30th September

It was cold and grey this morning, and as I haven't quite adjusted to autumn, yet, I took another day off. It turned out to be a day of interesting deliveries, though, with the arrival of both my long-awaited airsoft revolver and a giant widescreen television... The latter was inevitable, really, as although there's nothing wrong with our old one, it just isn't quite snazzy enough to support the more exotic all the features of the Sky+ and DVD hardware. The new one is silver, and very large, and only just fit into the house...

Meanwhile, another perplexing link from Mike - this time to Lifegem, an artificial diamond allegedly made from the carbon of your deceased, cremated loved ones... Am I alone in finding this more than a little peculiar? [Later: Apparently not...Mike seems to think so, too.]

Elsewhere - while looking for the home page of old-time motorcycle lifestyle magazine Easyriders, I stumbled upon Easyrider LAN Pro, a computer networking company owned and staffed by bikers.  <sigh>   Why do I never come across firms like that when I'm looking for a job, instead of my usual diet of corporates and governments? Mind you, after so many years of working for strait-laced button-down organisations, I wonder if I would be able to work for anyone more enlightened, or whether I'd just be too shocked by the informality and the appearance of actually caring about their employees!

29th September

Now that was a busy day, and I wasn't even at work! The most committed of my readers might remember that a few years ago, back when I first started this journal, we went through a period of a few months during which most of our household appliances failed one by one. Among the most annoying failures were a series of dead vacuum cleaners, and in the end I splashed out on a high-tech Panasonic direct-drive model in the hope of finding something that would hang together long enough to actually clean the entire house!

In the event, of course, it only lasted a few weeks longer than the warranty before suffering catastrophic breakdown, with the entire chassis apparently succumbing to some kind of plastic fatigue - one of the little wheels fell off, one of the big ones went wonky, the lower hose split, the front covers bent... It still sucked, but, well, it sucked as well. Thoroughly disheartened, I stuck it in a corner until last month, when I decided that it was probably worth repairing after all. To my amazement, though, the quote for parts and labour came to about as much as I paid in the first place, but I really wanted another vacuum cleaner to replace the cheap, basic one we've been using recently and in the end I decided to get the parts and fit them myself.

In the end, it seems to have been a completely successful operation - but boy, was it a pain in the neck! As it was the plastic chassis itself that was bending and cracking, I had to remove every single motor, circuit board, wire and mechanical component, plus assorted clips, brackets, spacers, gaskets, pipes and tubes, before attaching them back onto the new chassis sections and wiggling and twisting and prising it all until it snapped together again. It was just like a giant 3D jigsaw, only with the risk of fatal electrocution if I got it wrong!

Somewhat to my surprise (especially as I ended up with one screw left over once I'd put it all back together!) it seems to be working very nicely indeed, and I saved about £50 - but it took over five hours of fiddling and head scratching, and although it's nice to know that I can, I don't think I'd do it again... Too much like hard work.

27th September

Remember this? It's Tanaka's replica of the S&W M629, and boy have I had a whole raft of problems getting hold of one!

As far as I can determine, Tanaka stopped making this particular model a year or so ago, but then made a short production run of only a few thousand back at the start of the summer. This prompted most of the airsoft suppliers to start listing it in their catalogues again, only for supplies to dry up almost immediately. There are similar models, but unfortunately I'm fussy when it comes to my replica guns and nothing else was quite right, so the search was on...

My first stop was the small UK firm Airsoft Kit, suppliers of my custom M4CQB and one of my favourite retailers. They didn't have one in stock, but they're a helpful and versatile group of enthusiasts and I had high hopes that they'd be able to track one down for me in time - right up to the point where they announced that they were having to close down due to pressures of work elsewhere.

Next I tried Red Wolf in the US, but they completely failed to respond to my enquiry and, having just checked, the model is now shown as unavailable again in their listings. Then Den Trinity and the Airsoft Shop in Hong Kong - the former admitted straight away that in spite of the listing on their web site the replicas were unobtainable, the latter teased me for a week or so while we tried to identify the particular version I wanted in broken English, and then admitted that they were unobtainable. A thorough search through the other Far East suppliers revealed nothing but "out of stock" tags, until I finally worked my way through to the UN Company, and the reason that I'm so annoyed.

I've dealt with this firm before, and on the whole they've provided an adequate service. They have a quirk, though, in that they're prepared to issue formal quotes for items that they don't actually have in stock, and this is where the problem lies. As with most of the Far Eastern airsoft suppliers, you fill in an online order form and then they reply with a quotation including overseas shipping - if you're happy with the total, you send funds via PayPal and the deal is done. Unfortunately, this is where the UN Company's little quirk has cost me a significant amount of money, as it is only after they receive the funds that they check to make sure that they can actually supply the items in question! Now, this has happened a couple of times before and they've always been quite willing to offer a refund, crediting my PayPal account with the full amount as soon as I cancelled the order. It's been annoying, certainly, as I do expect a formal quotation for goods to imply that the goods can actually be provided, but it's only toy guns and really not the end of the world...

