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EPICYCLE

 

30th January

This has been a long, cold month, and I'll be glad when it's over... Although, in fact, the entire year is looking less than appealing right now.

The MyDoom virus author was "just doing his job" - but as Microsoft have now matched SCO's $250,000 bounty, I hope he feels that his job was worth whatever happens to a man with a half million dollar price on his head... Somebody knows who did this, and that kind of money must be very, very tempting indeed.

Big computer manufacturers slammed for exploiting overseas labour - Dell's PCs are so cheap, say critics, because they are made by indentured slaves working in appaling conditions... Oh!

What if your PC knew how you were feeling? Well, mine would probably be disgusted, and refuse to work for me any longer.

So Mike Rowe turns out to be just another leech feeding on Microsoft's bank balance, then? Damn, but there are a lot of those, these days. Bah!

Microsoft withdraws URL login support from IE - no more http://username:password@site URLs, apparently to avoid phishing and spoofing attacks. How inconvenient!

Google tells Booble to cease and desist - Booble is a new adult search engine, obviously closely modelled on Google - but as far as I can see with very sparse content, and pretty much a waste of space right now.

German cannibal cleared of murder - and I have to say that I thoroughly approve! However weird and disgusting it may seem, people ought to have a right to do whatever they want with their own bodies -and if that includes having someone kill them and eat them, then so be it.

HP staff told not to open email document - a strongly worded internal memo criticising HP's spin machine is being treated almost as a virus by the company's management, according to insiders.

A flower sensitive to explosives - designed to reveal buried landmines by changing colour. Now that's a clever idea!

Pre-upgraded X-Box - faster CPU, more RAM, bigger disk... Nifty!  [Update: Apparently it tends to run  games too fast to be playable, and has problems with DVD playback - not so nifty, after all, then!]

'Ctrl-Alt-Delete' inventor restarts career - I'd hardly call it an invention, though!

Medical X-rays to blame for cancer - an extremely upsetting report, unfortunately, I have to say...

Workstation CPU shoot-out - and my HyperThreading Xeons come out very well, over all.   :-)

 

29th January

It snowed, yesterday, which meant that in the evening I had to go outside to stand on a chair and brush snow off our satellite disk with a long-handled mop before I could watch television! They don't mention anything about that in the Sky adverts!

Once I'd done that, though, I was able to watch Event Horizon, which turned out to be a relatively good film. Starring Laurence Fishburne, "Morpheus" from the Matrix series (including this little-known item), and Sam Neil from, well, everywhere, this was exactly the sort of film that I'd rather not watch while I'm alone in the house. I've seen a number of SF horror movies that were obviously trying really hard to be Alien, including Pitch Black, Sphere and of course most of the rest of the Aliens series, but although some of them have been good, none of them are nearly as spooky as Alien itself. Although Event Horizon was clearly inspired by the spooky spaceship corridors motif of Alien, there was also a definite air of - how can I put this? - Hellraiser In Space. The plot is thoroughly absurd (experimental spaceship drive accidentally opens a gateway to Hell), which is to say no worse than most of the competition - but people died in a variety of interesting and bloody ways, the spaceship itself was wonderfully baroque and sinister, and all-in-all I ended up thoroughly spooked. Worth keeping an eye open for, if you like the genre...

Meanwhile, these are very nice indeed:

The largest, highest resolution screen of any PDA, at present, and worth every pixel. As the promotional shot above shows, it really is practical to display a proper spreadsheet in landscape mode, and the bundled Documents To Go suite does a really nice job of importing and converting from Microsoft Excel. Battery life is far worse than any of the predecessors, though - the balls-out Intel XScale 400 MHz ARM processor coupled with the 320 x 480 LCD is a power real drain, and for the first time since I started using Palm PDAs I'm going to have to make sure I carry a power supply with me.
 

Elsewhere:

Talking to the FBI - apparently an enlightening experience...

SCO posts $250,000 worm bounty - taking a leaf out of Microsoft's book.

Microsoft vs. the spammers - BIll promises an end to spam within two years!

"O'Really" T-Shirts - lampooning the covers of the well-known O'Reilly technical manuals.

Tits Out For Multiple Sclerosis - raise money, and flatter your ego at the same time.

 

27th January

So, there's a new virus in town... Mydoom is more of the same, really, attempting to spread by the tried and tested methods of SMTP email and Kazaa peer-to-peer sharing, but with one interesting twist - after February 1st an infected system will launch a denial of service attack against professionally litigious former operating system company SCO, mentioned here frequently in recent months. Given that SCO have managed to enrage the Linux community without anyone else really noticing, the obvious conclusion is that the half-wit responsible for this particular little gem is a Linux fanboy.

Whatever, though, it's a virulent worm... The mail gateways at the office have blocked hundreds (and probably thousands, by now) of infected messages today, and as the worm uses the much-loved technique of hijacking an infected system's address book to forge the 'From' addresses, my users have been plagued with misleading bounce reports from servers all around the world. It's more of a pain in the neck than an actual risk to security and infrastructure, fortunately, but as pains in the neck go it's certainly a good one... Hopefully one of the little weenies who write these things will be caught and nailed to the wall, soon, and perhaps that will help to deter the others. A pox on you all!

