28th March 2007

Links: they're better than fish heads.

Hoist by his own petard - staff constructing a MySpace web site for weasel senator John McCain borrowed components from the Newsvine blog simply by linking to code on the remote site - so when the site's proprietor noticed and took exception to such cavalier use of his bandwidth, all he had to do to make his displeasure known was edit a few components on his own server to provide a rather startling change of policy on McCain's behalf. A brilliant, and totally legal, hack.

Revenge is sweet - the ever-popular social networking site is seeking damages from so-called "Spam King" Sanford Wallace, after he created some 10,000 phony accounts, groups ands forums for purposes of spreading spam, phishing user accounts and deceiving users into visiting advertising web sites. These activities come after Sanford promised to give up his spamming activities as part of last year's federal ruling that followed lawsuits from AOL and CompuServe.

Fishing expedition averted - a strongly worded letter from lawyers representing one of the RIAA's alleged file-sharers seems to have scared the plaintiff, Sony, into dropping its suit against him. The letter makes marvellous reading, and is technically extremely accurate in the doubt it throws on the poor quality of the "evidence" presented by the RIAA in cases like this - as well as threatening a counter-suit for malicious prosecution. I suspect that this will form the model for a significant number of responses to future legal threats by the media industry. Meanwhile, a poll organised by the US Consumerist organisation has voted the RIAA as "the worst company in the world" - as Cory comments at Boing Boing, that shows that the RIAA is doing its job very well: by putting its name to all this bastardry, the association is protecting the reputation of its members, so it isn't Warner, Universal, EMI, Sony, etc who are earning these dubious sobriquets. Given the clear evidence of a growing backlash against the media industry's bullying tactics, I wonder how long that will last?

Run Linux, lose your warranty - the Linux user base is up in arms following the revelation that HP/Compaq have refused to honour the hardware warranty on a laptop that has had Linux installed. The fault in question is with the keyboard, and is clearly independent of the OS in use, and so this is purely a matter of policy. HP claims that this level of support is in line with the rest of the industry, however, and a story about problems with Windows Vista on recent Dell workstations suggests that this is indeed the case. It is instructive to see that the article at Linux.com is quick to blame Microsoft for "choking a free marketplace" by restricting the support that hardware manufactures can offer, when in fact there is no suggestion at any of the other sites reporting the story that the Seattle giant is involved in any way at all! Time to stop banging that drum, guys, its time has passed...

Life mirroring art - the news that scientists have injected human cells into a sheep foetus, producing a hybrid that is 15% human, will instantly cause raised eyebrows for anyone who has read John Scalzi's recent SF novel The Android's Dream. Meanwhile, with my friend Avedon Carol in mind (who says that one day in the seventies she suddenly realised that she was living in a John Brunner story) the frolix_8 weblog has a regular feature entitled Which PKD Story Are We In Today?, where the author links recent news headlines to the work of the writer Philip K. Dick. Scary stuff...

Meanwhile, elsewhere, a quick tip for new or prospective Vista users. Although Ahead claims that the latest V7 "Reloaded" release of the now amazingly bloated Nero CD/DVD burning suite is fully Vista compatible, in fact the ImageDrive utility that allows an ISO image to be mounted as a drive letter causes major problems and is not offered for installation if the new OS is detected. This omission is well covered on any number of blogs and forums around the net, but shamefully there is absolutely no mention of either the potential problems or the company's rather draconian work-around on the Nero site itself. I assume that an updated version will be quietly sneaked into a subsequent update, but until then one of the few image mounters that is compatible with Vista is the free Virtual CloneDrive utility from disc copying specialists Elby. The current version of the venerable but commercial Alcohol 120% utility is also reported to work well.


26th March

Some links to start the week:

Another nail - online music store Musicload has decided to remove DRM from the songs it sells, as it "makes it hard for consumers to use music and prevents the market for legal downloads from becoming a mass market". The author of the article is wrong in saying that Musicload is "following the example set by Apple", however - the latter has done nothing but talk as yet.

The case for the prosecution - at the Washington Post, the general legal council for media giant Viacom has laid out the background to their copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube and Google. It seems wonderfully ironic, however, that the safe harbour defence that Viacom are dismissing is exactly the legislation used to protect their own video sites, iFilm and Atom...

DMCA smackdown - Bruce Lehman, the architect of the DMCA and the WIPO Internet Treaties, has revealed that he believes the legislation to have been ineffective in controlling copyright, and that the apparent loss of respect for copyright amongst the world's youth can be blamed on the recording industry's failure to adapt to the changing marketplace during the 1990s.

To stoop so low - the RIAA's persecution of the innocent has reached new levels of shame, with their insistence on deposing a ten year old girl in their case against her mother. The child was only seven at the time of the alleged downloading, but as her mother has dared to fight the RIAA in court they are obviously determined to make her suffer in any and every way they can. The bastards...

Making a stand - the University Of Nebraska has lost patience with the RIAA's demands to finger students who may have been involved in P2P file-sharing, and has sent the media organisation a bill to recoup the time and effort spent dealing with their demands. Similarly, the University Of Wisconsin has just plain refused to assist the RIAA without a subpoena naming the individuals in question.

Who’s driving this thing? - following the EFF's suit against Viacom's second "Colbert Report" DMCA takedown notice, the media company claims that it did not actually send out the notice in question. As the EFF suggests, however, with more than 160,000 notices sent out in the last month or so there's every chance that their records are not nearly as accurate as they think they are...

Sauce for the goose - notorious spam company e360 Insight, still immersed in legal wrangling with UK worthies Spamhaus over their description of e360 as a heavyweight spammer, has found itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit brought by a recipient of its apparently non-existent spam email. Meanwhile, e360's owner is becoming increasingly vitriolic against Spamhaus and its founder.

Canon law - Stanford professor Henry Lowood is campaigning for the Library Of Congress to document and archive video games, one of the more ephemeral forms of computer software due to their rapid obsolescence, and to this end has released a list of the first ten games he would like to see preserved. Needless to say, any list of worthy games is bound to cause some keen discussion!

(More) trouble in paradise - two senior members of the Wikipedia project announced their resignations, yesterday, citing disagreements with the board of trustees - although they claim that their departures are unrelated and the timing coincidental. This comes at another bad time for the encyclopaedia project, with the gossip about accuracy and editing still raging.

Inside Vista - primo geek site Ars Technica has finally published the first part of its guide to Windows Vista, and it was worth waiting for. Starting with the origins of the new OS in Longhorn, and the various features cut from the project as it progressed, it then goes into some detail about the new graphical API and window manager that provide the eye-candy.

Vista compatibility - and talking of Vista, the ieXbeta tech blog has been compiling a wiki to summarise hardware and software compatibility, and although it seems to be focussed on the RTM build there shouldn't be any significant differences. It's not the most voluminous list as yet, but is decidedly more approachable than Microsoft's own documentation.

Crack addicts - reports of cracks in white MacBook laptops have been circulating for a while, which is evidently news to a writer at Ars Technica who has felt the need to dig up the old problem with the G5
Cube as if that was the last time the issue occurred! Needless to say, the comments to the post suggest otherwise, with tales of more recent problems right across the range...

The worst of the worst - PC World (of all sites!) has a list of the worst ever personal computers, and although I thoroughly agree with their inclusion of anything made by Packard Bell, they've badly missed the point with the Commodore VIC-20 (in spite of its limitations, it was a marvellous little computer) and the TI-99/4A, which even in 1979 had a ground-breaking 16bit microprocessor.

A broken pencil - Apple's much-vaunted network media player, Apple TV, has been released in the UK - but at Hexus Bob Crabtree is wondering why. The device is only really compatible with modern high-definition TVs or those with component video inputs, and in the UK those just aren't that common as yet. Having read the article, the thing seems to be the answer to a question nobody asked.

Unfair by design - leading medical experts in the UK say that the classification of dangerous drugs into three categories of severity is arbitrary, based on "prejudice and assumptions" rather than reflecting the actual risks to health and society presented by the various drugs. The government, of course, has met the survey with complete indifference, and has no intention of reviewing the law.

And finally, on the hook and wriggling - the latest justification for the UK government's terribly flawed biometric ID card/password scheme is the most bizarre yet, with the Home Office revealing that at least 10,000 fraudulent passport applications were approved in 2006, a situation that they claim demands the provision of tougher credentials in the application process. The previous rallying cries of fighting terrorism and preventing illegal immigration seem to have been brushed under the carpet following ever-increasing scepticism from the media, the experts and the public, leaving the Home Office with no recourse but to fall back on revealing its own incompetence as the final justification for persevering with what by now seems likely to be a doomed project.


