30th June 2007

So Apple's latest great white hope went on sale a few hours ago, following months of hype that built into a positive frenzy in the last week before the iPhone actually became available. As could be expected, the faithful have been queuing for many days outside Apple's shiny and elegant stores (not so much a shop, we're told, as a "retail technology experience") and their slavish devotion has apparently infected the IT press, with an article in Slate discussing the legality or otherwise of jumping the queue to get one's sticky little fingers on an iPhone without all that tedious waiting in the rain. It was interesting to read that both Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and pioneering Macintosh programmer Bill Atkinson have been queuing with the rest of the faithful, though, the latter regaling his queue-mates with tales of the early days of the Mac project.

Also amongst the fans were representatives from hardware geeks AnandTech and Mac repair specialists iFixit, who have evidently been racing to see which could be first to could destroy a $600 phone, and their dissections of the hardware reveal that as could be expected the bulk of the internal volume is taken up by the Li-Ion Polymer battery. Of course, the big boys of hardware analysis, iSuppli and Portelligent, are sure to have had employees waiting in line as well, and I expect their initial estimates on the actual manufacturing cost of the handset to hit the tech news sites early next week - and if Apple's margin (especially on the more expensive 8Gb model) isn't at least 50%, I'll eat the packaging from my PFY's new iPod...

Although early pre-release reviews were largely very favourable, it's safe to assume that Apple's PR only provided samples to journalists who are generally supportive of the company and its products. We saw exactly the same thing when the first iPods launched, and it took several months before stories of rapidly aging batteries and excessively scratched screens started to emerge. Apple seem to be having quality control issues right across their product range these days (perhaps a symptom of having their hardware built in Chinese factory gulags?) and I do wonder if we're going to see some ghastly defect affecting the early phone handsets as well.

Not everyone is happy with the iPhone even at this early stage, of course. Leaving aside the minor scandal that ensued when it emerged that the most recent publicity photos of the iPhone have been taken using a model with unusually large hands, in order to make the phone look significantly smaller that it actually is, Apple's choice of AT&T as the sole airtime provider has caused considerable bad feeling. The giant telco has been reviled by civil liberties groups over the last year or so, following its warrantless wiretapping on behalf of the US government, its willing provision of customer records to the NSA, and its extremely dubious stance on the critical issue of net neutrality - and it is hard to imagine a more controversial provider for Apple to have partnered with. It is interesting to note, however, that although early reviews of the iPhone criticised the performance of Internet access via AT&T's traditionally sluggish EDGE network, the telco seems to have pulled a major rabbit out of its hat just in time for the official launch. Users of other handsets and systems on the network are reporting a sudden and unexpected improvement in performance, and there's little doubt that the timing is no coincidence.

Elsewhere, a photo on Flickr reveals that Apple's traditional fondness for hardware lock-in remains unabated, showing how the iPhone's curved casing and deeply recessed jack socket prevents standard headphones and line-out cables from being used. A simple rebate around the socket would have removed this issue, of course, but given that Apple sells an adaptor for a hefty $19 (as well as their own range of add-ons) this is unlikely to be an inadvertent omission... Meanwhile, fans of Nokia's N95 have been quick to point out that most of the unique features announced with such fanfare by Steve Jobs have been available for some time on their Symbian-based handsets, as well as a number of other features that the 1st generation iPhone cannot match, in fact. It's good to see that the reality distortion field is still very much alive and well.

Finally, I was amused to hear a report on this morning's BBC news that even if the iPhone sells as well as Apple's PR department claims to expect, it will still only achieve around 2% market penetration in the first two years. That number ought to be very familiar to industry watchers, as for many years it was the average market share of the company's Macintosh computers. Only a move to Intel CPUs in the last year or so has seen any significant increase in this figure, although in fact the most ardent Apple evangelists claim figures like these are meaningless and it is quality and not quantity that really counts. Indeed.


29th June

There's a saying that if you can read about quantum mechanics without your head spinning, you're probably not understanding the implications of the theories. I'm sure that Murray Gell-Mann and Michio Kaku are exempt from this rule, but I'm certainly not, and my head has been spinning quite steadily since I started puzzling through college-level physics textbooks at the tender age of eleven. I found myself gritting my teeth today, therefore, while overhearing a colleague haltingly describing Erwin Schrdinger's infamous thought experiment concerning a cat in a box, only to hear the colleague he was trying to explain it to announce that it all sounded perfectly straight-forward and sensible!

