willing to acquiesce after pressure from the community, in in fact no code has been released in spite of a lawsuit against their German division.


4th January

I'm still muttering under my breath about killing my own Palm during a routine upgrade, but I've decided to take the safe (and cheap!) option by replacing it with another T3. Both the T5 and TX have some very appealing features but both are lacking in several important ways, and the annoyance and cost of replacing all my USB charging cables, external battery packs, car mount, etc etc finally tipped the balance. Fortunately they're changing hands on eBay for not too painful sums, so hopefully I'll be back in business fairly soon.

Meanwhile, the usual random news links:

Dirty tricks - during the 2002 presidential election campaign the New Hampshire Republican Party hired a telemarketing firm to jam the phone lines of a Democrat voting drive in an attempt to prevent their opponents from co-ordinating transport to the polls for Democratic voters. Amazingly, given such incredibly unconstitutional behaviour, the court has awarded damages of a mere $135,000, to be paid over five years!

Remote diagnosis - visitors to this site are invited to enter what they know of President Bush's character and behaviour into a standard checklist for diagnosing psychopathic illness. As I write this, after 4600 responses the corrected average score is 36 points out of a possible 40, with values of more than 30 (or even as low as 25, according to some experts) indicating a psychopathic disorder. An average of the non-criminal population as a whole is closer to 5...

A setback for Dean - the Dutch police have banned the Segway from all public roads, pavements and cycle paths, following a continued failure of the country's Royal Traffic Agency to agree on approval for the device. I'm surprised, as Holland has a long history of enthusiastic support for bicycles and other alternatives to the internal combustion engine, and I wonder if there has been some quiet lobbying by manufacturers of more traditional "personal transporters".

Boots on other feet - following the ever-popular Month Of Kernel Bugs and Month Of Browser Bugs, January is the Month Of Apple Bugs. The first two days have brought documentation and sample code to exploit vulnerabilities in Quicktime and the open source VLC player, both of which could be attacked via a malicious web page in order to run arbitrary code. Time for the Mac fanboys to wake up and smell the coffee?

Added incentives - Microsoft is taking some criticism for "bribing" key tech bloggers with the gift of a high-end Acer laptop running Windows Vista and Office 2007, but nevertheless it's a very good way of getting the word on the street ahead of the official launch later this month. At Tom's Hardware, Barry Gerber is writing a month-long diary of his experiences with the new OS - but his first acts have been to turn off half of the fancy new interface features and revert to an XP look and feel!

Things to come - SanDisk have released a solid state 32Gb NAND memory device with an Ultra-ATA interface in the standard notebook 1.8" form factor, and the specs suggest that it's significantly faster, more reliable, physically tougher and draws less power than the traditional hard disks it is intended to replace. The only problem is that the company hasn't yet revealed ANY pricing details, which is rarely a good sign, and I don't see the technology gaining mass-market appeal quite yet...

Stresses and strains - the UK government's online electronic petitions website is struggling under the load, it seems, and is no longer including the names of signatories below the petitions they have signed to - although in this case the straw that broke the camel's back seems to be a list of a mere 640 names. It does make one wonder about the specification of the hardware running the service, as it's organised by the excellent MySociety.org, who are hardly strangers to this kind of system!

Help for the stupid - a new service from UK charity Sense About Science offers scientific advice to celebrities who wish to support causes and campaigns, in the hope of dissuading them from endorsing inaccurate and misleading viewpoints. The organisation cites recent comments by actress Juliet Stevenson, who was "alarmed at the idea of three diseases being injected into her baby's system in one go" by a MMR vaccination. Indeed.


3rd January

I've noticed recently that my trusty Palm Tungsten T3 doesn't seem to last as long between recharges, with the final confirmation coming on my abortive journey down to Plymouth this christmas. The battery didn't even make it as far as Bristol (just like the car, in fact!) whereas normally I don't expect to hook up the external battery pack until I switch from audiobooks to loud rock music for the final burn down the M5 from Taunton. I had the idea that replacement batteries might be available, and a casual search on the web showed that not only was that the case, but that they were available in a slightly higher capacity than the original and at a very reasonable price.

The company with the highest profile on Google is the US supplier PDA Parts, which also has an extremely helpful library of instructions and video guides for taking apart a whole range of Palm and Windows handhelds. They don't ship overseas, although they have a Canadian associate that does, but further investigation showed that were several UK suppliers and also a generous quantity on offer at eBay. In the end I purchased a 1100mAh Lithium Polymer module to replace the original 900mAh Lithium Ion (apparently only 850mAh in the first T3s) from an eBay seller for less than £10 including shipping - and I consider that something of a bargain. Armed with the instructions at PDA Parts, I set to work...