25th March

A long-awaited shipment of hardware oddments from US supplier Performance PCs finally arrived last week, and having prised it out of the tenacious grip of carrier Parcel Force (who sequestered the thing at their Romford depot for longer than it took to clear two sets of customs and cross the Atlantic) I managed to find some time this weekend for the next phase of the refurbishment.

The most visible change is the replacement of the standard side panel with one customised by Performance PCs themselves, providing a full-sized window instead of just in the top half of the panel. The horizontal alloy section dividing the case precludes using the same style as the original, with the Perspex mounted behind the panel, which often gives a better cosmetic finish than mounting it outside, but the work has been done very neatly and I'm pleased with the result. I may yet change this, however, as a while ago I picked up a spare non-windowed side panel and Kustom PCs in Ayr, one of my long-standing favourite suppliers, agreed to have a go at installing a split window above and below the alloy section. I'll see how I feel when the current design has settled in a little.

To go with the newly-extended window, and to draw attention to the twin banks of hard disks  it exposes (eight of them, with the four new ones in a single RAID-0 stripe to give maximum performance for the swapfile etc), I've installed a whole bunch of additional blue cold cathode tubes and a pair of ultra-low noise 80mm blue LED fans just above the power supply. I wasn't intending the latter to be more than cosmetic, but in fact the additional whisper of air movement seems to have lowered the temperature of the cooling loop by a degree or so - an unexpected bonus! The additional lights and fans are managed from a second Vantec NXP-305, a neat little four channel rheobus that fits into a 3½" bay - and provides its own addition to the blue lighting with its illuminated knobs.

Several years ago, while I was building the previous version of Infinity, I picked up a pair of neat little hard disk activity gauges named MoJoMeters. They were being made by a company named RetroSystems (link courtesy of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine), who specialised in Amiga and Atari hardware for the die-hard enthusiasts, and the combination of an analogue VU-style meter and a pair of embedded LEDs (blue for low level activity and red for higher) combined the best of both old and new and looked rather elegant. Unfortunately the general consensus was that they were a little costly for an LED on steroids, and as in fact the domain (and so presumably the company!) has now disappeared it's probably safe to assume that the assembled modders voted with their feet. I've always been a sucker for little gadgets, however, and a pair of them have been sat in my ever-expanding stack of spares and components waiting for a good home.

The fully-loaded drive bays in my Lian Li PC-V2000 case provided a generous supply of the rather neat snap-in anodised aluminium blanking plates, and some fiddling with a cardboard template and then some patient work with the trusty Dremel and a drum of cut-off discs produced two rectangular apertures ready to accept the meters. I've slotted the result into the top-most 5¼" bay, rendered otherwise useless by the Koolance reservoir and electronics a couple of inches inside, and hooked up one to the motherboard's HD activity header, monitoring the onboard ICP zero-channel RAID interface, and the other to the new Adaptec SATA RAID controller.

Unfortunately I'm not especially pleased with either the appearance or function of the meters. I did a good job of mounting them in the blanking plate (I was actually rather pleased with myself!), but nevertheless the way they protrude somehow makes them look rather stuck-on and I might consider re-mounting them as flush with the surface as possible. This is somewhat moot, however, as in any case they just aren't really that impressive to look at... The illumination from the embedded LEDs is fairly weedy in comparison to the pictures on the manufacturer's original site, and the as the photo above shows the needle of the right-hand gauge stays at about 30% even with no activity - this one is connected to the motherboard header, and evidently even at rest the motherboard is putting out enough of a voltage to cause the meter to deflect. I have to confess to being somewhat puzzled about that! I shall leave them in place for a week or so to see if they grown on me, but if not at least they can be popped out and replaced with an unadulterated blanking plate in a few seconds. We shall see...


24th March

Catching up with a handful of news items that have been languishing while I've been busy with hardware and software upgrades - some of them sufficiently old that I had to blow the dust off them before posting:

Anatomy of an eBay scam - a reporter at The Register followed up on an auction that looked dubious to see how the fraudster would proceed, and the result should be an education to buyers.

Contemptible behaviour - online music retailer CD WOW! has been fined for continuing the practice of "parallel importing", which technically goes against their license to sell copyrighted media.

NFL fumbles and drops - The National Football League evidently doesn't understand the DMCA  process, and their repeated takedown notice could result in legal troubles of their own.

Civil war - the P2P file-sharing networks are killing the traditional music and video piracy industry, according to someone who used to make a living from selling copies at car boot sales and the like.

Going soft - in the UK The Federation, formerly the Federation Against Software Theft, says that prosecuting individual P2P offenders is not cost-effective and is now targeting corporates instead.

Unpopular technology - John Dvorak suggests that US telcos are desperate to prevent the growth of smartphones and mobiles with built-in Wi-Fi, to avoid losing their revenue to wireless VoIP calls.

Suing the messenger - a terrorism suspect whose computer was seized by the FBI is suing Microsoft because its software failed to conceal the embarrassing fact that he habitually browsed porn sites.

And nobody noticed - a "highly critical" flaw has been exposed in the IPV6 TCP/IP stack of the OpenBSD operating system, but personally it's hard to get worked up about this particular one...

Greed and gullibility - a utility alleged to generate valid Windows Vista activation keys by a brute force technique has been exposed as a hoax by its creator, in spite of glowing reports by its users!

Nothing for gamers - and talking of the new OS, Vista "offers nothing to gamers", according to an article at Tom's Hardware. Based on my own experiences so far, however, I don't actually agree.

Weird and wonderful - also at Tom's Hardware, more unusual computers - including a regular mid-tower case containing four independent PC subsystems. It's a very neat piece of work.

For the terminally lazy - the beer-launching fridge is the creation of a Duke electrical engineer, and as the name suggests is capable of delivering a beer can to its target with great power and precision.

On disks - at UK modding site Bit-Tech, an excellent article on current hard disk technologies, explaining the finer points of Native Command Queuing and the latest generation of SATA.

SATA power cable modding - and talking of which, this Australian techy has written an excellent guide to modding and reworking SATA power cables. His end results are great, and it's well worth a look.

A killer combination - Microsoft and Yahoo should join forces to take on Google, according to Wired founder and Berkeley tech journalism professor John Battelle, but somehow I'm not holding my breath.

The end of the reel - the venerable Digital Linear Tape format has lost the war against LTO, according to the CEO of Quantum, with the current or next generation of the standard being the last.

Backs against the wall - at the PigDog Journal, seventy things to say when you're losing a technical argument. Some of them are classics, and well worth memorising for emergencies...

Ruining stuff - at the Corante chemistry 'blog, Derek Lowe is soliciting stories of valuable laboratory hardware destroyed by the inattentive or clueless, and some of the responses are marvellous.

Wikipedia for wingnuts - the Conservapedia project is intended to "fix" an alleged "liberal bias" in the popular Wikipedia resource, proving once again that right-wing religious fundamentalists are idiots.


23rd March

All the news that's fit to blog...

Dirty deeds - following the demonstration of a wireless networking vulnerability at the BlackHat security conference last year, an Apple PR representative has managed to shamelessly (and very successfully!) manipulate the media to discredit both the security researchers and the very real flaw that they unearthed. The details have finally emerged, however, and I'm keen to see how the Apple fanboys and apologists try to gloss over such deliberate misbehaviour on the part of the company.

One born every minute - although the official launch of Apple's iPhone is still a long way away (apparently the hardware hasn't yet received FCC certification!) that hasn't stopped the ever-present eBay fraudsters from offering them for sale or the ever-present eBay suckers from queuing up to buy them. At least two have now been "sold" for prices well in excess of $1000, which is amazing given that the seller in question has zero feedback...

Crossing over to the dark side - a devoted music enthusiast explains how the DRM inflicted on him by Microsoft, Apple and the online music store Rhino prevented him from playing newly-downloaded music on his PC, his iPod or even a CD, and how if he wanted to actually listen to the songs he had just purchased legally the only recourse would have been to download the same songs illegally from the P2P networks.

Without visible means of support - wireless USB technology is a step closer, thanks to the approval of WiMedia's UWB ultra-wideband proposal by the ISO and ECMA standards groups. The IEEE is backing a competing standard, however, and although the weight of the industry is definitely with WiMedia at present (the Bluetooth SIG is backing them too) the influence of the I-Triple-E should not be underestimated...