In fact, Schrdinger formulated the idea, in 1935, as a way to illustrate how absurd the superimposed states described by the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory was - although it was plausible for subatomic particles to have a degree of uncertainty when it came to their exact state, he argued, obviously an actual cat had to be either alive or dead, and any suggestion that it was neither or both just didn't make sense in the real world. A cat is composed of those very same particles, however, and as the theory failed to scale from the subatomic to the macroscopic level it must be fundamentally incomplete.

According to the Copenhagen Interpretation the two possible states of the cat are superimposed until the wave function is collapsed by an observer "measuring" the system - in other words, opening the box to see if the cat is alive or dead. Could not the cat itself act as the observer, though, Schrdinger asked, collapsing its own wave function at the appropriate time - and a further refinement by Eugene Wigner introduced a "friend" either inside or outside the box, communicating the state of the cat at various times to the scientist performing the experiment and so adding a host of further possible superimposed states and further muddying the waters...

Some physicists find this blurring of reality unpalatable, and instead support what is commonly known as the "many worlds" interpretation, first proposed by Hugh Everett in the late fifties. In this theory, for any event with multiple possible outcomes space-time actually splits into two or more branches, so in one universe the cat is still alive and in another it is now dead. This interpretation actually fits the classical quantum theory just as well as the superpositions of the Copenhagen Interpretation, and as it has advantages in certain areas of theoretical physics it remains a mainstream interpretation even now. It has also proved sufficiently intriguing to non-scientists to have earned a place in numerous science fiction novels, set in parallel universes where one key event had a different outcome from the branch of space-time that we know, changing history and society in unexpected ways ready to confound the hapless adventurer who crosses from one into the other.

It is interesting to note that after languishing for several decades as one of the less popular interpretations of the quantum theory, in the last few years the superpositions of Schrdinger's cat have been attracting renewed attention. Recent experiments with superconducting quantum interference devices have shown that the conducting ring can indeed exist in two simultaneous and apparently mutually exclusive states, very much like a cat being both dead and alive, and although there has been considerable argument over exactly how macroscopic these states actually are, there's no doubt that they're many orders of magnitude larger and more energetic than those of the subatomic particles that inspired the original thought experiment seventy years ago. Interesting times!


28th June

Five years ago the wrath of the media industry was descending on the first generation peer-to-peer networks, with pioneer Napster falling after a prolonged legal battle, and then over the next few years Kazaa, Grokster, iMesh and others being targeted by lawsuits and either driven out of business or forcibly acquired and re-launched as commercial services. Needless to say, illicit file-sharing continued mostly unabated, but recently the baleful gaze of the RIAA and MPAA has fallen upon the spiritual successor to those early networks, the BitTorrent tracker sites. The Pirate Bay was the subject of a highly-publicised raid by Swedish police this time last year, and a few weeks ago TorrentSpy was ordered by a federal judge to begin logging user activity on behalf of the MPAA. The latest target is Demonoid, which this week has come under threat by Dutch anti-piracy group BREIN. At present the site is mostly offline following what we are assured is an unrelated server crash, and the smart money thinks that the owners will take the opportunity to relocate the servers somewhere out of the jurisdiction of their attackers. It's clear that the writing is on the wall for the torrent tracker sites, however, and it will remain to be seen whether the third and fourth generation networks, with designed-in anonymity and encryption, will allow file sharing to stay as popular as it has been since its inception.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, Microsoft's legal department has jumped on a operation known as "Longhorn Reloaded", a project intended to rework an early beta of Windows Vista from before such advanced features as the WinFS advanced file system were cut to preserve shipping dates. The core of the system was to be a beta released to the 2004 WinHEC conference, based around a newly-written kernel rather than the Server 2003 code that formed the heart of the final versions of Vista, and the LR project intended to fix as many beta bugs as possible (presumably by using Vista versions of DLLs etc), remove the beta expiry mechanism, and generally restore the OS to something closer to that which Microsoft originally promised. Of course, this completely violates the beta's licensing conditions, and as it would ultimately end up as a free distribution of Windows there's no question that the company would put a stop to it sooner or later. As I write this the ISO images of Reloaded have been withdrawn from the project's web site, and it seems likely that this is the end of the road. One has to applaud Microsoft's restraint in this case, however, as instead of just issuing a "cease and desist" order they could have come out with all guns blazing and simply sued the project's developers for unauthorised distribution of the beta code...


20th June

Karlene and I have both been suffering from a nasty throat infection over the last ten days or so - just as she started to feel better I caught the thing, and as I'm still feeling like death warmed up (and not very thoroughly warmed, either) things are probably going to be a little quiet here until the weekend.

Until then, you might check The Sideshow for the latest political gossip, Dan's Data for all things tech, and Penny Arcade... well, just because.


