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EPICYCLE

 

31st March

Great moments in Fish Head history:
 
Slasher Pix Very, Very Old Fine Art
Easy To Fool He's Dead, Jim Quality For All
Purely Anatomical Simply Perverse The TV Premier
Early NASA test launch Festive Greeting Cards I Wasn't Convinced


Meanwhile,

Seeing eye computer for the blind

Patriotic nanotechnology from Cornell

Music-sharing lawsuits go international

Security screws to protect your PC's innards

Walmart to sell PCs with Sun's Linux-based operating system

And, finally, a guided tour of the exclusion zone surrounding the ill-fated Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Elena, a young Ukrainian girl, has the unusual and decidedly risky hobby of riding her motorcycle through the decaying ghost towns evacuated after the disaster in 1986, and has taken many photographs to show her travels through this strange area. The images, together with her descriptions in slightly broken English, are extremely poignant...

 

30th March

Links or fish heads. You pays your money and you takes your choice...

Punctuation vigilante Lynne Truss is exporting her zero-tolerance approach to English grammar overseas, and is currently touring major American cities to promote the US launch of her book, "Eats, shoots and leaves". Personally, I'm sticking with Bob the Angry Flower. [Oh, there's another one!]

Self-cleaning carbon nanotubes - although as anyone who knows me will testify, I wouldn't accept any other sort. Imagine having dirty nanotubes - oh, the horror of it all!

A study from Harvard and UNC reveals that music sharing has no real affect on music sales - even high levels of file-swapping seemed to translate into an effect on sales that was "statistically indistinguishable from zero," says the study... although I doubt that the RIAA will ever agree with that, as they're enjoying abusing their new powers far too much to give up the witch hunt now.

AOL are to give away a Porsche sports car acquired from a spammer as part of a legal settlement - and hope that this rather symbolic gesture will help to deter his colleagues.

A student project has spawned a 3D scanner that may be a significant breakthrough in treating breast cancer - estimating the size of a tumour more accurately will permit a more precise treatment with less risk of overall health damage.

Another dumb marketing idea? the LidRock company is putting tiny promotional CDs in the lids of plastic drinks cups, but seem to have missed the point completely in that they're charging extra for the special cups. Bozos!

The distinctive white headphones of Apple iPods are a magnet to muggers - "But Apple, which has sold two million of the devices, refused to recolour its headphones, saying its customers would prefer to be robbed than be seen wearing something less trendy." After the Wired expose I linked to earlier this month, I can't say I'm surprised.

Via Ros - MTV's dancing Members of Parliament, by far the best dancing political figures animation I've seen to date, with many options and lots of control over the wild flailing limbs. You have to see this one...   :-)

 

29th March

I've been asked about Saturday's reference to the 230Mb of security updates required for my Red Hat Linux-based RaQ server, so for completeness here's the list. I've just applied a further six updates that have been released since my last patching frenzy in December 2003, and all together this represents an increase to 95 separate patches totalling 242Mb. Just to make life interesting, the Sun web site only documents the updates back as far as October 2000, so the forty earlier patches available on their FTP server don't even have a description and were rather a case of install and hope!
 

Patch Description:











































FrontPage Update 0.0.1-7657
glibc Update 0.0.1
OS Update 1.0
DoS Attack Update 1.0.2
Reverse Delegation Update 1.0.1
Apache Update 1.0.1
Kernel Update 1.0.1
OS Update 2.0
DNS Update 2.0.1
Kernel Update 2.0.1
glibc Update 2.0.1
PHP Update Update 2.0.1
Duplicate Email Alias Update 2.0.1
Security Bundle Update 2.0.1
PHP Service Settings Update 2.0.1
TCPDUMP Update 2.0.1
Apache Update 2.0.1
CGIWrap Update 2.0.1
Apache & SSL Update 2.0.1
IMAP Update 2.0.2
SHP Removal 2.0.1
Kernel Update 2.0.1 C33
Util-linux Update 2.0.1
Proftpd Security Update 2.0.1
Cgiwrap Update 2.0.1
Tar & Unzip Security update 2.0.1
Root DNS server update 2.0.1
PHP & PostgreSQL Security Update 2.0.1
Sendmail Security Update 2.0.1
Kernel Update 2.0.1 C35
Sendmail Security Update 2.0.1
Glibc Security Update 2.0.1
Pine & File Security Update 2.0.1
Wget Security Update 2.0.1
Qpopper Security Update 2.0.1
Apache & SSL Security 2.0.1
Vim Security Update 2.0.1
Kernel Update C37 2.0.1
Maximum Disk Space Update 2.0.1
Zlib Security Update 2.0.2
Unzip Security Update 2.0.1
BIND Security Update 2.0.1
Imap Clients Security Update 2.0.1
NFS-Utils Security Update 2.0.1
Bash Security Update 2.0.1
Sendmail Security Update 2.0.2
Apache & mod_ssl Security Update 2.0.1
Tcpdump Security Update 2.0.1
Slocate Security Update 2.0.1
BIND Security Update 2.0.1
Rsync Security Update 2.0.1
Fileutils Security Update 2.0.1
Pine Security Update 2.0.1

 
Patch Archive Name:

RaQ4-en-Security Release 0.0.1-6453
RaQ4R-All-System Release 0.0.1-6618
RaQ4-All-System-0.0.1-7657.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-0.0.1-8061.pkg
RaQ4-en-OSUpdate-1.0.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-1.0.3-8762.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-1.0.1-9882.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-1.0.1-10602.pkg
RaQ4-All-Kernel-1.0.1.216C28III.pkg
RaQ4-en-OSUpdate-2.0.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-2.0.1-12854.pkg
RaQ4-All-Kernel-2.0.1-2.2.16C32III.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-13453.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-14039.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-2.0.1-13993.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-13323.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-2.0.1-14185.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-14559.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-15417.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-14997.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-2-15787.pkg
RaQ4-en-Security-2.0.1-SHP_REM.pkg
RaQ4-All-Kernel-2.0.1-2.2.16C33III-1.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-15673.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-15823.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16261.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-2.0.1-16365.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16170.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-15959.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16402.pkg
RaQ4-All-Kernel-2.0.1-2.2.16C35-III-1.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16429.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-15578.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16306.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16342.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16409.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16343.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16358.pkg
RaQ4-All-Kernel-2.0.1-2.2.16C37-III-1-2.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-2.0.1-16494.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.2-16487.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16561.pkg +
RaQ4-All-System-0.0.1-7657.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-0.0.1-8061.pkg
RaQ4-en-OSUpdate-1.0.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-1.0.3-8762.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-1.0.1-9882.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-1.0.1-10602.pkg
RaQ4-All-Kernel-1.0.1.216C28III.pkg
RaQ4-en-OSUpdate-2.0.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-2.0.1-12854.pkg
RaQ4-All-Kernel-2.0.1-2.2.16C32III.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-13453.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-14039.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-2.0.1-13993.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-13323.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-2.0.1-14185.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-14559.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-15417.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-14997.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-2-15787.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.2-14936.pkg
RaQ4-en-Security-2.0.1-SHP_REM.pkg
RaQ4-All-Kernel-2.0.1-2.2.16C33III-1.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-15673.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-15823.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16261.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16170.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-2.0.1-16365.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-15959.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16402.pkg
RaQ4-All-Kernel-2.0.1-2.2.16C35-III-1.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16429.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-15578.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16306.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16342.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16409.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16343.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16358.pkg
RaQ4-All-Kernel-2.0.1-2.2.16C37-III-1-2.pkg
RaQ4-All-System-2.0.1-16494.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.2-16487.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16561.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16311.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16505.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16571.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16602.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.2-16620.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16622.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16504.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16633.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16662.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16675.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16648.pkg
RaQ4-All-Security-2.0.1-16612.pkg