The black market - figures from Symantec suggest that not only are stolen identities and financial details widely available online, but that they are changing hands for insultingly small sums. Valid US credit card details cost between $1 and $6, each, or between $2 and $12 for a UK card; complete identities including social security numbers, banking credentials, and all supporting personal information are advertised for between $14 and $18. Is it any wonder that ID theft is a growth industry?

For old times' sake - The staff of pioneering West Coast BBS system The Well are still holding a grudge against arch-hacker Kevin Mitnick after his illicit access and use of the system over twelve years ago. For reasons best know to himself, the reformed Mitnick recently applied for an account at The Well, and was turned away in no uncertain manner. As he says, though, it could be worse: "imagine if the phone companies of the world wouldn't let me have service!"...

Mass lone demos - comedian and political activist Mark Thomas is encouraging UK citizens to protest against the recent law forbidding unauthorised demonstrations in the vicinity of the Houses Of Parliament by complying with it exactly. He is hoping to provoke such a significant number of applications, each for a protest march consisting of a single person, that the police will be unable to cope and so will have to go back to fighting crime instead of shielding politicians from potential embarrassment...

Hyperbole - the US Patent Office has joined the campaign against P2P file sharing apps with the bizarre but increasingly common assertion that they threaten national security, as well as an equally implausible claim that the apps are designed to dupe their youthful users into sharing files inadvertently in order to take the legal rap for the software writers' misdeeds. This is so wrong-headed that it's funny, but unfortunately the official nature of the source guarantees that it will be attended to in certain sectors.

And finally, some more geek porn - via Boing Boing, a link to a Flickr group devoted to control panels of all imaginable varieties. Room-sized audio mixing desks, a ships bridge telegraph, the engineer's console in an Airbus 320 cockpit, railway network control rooms, and all points in-between. Truly a wet dream for lovers of knobs, buttons and gauges.


22nd March

I've just watched the movie of William Gibson's 1981 short story New Rose Hotel, an adaptation that seems to have been widely overlooked, and having seen it I have to admit that there are very good reasons for the film's low profile even amongst devoted fans of the author. Although the original story is set firmly in the high-tech dystopia of "The Sprawl", later made famous in the ground-breaking cyberpunk novels Neuromancer and Count Zero, the movie has been swept clean of all suggestions of science fiction - there was nothing to indicate that it wasn't set in the present day and, in fact, given that it was made in 1998 it actually looks a little dated some eight years later.

The overall feel was obviously intended to achieve something of the gritty tech-noir of Blade Runner, but without the tech itself the effect was somewhat wasted. The director has used a large quantity of somewhat contrived low-resolution surveillance camera footage, for example, but without the idea that it was captured by some kind of wonderful future covert technology the technique falls flat, especially when the clips are being displayed on an old Palm III PDA with video simply projected onto its screen - sometimes, rather amusingly, overlapping onto the silkscreen area as well!

Unlike the 1995 movie Johnny Mnemonic, which although somewhat flawed was certainly interesting and entertaining, Gibson had no hand in the screenplay, and I can't imagine that he was terribly impressed with the outcome. One of his later works, Pattern Recognition (which, oddly, I thought was strongly reminiscent in style and content of contemporary Iain Banks novels such as The Business) is being filmed for release next year, and I have the feeling that he'll be keeping a significantly closer eye on it than he evidently did on New Rose Hotel. At least, I certainly would....

The DVD itself, however, has brought home to me once more the fundamental corporate bastardry of the Hollywood movie industry. Presumably for the reasons given above the film doesn't seem to be widely available in Europe any more, and so I had to import from the US. I don't have any problem with this per se, as the extra shipping costs were offset by the significantly lower cost of DVDs in America, but of course the disc is encoded for Region 1 instead of the Region 2 used in Europe. This means that I can only watch it with my main DVD player downstairs, as I've never found a region hack for the somewhat rare Toshiba TV/VCR/DVD combo in the bedroom, and reliable hacks for Vista and the latest WinDVD version are not yet available - this is always an annoyance. Secondly, as has become quite usual these days, at the start of the disc I was treated to the usual threats and insults about copying movies, together with copyright messages in what felt like a dozen languages (why, when the disk is region locked to just English-speaking countries?), which cannot be skipped past and so must be endured - whether with good grace or not.

So because I chose to buy the disc legally, rather than pirate it from the torrent networks, I am punished by not being able to watch the film wherever I want to in my house, and by being forced to sit through unwarranted accusations of criminal behaviour. An illicit download would have avoided both of those issues completely, and I think a mock-up poster featured earlier this month at geek site Boing Boing says it all...


21st March

During the recent rebuild of my desktop PC at home I retired the SCSI card that had been driving my trusty VXA-1 tape library, and for reasons that I still can't quite explain I filled the vacant slot with an Adaptec SATA RAID controller, the Dell-badged six-port version of the original four-port 2410SA. [Note - in order to get this interface to work with Windows Vista, a cunning tweak is required to bypass the incompatible AFAMGT.SYS driver]

To complement this HBA I've picked up a whole stack of second hand hard disks on eBay, choosing the same Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 9 160Gb drives that form the two RAID-1 mirrors the PC already hosts - they're hardly the pinnacle of technology by current standards, but they're cheap and there's a lot to be said in being able to swap between the two RAID controllers when failures occur or if I want to reconfigure the arrays in future. So far I've bought three disks, and have been struck by the variety of packaging methods that the sellers chose to employ - most of which were completely inadequate to protect something so fragile. As it happens I also purchased a fourth, but the seller backed of the transaction having dropped the drive on the floor while removing it from the PC - but given the lack of care and attention given to the packaging of the other drives it probably wouldn't have made any difference!

Here, then, is the Epicycle guide to how not to send a hard disk through the post:

Our first example actually comes from last summer, when a completely butt-headed eBay seller used the thinnest possible padded envelope and a fragment of anti-static sheet to ship a 2½" laptop drive. The drive arrived with numerous dents in its top casing, and when I complained she accused me of trying to defraud her and left me negative feedback!

Equally bad is the later example, on the right, as although the padded envelope is a touch thicker a 3½" hard disk is also noticeably heavier - and in this case the seller hadn't even bothered with even the minimalist anti-static efforts of his predecessor. It puzzles me, somewhat - are people so used to seeing surface-mount micro-electronics components these days that it doesn't occur to them that they are need to be treated with some care? Don't they look fragile and delicate? They certainly do to me...

Moving up the evolutionary ladder of packaging a little, our third example at least shows a willingness to try - even if in fact the efforts were wasted... The seller had taped loose rolls of bubble wrap into place on either side of the drive, but unfortunately he had not realised that the forces involved as the package was moved about would deform this cradle beyond any real use. Hard disks are actually quite heavy for their size, and this density causes them to experience fairly significant forces when accelerated - for example when a mailbag is thrown from a truck onto a hard concrete floor, something that my own youthful experience of working at a Royal Mail sorting office suggests happens to the average parcel a large number of times during its journey through the system.

In this case, the aforementioned forces were enough to bend the corner of the alloy drive frame, something that I've never actually seen in twenty-something years of working with hard disks, and had the plane of acceleration been different an impact capable of causing such damage could easily have shattered the PCB or dented the top cover down onto the spindle or platters - neither of which the drive would have walked away from. In this case the disk seems to be working OK, but other damage may not be so obvious and under the circumstances it is destined to languish as a spare rather than slotting into the array as originally intended.

And, at last, the right way to do it... Not only is the cardboard in this purpose-made hard disk packaging noticeably thicker than the previous offering (and the seller actually enclosed the whole thing in a Jiffy bag as well!), but the cocoon of anti-static foam keeps the drive safe from everything except the very worst excesses of the postal system. As well as protecting the contents, it also complies with the Royal Mail's own guidelines on shipping computer components and electronics, meaning that if by some mischance the contents were mashed flat in a tragic sorting accident then at least there should be no problem in claiming compensation. The same cannot be said for any of the other methods shown above, which I am sure would be deemed fundamentally inadequate to protect the contents and so ineligible for an insurance payout!

So, three firm thumbs down, and only one thumb up. I've been very tolerant of poor packaging so far (except with the aforementioned butt-head, who's attitude and behaviour was intolerable), but I think for future purchases of hard disks I am going to insist on adequate packaging before I actually put down my money. There's no excuse for such a slip-shod approach, and by now enough is definitely enough.


19th March

Another day, another dollar... So here's a generous handful of tech news items to start the week:

The pain of protection - online music store Musicload, one of Europe's largest, has revealed that 75% of its customer service problems are caused by DRM, which they say "makes the use of music quite difficult and hinders the development of a mass-market for legal downloads". In an attempt to differentiate themselves from their main competitor ITMS, Musicload has encouraged independent labels to sell music without DRM, and they claim that this move has been a great success. Is the writing finally on the wall?