15th June

In comments, various well-wishers are sympathising with my enforced adoption of the orphaned DEC Alpha servers, and relating tales of woe of those who have found themselves in a similar position. The damn things are tough enough, it seems, that a tragic and mysterious datacenter accident would probably be fruitless, and as the unbelievable support costs we're paying actually seem fairly standard across the industry I guess they'll cost the company another few hundred thousand pounds before I can finally toss them in a skip. Oh, but that will be a day to celebrate, for sure...

Meanwhile, back on the Interweb:

Enderle on iPhone - I'm not a great fan of Rob Enderle, the self-styled "last of the Inquiry Analysts", but his comments at Tom's Hardware Guide on the likely shortcomings of Apple's over-hyped iPhone make a lot of sense, and like me he's not convinced that a first generation product from a new entrant to the already ultra-competitive cell phone market will have much chance of succeeding.

Another worm turns - after many years of disparaging Intel and its microprocessors in comparison to their own SPARC chips, Sun has followed Apple in announcing a range of Xeon-based servers. The first offering, a blade server, can be supplied with either Intel, AMD or UltraSPARC CPUs, and will be joined by multi-socket products later in the year. It will be interesting to see if this reverses their somewhat flagging server sales.

A thumb in the dyke - in spite of the growing bulk of confidential data being held in Indian call centres on behalf of western companies bitten by the off-shoring bug, there is very little legislation to protect the information and leaks, thefts and frauds are becoming increasingly common. It is hoped that a newly-created industry group will improve the situation by certifying security practices, but frankly I'm somewhat dubious...

Terrorists are stupid - Bruce Schneier points out that the "terror" plots exposed with such fanfare by the US and UK security services are mostly unworkable plans devised by incompetents, and that in fact a number of them have been egged on by FBI undercover agents (in at least one case an agent even proposed the attack!). Nevertheless, these idiots have been used to justify repressive and draconian laws for the rest of us, so unfortunately they're pretty much achieved their goals.

Puzzling evidence - the conspiracy theorists have been in a lather again, this week, following claims that Windows Vista DVDs have a spooky photograph of three unknown men embedded in the holographic coating. The mystery collapsed somewhat, however, when Microsoft readily admitted that, yes, there were indeed a number of such images imprinted on the DVDs, which are simply intended as a "watermark" to make the disks more difficult to counterfeit.


14th June

Catching up on some random snippets of news from earlier in the week:

Why don't you move to China - soon to be ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair is blaming the increasing perfidy of politicians on the news media, now, especially the online media and most especially the bloggers and their ilk, who he thinks need to be monitored and regulated to prevent them from being shrill about the truth. Well, fuck you, Blair - censor THIS!

The spying game - in a move that has probably delighted the RIAA and MPAA, giant US telco and ISP AT&T has announced plans to monitor its IP traffic and filter out pirated media. It's hard to see how this can be done from a technical point of view, but even the declared intent is an incredibly worrying development.

Not all good - after a recent run of encouraging successes in the perpetual RIAA vs. The World legal battles, the latest defence has collapsed and the case will be dismissed after a settlement. Unlike many of the other media industry suits, however, in this case there was fairly good evidence that the defendant had indeed engaged in sharing of copyrighted materials, so I suppose it is to be expected.

Sleeping with the enemy - only a few short years after swearing undying enmity towards the Seattle giant, and fighting tooth-and-nail over the original "Lindows" name, the Linspire Linux build has entered into a partnership deal with Microsoft to license its IM protocol, its media codecs, and its TrueType fonts. Ah, how soon they forget...

The cream of tech support - at The Register, Lester Haines reports on his bizarre experience trying to obtain support for an IP camera from manufacturer Gadspot. On pointing out that their web site was difficult to navigate, and that the download link he needed was broken, he was met with what can only be described as a shower of abuse and, when he complained, a refusal to assist him any further!

A certain lack - server administrators will be dismayed to hear that Microsoft is not planning to release a version of it's venerable ADMINPAK.MSI server management tools for the Vista OS, instead suggesting that admins use a Terminal Services session to manage the server directly. It's no great hardship, really, but the tools have been very useful over the years and it's still a shame...

Anti-virus shoot-out - a recent comparison of anti-virus products, with particular emphasis on how well they cope with unknown malware, suggests that none of the big names are up to much and that the best bets are Avira and NOD32, a pair of products that I haven't actually heard of! Products from Symantec and McAfee lag a fair way behind, with Microsoft's OneCare bringing up the rear.