Elsewhere - oooh, geek jewellery, in tungsten carbide, titanium, more titanium, and stainless steel... Mmmmm.

And meanwhile...

By then it was clear that matter came in two varieties: some particles which feel the strong force (protons and neutrons, and the pions which carry the force) and some which don't (the electron and, it turns out, the muon). This led to a new way of classifying particles, both the material particles and the force carriers. Things which feel the strong force are called hadrons, while things which don't feel the strong force are called leptons. All leptons are fermions, and have half-integer spin. The hadrons that are also fermions are called baryons. Protons and neutrons are baryons. The bosons that carry the forces between particles are now known specifically as mesons. The pion is a meson, and comes in three varieties. There is a neutral pion, which has no charge. When a proton and a neutron exchange a neutral pion, the are held together but remain unchanged. Protons also exchange neutral pions with each other, and so do neutrons. And there are two charged pions, positive and negative, which are the antiparticles of each other. If a proton gives a positively charged pion to a neutron, the proton becomes a neutron and the neutron becomes a proton. This is exactly the same as if the neutron gave a negative pion to the proton.

- John Gribbin, "The search for Superstrings, Symmetry, and The Theory Of Everything"

I trust that's all clear, now? Damn, but I love physics...   :-)

 

26th January

Just a fistful of links, tonight - it's been one of those days...

Mars landers - Last rites for Beagle 2, Opportunity Checks in, work Continues on Spirit

Maestro - look at Mars the way NASA does

Two billion hard disks shipped by 2004

Bill Gates to receive honorary knighthood

ReactOS open source NT-like OS

PSU sleeving guide

Easy-remove Molex connectors - from Fleetwood Computers, a new but promising UK case-modding supplier.

 

Oh, and I bought a tape library for my server - 490Gb of DLT goodness, yummy!

 

25th January

I've decided to have a thorough spring clean before I move house, and the massive stack of computer hardware, spares and add-ons was an obvious target. I find it extremely hard to throw away computer stuff, and knowing how unsuccessful previous attempts to clear out had been I enlisted the help of my friend Graham to act as a sort of external conscience. He did this remarkably well, as it turned out, and after the first hour or two he didn't even have to say anything, but instead just looked at me with one eyebrow raised in silent accusation ...

This resulted in the untimely and unwarranted demise of such gems as a matched pair of original, genuine Novell NE1000 8 bit ISA network cards, a Compaq LTE Lite laptop (with built-in 2400bps modem!), and one of the very first 3D accelerator graphics cards in the shape of the Apocalypse 3DX... all of these provoked the raised eyebrow from Graham, and into the metaphorical skip they went. He was equally scathing about my vast collection of sub-gigabyte hard disks, old SIMM memory, and dead tape drives (even I had difficulty justifying the latter to myself!), not to mention the hundreds of feet of coaxial network cable and matching T-pieces...

I also disposed of the things that I had simply acquired too many of, somehow, over the years - given that my entire computer installation is already plugged into the mains, I had to admit that I probably didn't need around fifty spare power cables, and under the baleful gaze of that raised eyebrow half of them went into the skip, as well. Rather harder to dispose of were items such as a sturdy mid-tower PC chassis, very nice in itself but designed for the obsolete AT format motherboards and so severely limited in application, and my collection of multi-disc CD changers - unsupported by any of the modern versions of Windows, but still an elegant and appealing solution.

I did allow myself to keep some of the more recent cast-offs, such as my venerable Radeon AIW graphics card, only retired back in the summer. I can't foresee an immediate use for it, I must admit, and its minimal resale value probably wouldn't justify the time required to list it and sell it on eBay, but all the same... It's an excellent component and, after all, I have to leave something for next year's spring cleaning!

The upshot of this has been a dozen black bin bags full of cables, manuals, packaging etc outside the house, and enough larger hardware to completely fill Ros's Grand Cherokee on a trip to the local dump. Strangely, though, I actually seem to be using slightly more storage boxes than before, in spite of throwing out so much - it's thoroughly inexplicable to me....

Elsewhere, almost equally inexplicable:

Russian girl claims X-ray vision

Fire chief sorry for "rape" gaffe

Army deployed in beer rescue

Rabbi offers prayer for web porn browsers

New fatality from car surfing

"Jackass" stunt ends in teen death

I tend to think of the last two as evolution in action...

 

23rd January

Ros has spent most of the afternoon trying to give money to telecoms provider Orange, and apparently it's been a saga of considerable aggravation and corporate stupidity. Ever in pursuit of the ultimate road warrior setup, she's just picked up a Nokia Card Phone II - basically a cell phone in a PC card format suitable for use with a laptop, and compatible with the Orange HSCD "High Speed Data" service to give 28.8Kbps comms rather than the paltry 9600 bps of regular GSM... To use this service, though, she needed an Orange SIM card, and this is where the problems arose - although all initial enquiries were met with "sure, no problem", when it actually came down to it apparently there were problems after all, and lots of them...

The official Orange shop she tried first didn't actually stock the data-ready SIM cards at all, presumably due to the massive additional storage space required by something the size of a postage stamp. At the second attempt, a branch of The Link, it emerged that Orange wouldn't allow them to sell her a SIM on its own. The Link were quite happy to give her a free phone to go with the SIM, but the free phones don't support data and Orange wouldn't allow that either, insisting that she purchased a data capable phone to go with the airtime!

