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EPICYCLE

 

31st May

For various embarrassing reasons I found myself in need of a Windows 98 Startup Disk today, and as a lot of my computing archive is in storage at the moment waiting on a house move, at first everything seemed stalled. However, a quick search of the web turned up DrD's Windows 95 Page, which has an extremely comprehensive selection of disk images for boot floppies and setup disks for all flavours of Windows, together with handy compilations of command line repair utilities. An invaluable resource for working on legacy PCs...

Something else I came across on the web is a fan page for that most eccentric and unusual of musicians, The Momus. He also has a home page of his own, it seems (complete with LiveJournal), and between them the pair seem to offer as much information as one could possibly want, need or understand. Approach with a degree of caution.

Elsewhere - a while ago I heard rumours of plans to make a movie of the marvellous Orson Scott Card short story Ender's Game. The project is still very in it's early days, it seems, but progress sis being made - Card himself wrote the first draft screenplay, and a few months ago the scriptwriters responsible for the second X-Men movie were brought in to create the second version. It looks as if the final film will include elements of both Ender's Game and the parallel work, Ender's Shadow, which is certainly an extremely ambitious concept. It will be very interesting to see what emerges from the idea.

And, finally - quite a while ago I linked to a report at Yahoo news that wearing a necktie can be damaging to your health. Unfortunately the article itself has evaporated (why does that happen? It's very annoying!), but the gist was that the pressure on the back of the neck could cause a variety of health issues ranging from blindness to high blood pressure in the brain. However, news has now reached me via The Sideshow that a report from researchers at the Queens Hospital Medical Centre in New York has added another nail in the coffin of these wretched items:

Doctors who wear ties during their hospital rounds in efforts to look professional for their patients could unwittingly spread disease-causing bacteria, says new research. Researchers found that nearly half of the ties worn by medical workers harboured bacteria which could cause disease. "Studies such as this remind us about what we may bring to our patients' bedside," Dr Nurkin said. "By increasing our awareness and making simple behavioural changes we may be able to provide a better quality of healthcare." The researcher said their study questioned whether wearing a tie was in the best interests of patients.

So there you are... Personally, I've always been dubious of ties since I got mine caught in a high-speed chain printer in my first job as a junior mainframe operator. When running flat out, those printers could feed several feet of paper per second, and it wouldn't have taken long for me to become intimately acquainted with the internals, face first, if it had actually been printing spool jobs rather than just a single form to check the line-up. That was definitely a case of once bitten, twice shy, though, and ever since then I've worn a tie pin... I don't spend much time with printers these days (and who could blame me after such a traumatic experience at such a formative age!), but the pin tends to prevent my ties being chewed up in server cooling fans or fed into cable runs - and stops them curling up at the end like Dilbert's ties, too, which is probably even more important for my self respect!

 

30th May

After posting yesterday's excerpt from the classic Tao of Programming, I started wondering if there were any more... I didn't find as many direct equivalents as I was expecting (although it's certainly an widely-used phrase, comparatively few writers seem to understand what the word actually implies), but the search certainly turned up some fascinating pages.

The Tao of Backup - excellent stuff, even if it is designed to help sell a data integrity checking suite...

The Tao of Windows Buffer Overflow - how to hack Windows, courtesy of The Cult of the Dead Cow.

The Tao of Quantum Interrogation - heavyweight physics, on detecting things without looking at them...

The Tao of Goth - [nods approvingly] Now, that's more like it, yes.

The Tao of Homer - why The Simpsons is still the best of all the pop culture cartoons.

The Mao of Pooh - yes, I did say "Mao". I'm not convinced this is supposed to be funny - but it is.

The Tao of Bada Bing! - Words of wisdom from The Sopranos. I'm guessing this is a short book...

And, finally, The Tao of Comms - I was expecting more of this sort of thing, so in its absence I'm forced to blow my own trumpet.

Oh, and by the way... It's pronounced "Dao".

 

29th May

Hardware met Software on the road to Changtse.

Software said: "You are the Yin and I am the Yang. If we travel together we will become famous and earn vast sums of money." And so the pair set forth together, thinking to conquer the world.

Presently, they met Firmware, who was dressed in tattered rags, and hobbled along propped on a thorny stick. Firmware said to them: "The Tao lies beyond Yin and Yang. It is silent and still as a pool of water. It does not seek fame, therefore nobody knows its presence. It does not seek fortune, for it is complete within itself. It exists beyond space and time."

Software and Hardware, ashamed, returned to their homes.

 - Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"

 

Somebody managed to find their way into my wireless LAN, yesterday, conclusively removing the last remaining vestiges of faith in the security via obscurity technique. In order to allow visiting friends to connect easily, I've never bothered with even the most basic security on the wireless router, instead relying on the strong Kerberos-based security of my Windows domain to protect the data itself, together with the fact that in a residential area of East London I probably wasn't at any great risk of drive-by hackings...

