30th July 2007

An investigation by the office of the California Secretary of State that has revealed critical security vulnerabilities in electronic voting machines provided by the three main companies in the field, Sequoia, Diebold, and Hart. In spite of a short timescale and tight restrictions on their testing methods, researchers nevertheless managed to modify the firmware on all three to enable voting data recorded by the machines to be tallied or reported incorrectly. The most egregious weaknesses included the ability to load a trojan onto the Sequoia machines from a bootable USB memory stick, and the presence on the Diebold hardware of a remotely accessible logon account configured without a password! The existence of fundamental flaws like this in what are supposed to be ultra-secure appliances is both outrageous and bizarre, and given the widespread "irregularities" observed in recent US elections one doesn't have to be clinically paranoid to wonder whether the machines are in fact operating exactly as designed...

Meanwhile, the first iPhone lawsuit has emerged, thanks to a certain Jose Trujillo, who alleges that Apple kept the fact that the battery can't be swapped a secret until the phone's launch, and also failed to reveal its limited lifespan of a few hundred charge cycles. The suit seems to be without any significant substance, as the former was definitely widely known and discussed on the Internet long before the official launch, and the latter is of course a problem with all modern battery technologies. I do think the decision not to allow the battery to be replaced by the user was foolish, but it's certainly not something worth suing over and I doubt the case will get very far... It looks as if a genuine problem has emerged, however, in the form of an unusually high rate of failures of iPhone mains chargers. Some reports suggest that only the very first handsets bought are suffering from the problem, but as many people use a USB connection to charge their phones there could be a lot of dead power supplies that haven't yet been noticed. A quick search around the web certainly suggests that this is a common problem, but I also was amused to notice a number of Apple apologists claiming that the failures don't actually matter as there are other ways to charge the phone! Oh, well, that's OK, then.

Elsewhere, some space news... an explosion at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California has claimed the lives of three engineers working for Burt Rutan's company Scaled Composites, the pioneering which won the first X-Prize in 2004 following the successful sub-orbital fight of SpaceShipOne. Boing Boing also reports that Rutan's firm is being acquired by the aerospace giant Northrop Grumman, which will doubtless provide a very welcome injection of funds to develop the commercial passenger vehicle SpaceShipTwo. Still in space, NASA is investigating what appears to be the first case of sabotage in the US space program, following the discovery of deliberate damage to a computer due to be installed on the International Space Station. This closely follows the publication of the findings of an independent panel set up to study astronaut health issues (in response to the infamous Lisa Nowak incident) which revealed that a number of astronauts have been allowed to fly in spite of warnings from medical staff that they were sufficiently drunk to pose a safety risk! And to prove that it really has been a very bad week for NASA, public spending watchdogs in the US have criticised the agency for "losing" $94 million worth of property in the last ten years. On the lighter side, however, one insurance claim cited in the report reveals that a faulty laptop, worth around $4000, was "tossed overboard" from the ISS to burn up in the atmosphere - surely a unique fate for a PC!


28th July

I've never handled a pistol with an anatomical grip, before, and to tell the truth in pictures they've always looked rather outlandish and impractical. When I picked up my new Star PSS-300 replica for the first time yesterday however, I could see the benefits immediately - and that's saying something as it has to be the worst anatomical grip in the world! It's cast plastic, of course, as are the grips of most airsoft replicas, and when I say that looks as much like wood as the rest of them that's no great praise. It's actually a fairly good design, though, if not as endlessly customisable as the real thing, as the wrist rest can be tilted and slid up and down to accommodate different sized hands by slackening off the two allen bolts. This rest allows one to balance the weight of the fore-end against the underside of the hand and wrist, allowing a surprisingly loose, relaxed grip that undoubtedly makes the one-handed firing stance demanded by the ISSF rules just that little bit easier than it looks - the pistol really does feel like an extension of the arm, and after my previous experience with military weapons the contrast is quite remarkable!

One major potential problem however, is that the design of the grip has been sized for the statistically rather smaller oriental hand - this is reasonable, I suppose, given that said hands comprise the majority of the target market of Pacific Rim airsoft manufacturers such as Star, but for anyone with large or even more medium-sized hands it will probably be too small. My hands are by no means big, and they're slim as well, and even with the rest adjusted to the end of its travel everything is a snug, tight fit. That's not a problem in itself, as it's obviously how a good anatomical grip is supposed to feel, but the wrap-around design means that there's no possibility of someone with larger hands "making do" - the hand simply won't fit into the shape provided.

The second problem, and one made very obvious by the close, form-fitting shape of the grip, is a disappointing number of rough edges and sharp angles. I even ended up with red creases on my hands from holding the grip to size it, detached from the pistol and so weighing almost nothing, and without some tidying up it would be extremely uncomfortable to use for longer than a few minutes. This would more than nullify the benefits of the anatomical design, and I suspect that a number of Star's less DIY-minded customers must be cursing the thing and wondering why they wasted their money!

After some careful work with needle files and sandpaper everything is significantly more comfortable, however, and although I will have to do a little more work on the square cut-out near the trigger (I still have a delicate spot on my second finger where the edges pressed into me while taking the pictures above) it's already far more pleasant to hold. I have to admit that I still haven't actually fired the thing yet, so I guess that will have to wait for the next part of the review.

No matter how well it fires, though, at this stage I certainly can't recommend the PSS-300 unreservedly - even an airsoft replica of a competition target pistol has to be very comfortable to hold in order to be worthwhile, and out of the box this replica really isn't useable. If you have large hands, or if you're not happy diving in and smoothing the rough places in the grip, then this model definitely isn't for you.


27th July

Somewhat to my surprise, I bought myself another airsoft replica. The woefully misguided Violent Crime Reduction Act received Royal Assent in November of last year, of course, and the first clauses came into effect in April 2007. Although Section 36 of the Act, restricting sale and purchase of "realistic imitation firearms", does not actually come into force until October 2007, the battle is definitely fought and lost and all we're waiting for are the exact details of how the retailers are going to determine that a buyer is a bona fide skirmisher.