Reluctant to pay 70 for a phone handset she didn't want or need, and never shy of a good argument with corporate idiots, she phoned Orange themselves from The Link store - a bizarre process in itself, apparently, as they kept asking for her account numbers and seemed incapable of understanding that she couldn't provide them because she wasn't yet a customer! After around an hour on the phone with Orange, though, it emerged that if she placed an order for the SIM and phone on the Internet, they wouldn't charge her a penny for the handset - but that the same bundle bought over the counter, then and there, would absolutely positively cost her 70.

The Internet ordering could ten days or more to fulfil, unfortunately, which wouldn't meet her deadline of early next week before she's off on her travels again (and poor long-suffering techies need time to get this stuff working, too!), so in the end she settled for a pay-as-you-go SIM that was obtainable without a phone - although it still needs to be activated for the HSCD data facility as a separate transaction, so the saga may not yet be over...

I've left out some of the more convoluted problems in this account, for reasons of brevity, but all-in-all it sounds as if it was an extremely annoying way to spend an afternoon. It seems thoroughly bizarre to me that a company should make it so hard to do business with them - she knew what she wanted, and she wanted to get it from Orange, but they threw up obstacle after obstacle and even after three hours of fussing over it she still hasn't obtained the package she needs! It's not even as if she was hoping for anything very exotic, after all - the service is clearly advertised on their website, and makes no reference at all to any of these riders and conditions - rather the opposite, in fact...

It's so amazingly wrong-headed to do business in this way.

[Update: The next day, she changed her mind and decided that a new phone might be useful, anyway, so decided to exchange the pay-as-you-go SIM for the regular sort. She went back to the same shop, but spoke to a different salesman - who gave her the phone, free, with no quibbling at all. How thoroughly bizarre!]

 

Elsewhere...

Flaming PowerEdge servers          Selling yourself for fun and profit

Oldest working PC - redux              Spirit back online - hopefully

Microsoft at LinuxWorld                   iPod furore in House Of Commons

DaDa Online Resources                 US public leaps to Hubble's defence

 

22nd January

I took a day of holiday, today, and as so often ended up using it fiddling with recalcitrant computer hardware all the same. I've had a rash of annoying failures with the Ecrix VXA-1 tape drives I use on my home network, recently, and one of today's tasks was to replace the dead unit in Ros's PC. This turned into rather a chore, as it turned out - the old drive was a LVD SCSI device, connected via a rather excessive Adaptec 39160 server adaptor, while the replacement was an older SCSI-2 model extracted from an external housing and hosted by a considerably more pedestrian Adaptec 2940. It should have been straight-forward, but...

It wasn't until I was actually wiring up the new SCSI bus that I realised that there was a slight problem - as the drive had been salvaged from an external case, it didn't actually have an on-board termination facility, relying instead on the sort of plug-in external terminator that wouldn't even slightly fit onto the internal configuration of the drive. A quick browse through my stock of spares and oddments turned up a suitable internal terminator module as part of an impressive seven-way cable loom salvaged from a Digital server back in the day, but unfortunately this assembly had a special SCSI socket on the end for the terminator. None of my other SCSI cables had an equivalent connector, but there was no way that I was going to be able to shoe-horn the bulky seven-way assembly into the already fairly well stuffed mini tower case.

Fifteen years ago, before computer hardware was a commodity and before the Internet allowed spares and components to be obtained easily and speedily, techies had to be a little more adventurous and resourceful. To this end, one of my IT party tricks was re-designing SCSI busses by carefully prising the insulation displacement connectors off the ribbon cable and then carefully squeezing them back on again in different arrangements. This was a fiddly job to say the least, but with practice and attention to detail it usually worked very well, and saved my bacon on a number of occasions during high pressure server builds.

It seemed worth a try today, too, and after a few tense moments (IDC connectors are not designed to be removed and reused and are actually quite fragile) and then some careful application of extreme force (two blocks of wood and a small hammer) I'd transplanted the terminator socket onto a more appropriate ribbon cable. Needless to say, I was quite pleased with this, but the feeling of accomplishment completely evaporated five minutes later when I powered on the PC and was rewarded with exactly the same sequence of error lights as on the original tape drive!

With what now seems to be rather a foolish oversight, for some reason I'd never tested the external drive when I bought it from eBay, and as it's been sat on a shelf for the last two months it seems highly likely that it was dead on arrival. That makes three failed VXA-1 drives I have, now, and this is definitely at least two too many - but fortunately I managed to unearth a company that specialises in tape drive repairs and I've asked them for a quote. We shall see...

 

21st January

Wednesday night is legal night at Epicycle, it seems...

SCO sues Novell... RIAA sues everybody (again)

Microsoft settles music download suit... and backs down over MikeRoweSoft

Danish spammer fined $70,000... but others release a new spamming virus

No silver shock in silver thermal paste fraud!

Speed camera clocks Peugot at 406mph

Buy a flight-sim, go to jail?

BMA attacks cannabis decriminalisation

Dome diamond thieves lose snoring judge appeal

 

20th January

I spotted a rather nice mouse mat on a colleague's desk, yesterday - a smooth black leather surface on a round steel base, it has a beautiful feel and a very solid, impressive weight. Available from Ikea, apparently, for the very reasonable sum of 4.90. The catalogue does make the interesting point that it's not suitable for wireless mice, though - presumably the metal plate plays havoc with the radio signals...