 

And don't forget - this is not a full-blown desktop PC, capable of doing anything from playing games to editing digital video or processing heavyweight statistics, but a slimmed-down appliance intended to perform a single basic role: it's a web, FTP and email server, and that's about it... It must also be noted that the RaQ4 is a mature system no longer in active development, and this means that all these updates are for vulnerabilities and exploits that have been buried in the operating system for years - and if the six updates released so far this year are any guide there are still plenty of unknown weaknesses lurking in there!

They are the standard security issues that Linux evangelists love to criticise Microsoft for, as well - 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. The overall pattern revealed is equally familiar, too - 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 flaws that the anti-Windows lobby is so venomously vocal about.

So, don't let anyone tell you that a Linux operating system is inherently more secure than a Windows one - the facts really do speak for themselves, and list above rather gives the game away. To quote Three Dead Trolls, every OS sucks... But apparently some of them have a fan club that lies like a rug.

 

28th March

Links, fish heads, who can tell the difference any more...

Share a file, go to jail - a salutary lesson in what happens when corporates write the laws. Time for the RIAA and MPAA to gain a sense of perspective, I think - whether they like it or not.

Boomerang sensor pinpoint snipers - mounted on a Humvee, it detects the supersonic shockwaves from a rifle shot and indicates the direction. Bandits at three o'clock high!

Real and QuickTime Alternative - play the popular file formats without the installing the bloated, buggy, intrusive official players.

MS to develop Search and Weblog products - possibly the death knell for the already ailing Google, then? Roll over Hotbot and Lycos, and make room...

Analysis of the Witty worm - it exploited a flaw in BlackIce and RealSecure so fast that around 12,000 computers were affected before the manufacturer even became aware of the problem!

Apple adverts condemned again - not the fastest, not the first SMP, not the first 64 bit... Is there anything they are good for, then?

VoyeurMods - a relatively new case-modding and customising store, with a focus on cosmetic hardware. Worth a look, I'd say.

 

27th March

An interesting article at The Register discussing the problems facing modem users who need to patch their operating systems with security updates. Apparently a fresh install of Windows 2000 (although why would anyone choose this OS unless they needed to avoid Windows XP's Product Activation licensing process, I wonder?) needs over 100Mb of downloads from the Windows Update service before it can be thought of as relatively safe and secure, and for non-broadband users this is just too awkward to contemplate. As if this wasn't bad enough, though, the author reveals that his favourite Libranet Linux distribution actually requires 550Mb of updates after installation, over five times as much! Given that I've already applied over 230Mb of patches to my Linux-based RaQ server appliance, a far simpler affair than a full-blown desktop operating system, I'm not at all surprised to hear it...

Meanwhile, controversy rages over startling claims by a previously unknown company that their ChatNannies software is capable of detecting the semi-mythical "paedophile grooming" behaviour on the Internet. The programmer, Jim Wightman, is standing by his claims that he has developed the "most technologically advanced AI construct ever conceived and built", and has offered to set up test sessions with researchers to prove that his software can pass for a real human in chat room situations. Like many of the other commentators, though, I am extremely sceptical of such a huge technological leap - especially given that he claims a single server can support 25,000 chat sessions simultaneously! I shall believe that when I see it...

Elsewhere, pressure group Mothers Against Guns appear to be sinking to new depths. Their latest publicity drive contains some wonderfully misguided sound bites, including the following gems:

"Replica guns can be even worse than real ones as bullets can shatter on impact causing multiple injuries"

"Criminals are converting replica guns to take live ammunition. They then become weapons of mass destruction"

Weapons of mass destruction? Really?

Their latest promotional video would be a hoot, too, if their whole campaign wasn't so scarily offensive and devoid from reality. The film, "Toys That Kill", shows children playing with replica guns - which [Dramatic Chord] turn out to be real! Well, I mean - exactly how often does that happen? Even the most rabid amongst the police force don't seem to think that particular issue is a problem.

I recognise that the founder and mainstay of the group has lost her own child to a shooting incident, and so can be forgiven for any subsequent deranged foaming at the mouth, but just like their partners in lies the Gun Control Network, to anyone with any knowledge of firearms their claims are easily identified as 100% bullshit. I have no basic objection to campaigners and pressure groups, even when they are opposing my own interests, but I have zero tolerance for organisations that can't support their cause with a foundation of truth and factual information. "Weapons of mass destruction", indeed...

Just to be bloody-minded, therefore, here's a picture of my newly revamped SV Infinity Xcelerator Hybrid replica - I've added an aluminium slide from Shooters Design, a ported steel outer barrel, steel chamber and aluminium bolt from Guarder, and a stronger recoil spring. I have a little more work to do bedding the components in, but it's already shooting well and the action cycles at least twice as fast even on the low-powered HFC134a gas. I'd expected the installation process to be awkward, but although it was not without its brow-furrowing moments, on the whole everything went very smoothly indeed - and the feel and heft of the replica is dramatically and pleasingly changed. MAG would definitely not approve...  :-)

 

26th March

So, I've just realised that this month is the 10th anniversary of spam - early in March 1994 the US law firm Canter and Siegel sent a message to many unrelated Usenet newsgroups advertising their services in connection to the Green Card employment lottery. Although this seems thoroughly trivial by today's standards, I can clearly remember the shock and outrage that resulted at the time - we were simply amazed that anyone would breach the protocols of Internet use like that, and it seemed certain that the net.gods would reach down from the server rooms of Mt. Olympus and intervene somehow to ensure that it could never happen again. Ah, if only...

Meanwhile, ten years later, a small group of moronic adolescents are close to bringing the global email network to its knees. The continuing war between the authors of the Netsky, MyDoom and Bagel worms produces a new variant every couple of days, and although the email gateway on my office network is just about keeping up with the latest threats it is close to being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of incoming mail (so far this month we've blocked 6000+ spam messages and 8000+ virus messages) and with a new virus definitions file to install three or four times a week the anti-virus defences on the less well connected client PCs are falling further and further behind.

To make matters worse, this last week seems to have brought a significant increase in the general levels of spam email - I'm seeing far more junk mail both at home and at the office, and friends and colleagues report the same symptoms so it appears to be universal. My gut feeling is that, following the lawsuits brought by major Internet companies in the US last week, the major spammers are targeting non-American domains in the knowledge that they're currently safe from prosecution. All in all, it's a real worry for working techies and end-users alike...   :-(

Elsewhere...