In the meantime, however, I stumbled across what to most eyes is a decidedly un-realistic imitation firearm, as to anyone who hasn't come across the increasingly insular sport of competition pistol shooting (and I'm confident that this is almost everyone!) the PSS-300 replica from Taiwanese manufacturer Star must look thoroughly implausible. It is based on a real class of guns, however, used in the ISSF 10m Air Pistol competitions occasionally seen for five minutes on the television coverage of the Olympics - provided, of course, that you're watching at 3 o'clock in the morning, when events such as this are inevitably shown...

Many would think that an airsoft replica of an air pistol is a somewhat eccentric idea, but the lower power makes indoor plinking far more approachable and the significantly lower cost (the real thing can run to well over $1000 even before you start customising it to your taste) - and to someone who already owns a dozen military pistol replicas the appeal of something different is strong. UK retailer Zero One shipped it out virtually overnight (this is relatively common, for them, but sometimes for no apparent reason delivery seems to take weeks!) but I haven't actually had chance to do more than fondle it as yet and I'll report further once I've put a few rounds through the thing.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, Boing Boing reminds us that today is the 8th annual Sysadmin Appreciation Day, which I find especially ironic as right now I'm feeling as unappreciated as I ever have in a twenty-something year career in IT - and I know that a number of my colleagues share this sentiment. I hope that our management is prepared for the fallout that is likely to result in the next few months...   :-(


26th July

After nine years with my current employer my company email address is the target of a huge number of technology briefings, white papers, news updates industry round-ups and the like, none of which I have explicitly requested and none of which are functionally any different from spam. This is an occupational hazard of a career in the IT industry, of course, but recently I've started to become fed up with this bombardment and wherever it looks wise (some of them are definitely from the sort of company that will immediately sell a confirmed email address to a dozen other spammers) I'm opting out of whatever makes it through the company's email filters.

When this week's issue of the Windows IT Pro newsletter arrived in my in-box today therefore, I clicked on the "Unsubscribe" link at the bottom of the message without particular concern - the publisher, Penton Media Inc, is ostensibly a respectable organisation and didn't seem likely to sell me out to Chinese diet pill vendors. What I saw after clicking on that link made me wonder, however, as having clicked yet another link to indicate that I wasn't resident in the US or Canada, I was taken to this page. Now, maybe I'm naive, but it seems odd to me that in order to unsubscribe from a mailing list I would need to provide my name, my email address, my telephone number and my fax number - along with a stern warning that "ALL of the following information MUST be completed".

Clicking back to the equivalent page for US or Canadian citizens shows that they only have to provide their email address, which makes me wonder how Penton can justify acquiring all that additional information simply to remove an entry from their list. The simple answer, of course, is because they can: anti-spam legislation in America demands that recipients must be able to opt-out of unsolicited commercial email, and that having done so their email address must not be sold or transferred to another organisation, but Penton are obviously aware that even if other countries have equivalent laws they cannot realistically be applied to an American company and so they can get away with demanding anything they like. Exactly what they might do with the new information they obtain in this way is also easy to determine. A clause in the proverbial fine print states "If Penton Media sells any of its assets in the future, your personal information would be one of those transferred assets", so in this case I think it's safe to assume that anyone who obligingly completes the form is eventually going to find themselves well known to the aforementioned Chinese diet pill vendors... Curiously, Penton's so-called "privacy policy" doesn't mention anything about "transferring assets", but what it does say about use of personal details by them and anyone else they see fit to give them to is enough to raise both my eyebrows. I'm not going to give them my phone numbers in order to unsubscribe, needless to say, but tomorrow they're going to find their entire domain nestling safely in my email blacklist and that will have pretty much the same result. Bye-bye!

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the web (and I'm pretty sure that none of these links will ask for your email address, phone number or bra size if you click on them) The Washington Post reports that the US government Department Of Homeland Security has established a list of "sensitive" buildings that must not be photographed by members of the public, but that they have kept the list itself secret! This means that it is impossible to know that you are breaking the law until you are descended on by security staff or law enforcement officials and hustled away into a back room somewhere. This is exactly the sort of "Security Theatre" that is being condemned by Bruce Schneier and other experts, and I'm afraid that it is a further indication of the unsettlingly rapid erosion of civil liberties taking place in both the US and the UK in the last five years.

Also... The spirit of Tesla is alive and well at MIT, following a further demonstration of wireless power transmission. This time the system was used to illuminate a standard light bulb at a distance of around two meters, and surprisingly the transmission was around 40% efficient. I have the feeling that it will be many years before this kind of technology makes it into production, but it's likely to bring major changes to consumer electronics when it does.

Walking in thin air - the Fogonazos science and technology blog has a marvellous series of photographs of astronauts performing extra-vehicular activities. My favourites are Ed White's cautious experiments during 1964's Gemini 4 mission, and the breath-taking images of Bruce McCandless floating free 100m away from the shuttle Challenger twenty years later.

GunBound at gunpoint - a Brazilian computer gamer, apparently one of the world's top RPG players, was kidnapped and threatened by an armed gang to reveal his game password, worth many thousands of dollars. He had been enticed out to a shopping mall on the promise of a date with a woman he had met on the social network Orkut, but she turned out to be the girlfriend of one of the criminals. This has to be the classic way of luring a gaming geek to his doom...  :-)

Copyright reversal - Boing Boing reports that, to everyone's surprise, the British government has refused to bow to extensive lobbying from the media industry to extend the term of copyright from 50 to 95 years. In spite of almost universal acquiescence to similar pressure in other countries, it is clear that extensions of this type benefit only a very, very few musicians, while actually harming the reputation of many more who are less well known by dooming their work to obscurity.


23rd July

Ah, the RIAA... Many industries have an institutionalised disregard for their customers (at times the American automobile industry, for example, has famously balanced the likely cost of lawsuits against the cost of a recall before deciding whether to fix life-threatening design faults) but few have gone as far as to threaten, bully and ultimately sue their customers simply for appreciating their products.

Considering that the organisation was founded in the fifties to supervise the specification of the frequency equalization used to make vinyl LP recordings, and that its remit throughout the subsequent three decades was mostly concerned with administering technical standards for the recording formats that followed, its current devotion to quasi-legal harassment is somewhat surprising. Nevertheless, for many years this is exactly what the RIAA (as well as the MPAA and a handful of equivalent organisations around the world) has been doing, and ever since peer-to-peer file sharing software burst onto the Internet with the release of Napster in 1999 the networks have been the site of an open war between the media industry and the P2P software writers ands their users.