This time, however, to my surprise and annoyance the amount refunded to my account was around $13 less than the amount I had paid, and some investigation showed that this is an apparently undocumented feature of PayPal's policy - if a transaction is cancelled within 24 hours the full amount is refunded automatically, but if it takes any longer then the amount is recalculated based on the current exchange rate! On this occasion the weekend had intervened, and by the time the UN Company finally issued the refund the exchange rate had changed quite significantly - hence my $13 shortfall.

Now, my take on this is that the UN Company are responsible for refunding me the whole amount that I paid them, whatever tricks PayPal would like to do with the exchange rates - as it stands, I've lost the not inconsiderable sum of $13 for the privilege of being told that they can't actually sell me items that they'd already offered to supply, and I don't find that at all satisfactory! Their take on the matter is rather different, though - as far as they're concerned a refund was issued, and the fact that they waited long enough for PayPal to withhold a portion of it is not their problem.

I disagree, of course - the whole problem arises from their practice of issuing quotes and accepting payments without actually checking to make sure of the availability of the items they're quoting for! This is where the whole process can potentially fail, and I really don't think it's an ethical way to do business. It's not a huge amount of money, I admit, but it's not peanuts and anyway my principles have been decidedly ruffled. To be fair, they did offer a 10% discount on my next order - but I simply can't take the risk! The airsoft replicas I fall in love with always seem to be the more uncommon and quirky models, and this is the third time in six months or so that the UN Company has let me down after I've already paid... In order to recover my $13 I'd have to spend at least another $130 with them, and with no guarantee of availability a further failed transaction could actually cost me even more money!

I've pointed this out to them, of course - first reasonably, then rather less reasonably, and finally, in desperation, with threats to expose the flaw in their ordering process to as wide an audience as possible. My entreaties fell on deaf ears, and so this is the first salvo of the retaliation... And I intend to follow it up with a précis to all the airsoft forums I can find. Hell hath no fury like a geek scorned!

There is a potentially happy ending, however. Another search this week turned up a company I haven't dealt with before, Hong Kong-based War 4 Toys. Not only did they have the exact model I asked for in their listing, but they cheerfully confirmed that yes, they did indeed have one in stock - and they sent it out within a few hours of receiving my payment today, and even offered to declare it as a birthday present in an attempt to save me the import duty! Now that's what I call service.

26th September

Late last year there was considerable chatter in the hardware geek forums about a new PC performance and customisation magazine and, having registered my interest at the time, a few weeks ago I was offered a free three month trial subscription. My first thought was that they'd missed the boat, as the PC modding scene seems to have cooled somewhat after the fever pitch of the last two years, but I suspect that actually this only includes the early adopters and not the mass market that the magazine is presumably intended to appeal to. The first issue arrived today, and rather to my surprise it's not at all bad - although it does seem peculiar reading about this sort of thing in a physical, printed magazine instead of in online reviews and articles!

Elsewhere, this week is the 30th anniversary of a little-known computer, the MCM/70 built by the equally little-known Canadian company Micro Computer Machines. Lost in obscurity until it's recent publicity in the IEEE's subscription-only Annals Of The History OF Computing, it pre-dated the original Apple hardware by four years and is now being hailed as the first real microcomputer. It used an Intel CPU with up to 8Kb RAM, and a 14Kb ROM containing the OS and a version of the APL programming language. Data was saved to a built-in cassette tape drive in a digital format, reminiscent of later Commodore systems. Somewhat to my surprise I'd never heard of this particular beastie, but there are pictures and some details in the virtual tour at the York University Computer Museum.

Meanwhile, in a wonderful reverse Sharman Networks is sueing the record companies for using the ripped-off Kazaa Lite software to trace the alleged P2P copyright bandits, and the RIAA have dropped another lawsuit in a classic case of mistaken identity. If the media companies didn't have such incredibly weighty political backing that all this stupidity and shooting themselves in the foot wasn't largely irrelevant, it would be really funny... Oh, well.

23rd September

Well, it was a lovely sunny day, today, but the quantity of sunlight seemed completely consistent with just the one sun in the sky so I guess Jupiter hasn't gone nova quite yet, at least... and I'm still not holding my breath. However, at least all the green ink has revived my interest in the Galileo mission in general, and I've found some wonderful images of Io at the JPL site.

Meanwhile, everybody is talking about the new craze that is apparently sweeping the Net, dubbed "Reflectoporn". This is the practice of taking a picture of an item you're advertising on eBay in such a way that your own naked reflection is somehow included in the image. I think that this is a triumph of hype over fact at present, though, as there are around a thousand times as many sites discussing the fad as there are actual pictures, to the point where it has even achieved it's own Yahoo category... Strange times, indeed.