Vista vindicated - last month [H]ard|OCP published a comparison between gaming on Windows XP and Vista, and the latter came up wanting. A repeat test using graphics hardware from ATI rather than NVIDIA, however, has revealed very modest performance differences between the two operating systems and it now appears that the drivers were at fault rather than the much-maligned OS!

Science sucks - in an open letter startlingly and disappointingly reminiscent of Richard Feynman's essay "Judging Books by Their Covers" from twenty-something years ago, ex-physics teacher Wellington Grey laments the sad state of the current GCSE syllabus. I saw a previous version a while back, and it filled me with as much sadness and frustration as the latest course has Grey.


13th June

When we refurbished the computer room eighteen months ago I was less than pleased to be asked to find space for a collection of obsolete DEC AlphaServer minicomputers, so imagine my delight this week when I was told that my team would be taking over their care and maintenance.

The hardware is the state of the art circa 1994, the VMS operating system originated on VAX mainframes in the seventies, and apparently we are the last users of the financial application that they host. In spite of their complete obsolescence, these wretched things have cost us 75,000 for hardware maintenance and software support in the last twelve months, and it is a complete mystery to me how they have persisted for so long. Had we replaced them with a modern SQL-based application hosted on Wintel servers three years ago, when I first started questioning their continued existence, we could have spent a thoroughly implausible 100,000 on the migration and still saved the company another 100,000 since then!

Frankly, I am disgusted that they have been allowed to go on haemorrhaging money like this, and the news that my team has to keep these relics alive for another year or so until the function they run is outsourced is just appalling - and in fact I am dubious of such an optimistic timescale and wouldn't be surprised if they are still hanging around my neck like the Ancient Mariner's albatross in another three years time.

If you listen carefully, right now, you can actually hear the sound of my teeth grinding together...

Meanwhile, in a desperate attempt to distract myself, a handful of quick news links:

Hot off the presses - the new public beta of Apple's lame duck web browser Safari is not all it could be, it seems, with numerous security bugs in both the Windows and Mac versions discovered only hours after its release, serious stability problems when running on non-US English flavours of Windows, and bizarre usability issues with many web pages. Still, I'm sure that frustrated users will be glad to hear that "Apple engineers designed Safari to be secure from day one", according to the application's download page...

The will of the people - Conservative party leader David Cameron has suggested that the government's online electronic petition system should be codified into law, with sufficiently weighty petitions automatically triggering a parliamentary debate and subsequent vote. Although this sounds very nice in theory, there is a huge risk of tabloid-lead witch-hunts or bigotry backed by religious power blocks, and I can't see that it would be at all safe.

Obliged to spy - popular P2P tracker site TorrentSpy has been ordered by a federal judge to enable logging of all user activity at the behest of the MPAA. The site's admins have been granted a stay while they mount an appeal on the grounds that the order would violate their privacy policy, and logging is not currently enabled as I write this, but success seems unlikely and this is already a dangerous precedent.

An unexpected competitor - a new ISP is launching into the already cut-throat UK market, just at a time when most companies are frantically consolidating and digging in. Jungle247 will resell Tiscali's LLU broadband, bundled with Sage accounting and Panda security software, and is initially targeting small businesses - although later this year they are planning to enter the consumer market as well. Boy, that sounds like an uphill battle...


12th June

Some more Thames-blogging from Monday's boat trip:

I don't know anything about either of the first two buildings, except that they were both on the South Bank and that I rather like them. I've always had a soft spot for the glass and steel look of modern office buildings, and the curved elements of both designs (especially the second, which has a definite flavour of a beehive!) make them even more appealing, softening the harsh lines that can easily dominate such architecture.

Something far more traditional, next, the Savoy Hotel on The Strand. I often used to pass the front of the building when I worked in the area a few years ago, and although it is very distinctive (with a private entrance road where cars actually drive on the right, the only one in England!) it looks nothing like the rear if the building, which is somehow rather more grand and severe. The hotel has recently changed hands, and I gather that there are plans to close it for completely for an extensive refurbishment lasting up to a year, the first time it has been closed since it was completed in 1889.

On the left, the OXO Tower on the South Bank, once part of a cold store facility for the unimaginatively named Liebig Extract of Meat Company, manufacturer of the famous stock cubes, and now hosting a restaurant, "cultural centre", and apartments. Advertising on the banks of the Thames has always been frowned upon, apparently, and when the tower was built in 1928 the company's request to install illuminated signs extolling their product was rejected. Instead, the building's designers incorporated stained glass windows in a pattern that they insisted was purely coincidental, but which presumably fooled nobody...

