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30th June

We popped up to Cambridge, today, to visit the Whipple Museum of the History Of Science - the museum is small but perfectly formed, located right in the middle of the University district next door to the original Cavendish Laboratory where J.J. Thompson, James Clerk Maxwell, Ernest Rutherford and others made so many fundamental discoveries in physics. Their current feature is on representations of the DNA double helix (everything from Crick's original lecture notes to a cosmetics range), but the standing exhibits are a fascinating and eclectic mixture, ranging from 18th century astronomical instruments, via a huge collection of 1970s and 1980s pocket calculators, to tiny glass models of moulds and fungus...

One display that particularly caught my eye was a collection of scientific experiment sets from the first half of the 20th century. The optical kit shown above, captioned "The Hobby Of A Thousand Thrills" and "Never Before A Gift Like This" must surely qualify as one of the most over-hyped toys ever!

Above, one of many drawers of electronic calculators - a remarkable collection in itself.. The museum is free to visit, easily fills a couple of hours, and is thoroughly recommended for a wet day in Cambridge.

29th June

Beware of the new release of WinAMP 3, build 499 - I installed it yesterday and things have been very painful since then (looks like some kind of problem with the main library, COMMON.DLL) and even a reinstall of the earlier version has not returned my system to its previous equilibrium... I haven't been especially pleased with version 3 at all, actually, and this may be all the incentive I need to drop back to version 2 - evidently I'm not alone in this feeling, as the older version still seems to be under active development!

In other news - I gave up smoking a few days ago, and so far it hasn't been nearly as hard as it apparently ought to have been. I've been intending to quit for a while, and as Ros had stopped while she was in the US it seemed like a good opportunity for both of us... I'd planned to do the whole thing with the patches, gum and whatever other aids were available - but in the end I simply made the decision while we were driving back from the airport on Thursday, stopped myself from reaching for the tobacco pouch beside me, and went cold turkey!

I've always rolled my own, and very thin ones at that, so my nicotine intake probably hasn't been particularly high in comparison to most smokers - and I've long suspected that rolling tobacco hasn't been quite so extensively tuned for maximum addiction potential as have regular cigarettes, anyway. This does seem to be the case, as after three days I'm nowhere close to the nervous wreck that most friends have become, my fingernails are completely unbitten, and the worst that I can report is an occasional mood of tetchiness and slight angst, together with somewhat disrupted sleep patterns - certainly nothing unmanageable, and so far I'm very encouraged. It's been a real blow to my rebellious spirit, though - in the last couple of years I've given up alcohol, salt, affairs, drugs, and now tobacco... It reminds me strongly of the old doctor/patient joke: "Will I live longer?", "No, but it will certainly feel like it".  <long sigh>  Guess I'm now officially middle aged.

27th June

So I was in Heathrow T4 yesterday, waiting for Ros's flight, and it didn't take me long to realise that none of the seats were actually in view of the monitors announcing the arrivals! I had to keep hopping up and down every five minutes to see if we'd got to the baggage stage yet, and this seemed very peculiar indeed until I realised that there is one place where you can sit down in sight of the monitors - inside the cordoned-off Starbucks franchise that takes up one entire side of the arrivals area... As well as an excellent view of the public screens, in fact, Starbucks patrons even have their own monitors - cunningly angled to be impossible to see from outside the franchise!

Now call me cynical, but somehow I don't think that this is one of those co-incidences, or even just a stupid lack of competence on the part of the airport's designers... Unless you fancy standing the whole time, or popping up and down like a jack-in-the-box, you have to fork out for a coffee or equivalent - and I'm sure that the BAA was well-paid for that. Can you spell "corporate collusion", children?

Meanwhile, Service Pack 4 for Windows 2000 has quietly sneaked out to release. I'm in no particular hurry this time, I think, but for those adventurous types it can be downloaded here, and the full list of fixes and updates can be found in MS Technote 327194. The first Service Pack for Server 2003 is due in December, apparently...

Elsewhere - need protection from The Terrible Secret Of Space?