22nd September

An interesting start to the week, today, in the shape of a telephone interview with Microsoft's PR writers to sum up our installation of Exchange 2003. All went very smoothly when it came to it, and my own PR guys were very pleased with my performance, it seems - except when I mentioned that we would be using the new encryption systems in the Outlook Web Access facility to protect communications from our field engineers in dubious locations such as China... At this there were sudden intakes of breath and hasty interjections asking for that to be removed from the transcript, so evidently the subject of Western trade with China is somewhat politically sensitive. I have to say that I'm concerned myself, if probably for different reasons - many corporates and governments seem to be racing flat-out for short-term profits whilst ignoring that fact that we're creating a new technological superpower in the process, and one which will probably crush us all like the financial insects we are in twenty years time.    :-(

Elsewhere - and quite a long way elsewhere, in this case, my friend Mike seems to have embarked upon an experiment in raising my blood pressure to implausible levels by forwarding links to outrageous news stories. Today's gem is headlined "Could NASA Use Galileo to Create a Jovian Nagasaki?", and is a marvellous piece of green ink pseudo-science that had me foaming at the mouth after the first paragraph.

Galileo has been a remarkably successful mission for NASA, and after it's launch in 1989 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, it has been exploring Jupiter and its environs since December 1995. In that time it has discovered many new moons (bringing the final total to a staggering and somewhat superfluous 61), returned all sorts of remarkable images of the Jovian satellites and, in best scientific tradition, raised a whole host of new questions.

On board the Galileo probe, however, is a module named the Radioisotope Thermal Generator, an "atomic battery" comprising some 48 pounds of Plutonium-238, and it is here that the contention arises. Now, Plutonium is not a dreadfully pleasant chemical even ignoring it's tendency to explode under duress, so in order to avoid any chance of it ever coming home to roost on Earth or anywhere else that Man might ever want to go, NASA took the decision to destroy the probe by plunging it into the atmosphere of Jupiter, a planet so vast and hostile already that a little extra radiation will make no difference at all.

The green ink scientists do not agree, however, and they're worried - their basic premise is that when the atomic battery starts to implode under the extreme pressure of Jupiter's super-dense atmosphere, it will reach critical mass and explode with the power of a small nuclear bomb, giving a yield of around 200 kilotons. This may not seem like much, on the face of it, as considerably larger weapons have already been tested on our own smaller, more fragile planet without causing an instant catastrophe (except locally, of course!) but the green ink types don't stop there... Because of the extreme density of Jupiter's atmosphere, they say, together with it's chemical composition, there is a distinct possibility of a runaway chain reaction setting Jupiter's atmosphere on fire and turning it into a new star! Gosh!

After that, they say, "all bets are off" - likely effects include massive quantities of superheated gas being ejected out into the rest of the solar system, shockwaves knocking planets out of their orbits, the extinction of all life on Earth, crop circles being formed under the direction of aliens from the constellation Pisces (I'm not making this up - really, I couldn't) and general doom, gloom and a thoroughly bad time all round. Gosh, again!

Now, the probe was scheduled to enter Jupiter's atmosphere yesterday, and so far I haven't seen any particular signs of a new sun emerging... And after all, in the 2010 movie that presumably inspired these idiots (somehow I doubt they read the book) it did all happen very quickly - Jupiter may be a long way away in comparison to Romford, but on the cosmic scale of things it's right in our back yard and at present the light would only take about 45 minutes to reach us. So, personally I'm feeling fairly safe from alien crop circles - although after writing this, my blood pressure is definitely elevated and I'm off to calm down with NASA's Galileo End of Mission Coloring Book, just the thing for those of a nervous disposition... Even if, unaccountably, they seem to have omitted the "Jupiter turns into a second sun and destroys the Solar System " picture. How remiss...

20th September

This is outrageous - in an interview quoted in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the director of the "law enforcement and compliance" department of eBay, Joseph Sullivan, reveals a chilling lack of concern for the privacy of the service's registered users:

We don't make you show a subpoena, except in exceptional cases," Sullivan told his listeners. "When someone uses our site and clicks on the `I Agree' button, it is as if he agrees to let us submit all of his data to the legal authorities. Which means that if you are a law-enforcement officer, all you have to do is send us a fax with a request for information, and ask about the person behind the seller's identity number, and we will provide you with his name, address, sales history and other details - all without having to produce a court order".

Further on in the interview, a closed session forming part of the Cyber Crime 2003 conference held in Connecticut, Sullivan eagerly reveals details of eBay's various entrapment techniques, and how they abuse their privileged position to act as a stool pigeon for the law enforcement authorities. It's maddening stuff, all in all, and given how trivial identity theft can be these days, it's probably only a matter of time before some malcontent tricks eBay into releasing personal details and then firebombs the home of someone who's left him negative feedback. I wonder if Sullivan will be so enthusiastic about eBay's policy of joyful compliance then?