GUIdebook is a history of Graphical User Interfaces, and although it has some way to go before it is complete (What? No GEM?) it's still an entertaining walk down memory lane.

Widespread problems with Windows XP wireless connectivity?

Follow the money - what will happen to the fine levied against Microsoft by the European Union.

RIAA website now back online - and apparently running Linux. I wonder if SCO will notice them, now?

 

25th March

So many links that you'll beg me for fish heads again...

Firstly, the silly season has come early this year, it seems:

Pig racing back in Moscow after more than 100 years

Germany axes Lederhosen subsidies

Miami museum tests time travel experiment

UFO may have caused failure of Beagle 2

Hundreds flock to see lamb with Allah's name
 

Hmmm. Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Call for Congressional hearing on RFID - and not before time, too, as far as I'm concerned. I would welcome a similar enquiry in this country, but previous experience suggests that, just like the proliferation of urban CCTV cameras, over here the technology will be mostly ignored until it is far too late.

Cooling your PC with a very tiny lightning storm - just as strange as it sounds...

Dubious marketing practices surround AMD's new wireless hotspots - more corporate bastardry.

RIAA website offline for five days - possibly as a result of the 532 lawsuits they've just filed?

Synergy multi-PC/Multi-monitor keyboard and mouse utility - a very interesting idea to control two or more PCs via a LAN.

Email via motorcycle in remote locations - an idea so cunning, you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel.

New graphics card optimised for ASCII gaming - for all the die-hard Rogue and Nethack fans... :-)
 

And, finally:

"Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

- Hermann Goering, speaking during a recess in the Nuremberg Trials.

Sobering, isn't it...

 

22nd March

Fish heads. They're better than links.

Titan missile underground launch complex for sale on eBay - built to withstand a one megaton blast, it sounds ideal for those who don't get on with their neighbours.

Steve Gibson's new utility, Wizmo - does all sorts of useful things that can't be done easily in any other way. At least, Steve thinks they're useful, anyway...

VIA's new nano-ITX motherboard - at 12cm square, it's a touch smaller than a CD, but still manages to include a PCI slot, integrated AGP graphics with TV-out, IDE and SATA interfaces, Ethernet, audio, USB, you name it... Impressive stuff! The original article is in German, but it can be seen in translation here.

Monty's Miniguns - a site devoted to the ultra-firepower Gatling-type machine guns in all their varieties - real ones, airsoft replicas, Hollywood movie props, the works. Check out the video of the PPP airsoft monster slowly destroying a large-screen television with 3000 high-velocity steel BBs. Cooooool!

New "Witty" worm exploits a vulnerability in the BlackIce software firewall. Smug behind a significantly less vulnerable hardware firewall appliance, I hate to say "I told you so", but...   :-)

Wired exposes the lengths to which New York's hip young things will go to get their hands on an iPod... Whatever you think of Apple as a company, nobody can deny the power of the bizarre cult following that has grown up around their products.

The first real X-ray goggles - almost... Exploiting the infrared effect that was made famous by Sony's camcorders a few years ago, this wearable camera/display system really can see through certain types of clothing.

 

21st March

Links. They're better than fish heads.

Sam Barros' PowerLabs - rail guns, Tesla coils, lasers, plasma, and all the other cool, dangerous stuff.

SodaPlay - create your own walking, bouncing, gyrating models from springs and things online.

A general-purpose plug for Dan's Data, simply because it's one of the best sites of its type - recent items include a review of a neat little headphone amplifier, predictions about future technologies and, of course, the ubiquitous letters. Highly recommended, as always.

Apparently, over the last few months AOL has been blocking access to web sites used by known spammers, preventing unwitting recipients from following up on the spam links and so confirming their addresses. Some analysts are dubious, but AOL claims a significant reduction in the amount of spam entering their network since they instituted this policy - although of course this will have a considerable impact on users who actually want to buy prescription medicines online, clean their credit rating, or sign up for sex sites!

And, talking of AOL, an interesting follow-up to the recent articles about their financial doldrums has emerged with the news that Microsoft may be considering buying the company. Considering that the anti-Microsoft witch hunt was originally started by AOL's allegations of monopolistic behaviour in the Netscape vs. Internet Explorer war, that would be irony indeed!

 

20th March

So I read yesterday that the 2004 US presidential race is going to involve a total of almost half a billion dollars in campaign funding, and I'm horrified by this... Whilst I would gladly contribute myself if it would help get Dubya and the Republicans out of power, and I realise that in the face of the GOP's vast campaign funding Democrat candidate John Kerry has little choice but to try to match it - but, well, it's half a billion dollars. Half a billion dollars! Sheesh!

Although it's obvious that some of the money, and probably the majority of the smaller contributions, is given in the genuine (if perhaps misguided) hope that a particular president will be good for America and for the American people, it is just as obvious that the larger contributions from corporations and lobbying groups are made in the hope that a particular candidate will be good for the corporations and groups themselves - and in the full expectation that they will receive an equal or greater amount back in concessions, benefits and contracts if their favoured candidate wins the presidency.

The idea that "What's good for GM is good for America" is long obsolete, if indeed it was ever true, and these days big business is driven almost universally by the lure of short-term profits for the shareholders and directors - and when these shareholders and directors authorise the donation of significant sums of money to a political campaign, you can bet that they're not doing it out of any sense of what is right, but instead what is profitable.

Now, I do realise that the purpose of a business is to make a profit, and there's nothing wrong with that in itself - but too many of the multinationals now seem determined to make their profits whatever the cost to lives, communities and society, and these days the ease with which they are capable of influencing the legislative process to permit this is just plain scary.

It is traditional that a Republican presidency is biased towards big business and against the rights of the individual, and for this reason (among many others!) I'd really like to see Kerry kick Dubya out of the White House for good - so I have to grit my teeth over the fact that he is intending to essentially throw away $180 million, which would be far better spent elsewhere, in the attempt. I wish him luck, and I really hope he wins - but I still don't have to like it.

Meanwhile -

The Russian space program is to be revitalised with a replacement for the aging Soyuz system - if government funding permits, the new spacecraft, Clipper, will have a six man crew, be reusable for up to twenty five launches, and have a launch weight twice that of its predecessor. The Russian space engineering group, Energia, are also reported to be working on designs for a huge 600 ton vehicle for a manned Mars mission - although it seems unlikely that funding will be available for this at present.

On a rather smaller scale, the SpaceShipOne private space plane has successfully completed a manned but unpowered test flight, the sixth flight overall in the test series and with a second powered flight expected soon. Designed and built by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites company, and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, SpaceShipOne is a strong competitor for the $10 million X Prize for the first privately-built reusable space vehicle.

Closer to home, Intel are about to abandon any measurements of performance in the names of their CPUs, instead referring to the various flavours of Pentium 4 as the 300, 500 and 700 series. I can't help but think that this has been brought about by AMD's misleading "equivalent clock speed" branding, where their 1.9GHz chip, for example, is named "2600" because it is allegedly equal in performance to an Intel CPU running at that speed. Intel have always been really ticked off about this, I gather, and the new naming will remove in a stroke AMD's ability to make this kind of comparison.   :-)

And, finally, via The Sideshow - the Barcode Clock and the VCR clock - both very clever, in their different ways...