Opening the T3 is relatively simple as long as you have a good selection of precision screwdrivers, although the ribbon cable connecting the keypad in the sliding part of the case is as fiddly to edge out of its socket as these things always are. The next stage is to separate the two halves of the main body, and the instructions don't mention that they are connected by two friction clips on each side and need to be pried gently apart with  a screwdriver. The instructions suggest disconnecting the battery wire (circled in red) before this stage, but as far as I can see that would be extremely difficult because it is largely obscured by the casing.

In fact, the battery wire is potentially a major problem, as (in my T3, at least) the plug was tighter in its socket than the bond between the socket and the PCB, and while trying to carefully tease the two apart the entire assembly came away from the board. However, I'd seen this symptom before and know that with a magnifying glass and a steady hand it's possible to superglue the plastic socket back onto the PCB, the electrical contacts pressing firmly onto the solder traces again. Reassembly was easy enough after that, but it wasn't possible to test the battery connection until everything was back together and I was decidedly relieved when I dropped it into the cradle and the screen lit up as usual.

In the absence of a battery the Palm had lost its configuration and data completely, but a hotsync took care of that readily enough (isn't PalmOS wonderful in that respect!) and all appeared well. Half an hour later, however, I was less than pleased when I removed the Palm from its cradle only to see the screen go blank immediately. Some testing revealed that although it did indeed work fine when cradled, the battery wasn't charging at all - so evidently my repair to the socket wasn't as effective as it first appeared. I stripped it down again and replaced the old, fully-charged battery just to be sure, but unfortunately it showed an equal lack of life - and although I've double and triple-checked the socket and it looks to be in perfect order, evidently there's a bad contact somewhere and having repaired it once there may not be much more I can do at this stage. How annoying!

Assuming that a further repair is indeed impossible, I'll have to decide between buying a second T3 for use or as a source of spares, or buying the latest incarnation of the high-end Palms, the TX. The latter is certainly nice, with it's built-in 802.11b wireless, but unfortunately it lacks a number of what ought to be standard features, such as a voice recorder and a docking cradle, has a slower CPU and less memory than its T5 predecessor, and has something of a reputation for poor build quality and comms flakiness. It's a tough decision.


2nd January

All the news that's fit to blog - beginning with a handful of stories that were overlooked in the pre-christmas rush:

Cats out of bags - the UK government's case for going to war in Iraq has been further weakened by the publication of evidence that Tony Blair knew that the infamous WMDs were fantasy, and that UK officials were trying to convince the US of the chaos that would inevitably result if Hussein was overthrown. I'm depressed that this news apparently hasn't reached the wider audience it deserves...

The price of progress - Peter Gutmann's article on the fallout he expects from the DRM embedded deep in Microsoft's new OS has caused something of a stir throughout the industry, and having finally caught up on the article I can see why. The changes forced upon MS by the media cartel harm Vista itself, Gutmann says, and will effect all hardware and software that ever comes into contact with it.

HD-DVD not quite cracked - the news that the AACS copy protection mechanism had been defeated spread around the web in what felt like minutes, but a closer examination shows that in fact the technique simply uses a weakness in the WinDVD software (a decryption key can be read from working memory) that is sure to be rendered unusable in fairly short order.

Linden lies - the company behind the popular Second Life online game has repeatedly clamed that it has over one million "residents", and these figures have been widely parroted by a credulous media. It's impossible for anyone outside the company to know for sure, at this stage, but just for a start it appears that at least 20% of those accounts have never been logged into... Tsk.

The rich get richer - far from empowering the individual, says Sion Touhig at The Register, the growing use of "user created content" in the media is actually serving to ruin freelance artists and photographers, while the giant companies use the increasingly biased copyright laws to impose their will on anyone they like. So much for "Web 2.0"...

Butt-headed policy - in spite of protests from national park staff, and the scientific community at large, a book claiming that the Grand Canyon was created by the biblical flood is still for sale in the park book shop. In spite of this pressure, however, a promised review by the National Park Service was never even begun, and it's clear that the religious loons are still in positions of power there.

Discourses on science - at the American Scientist online magazine, Brian Hayes has published a fascinating article on the nature of mathematical proof and how it is applied in the real world. Starting in his youth, where he wrestled with one of the age-old problems of trisecting the angle, he works forward to the little-known proof by the obscure mathematician Wantzel that shows it to be impossible.

Mining the moon - NASA's plans for a permanently manned moon base could provide the first steps towards large-scale extraction of Helium-3. The isotope is considered to be the optimum fuel for the first generation of commercial fusion reactors (when they eventually arrive!), and although rare on Earth it is plentiful in the lunar soil. Where is D. D. Harriman when you need him?

The death of Morse - when I was interested in amateur radio, back when dinosaurs walked the earth and the Yaesu FT-290 was the best rig on 2m, the Morse code exam required for a Class A license was a major obstacle. The 5 WPM requirement has seemed increasingly unnecessary with the rise of computers over the last two decade, however, and in America the FCC has finally eliminated it.