Biting back - computer games publisher Take Two has filed a federal suit against campaigning attorney Jack Thompson in the hope of preventing him from plaguing them with groundless nuisance lawsuits over their somewhat controversial games. Thompson had already threatened action against the new versions of Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto, due later this year, and the software house is hoping to stave off what is increasingly coming to look like a personal vendetta against them.

It all comes round again - legislation against anti-spyware is under consideration for the third time, having been rejected by the Senate twice in recent years, and if finally passed it would allow the FTC to impose tough penalties on companies found to be creating or distributing malicious software for marketing or other purposes. It would be nice to see one of these laws without a stupid acronym for a name, however - this one is termed the "Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass Act", or SPYACT. Sheesh!

The watchdogs - a long-running campaign by the EFF to challenge malicious and erroneous DMCA actions is starting to bear fruit, with a legal victory against Craigslist scammer Michael Crook and the definite hope of one against "Electric Slide" balloon-head Richard Silver. Next on their list is media giant Viacom, who have already admitted that some of their recent takedown orders at YouTube were invalid. Anything that might make companies and individuals think twice about DMCA notices has to be good...

Back from the grave - and talking of Viacom's action against YouTube, a new service capitalises on the fact that videos removed from YouTube are not actually deleted from the servers right away, and so can be retrieved by direct linking for up to an hour after the item has nominally been removed. It is especially ironic to note that the DeluTube site's revenue seems to be generated from Google adverts.

Defiant - meanwhile, Google themselves claim that they are confident of defeating Viacom's $1 billion lawsuit, citing the "safe harbour" clauses in the DMCA that were designed to protect online services that host material contributed by others. On the face of it this seems correct, and if so this would leave Viacom with only the claim that YouTube actually encourages copyright infringement - although as Grokster and other P2P companies have proved this is a slippery area in which to mount a defence.

The usual suspect - SCO chairman Ralph Yarrow commands scant respect in the IT industry following his company's legal actions against Linux companies and their customers, and his campaign to segregate the Internet by moving questionable material off the standard HTTP port 80 is unlikely to change that. He has managed to convince the Utah legislature to agree a non-binding resolution calling for the change, however, as the first step towards convincing Congress to pass it into law.

Up against the wall - the latest target for a "Month of Bugs" security analysis is social networking site MySpace, which is bound to prove interesting - if somewhat less controversial than the recent Apple expose. Hackers Mondo Armando and Müstaschio claim that "the purpose of the exercise is not so much to expose MySpace as a hive of spam and villainy (since everyone knows that already), but to highlight the monoculture-style danger of extremely popular websites". Indeed.

A new threat - the sophisticated photocopiers in officers and copyshops could be the latest tool for high-tech crime, thanks to their ability to store scanned or copied documents on their internal hard disks. Official documents such as tax returns could be retrieved by the unscrupulous and used for fraud and identify theft, according to manufacturer Sharp, although I'm sure the fact that one of the selling points of their copiers is an optional security kit has nothing to do with their sudden publication of this risk.

Sneaky revenue - in the US it has emerged that a number of major ISPs are selling the "clickstream" data of their users to marketing firms, revealing the frequency, order and duration of visits to web sites, and although this information is relatively anonymous there is no doubt that the ISPs should have included the fact of the sale in their privacy policies. There is also no particular reason to think that UK ISP's are behaving any differently, of course!


14th March

A post full of depressing news clippings, tonight, many via Boing Boing, always one of the best clearing-houses for this kind of story... I think tomorrow I'll have to regain the balance with an all-geek posting.

Missing the point - the ethics columnist at The New York Times, Randy Cohen, has some very peculiar ideas about online privacy, as evidenced by his advice to a university entrance examiner who is concerned about material in a prospective student's blog:

"You would not read someone’s old-fashioned pen-and-paper diary without consent; you should regard a blog similarly. Your reading this student’s blog is legal — he posted it voluntarily, and in that sense it is public information — but not every young person grasps this. Many unwisely regard their blogs as at least semiprivate. You should not exploit their youthful folly."

Apart from the fact that the average high-school senior is clearly far more clued-up about the web and its ramifications than is Mr Cohen, and is almost certainly under no illusion that what he or she writes is readily available to the world and its dog, even if that wasn't the case then the short, sharp lesson in discretion online that would result from hard questions in an admission interview could actually be extremely beneficial...

Their dark designs - the EFF is reporting on the European Union's plans for a system of DRM to be integrated into the next generation digital television standards. As could be expected, the restrictions proposed by the Content Protection and Copy Management (CPCM) scheme are incredibly draconian, involving restrictions to whether media can be recorded or copied, when and where it can be watched, how it can be shared, and, perhaps worst of all, contains a framework for disabling consumer electronics devices remotely if they do not meet with the approval of the copyright holder. CPCM comprises the worst of existing and proposed legislation worldwide and, incredibly insultingly, would be foisted in European consumers on the grounds of "protecting and "enabling business models". It won't help fight piracy, of course (none of the similar legislation has succeeded in this aim even slightly) but it will make it possible for the media companies to screw every last Euro out of law-abiding home users... Pay to watch a television show, pay again to record it and again each time that recording is watched, pay again if you want to watch it on a television elsewhere in the house or on a handheld device on the commute to work, pay, pay, pay. These plans will only work if the electronics companies to bow to pressure from the media industry to build support for these restrictions into their devices, of course, but unfortunately all the evidence suggests that they will continue to do just that.

Closing the curtains - as if things weren't already bad enough for Internet users in China, with censorship and monitoring widespread and ever-present, the government's stated intention of "purifying the Internet" are moving ahead with plans to regulate blogging and webcasting currently being drawn up. Remember, this is the country that Western governments and corporates are scrambling to climb into bed with, and all the assertions that China will have to moderate its attitudes in order to trade with America and Europe are just so much hot air. Instead, the West is compromising what little business and governmental ethics it possessed and in doing so are simply encouraging China to take an increasingly hard line with its citizens. It's a damn shame.

Another unwanted side-effect of the Internet companies' willingness to roll-over to demands from China is that other oppressive governments are starting to get the idea that they can push Google and its ilk around just as well as their bigger cousin. In India, for example, Google's social networking service Orkut has become the target of attention from the government and police, and the service seems to have been very cooperative in removing pages criticising public figures and propagating hate speech, apparently coughing up IP addresses of the posters on even a casual demand. With the same apparently happening in Brazil, Google's behaviour in China has set a disappointing precedent.

Corporate bastards at war - the waiting is over, it seems, with giant media company Viacom Inc finally bringing a lawsuit against Google and YouTube for inducing and enabling copyright infringement, with the hefty sum of $1 billion being claimed in damages. Viacom alleges that the "value" of its intellectual property is being "destroyed", and although it's hard to see exactly how the small, short, often low quality clips that infest YouTube are destroying any value (in fact, it is almost certainly exactly the opposite - as many others have asserted, I've bought a significant quantity of media after seeing a clip online), the Supreme Court ruling that killed Grokster and the other semi-commercial P2P companies is almost certainly applicable and right now things look fairly bleak for Google & Co.

A new low - just when you thought that the RIAA's vicious lawsuits against alleged file sharers couldn't get any worse, their latest victim is a paralysed stroke victim. Given that his entire income is provided by his disability check (not, I am sure, a generous amount!) it's hard to see how the media association and it's plaintiff in this case, Warner, could possibly benefit financially from even a successful suit. By now it is clear that these lawsuits are purely scare tactics, and unfortunately the RIAA and MPAA show absolutely no sign of abandoning their program no matter how many innocent people are hurt.


12th March

I've finally managed to get my Optimus Mini 3 OLED keypad working under Vista, and it's no thanks to the manufacturer. My experiences with the company, Russian industrial design house Art. Lebedev Studio, have been decidedly mixed from the start, and right now there's no way I could whole-heartedly recommend them.

Early adopters and gadget freaks were invited to place pre-paid orders in March 2006 with the incentive of a big discount on the final price, presumably with the intention of raising some seed capital to finalise the prototypes and begin production. This seemed reasonable at the time, but it has to be said that the appeal of this discount was somewhat tarnished when the $160 launch price was cit to $120 in December, only $20 more than the pre-release cost...