For many years the RIAA has been getting its own way in America, thanks to extremely powerful and effective lobbying in Congress, and national industry associations in England, Europe and Australia seem to be equally influential when it comes to inspiring ever more draconian legislation against alleged copyright infringement. Recently, however, we have seen the first signs of a change in the wind, and the lawsuit that the RIAA brought against Debbie Foster is a prime example. Foster, a single mother from Oklahoma, was first targeted by the RIAA in 2004, and since then the association has used every trick in the book to beat her into submission. Even after it became clear that Foster herself was innocent, the RIAA added her daughter to the suit and then, when that tactic also appeared to be fruitless, brought further accusations against Foster herself for "enabling" the alleged file sharing. In the end their case collapsed from a complete lack of evidence, and they dropped the charges - and last week, after a number of groundless appeals, the judge ruled that Foster could claim legal fees of around $68,000 to cover some of the costs she had sustained defending herself.

Foster is not the only one to have stood up to the RIAA's bullying tactics, and other litigants (including Tanya Andersen and Dawnell Leadbetter) are currently petitioning for their legal fees after the RIAA brought and eventually dismissed wrongful copyright claims against them. Given that the organisation has raised lawsuits against at least 20,000 people in the US, however, the majority of which were settled out of court with little or no protest, it's far too soon to suggest that setbacks like this will force a change in policy - but one has to wonder if the record industry executives that bankroll the RIAA are raising an eyebrow at the recent news of a settlement that netted a trivial $300 after two and a half years of legal bickering. In fact, the final settlement came uncannily close to the 70¢ per song value that is the record labels' share of songs sold legally via iTunes Music Store and others...

Another interesting reverse concerns the controversial AllofMP3.com online music store, victim of massive and sustained pressure from the US government, and which ended up with the Russian government changing their copyright law and shutting the site down. Along the way the international industry association IFPI managed to browbeat credit card companies Visa and MasterCard into cutting off the site's accounts to starve them of payments, but after the backers of the site sued Visa's Russian subsidiary for breaking their contract such behaviour has been ruled illegal and Visa has been ordered to start processing payments again. The original AllofMP3 site is dead and gone, of course, meaning that this is something of an empty victory, but the spirit of the site (as well as it's customer database - how convenient!) lives on in the form of AllTunes.com and MP3sparks.com, and in theory this ruling ensures that they remain viable in the short term at least. The sites' owners are obviously determined and resourceful people, and I have the feeling that the media industry associations will have a real battle on their hands with this one.

Elsewhere, the absurd claims that are being used to justify sweeping new anti-piracy legislation in Canada have been roundly dismissed by Toronto academic Michael Geist, a Cambridge economics student has calculated that the optimum length of copyright is a mere 14 years, an article from staunch copyfighter Cory Doctorow exposes the behind-the-scenes machinations and dirty tricks that the media industry uses to influence legislation, and in the UK the the BBC has been ordered to review its unpopular decision to restrict its content with heavily-DRM protected and proprietary player technology. All-in-all it's been a bad few weeks for the RIAA and its ilk - and that means that it's been a very good few weeks for the rest of us. Cheers!


20th July

Friday night is obsolete technology night, at Epicycle!

To begin with, the original iPhone - back in 1983 Apple were flushed with the success of the Apple II and cash rich, and with the Macintosh project about to come to fruition the company was casting about for cool and interesting new product ideas. This particular concept, one of the many from pioneering German arthaus frog design, is a desk phone with a built-in touch screen and what looks like a Mac-inspired GUI. The thing is too darn small to be built with 1983 technology and is very obviously a mock-up, but it looks really slick anyway! The phone-computer idea did make it into production a year later with the ICL/Sinclair One Per Desk, however - and we all know what happened to that...

Still in the heady days of the eighties microcomputer boom, one short-lived idea  was actually surprisingly common at the time. Adding computer-readable data to LP records may not seem an intuitive move these days, but groups as varied as Inner City Unit and The Thompson Twins seemed to think that it was a neat thing to do. I owned a copy of ICU's New Anatomy album myself, but I didn't have a Spectrum and so never saw the band information that the data track apparently contained, but apparently the Thompson Twins data was actually an entire adventure game! For the truly sad devoted, most of the tracks can still be found online, but I'm not going to encourage you by linking to them here.

On a related note, the Little John Palm emulator allows owners of the venerable PDA range to run even more venerable video games from the NES and SNES, Sega Megadrive, the GameBoy and even the NeoGeo. By all accounts it does a remarkably good job (the 400MHz Intel XScale CPU in my Tungsten T3, for example, far exceeds the processing power of any of that generation of consoles) and the games are readily available on the P2P networks - and if downloading them is not quite legal, then given how interested the manufacturers are in their twenty year old hardware it is certainly morally defensible.

And talking of twenty year old hardware, last month Sothebys, the high-class predecessor to eBay, auctioned a collection of memorabilia from the golden age of Nolan Bushnell's Atari. The lot contained sketches for game designs, layouts and specifications, pre-press art for packaging and marketing materials, and all sorts of other documents of interest only to the most obsessive fan - 135 large file folders in total! The latest materials date to 1983, when Atari was reeling from multiple blows: the defection of key staff to found Activision, a lawsuit over the rights to the Donkey Kong game, and the general decline in the dedicated games console industry thanks to the growth of home computers. Shortly after that the company was split up and sold off, with the computer and console divisions eventually coming under the ownership of arch-rival Jack Tramiel of Commodore.

Jumping back to Apple, briefly, a wonderful poster shows the evolution of Apple's products from the company's debut in 1976 to  the iPhone 21 years later. It's a very interesting document to study, as it definitely puts the lie to the common claim that the company's high design aesthetics have always meant that their computers stand out from the crowd of anonymous beige PCs. The Quadra workstation range of the early nineties, for example, and the later PowerMac systems, are just as boxy and plain as any Compaq or AST system of the era, and until Jobs rejoined the company and revitalised the product range with the iMacs and the successors, in fact the majority of the hardware is really rather bland! Of course, one has to view these designs in the context of their competition at the time, but even so...