Having found the home page for the Cyber Crime 2003 conference, though, I've come across something odd - the annual conference of that name is held in Connecticut, and Sullivan was there as a speaker. However, it is always held in February, and although the Haaretz article is undated it refers to the conference as happening "last week"! Hmmm. A further search shows that the story was discussed back in February, but for some unknown reason has just re-emerged on some of the tech sites as current affairs! Heh!

Elsewhere... Conventional theory suggests that the earliest mammals were small, scared critters cowering in the shadows of the last of the dinosaurs, but new evidence unearthed in Venezuela suggests otherwise:

The fossil of a 1,500-pound animal, 9 feet long, belonged to a rodent - "Imagine a weird guinea pig but huge, with a long tail for balancing on its hind legs and continuously growing teeth," research team leader Marcelo Sanchez-Villagra of the University of Tubingen in Germany said.

<shudders at the thought>  Must I?

19th September

We've become very used to the high quality digital picture from our Sky+ satellite receiver, over the last few months, and it seemed a shame to lose so much image quality by archiving movies we wanted to keep to tired old VHS video tapes... A little research showed that consumer-level DVD recorders had recently become a stable, mature product with a price to match, and considerably more research finally narrowed down the absurd number of DVD formats. We're intending to use the recorder for archiving of programmes recorded from the satellite channels and for preserving a few irreplaceable video tapes, so capacity and long-term stability are the main considerations. This lead me to DVD-RAM format, which is commonly used for archiving computer data and so will probably remain current and supported for a fair few years to come. The format also offers the greatest capacity per disc with up to twelve hours at the lowest quality, approximately that of VHS - at the other end of the spectrum a single movie can be stored at the native quality of the satellite broadcast itself. As the media are completely rewritable, the format also offers considerable flexibility in editing existing recordings on the player itself and in general they can be treated more like magnetic media than traditional optical disks.

The major drawback of the RAM format is that it is not supported by regular consumer DVD players, which would remove the ability to pass recordings to friends or play them back on our PCs. However, the main advocate of DVD-RAM is Panasonic, and their DMR-E series recorders also support the DVD-R write-once format, which is compatible with 99% of consumer players and probably almost as future proof as DVD-RAM itself. Panasonic's very latest models have all sorts of fancy things like built-in hard disks and memory card readers, but the ever-so-slightly obsolete DMR-E50 model still has all the functionality I need and can be found at bargain prices all over the web. It arrived today and slotted in under the television (now looking rather obsolete itself, and probably due for replacement next!) in place of the existing DVD player. We'll put it through it's paces over the weekend and see what transpires, so watch this space...

18th September

Hmmm. Oxford's Ashmolean Museum has just paid almost a quarter of a million pounds for a rude 16th century plate, describing it as "one of the most extraordinary and fascinating pieces of Italian maiolica in existence". I have to admit that it's certainly unusual...

Meanwhile, courtesy of BB Spot, another of their excellent spoofs - Coders baffled by Satisfied Client.  <giggle>

Elsewhere, Popular Science magazine's list of the worst jobs in science:

We solicited nominations from more than a thousand working scientists and culled the list for the most noxious. Then we voted. Just how bad can a science job get? The answer: Really, really bad.

And they're right...

17th September

Midweek. Tired. Quick links...

Odd - an archive of documents that never were.

UK government ignores everybody and enforces data retention...

... but further restricts people who can snoop through the data. At least in theory.

At last - Ethernet to the home - and over coax, too, not fibre!

New 3D image technology - and unusually, nothing to do with holograms.

16th September

I was at a trade show at the weekend, and overheard the following - "I was thinking of buying an Apple, as they're faster than PCs". What a triumph of hype over fact on the part of Apple's marketing department...  :-(

Meanwhile, some pictures...

Ros gave me a Panic Button for my birthday, to match my Any Key - seen here trimmed down in height somewhat to mount on my spiffy (but ultra low profile) black and silver Logitech keyboard.

Another magnetic thing - I was rather fond of this one. I built it as a recursive pyramid of tetrahedrons, then discovered that once it was complete it had sufficient strength for me to reach inside and remove all the surplus structure. Neat!

One of my cacti started to flower at the weekend. It's a tiny little cluster of Notocactus, less than two inches from end to end, and the flower is almost as large as the main cactus plant itself. Cactus flowers never last very long, though, and it's already starting to close and shrivel as I write this - but unusually another flower is growing just behind it. It will be interesting to see if it matures as well.