As could have been expected the May shipping date slipped to June, and then again to August, and in the end I didn't actually receive my Mini 3 until September. The hardware was everything I'd hoped for, but the discovery that V1.5 and then V2.0 versions were released only a few months later have left me with a nagging worry over exactly what is wrong with my V1.

Nevertheless, my own version is a nice little toy, and my main complaint at the time was with the Configurator software that allows images and actions to be defined for the OLED buttons depending on what application has the focus. Every time I tried to add a new definition the Configurator would crash and, 100% repeatedly, and my plea for aid to Art. Lebedev's support address was met with a request to provide a list of all the other software that was installed on my PC. Not running at the time of the crashes, note, but just installed. On any of my PCs that is an impressively long list, but on a heavily-used personal workstation with a six year history it's just not a feasible thing to provide - and would be of no use to a developer even if I did. My attempt to explain this was met with complete silence and although various new builds of the Configurator were released they all displayed exactly the same behaviour. In the end I worked around the problem by stealing the registry keys that described a pre-configured template and editing them to match the software I wanted to add, and although that was something of a painful process it all worked well enough once I'd finished.

This is how the situation remained until I upgraded to Vista last month, at which point it all went decidedly pear-shaped. Once the OS was in place I installed the latest version of the Configurator software and then plugged in the Mini 3 - Windows found a device driver and installed it without fuss, but the screens remained blank and the Configurator seemed completely unable to communicate with the hardware. After the usual USB troubleshooting tricks I gave up and mailed the support address again, confident that at least this time I could at least provide a list of installed software if required! However, the response merely asked whether I was running the 32bit or 64bit version of Vista, a reasonable question given that the mandatory requirement for signed drivers in the 64bit OS prevent most offerings from small companies from working. This was not the problem in my case, however, and although I responded with more details that was the last I heard from them. After a couple of weeks of staring moodily at the Mini 3 I gave up on the official support channel and turned to the web, and almost right away I stumbled across the company's LiveJournal blog, where various end-users were complaining about an identical problem. The company had provided a solution there, but to my surprise they were attempting to blame the users themselves for causing the problem!

It seems that somehow Vista had somehow found a similar but not compatible driver for the USB-to-serial hardware inside the Mini 3, and although it installed without errors the Configurator tool could not talk through it. I think that this driver came from Microsoft's online update archive due to a failure of the Optimus driver installation tool to put the INF file in the right place, but the company's support staff member was adamant that it must be a left-over from some kind of development or test environment, which is completely incorrect in my case and, according to the somewhat irate postings on the blog, in the case of the other users affected as well! Fortunately he also provided a stand-alone driver, and having downloaded it and directed Windows to that specific location the entry in the device manager changed from "Prolific USB-to-Serial Comm Port" to "Prolific2 USB-to-Serial Bridge" and both the Configurator and the OLED screens both burst into life.

I am annoyed about this, as the issue had been identified and a solution provided before I emailed their tech support address, and I provided more than enough information for it to be clear that I was indeed experiencing that very problem. I am also annoyed at the way the company seemed to throw responsibility onto the end-users - as even if it was true, which it wasn't in this case, it's not very diplomatic to say so that baldly! It might have been a smart idea to mention the LiveJournal blog somewhere on the company's web site, as well - it's a very useful and interesting resource, but is precious little help if nobody knows about it! 

Griping aside, however, it's very nice to have the Mini 3 back up and running again. The Configurator doesn't crash any more, and the additional features that the latest versions have brought allowed me to be a little creative. The photo above shows once more exactly how hard the damn thing is to photograph, thanks to the mirror finish of the keys and the relatively slow refresh rate of the OLED screens, but it also shows the monthly and daily stats for this web site pulled directly from the appropriate pages at my Site Meter stats service. Regular readers of Epicycle will already have deduced from the graphs I post at the start of each month that I have a thoroughly unhealthy obsession with my visitor counts, and having the figures on tap (updated every ten minutes, although it could be virtually in real-time if desired) is really neat. A touch of the graph buttons launches a browser tab with the appropriate page at Site Meter, just in case anything interesting is happening (oh, how I yearn for something interesting to happen!) and the top one currently goes to the site's search page. This is exactly the sort of part-information / part-control function that the Mini 3 was obviously intended to provide, and it's very nice to have found a use for the device more exotic than just a keypad on a long cable. Watch this space to see if I can come up with anything else!


11th March

A reader emailed me to ask a few questions about replacing the battery on a Palm Tungsten T3, and suggested that I'd left the account of my various problems with the PDA dangling a little - so just for you, Steve, here's the rest of the story.

Just to recap... In January I decided to replace the aging battery in my T3 with a higher capacity equivalent, and in doing so managed to destroy the power connector on the motherboard. My attempt at a repair failed, although actually since then I have found a type of product that would probably have helped, an electrically conductive glue designed for either (depending on which supplier you're consulting) people who can't solder or enthusiasts making their own surface mount PCBs. But I digress...

Having figuratively consigned the Palm to the great bit-bucket in the sky, I picked up a replacement T3 on eBay. There are a lot of these up for auction at present, thanks to the general downturn of Palm's popularity, costing between £50 and £100 depending on condition and accessories. Unfortunately, when trying to transplant my high capacity battery into the new Palm something else went wrong, and the thing started trying to spontaneously hotsync at every available opportunity. In spite of a number of strips and rebuilds this issue came and went unpredictably, with the Palm often going all week without a hitch before suddenly coming down with the digital equivalent of obsessive-compulsive disorder -  apparently whenever it would be most annoying and intrusive.

Tests had suggested that it was definitely a hardware problem and not malfunctioning software, as on one occasion it manifested immediately after a cold reset when the system was at factory defaults - and, further, that it was a problem with the motherboard itself, as at that time the lower part of the Palm containing the button cluster, ribbon cable and hotsync connector, was sat several feet away on the other side of my desk... Knowing the nature of the problem didn't help me to fix it, however, and when a protracted period of unprompted hotsyncing made it impossible to run TomTom for more than five seconds at a time while trying to navigate the backwaters of Essex ahead of a rapidly approaching deadline, I decided that enough was enough.

I managed to find yet another Palm on eBay without much difficulty, this time the rare "Business Class" special edition that came bundled with a folding keyboard, leather case and the infamous Palm Wi-Fi card. I've been eyeing up the latter for ages, partly as a compensation for not buying a brand new Tungsten TX with onboard wireless, and given that those change hands for at least £40 on eBay the £100 final price was something of a bargain. It felt odd to be spending even more money on decidedly obsolete hardware, but the later models are noticeably inferior in both technical specification and build quality, and given my significant investment in accessories and oddments it really did seem to be the most sensible option.

Reinstalling a full suite of apps and data onto Palm #3 was, as always, relatively painless thanks to the excellent hotsync process: only the Wi-Fi drivers, the IBM Java "micro environment" that supports the Opera Mini web browser, and the Audible player app needed to be reinstalled manually, and over the last week everything seemed to have been working very well.

Last night, however, to my considerable annoyance, a new problem reared its ugly head... While I was playing FreeJongg the digitiser started misbehaving, either ignoring touches altogether or detecting them in places other than where the stylus was actually pointing. Some experimentation showed that it became noticeably worse when I was holding the Palm in the usual cupped-hand sort of grip with my fingers and thumb touching the sides of the case, and went away completely if the slider was extended. Some careful cleaning of the thin gap between the screen and the bezel only seemed to make things worse, and even the accumulated wisdom of an excellent article on the subject at Palm Discovery failed to shed any light on the problem.

This morning, therefore, I set to work to open up Palm #3, a task that is becoming annoyingly familiar but not, I have to say, very much easier. Splitting the casing is the tricky part, as although I've learned that the best way is to prise it open from the top, first down one side and then down, the other using only fingernails to avoid damaging the soft strip between the two metal shells, it's still rather a tense and fiddly operation. When I finally had it naked and vulnerable I tried to find the cause of the digitiser problem, but although it was clearly related to the position of the slide and pressure on the side of the casing, I could neither see any fault nor make it any better.

Given that the motherboard of Palm #1 was dead but the screen was (presumably!) still intact, an obvious solution suggested itself. The sight of a T3 exposed autopsy fashion is also becoming very familiar, but what I found very interesting this time was that the module I took from my original Palm, manufactured a few months later than the faulty one, had the addition of a narrow strip of foam down each side of the screen, acting as a cushion between the screen and the front bezel. Given that my tests strongly suggested that in some way the bezel was putting pressure on the digitiser with the slide closed, it does seem possible that the addition was designed to prevent this very problem.