 

I want to open a Native American sex shop and sell wet-dream catchers
 - Emo Philips

 

25th June

Well, Ros is about to set out for Seattle airport, and eighteen hours later she'll be at Heathrow and in my arms again... It's been a very long ten weeks without her, but I seem to have survived without wasting away to a skeleton from lack of food, or arguing with myself about science to the point of developing a split personality! Much of the credit for that has to go to the gadgets that enabled us to keep in almost constant touch, though - apart from when her satphone ran out of airtime for a few days, back in Philadelphia, we've been able to talk and email almost constantly, and that's been absolutely wonderful. A vote of thanks, then, to Dell for the tough little Latitude laptop, to Motorola for their marvellous 9505 satellite phone, to Psion for their Gold Card world-standard modem, to Canon, Axis, 3Com and D-Link for their digital cameras, and to the GRIC global roaming comms service for letting us hook them all together. Isn't technology wonderful!

Elsewhere (thanks again to that same technology that enabled Ros to find and send me the links to today's stories), it seems that bacteria have had an undeservedly bad press throughout history - these days, it appears, they're actually the saviours of mankind and not the pestilence that we've always assumed! A bug named Pseudomonas Stutzeri has just been used by art restorers to salvage a badly damaged set of 15th century frescoes in Pisa. In just ten hours the bacterial culture removed 80% of an opaque organic glue used in an earlier, bungled restoration attempt, revealing the true colours of the paints for the first time in over fifty years. With specially tailored bugs on the horizon to supplement the off-the-shelf varieties, I confidently expect great things to come.

Meanwhile, the trend of increasingly bizarre intellectual property disputes continues with the grant of a patent to NetFlix to cover their online DVD rentals scheme. Coming as it does hard on the heels of the launch of a competing service from US giant Wal-Mart, this is bound to cause some tension! I use a similar service in the UK, provided by a company called DVDs On Tap (which I can thoroughly recommend) and I would hate to see that threatened in any way - but although it seems bizarre to me that the basic idea of renting things online can be patented at all, this is just the latest in a long line of similar battles. Three years ago, for example, Amazon patented the idea of e-commerce using a cookie to enable one-click purchasing, and have been threatening all and sundry ever since... A year later, taking the whole issue to its thoroughly illogical extremes, British Telecom even managed to claim ownership of the basic element of the World Wide Web itself, announcing that they invented the concept of the hyperlink for their 1980s online service Prestel.  <sigh> Where will it all end?

24th June

Browsing one of my favourite geek sites, [H]ard|OCP, I came across a link to an interesting article at New Scientist on why television advertisements seem so much louder than the programmes themselves - it's not the volume itself, apparently, but the dynamic range, and the article claims that the television companies themselves can't actually do much about it... The soundtrack on normal programming is designed so that dialog and other regular sounds peak at around 8dB less than the upper limit imposed by broadcasters, allowing dramatic effects such as explosions to peak right to the permitted maximum. In adverts, however, the dynamic range is compressed, with even the "quiet" sounds right up at the limit, and these constant high levels are apparently what makes the advertisements sound so much more loud and intrusive. This means, the author suggests, that short of remixing the advert soundtracks themselves (which would be frowned upon, I'm sure!) the broadcasting companies are powerless to prevent this kind of cheap trick.

I'm sure that the article is substantially correct, but it does raise an interesting question in that the channel advertisements commissioned by the broadcasters themselves are always just as loud and annoying! It seems obvious that they could demand a less compressed dynamic range if they wanted to, but equally obvious that they're just as mindful of the attention-grabbing tendencies of a deafening advert as the advertising companies themselves are, and simply choose not to - which rather puts the lie to their claims of being helpless in the face of the cruel, oppressive advertisers... Hmmm.

Elsewhere, all sorts of bad news... To begin with, the US Supreme Court has upheld the decision that the government can withhold funding from libraries, schools and other facilities that refuse to install content filtering software on public access web terminals:

Justices ruled that the government can withhold money from libraries that won't install blocking devices, even though the technology shuts off more than pornography. "To the extent that libraries wish to offer unfiltered access", the main ruling said, "they are free to do so without federal assistance."