15th September

Corsair's new 500MHz XMS memory modules have a little row of coloured LEDs on top, which light up green, yellow and red in turn to indicate... well, to be honest I'm not actually exactly sure what they indicate, but it's certainly as cool as anything! There's a short video clip of it in action here, courtesy of geek site [H]ard|OCP.

I've been thinking about flashing lights myself, recently, too - a recent speculative acquisition was a Knightlight module, modelled on the classic chasing light strip on the car from tacky 80s TV show Knight Rider and designed to be mounted in a spare 5¼" drive bay. I don't have any free drive bays, as usual, but instead I'm intending to bury it somewhere deep in the maze of cabling inside the case, hopefully producing a soft, flickering red glow to supplement the steady light from the two cold cathode neons. I think it might look rather neat, actually...

Talking of free drive bays, though - or in this case their absence... eighteen months after buying my PC case and then having it extensively modified, the company who manufacture it is now offering not only a virtually identical pre-modded version, but also an extra-height version that incorporates an additional 5¼" drive bay. Boy, that would have been useful!

Meanwhile, apparently Microsoft have just released the production version of Office 2003 to Enterprise Licensing customers, which will be extremely useful - we're supposed to be using the new version of SMS (only just out of beta itself!) to deploy it to the entire company sometime in the next few months, and the earlier we start testing and experimenting the happier I'll be. Now all I have to do is find the downloadable version, which previous experience suggests will be quite a puzzle - but I'd rather not wait another three weeks until it turns up on our regular set of update disks. If I'm not back in an hour, send out a search party...

13th September

Just snippets, today, as there's a lot on.

I just heard that musician Warren Zevon died last Sunday. Ah, well... I'm playing Werewolves Of London as I write this.

The Beatles are suing Apple - now that Apple's iTunes online music store is an obvious success, a twenty year old lawsuit is rearing it's ugly head again.

How to make high quality speaker cables from CAT5 network cabling - although it's such a fuss that personally I'd rather pay for ready-made.

Alien - The Director's Cut - cleaned up, and with additional footage restored... Due in the theatres around November, although I'll probably wait until the DVD next year.

The "truth" about Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine - although the writer seems to have missed the point somewhat, in that Moore is not actually opposed to the NRA per se!

And, finally - spy on your partners with Lover Spy. Allowing full monitoring, data capture and remote control, from the description it appears to be a repackaged commercial version of classic hacking tool BackOrifice! This is dubious in so many ways...

12th September

I've spent the last few evenings slowly and carefully applying security patches to the Linux operating system of my Sun-Cobalt RaQ server before exposing it to the hostile world of the Internet, and it's certainly been an extremely educational experience - as well as an exceedingly tedious one.

To begin with, there are a lot of them - I've had to apply a total of forty separate patches to bring my system up to date, and evidently the concept of a Service Pack that incorporates multiple updates into one package seems to have been lost on Sun. There are periodic roll-ups, but bizarrely their installation prerequisite is all of the preceding individual updates! Somebody is missing the point, somewhere, and I don't think that it's me... Oh, and at least two thirds of the patches require a reboot after installation, too, and in spite of the meme that Windows is slow to boot, I can testify that my RaQ is definitely just as sluggish!

Secondly, the problems the updates are fixing are depressingly familiar from many years of working with Microsoft operating systems - buffer overflows, cross-site scripting vulnerabilities, directory traversal vulnerabilities, weaknesses that allow arbitrary code to be executed with root permissions, security issues with mail readers... all of the old favourites.

Thirdly, the overall pattern that this process reveals is equally familiar - security patches that introduce additional vulnerabilities, patches that are re-issued two weeks later because they didn't work the first time, patches that are withdrawn because they break other system components... all the things that the Linux weenies regularly nail Microsoft to the wall about!

For years Microsoft (and Bill Gates himself, as if he still wrote code in this day and age!) have been vilified for releasing systems with exactly these sort of security problems, and for failing to handle the subsequent patches with 100% success... the impression one gets from the IT press and sites like Slashdot is that they're the only people in the world who don't write perfect code every time, but it's clear that the creators of Sun's Linux implementation are every bit as fallible.

So, what have I learned?

1)  Linux is just as insecure as Windows, and in just the same ways.

2)  Linux needs just as many reboots during reconfiguration.

3)  Linux programmers make just as many mistakes as their Windows cousins.

4)  There is a whole bunch of bullshit talked about how wonderful Linux is!

My advice to the script kiddies currently targeting Windows systems is - move to Linux! Security scares on Windows systems are so well publicised these days, and with the Windows Update mechanism so smooth and painless to use I'm convinced that the security of an average Windows system is becoming tighter and tighter with every passing month. By contrast, with the prevalent meme that Linux is a secure operating system fresh out of the box, and given the incredibly tortuous series of patches and updates to apply, most of the recent batch of converts simply won't be bothering - and their systems will be wide open to any one of a number of critical and easily exploited security vulnerabilities. So re-write your nasty little scripts for Linux, then, and see if you can wipe the self-deluded smiles off some of those smug faces... After all the patronising abuse aimed at Windows users over the years, I'd pay good money to see that by now.