On the right, something considerably more modern... I don't know anything about the building, but the fact the the architect chose to "waste" a large part of the site's potential capacity by designing it on a leg like that speaks for itself. It is a marvellous example of form taking precedent over function (in spite of the obvious modernist influences in the structure's finer details) which in my opinion should certainly be encouraged!

Finally, the clock tower of the wonderfully baroque Palace of Westminster, housing the Big Ben bell that gives the tower its common, if erroneous, name. The photograph on the right (and also that of the Oxo tower, above) was taken using the digital zoom facility of my Canon PowerShot G5, which interpolates between pixels to provide around 16x apparent magnification instead of the 4.1x of the purely optical zoom.

Digital zoom has a very bad name around the photography geek review sites, and in fact I left the feature disabled since buying the camera three years ago. It seemed worth experimenting with, though, especially as it can be set to use a deliberate pause between the optical and digital zooms to avoid using it accidentally, and in my opinion the results speak for themselves. These photos were taken on a very overcast day, from a moving riverboat, and although they lack the sharpness of some of the other photos they're certainly perfectly adequate. I shall leave it enabled, and have a play...


11th June

It was Karlene's birthday this weekend, so I took her into London to do some tourist things. We started off on the London Eye, which at 135m tall is apparently the world's largest observation wheel. It's a truly remarkable piece of engineering, and I started off fascinated, taking copious photographs of the exposed mechanism. Unfortunately, about a quarter of the way around my occasional fear of heights manifested itself, and I spent the next 180 in an intense study of the guidebook. It was a very grey, overcast day, but even so the brief glimpses I forced myself to take at the apogee were spectacular indeed, and I envied the other passengers, snapping away happily and apparently unperturbed by the feeling of hanging in mid-air. I'm very glad that I did it - but I really don't want to do it again...

We'd taken advantage of the discounted offer for an Eye "flight" and a short cruise up the Thames, and having grown up around things nautical I was a lot happier on the river than I had been in mid air. We started at a pier just below the eye, and went as far as Tower Bridge before turning around to come back on the other side of the river.  I spent a good few years working in the area of the Embankment and Westminster, but the view of London's landmarks from the Thames itself is a lot different than from the land, and I found it enthralling. I took around 100 photographs during the forty minutes cruise, so here's the first handful.

HMS Belfast, the state of the art in the War On Terror, circa 1936. She had a long and distinguished career, serving in the Arctic convoys and the D-Day landings during World War II, then the Korean War in the early fifties, before finally being decommissioned in 1963. The ship is a permanent floating museum these days (there is a special exhibition to mark the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, at the moment) and looks to be well worth a visit.

The reproduction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, built about ten years ago very close to the site of the 16th century original using period tools and materials. Apparently it's the only building in London that has a thatched roof! The Globe was shown to its best effect in a recent episode of Doctor Who, with computer graphics being used to fill in Elizabethan London around the site of the theatre - the resulting aerial view was very convincing.

Tucked away in a little inlet between office buildings, a replica of Sir Francis Drake's vessel The Golden Hind. The original circumnavigated the world between 1577 and 1580, making Drake's reputation and paving the way for the officially sanctioned raiding and looting that made his fortune. I grew up in the Westcountry, not far from Drake's house Buckland Abbey, and although the area owes a growing part of its income to the tourists that flock to see Plymouth Hoe where Drake allegedly played bowls while waiting for the Spanish Armada to arrive, the locals know that the man was really nothing more than a pirate - and a particularly lucky one at that!


7th June

"Fellas, don't drink that coffee! You'd never guess: there was a fish... in... the percolator!"

So the second series of David Lynch's cult TV drama Twin Peaks has finally been released on DVD, a mere seventeen years after it aired in the US. Considering that series one was made available in 2001, the long wait for season two (thanks to bizarre contractual issues, I gather) is somewhat annoying - although of course the ardent fans have simply turned to the peer-to-peer networks to share home-taped copies. At present it only seems to be available in Region 1 format, and although in real terms this isn't really much of a problem any more, it is rather adding insult to injury. Don't you just love the media industry...

Elsewhere, at the (decidedly non work-safe) ErosBlog sex blog, an excellent rant on the inadvisability of hosting your weblog or home page at a domain that you don't at least partially control. I've never been much of a fan of the ready-made blogging sites like Blogger, Blogspot, Typepad et al, and my low opinion on LiveJournal, in my eyes the AOL of blogging systems, is well known to my friends - as well as complete strangers who will sit still for long enough to listen. When the company behind LiveJournal unilaterally removed a bunch of erotic fiction blogs a week or so ago, then, like Bacchus I found myself shaking my head not at the somewhat dubious content of the sites in question but at their creators' stupidity in trusting their writing to a service that already had a long history of such high-handed behaviour. After an Internet-wide outcry the majority of the sites were actually re-instated, but the incident should definitely be taken as a salutatory lesson.