Elsewhere, back when I was the junior sysop for an ICL mainframe back in the early eighties, one of the standard folk tales from the growing canon of computer lore concerned a bored sysop on the nightshift who discovered that he could step and sweep the heads on his exchangeable disk units to vibrate the chassis at different pitches and play simple tunes (or to make them walk across the floor, or shake themselves to pieces - the exact details varied!) and although I never met anyone who claimed to have done this we all took it as an article of faith that it was indeed possible. The legend may have been inspired by Icelandic mainframe engineer Jóhann Gunnarsson, who created music on a 1401 Data processing System all the way back in 1964, and now that the recordings have resurfaced forty-something years later his son has created choreography to go with the cello-like composition and was touring Europe with it earlier this year. Wired has a short clip for your edification.

And finally, a real blast from the past. I don't imagine many of my colleagues have ever seen or heard of a Nixie tube, as they were fairly well obsolete (replaced by the first light emitting diodes) by the time I started paying attention to such things in the late seventies, but they were a common feature of sixties technology and there were still plenty to be seen in older electronic systems even then. They were little glass bottles, very similar in size and shape to the thermionic valves of the same period, but instead containing a cunning arrangement of tiny cathode tubes in a atmosphere of one of the Nobel gases, allowing numerals and other symbols to be displayed in a soft orange glow. Thirty years later, the enthusiast behind the Cathode Corner web site has designed a wristwatch using the tubes, brought up to date by the addition of a motion sensor that only activates the display when the wrist is flicked just-so, and well protected against shocks and water to spare the fragile tubes from damage. The thing is a bit clunky, I have to admit, but it's a wonderful idea.


19th July

I mentioned yesterday the perplexing and annoying attitude of Apple fanboys to anyone who dares to complain about the iPhone, but only a few hours later I came across an even more blatant example. The general impression from the iPhone thread was basically "you're too stupid to own an Apple product", but I wasn't actually expecting to see it expressed in so many words! However, that was almost exactly what a number of posters said in response to an article at The Register about a woman who suffered a burn and an electric shock when the power cord of her MacBook overheated and melted.

It seems that Apple's current laptops feature a magnetically attached power connector, dubbed MagSafe, which is designed to remove the risk of tripping over or otherwise entangling oneself with a badly-placed power cord. I can certainly appreciate the idea, as it's easy to forget that a laptop is plugged in when one suddenly has to stand up to answer the door or something, but in fact a search through Flickr suggests that evidently the design isn't quite ready yet. From the surprising number of images there it is clear that there can be a serious build up of heat where the cable joins the connector, causing the insulation to melt or even catch fire and exposing the live wires inside. Apparently a recent design change may have removed the problem (although it's too soon to be sure) but the existing PSUs have not been recalled and they are obviously a source of significant risk.

This melting insulation is exactly what happened to the laptop owned by the writer of the article, Emily Turner, and to make matters worse she had no end of problems getting the laptop repaired. The MagSafe failure was just one in a long series of problems, including a faulty DVD drive, two failed hard disks, and two faulty "logic boards" (Apple's term for the motherboard, perhaps?) - all in a period of less than a year. The article reports that sorting out all these issues required endless phone calls, numerous emails, four visits to the Apple store, and some needless abuse from a customer services staff member. During this time Ms Turner was trying to use the laptop for her work, and the general thrust of her article was that if her experience is representative of Apple's hardware and support quality then a MacBook is hardly suitable as a business tool.

Unfortunately, but I suppose predictably, this opinion was met with a thunderous response from the fanboys who apparently haunt The Register (not an organ famed for sucking up to Apple, it has to be said!) waiting to jump upon any article that dares to contradict their religion. They started off criticising the author for not having a spare computer to use while her MacBook was repaired, moved on to complaining that the article was "just stupid", "bitter" and "whining"; that it was written with "quite poor English", "of poor quality", and was a "poorly described rant"; that the problem only occurred because she'd "abused" the power cable and had "a very strange writing posture". Along the way she was told to "get real", that she "sounded like an ass", that she "acted unprofessionally", that she was "not a person who should be allowed near a computer, especially a notebook, anyway, or anything working on electricity for that matter", and that she was "just another idiot proving that you know shit about shit on macs".

As if all those ad hominem attacks weren't enough, in the end they even started in on her gender! She was told "with writing like that, don't expect respect from men (offering sexual favours, etc.)", and other contributions included "she's a woman, of course this article is melodramatic", "I'm sure she was a bitch on the phone", "Guys, she is a woman. This is how they are", and "women! they can be soo lame sometimes".

I have to admit that I was amazed and greatly disappointed. In the course of almost thirty years of computer use I've seen a lot of venom in the various operating system and platform wars, but this has sunk to a new low. The majority of the criticisms were extremely unfair (the article was not especially poorly written, especially in contrast to the majority of the comments, and didn't come across to me as whiny, at least), and the accusations that she had damaged the cable by some unspecified misuse, had a poor posture at the computer, and was rude on the phone to customer services, were all wild and completely groundless suppositions! People who claim that the MagSafe connector doesn't have a problem obviously haven't seen the hundreds of images on Flickr, and those who claim that the author's computer must have been "a lemon" and that her experiences with the company's products were "uncharacteristic" evidently haven't seen the AppleDefects.com site. And if the unfortunate woman didn't have a backup computer to keep her business going during the 55 days that the MacBook was out of her hands, a fact that lead to widespread abuse from the assembled haters, then I'm sure that Apple's constant bombardment of adverts claiming that only PCs crash or break down, while Macs work 100% reliably for ever and ever, had more than a little to do with her decision!

Am I alone in considering such a vicious response to the article to be unwarranted and just downright mean? If I was Ms Turner, right now I would be feeling hurt, angry and generally disgusted with the male of the techie species. But don't worry, Emily - we're not all like that, I promise...