Critics of the ruling are already up in arms, of course, just as they should be... Net activist Seth Finkelstein describes it as "electronic book burning", Justice John Paul Stevens calls it "a statutory blunderbuss", and the ACLU notes that libraries in poor communities (where public terminals may provide the only available means of Internet access) will be more likely to install filters because they can't afford to lose the funding. Another nail in the coffin of free speech in America, and as usual all in the name of children. Bah!

Meanwhile, the paid mouthpieces of the RIAA and MPAA, Senators Berman and Smith, have introduced a bill that would make the FBI responsible for developing anti-file sharing measures and enforcing the demands of the corporate copyright holders. Coming as it does close on the tail of Senator Orin Hatch's comments about destroying computers on P2P networks, this is a pretty scary proposal. I predict another round of attacks against the RIAA and MPAA web sites, real soon now...

On a lighter note, although perhaps equally outrageous, the eye of HAL 9000 from the movie 2001 is on sale at eBay - with a reserve price in excess of a cool $100,000... It seems like a lot of money for an obsolete camera lens in a box - especially when the box itself is only a reproduction!

Oh, and it appears that Apple have been fiddling the benchmarks for their claim that the new G5 is the fastest microcomputer on the market - and not even bothering to hide it very well! Hardware companies really have to learn that they just can't get away with that, these days - there are far too many enquiring and sceptical minds ready to hold the figures up to the light for a closer look - and more power to them, I say!

23rd June

Czechoslovakia may not the the first country that springs to mind when you think of a great national tradition of beer, but in fact the documented brewing history of one particular Czech town dates back well over a thousand years. The town is České Budějovice, known to the Germans who spread its fame throughout medieval Europe as Budiwoyz or Budweis, and from which the name of two equally famous but strikingly different beers is taken.

The first is commonly known as Budweiser Budvar, a Bohemian-style lager, malty rather than hoppy, and extremely smooth and palatable. Its history dates to the middle of the 16th century, when Czech King Ferdinand I ordered the town's main brewery to create a beer for the royal court. By 1895, when the license was renewed by the King of Wurttemberg, Budweiser had become so popular that it was putting most of the smaller breweries out of business, and later that year they consolidated in a joint venture called Budweiser Budvar. The exact date was April 15, 1895, and brewing began a few months later on October 7th.

The second is the American Budweiser, sometimes known as "The King of Beers", a thin, weak concoction dating from 1911, when the St Louis company Anheuser Busch (a relative late-comer founded in 1876) approached the Czech brewery in the hope of using an established brand to lend some gravitas to their new recipe. Budweiser agreed, on the condition that the name was only to be used in North America, and that it would be a high quality beer using only hops purchased from Budweiser themselves.

It seems likely that Anheuser Busch intended to renege on this agreement from the start, as rather than the more conventional ingredients of hops and malt, their new beer was based largely around an unusual (some would say crazed) choice - rice! In fact, they never purchased a single hop from the original Budweiser, and by 1917 the Czech company had already filed a suit for breach of contract at the world court in Den Hague.

In spite of this, the trademark agreement was extended in 1917 and again in 1939, and this is possibly the source of today's friction: as the second world war spread American soldiers around the world, with them went a demand for the peculiar brew that for some reason had become increasingly popular since the end of prohibition. With the war won, the avaricious Anheuser Busch presumably decided that their beer must do the same, and began a long series of legal disputes that is still very much alive today.

By the end of the twentieth century, of course, the giant and now massively diversified Anheuser Busch had somehow managed to make their beer into a household name, and in spite of a complete lack of justification are using their Mr Burns-style army of corporate lawyers to sue the Czechs in the hope of preventing them from using their own trademark - when the comparatively small Budweiser decided to enter the US market a few years ago, they had to use the name "Czechvar" instead!

Thanks to the complexity of international trademark law, however, the American upstarts have had to sue separately in each country they care about, and so far the overall trend has not pleased them... They have lost their suits completely in Australia, Finland, Norway, Germany, and Ireland, and earlier this year the House of Lords ruled that both breweries may use the name in the United Kingdom. In fact, last year the World Court apparently ruled that Anheuser Busch can't use the Budweiser name in Europe at all, but such is the arrogance of the American firm that they have apparently ignored this ruling completely, not even bothering to appeal against it!