 

Elsewhere, thanks to a long chain of references culminating at The Sideshow -
 

Pholph's Scrabble Generator

My Scrabble Score is: 17.
What is your score? Get it here.

 

From The Register - the ins and outs of The Trojan Defence...

Finally, look out for a full write up on these, soon - I managed to snatch nine of the kits on eBay last week, together with the encyclopaedia. All I need now is the free time, although unfortunately over the next few months that is likely to be scarce to say the least...

 

19th January

It's been a very tiresome day... We've been trying for months to move our old SNA mainframe printing gateway from the fragile, sluggish workstation it's been running on to a rather more suitable server-spec system, and as part of the migration we're also hoping to move from NT4 to Windows 2000, which seems to have caused all sorts of problems. This weekend's attempt was the third, and unfortunately has proved as unsuccessful as the others - the testing on Saturday appeared to go very well, but as the load increased this morning the server became more and more flakey. Problems ranged from the annoying (incorrectly formatted printouts) to the terminal (crashes in the printing subsystem itself), and I can't tell if the problems come from the obsolete Microsoft SNA Server we're using or the equally obsolete Formscape V2 print processor, or some combination of the two - but this build of the server was absolutely as good as I could make it and I don't know what else I can do. It's all very frustrating.  :-(

Elsewhere, though...

From The Register - a fascinating article on Apple's iTunes online music store and the growing spectre of digital rights management. Coming soon to a PC near you...

Cutting Windows down to size - losing MSN Chat and Outlook Express, for example, is certainly an attractive proposition...

ISPs give RIAA the finger - since a U.S. Appeals Court ruled that the subpoenas were illegal, ISPs have started to withdraw all cooperation. Good for them!

Windows 1.0, circa 1985, from the DigiBarn Computer Museum - 5" floppies, Presentation Manager, and the original Microsoft mouse. Ah, the nostalgia...

Information Week suggests that  40% of email never reaches its intended recipient! Seems very high, to me, but the statistics are upsettingly plausible.

Truly remarkable windows - and nothing to do with Microsoft, either, but instead the sort that you look through... or not, as the case may be!

 

17th January

In May 1864 the American Civil War was at its height, and the Union Fifth Corps and the Confederate First Corps, moving independently and unknown to each other, led the marches of their respective armies toward Spotsylvania in northern Virginia. During the fierce and bloody engagement that resulted, one of the most memorable phrases of the entire conflict resulted from one of the most unusual weapons of its era.

In advance of the main engagement General John Sedgwick, in command of the Sixth Corps, was directing units of the Union forces as they arrayed into their battle lines. The Confederate forces had begun to deploy en masse the night before, and were well dug in - their snipers were almost a thousand yards away from the line of rifle pits the general was supervising, but even at this unusually long range had already picked off several officers. This had been brought to Sedgwick's attention earlier in the day, but he was dismissive of the risk and nothing more was said on the matter... As he paused to redirect a group of soldiers, though, the sharpshooters opened up once again, several bullets passing right between the general and the troops he was addressing. Seeing some of them ducking for cover, the general upbraided them laughingly:

"What! What! Men, dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance!"

Moments later another bullet passed very close, with a long shrill whistle, and a soldier who was just passing in front of the general dodged down to the ground. Sedgwick touched him gently with his foot, and said, " Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way," and then repeated the prophetic remark... "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance".

Major Martin T. McMahon, discussing the movement of the soldiers with General Sedgwick at the time, remembers the next few moments:

"For a third time the shrill whistle came, closing with a dull, heavy stroke, interrupted our talk; when, as I was about to resume, the general's face turned slowly to me, the blood spurting from his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream. He fell in my direction; I was so close to him that my effort to support him failed, and I fell with him".

The weapon that had so disastrously disproved General Sedgwick's opinion was an unusual and interesting device. The Whitworth Sharpshooter Rifle was the invention of British engineering genius Sir Joseph Whitworth, and had the government of his own country paid his designs the attention that they undoubtedly deserved, General Sedgwick would almost certainly have lived through the day...

By the time Whitworth was asked to examine the British Lee Enfield service rifle in the 1850s he already had an impressive number of ground-breaking inventions and processes under his belt... Starting with basic but significant improvements to the cotton spinning and weaving machines in his home county of Lancashire, during his subsequent apprenticeship in London he devised ways of creating more accurate screw threads and of machining flat surfaces with greater speed and precision than had previously been possible. By the middle of the 19th Century he had invented the micrometer, a device capable of measuring to the then unimaginable accuracy of one millionth of an inch, and so paved the way for the standardisation of manufactured items that would be vital for the mass production techniques that were to follow.

In short, then, he was another fine example of the legion of engineers that invented and perfected so much of the technology that powered the Industrial Revolution and allowed Britain's expansion into a world-dominating power - and, like so many of his contemporaries, he was more than a touch eccentric... Although his technical abilities were widely and highly regarded, he was an easily irascible man who did not suffer fools gladly, and this was (and still is!) extremely problematic when dealing with both the elected and appointed officials of the British Government of the day.