Evidently a neighbour has just installed some kind of wireless hardware, though, and whether by mistake or by design it connected to my LAN, happily grabbed a DHCP lease from my server, and started piggybacking on my broadband Internet connection. Whoever it was obviously didn't count on the ingrained awareness that a professional sysadmin has for his network, though, and I realised that there was an intruder within a few minutes of noticing some odd symptoms - I chopped him off right away, and after some fiddling the WLAN is now protected with both access control and tolerably strong encryption. So, no more Mr Nice Guy, and unfortunately the next time Graham visits with his iBook he's going to have to do more than just switch it on and start browsing. Ah, well - the end of another golden era in home IT...

Meanwhile, the DSL router I was installing for a friend went in relatively smoothly. There were some initial problems, as apparently all the phone lines hanging off the master socket are actually bits of damp string rather than twisted pair copper, but once I connected the router directly to that socket it all burst into life readily enough. Even entry level broadband is genuinely ten times faster to use than a dial-up connection, and it was nice to see the broad grins and wide eyes as pages that sometimes used to take so long to load that they timed out, instead appeared in only a few seconds. There's still some tweaking to be done on the firewall to allow incoming requests from AIM's file transfer and IRC direct connections, but the basics are in place and seem to be working very nicely indeed. Job done!

 

28th May

Ah, the end of the working week... Now all I have to do is configure a DSL router together with its associated wired and wireless local networks, then install Windows 2000 and Office 2000 on an old Pentium II, and then eventually I might be able to take some time off! No rest for the wicked, they say - and presumably I must be really, really wicked...

More fun and games with Microsoft and Lindows/Linspire. Even though MS won their suite to prevent Lindows selling their operating system under that name back in January, resulting in a change of name to Linspire, the same Dutch court has just ruled that the company itself can keep trading under the Lindows name. Given that it is blindingly obvious that both the company and product name really was chosen specifically to resemble Microsoft's Windows trademark, I find this ruling nonsensical. Either both uses of the name should be permitted, or neither - but half-and-half is just silly...

Meanwhile, it seems that the new 64 bit version of Windows will bring a performance boost even to legacy apps. An interview with one of Microsoft's veeps at the Windows Super Site reveals the following:

Microsoft: One thing we've found is that 32-bit applications run better on the 64-bit OS than they do on 32-bits. Just adding a 64-bit processor and the 64-bit OS changes everything.

WSS: Now what are you comparing there? Are these machines running the same clock speed...

Microsoft: Same everything. Same chips, same everything. We run apps on 32-bit Windows, and then take those same apps and run them on 64-bit Windows, and you'll get about an 8 percent performance improvement on average.

Interesting stuff. On the other hand, the first 64 bit virus has emerged, even if only in a proof-of-concept version at present. The example code only infects 64 bit systems, but given time I can't see any reason not to expect a hybrid worm that will run on 32 bit OS versions as well.

Elsewhere, Howard Carmack, the so-called "Buffalo Spammer" has been sentenced to between three-and-a-half and seven years in prison following his conviction for forgery and identity theft last month. Although Carmack has sent out more then 800 hundred million spam email messages during his career, at the time of his arrest New York state had no anti-spam laws and the CAN-SPAM bill had not yet been enacted. As well as receiving the maximum possible sentence, last year Carmack was also fined $16 million in a civil suit brought by the ISP Earthlink - I'd like to think that together these measures will start to get the message across to the major league spammers, but they seem to be an unusually single-minded bunch and actually I do wonder whether it will make any difference overall...

 

27th May

It's really shaping up to be one of those weeks at the office - and I'd be looking forward to the long bank holiday weekend if it wasn't for the fact that I'm likely to spend half of it configuring a broadband connection for one friend and the other half configuring an old PC to donate to another. Talk about a busman's holiday...

Meanwhile, there's an excellent feature at Ars.Technica on the new ClearPlay film censoring technology. The system utilises a special DVD player that is programmed with details of the questionable segments of mainstream movies, and so can "edit out" the sex, violence or bad language on the fly. The movie companies are scandalised by this, of course, claiming that the system alters their films away from what the directors and writers originally envisioned, instead steering them towards what ClearPlay's editors consider to be acceptable. This isn't really something that a lawsuit can be built around, though, so instead the studios are objecting on the grounds that the technology falls foul of copyright laws by creating derivative works of the originals. I don't really approve of the ClearPlay system I have to admit, as I really do find the idea of such censorship quite disturbing, but on the other hand I'm finding it very hard to feel any sympathy for the MPAA and its minions either. It's a tough call.