11th September

So, it's September 11th again, and the news media is filled with saccharin sympathy for the people of New York. Many of them will never get over the terrorist attack, we're told, and the effect on the morale and "spirit" of the city as a whole is incalculable... It's interesting that nobody has ever shown any similar concern over the effects of more than thirty years of the IRA's terrorist bombing campaign on the city of London, which we are apparently supposed to shrug off as just one of those things...

It's also very interesting to note that throughout the seventies and eighties many of the very same people of New York, traditionally a city with strong Irish sympathies, were attending the $500-per-head fund-raising dinners and contributing in the bars to indirectly pay for the very bombs that were used against the people of London. I guess we're not allowed to mention that now that terrorism has directly affected America, too, but it's true nevertheless - and anyone who walked through Docklands after the Canary Wharf bomb in 1996 isn't likely to forget it. Half a tonne of explosive makes quite an impression on the memory...

10th September

My name in lights... well, in 12 point Courier, at least. I wrote to Computer Weekly to complain about their story on the London law firm who were allegedly to be first with Exchange 2003, and rather to my surprise they published my rant on their letters page. The messed up my grammar and phrasing a touch, but I gather that's quite standard (a magazine editor doesn't feel as if he's doing his job unless he introduces his own unique "style" to every contribution) and in spite of that it is nice to see my name in print...  :-)

Ros gave me a wonderful magnetic thing for my birthday, and it was so fascinating that we immediately sent off for another pair of kits to expand it. The 4" plastic rods have a powerful neodium magnet recessed into each end, which clicks very snugly against the big steel ball bearings. Early efforts include the stellated icosahedron on the left, and on the right Ros's weird bird cage thing - inside the framework is an octahedron that swings and rotates freely from a magnetic bearing, very clever!

Meanwhile, pioneering nuclear physicist Edward Teller has died at the age of 95. Often controversial, Teller came under fire from the scientific community after World War 2 for denouncing fellow physicist Robert Oppenheimer as unpatriotic, and again in the 1980s for encouraging President Regan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defence Initiative. Teller was one of the very last of the Manhattan Project scientists (although I gather Hans Bethe is still alive and working part-time at Cornell at the age of 98!), and his passing marks the passing of an era, too - the Hydrogen Bomb that Teller envisioned and championed in the 1950s was never used in war, but formed the backbone of the "Mutually Assured Destruction" threat that kept an uneasy peace through the entire latter half of the century. These days the perceived threat of global nuclear war has been almost entirely replaced by the smaller-scale threats of chemical and biological warfare, but I really can't tell if that's an improvement...

9th September

Busy busy! My RaQ 4r arrived today, but I was late home from work and have had no time to do more than boot it up and set it's IP address, so currently it's just a pretty blue paperweight. The delay was caused by the sudden appearance of our tame Microsoft consultant, who unilaterally decided that today would be a good day to replace the evaluation version of Exchange 2003 (installed due to lack of the proper release media at the time) with the real thing... The directory and databases were already in place, of course, so it was simply a matter of replacing the binaries and everything went very smoothly. The only glitch was an apparent failure to install Microsoft Search, the database engine used in the full-text indexing facility - but as we're not actually using that at present I was quite content to call it a night and let him take the problem away for investigation offsite.

Meanwhile, my attempts to acquire the Tanaka airsoft revolver I'd set my heart on are apparently doomed to failure. Red Wolf in the US never replied to my request for a quote, and although the UN Company in Hong Kong were willing enough to quote, they've obviously missed the point somewhat as they waited until I'd accepted the quote and paid via PayPal before telling me that it was out of stock! Tsk! Closer to home, the small but keen Airsoft Kit have also just told me that it's unavailable, so I'm running out of sources. I shall have to cast the net more widely, I think.

8th September

Monday, Monday... Tired as usual, so just a few quick links...

Ultra-low frequency sound causes spooky feelings, apparently - so taken together with the similar effects from certain electromagnetic fields, I think the whole ghost thing really is pretty much wrapped up, now.

Shuttle flights to resume in March 2004 - fine words from NASA, but is it the same papering-over-the-cracks technique used after Challenger? I rather suspect it might be...

Janes claim that Boeing are working on anti-gravity aircraft propulsion - and Boeing deny it. Hmmm - it's that spinning superconductor thing again, from the sound of it... I'm not convinced.

Uh, now this is odd - Toynbee Tiles, named after the eccentric historian Arthur Toynbee and bearing distinctly peculiar messages, are showing up embedded in city streets. Kind of like urban crop circles...