Whatever the final outcome of the remaining suits, though, I firmly intend to vote with my feet... In spite of a flying start in my youth, I don't drink a great deal of alcohol these days, but on the odd occasion when I do venture into a pub I'm always delighted if I find that they sell Budweiser Budvar - for me, it will always be the real thing. Cheers!

22nd June

I finally had a few spare hours yesterday, so metaphorically rolled up my sleeves and fitted the DTP metal body to the M4 airsoft replica. Well, it's no longer an M4, really - the closest real steel match is now the Knights Armament SR-25, one of the many modern variants of the classic M16 design, popularly known as the Stoner Rifle after its designer.

I'm holding off on updating the airsoft pages with pictures until Ros is back home again with the new camera (Later this week! Wheee! :-) but here's a quick teaser, also showing the new ex-Soviet Cobra holographic sight.

Fitting the body turned out to be relatively easy, and I'm extremely pleased with the result. The things I had the biggest problems with, oddly, were some of the more trivial operations: removing the pin that held the trigger guard in place on the old receiver, for example, took a good twenty minutes of fiddling, whereas removing and refitting the motor (reputedly an awkward job) was a smooth as anything... I'm not completely happy with action of the ejection port cover at present, as it seems reluctant to both open and close again, but as it's completely cosmetic on an airsoft replica I'll live with it if necessary.

Weighing in at over ten pounds, the gun is now about as heavy as the real thing, and feels far more solid than before the upgrade - after I fitted the long front end a couple of months ago the original plastic body creaked and flexed rather alarmingly at times, and as the tabs connecting the upper and lower receiver are a known weakness in the Marui M16 replicas I was a little concerned... There's no risk now, though, and the weapon feels strong enough to fell small trees!

The sound during firing has changed for the better, too - rather than the rather plastic clicking noises of the stock receiver, the metal body has changed the tone to a rather louder, deeper, more echoing noise somewhat reminiscent of an efficiently silenced real steel weapon. Overall, a very worthwhile upgrade, the installation of which is certainly not beyond the abilities of anyone used to taking things apart and fiddling with them. Recommended.

20th June

I've been saying for ages that I must get around to going into Camden to visit the Wolf Armouries airsoft shop, but now that their long-awaited online shopping facility is finally available the prospect seem to be receding again... The site is by no means finished, as yet, but it's already obvious that they have a whole raft of things that I've never seen on the Hong Kong sites, let alone from UK suppliers. It certainly bears keeping an eye on...

One of the things I hope to be keeping an especially close eye on is another classic airsoft replica - an H&K MP5 made in the late nineties by Japanese manufacturer Youth Engineering. The company is long-defunct and these days the replicas are extremely rare, but as one of the few examples of gas blowback submachine guns I was delighted to find one advertised on Wolf's site at a relatively discounted price. I ordered it this morning, and have just had a call from them saying that unfortunately it seems to be somewhat faulty. Their engineer will be looking at it on Monday, so we shall see what transpires...

These YE replicas are said to be unusually accurate in size, weight and appearance, but the main drawback is that they are fed from an external gas tank of nitrogen or carbon dioxide - but this also brings a benefit in that the power output can be cranked up to positively unfriendly levels... I shall probably have to acquire a gas tank separately, but I'll hold off on that until I hear whether it can be successfully repaired.

18th June

Got a virus of my own, today, so just a few links between sneezes and sniffles...

Apple threatens legal action to protect monopoly (again)

SCO demands $3 billion from IBM

Senator Hatch threatens to destroy your PC

Vigilante runs over suspects in Hummer

Microsoft sues spammers!

Oh, and the Anne Summers chain has won its legal battle, and so is now allowed to advertise vacancies in Job Centres. I still think it's silly of them to claim that they're not part of the sex industry, though...