Also at Ars, an article on the Pirate Act, a new set of legislation aimed at criminalizing various acts of online piracy. Although the media and the RIAA always refer to file sharing as "theft" or "stealing," in the majority of cases copyright infringement is actually a civil issue and not a criminal one. The Pirate Act would change this, though, and in fact would mean that the government (and therefore the taxpayer!) would foot the bill for copyright prosecutions - as well as bringing the increased fines and longer prison sentences that the RIAA et al so fervently wish for. All in all, it sounds like an extremely dangerous development for civil liberties. The EFF are mounting a campaign against the proposed legislation, fortunately, and as usual they are well worth supporting.

Elsewhere, Microsoft have surprised me by suddenly releasing a whole raft of addons and updates for Exchange 2003 - Service Pack 1, a full toolkit, and the long-awaited spam filter. It's certainly enough to keep me busy! Meanwhile, Microsoft Watch reports that MS is planning more frequent upgrades to the big server applications - which probably explains the above...

 

Closer to home, apparently it's that cactus flowering time of year again. I think this one is an Echinopsis Kermesina, but I have to admit that I don't find identifying cacti very easy, so if anyone knows better please feel free to write in and tell me. The flowers are certainly pretty, though, whatever it is - I do love cacti!

 

26th May

Another busy day, so just a few random links...

Nothing to do with airsoft, for a change - digging up secret sensors at the original Area 51.

Cthulhu vs. the Nigerians - another scammer-baiting exercise, with secret manuscripts, mysterious disappearances and, of course, the obligatory nameless horrors. Great stuff!

Someone dares to disagree with Dan Rutter about ultra-expensive hi-fi cables. I pity the fool!

MS UK press web site defaced - everyone is making a huge fuss about it, of course, but actually it's just one of many that these adolescent vandals have broken into - and it is clear that the majority of them are not hosted on Windows servers!

RIAA demands broadcast flag for digital radio - if you listen carefully, you can actually hear your rights being eroded...

 

25th May

SharePoint Portal Server. Live Communications Server.

Pain. Can't talk. Coming down.

Just links...

Machinima - shooting computer generated movies using the graphics engines from mainstream 3D games. The genre is being hailed as the next big thing, and I have to admit that some of the early offerings are extremely impressive.

And, talking of rendered graphics - a neat little demo illustrating the differences between regular texture mapping, bump mapping, offset mapping and the combination of offset and bump mapping. Just the thing, if you're a graphics nerd...

Microsoft MVP defects to Linux - but "Add to this the trouble Hentzen was having with crashes and blue screens on the Windows NT 4.0 servers running his publishing business" suggests that maybe he doesn't know as much about systems management as he apparently does about programming...

MS vs. Lindows still going strong in the US - after a decade of lawsuits against the company, I suspect that the American legal system is inherently biased against Microsoft. I really can't remember the last time I heard anyone (other than myself) speaking up for the company...

More RFID scare stories - zombie tags that come back from the dead, and personally targeted adverts that leap out at you in shops. I know that we're going to have these wretched RFID things soon enough, but I can't say I'm looking forward to all the horrendous ways they'll be used...

 

24th May

A pink plastic dinosaur (a model of "Dino" from The Flintstones) has been sneaked in front of a webcam run by the New Zealand geological survey group, and which monitors volcanic activity in the remote White Island Crater.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again - some people have far too much time on their hands... The GNS has no plans to remove the dinosaur, but will instead let the corrosive atmosphere of the crater degrade it naturally.

Also with too much free time... Random Destructive Acts via Focused Solar Radiation, otherwise known as Fun with Fresnels - the culmination of many years dedicated research into melting stuff with giant lenses. Cool!

When is a wall not a wall? When it turns out to be a river. The European Space Agency has admitted that a photograph showing the Great Wall of China from space is actually a river running into the Miyun Reservoir near Beijing. Oops!

Consumer to pay MS legal bills? - Microsoft is protesting against  the $258m legal bill submitted by the lawyers who mounted the Californian anti-trust case. "Somebody ends up paying for this", says Microsoft attorney Robert Rosenfeld. "These large fee awards get passed on to consumers". The charges in question range from over $3,000 an hour for the lead attorney in the case, to $2,000 an hour for other lawyers on his team. I find that deeply ironic, considering that the anti-trust case was based on accusations that Microsoft over-charged for their products...

An interesting idea - the Xkey secure Exchange client. It's a USB device combining a chunk of flash memory, a CPU, a full Microsoft Exchange email reader, a mail database, a synchronisation engine and a VPN security application. When plugged into any Windows PC, it temporarily converts the computer into a secure terminal with full access to a corporate email system. I can't immediately see how we can use this at work, but it's too clever not to find it a niche somewhere!