 

19th March

Between work and some virus I've picked up (the biological kind rather than the digital kind), there isn't much energy left for more than a few links, tonight...

The marvellous Yeti Sports returns with a new episode, Seal Bounce. Recommended!

This homebrew "Transformers" robot is so impressive that unfortunately it has to be a remarkably well-done hoax! The sequence of it stopping a moving car is gorgeous, though...

Hard disk myths dispelled - although I hadn't even heard most of them, myself.

Wired wonders about the motives of the anti-virus companies - as do a number of us...

Linus on Linux, ten years on. Has it really been that long?

Apple iTunes to miss sales target by a lot, blames unsuccessful Pepsi promotion.

A new side of Dr Seuss - political propaganda cartoons from WW2.

In-car GPS navigation based around the Palm Tungsten T3 PDA - I've been pleased with our Navman iCN 630, but this is certainly an elegant solution at a fraction of the cost. TomTom's new self-contained Go unit looks leant too, and is obviously aimed directly at the Navman and Garmin products. I'm going to need to buy another GPS solution soon, and right now it's a tough choice indeed!

 

17th March

Midweek...  <groan>   Links... 

The latest of Home Secretary David Blunkett's increasingly wrong-headed manoeuvres - charging victims of miscarriages of justice £3000 per year for "food and lodgings" while in prison... If this was April 1st, I'd have written it off as a joke, if a sick one, but in the middle of March unfortunately it seems to be true.

Rodent inside? Half hamster cage, half PC - and some people have wholly too much time on their hands.

And, talking of too much time - fancy a monorail in your back garden? No, neither do I, but still...

"Passmark" adds a watermark image to a secure page to help prevent Phishing scams.

Nanotechnology Art Gallery at portal site Nanotechnology Now.

Programmer of original Kazaa code sues Sharman Networks - pots and kettles, surely?

Future of AOL uncertain - to be sold, floated or just plain restructured in the face of "significant" erosion of subscriber numbers... How the mighty have fallen!

Tom's Hardware Guide exposes Michael's Computers in Los Angeles, who advertise "The World's Fastest Computer", but who apparently fail to deliver even a slow one. Caveat emptor, indeed.

 

16th March

I do love tape backup, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

I know that in these days of removable disks and writeable DVDs, traditional tape has become rather unfashionable, and I'm perfectly willing to admit that in another few years it may no longer be the best bet for most backup applications - but right now the flexibility and sheer bulk of a good multi-slot tape library simply can't be beaten.

So I bought myself another one.

Hard on the heels of last month's DLT 7000 library for the server comes this extremely slick Ecrix/Exabyte VXA-1 AutoPak. With a pair of 33/66Gb VXA-1 tape drives and a fifteen slot robotic autoloader complete with barcode scanner, it offers half a terabyte of native capacity and up to a terabyte with the mostly hypothetical 2:1 compression.  [FX: Homer Simpson]  Mmmmm, terabyte...

The library comes complete with a high-speed LVD Ultra SCSI interface, so to match it I've filled the last free slot in my PC with Adaptec's 29160 host adaptor. With 80Mbit/sec bandwidth across the SCSI bus and a 100MHz 64bit PCI-X connection on the motherboard, I should be able to read and write at maximum speed to both drives simultaneously - and although I can't for the life of me imagine why I'd want to do that, it's nice knowing that I could! : -)

I spotted the library on eBay, and was lucky enough to get it for the reserve price of £200, an absolute steal - especially as it came with a SCSI cable and twenty VXA tapes, which are worth rather more than £200 on their own! Buying this sort of hardware second hand is always something of a gamble, but I was confident that I could repair or rebuild it if required and in the event it seems to be working perfectly - although I had a nasty moment until I found details of a registry tweak that has to be applied before BackupExec will address the loader mechanism correctly. Oh, and the documented settings for the emulation mode switch are incorrect, too - when set to the default of 0, rather than announcing itself as a "Spectra 215" as claimed, it actually returns an ID string of "Ecrix AutoPak" - which is unrecognised by Backup Exec. Switching the mode setting to 3 corrects this, but it took a thoroughly frustrating time of installing and removing device drivers before I thought to try ignoring the manual completely and checking the ID string myself... Tsk!

Best of all, though, it has a black case with a smoked Perspex front panel, and matches my PC perfectly. Happiness is a techy with a new toy...  :-)

Elsewhere...

Customers fail to be impressed by McDonald's wireless access - but how much of their target market does actually carry a laptop?

Apparently the average office contains 20,961 germs per square inch - and computers are dirtier than toilets! Hmph, not mine, I bet!

George Michael will release all future songs free online - one has to admire his ideals, but personally I think I'll pass...

"Buy Jupiter" Redux - advertising in space to spoil the night sky for everyone. Oh, I really hope that idea doesn't come to fruition...

Microsoft condemned for monopolistic activities in Europe - although, at least in part, it's probably just a political manoeuvre to beat down the EU licensing fees...

U.S. privacy protection programs killed - with government surveillance technology advancing in leaps and bounds, the lack of any kind of privacy legislation to curb the excesses is really, really bad...

Kodak's new 3D gaming display - although I always find these press releases very frustrating as, for obvious reasons, they can't show us any pictures!

Welcome to the Mexican PC modding scene - where if you can't think of anything neat to do with your computer, you take an old hard disk out into a suburban back yard and shoot it with a silenced 9mm pistol. Sheesh!

Inspired by Fritz Lang's classic movie "Metropolis" -  a wonderfully art deco PC case project designed to showcase Via's new Mini ITX motherboard.

 

14th March

What a day! A few more random links, then, in lieu of actual content...

DARPA's million dollar challenge for robotic vehicles proves far too daunting... In spite of grand boasts and high hopes, none of the contestants managed more than seven miles of the 142 mile course - and most failed to go more than a few hundred yards. Never mind - try again next year!

At The Register - Tweaking Google to find out more than you ought to. Nothing terribly new, but certainly put together in an interesting way.

Yet more NetSky versions - probably not from the original author, but as the source code seems to be in the wild by now there's no shortage of dumb-ass wannabe imitators. Well, one of them is bound to run up against Microsoft's bounty sooner or later...

Continuous, bulk nanotubes, “without apparent limit to length” - although mere tubes may be passé, already, with nanowires and doped single molecules now being made in the labs.

 

12th March

It's been a long week, so just some random links tonight...

Earlier revisions in the Word documents that SCO presented in their suit against DaimlerChrysler show that Bank Of America is a potential target too. Oops!

Computer software listens to your car, and tells you exactly where the squeaks and rattles are coming from. I want one of those right now, please.

Name-game Linux supplier Lindows.com finally concedes defeat to Microsoft in Benelux - and even withdraws their stupid-ass lin---s.com domain.

Digital "copycats" stealing entire web sites, and re-hosting them elsewhere as a vehicle for pay-per-view advertisements. The bastards!