17th June

So many things to do, so little time to do it all in! Work should have been the mad rush that usually awaits when I've been away for a few days, but I didn't feel like building more servers for the Titanium pilot and so instead moved myself, my paperwork and my hardware from one side of a partition to another... We're making space for the long-awaited additional PFY (the first one pulled out when he found a vacancy closer to home, so unfortunately we're back to square one again) and as the team leader I've snagged the most spacious area for myself. My existing PFY promptly moved into the space I had vacated, and I wouldn't be surprised if I arrive tomorrow to find the DBA has fled into his area from the space closest to the door of the office... It's like a weird, 3D version of Tetris.

Meanwhile, the quantity of hardware waiting for attention at home continues to mount - today's deliveries were a matched pair of 600MHz Katmai PIII CPUs to replace the 450MHz chips in the stack of components that will eventually become the new server, and a DTP SR15 metal reciever for the airsoft assault rifle. Both will require unhurried attention, and so have been added to the pile... Some people have far too little time on their hands!

Elsewhere, an interesting mini-article at Business 2.0, showing the distribution of revenue from online downloadable music services... as usual, the artist takes an extremely small slice of the pie, even in these days of allegedly low-overhead digital distribution. Ho hum...

12th June

This time next week, on the 19th June, the infamous Unisys LZW patent expires in the USA. The acronym comes from the names of three computer scientists, Lempel, Ziv and Welch, who in the early eighties devised a set of data compression algorithms that are standard components even today. Back then, though, with 100Kb floppies and 300 baud modems still very much the norm, data compression was a hot topic, and the LZW algorithm proved to be effective on a broad mix of data types and sufficiently symmetric (i.e. compression didn't take that much longer than decompression) to be plausible even on the low-powered microcomputer platforms that needed it most. As well as stand-alone archiving utilities such as the ubiquitous PKZip and it's derivatives, the LZW algorithm was used in various standard image formats, and also by a multitude of commercial applications, often as a primitive means of encryption as much as to save disk space...

Although CompuServe had started out a few years earlier as a text-based conferencing system, by this time they had started to offer their own semi-graphical interface, CompuServe Information Manager, and having caught a glimpse of future trends were passionately encouraging their developers to make the most of the facilities available. To this end, they decided to create their own image standard, Graphics Interchange Format, using the LZW algorithms - by now freely available in technical journals and on the early academic and scientific networks that were soon to become the Internet.

CompuServe was still extremely influential at the time, and after they released the GIF specification to the public domain in 1987 it didn't take long for it to become the most common format for all but niche applications - although there were enough of those, from memory, to keep things "interesting" until the first image conversion utilities started to appear. Later variants of GIF added animation, progressive display, transparency, multiple colour tables, fractal formula embedding, and enough other bells and whistles to please everybody - although the 8bit colour depth, giving a maximum of 256 colours or shades visible at any one time, remained a constant throughout.

By this time GIFs were everywhere, online, and collectors of the porn and erotica distributed by early online purveyors such as Rusty and Edie's had spawned the term "feelthy geefs" (in a Mexican accent) which I still hear friends and colleagues use today, long after JPEG has replaced GIF as the standard format for pictures of naked ladies.

In December 1994, however, the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan. To the online community's great surprise, CompuServe and big-iron software house Unisys suddenly announced that, ah, it seemed that the LZW code wasn't really CompuServe's to release, and er, actually it was covered by a patent held by Unisys (in their previous incarnation as Sperry) since 1983, and, um, they'd really like some money from everybody, please. Or else.

The legal aspects of the claim are puzzling and obscure, as various companies turned out to have patented the LZW algorithms around that time and, indeed, IBM's patent seems to have been filed three weeks earlier... Nobody seemed to know exactly what Unisys were intending, or who was liable, and all sorts of wild rumours about a "GIF Tax" for posting images, or charges for every GIF stored or downloaded, circulated Usenet and the BBS systems and soon had end users foaming at the mouth... The reaction of the developers was equally venomous - when CompuServe admitted that they had known of the patent infringement as early as January 1993, it was easy for their users to feel that they had been encouraged to commit to the standard only to threaten them for money once they were effectively locked in. To make matters worse, the process of actually obtaining a license proved tortuous and frustrating in the extreme, with neither CompuServe nor Unisys apparently really wanting to accept responsibility for issuing them!