And, talking of email - US ISP Comcast has admitted that it is currently the world's biggest spammer - only about 100 million of the 800 million messages that leave Comcast's network every day actually pass through flow through the company's official servers, with almost all of the remaining 700 million messages representing spam sent from zombie computers infected by viruses or other malware. Comcast now has plans to identify and block these systems, but I have to say that it's about bloody time - they really could have done this at any point in the last few year!

Oh, and there's a new letter, too, concerning hard to find replica pistols...

 

22nd May

Tonight's Epicycle is brought to you by Tracey Ullman, singing "You broke my heart in 17 places". (Upton Park was only one).

So, major-league spammer Ron Scelson has testified before the Senate Commerce Committee that although he has changed his practices to comply with the CAN-SPAM law, he will revert to illegal tactics if his messages continue to be blocked by ISPs. Elsewhere, one of the worst spammers in the world, Scott Richter of OptInRealBig.com, will meet SpamCop founder and arch-nemesis Julian Haight in a public debate in advance of their upcoming legal battle. Richter insists that spamming is reasonable freedom of speech, which is not a defence that either Haight or myself have much time for. Meanwhile. the FBI are planning a crackdown - now that, I approve of...

Elsewhere,

Sasser legal defence fund abandoned - the group trying to raise money for Sven Jaschan, author of the Sasser worm, has given up after failing to collect even $100. Presumably their claims that the worm was a "harmless wake-up call" have failed to find much sympathy elsewhere...  <laughter>

Cisco plays down IOS source code leak - "the improper publication of this information does not create increased risk to customers' Cisco equipment", according to a statement on their web site. Well, we're all going to have to wait and see, there, but as I've said before I really doubt it is that trivial.

The Register exposes slipperiness in the US Government's smart card passport proposal - fitted with an RFID chip that can be scanned from a distance by almost anyone, this makes even the UK's current ID card scheme seem relatively safe and secure...

The PearPC project is a PowerPC emulator for Intel X86 platforms, allowing Mac OS X to run within Windows! It is not without its bugs and glitches at this early stage, but even so it already seems to be a remarkable piece of work.

DIY hard disk cooling at The Modfathers - a neat design for water cooling a pair of disk drives. It's very nice to see projects aimed at slightly more grown up computers - the standard fare of even hardcore modders is a single CPU with a single hard drive, it seems, and water cooling systems that can cope with dual CPUs and multiple drives are rare indeed.

And, finally, more letters at Dan's Data - including an identification of a highly improbable device that turns out to be a silencer for artillery. As Dan comments, though, the resemblance to the Homotron 5000 is uncanny...

 

21st May

I've just finished a remarkable SF story, "Spares" by Michael Marshall Smith. Apparently his second novel, it reads rather like a Clive Barker horror novel that has collided at high speed with Oliver Stone's movie "Platoon" and Cordwainer Smith's classic short story "Game Of Rat And Dragon". Yes, I know how that sounds, but take it from me... In parts gruesome, thought-provoking, emotional and even inspiring, Smith manages to find a new twist on a number of old themes, and I was definitely impressed.

And while I'm writing about books, I thought I'd kick in my ten cents worth about one of my favourite writers, the remarkable (and possibly under-rated) British author John Brunner. Although he wrote around one hundred novels in a career that started in the early fifties at the age of seventeen, his early stories were competent but mostly nothing outstanding. They were very much stories of their era, though, generally space opera and adventure novels - some read like early Jack Vance, if perhaps without the sparkle of Vance at his best, others remind me of Chip Delaney in their treatment of serious ethical issues that weren't usually addressed by the genre at that time.

Somewhere around the time of the 1965 novel "The Squares Of The City" though, Brunner really came into his own. "Squares" has all of the elements that made the later novels so remarkable, and if perhaps with hindsight it seems a touch unpolished in comparison to the visionary works that were to come, it is clearly the first real step towards them. Although he wrote dozens more novels before his untimely death in 1995, four in particular stand out as some of the best science fiction stories ever written - their common thread is that they are all logical and plausible extrapolations of the real world of the sixties and seventies in which Brunner was writing.

Logical, plausible, and frightening, that is - the issues that Brunner deals with are the difficult, scary ones, which are no closer to understanding or resolution even three or four decades later: "Stand On Zanzibar" involves population pressure and eugenics, and exploitation of underdeveloped countries by the capitalist western economies; "The Jagged Orbit" covers racial tension in the inner cities, fuelled by massive private ownership of guns extended to its obvious and frightening conclusion; and "The Sheep Look Up" describes a total environmental collapse that unfortunately seems more plausible every time I read the novel.