18th July

Ahhh, the iPhone... I feel kind of guilty giving an already desperately over-hyped product yet more media coverage, but as more and more people use the thing (and not just Apple toadies evangelists like Walt Mossberg, either) some interesting facts and factoids are starting to emerge. To begin with, further security flaws have been identified, in addition to the ones that emerged in the first few days after the phone's launch. Once again the already buggy Safari browser is the main culprit, specifically its ability to dial a number embedded in a web page, which security firm SPI Labs suggests could lead to all sorts of annoying and expensive little attacks. On a related note, the fact that the phone's email client does not display the URL of a weblink embedded in a message, and that Safari only shows the first twenty characters of the URL once you've actually clicked on it, means that the potential for misleading users into visiting phishing sites is much higher than with most other browsers. I wonder if I'm too late to register support.paypal.co.uk.scammer.ru...? I'm sure that both of these issues will be corrected in the inevitable service pack, but the existence of such flaws and the fact that so many people are assuming that a major set of updates is imminent certainly throws a dark cloud over Apple's claims of "designed-in security", yes?

Meanwhile, an article at The Register on the what appears to be a step backwards in comparison to the iPod (Apple has declared it "the best iPod we've ever created", remember) has met with a number of very interesting responses in the article's comments. In response to owners complaining that it's no longer practical to drag-and-drop music onto the device, as is apparently possible with the iPod, the fanboys have declaimed en masse that such a facility is un-necessary, would just over-complicate the device, and can be worked-around by using playlists instead. Anyone who has dared provide a reason why they would like to use this facility, and why it was so useful on their iPod, is roundly dismissed as ignorant and foolish - and to see these waterheads passionately defending what real users obviously think is a serious omission is really rather sad.

A very similar response appeared following reports that a recent Apple patent heralds a WiFi-enabled iPod, and in spite of the fact that this is a sensible and obvious development it is fascinating to observe the sudden U-turn forced upon the Apple faithful. Having spent the last six months rubbishing the wireless ability of Microsoft's Zune (and, admittedly, it is decidedly hampered by the heavyweight DRM restrictions placed on the receiver of any "squirted" music) as pointless and undesirable, they now have to proclaim that Wi-Fi is absolutely and completely necessary for any music player - and you can tell that they're really upset not to be able to use this as further ammunition against Microsoft's offering.

By no means everyone is as happy with their iPhone, however, and The Register's San Francisco correspondent Cade Metz has written about his relief at returning his phone (and he was by no means the first, it seems) for a refund. He didn't like the on-screen keyboard, he didn't like the locked-down operating system, and he didn't like AT&T's sluggish network connectivity, but mostly he was just ashamed at having the thing in his possession. The buzz of attention that he received every time he pulled it out to make a call made him feel like "just one of the lemmings" he says, and in the end the satisfaction of taking it back to the store was far greater than that gained from owning and using it.

Finally - although in fact I'm sure that this will be just as much of a problem with an any brand of MP3 player or even an old eighties Sony Walkman - the Washington Post reports an increasing number of iPod users that are being struck by lightning, leading to highly distinctive wishbone-shaped burns to the chest and neck as the electricity travels along the path of the earphone wires. The WaPo tells us that a spokeswoman for Apple "declined to comment", but I guess it's a case of caveat auditor...


17th July

I've spent the last four months reading Peter F. Hamilton's "Night's Dawn" science fiction series, an epic space opera spanning three volumes and a total of some 3750 pages (6¼" thick in the paperback editions and I hate to think how thick in hardback!) and I have to admit to a certain relief to have finally finished it and be able to move on to something else.

It's not that it isn't a good read (although it really is just formulaic space opera - if admittedly a very modern implementation of the genre) but it's just so long - I haven't read a single story so lengthy since I ploughed through L. Ron Hubbard's ten volume "Mission Earth" series a few years ago (I am possibly the only person outside of the Scientology movement to have willingly read that much Hubbard - and the story is not quite as bad as people say). Certainly, having finished all three books of Night's Dawn it's hard not to think that a different author would have been able to tell the same story in a single volume, and given that Hamilton spends all but that last quarter of an inch getting humanity into a terrible mess, the resolution in the final hundred pages seems both rushed, in terms of the writing, and something of a hand-wave solution to the problem, in terms of the plot. Throughout the last book I'd had a growing feeling that this was going to be the case, but it was still something of a disappointment when it happened - but if the book hadn't been so darned long the sudden ending wouldn't have been nearly so intrusive and obvious.

However, there is no doubt that another part of my irritation comes from the caption emblazoned on the cover of each volume, "Britain's No. 1 Science Fiction Writer", as to my mind this rather occludes such luminaries as (to name but a few!) Iain M. Banks, Colin Greenland, Ken MacLeod, Charlie Stross, Brian Stableford, Charles Sheffield, and, especially, John Brunner, author of such genuinely ground-breaking novels as Stand On Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up and, of course, The Shockwave Rider.

With the possible exception of Banksie, whose science fiction novels have perhaps gained sales thanks to the success of his mainstream fiction, it seems likely that none of them can match Hamilton in terms of the sheer number of copies sold (although John Brunner did write a lot of books in the course of his fifty year career...) but that says more for the high-volume marketing that is now becoming available to science fiction authors thanks to the renewed popularity and slightly higher status of the genre at the moment, than it does for the quality of Hamilton's writing. I've nothing against the man (and a fan friend assures me that he's a really nice chap, as well as a very competent author) but I hope he has the decency and humility to wince a little every time he sees that slogan on one of his books. He really is standing on the shoulders of giants...


13th July

What a week... As an experiment, my company is subcontracting an occasional call center function to a specialist company, and on Tuesday I went down there with one of my PFYs to check reports of a problem with the VPN tunnel that connects their network to ours. The fault was with their local systems, of course (when it comes to Cisco infrastructure, said PFY is extremely useful), and having had a look around I'm amazed that it's working at all.

My first introduction to the network came when the PFY showed me into their computer room (obligingly left unlocked for us!) and my eye immediately fell upon a rack of Dell and Compaq servers, each of which had at least one urgently flashing orange warning LED. The room, not much bigger than the cardboard boxes some of our network hardware came in, turned out to have several more racks squeezed into it somehow, along with a PBX, a UPS or two, and all the usual connectivity (although screwed, taped and strapped to every available surface in a most unusual manner!), and only the presence of a surprisingly powerful aircon unit on one wall stopped it all from melting into a puddle of plastic and metal slag on the floor - and given what I saw of the server configuration, some would say that would be an improvement...