In the intervening years Unisys have alternately blown hot and cold over GIF licensing - one year the standard is virtually freeware, the next small-time shareware authors are being threatened with legal action... These days, the issue is becoming somewhat moot, as JPEG has taken over all in but niche applications (now, where have I heard that before?) and for those the open source Portable Network Graphics format was created (partly by ex-CompuServe programmers!) as a do-it-all replacement. The controversy has continued to simmer, though, and some speculate that the fuss may even have been a contributing factor in the bizarre death of Phil Katz, the eccentric genius behind PKZip, surely the most pirated piece of software ever, and at the centre of its own lawsuit back in 1987...

Next week in the US, however, and elsewhere in 2004, patent 4,558,302 expires, and presumably then anybody who wants to will be able to use and display GIFs to their fullest. It really doesn't matter any more, I guess, and as it's extremely unlikely that Unisys ever received significant income from the policy, it seems that all they achieved was to hasten the "them and us" mentality that has encouraged so many talented programmers to commit to open source development - doubtless to the long-term detriment of dinosaur IT corporates such as Unisys themselves...  For a contemporary analysis of the whole issue, written in 1995 but annotated and updated since then, try "The GIF Controversy".

Meanwhile, I'm going to be offline for a few days until after the weekend... I'm looking forward to a well-deserved break away from computers (except as an end-user, of course!), but the timing is rather unfortunate for work as there are several major projects and about forty minor ones either starting up or in full flow. I feel a touch guilty about running out on it all but hell, I guess I'll survive... :-)

10th June

Like so many others, it seems, I'm annoyed with the United States Postal Service. I'm expecting a package sent via their Global Express service, and can see from the online tracking that it's arrived in England and that delivery has been attempted twice while I was out. Unfortunately, as is becoming increasingly common with the courier companies in this country, the driver didn't leave a card or note - so I have nothing to tell me which company is providing the service inside the UK, and so no way of contacting them to arrange re-delivery! My enquiry to the USPS (well, my second and more sarcastic enquiry, actually as the first one was simply met with an automated form letter telling me to use the web tracking! Bah!) has just returned the following:

Express mail is a domestic service, which expedites package delivery in the US. When used for international deliveries, the package service only expedites the package's departure from the US. Once the package leaves the US, it becomes part of the destination country's mail and is subject to their handling. We usually do not receive any information on a package once it leaves the US because it is no longer in our hands.

- USPS "Customer Care"

So in other words they just drop-kick my parcel off into the blue, and I have no chance of redress or even anyone to complain at to make me feel better...  <mutters>  Corporate bastards...

9th June

It looks as if the recent Bugbear attack has left us completely unscathed, at least partly thanks to my work on Thursday evening. Only two PCs were compromised, and two EXEs on a shared server were infected. I'm not sure why it didn't spread significantly faster once it got a foot in the door, actually - it's able to spread in a multitude of different ways, but on my LAN it only seemed to explore the shared network resources, causing nothing worse than a bunch of garbage spewing out of the printers. Recent reports suggest that many instances of Bugbear currently in circulation are actually truncated, and although they can infect a machine they are too damaged to propagate extensively... If so, then we were very, very lucky...

The sheepskin rug had dried by the time I got home from the office, after an unscheduled appointment with the washing machine... I wasn't happy with the hand-wash once it had started to dry, so I ignored all instructions and recklessly threw it in the machine with regular detergent. I fished it out last night, and it looked... well, it looked exactly like a wet sheep (although having grown up in the West Country, I can testify that it certainly smelled better than one!) and as few things look more bedraggled and disreputable I was not initially encouraged.

A quick test with a hairbrush seems to be working wonders, though - I chose the sort with stiff plastic bristles tipped with little balls, on the grounds that it looked vaguely like something I'd seen in a barn once, and it seems to be separating the clumps fairly well. It's a touch more yellow that it used to be, I think, but at least it's starting to feel soft and fluffy - and my toes will appreciate that on winter mornings, even if my eyes don't. Combing the fleece is producing a lot of fine, floating fibres, though, which are not doing my hay-fever much good - and mindful of the incidence of lung disease among 19th century textile factory workers I think I'll do the rest outside and wearing a mask...