Most of all, though, 1975's "The Shockwave Rider" must surely be one of the more visionary science fiction novels ever written. Among the concepts that Brunner virtually invented for this novel are computer hacking and self-replicating worms, digital identify theft, and something remarkably like the Internet... among the all-too-contemporary issues his characters face are the lack of privacy in an information age, the psychological crises that can come from the rapid pace of technological change, and a heavy-handed government that demands control of every aspect of its' citizens lives. It isn't just a deep, thought-provoking, clever book, though - it's an exciting thriller, with a fascinating central character (strong, intelligent and highly competent, and yet still very human and almost fatally flawed) and a pace that really pulls you from one page to another. When I first encountered the story I read it in one sitting, breathless to find out how it ended - these days I've slowed down, and savour every twist and turn, but either way it's still a hell of a story...

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I have to go and read it again.

 

20th May

I've spent the entire day trying to avoid saying "I told you so", and rather to my surprise I mostly succeeded. Last year, as their final parting gesture before they were disbanded, the bone-headed programmers in our R&D department applied a number of horrible kludges and hacks to the cash-cow Oracle servers that are the company's main source of reliable short-term revenue.

Back then I spent weeks telling everyone who would listen that their solution to the problem of a hanging modem-handler service, which was to terminate the process forcibly via a KILL utility every time it appeared to have stalled, was a sure-fire recipe for disaster... I explained that killing a process in that way doesn't always work, and that it can leave all sorts of orphaned resources floating around the system, and that it should only be performed as a last resort just before a server is restarted... I explained that the real problem was that the modem handler service was hanging in the first place, and that we should apply pressure to the R&D programmers to fix the problem, rather than allowing them to metaphorically wallpaper over the cracks in their software and pretend that they weren't there.

I talked about this calmly, I talked about it firmly, I talked about it heatedly, and at one point I even shouted a little and then stalked out of the room - but however I presented my argument, the common theme was a prediction that in a year's time, after the R&D department had evaporated and there was nobody left who understood the system even slightly, we'd suddenly start getting a whole bunch of weird, counter-intuitive bugs and problems, and that nobody would know how to even start fixing them.

Well, here we are a year later, and the R&D department has evaporated except for the most clueless, useless remnants, and last week we suddenly started getting a whole bunch of weird, counter-intuitive problems... And guess what - nobody knows how to even start fixing them.

I have to admit to being considerably irked by this. I am NOT a programmer, and never will be - but after twenty years experience with a fairly wide range of IT systems I can recognise completely wrong-headed practices when I see them, and in that particular system I'm staring them right in the face. As it happens, my friend Mike, who has more programming talent in his dandruff than the entire R&D team on their best day, has also cast his eye over the system and is equally horrified at such bizarre and sloppy work in such a mission-critical process. Of course, he doesn't have to support the wretched thing on a daily basis, as I do, and when he's working on site with me his sniggers as he watches the monitoring program detect the service failure and forcibly terminate it (potentially mutilating the internal system state as it does so) never fail to rub it in.   <mutters darkly>

The last laugh may be on me, though, as we're short on options and I'm tempted to suggest to my management that we ask Mike to submit a proposal to write the replacement system - and that would indeed be a can of worms labelled "Extra Wriggly". Hah!

Meanwhile,

A rather cunning USB server - it allows up to four USB devices to be shared across a LAN by multiple users. I'm sure that I can think of something to do with that...

Email arms race shows media's obsession with storage - after a mistake suggested that Google had extended their already generous gigabyte email storage to a terabyte, the world's IT media went wild. Meanwhile, Lycos are bucking the trend by offering a non-free service!

Apple applies for patent on translucent windows - "Information-bearing windows whose contents remain unchanged for a predetermined period of time become translucent. The translucency can be graduated so that, over time, if the window's contents remain unchanged, the window becomes more translucent. Upon reaching a certain level of visual translucency, user input in the region of the window is interpreted as an operation on the underlying objects rather than the contents of the overlaying window." It's an interesting idea, certainly, and I have to admit that I haven't come across anything quite like it before.

FBI joins in Cisco code theft investigation - they seek him here, they seek him there, they seek that source code everywhere! Eric Bangeman, writing at Ars.Technica, doesn't seem to think that the theft will cause any significant long-term problems. I disagree, though - Cisco's security to date has been heavily based on the fact that the code is completely unavailable for general scrutiny, and given the extremely high probability of significant weaknesses, and the likelihood that considerable portions of the V12.3 code are in use in the earlier versions of IOS, I really do foresee some interesting times ahead. Expect the first router or switch exploits within the month - the hackers move fast, these days...