Playing roles - Matt Barton has published the first part of a guide to computer role-playing games, covering 1980 to 1983. I'm a little dubious about the start date, as it misses out the text-based adventure games like Zork and Colossal Cave, clearly the RPG's precursors, but the article is fascinating and well-written and I'm looking forward to subsequent instalments.

Only three buttons - I've been very pleased with my Optimus Mini 3 OLED keypad, in spite of a distinct lack of the huge community of add-on developers that the manufacturer obviously hoped for. Art Lebedev's blog has some fascinating tidbits on the grown-up 103 key version (classic vaporware), however, and there are finally a few 3rd-party widgets available for the Optimus Configurator.

Multi-mode TV card - the latest offering from PC-TV pioneer Hauppauge (pronounced "Ho-Pog", I gather) will tune into digital satellite, digital free-to-air and traditional analogue signals, radio and teletext - truly an all-rounder. I used to use their original WinTV products before I switched to the Radeon All-In-Wonder cards, and in the current morass of standards the new card looks like a winner.

And finally, opinions vary on whether the Sony PS3 is the best games console on the market, but if it can fry a steak there's no doubt that it's hot hardware...


1st January 2007

It wasn't the best of holidays... The car let me down travelling both too and from my parents' house in Plymouth, so I spent an annoyingly long time in a succession of breakdown trucks, the drivers of which varied from the teeth-grittingly chatty to the despairingly surly. Still, at least I saved on the petrol costs...

Back at home after christmas, however, I added another entry to the list of things I can bodge back into life. My bathroom shower started leaking just before I went away, but thanks to an excellent pair of web sites, The Shower Doctor and Shower Warehouse, I received expert advice on the likely cause of the problem and assistance in choosing the correct replacement parts, followed by sufficiently speedy dispatch of said parts that they arrived the next day. Highly recommended.

Meanwhile, back on the news circuit...

A collaborative effort - Cellphone manufacturer Ericsson is using monitoring equipment mounted in New York cabs to automatically map areas of low signal strength around the city, a cunning way of covering extensive areas of the city without using specialist vehicles. I wish my provider, T-Mobile, would do the same thing in Plymouth - the signal at my parents' house is almost non-existent...

Fighting back - Intel may hold the technical and performance crown right now with their multi-core Core CPUs, but AMD are anything but cowed. Homogenous multi-core is a flash-in-the-pan, they say, and their plans include combining a CPU and GPU onto the same silicon complete with on-die Northbridge functions, and multi-core chips with different, complementing varieties of processor.

Up before the beak - a report at News.com suggests that 2007 may be a difficult year for Apple, with a number of lawsuits in the offing as well as the likely fallout from their share options scandal. The suits include claims of monopolistic behaviour over the iTunes/iPod lock-in, of patent infringement from a pedometer addon, and that the logic board of the G4 iBook fails at "an abnormally high rate".

The shape of things to come - the anti-virus companies are predicting doom and gloom for the coming year, and although they have a vested interest in inspiring FUD their claims probably shouldn't be completely dismissed. The number of phishing attacks will continue to rise, as will those against instant messaging and VoIP users, and bot networks will become ever more sophisticated.

An improbable vulnerability - following the revelation that computers can to some extent be identified by their clock skew, the fact that this time drift is affected by a system's operating temperature might be used to pinpoint a particular computer over the Internet by forcing it to process a heavy workload and detecting the resulting rise in temperature. If this was April, I wouldn't buy it for a minute...

Your worst nightmare - meanwhile, The Register suggests that wireless hacking is about to move from demonstrations at black hat conferences to a genuine risk to business. The rise of the botnets mean that commercial hackers are always on the lookout for new victims, and corporate laptops taken outside the office with their wireless adaptors still enabled, especially when used on insecure home networks by senior staff with confidential data on unprotected hard drives, are an easy target.

And finally, paranormal investigations - PC Perspective has reviewed the Killer NIC gaming network card, and although their verdict is not quite as glowing as that of the recent review at [H]ard|OCP some of their assumptions are equally wacky: "these freezes are caused by the game waiting on networking data from the server -- something the Killer NIC can help with". It really isn't clear to me how a faster network card (even assuming that it actually is!) can reduce delays caused by a remote system. I'd really like to see these tests conducted using some genuine double-blind methodology...


An average month in the stats, especially considering the christmas slump: Site Meter shows that the vast majority of the site's visitors are using their employer's systems in office hours (I am greatly amused by this, somehow), and the holiday period is enough to knock ten percent off the monthly figures. I'm expecting a steady if gentle climb throughout the coming year, but that breakthrough into fame (even the 15 minute variety) still eludes me...



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