Elsewhere, the LCD vs. CRT monitor wars continue at Dan's Data  - Dan is holding his ground, and even Samsung Australia's unusually tolerant attitude to pixel faults has not swayed him... And with at least three stuck pixels on my new LCD, now, I'm wondering whether I'm going to have to explore Iiyama's own policy... For some inexplicable reason I've always assumed that the number of defects stayed constant after the end of the manufacturing process, and it hadn't occurred to me that more transistors could die in use! Unless there's a burn-in period during which failures are more likely, at this rate I can look forward to a few more dying over the next month.

8th June

I've just spent a strenuous couple of hours washing a sheepskin rug - Ros bought one for her side of the bed a few months ago, and every time I catch a glimpse of its pristine fluffiness it makes the one on my side look even more tired and matted than it really is. It nagged me again this morning, and on the spur of the moment I seized the rug and Ros's au naturel shampoo and headed for the bathroom.

Washable sheepskins are still a relatively recent innovation, and I think this is the first time I've actually tried it - it's likely to be the last time, too, as the price has fallen consistently over the last few years and it was hard work! Washing it was just like washing someone's hair, as might be expected, but rather more of it. Rinsing, though, was really tough, and took a good hour of kneading and squishing and squeezing before the water started coming out at all clear.... Now it has to dry naturally for a couple of days, and then I'll have to comb and brush it out again - which is likely to be as tedious and annoying as the rinse was. I hope that it all proves to be worth it!

Elsewhere, I've been gradually building a server to replace the aging Gateway PII that runs my home network's Active Directory and DNS/DHCP services. I really wanted something that behaved like a server, this time, and after a few unsuccessful bids on obsolete Compaq hardware at eBay, I picked up a Compuadd clone for an absolute song instead. Based around a well-cooled hot-swap SCSI chassis and an Intel L440GX+ motherboard, further bidding has added a pair of 600MHz PIII Katmai CPUs, 64Mb of disk cache for the Adaptec zero-channel RAID card, a gigabyte of ECC server RAM and five 18Gb Ultra-2 SCSI Seagate Cheetah hard disks - all for a very reasonable Ł350-ish. The various components started arriving this week, and I've built it up enough to test what I have so far. The next step will be installing Intel's Server Control utility, and this may be somewhat of a challenge as unfortunately it seems to be a plug-in to the LanDesk server management system - the full version of which is prohibitively expensive and the cut-down version that shipped with the motherboard seems to be unavailable online. If anyone has a spare copy of the Intel Server Board Resource CD for an L440GX+, please let me know...

7th June

Tired and unenthusiastic, tonight, so just a handful of interesting links, mostly from the front page of Ars.Technica:

Software predicts changes in airline ticket prices

FBI agents learn to act like 12 year old girls

Verizon's second appeal dismissed in RIAA suit

Palm to buy Handspring

UK Government cooking the books over ID cards

5th June

I've been off work for the last couple of days with a bug, so was not delighted to have a slightly panicked call from my department manager this afternoon - it seemed that a couple of our users had clicked on some kind of infected email and all the network printers were now spewing junk. Investigation showed this to be one of the less common symptoms of the very latest version of the Bugbear virus, which in this new incarnation had managed to slip through both the gateway and the email server to reach the user's desktop undetected.

Fortunately McAfee had already released a DAT update, and it didn't take long to install it on the components that hadn't as yet auto-updated - it was only a quirk of our internal schedules against McAfee's release time that left us open for a few hours... I firmly believe in belt-and-braces (and a length of string, too, just in case) when it comes to designing antivirus defences, as it seems to be one of the few areas where overdoing the redundancy is actually desirable - but even so the unfortunate timing has revealed a weakness that I will have to correct.