So, having re-synced and reinstalled once more, I am left with Palm #1 having a broken motherboard power connector and a faulty digitiser, Palm #2 still exhibiting the mysterious hotsyncing problem, and Palm #3 apparently working well. My confidence in the things has been somewhat shaken, however, and right now I'm not especially confident that the latter will keep working well for any length of time and I starting to wonder about switching platforms altogether. My company is moving away from the disappointing XDA Windows-powered handhelds to the latest Nokia E61 Symbian smartphones, and they're certainly neat little beasties. I've been a loyal Palm user since the Palm V lured me away from the Psion Series 3 in 1999, but these days the company seems dead in the water and frankly I have little interest in the much-hyped "secret third business". If this third T3 doesn't hang together, then I doubt I'm going to spend any more money on their products. Time will tell.


8th March

So the company's building services manager has arranged for the site's emergency diesel generator to be tested and serviced this weekend, which will mean a complete power down of the entire network: servers, infrastructure and all. I wouldn't mind too much, as although it's something of an annoying job it isn't usually a very challenging one, but for some reason he forgot how long it takes to do a clean shutdown of ninety-odd servers and their associated switches, routers, firewalls, storage systems, management stations and who knows what else... The last time we did this I cajoled the entire team to come in, and between the four of us we set a new record of a little under an hour. This time it will just be a pair of us, however, and so arranging to have the generator engineers start the tests at 8:30am on a Saturday morning is nothing short of cruel - we're going to need to begin sometime around seven o'clock to meet that deadline, and unfortunately the only free PFY this weekend is one who prefers a later start to the day. I predict much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

While I sit here and groan gently in anticipation, then, a few random links to be going on with:

Unlicensed AI busted - with a headline worthy of an eighties William Gibson story, a web-based expert system designed to prepare bankruptcy filings has been ruled to be practicing law without a license, and its creator has been ordered to give up the profits he made from the software.

Damn lies - analysis of the movie industry's recent box office figures shows that, once again, the impact of piracy is not even close to producing the losses that the MPAA claims, and in fact the very people usually targeted by the industry association are among their most ardent customers.

Extreme data security - I frequently have days where I would enjoy putting a bullet through both a PC and its user, so perhaps it's fortunate that in this country even replica guns are about to be banned... In the land of the free, however, staff at geek site [H]ard|OCP are still able to vent their frustrations.

Still flakey after all these years - Apple has released an update to iTunes that improves Vista compatibility somewhat, but the Washington Post reports that there are still a number of issues with the application. Incompetent programmers, one wonders, or something more deliberate and sinister?

Selling out - only a few weeks after I gave up on the increasingly annoying official BitTorrent client and switched to uTorrent instead, the former has quietly purchased the latter with a view to making it the default user interface for their new commercial content delivery service. This does not bode well...  :-(

And, finally, a quick plug for the excellent SongTapper. I've had a piece of music going through my head for several days, and finally remembered the service from a quick look a couple of months ago when it launched. The music in question is a classical piece, so I wasn't especially hopeful, but after twenty seconds of carefully timed tapping of the space bar the site correctly identified it as Sergei Prokofiev's "Dance Of The Knights", from the ballet "Romeo And Juliet", a wonderfully sombre composition that is often heard in the background of television programmes featuring something from the Soviet era. If SongTapper will identify something like this, it should be equally successful for more contemporary music, and its well worth a try next time you're being driven mad by an unfamiliar tune. Of course, it won't help any when a friend is repeatedly whistling the extremely familiar chorus of Status Quo's 1968 classic "Pictures of Matchstick Men" while you're trying to fix his PC, for which the only solution is probably a blunt instrument applied where it will do the most good.


7th March

Over the last week Epicycle has been somewhat focussed on Vista and PC upgrades, but now that the dust has settled a little its time to catch up on the tech news, starting with a handful from the always excellent Boing Boing:

Corporate bastards - the RIAA's new p2plawsuits.com web site, part of their latest campaign to make the lives of college students a misery, ends the receipts generated for the poor saps they have coerced into coughing up thousands of dollars with the exhortation to "have a nice day". Sheesh!

Fraud by any other name - following consumer watchdog George Gombossy's article on the multiple price lists used in the Best Buy chain of stores, the company has admitted that they do indeed maintain a fake "web site" used to dupe customers into believing that prices have just increased.

Digital makeovers - a new software package gives the ability to "retouch" portrait photographs to bring them closer to some imaginary ideal of beauty, and although I don't share the poster's apparent gut reaction against the end results I have to say that some of them certainly raised an eyebrow.

Cost of time falls - following the US federal government's decision to change the date on which daylight saving time starts, Microsoft has slashed the cost of software updates for grey-area products such as Windows 2000 and Exchange 2000, which are now out of mainstream support.

Password malpractice - having discovered that a manager in my own department is still using a password of "password" in spite of an extensive campaign to encourage sensible choices last year, I have a lot of sympathy with the author of this article on the futility of computer security.

The numbers don't lie - the MTBF figures quoted by hard disk vendors are so much hot air, according to a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University, and high-end fibre channel and SCSI drives are no more reliable than cheap and cheerful SATA units.

Telling it like it is - "My new mobile is lumbered with a bewildering array of unnecessary features aimed at idiots", starts an article by Charlie Brooker in The Guardian, and the rest of the review is equally tough. After endless sycophantic puffs of the latest tech elsewhere, this is a breath of fresh air!

Selling out - personal satellite navigation pioneer Navman has quietly been acquired by Mitac, a Taiwanese corporate which already has considerable investment in GPS technology. Whether the Navman brand will be preserved is anyone's guess, at present.

Fighting back - an Edinburg businessman has won a court case against UK spammer Transcom Internet Services, who when challenged made the unusual move of admitting that they sent him spam and challenging him to do something about it. He did, and has been awarded £1300 in damages.

Inflating like a balloon - rumours that beleaguered PDA company Palm is to be acquired by Nokia (or Motorola, or somebody) are continuing to drive up the company's stock price, and given their sad state of affairs, some people on the Palm forums feel that this is a not entirely unintended outcome...

A storm in a teacup - rumours that the Internet anonymizer TOR had been compromised spread round the Internet at an incredible pace (or, at least, round the small sections that have actually heard of the thing!) but in best Internet fashion it seems that the reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

Cracks in the dam - unlike previous cracks for Microsoft's new OS, which are fairly fragile affairs and can probably be overwritten by the company, the latest offering uses an emulation of a BIOS used by OEMs like Asus to allow them to ship PCs with pre-activated versions of the OS. Clever!

Leaving the sinking ship - Diebold, the manufacturer of many of the touch-screen voting machines repeatedly being exposed as flawed and insecure by security experts, is considering abandoning the entire voting machine market because of the harm that the scandal is doing to their reputation.

The lighter side of war - Dan points us to an advertisement for the imminent 1st person combat simulation Battlefied: Bad Company, where the narrator gets a little too close to the action. I have to admit that this one rather tickled my funnybone...

And, finally, banning the technology - the US Department Of Transportation has placed an indefinite moratorium on upgrades to Windows Vista, IE7 and Office 2007 for its 15,000 computer systems, stating that "there appears to be no compelling technical or business case for upgrading to these new Microsoft software products. Furthermore, there appears to be specific reasons not to upgrade". Reports suggest that a similar ban is in effect at the Federal Aviation Administration, which has a further 45,000 desktop systems. Microsoft will not take this lying down though, I'm sure, and I predict some enthusiastic lobbying in the form of a personal appearance by Steve Ballmer real soon.


6th March

Back with Vista again, with a few tips and tricks to work around some of the oddities I've found while reinstalling my working suite of applications and utilities. In general everything I've tried to install has worked either first time or with a minor tweak, although I've chosen to upgrade a number of older applications to the latest version before installing them which is sure to have helped somewhat.

One useful tip, especially if you're not running as a local administrator, is to launch installation programs with administrator rights and/or in XP compatibility mode. The usual symptom when a lack of access rights is preventing an installer from unpacking itself or from reading the files it has just unpacked are perplexing error messages about a disk being full or a file not being found (Hello, Adobe!), but running the installer with elevated privileges has solved the majority of such problems so far. To do this, right click on the installer EXE and select the appropriate options:


Acrobat Reader - thanks to Adobe's complete failure to understand the new folder security model in Vista, their most publicly visible product won't actually install correctly under the new OS! A couple of different error messages may be displayed, but basically they mean that the installer can't gain access the files that it has just unpacked to the %TEMP% path. Adobe suggests a number of possible solutions, but No 3 is by far the most practical.