Apple CEO Steve Jobs draws his meagre $1 annual paycheck again - although the fat stock options and the $90 million private jet must go a long way towards making up for that...

A 90Gb solid-state flash drive, fully ATA compliant and in a handy 2½" form factor - a snip at "less than $40,000"...

BT's DSL lines may incorporate additional bandwidth on demand facilities - in spite of their near-monopoly, for some incomprehensible reason BT's broadband division is still running at a loss, and is desperate to attract custom with new bolt-on extras.

For the geek who has everything, #437 - a Swiss Army knife with a built-in USB flash memory stick. Is there anything that doesn't come with a built-in flash memory drive, these days?

And, finally, from the "don't try this at home" collection - protect your data from annoying government and police attention by mounting solid rocket motors on your hard disk drives. When The Man comes knocking at your door, just press the button, and woooooosh!

 

11th March

My parcel of oddments from US airsoft supplier RAP4 arrived yesterday, and with one exception I'm very pleased with it all. The exception is the CO2 "fill station", a pipe and valve assembly used for filling the little gun tanks from my big gas bottle, and unfortunately it doesn't fit! Some research has revealed the annoying fact that the outlets on American and European gas bottles have a subtly different screw thread, and although the difference is only a measly .035", when you're dealing with high-pressure gas a miss is definitely as good as a mile! I'm not sure what I'm going to do about this as yet - it may be possible to obtain the correct fitting and substitute, or I may have to bite the bullet and buy another one from a UK supplier. <mutters> I'd assumed that in these days of ISO standards something like a gas valve would be universal, but it just goes to show...

However, the other acquisitions have been rather more successful. A Mosquito Molds RIS unit and an XM-177 style flash-hider have transformed the look of the front end, and a solid SR-16 style stock will provide some cosmetic variation to the rear. The RIS unit fitted relatively well in place of the existing handguard, with only a tiny amount of filing necessary to slim down one edge of the frame enough to slip under the delta ring. Rather to my surprise, it feels extremely solid and stable in use, and I do very much prefer the modern tactical look...

Meanwhile, although my own dealings with Area51 Airsoft are finally drawing to a close, it's quite obvious that they're still having problems with other unhappy customers. A couple of days ago a rather irate posting complaining of long delays and broken promises appeared in their forum at Arnie's Airsoft, and although it was deleted within a few hours, as I write this there is still a more restrained version on the UK Airsoft Network forum as well. I do wonder how much longer it will stay there, though - the A51 forum at Arnie's is now completely locked, and it's rarely a good sign when a company prefers censorship to openness in its relationship with unhappy customers. With Dee Sheldrake writing as if his involvement with the company has ended, and a bunch of unfamiliar names posting on the company's own front page, obviously some extensive changes are under way. Hopefully they will be changes for the better.

Elsewhere...

UserFriendly being pointed about SCO - obviously this month's spectator sport!

Unofficial Windows 98 SE Service Pack - all the security updates and hotfixes in one neat package.

Robotic builders could 'print' houses, squirting successive layers of concrete to build up walls, then disembodied robotic arms could carry out tasks inside, then more robots could guard them - unless burglars steal the robots, of course...

 

10th March

Yesterday an article appeared at tech news site The Enquirer, offering a recipe for gaining additional storage space on a hard disk by manipulating the partitions in a rather unorthodox procedure involving the Symantec Ghost imaging software. The article claims that the available storage space can often be doubled, at least, bringing to mind the old DriveSpace and Stacker utilities of yesteryear...

Various unlikely explanations have been offered, and some which are just plain wrong, but as several of the more informed contributors suggest it seems likely that the procedure simply creates two or more overlapping partitions. This could certainly appear to significantly increase the available space, but would have disastrous effects on the data held on all the partitions sooner rather than later... I won't be trying it here, believe me!

Now, what would be interesting, and what I originally thought might have happened, would be to find a way of enabling the sections of a drive that have been artificially locked away. Last year a number of models came onto the market that had been "short stroked", with a portion of the surface effectively disabled to reduce the capacity to a particular marketing point. In the same way that CPUs are often capable of one clock speed but sold at a lower one, these drives were artificially reduced from, say, 200Gb to 160Gb. The additional disk surface was still present, however, and given this it might conceivably be possible to overcome the limitation and re-enable the full surface area of the drive. I have no idea if this will ever be possible, but it certainly sounds like a far more plausible idea than that raised by The Enquirer!

Elsewhere -

As usual, many pretty space pictures at HubbleSite - including a new update of the deepest ever view into the Universe, showing the very earliest galaxies.

In a move that many think should have happened long ago, a group of major American ISPs have announced that they are filing lawsuits against six of the most prolific sources of spam email. The providers, Microsoft, America Online, EarthLink and Yahoo, will use the provisions of the CAN-Spam act to "find, track, sue and put spammers out of business." Randy Bowe, general counsel of America Online, says "This is not a great day for spammers; we are putting you on notice that we will sift through the bogus identities, the compromised servers, the hijacked accounts, and we will find you and we will sue you. This is only the beginning". Strong words indeed...

A marvellously retro PC case, styled after the robots from vintage SF movies... The article isn't in English (I'm not sure what language it is in, to be honest!) but you can certainly get the gist from the pictures.

A review of the Sapphire AIW 9800 Pro graphics card I use in my PC, dubbed "The Beast"... The article confirms what I already knew, that its very, very fast indeed - although to my lasting shame it still isn't quick enough to run Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 at anything like the maximum levels of detail. <mutters under breath> Thanks, Mike...

 

9th March

Even after twenty years in the IT industry the incredible butt-headedness of computer users still manages to amaze me. We don't have our wake-on-LAN facility up and running as yet, so to allow SMS to send out upgrades to Office 2003 yesterday evening we asked the users to leave their PCs switched on rather than shutting them down when they left for the day.

Now, when I say "asked", I actually mean that over the last three weeks I sent out a succession of emails explaining what was going to happen, and what they would have to do; I posted full schedules and instructions on our company intranet, and called everyone's attention to it every week; I briefed the team leaders and had them walking back and forth through the department for several hours yesterday evening before the upgrades were due to start; and finally sent out a pop-up message to everyone who was still logged in just before I left myself - in short, I held their helpless little hands in every way I could possibly imagine...

...And in spite of all that, out of eighty-something in the department in question, fifteen didn't seem able to follow this simple request and switched off their computers when they left! Would any court in the land convict if I slaughtered them all in cold blood and left their mutilated bodies hanging in the car park as a lesson to the others?

Meanwhile:

An ad-hoc hardware survey - a good cross-section of what today's hip young gamester is running

Burning labels right onto the CD - although unfortunately it still needs special media

Rape and violence - a comprehensive history of video game controversy

RocketCAM - Woooooooooosh!

Apparently SCO's Darl McBride carries a gun - what it is to be popular...

Magnetic nanotubes - good for something, I'm sure?

AOL infected with yet more spyware - and its little dog AIM, too.