Nevertheless, his reputation for high-precision manufacturing ensured that he was the first and foremost engineer asked to review the aging Lee Enfield service rifle when Britain's expanding empire brought her forces into increasingly bloody contact with the population of countries with strong empire-building tendencies of their own  - many of whom had equivalent rifles, and no lack of willingness to use them...

Whitworth quickly determined that the Lee Enfield rifle was deficient in a number of ways, and he first set out to correct the original design and manufacturing flaws, before abandoning the entire concept as worthless and embarking on a brand new design of his own. Whitworth's rifle utilised a barrel made from a high-tensile steel he invented for the purpose, the bore drilled by new lathes of unprecedented accuracy - he invented those, too, and they later made the revolution of the steam age possible by permitting the accurate drilling of the pressure cylinders for steam engines of all shapes and sizes.

Something else that was unprecedented was Whitworth's choice of a hexagonal rifled bore. Although the idea of rifled barrels was not particularly new in itself, nobody really understood the physics that gave a spinning bullet greater stability (and so greater range and accuracy) and the details of all previous designs were simply at the whim of their creator. This was not Whitworth's style, though, and in the best tradition of eccentric inventors he embarked on an exhaustive series of tests, varying the pitch, depth and angle of the rifling grooves until he formed an understanding of the general physical laws required to perfect the design. Perfect it he did, though, and in order to guarantee the exact spin of the bullet, he created the rifle with a hexagonal bore and specified a hexagonal bullet to match it!

Now, oddly-shaped bores were nothing very unusual at the time (an earlier example was Puckle's Defence Gun, capable of firing "round bullets against Christians and square bullets against Turks" - and missing both with equal ease, it seems, thanks to a thoroughly unworkable design) but Whitworth's concept was unique in actually being even slightly worthwhile! And it was highly worthwhile, too, exceeding all other contemporary weaponry in terms of accuracy, range and penetration - equipped with suitable telescopic sights and in the hands of a well-trained marksman, it was effective up to 1500 yards, a far greater range than the rifles and muskets in use elsewhere.

It must have been something of a surprise and annoyance to Whitworth, then, that the War Office nevertheless rejected it completely - by this time his impatience and forthright attitude had made enough enemies both within the government and the influential Royal Enfield ordnance works that his design was doomed no matter how effective it actually was. Interestingly, the modern, popular and successful Desert Eagle pistol actually uses a hexagonal bore remarkably similar to Whitworth's design, so the idea has by no means had its day.

Whitworth, in disgust, founded his own manufacturing company and began to solicit orders from any government who seemed to be in need of rifles, and soon enough this brought him into contact with gun runners supplying the Confederate army in America. In 1862 the first batches were delivered into the eager hands of the picked sharpshooters of the Confederate First Corps, and two years later, by the time one particular rifle ended the life of the unfortunate General Sedgwick, they had become a prized weapon - especially in comparison to the Springfield and Enfield rifles commonly in use elsewhere in the armies. Until the sheer raw firepower of the Henry and Spencer repeating rifles that were developed right at the end of the war (and probably did as much to win it for the Union as did anything else!), the Whitworth reigned supreme... In fact, it seems highly likely that, had Whitworth himself been of a more diplomatic temperament, not only would Queen Victoria's armies have been equipped with a markedly superior weapon themselves, but in its resulting absence from America both General Sedgwick and the rest of the Confederacy would have lasted considerably longer than they did.

Sometimes the little things make a very big difference, don't they...

 

15th January

A link, a link, my kingdom for a link...

Judge upholds Eolas ruling, and adds interest charges - Microsoft mad as a fish, will appeal.

MS vs. Lindows dispute intensifies as refund site declared invalid - and rightly so, in my opinion!

Mobile phone use may be safe, suggest UK scientists, confirming a report released three years ago.

Bush announces return to manned space exploration - as expected, but is it really a good idea?

Kodak to stop selling traditional film cameras - sensible, I suppose, but a surprise nonetheless...

From Wired - Reliving Spam's Glorious Past

HP's revenue from Linux in excess of $2.5 billion in 2003 - so much for free software!

Lawrence Berkeley Labs shines a light on small things with their Advanced Light Source

And finally, more small things - recent advances in manufacturing nanotubes and nanowires.

 

14th January

When you fail to win an auction at eBay, an automated search routine casts around to find similar things that you might like to bid on instead - but I've been watching it over the last year, and frankly it seems to be getting dumber and dumber as time goes on! Today's offering seems particularly inappropriate - I'd lost an auction for a few pounds worth of Dell mouse, so the system recommended a few hundred pounds worth of brand-new, high-performance SCSI disk drive instead. Somehow I just can't imagine one substituting for the other, and it's rather a mystery to me why the search routines thought that they were related in any way...

Elsewhere, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission site has some stunning images of the desolate surface of Mars, including this 360 panorama  - but be warned if you're still on a dial-up connection, as the full-size image weighs in at a hefty 12Mb.