 

19th May

The mainstream press coverage of the developing disaster in Iraq is surely depressing and upsetting enough for anyone, but the real truth is starting to leak out via the left-wing independent media, and unfortunately it is ten times, a hundred times worse than anything that we're seeing on the television news. In the Sacramento Bee today, for example, ex-Marine Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey is talking about the dozens of civilians that his unit shot by mistake ("we lit him up pretty good"), about the highly toxic depleted Uranium dust covering the wreckage that used to be the landscape ("they got a big wasteland problem"), and about the left-over unexploded cluster bombs that are killing US soldiers and Iraqi civilians alike. Massey was a hard-core professional soldier, but he has now left the Marines after twelve years of service, having simply lost heart with a cause of which he had once been a dedicated proponent...

"It was just a personal conviction with me. I've had an impeccable career. I chose to get out. And you know who I blame? I blame the president of the U.S. It's not the grunt. I blame the president because he said they had weapons of mass destruction. It was a lie."

War is hell, of course, and always will be - but in time this one will surely take its place in the history books as a new low point.

Meanwhile, closer to home... This rather unprepossessing metal cylinder is a DBD "Signature Series" barrel in 11mm calibre, and as well as being the cause of all my recent fuss with Area51, now thankfully resolved, it is apparently rather a nifty piece of engineering. I gather it is made from aluminium by a giant, expensive machine, and has a polished bronze liner - whereas the barrel that ships with the original paintball flavour of the M4 RAM is made of cardboard and old chewing gum, or something similar. Accuracy and range are significantly better than the standard barrels, it seems, and this is the main reason for the massive fuss about after-market replacements on the RAP4 forums at present.

I've always had an Area51 barrel on my M4, and so presumably have benefited from these improvements already - as a target enthusiast I probably care about accuracy even more than a paintball gamer, and although I haven't been able to make much use of my replica until now, the little I've seen does tend to confirm the buzz on the forums. Where I'm really hoping to gain is in the move to 11mm, though, as it ought to bring a noticeable improvement in the reliability of the feed and eject cycle, which really has been the bugbear of my M4 to date - Dee admits that the 6mm sleeved shell cases just didn't work out as well as he'd hoped, and the larger calibre do seem a far more plausible design. All I need now is the time to install the replacement! Watch this space...

 

18th May

Well, there's a turn-up for the books! Yesterday evening I received an unexpected visit from Dee Sheldrake, the owner of Area51 Airsoft. He brought me all the outstanding items from both my original order and the eBay auction, together with a generous handful of freebies by way of an apology for the delay, and we ended up having quite a long chat. He explained the background to some of the problems that he and his company have been facing over the last few months, and it does all sound far more reasonable now that I have some facts to go along with all the speculation. As Dee freely admitted, it would have been preferable if the issues with delivery delays etc had never arisen in the first place, but given that they have I really think that he is now doing everything possible to correct the problems and make amends to his customers. I have to admit that having talked to him in person, now, I was impressed with his sincerity - and that actually I've ended up with a degree of sympathy for someone who is obviously being run ragged by the demands of his business. I wish him the best of luck in sorting out the remaining problems, and I hope that he can resolve the complaints of any other dissatisfied customers as effectively as he has now resolved mine.

He has also re-affirmed his position on the warranty for the shell ejectors, and I am considerably re-assured to know that if there are any problems in future, I will have somewhere to turn for advice, repairs, and spare parts. I'm very pleased to be back on friendly terms with the company again, actually - I've never wanted to pursue a refund for the M4 Shell Ejector as it is basically an extremely elegant piece of hardware, and shows great potential once the teething problems have been worked out. Indeed, I'm hoping that the long-anticipated move from 6mm to 11mm calibre, thus losing the rather problematic sleeved-down shell cases, will bring a significant improvement. Watch this space later in the week week for pictures of the re-vamped replica.

Dee was accompanied by Arnie of Arnie's Airsoft fame, and it was especially nice to meet him, too - his site served as an excellent introduction to the hobby when I discovered it last year, and as well as being a fascinating source of information when I needed it most, I was highly impressed by the depth and quality of his reviews - and, indeed, have bought a number of my own replicas based purely on his opinions. Meeting Arnie and Dee together also allows me to dismiss a strange myth that has been circulating in email, recently - a number of people have suggested that they are actually one and the same person, but I am now in a position to reassure anyone who is unconvinced that there were definitely two complete people present, with no sign of any shared body parts at all.

[Update: I have to admit to being rather less impressed with Arnie, right now, having just read his contribution to this thread at the RAP forum. I have decided to grit my teeth and shrug it off, though, together with the deranged rantings of some of the regular denizens of the board (one of them, six years younger than me according to his profile, referred to me as "that Dominic kid"!), as I have become extremely tired of the whole issue. Now that I finally have the 11mm calibre barrel, I can abandon the annoying 6mm shell cases and hopefully that will actually make the replica practical to use at last - and at this stage it would be preferable to be able to enjoy shooting it, for a change, instead of just complaining about it! Selah.]