With new definitions now in place throughout, the worm will find it very hard to spread around the LAN, but after scanning the servers and mail databases I've found signs of at least five infected machines which will need to be isolated from the LAN and carefully cleaned before the users are allowed to login again. It's a tricky little worm, spreading in all sorts of interesting ways, and it's too soon to be confident... So here's a quick plug for McAfee's Top 10 bug killer, Stinger, a little Windows utility that scans for both the current major threats and some of the old favourites, and with a floppy-sized footprint and no need for installation it's just the thing for an emergency clean-up.

Elsewhere, and in best Dave Barry tradition I swear I'm not making this up.... The judge in the case of DJ Andrew Alcee vs. The Heartless Crew has ruled that use of the term "nizzle-shizzling" is not offensive... I'm sure we're all very glad to hear that.

Elsewhere again, via The Sideshow, here's a marvellous thing - a wooden periodic table, lovingly hand-carved, and it actually is a table! What a beautiful piece of work...

3rd June

Yesterday's Network News brought warnings of a security vulnerability in the embedded Linux kernel of the Axis network cameras, and my 2100 is one of the models affected. It's a nasty weakness, giving access to the shell with admin privileges and so allowing the potential execution of arbitrary code - but fortunately Axis have already released a firmware upgrade. Be warned, though - unlike some of the earlier BIOS upgrades, this one will erase most of the custom configuration, and also resets the root user account to a blank password - so anyone who doesn't spot that is actually more exposed than before the upgrade...

Remind me, again - Linux, especially the embedded versions, is free from all security issues, and only Microsoft is capable of releasing a bugfix which causes problems elsewhere? "I don't think so, Tim..."

2nd June

Boy, that was a busy day - engineers are such demanding users.

So, the Mars Express spacecraft is on its way... and a key part of the mission is the UK designed and built Beagle 2, a high-tech lander capable of acquiring and analysing soil samples far more comprehensively than any previous design. This is surely the most significant British contribution to any modern space mission - which is a great pity, as after WWII we had an embryonic but extremely promising rocket programme of our own, lamentably run down and finally cancelled in 1970 by a short-sighted Labour government. Some of the ballistic missile designs from the same research group are on display at the Science Museum in London, now, and are wonderful to stare at open-mouthed and, when nobody is looking, furtively touched... A piece of history that never was.

Elsewhere, researchers at the University of Manchester have created exactly the sort of fabric that Spiderman would need for his gloves and boots... Modelled on the microscopic hairs on the foot pads of geckos and other climbing lizards, a patch of the synthetic fibres as large as a human palm would be able to support the weight of said human hanging from the ceiling...

Manchester University said cost was currently prohibitive. "We have considered producing a large amount of gecko tape, sufficient amounts to enable a student to hang out of the window of a tall building," it said. "However it would cost too much money, and would not benefit us scientifically."

Indeed. As so often with this kind of nanostructure, the present manufacturing processes are stupendously uncommercial - some of these objects even have to be assembled atom by atom, and building anything of significant size is mostly unfeasible. However, successfully making just one fully-functioning assembler, the prophecy has it, will remove all production problems at a stroke. The first thing the assembler does is build a copy of itself, and then they both build copies, which build copies, which build copies... By the time they get around to making whatever it is you actually want, it's near-as-dammit free. You can bet your fur that big business will find a way to make a profit on each assembler sold, though, of course - and I expect Microsoft will be in at the ground floor with Palladium for Nanites™. You saw it here first...

1st June

Ah, the end of the weekend again, and I'm starting to think about work in the morning. At least I managed to have a few hours without obstinate computers... On the list for this week, once I'm sure the new department has settled in, is our part of the write-up for our recent Server 2003 rollout - then the start of planning and testing for the Titanium install next month, then upgrading the drivers and server management apps on our new Active Directory core servers now that Dell have finally managed to finish them, and finally re-arranging my part of the office to cope with my new PFY, due in the next couple of weeks. Boy, what a year it's been, so far...

Meanwhile, back at the stats, it's been another bumper month. As usual, many are random in-and-out hits from search engines, but occasionally someone stays to browse the entire site and I do have a handful of regular readers as well - I'm really pleased, I have to say! Feel free to vote at the Tweakers Top 50 using the button below... And if you don't, be warned: I have a million monkeys with a million fax machines, and there's no place to hide...

 

 

 

 

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