If anyone ever took a dislike to something I've written here (and there have been odd rumblings about legal action, if completely hot air so far) then it could conceivably result in the site being unilaterally suspended by my provider FastHosts - but it is more likely that we could negotiate to have just the offending post removed instead. However, should I choose to stand fast, I have all my content easily at hand on my local system, and could replicate the site in a matter of hours either onto my own in-house RaQ web server or onto an hosting company well outside the jurisdiction of whoever I was offending. The majority of LiveJournal users, and those of the other blogging services as well, have no such flexibility, and if their provider decides to pull the plug on them (or loses its datacenter, or is targeted by denial of service attacks, or just simply goes out of business - and all of these have happened in the last five years) then not only does their online presence disappear in a trice, but given the ease with which entries can be written directly into the blogging service, in all probability so does all their content as well...

As Bacchus puts it - several times, to make sure that the message gets across:

"Anything worth doing on the internet is worth doing at your own domain that you control."


Elsewhere, my father pointed me to a West Country news item that doesn't seem to have received much coverage in the mainstream media, and yet is actually cause for a well-raised eyebrow. In Cornwall, the MOD is currently conducting tests designed to jam the GPS satellite navigation signal, within a 7 mile (11 Km) radius of its base in Portreath. Jamming radio signals of all types is becoming increasingly popular amongst the world's security services in the name of "fighting terrorism", of course, but there's one thing that this particular test's organisers may not have thought of.

In the late sixties, when the Decca company found that it was losing revenue from its proprietary radio-based Navigator System thanks to a thriving market in second hand and compatible receivers, it wanted to introduce what would now be thought of as DRM to restrict the system's use to only paid subscribers - or, at the very least, to limit the accuracy of the position fix received by non-subscribers. However, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, SOLAS, adopted in 1974, refused permission for the service to be restricted in any way on the grounds that interfering with or withdrawing such a vital aid to navigation could place lives at risk. When the Decca system and its equivalents was replaced by the satellite-based Global Positioning System in the nineties, the American government ought to have been bound by the same code, but in fact they introduced a system of deliberate errors into the signal, known as selective availability, as well as several levels of additional data that can only be processed with the correct decryption key. The former was discontinued in 2000, and the latter is expected to be phased out over the next few years, but with their traditional disdain for the rest of the world the US is still, in fact, flaunting the SOLAS Convention at this time.

Incidentally, many world governments have been quite voluble about having to rely on the goodwill of the US to keep providing navigation facilities, and recently a joint initiative between the European Space Agency and a consortium of countries has been formed to create their own satellite system, named Galileo. This initially caused some considerable sabre-rattling from the US, who hated the idea of not being fully in control of such a critical asset (especially when as well as the EU the consortium contains such countries as China, Ukraine, Morocco and South Korea, with Russia and Pakistan expected to sign up soon), but at least on paper the disagreements are now settled and two systems are intended to be compatible and interoperable.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the UK government is in theory very much bound by the SOLAS Convention, and this is where the potential trouble lies. Portreath is very close to the coast of Cornwall, and as well as annoying drivers on the main A30 road through Camborne and Redruth, the effect of the jamming will extend many miles out to sea. This certainly counts as "interfering" with a maritime navigation system, as laid out in the Convention, and so is probably illegal under international law. I doubt that the MOD are mindful of the legal implications of their decision, however, and in fact although the news article mentions the possible effect on the land-based emergency services nothing is said of the impact on vessels navigating the coastal waters affected by the test.

My father has already pointed out that since the easy availability of GPS systems, traditional forms of maritime navigation are fast becoming a lost art, and these days the chances of a fishing boat skipper or an RNLI lifeboat cox being able to pull out a sextant when his GPS system goes offline are slim indeed. One hopes that they remember the traditionally inhospitable nature of the north coast of Cornwall...


6th June

Just a few quick links, tonight, as I'm a touch discombobulated...

Biting the hand - Microsoft is threatening an independent developer with legal action, shortly after offering him the coveted MVP award for the second time in a row.

Frivolous litigation - a Chinese PC user is attempting to sue Symantec following a glitch in their AV software, which lead to a number of critical Windows components being deleted in error.

Down but not out - the US Patent Office has granted Microsoft another chance to defend itself against the infamous Eolas browser plugin patent, subject of a $521 million fine against the company in 2003.