Although the company seems to have an IT director, he has no staff under him and all the support for a dozen servers and 180 desktop PCs is provided by the man who owns the computer shop over the road. He's a clever chap, obviously, but has little appreciation of the techniques required to run a network of that size, and his management tools seem mostly to consist of quick-and-dirty scripts that he cobbles together apparently on the fly. The configuration of the desktop PCs is a bizarre mixture of multiple subnets, conflicting routes, unusual netmasks and weird, flakey behaviour. We did what we could to tweak our VPN gateway to optimise performance, but the PCs were so peculiarly configured (to match the equally peculiar network) that any attempts to standardise them only made matters worse. In the end the computer shop owner performed some barely-understood magic with a script or two, and after a quick test we escaped as rapidly as possible... we can recognise a Project of Lost Souls when we see one.

Meanwhile, back on the Interweb... John Mackey, the CEO of a health foods company has been systematically rubbishing his main competitor on the Yahoo! Finance forums for eight years, using a pseudonym to hide his identity in the hope of driving down their stock price. This is certainly unethical, but probably not actually illegal, except that his company is now attempting to buy said competitor and so has attracted the baleful glare of the US Federal Trade Commission. Mackey seems completely unrepentant, and says that the FTC are just trying to "embarrass him".

On the other side of the world, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty has warned that his force is ill-equipped to fight the next wave of crime, revealing to a parliamentary enquiry that he is concerned that advances in robotics technology and human cloning could soon lead to "a cloned part-person, part-robot", and that the skills required to fight such soulless cyborg criminals do not exist in current policing. I have to agree with that last part, at least...

Elsewhere, the infamous Senator Ted Stephens is talking about... Well, I'm not actually sure what he is talking about, but his contributions to a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on telephone number portability seem to involve motorcycles and something called a "wireline phone". Given the reaction to his "series of tubes" speech last year, I expect to see the T-shirt any time now.


9th July

I've been having car problems. This time last year, in the 25°+ temperatures that made such a contrast to the cool, damp summer we've been having this time around, the engine started overheating badly. Short journeys were mostly OK, but longer ones were a nightmare - especially in the hot sun and in a traffic jam, circumstances which trapped me by the side of the road waiting for a recovery vehicle so often that even over the phone I could detect the raised eyebrows of the staff at my breakdown service's call center.

Now, I like to know a little about technical issues that can strand me miles from home at the most inconvenient of times, and fortunately there are a number of excellent resources for BMWs online - especially a site run by a Canadian enthusiast and specifically targeted at E34 models such as the 525i that I drive. Among the site's many useful resources are helpful troubleshooting guides, and right at the top of the overheating section is some information that could have saved me a great deal of fuss if I had stuck to my guns and not assumed, as is my wont, that other people are as expert in their own field as I am in mine...

The mid-nineties 5 series cars had a water pump fitted with a plastic impeller, it seems, and after a few tens of thousands of miles this starts to crack and fragment, eventually falling apart completely. These are a well-know Achilles' Heel of the model, and most have been replaced over the years by units with metal impellers, but evidently some have slipped through the net. I tend to use the mechanic who tends my company's fleet cars, which saves the fuss of trying to get to and from work while my car is in pieces in a garage somewhere, and although he was happy to take on the job he didn't seem to think that the water pump was a very likely culprit. Needless to say, in spite of replacing the thermostat and the radiator, and bleeding the system repeatedly to remove pockets of air trapped in the notoriously complicated heating and cooling systems, when it felt like it the car was still having decidedly off-days. It shouldn't have taken a year to get this far, but unfortunately the mechanic tends to commit to more than he can deliver, and in spite of many phone calls and promises in the course of that period he only actually worked on the car four or five times!

He did manage to change the nature of the problem, though, as by the new year the car seemed quite happy except on long journeys - it stranded my both driving to Plymouth to see my parents at Christmas, and then driving home again afterwards - but each time it let me get far enough to regain confidence! This month it has suddenly started overheating on shorter and shorter journeys as well, though, to the point where for the last few days it would only just survive the 3 mile journey to and from the office before the needle of the temperature gauge started to climb ominously away from the 12 o'clock mark to which it always used to be firmly stuck.

I finally managed to get him back in today, though (after he'd promised to work on the car on both Thursday and Friday of last week, of course!) and, mindful of the troubleshooting guide at the BMWE34 web site, I asked him again to check the water pump. An hour later he called me down to have a look, and the evidence speaks for itself.

The plastic impeller (it actually feels like something similar to Bakelite, to me) is cracked in a number of places, just as discussed in the forums. It's obviously on the point of actually falling apart, but even though it still seems to be in one piece right now a closer examination shows that the main part of the impeller ring has completely broken away from the central part that is clamped to the drive shaft, and so is spinning fairly freely. The chances are that until recently it's been gripping just a little bit, from friction or hydrostatic pressure, and although that wouldn't move enough water to cool the engine under high revs or high temperatures, for short runs in an English winter it was probably just enough... It must have given up the ghost for good last week, leading to the problem worsening suddenly.

I have mixed feelings... On one hand I'm annoyed that it's taken a year to find the cause of what should have been a fairly straight-forward problem - and the long delay has brought a huge risk of a cracked cylinder head or a blown gasket, either of which would be very expensive and awkward to repair, especially in a twelve year old car with high mileage. Given the number of times it has gone all the way up into the red zone before I could pull off the road safely, I have been very lucky. On the other hand, if the problem is finally fixed, it will all have been worth it: it's very annoying and stressful not to have confidence in one's primary form of transport, and setting off on a journey without knowing if you'll make it under your own steam or on the back of a recovery vehicle is a real worry. If I can make it from Essex to Plymouth and back, which I'll need to do in the next month or so, I will be a happy bunny indeed.


6th July

The end of the week, at last, and time for some much-needed R&R. Over at his blog How To Spot A Psychopath, the inestimable Dan Rutter has been singing the praises of Triumph Studios' new game Overlord, and I decided to take a look. So far this evening I've smashed up a farm, murdered a bunch of halflings in cold blood, and ordered my minions to be very cruel to a flock of sheep - and I've only been playing it for ten minutes. The game has definite potential...  :-)

The keen-eyed reader of Epicycle will notice that since the hiatus last month I've been trying to write somewhat more coherently on a common theme, rather than the list of links habit that I seem to have fallen into over the last couple of years. It's harder to write that way, but I think it's also somewhat more professional, and I'm hoping to continue like that as far as possible. Having said that, however, it's the end of a busy week and tonight it's random links or nothing. Try to contain your disappointment.