 

17th May

It's been a bitch of a day at the office, and I have no brain left for anything substantial. So, as we've been a little light on eye candy here, recently - thanks to my colleague Simon, here's a picture of the Dell server rack we've just filled up at work. Seventeen PowerEdge 2650 systems, with well over a terabyte of RAID disk storage and 34 CPUs (at least half of which are HyperThreading P4 Xeons) between them. More processing power than you can shake a stick at - and believe me, I've tried!

Simon calls it "The Leaning Tower Of Dell", but I like to think of it more as a giant, incredibly expensive fan heater - the rush of hot air from the rear of the cabinet is just the thing for warming chilly fingers on winter mornings... I gather it does some business-related stuff, too, but that's mostly incidental. Oh, but it does make me nostalgic for the days when I was participating in the Distributed.Net RC5-64 project, though - a stack of servers like this would have kicked some serious decryption butt...

 

16th May

I've finally completed the rest of the Online Shopping page. A number of overseas airsoft suppliers are named and shamed, as well as a few other firms that have failed to impress - but I'm also listing those companies that have been a pleasure to deal with, too. I intend to keep the page updated with experiences both good and bad, now, as they happen.

Another milestone for Burt Rutan and ScaledComposites - the SpaceCraftOne vehicle has just flown to a height of 65,000 metres, a record for a private flight, and only a relatively short distance below the 80,500 meter height that NASA officially regards as space. Unless one of the 27 other companies that have announced plans to compete for the X-Prize pulls a remarkable rabbit out of their hat, Rutan's attempt looks extremely plausible.

According to a report at Ars.Technica, a Russian computer security site has claimed that the source code to Cisco's IOS V12.3 operating system has been stolen! Given that a major proportion of the Internet runs on Cisco network hardware using IOS (not to mention the corporates - I have dozens of Cisco switches and routers myself!), this is potentially a most serious threat. If there are vulnerabilities (which seems highly likely), and they are also present in the previous versions of IOS (which seems at least possible), then we could be facing an "interesting" summer...

And, talking of interesting times - MacCentral has posted details of a flaw in the 802.11b wireless networking standard, which involves mildly customising a cheap wireless adaptor to gain the ability to effectively shut down wireless networks in a radius of around a kilometre. Now, the 11b standard is somewhat obsolete now, and shouldn't really be in widespread usage these days , but in practice that is certainly not the case and I suspect that this revelation will trigger a wave of annoying "pranks" targeted against corporate LANs and public wireless hotspots...

Further changes to WinXP SP2 - unusually last minute for such significant modifications, considering that we're at the release candidate stage! Will the service pack go to a third release candidate, given these new changes?

A USB to USB bridge - an interesting device that enables you to connect two devices without the need for a PC. Suggested applications include automated transfer of images from a digital camera to a portable hard disk, which could certainly be handy.

 

15th May

Following the negative feedback I left for Area51 at eBay, Dee has given his side of the story on the news page of the company's web site. Read it while you can, though - things posted there have a habit of not staying for long. [Note: And, indeed, the entire posting was removed a few hours later] The publicity is bringing a number of other highly dissatisfied customers out of the woodwork, though - I am NOT alone.

Meanwhile, a few quick links...

Courtesy of Pork Tornado, the ten worst album covers of all time. Whether they're actually the worst is highly debatable, of course, but there are certainly some baaaad ones there. Approach with caution.

I think I've linked to this before, at an earlier stage in its evolution - a thermoelectric cooler for beer kegs. As the designer says, following his recent development grant, "It's always easier to move forward with an idea with $20,000". Indeed.

At Ars.Technica, a feature on how the EU may just manage to avoid the morass of software intellectual property laws that is currently causing so many problems in the US.

A fascinating article on how the Nielsen company's Soundscan service, the system which provides much of the data for the Billboard Top 200 Chart, may contradict frequent statements by the RIAA on lost CD sales. Given the price fixing widely employed by the music industry before the successful anti-trust suit, is it any surprise to hear that they are continuing to deceive the consumer?

Microsoft have announced the roadmap for their server operating system releases over the next few years - as widely reported elsewhere, the server edition of Longhorn is not expected until 2007. I'd say that leaves room for, oh, maybe two service packs for Server 2003?

And, finally, the proposed anti-voyeurism statute looks set to pass into law fairly soon, bringing provision for fines and up to a year in prison... The days of the "up-skirt shot" are numbered, it seems, at least in the US.

 

14th May

So, Area51 Airsoft seem determined to add insult to injury. Even though I'm still waiting for my replacement M4 barrel after more than two months, yesterday Dee posted a message on the news section of their web site saying that they're giving them away for nothing!