Throwing in the towel - the RIAA has agreed to dismiss their case against Tanya Anderson, one of their more notorious victims, following their inability to produce any convincing evidence against her.

Full circle - having stolen the PDA market out from under Apple's Newton back in the nineties, the now-flagging Palm has resorted to borrowing Apple directors in the hope of reviving its fortunes.

Gone but not forgotten - beleaguered ISP Pipex has opened a new account management portal, and to the annoyance of many ex-customers their details are still on record 11 months after cancelling!

Hosting uproar - controversial torrent tracker The Pirate Bay has found itself in the middle of another furore over a site hosted by their company, which may (or may not!) support paedophilia.

If it's too loud, you're too old a UK broadcasting watchdog has proposed new guidelines to avoid the apparent increase in volume found in TV advertisements compared to the surrounding programs.

The Hatfields and McCoys - when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison reneged on his promise to fund a new public health institute, the Bill and Mel Foundation eagerly stepped in to fill his shoes.

Don't you open that trapdoor - the EFF's analysis of the new DRM-free MP3s available at iTunes reveals a large quantity of additional data embedded in the files, including personal information.

Washing their hands - British Telecom is still desperately avoiding the issue of running fibre to the home, insisting that customers "don't give two hoots about [broadband] speed". Really?

Sucks like a sponge - the Slurpr is a custom-built Wi-Fi access point incorporating six wireless interfaces, and is capable of multiplexing them to provide a high-bandwidth virtual connection.

Losing your memory - at Dan's Data, the tech guru discusses the 3Gb memory barrier, another in the perpetual series of problems that mean we can't use all the memory or disk space we've purchased.

Myths rebutted - the Tamrack Mines experiment, long a favourite of the hollow earth loons, gets the full treatment from a proper scientist - who finds that there's little substance to the claims.


5th June

Last week I posted a gripe about the fervent belief held by Apple fanboys that the Macintosh was the original source of all aspects of the modern operating system and graphical user interface, using quotes from Andy Hertzfeld's excellent book "Revolution In The Valley" to illustrate that, as is perfectly sensible, wherever possible the Mac's creators copied useful elements from the work of those that had preceded them. I'm coming towards the end of the book, now, and have just discovered a fascinating anecdote on how a critical part of the Mac was inspired by a thoroughly unlikely source!

After the Mac shipped, Hertzfeld took a leave of absence from Apple due to a crisis of morale (after what sounds like decidedly unfair and ungrateful treatment at the hands of Steve jobs and software manager Bob Belleville), and during this period he met with prominent IT journalist John Markoff, of Byte and the San Francisco Chronicle, to demonstrate a project he was working on for the independent Apple developer Thunderware. On seeing Markoff instantly switch his IBM PC to a different application in order to take notes from a telephone conversation that interrupted them, Hertzfeld was intrigued:

"What did you just do?," I asked John, curious about the software that he was running. "How did you switch to another application so quickly?"

"Oh, I'm running Memory Shift. Haven't you seen it?" John responded. "It's a DOS utility program that keeps multiple applications resident in memory, and allows you to switch between them quickly. I've been using it a lot lately." John typed the switch command a few times in rapid succession, to show me how fast it could do its thing.

"You know, I think I could do that for the Macintosh", I suddenly blurted out, before I even thought about it consciously.

The software he wrote became the "Switcher" application, and brought the first elements of multi-tasking to the original Macintosh OS. This was a great step forward in usability, and one that took several years for Microsoft to match with Windows 2.0 - and I am greatly amused that the inspiration for the idea came from a utility running on the MS-DOS operating system so reviled by Mac bigots!

Interestingly, while he was working on the software during his leave of absence, Hertzfeld was approached by Microsoft, who at the time (as now, in fact!) were a major developer of applications for the Mac and had realised independently that application switching would be a powerful selling point for the expanded 512Kb systems that were about to ship. The company was keen to commission him to write just such a task switcher in order to maximise the potential of their own apps, and Bill Gates himself was involved in pitching the idea to Hertzfeld.

Hertzfeld declined, and ended up working on the switcher in his own time, attracting very positive feedback from his friends at Apple. When he showed a working demo it to Steve Jobs, however, he found himself at the mercy of the tyrant's notoriously Scrooge-like financial sense:

"OK, I've seen enough, " Steve interrupted me. "It's great. Apple is going to bundle it with the Mac. Congratulations." But then he paused, and stared at me for a moment with an incredibly intense gaze, as if he was sizing me up or maybe just trying to scare me. "But I don't want you taking advantage of this situation. I'm not going to allow you to take advantage of Apple."