And, finally, an extremely pointed article at The American Prospect, via The Sideshow - "a new high-water mark for concentrated sarcasm", as The Left apologises to The Right.

 

8th March

I'm sitting here chewing my fingernails tonight, as at work my SMS server is busy handing out the first unattended installations of Office 2003. In the course of the next month we'll be upgrading the entire company, department by department, and SMS is a key part of this process - all previous installations have been performed by the desktop support team personally visiting each computer with a CD, and this is our first use of a fully-automated delivery mechanism. SMS 2003 is a very new system, and the journey to this point has not been as smooth as I would have liked in places, but it looks like we've worked the final bugs out of the system just in time... I've just connected to the server to check the status of the package deployment and, as I write this, a mere quarter of an hour after the advertisement went live across the network 39 PCs out of a total of 74 have already successfully completed the upgrade. So far, so good - and only another six hundred to go!

It's been a nervous process, though, and so today I was quite glad to have had the delivery of a giant battery for our UPS system to distract me. About the size of two large filing cabinets and weighing almost 1000Kg, this will take our run-time in the event of a mains failure to about an hour, which is not bad considering that the computer room currently holds at least thirty servers as well as all the associated switches, routers, appliances, etc etc. The delivery guys were less than impressed to find that the cabinet had been mounted onto its palette in such a way that it needed a forklift to lift it off vertically, though, as all they had were a pair of pump trucks and several crowbars... But watching them working around this limitation was an extremely entertaining way of spending the last hour of the afternoon, and it's now safely installed in our UPS room waiting for the electricians to finish wiring it in tomorrow.

Elsewhere...

Further advances towards a classic science fiction powered combat suit
[Update: More information, and some excellent images and video clips, here]

Upgrade your PC and save the planet

Supercomputers on wheels - racing driverless cars in the desert

Modding Macs - if only a little bit!

 

7th March

One hidden screw later, and voila! The short-range holo sight is rather incongruous on a sniper-style weapon, of course, but the overall look is quite appealing nevertheless. The silver barrel and flash-hider has grown on me somewhat since yesterday, but I'm still not convinced about the high-gloss finish on the handguard - the real Alexander Arms weapon has a matt, Parkerized look which is far more appealing. Swapping between the M4 and Overwatch barrels is a bit of a chore at present, as the M4 front end needs to be disassembled completely to provide a locking piece and screws required to mount the Overwatch barrel. Area51 have promised additional parts next week, though, and (assuming they ever arrive!) exchanging one for the other should then be only a few minutes work.

Meanwhile...

Microsoft MVPs treated to sneak preview of Office 12 - something I find a touch unsettling, as tomorrow we start the scheduled roll-out of Office 11, and hearing that it's almost obsolete already is not calculated to settle a techie's frazzled nerves. I wouldn't mind being one of those MVPs, though, and I'm currently wondering if I can capitalise on my contributions to the Exchange and SMS beta programmes last year... Hmmm.

Local sheriff's department web site operator charged with extortion - having supplied his services and skills without charge for around three years, the site's designer, a former reserve deputy, started negotiations with the police authorities for some kind of income for his work. However, when the negotiations broke down, he disabled the highly regarded site to avoid incurring even greater expenses - and was promptly arrested on charges that could bring up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. That seems extremely harsh, to me, as matters of this kind are normally treated as civil disputes rather than criminal acts - but evidently the sheriff's department felt sufficiently aggrieved to throw their weight around.

Microsoft slithers away from allegations of funding SCO's anti-Linux crusade - the recent claims that MS has bankrolled SCO to the tune of $100 million seem to have been a combination of poor arithmetic, excessive paranoia, and an extreme willingness to believe anything about the company as long as it's bad... It's true that Microsoft have funded SCO to one degree or another, but the figures presented by committed Microsoft-hater Eric Raymond seem to have been significantly exaggerated, and as the leaked email shows that the company has declined a proposed deal that would have funded SCO for at least a year, it's clear that they're not the puppet masters that the open source community would like to think they are.

Frank's Vinyl Museum - The Internet Home of Weird Records. Approach with caution...

Safe For Work Porn, by Edouard Levé - They all have their clothes on, and it's still hot!   :-)

 

6th March

So, for what must be the first time in my dealings with them, Area51 actually made good on a promised delivery date and shipped the remainder of my order - a mere twenty weeks after I paid for it! I've completely given up on the various freebies I was promised, though, as at this stage just getting the items I actually paid for seems like a major victory. What a saga!

What they've sent is the new version of their Bushmaster-style front end in 11mm calibre, shown here offered up to the standard M4 (check out that sexy Cobra holo sight!) to demonstrate the admittedly impressive sniper look. The styling is modelled on the Alexander Arms "Overwatch" .50 cal Beowulf long-range rifle, and it certainly is distinctive. I have to admit that I'm not as fond of it as the all-black version that was originally offered, and the handguard is now in a shiny gloss finish rather than the original textured surface, but by now I'm resigned to taking what I can get...

It's not immediately clear how to install the replacement barrel at this stage, but I'll work on it when I have the time and energy - as always, watch this space. [Update: Oooh, a hidden screw in the bipod mounting hole - how clever!]

The flash hider is rather slick, I have to admit - but silver? Hmmm... I'm really not convinced, as yet, but I guess it can be sprayed if it continues to bug me. The 11mm version fires solid, hard rubber balls (from rather elegant copper coloured shell cases) rather than traditional airsoft BBs, and it will be interesting to see what sort of mess they make of my target box! With luck they'll be reusable if trapped safely in something soft, though, as they won't be nearly as easy to source without going back to Area51 - something I am rather keen to avoid if at all possible.

Elsewhere...

Eolas' bogus web patent nullified - Yay! The US Patent Office has cancelled the controversial "embedding" patent that netted Microsoft a $521 million fine last year. Eolas has 60 days to appeal -and then, presumably, they'll have to give all the money back. Hah!

Californian ISP sues Bob Vila home improvement site for spam - the suit claims that spam mail was sent with forged headers and without a valid physical address, directed to randomly generated and harvested addresses, and even to addresses that had been submitted through the "opt-out" links of other spam messages. Let's see if CAN-SPAM actually has any teeth, then!

Al Qaeda operative caught by phone SIM - there has already been some discussion that  the so-called "anonymous" pay-as-you-go SIMs issued by European provider Swisscom might have been used by terrorists, but the smart money seemed to think that any modern, clued-up fundamentalist would have recognised them for the obvious CIA-magnet that they are... This seems not to have been the case, however, as it turns out that a number of Al Qaeda leaders bought them in bulk under the misapprehension that they somehow anonymised their phones: "They'd switch phones but use the same cards. The people were stupid enough to use the same cards all of the time. It was a very good thing for us."

And, finally - The Guide to Being a Popular Cam-Girl... Made me giggle...

 

5th March

Memo to Area51 Airsoft:
When you have an irate customer on your hands, arguing with him is not a tactic that is profitable to adopt - especially when said customer has a weblog, and isn't afraid to use it. They claim to have sent a package out today, though, so hopefully I won't have to...