And finally - a warning:

Do not order anything from a company going by the name of Viper Shoes or Viper Footwear. They have an e-commerce site at http://www.vipershoes.com, which links to various sub-pages all held on Clara.Net's servers and allegedly maintained by Lunefield Computer Systems. However, in spite of this quite respectable looking net presence, they don't actually seem to be a real company - or, if they were at some point in the past, presumably there's nobody genuine behind the shop front these days. I placed an order with them almost two weeks ago, but although they debited my credit card almost immediately I have seen no sign of the goods and have heard nothing from them at all since then... They've completely failed to reply to any of my increasingly pointed email enquiries and, interestingly, so have the afore-mentioned Lunefield Computer Systems - who I think are probably equally defunct or imaginary.

Best avoided, I'd say...

[Update: See the full story of my dealings with this company here]

 

13th January

Midweek links (brought to you courtesy of Motrhead, of course, loud and fast)...

Motrhead's official website - one of the best, most comprehensive band sites I've ever seen

Aeroplanes don't actually fly in the way you probably think they do...

Objects in the eye (may appear larger than they actually are)

Is there time on Mars?

1Tb external disk drive!

RFID advocate revealed as complete swine

Coolest cooling of 2003

A solution to bit-rot?

Security flaw in three virus-scanners for Linux!

Broadband over power cables as unpopular as always

 

12th January

I've been a fan of the old-school heavy rock group Motrhead (if somewhat quietly, these days!) since my older brother weaned me away from the saccharin of The New Seekers and similar at the tender age of twelve, and as the group's founder and front-man Lemmy has always been something of a hero of mine I was especially pleased to be given a copy of his recent autobiography for christmas.

Lemmy is one of rock's classic bad-boys, and shares with another of my heroes, Hunter S. Thompson, a lust for exotic and illegal behaviour that borders on the superhuman... Even before he founded Motrhead in 1975, his reputation for consumption of speed, bourbon and women was legendary, and over the next quarter century he proceeded to partake of all three in such regular and massive quantities that, just like Thompson, by all standard medical indices he should probably be long dead!

Nevertheless, against all odds he's still going strong... his career in the music industry pre-dates the Merseybeat, progressing from England's earliest rock'n'roll bands through a stint with influential space-rockers Hawkwind, before taking Motrhead right to the heart of the "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" (as rock magazine Kerrang termed it) that stormed through the eighties - and the legacy of which influences my own musical tastes and mode of dress even today.

Lemmy is a wonderful old reprobate, though, and needless to say the biography is full of fascinating and bizarre stories:

I remember one gig the Beatles had at the Cavern. It was just after they got Brian Epstein as their manager. Everyone in Liverpool knew that Epstein was gay, and some kid in the audience screamed "John Lennon's a fucking queer!" And John - who never wore his glasses on stage - put his guitar down and went into the crowd, shouting "Who said that?" So this kid says, "I fucking did". John went after him and BAM, gave him the Liverpool kiss, sticking his nut on him - twice! And the kid went down in a mass of blood, snot and teeth. Then John got back on the stage. "Anybody else?", he asked. Silence. "All right then... Some Other Guy."

I'd never heard anything even slightly like this, as my image of Lennon is really from the love-and-peace days that came later - but having talked to two Beatles fans this evening, it seems that although Epstein cleaned the group up for public consumption, originally they were tough guys from a tough part of town and anything but the sissies they later appeared to be!

This certainly makes me think rather differently about the Beatles (they showed me a marvellous photo of a young Lennon in a bike jacket and pegged jeans, looking for all the world like James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause), but I have to say that although I recognise their massive influence on everything that came after them, I'm still not a great fan of their music! I've never lost my taste for Motrhead, though, and sometimes when nobody is at home I still dig out one of their classic tracks - something hard, fast and loud - and play along on the air guitar.

Just don't tell anyone, Ok?

 

11th January

A while ago I linked to a criticism of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine documentary, but recently I came across Moore's own rebuttal to that and other arguments against his positions. It's always interesting to see both sides of the story, but as usual I suspect that the truth, such as it is, lies somewhere between the two... "Bowling" has its own web site now, by the way, including a copy of the wonderful little animation "A Brief History Of America".

Meanwhile, news comes of a nasty little buffer overflow vulnerability in the file transfer facility of Yahoo's instant messenger client - the second such weakness in a month. Affecting versions 5.6.0.1351 and below, the flaw is exposed when the user receives a file with a name that is a specific number of characters in length, and is an unusually high risk in that the file does not even need to be executed, just saved... An updated version has already been released, but apparently existing users can't upgrade, and will need to perform a clean install.

Ah, another 3rd-party server for Pinnacle's ShowCenter box - although this one is resolutely German! The Linux-oriented Open ShowCenter project continues slowly but surely, too, and as the server for Neuston's similar MC-500 product works rather better than Pinnacle's own offering there's a lot of choice while we're waiting for Pinnacle themselves to pull their fingers out!

Also:

SCO turns their licensing searchlight on Google

Paying to listen to the radio?

Windows 98 support moves to CD

Survey of modem chipsets at Modemsite - a useful resource in general.

 

9th January

Ros has just told me that I've been writing here for two years, today, so I guess that's something to be quietly proud of... Unfortunately I have to announce that all is far from well at Chteau Epicycle, and Ros and I are in the process of separating. Irreconcilable differences, as the saying has it, so just call me "pond slime" - apparently her friends already are. We've been together for twelve years, though, and obviously it's going to take a while to disentangle our lives and go our separate ways, but at least so far we're managing to stay civil with each other - it's bad enough already, but it could be much, much worse.