"What do you mean?" I asked him, genuinely puzzled.

"There's no way that you could have written that program without confidential information that you learned by working at Apple. You don't have the right to charge whatever you like for it."

In the end Hertzfeld received considerably more for the Switcher from Apple than Microsoft had offered, but it's hard not to think that this last demonstration of the company's ingratitude, and specifically that of Jobs himself, was the straw that broke the camel's back. He left Apple shortly afterwards, and I wonder now what might have happened if he'd never seen Markoff using Memory Shift - maybe, just maybe, he would have ended up working for Microsoft on Windows! The utility that inspired him is long-forgotten, of course (I don't remember that one at all, although I used similar tools) and it's interesting that one of the very few references I can find online is a guide to breaking the software's copy protection. Marvellous...


1st June 2007

I can't believe it's June already... Where has the year gone?
[Voice off: "Have you tried looking behind the fridge?"]

It's the end of the week, and for a change I don't have any work planned at the office this weekend, which means I probably don't have any excuse not to venture out into the garden and try to get to grips with the spring growth spurt that has left everything looking decidedly shaggy and unkempt. If you listen carefully, tomorrow, you'll probably be able to hear me muttering and cursing under my breath as I wrestle with uncooperative plant life...

Meanwhile, back at the Interweb, another handful of random snippets of tech news:

The growth of Windows - Microsoft will have to fundamentally redesign future versions of Windows, according to executive Ty Carlson, to cope with the multi-core CPUs that will hit the market over the next few years. Although the high-end 64bit datacenter versions of the OS can scale to support 64 cores, Intel are already demonstrating an 80 core CPU and the count in future chips is likely to grow rapidly in the same way that CPU clock speed increased during the nineties.

Below the curve - an informal survey by the CWA suggests that the average broadband speed in the US is 1.9Mbps, and although this contradicts the figure of 4.8Mbps provided by the ITIF, in any case the US lags badly behind Japan, with 61Mbps, Korea with 45, the Netherlands with 21, and Sweden and France with around 18. Needless to say, the poor old UK languishes at 2.6, higher only than Greece at a meagre 1Mbps..

Calling in the experts - the US The Homeland Security Department is seeking advice from a group of SF writers, including Jerry Pournelle, Greg Bear and Larry Niven, to advise on future applications of technology in the <sigh> "War On Terror". It's uncomfortably reminiscent of the plot of the novel Footfall, and the fact that two of the panel were the authors of that book is probably no coincidence - especially given that they included themselves in their own story...

Cringely partially vindicated - in spite of the scorn being poured on Bob Cringely at The Register, IBM has announced that it is cutting a further 1,573 staff, bringing its total for the year to date to 3720. The Register's Ashlee Vance, writer of the articles dismissing Cringely's claims in what seems to be a personal vendetta against the veteran journo, is becoming increasingly inconsistent in his reporting of the numbers in question, though.

Head in ass error - the sporting consortiums have always been edgy about technology that allows people to record and replay live events, but in the US major league baseball is apparently gearing up to take on the Slingbox, the neat little device that retransmits a signal over an IP network, and which the baseball cartel has unilaterally decided is illegal. This is another classic example of an entrenched monopoly failing to move with the times, just as with the RIAA and MPAA.

From both sides now - it's unusual for Microsoft to be on the prosecuting side of an anti-trust suit, but now that the FTC has agreed to open an investigation into the acquisition of advertising giant DoubleClick by Google, Microsoft and AT&T are likely to be called to provide their opinions. After the merger Google could control 85% of the online advertising market, and questions have also been raised about various privacy and data protection issues.

The myth of databases - a series at The Register explores some of the myths propagated amongst database developers and their ilk, such as the attempted theft of secrets from Borland by Microsoft (it didn't happen, the writer was there) and that Microsoft suppressed a 1997 report from Bloor Research that was highly critical of SQL Server 6.5 (a genuine story this time) and how (also true) Philippe Kahn vanquished his arch rival with an open bar and Hawaiian shirts...


A new, and rather garish look to the stats, this month, thanks to a completely unsolicited change by my tracking service SiteMeter. I can't say that I'm very fond of it, and I don't think it's as clear as the older style either, but there you go...

However, SiteMeter also reports that during the last few weeks I passed 300,000 visitors and half a million page loads, and that goes a fair way to making up for the new colour scheme. The figures for the month seem to have stabilised at the new level, as well, and while I still don't understand what caused the sudden increase I'm certainly not complaining: 15,000 hits per month is not too shabby.



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