Backup Exec - and talking of brainless corporates, even the latest version 11d of the enterprise backup product, only a few months old, is not fully compatible with Vista clients. Try as I might, I can't get the open file management component of the BE agent to install on my workstation, and although the remainder of the agent seems to work some of the numbers it reports are just plain impossible. I did a backup a few days ago that managed to find 600Gb of data on a system only capable of holding 320Gb... Of course, in its current form V11d is a flakey, unreliable and dangerous product in any case, so I suppose a few client glitches are largely irrelevant. Ah, the curse of Symantec.

Canon ZoomBrowser EX - not really a Vista glitch, in this case, but a way to work around the absurd requirement that you can only install the latest downloadable version of ZoomBrowser over the top of an existing version. Given that the software is only of use with Canon cameras, and that as yet no way of pirating an actual camera exists, this seems like a thoroughly unnecessary restriction, but fortunately the creation of the registry key:


will fool the installer and allow the installation to proceed. Note that this will also work for the bundled PhotoStitch software - create a key named "PhotoStitch", instead.

Blaze Media Pro - if you try to install the 7.0 version of the all-in-one audio and video editing suite, a horrible mess will result: the installer fails to register its media filter DLLs, and then the uninstaller hangs when trying to remove them, requiring some fancy footwork in the registry to bring everything back to a clean state. Ask me how I know this... The brand new V7.1 seems to install correctly, however, although nothing on the web site's download page indicates what the current version actually is or even that a new version has been released. How very helpful!

ICP RAID support - although ICP Vortex are now part of Adaptec and don't support the slightly obsolete GDT8500RZ zero-channel SATA RAID card in my workstation, Vista ships with a 8500 driver and what remains of the company says that there shouldn't be any issues with the new OS. Both the ICP Tools and the later ICP Storage Manager seem to work with Vista, although the latter throws the Aero interface back into the basic mode. The older tools suite needs to be installed to the default path, too - any attempt to change the folder results in the installer crashing!

APC PowerChute - APC's uninterruptible power supply management suite also works perfectly under Vista, but just like the ICP tools it forces the Aero shell back into basic mode. A colleague has suggested that this is due to the use of Java for the application's GUI, and although I haven't yet found confirmation of that it sounds plausible. It's clear with hindsight (and for some of us it was clear at the time, too) that Sun's successful lawsuit against Microsoft's own Java implementation brought a great step backwards in usability, performance, stability and compatibility for the end user...

Optimus Mini 3 - although the manufacturer claims full Vista support for the neat little OLED keypad, I can't get mine to work at all! When I connect the device to a USB port Windows installs a generic driver for the "Prolific USB-Serial Comm Port" hardware built into the device, which unfortunately is too generic to work with such unusual hardware. A query to their tech support resulted in an enquiry as to whether I was using 32bit or 64bit Vista, and then a long, sullen silence. I am very fond of my Mini 3, and given that I was one of the people who paid significantly ahead of release into order to help the company with some working capital to finalise the product, I feel somewhat let down now.  :-(

RealVNC - the "official" version of the popular remote control application has been the only real disappointment so far. Although the viewer works just as well as it did on XP, the performance of a VNC host running on the new OS is positively glacial. This happened when I upgraded from Windows 2000 to Windows XP, and again when I installed XP SP2, so I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise - but in the latter case I solved the problem by installing the Mirror driver and in Vista this kills Aero completely. I hope the VNC team can come up with something soon, as for the last few weeks I've had to write Epicycle sat at my desk rather than on the comfort of the settee!

Getting back to Vista itself, one of the gripes that is bugging me most at present is a very small one, but seems to indicate a blind spot in the new shell's usability testing. Using the "show desktop" function on the taskbar or toolbar minimises the sidebar as well as all the other windows - but one of the most probable uses of this function is to quickly make the sidebar gadgets visible to check the calendar, monitor disk space, or whatever! Is it just me, or is this totally butt-headed?

Another little glitch shows up on the tablet, although by no means all the time - when I'm using the Tablet Input Panel in keyboard mode, sometimes the entire TIP shifts about half a centimetre to the left as each character is entered. I'm not completely sure that this isn't by design, but if so it's equally butt-headed as one needs to re-orient slightly on the TIP for each key-click! Hmmm...

Elsewhere, Microsoft's flagship font smoothing technology ClearType seems to have been overlooked slightly, as although the code is built into Internet Explorer 7 and presumably Vista itself, there seems to be no way to configure it. The ClearType Tuner PowerToy won't install on Vista, and the online version of the tool won't work with the new OS either. This is a curious omission, certainly, but also a very minor one and I'm sure that it will be tidied up soon enough.

I'm also disappointed at the lack of fully-featured multi-monitor support, especially as the startlingly low cost of LCD panels means that more and more people are now using two or even three displays. Of course, proper support, with a smart taskbar, flexible wallpaper handling etc, would drive RealTimeSoft out of business in a stroke - although it has to be said that Ultramon's copious bugs and glacier-slow development cycles are likely to achieve that end without Microsoft's assistance: although the last major version shipped around the time Vista went to gold last autumn, the company is only talking about even rudimentary Vista support in the next-but-one beta! Honestly, it's enough to make one convert to using Macs...


5th March

I'm using the Vista OS on three of the household's four workstations, now, and overall my experiences have been very positive. A couple of my colleagues have had very disappointing results so far, however, with all sorts of odd symptoms and perplexing performance issues, so it's clear that the upgrade is by no means a safe bet for everyone.

In my case, the change that I had expected would bring the most grief, the new security model with its endless prompting to confirm actions, has been something of a non-event. I'm running as a local administrator, as has been my habit ever since I started using grown-up operating systems, and that seems to remove the vast majority of the privilege escalation prompts. I chose to perform a clean install of the OS on two of the PCs instead of upgrading from Windows XP, as well, and I suspect that I have dodged a number of bullets that way, too. Certainly, the one PC that was upgraded instead took some delicate tweaking of the access rights in the \USERS tree before it settled down properly.

The biggest problem with Vista, of course, is nothing to do with Microsoft. Just as with the switch from Windows 9x to Windows 2000, a significant proportion of hardware manufacturers are using the new driver model as an excuse to clean the slate of obsolete peripherals and accessories. Of course, just as in 2000 "obsolete" means anything that the manufacturer doesn't feel like supporting any more, and I've seen a large number of gripes online that companies are washing their hands of scanners, printers, etc only a couple of years old - expected, perhaps, but that hardly fair! The cynical would say that this will bring a nice little financial windfall to firms like Hewlett Packard, encouraging people to buy a new printer when their old one is still in perfect working order. My OfficeJet 7410, for example, in spite of being a current model, does not have "a full feature driver solution available" according to the HP website, and although the bundled drivers that ship with Vista allow basic scanning and printing they're hardly feature rich. Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that the model is about to be replaced by the shiny new OfficeJet Pro L7680...?

Financial windfalls aside, however, a large part of the industry seems to have adopted a curious heads-in-the-sand approach to the new OS. Many companies are apparently only now starting to develop Vista drivers and Vista-compliant versions of their software and, just as in the days of Windows 2000, it is almost as if they were waiting until after the official product launch to see if the OS would catch on! Given that every major Microsoft operating system since the eighties has become a market leader within milliseconds of release that seems curious, but nevertheless it continues to happen and is annoyingly widespread.

This official statement from Adobe is fairly typical. After some unctuous waffle about their wonderful track record of supporting new OS versions, they go on to say that "all Adobe products available as of January 30, 2007 were released before Windows Vista became publicly available and so have not been fully designed for or tested on this new operating system". It is inconceivable that a firm the size of Adobe were not involved in the closed test program dating back to early 2003, and the idea that they need to wait until the OS was actually released before carrying out compatibility testing and development is just absurd - leading me to believe that they, too, have some kind of hidden agenda...

Although I would like to say that the big corporates are the worst offenders in these cases, I'm afraid that many of the smaller and ostensibly leaner companies are just as negligent. The technical support site of video capture specialist AverMedia has no mention of Vista at all, for example, and when I emailed them to enquire about compatibility with my USB TV tuner I received the following rather garbled reply: "currently we does support for vista for this product, we will report your needs to company for furture plan". It's as if it hadn't occurred to them that anyone might actually want to use the their products with the new OS, and my enquiry had only just prompted them to consider a driver development project! Needless to say, after such a response I am voting with my feet and switching back to Hauppauge, who at least have a schedule of compatibility on their web site. Both of these companies could learn something from workstation RAID manufacturer HighPoint, however, who have a big scrolling banner announcing "HighPoint RAID controllers support Windows Vista" right on their front page. No ifs, no buts, just a clear statement of full support across the range. Kudos to HighPoint...