 

Life goes on, though, or at least a pale imitation of it - so elsewhere...

The Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie site and shop

Mirko Zorz reflects on an interesting year for Linux security

Movie Mistakes - what happens when nerds go to the cinema...

Online gamer wins back "stolen" virtual property

Search for leak on space station continues - notice how they checked the Russian components first...

RIAA conducting SWAT-like raids in Los Angeles

From Wired - The Click Heard Round The World - it's 1968, welcome to the world of tomorrow!

California police ordered to quit smoking - Gosh!

 

8th January

I'm so very exasperated with Area51 Airsoft, erstwhile suppliers of my shell-ejecting M4 replica, but for some reason I just can't stay mad at them... The replica itself arrived a while before christmas, but has been nothing more than a paperweight without the CO2 charging/cooling unit - and although that arrived today, the replica is still useless without the shell cases which hold the BBs, currently promised for the end of the week! However, in spite of the fact that we're now looking at around a three month delay on my original order, that delivery date after delivery date has come and gone with no result, and that so far fifty-five email messages have been exchanged trying to sort everything out... In spite of all that they are obviously trying their best in the face of very awkward circumstances - it's just that their best is still rather ineffectual! However, although I've been making my displeasure known again today, we've all managed to keep polite and non-confrontational and as they've added freebie after freebie to my order, once it all finally arrives (I'm estimating sometime in February, realistically!) I'll probably be more than happy with all the hardware. I should damn well hope so...

Meanwhile,

Jerry Springer - The Opera... Words really do fail me.

Windows vs. Linux - The Facts... well, the facts according to Microsoft, at least.

Thief-proof exploding suitcase... Possibly not as silly as it sounds?

Novell pulls the rug out from under SCO... What a wonderful rollercoaster this is turning out to be!

And, gosh, look at this - paper models of the props and equipment from the Aliens movie! Most of them are a "work in progress" at present, but a few plans are available to download, including a full-size replica of the infamous M41A Pulse Rifle which looks rather spectacular. There are a handful of other SF kits on the bonus page, too, and also a fascinating explanation of how he constructs the templates. If you like the Aliens genre, and are at all keen on crafts, this site is a must-see...

 

6th January

So Dan of Dan's Data is back from what is probably a well-deserved break with the usual roundup of letters and a power supply review, together with a useful link to a net domains FAQ.

Elswehere, Talon's Starbase has images of SMT's stunning Aliens dropship and APC models, built up by the man responsible for creating the moulds - cast in resin rather than polystyrene, at 22" and 7" respectively these are extremely impressive pieces. I covet them both....

Something I don't covet quite so much is the apparently endless succession of daft attachments to plug into a USB port... January's offerings include a toothbrush, a coffee heating pad, and another vibrator - although the site is quick to point out that the USB port only supplies power to the unit, which is not computer controlled. For that one has to go further afield - although not so far (completely beyond the boundaries of good taste) as one would have to go for what is apparently the latest from the burgeoning Japanese sex toy market - the Super Onanism Machine. Hmmmm.

Another "hmmmm" comes from this idea for DIY "infra red goggles". By completely blocking all visible light, the inventor reckons, anything left over will have to be IR. Well, yes, I guess...

Meanwhile - Mitnick calls for hackers for his new book, Google are about to IPO, and Beyond 3D has an interview with Microsoft's Lead Evangelist, Chris Donahue.

And now I'm off to play with a docking station I've just acquired for my old Dell Latitude laptop. These are really neat little devices, and for some unknown reason they're now available on eBay in copious quantities for around 30 or less - a real steal...

 

5th January

I heard a report on the breakfast news this morning that started my day with a slow burn of irritation... Troubled communications company NTL has just awarded huge bonuses to its two top dogs - 20 million to chairman James Mooney and 8 million to CEO Simon Duffy - apparently for throwing away just as much money as their predecessors managed. NTL's financial state is actually far from rosy, and presumably the company's habit of awarding huge bonuses to directors who create huge losses has not helped with that... Under Mooney's inspired leadership the company made losses of around 230 million over the last six months, almost as bad as the 159 million loss masterminded by the previous director, Barclay Knapp, over the three months before that - although Knapp only managed to snag a 5.4 million pay-off when he jumped ship, if admittedly on top of a $6,000 a day consulting deal...

News of bloated pay awards to greedy corporate fat cats has always outraged me, but not, I suspect, as much as the news of these particular awards will outrage the 2000 employees that NTL is planning to downsize over the next few years. The bonuses handed out to those two less than competent directors this week are equivalent to 14,000 each for every one of those staff - most of whom are probably harder working and better at their jobs than Messrs. Mooney and Duffy could ever hope to be.

Unfortunately, I've found it very hard checking these figures tonight, as with the exception of the BBC Breakfast report I heard, once the day started and additional news items began to emerge, none of the other media seems to have paid it any attention at all... presumably even the fattest of fat-cat pay awards are no longer deemed to be particularly interesting. How sad.

Elsewhere:

The Eight Biggest Tech Flops Ever

Dutch consumer group sues over CD copy protection

Windows XP SP2 now in beta - and looks interesting, too.

What to do if the RIAA comes calling...