6th September

Phew! As a birthday treat, Ros took me into London to see The Reduced Shakespeare Company, and the show was very, very, very funny! I really don't remember when I last laughed so much, so loud and so often, and now that we're home again I'm actually feeling quite limp from it all! We saw the classic production, their unique version of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, but these days they're also presenting "abridged" versions of The Bible and the complete history of America, and I have every reason to expect that those would be just as funny. A word of warning, though - unless you're really fond of audience participation, you probably don't want to sit in the first couple of rows...

Elsewhere, Dan has reminded us that the classic 1980s IBM PC keyboard is still available new from the current licensee of the design, PC Keyboard.com. I'm a lot happier with my full-on multimedia Logitech board, but I know some people like the old IBM battleship models, for some reason...

Oh, and here are a lot more rude origami designs... Ros made me the dollar bill vagina, and it's really neat - but I have to admit that I definitely prefer the real thing.  ;-)

5th September

We had a consultant in today to give us a fast overview of Exchange 2003 and how it integrates into the Active Directory, and after a few hours of listening to him explain both the fine details and the big picture I was starting to feel quite humble! I've been using computers since the late seventies, so it's extremely unusual to meet someone who gives me the impression that he just plain knows more than I do, but this guy certainly managed... That probably does me good occasionally, though, as under normal circumstances I known more than any ten garden variety techies put together, and after a while of that there is a definite danger of one's ego inflating to the size of a cow. [Later: I forgot - he commented that my computer room was the tidiest and best organised he'd seen in ages, so I guess my ego swelled a little, after all...]

Meanwhile, Microsoft's new mouse has a wheel that rocks and rolls - as well as clicking and scrolling vertically in the normal way, the entire assembly tilts to the sides to permit horizontal scrolling as well. The applications of this are probably rather limited, I suspect, but under certain circumstances I think it could be remarkably useful - working on large spreadsheets, for example, or for certain graphics editing processes. Initially only available on their wireless model, I expect to see it spread to other members of the family soon, and doubtless the other manufactures will be along with their equivalent real soon now...

Not so good for Microsoft is the $520 million penalty just handed out in the bizarre patent infringement lawsuit brought against them by small development house Eolas Technologies. As well as the damages award, one of the largest ever, if the verdict stands Microsoft will be forced to make fundamental changes to Internet Explorer which could cause massive problems to the vast majority of web users. Basically, the Eolas patent covers how a browser plugin is controlled by a remote server, and apparently covers most of the common add-ons and enhancements - Macromedia's Flash and Shockwave, Java applets of all kinds, Real Media streams, online chat windows, you name it! On the face of it the patent claim is extremely unlikely, as many of these technologies existed  before the claim was filed in 1994 - but Microsoft themselves evidently failed to demonstrate such "prior art" in the trial and so it seems unlikely that any other company could do any better! Eolas should be careful over how they proceed with this now, though - given the recent invective levelled at SCO by the comparatively small Linux community, they're in grave danger of winning the battle but losing the war by alienating tens of millions of computer users worldwide. When Flash and web-based chat suddenly stop working, people will notice...

Elsewhere, now here's a thing - Robert A. Heinlein's first novel, written in the late 1930s before his first short story "Lifeline", but deemed too racy to be published or even sent through the US mail service! The Heinleins apparently destroyed all copies of the work, "For Us, the Living", but a copy survived in the hands of a friend and after considerable detective work has just been tracked down. The few who have read it say that it isn't at all bad, and although very clearly a first novel by a new author, it is definitely worth publishing and will make a worthy addition to the canon of an undisputed master of the field. Look for it in the bookshops sometime around November.

Finally, another competitor in this month's "waste of skin" contest... The jerk who wrote the third copycat variant of the recent Blaster worm has just been caught and, just like the hapless "fun-loving teen" who wrote the second variant, his decision to use his regular online username in the worm's payload message seems to have been instrumental in his identification and capture.  <sigh>  God help us all if anyone clever starts writing these things...

4th September

Ros had to phone IT stalwart Simply Computers, yesterday, and was greeted with the news that they are now "Misco incorporating Simply Computers". The Misco group has grown and grown, over the years, gradually absorbing Inmac, HCS, Global, Systemax, Dartek, Tiger, and probably a few other names long since forgotten. I wouldn't mind if half of them didn't still send me separate catalogues, but as the range of products on offer is exactly the same, with identical pricing and even identical stock codes, maintaining the fiction that they're still individual companies is really just an annoyance...

Meanwhile, Mike pointed me to a fascinating little utility, DOSBox, which emulates an obsolete PC in a window for playing classic DOS games... The current emulation is of a 286 or 386, with full EMS/XMS memory support and an emulated SoundBlaster sound card (among others), for maximum compatibility. The list of games supported is already impressive, and with Ros hankering after the old Commander Keen games I shall have to give it a try. There are other solutions, certainly, but this sounds like a lot less fuss than VMWare.