Meanwhile:

More than you ever wanted to know about the Rubik's Cube - together with a bunch of odd things to do when you've given up in frustration and feel like making a sculpture out of them instead.

Does open source software enhance security? - Yes, says The Register, but not in the ways that you might think.

A fascinating remote control application, allowing you to drive a Mac from a Bluetooth-enabled phone or PDA... And smart enough to use the proximity awareness of Bluetooth to, for example, increase the volume of music playback when you leave the room the Mac is in! The author has no particular plans for a Windows version, but I expect we'll see one from somebody else soon enough.

Smoking linked to increased risk of age-related macular degeneration. As if it wasn't bad enough for you already!   :-(

Worldwide levels of violence against women are terrifyingly high, says Amnesty International: "In the United States, a woman was beaten by her husband or partner on average every 15 seconds, and one was raped every 90 seconds". It's saddening, and sickening, and it's happening right here, right now...

In a speech today, Tony Blair referred to "terrorists prepared to bring about Armageddon" - but it seems to me that, actually, the only organisations able to cause a literal, end of the world Armageddon are the governments of the Western nuclear powers... Blair is long on emotive words, it seems, but still appears to be very short on facts, truth and openness.

On a lighter note - a resolution to save the Hubble Space Telescope has been brought before the US House Of Representatives. Nobody can deny that Hubble achieved a significant quantity of serious scientific research, but I have to say that the unprecedented levels of public interest and support are probably due more to all the pretty pictures it returned...

 

4th March

So, the battle between alleged gaming console manufacturer Infinium Labs and tech site [H]ard|OCP continues, and this time the boot is firmly on the other foot. In a complete turn-about, [H]ard|OCP has filed a counter suit, basically telling Infinium to get off their back and stop waving lawsuits around. Great stuff! Meanwhile, Penny Arcade is still fighting the good fight from its own corner, and gaming news site Glide Underground is questioning whether the Phantom console, should it ever actually reach the market, will even be a workable proposition financially. Apparently Infinium have been hassling geek site Sudhian Media, too, but by now it really doesn't seem as if anyone is taking them very seriously...

And talking of lawsuits, the bizarre behaviour of SCO, the UNIX vendor everybody loves to hate, continues unabated. Making good on their recent threats to sue a major Linux end user, they have just announced a pair of lawsuits targeting automotive industry giant DaimlerChrysler and car parts manufacturer AutoZone. Meanwhile, closer to home, they have been ordered to produce hard evidence of their case within forty five days - something which, according to experts, may actually be next to impossible. This bizarre legal dispute has just been made even more fascinating, though, with the news that Microsoft may be backing SCO financially to the tune of many tens of millions of dollars. Is the leaked email genuine? At this stage, who the hell knows!  [Update: It is genuine, according to SCO...]

Elsewhere, fourteen year old hacker wannabes are trading insults with each other in their nuisance virus code, as the NetSky vs. MyDoom war escalates. I just wish they'd learn to spell...

Cannibalising an MP3 player for its hard disk - Hitachi's 4gb microdrive costs around $500 when bought for a digital camera, but the Creative MuVo2, which incorporates just such a microdrive, is available for only $200. Guess what people are doing now...

Meanwhile,

Colonel Kurtz - "And are my methods unsound?"
Captain Willard - "I don't see... any method... at all."

I've just been watched all 3¼ hours of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now Redux", and it truly is a remarkable film. Even more remarkable, though, is the life of the CIA operative who inspired Brando's character of Colonel Kurtz. Antony Poshepny, AKA Colonel Tony Poe, was a CIA station chief in Laos, and operating almost completely independently he recruited an army of between 10,000 and 30,000 back-country tribesmen to fight a secret war against the communists, married a Laotian princess before disappearing into the jungle for many years, collected pickled heads and offered a bounty of $1 for every severed enemy ear... Once again, truth really is stranger than fiction.

 

3rd March

I've finally given up on Area51 Airsoft, the supplier of my shell-ejecting M4 replica... After almost five months of broken promises, missed delivery dates, evasions, excuses and even a handful of just downright lies, I've had enough, and I've finally admitted to myself that the chance of getting everything I'd originally ordered, let alone the additional items they promised, is minimal. Each time they've let me down they've offered some new freebie - additional front ends, large-bore barrels, CO2 tanks, extra shell cases, you name it... but just like some of the hardware I originally ordered and paid for, none of the freebies have ever actually arrived!

In summary - the gun itself is basically functional in the form supplied. The modification to convert it from .43 calibre paintballs to 6mm BBs seem to have been carried out competently, and I have no major complaints in that area. There is a nasty design quirk where an almost empty gas tank can cause a delay of several seconds between pulling the trigger and firing the final round, but disconcerting and worrying though this is I suspect it to be a problem with the gas mechanism itself and nothing to do with Area51's modifications. I'm a also a touch concerned about the overall longevity of the gas tanks, as I've already experienced two failures in the seals even during very limited use, and these are obviously a weak area.

On top of these issues, though, everything else about Area51's overall package is less than satisfactory and shows clear signs of being pre-production prototypes rushed to market with grossly inadequate design and testing. Firstly, the CO2 charge/cooling rig, even after several redesigns, is at present a thoroughly unworkable device - both models supplied to date leak like sieves, fall apart at the drop of a hat, and seize solid with depressing regularity. However, in spite of this I finally evolved a technique of filling the gun tanks that worked most of the time (if with much wasted gas and chilled fingers!) and I could have coped in the short term - except that I was asked to send both units back to Area51 almost a fortnight ago to exchange for a 3rd generation unit which, of course, still hasn't arrived in spite of promises of being sent out "tomorrow"!

Secondly, the shell cases themselves, heavily modified from the original paintball cases with the addition of a soft, rubbery plastic sleeve to reduce the calibre to 6mm. Unfortunately they are wildly inconsistent in manufacture, and seem to showcase Area51's quality control shortcomings in the worst way. A significant number of them failed right out of the box, as the plastic insert protruded several millimetres outside the aluminium case and so jammed solid in the gun when chambered. More worryingly, an increasing number are starting to exhibit this problem after only light use, as the insert creeps forward inside the case - and this is even more serious, because as well as tending to jam, when this happens they also become too loose to retain the BB while in the chamber, and it tends to roll out of the barrel when the muzzle of the gun is lowered!

Now, although these are extremely irritating factors given the timescale involved, and have lead to me only being able to use the replica for around three weeks in the five months since I paid, it is after all only a toy gun and I've been reluctant to let the matter get out of proportion. However, what really annoys me is the way that Area51 has treated me and, from what I read, a significant number of other customers. We have been made to wait many months for deliveries promised in days or weeks, given Parcelforce tracking numbers that don't exist, told that packages have been sent on particular dates when they clearly haven't, offered additional items which never arrive presumably just to shut us up temporarily, have had the forums which were the only source of information and feedback sneakily closed down on us, told to our faces (as it were!) that we were less important than the big government contracts that are apparently the company's bread and butter, and generally screwed over and messed around from start to finish!