New microdrive announced - small, simple, and high capacity. Hmmm...

 

3rd January

I was shopping online for sweatshirts, today, and discovered an interesting new gadget - "My Virtual Model" allows you to create and customise a mannequin of yourself and then dress it in the virtual clothes you're browsing through, mixing and matching outfits and then rotating the result 360 to see how it all looks. It seems quite effective, too - although my sim doesn't really look that much like me, it's considerably more like me than any of the buff, toned fashion models that clothes stores usually employ to showcase their clothes, and actually the end result is really rather useful!

Having created the mannequin, it is automatically enabled when you enter the site of a participating clothes company - although unfortunately the Lands' End company I found it at seems to be the only UK retailer using the system at present. I've seen this kind of idea before, of course, and they all turned out to be remarkably short-lived - but I do have a gut feeling about this one...

Elsewhere - and fortunately quite a long way elsewhere, at that - a fascinating document from US government nuclear laboratory Sandia, entitled "Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant". Intended as the first attempt to develop warning and identification systems to protect humans from Sandia's nuclear waste dump for periods of up to 10,000 years, part of the design is a set of wonderfully oblique warnings:

This place is a message... and part of a system of messages... pay attention to it!

Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honour... no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here... nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours

The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

10,000 years is a very long time in terms of human civilization, and the project team have had to consider a wide range of eventualities - including the possibilities that language may have changed to the point where any textual messages will be meaningless, and that a technical collapse could lead to the concept of radioactivity itself being lost! It's a fascinating problem, and one which our society will to have to to perfect if we want to avoid leaving a radioactive minefield for our distant descendants.

However, in the short term - if you like the nihilistic, Generation-X tones of the warning but don't happen to have your own nuclear waste dump to use it with, geek mailing list NTK comes fortuitously to the rescue with a T-shirt. Ah, what would us geeks do without our T-shirts...?

 

2nd January

Food for thought...

The law that entropy always increases - the second law of thermodynamics - holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations, then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation, well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

- Sir Arthur Eddington (1882 - 1944)

 

1st January

A new year already? But I hadn't finished with the old one, yet!

By chance, I've just come across a rather elegant 360 panorama of London, taken from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral. Apparently it doesn't work too well with non-Microsoft Java virtual machines, at present, but hopefully this will be corrected soon. The resolution isn't great (it was taken a few years ago, when digicam pictures weren't nearly so sharp), but if you know London the landmarks are easy to spot and it's well worth a look.

Elsewhere - it's kinda neat that another software hotfix has been released for a problem that I discovered myself, but I would much rather that this particular issue had never arisen, as it was a real pain in the neck! The current version of Veritas's BackupExec product has been a complete lemon so far, actually - it's only been on the market for around nine months, and in that time the original 9.0 required at least twenty three individual bugfixes, while the brand new 9.1, less than a month old, has already needed three! In spite of the media hype, there isn't really that much more functionality compared to version 8.x, and so unfortunately one is forced to conclude that the overall quality of their programming has decreased somewhat... Backup is critical to a techie's existence these days, though, and I really hope they can get their act together in the coming year.

It's been another year of growth for Epicycle, with the last quarter bringing over 2000 visitors per month - trivial in comparison to the better known weblogs, but enough to give a quiet glow of satisfaction.  :-)  Most of my visitors continue to come via the Google search engine, it seems, and the majority are in search of information about airsoft replicas. However, a startling number are still looking for help with the screaming fans on the Dell PowerEdge 2650 servers, which were causing sysadmins so many headaches (literally!) in the second quarter of 2002. It was a real issue at the time, but as Dell released an updated BIOS in July of that year, and as the current releases of this server are significantly more quiet, I'm amazed that people are still in need of information on the problem!

As well as the chance visitors from the search engines, though, I'm always pleased to see that my small group of hardcore readers continues undeterred. A poke through the stats suggests that some of you visit nearly every day, and that's really nice to know - obviously I'm doing something right, here, as by no means all of you are techies! Thanks, again, for your support.

As always, you can vote for this site at the Tweakers Austrialia Top 50 - but although it doesn't affect my humble ranking somewhere down in the twenties, unfortunately the stats have been rather devalued by some blatant cheating during the previous quarter... An online IT training company named Elite Guides has been in one of the top two positions for the last few months, and is obviously using automation of some kind to fake votes for themselves and get their advertising banner onto the page - apart from the fact that they're really not the sort of organisation that would attract over 3000 votes a month from the hardcore PC modding community, their web site doesn't actually have the voting button anywhere to be seen! Presumably they have created a script that enters the web page with the correct parameters to vote for them, and at the start of each month just run it for long enough to hit the top of the list.

This kind of behaviour is a subtle and insidious form of spam, and completely devalues what used to be an interesting community resource - in order to regain their usual number one slot, the previously legitimate entry Cyberwizard Pit has obviously resorted to a similar tactic, as I really don't believe that over 32000 votes have been cast for their site when the previous high point was less than a tenth of that.

I've mailed the Tweakers Australia admins to suggest that they tidy their stats, but unfortunately they don't seem to be that interested. I'm bugged about this, though, so to Elite Guides, who have pioneered a completely new form of spam, I'd just like to say - are you absolutely sure that all publicity is good publicity...?

 

 

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