Next time on Epicycle, a handful of tips and tricks to work around some of the oddities I've found while reinstalling my working suite of applications and utilities, and a few software quirks for which I have as yet found no good solution.


3rd March

I did a little more work on the PC, today, installing the Seasonic S12-650 Mk3 to replace the existing S12-600 Mk1, and as I'd hoped the extra Molex and SATA power connectors allowed me to simplify the wiring somewhat. In place of the Adaptec 29160 SCSI card that was hosting the VXA tape library, I'm going to install an Adaptec 2610SA six port SATA RAID card (like this one, only with two extra ports - it's an OEM product that shipped with low-end Dell and HP servers), and the first two drives of what will be a four disk array can be seen in the left disk rack in the picture below. I'm not quite sure what I'm actually going to be doing with this volume yet (a 640Gb stripe set might be useful for holding mounted CD and DVD images, perhaps?), but with a spare PCI-X slot and a plethora of cheap SATA-1 disks on eBay it mostly just seemed like a good idea...

While re-arranging the internal power cabling I left capacity for an additional Vantec Nexus fan and lighting controller to drive the CCFL illumination planned in the lower part of the case (the replacement fully-windowed side panel is on its way to me as I write this) and also for a neat little toy I saw while I was shopping at Performance PCs for everything else. The Kingwin KF-25 is a 3½" bay device that holds two hot-swappable trays - currently available options are a 2½" laptop disk caddy, a four port USB hub, and a flash card reader. The latter has the usual wildly optimistic "50-in-1" moniker of which Dan has recently written, but the whole thing is a neat idea and I'm prepared to forgive their marketing bullshit as long as it works tolerably well. The new device is replacing a more traditional card reader, and as I seem to be fiddling with laptop drives quite frequently these days the extra flexibility should come in very useful.

Watch this space over the next few weeks for endless pictures of wires and things glowing blue...


2nd March

Since I upgraded my home server system to use a pair of EMC Clariion disk arrays I've been trying to find a good home for the neat little Sun Multipack SCSI cabinets that preceded them. They're stuffed full of hot-pluggable SCSI drives, giving a capacity of a few hundred gigabytes in RAID-5, and although their resale value is very low they're just too nice to throw out! Fortunately one of my colleagues expressed some interest, and having spent yesterday evening fondling the hardware he's been well and truly bitten by the redundant storage bug. Today he picked up a nice little Adaptec AAA-131U2 hardware RAID controller for a song on eBay, and he's shopping there for 36Gb SCSI drives as well... I've warned him that it's a slippery slope, though - one day it's a few hundred gigabytes in a case the size of a shoe box, the next day there's a full height 19" rack in the kitchen with 1.5Tb of fibre-attached storage. I hope his girlfriend is as tolerant as mine...

Elsewhere, all the news that's fit to 'blog:

Fighting fantasy - although there is no scientific evidence for a causal link between "violent" computer games and violence in real life (and in fact, just as with the alleged link between pornography and sex crimes there is plenty of evidence to the contrary) it's a connection that pressure groups and the media seem to hold dear to their hearts. A new study from a USC sociologist investigates the myth, and suggests that computer games are simply the latest in a long line of phenomena that have been blamed for causing moral decay in the nation's youth.

Propaganda - following yesterday's introduction of the FAIR USE Act by Congressmen Rick Boucher (D-VA) and John Doolittle (R-CA), as could be predicted the RIAA have opened up with both barrels. Their statement claims that the DMCA legislation has encouraged companies to provide new products and services, and that without it the DVD, the iPod and the iTunes Music Store could not have been the success that they are. The idea that DRM is actually beneficial to the end user is one of the music industry's mainstays at present, but needless to say it is complete hot air.

Dammed if they do - The EU's campaign against Microsoft continues unabated, with the Union seizing any pretext to slap more fines on the company. The latest accusation is that Microsoft is charging too much for information relating to its proprietary protocols, information which the EU has forced Microsoft to disclose to competitors as part of their misguided anti-competitive behaviour rulings. However, Microsoft claims that a survey by PriceWaterhouseCoopers shows that the prices they are charging for this interoperability information are "at least 30 per cent below market rate for comparable technology".

A penis substitute - engineering demonstrations of ATI/AMD's new R600 next generation graphics card are emerging, but although the raw horsepower of the GPU is impressive the final retail boards will draw around 300w from the PC's power supply (or an impressive 600w for a dual "CrossFire" implementation!) which will certainly drive the PSU upgrade market. Equally impressive is the board's 33cm length, which brings to mind the wild and woolly days of the 4 GPU 3dfx Voodoo 5 6000 and will
certainly rule out all but the most capacious PC cases.

Dissing the competition - with the actual launch of the iPhone (following the grudging trademark settlement with Cisco) gradually approaching, Apple's marketing machine is moving into high gear to spread the gospel according to Steve. Free phones that come with airtime contracts are "worthless", says the company, predicting that 10 million people will buy the $500-$600 iPhone during its first year instead of subsisting on the sad, pathetic offerings available elsewhere. Given that many users only want to use their phone to make phone calls, it will be interesting to see whether they are right...

Death of a salesman - at Bit-Tech, Brett Thomas has written an article speculating on the imminent death of the IT trade show. This isn't the first time I've seen this prediction, of course, and certainly for the consumer hardware-oriented shows I suspect that he is right: as the attendees change from commercial buyers to enthusiasts the nature of the event changes from a technical exhibit to a media circus to match, and eventually only the largest, richest companies still participate - which tends to further reinforce the changing ratio of attendees.


1st March 2007

Still catching up on some old news...

Wishful thinking - widespread reports that Dell will offer Linux preinstalled on their desktop PCs are inaccurate, as the manufacturer has already stated that although it will sell PCs without an operating system for the *nix fans, there are too many competing flavours of Linux to make offering just one a practical proposition. Hmmm, anyone remember the Unix Wars of the eighties...?

A new approach - a presentation at this year's Blackhat conference suggests that the next PC security threats may come from rootkit code that installs itself into the memory embedded in hardware devices, especially graphics cards.

A step forwards - backed by the Consumer Electronics Association, two US congressmen are introducing legislation intended to curb the excessive powers of the DMCA and provide a legal framework for "fair use" of copyrighted material.

Vista vistas - the photographs for the scenic wallpaper that ships with the new OS were taken during a ten day shoot in the state of Oregon, and the resulting 6000 images were pared down to just five. The photographer is making some of the others available on Flickr, however.

Musings on DRM - like me, Cory Doctorow is extremely sceptical of Steve Jobs' sudden opposition to DRM, and in an article at Salon he picks holes in Jobs' arguments and speculates on the real reason for the sudden U-turn.

Steampunk - strongly reminiscent of the wonderful typewriter terminals in Terry Gilliam's classic movie Brazil, this magnificent Victorian-styled keyboard began life as an almost equally venerable IBM Model M. I'm not sure how easy it would be to use, but I love the look!

Microsoft malware - with the Seattle giant making a big thing of the improved security in Vista and IE7, it is somewhat ironic that adverts for the notorious SystemDoctor2006 slipped through into commercial advertising banners spotted on its web sites and in Windows Live Messenger. Oops!

The wisdom of the ancients - The Internet is a mirror of the population that uses it, according to net.god and Google evangelist Vint Cerf, so there's little point in blaming the technology for the bizarre, pointless, offensive and sometimes even illegal uses to which it is put. True words, indeed.


A fair month in the stats, especially considering that it was such a short one: I suspect that the additional three days in a less runty month would have taken me to another new record.

The keen-eyed will notice a new design for the "Weblog Archive" button just below. Microsoft browsers with default security settings seem to have taken a dislike to the unsigned fphover.class JavaScript applet that animates the button, presumably as a result of a recent update to Internet Explorer. I'm not quite sure how to fix the problem, as the tool that generated the button when I created this site in FrontPage 2000 seems to have been replaced by something a little more complex in FrontPage 2003, so I've just replaced it with the closest equivalent - hence the lack of consistent look-and-feel.

When time and energy permit I'm planning on migrating the entire site to either Wordpress or the new Expression Web, the replacement for FrontPage, and the major revamp that results will doubtless do away with such annoying little problems - if at the cost of introducing a plethora of annoying big ones. At present I understand CSS and its ilk about as well as I understand the PBX that my team has just taken over support for at the office, and it's going to be a steep learning curve in both cases...



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