A salutary lesson - another good reason for avoiding the canned blogging services is that you have no control over the site that re-uses your domain name after you've moved on elsewhere, as a security guru Winn Schwartau discovered when his old Blogspot domain was recycled to push what The Register aptly describes as "crudware".

The fall of the house of Gates - the news that Bill is no longer the world's richest man came as a surprise to me, as after thirteen years years his position had become somewhat of a fixture. The new winner is Mexican telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim, whose fortune rocketed from $30 billion last year to $67 billion following a surge in his company's stock price.

You can't keep a good pirate down - I was less surprised to hear that the Russian government has finally closed down controversial music downloads site AllOfMP3.com, but also greatly amused to hear that the site's management almost immediately opened a replacement, MP3Sparks.com, which conveniently has preserved all the user information from the original site.

And finally, catching real criminals - I'm sure that the American taxpayer is glad to hear that, in spite of the many other demands on their time, after a year-long investigation the FBI have finally managed to snare the evil masterminds behind the mysterious and sinister company MoviesByMail.  Apparently these desperate plotters have been selling perfectly ordinary adult DVDs over the web and, horror of horrors, sending them through the US postal system, and I'm sure we'll all sleep easier in our beds tonight, knowing that these evil swine will be safely behind bars. Of course, the FBI still doesn't know who sent anthrax-loaded letters to news media offices and Democratic Senators back in 2001, killing five people and infecting seventeen others, but evidently the home-grown flavour of terrorism just isn't very important these days. Bah!


5th July

I was less than impressed when I returned home today to discover that my main desktop PC was waiting for me at the Windows login prompt, and that having logged in a little balloon in the tray gleefully told me that my PC "had been restarted after applying updates". Now, although I've always been a big fan of the Windows Update mechanism, and allow it to download updates automatically in the background whenever it chooses, I much prefer to decide for myself when they are actually installed. I don't reboot my PCs often (even Vista, which in truth is barely out of beta, generally manages to keep working very nicely for weeks at a time), and that means that I tend to leave all sorts of applications and processes open and running with the assumption that they'll still be running at the end of the day.

In this case, however, it's clear that at some point recently something from Microsoft has reset the Updates configuration to install automatically, and then to reboot afterwards as required, and I definitely do not approve. I had half a dozen web pages in the process of being pored over; documents open in FrontPage, Word and Excel; torrents downloading, you name it - and to have the PC suddenly reboot itself in the middle of the day rather put paid to the lot of them! The Office applications all have auto-save enabled by default, of course, and the torrents resumed without problems when I re-opened uTorrent, and the Internet Explorer history tab will allow me to find those web sites again (if with a bit of fussing!) but that's hardly the point. If I tell Windows Update not to install things behind my back, I expect it to pay attention, and for Microsoft to sneakily change that setting (and not for the first time, either, I think) is thoroughly out of order. Grrrrr!

Meanwhile, the news is still full of stories about Apple's iPhone - although I swear this is the last time I'll mention the wretched things for a while unless they start spontaneously bursting into flames or something...

As I predicted last week, both iSuppli and Portelligent have released their initial tear-down reports, and their estimates of Apple's profit margin are indeed in excess of 50%. This is fairly standard for previous products, and it's interesting to see that the company's assault on the new market is using the same "screw 'em for all they're worth" strategy. Elsewhere, geek toys site Engadget has published their own review, and unlike the fawning pre-release offering from Walt Mossberg last week, they're not so ready to dismiss the many omissions and the few, but severe, problems. Doubts are already being raised about the battery life between charges, certainly, with tests at WirelessInfo completely failing to achieve any of Apple's claimed figures - and the figures they did see compare quite badly with the other smart-phones on the market. And, finally, the unexpected shortages of the phone have not materialised, with the people who queued for several days apparently feeling somewhat foolish when it turned out that any Tom, Dick or Harriet could walk in off the street later on in the day and buy one without all the camping. The ready availability has also put paid to many people's plans to sell their handset on eBay for a huge profit, with reports suggesting that most sellers have earned only a few tens of dollars for their pains. Excuse me a moment while I wipe away a tear...


4th July

Apple's new baby is only a few days old, but already people are perpetrating strange and perverted acts upon its naked, quivering case. It's hammer time at Tech Republic, with a video of two erstwhile reverse engineers stripping down an iPhone using only common household tools. Meanwhile, iPod repair specialist iResQ is offering to remove the camera to allow the phone to be taken into high-security areas that restrict such fripperies. For those who elect not to void the warranty on a $600 handset, however, Boing Boing reports that it is possible to hold a jeweller's loupe or similar against the lens to turn the camera into a creditable microscope - which I'm sure would come in handy for reading the fine print on the two year airtime contract you've just locked yourself into. And talking of which, AT&T is coming in for considerable flack over the network congestion that made activating the first iPhones such a chore, with reports claiming that their recent investment in 3G hardware was purely cosmetic and the tired old EDGE network that the iPhone uses is as good as it's likely to get in the foreseeable future.

For the truly AT&T-phobic, however, the infamous "DVD Jon" Johansen claims that he can work-around the online activation process completely, enabling the handset's music and wireless facilities even if the actual phone functionality remains inoperable. Am I alone in finding that something of a Pyrrhic victory? Meanwhile, speculation is rife around which carriers will be offering the handset in Europe when it launches later this year. The current favourite seems to be Deutsche Telekom, better known to the world as T-Mobile, but as their coverage misses out certain small details (such as France, Spain and Italy) it seems likely that they won't be alone. And finally, to end on a high note, the first reports of security vulnerabilities are starting to trickle out of the black hat bulletin boards and research groups. The most serious flaw is a buffer overflow in the phone's customised version of the Safari browser, which in best tradition allows arbitrary code to be executed. The most likely payload for malicious code on a phone handset, of course, is to dial premium rate phone numbers to make a little pocket money for the Trojan's developers, and it will be interesting to see if anyone capitalises on this one before it is fixed. A vulnerability has also been unearthed in the Bluetooth stack, but all that can do is allow an attacker to freeze the entire device on demand - and I'm sure nobody would ever want to take advantage of that...  <giggle>


2nd July

I've written a lot here about the music industry's continued attempts to hold back the waves, failing again and again to exploit the potential of electronic distribution via the Internet and instead embarking on an ineffectual and unpopular campaign of threats and legal action against people who under different circumstances would be their best customers. The recording industry associations insist that they are fighting on behalf of the poor, beleaguered artists, but it has been shown time and again that actually the artists themselves are right down at the bottom of their list of priorities - if, that is, they're actually on the list at all!