Elsewhere, a new worm is starting to spread around the net - and this one has more of a political message than usual. Dubbed "Quaters", it criticises Prime Minister Tony Blair, accusing him of wasting taxpayer money on immigrants instead of spending it on the NHS and schools. "Think about it Mr Blair. Your career depends on it, we've had enough," the message says in part. The worm also attempts to launch a denial-of-service attack on government website http://www.number-10.gov.uk. Anti-virus firm Sophos, who identified and named the worm, don't seem to think that it's especially prevalent at present, but my experience today suggests otherwise - I've seen it at the office, and both Ros and I have received it at our home accounts, so I reckon it's all over the UK net already...

3rd September

So, according to his friend, the creator of the Teekids variant of the Blaster worm is just a normal, fun-loving teen, and likely to be innocent - "I don't think he's really a hacker, he's just a kid that got into something that's bigger than he is, that's all."

Well, of course he isn't a hacker - modifying the Blaster code took no particular skill, vision or cunning - but after all the publicity of recent years even a "fun-loving teen" must understand the effect of viruses on organisations and businesses. Considering the huge media coverage that followed the outbreaks of I Love You, Melissa, Michelangelo, Chernobyl, Klez and all the other recent nasties, there's really no excuse for someone with even a passing familiarity with computers not understanding the consequences of creating and releasing one. Something that he evidently didn't understand, though, is how very seriously the FBI and US courts are now taking this behaviour, and one assumes that he is already deeply regretting attaching his usual online nickname to his little creation... It reminds me of the old adage about chain letters - when committing your first federal offence, don't put your name on it and send it to a dozen strangers!

Meanwhile, here's a strange thing - the Ideazon ZBoard Modular Keyboard. I don't have the energy to describe it, so it's probably best to go and read the review... Elsewhere, Dan has been looking at external disk drive systems, and has reviewed a couple of new devices on the market - an ultra-minimalist Firewire adaptor, and the first Serial ATA solution. Interesting stuff...

2nd September

I took a day off, today, and as usual it turned into somewhat of a busman's holiday... The first task was to finish decommissioning the old server, moving the external RAID array onto the new system and tidying some of the cabling to make way for the new RaQ appliance, due soon. It all went fairly smoothly, and the Active Directory server now has three Adaptec SCSI interfaces - a dual Zero Channel 1130U2 for the internal RAID array, a 2940UW for the external software RAID, and a plain old 2940 for the CD jukebox... Now that's a server.   :-)

After that, I replaced the old Netgear 802.11b wireless hardware that I use for the laptop and DLink webcams with a new 3Com 802.11g system - I bought this rather on a whim, having spotted a bundle of the Office Connect 11g access point and a PC card NIC for a very reasonable price at Dabs. It all installed relatively smoothly, with only a little head-scratching over fussy security settings, and after a quick test it does seem noticeably faster. The 54Mbps 802.11g hardware is all very new, though, and I'll write a little more about it once I have a better idea how it's behaving.

Meanwhile, alternative tourism - a fascinating set of ideas from French think tank Latourex, the Laboratory of Experimental Tourism.

Sick of sightseeing? Tired of tour guides? Then why not try experimental tourism, a novel approach to travel that starts with a quirky concept and can lead anywhere from Bora Bora to a bus stop. Take monopolytourism. Participants armed with the local version of a Monopoly game board explore a city at the whim of a dice roll, shuttling between elegant shopping areas and the local water plant - with the occasional visit to jail. Or countertourism, which requires you to take snapshots with your back turned to landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben.

Elsewhere - make your own origami genitalia. Take a look - it really is rather good...

1st September

Another tiring day at the silicon face, today, with our favourite consultants SynTech onsite to sort out a handful of annoying little problems that have been building up over the last few months, and also to start planning our upcoming installation of Topaz, Microsoft's latest version of Systems Management Server. The work was fairly productive, in that although we haven't actually fixed most of the outstanding problems, we've moved a long way towards understanding their nature - we'll crack them on the next assault, I think...

Meanwhile, a handful of random links...

Harley-Davidson's 100th birthday - brash, overweight, noisy things if you ask me... I was always preferred a nice little Triumph Tiger, myself, or for customs a big Jap four with looooong forks and a hardtail. Ah, youth...

Via Space.Com - Rotanev, Derf, Navi, and other Backward Star Names

From Ars.Technica - four strange obsessions of the dotcom boom

Dune's ornithopters at University of Toronto


Closer to home, it's been a slow month at Epicycle - page views are up again, compared to last month, but the total number of individual visitors barely scraped past the previous peak. That's no excuse for not voting for me at Tweakers Australia, though, so clicking the button below will guarantee that this time next month you still have fingers to click with...Capiche?



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