It's an old and familiar story, I'm afraid - a small company dealing in a specialised market becomes unexpectedly successful, outgrows its own ability to cope with demand, and subsequently abandons the very customers who made it successful in the first place in favour of the quick buck... Experience has shown that the quick buck is often surprisingly ephemeral, though, and a company that has alienated all its original customers may find itself in serious difficulty when the big contracts suddenly move elsewhere.

So, enough is enough, at least where I'm concerned. Although the original manufacturer of the replicas, Asia Paintball, supply some accessories for the unmodified paintball markers, I found a US company called Real Action Paintball with a far more extensive range. They seem to be well thought of in the paintball market, and I've just ordered a number of the things that were promised by Area51 but never delivered, including a charge/cooler rig of a standard design that has proved its worth for many years in paintball. I'm going to take something of a financial hit on the whole deal, of course, and it's a shame to miss out on the large-bore barrels that Area51 have promised, but a bird in the hand is worth any number in an imaginary bush and I'm so frustrated with it all that I'm more than call it quits.

I've exchanged more than ninety email messages with Area51 over the last five months, trying to get it all sorted out, and I still don't have everything that I ordered and paid for - let alone have it all working satisfactorily! Here's a timeline of the whole, sorry affair, which I'll keep updated to the bitter end:

 

8th October A51 announces launch of shell-ejecting range
15th October Paid for the gun, an additional front end, and a compressed air charging rig
2nd November Told that the air charger was being withdrawn, and replaced by a CO2 system
11th November Told that the gun would ship - it didn't...
7th November After advice from A51, obtained CO2 tank from BOC
9th November Informed that my gun will have added extras as a bonus - this is not the case
14th November After some background reading, determined that I had the wrong sort of CO2 tank
15th November Acquired replacement CO2 tank from BOC
15th November Promised instructions on how to fill the CO2 gun tanks - still waiting...
   
4th December Promised additional Bushmaster-type front end as a bonus - still waiting
5th December Told that the gun had shipped - it hadn't, and the tracking number was invalid
8th December Told again that the gun would ship - and again it didn't
18th December A51 announce that they will no longer supply direct to the public
19th December Told yet again that the gun had shipped
20th December Gun finally arrives on its own, without front end, shell cases or gas charge/cooler
20th December Told that shells and charge/cooler had been sent out - they hadn't
23rd December A51 forum at Arnie's Airsoft locked "for four days over christmas"
7th January A51 forum at Arnie's Airsoft completely locked, apparently permanently...
8th January Promised CO2 caplet adapter as a bonus - still waiting...
8th January Gas charge/cooler finally arrives - and fails immediately in use
12th January Replacement charge/cooler arrives - and also fails immediately in use
20th January Promised additional 11mm barrels as a bonus - still waiting...
3rd February Most recent order status update on A51's tracking page
4th February Shell cases finally arrive - and a number of them fail immediately in use
From this point I can actually use the gun for the first time!
6th February Promised 3rd generation charge/cooler - still waiting...
21st February Returned both faulty charge/coolers, together with faulty shells and gas tank
Until now, when it's back to being a paperweight once more!
25th February A51 announce their intention to supply direct to the public again
1st March A51 announce that the shell-ejecting Glock pistol range will be withdrawn
2nd March A51 remove references to authorised dealers from their web page
3rd March I finally run out of patience...
4th March Email sent to A51 telling them what I think of them, and putting my foot down
4th March They reply with more promises, and claims that my problems are unique among over 31,000 guns supplied... Needless to say, I don't believe that for a moment!
5th March I've given them until the middle of next week to deliver what I am owed, but I'm getting more annoyed with every email message exchanged. Let's see what happens...
6th March The additional front end arrives - more that twenty weeks after I ordered and paid for it. I've completely given up hope on the many freebies I was offered, as by this time just getting the items I'd actually paid for feels like a major achievement!
14th March In the vain hope that buying from the company via an eBay auction might somehow bring better results, I tried to obtain an extra barrel... Full details here.

 

One final note - it might interest the manager of Area51, DeeDee Sheldrake, that a search for their company name at Google currently shows my earlier complaints here as the fourth and fifth hits on the first page - and this posting will probably move that even higher when Google catches up. In these days of weblogs and widespread web connectivity, even a single disgruntled customer is enough to make a major difference to your company's reputation.

 

2nd March

And every time
I see an iceberg
It reminds me of you
Que es mas macho?
Iceberg, or volcano?

- Laurie Anderson

 

1st March

I've seen portable DVD players before without paying them much attention, but I spotted this neat little gadget today and it really caught my eye. Branded as both the Coby TFTDVD-7700 and the NextBase SDV17-A, it comprises a 7" diagonal TFT 16:9 wide screen display, backed by a slim-line DVD drive (also capable of reading disks in all the other major formats, including audio CD, Video and SuperVideo CD, MP3, WMA, and JPG and Kodak PhotoCD format images). It runs from a mains adapter, a car cigarette lighter socket, or a clip-on Li-Ion battery pack available separately, and has a small selection of input and output sockets to connect to other hardware. Not bad at all, on paper!

What makes it especially appealing right now, though, is the price - although it's widely available at around £300 or more, UK electronic components warehouse CPC is currently offering the Coby branded model at £231, plus an additional £20 for the battery pack. My gut feeling is that the model is at the end of its lifespan, hence the reductions, and at that price I'd say it's quite a bargain - provided, of course, that it lives up to its paper specifications.

This may be where the problem lies, however, as although two of the more comprehensive reviews are really rather favourable about the unit, both are posted on sites that are actually selling the product themselves - and so must be taken with a considerable pinch of salt. Some of the user written reviews are considerably less impressive, and raise serious concerns with the unit's overall reliability... several of them seem to have died after only a few hours of use, which is far from ideal, especially if it really is an end-of-line model!

I'm tempted, I have to admit, but I'm a touch too concerned about the reliability issue, and as I can't remember the last time I wanted to watch a DVD while travelling I think I'll save my money this time... Get the full skinny here, though, and make up your own mind: there are editorial and user reviews at Portable DVD Player, user reviews at a couple of Amazon eShops and Global Online and, finally, an extensive and unbiased review at The Gadgeteer, complete with some further discussion.

 

Meanwhile... Not quite such a record-breaking month as January (all the techies are hard at work again after the go-slow at the start of the year, I guess, and so don't have time for recreational browsing!) but as I topped three thousand visitors I'm quite content. I never expected to attract even this relatively low level of attention, and it still surprises me a little.   :-)

This is normally the spot where I would exhort everyone to vote for Epicycle at the Tweakers Australia Top 50 list, but having just checked that domain now forwards straight to the discussion forums, with no sign of the main web site itself at all! I'm not sure what has happened there... Still, at least I'm not alone in my annoyance at the crude spamming tactics employed by Elite Guides to keep themselves at the top of the list over the last six months. I didn't get any meaningful response from the site admins when I raised the issue, and I have to admit that surprised and bugged me rather - if I was running that sort of list, I would be incensed if somebody hacked it, and would take the strongest possible measures to prevent it happening again! Ho hum.

 

 

Vote for Epicycle!

(Maybe!)

 

 

 

 

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