The industry seems to have sunk to a new low this week, however, following reports that CD sales have fallen by up to 40% this year, and announcements of closures and lay-offs by some of the major record labels. Meanwhile, inflated ticket prices set by greedy concert promoters and management companies have been blamed for poor sales and acres of empty seats at concerts by some of the industry's biggest names, and all-in-all the situation seems bleak indeed.

In the wake of this dire news, then, it would seem a poor time for an industry on such shaky ground to start throwing its weight around, but that is exactly what it has decided to do. On hearing that veteran rock musician Prince was about to give away copies of his new CD in the UK newspaper The Mail On Sunday, the co-chairman of industry group The Entertainment Retailers Association, Paul Quirk, decided to come out with all guns blazing:

"The Artist Formerly Known as Prince should know that with behaviour like this he will soon be the Artist Formerly Available in Record Stores. And I say that to all the other artists who may be tempted to dally with the Mail on Sunday."

Many would say that if Prince chooses to try to revive his somewhat flagging career by getting his music out where people can actually hear it (the labels are notorious for only promoting artists who they consider to be the current flavour of the month, of course, and shunning all others), then that is nobody's business but his own - and in any case one has to assume that he is being paid a not insignificant amount* by the paper's owner, Associated Newspapers, for the privilege of helping them sell more newspapers.

The retail industry obviously takes this decision as a personal insult, though, and given the arrogance of the industry as a whole I have no doubt that they'll carry out their threat. Of course, they're likely to lose far more money from sale of Prince's many other CDs than they could possibly have lost from the small proportion of newspaper readers who would have bought the album if it hadn't been given away free, but presumably they feel that there is a principle at stake and staying in business is only a secondary consideration. I wonder how that's working out for them? Oh, yes, that's right - CD sales are down 40%...

Elsewhere, following a prolonged dispute, the Universal Music Group has told Apple that it does not intend to renew the contract that allows Apple to sell its music via the iTunes Music Store, sales that have amounted to more than 15% of the group's revenue in the first quarter of this year, some $200 million! On the face of it this seems to be a very peculiar decision, as Universal are one of the labels that have been bleating to the US government for a decade or more in the hope of receiving sweeping powers to combat file sharing - up to and including remotely destroying suspect's computers! For one of those labels to suddenly abandon the only successful legal electronic distribution system seems indefensible, and I suspect that a Democrat-controlled Congress might well raise an eyebrow the next time the RIAA turns up at their door asking for a further hand-out.

It also makes me wonder about what will happen if Universal carries out their threat, and withdraws their music from iTunes. Until the recent decision by EMI to permit Apple to sell non-DRM music, nearly everything downloaded from ITMS was heavily protected, and it seems utterly plausible, and completely possible, that Universal could oblige Apple to use the DRM to disable songs that have already been "purchased" and downloaded by its customers. If I was an iTunes user I would be taking steps right now to re-encode everything I had downloaded as DRM-free MP3s. Just in case...

[* On a related note - the MPAA, Hollywood's hired muscle in the war against file sharing, is on record at valuing a movie at thousands of dollars of punitive damages when it is illegally copied, but there is apparently no shortage of free films being given away quite legally by the UK newspapers to put this claim into question. I've always wondered about that.]


1st July 2007

The news this week has been full of the strike by the Royal Mail sorting and delivery staff, following warnings from the executives that they need to "modernise" and "embrace change", terms which almost always means making the actual workers redundant whilst employing additional managers. Missing a day's post did not affect me unduly, but today I have been muttering under my breath at a smaller but somehow far more annoying aspect of the company's services.

A sheet of 100 first class stamps currently costs £34 on the Royal Mail web site, but on top of that they want to charge £4.10 for delivery. Given that the stamps come in a little booklet weighing a few tens of grams that is an incredibly excessive cost, but it gets worse... Orders for more than £35 are delivered free, so if I also buy a sheet of 100 one penny stamps, increasing the total just enough to qualify, I actually save the not inconsiderable sum of £3.10. The penny stamps are almost completely useless to me, of course, but I would be foolish not to buy them and save myself the money!

What is even more foolish, of course, is an online shopping site that will sell you more product for less money, and in fact in this case it actually seems to be motivated purely by greed. The last time I bought stamps, two and a half years ago in December 2004, a sheet of 100 only cost £28 - but back then the web site had a minimum order value of £30 so in fact I was obliged to buy two sheets. This was very obviously an artificial restriction to force me to spend more money, but stamps don't expire and as I knew that I'd use them sooner or later I gritted my teeth and went ahead with the purchase.

Presumably the 18% increase in the cost of 1st class postage since then (am I alone in finding that excessive in itself?) has prompted the change in tactics, but the fact that the threshold for free delivery is once again just above the cost of their most popular product is clearly no coincidence. They obviously haven't thought it through very well, though, as if enough people realise that they can save three pounds by buying more stamps they're going to make a big loss on each transaction...

Making a big loss is something that the Royal Mail is already good at, of course, and whatever the rights and wrongs of the current industrial action (as so often with disputes between management and workforce, these days, it is far from clear-cut) it is obvious that something has to be done. I just don't think that thoroughly alienating an already dissatisfied and militant workforce is a very good start...


What goes up, it seems, must come down. Three months after the sudden and mysterious increase in my monthly traffic, this month's figures seem to have dropped back to around their earlier level. A cursory examination of my traffic in SiteMeter doesn't show any obvious explanation, so right now I've just had to put it down as one of those things... We'll see what the coming month brings.



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