It's that time of year where I do silly things. After having a good weekend and generally sorting out stuff like the new workshop and premises I'm in a good mood :) soooo if anybody who has bought an airsoft or 11mm MP5 shell ejector from me or has gotten one as part of a trade from me or anybody else wants to drop me a line I will send them a complete HK94 Barrel and kit free. (Yes free means free as in costs nothing). No strings and no catches. All you need to do is drop me a mail to free@area51airsoft.com and I'll mail you one out by return of post :) Why? simple. I'm that impressed with the new kits that I'd like more people to be able to see them so the easiest way is to give some away. M4 owners?? your not to be left out and if you also would like to drop me a mail I'll send you one of the 10mm Paintball DBD signature series barrels for nothing so you can fire Paint from your M4 series guns. Same applies, all it costs you is the time to mail me :)

Maybe I'm excessively paranoid, but after everything that has happened it actually does feel as if he's doing this mostly to annoy me!  <sigh"While you're at it, why don't you give me a nice paper cut, and pour lemon juice on it?"

Meanwhile, the UK government has ruled out a blanket ban on replica firearms. Their justification for the decision is not ideal, as rather than recognising the pointless nature of such a proposal they have merely admitted the difficulty of framing the legislation, but these days I'll take whatever I can get.

Elsewhere:

A new Mac OS X trojan has emerged, of the basic click and you're dead variety that deletes the contents of the user's home folder - as Lance Ulanoff wrote in PC Magazine after the last major Mac security flaw, "Will you be stuffing that superior attitude in your crow or eating it separately, sir?"

And talking of which, major flaws in Symantec security software - almost the entire range of Symantec security software, from Norton Internet Security through to the Symantec Firewall, require urgent updates after a series of four extremely critical vulnerabilities were unearthed. Gosh!

Voice-over-IP is susceptible to being hacked, according to an article at TechWeb - but after the attention-grabbing headline the gist is just that an unencrypted IP stream is not inherently secure. Big deal!

More Sasser/NetSky arrests - the German police are following up on leads to reel more of the little bastards into the net, uncovering "a loosely connected network of highly skilled teen and 20-something
hackers." Hah! Highly skilled, my ass - if these bozos had a tenth of the programming abilities of the 90s virus writers, we'd all be in big trouble.

Dan on PC sound - a useful article on making the most of your PC's sound card - but especially interesting as it reveals the latest in hi-fi fashion - mains power cables made from precious metals such as jewellery-grade platinum, and costing up to $3500. Oh! My! God!

And, finally, Tom's Hardware Guide takes a look at dual Xeon systems, and decides that actually they're both spiffy and good value for money. I can't say that I'm surprised! Keep an eye out for the promised sequel article, too, a head-to-head review of i7505 dual Xeon motherboards, together with an in-house optimisation utility to target processes to specific CPUs. Interesting stuff...

 

13th May

Every time I install a new Dell server in one of our racks (and there are six to install this week, bringing the grand total to fifty-something), I have to cut a section out of the steel cable management arm to leave space for the KVM switch interface pods. After a quick trip to the store room to grab hacksaws and metal files, I was heading down in the lift with a pair of our managers. They're more used to seeing me with an armful of computer manuals than an armful of tools, and their quizzical looks allowed me to use a line I've been saving for ages - "What, you've never seen a data file before?" I was trying to think of a reference to "hacking", as well, but unfortunately the lift arrived and they escaped before inspiration struck...

Elsewhere,

Napster gags university over RIAA's student tax - Ohio University has created a survey site to see if students are willing to pay $3 per month for the compulsory music service, but Napster have demanded that they keep quiet about the entire deal! Their continued arrogance amazes me.

'Spam King' gets restraining order - Scott Richter's bulk mailing company, OptinRealBig.com, has won a restraining order against the SpamCop anti-spam reporting service. SpamCop contacts the abuse desks of ISPs in response to reports of spam from end-users - but withholds the email address of the complainants, something that annoys Richter no end...

Microsoft drags Linspire back to court - the case has resumed in Holland, site of the previous lawsuit, with claims that the disputed word "Lindows" is still appearing on the web site. Microsoft is asking for a fine of 100,000 a day - an expensive alternative to a simple global search-and-replace...

Phatbot arrest throws open trade in zombie PCs - The arrest of the probable author of the Phatbot trojan could help to expose the illicit trade in zombie PCs. Phatbot has an extremely flexible back-door payload, and to date has been used to send spam, to steal data and to perform DDoS attacks. Control of networks of these compromised hosts, termed "BotNets", are commonly traded between virus writers, spammers and middlemen over the IRC networks.

Browser hijackers ruining Llves - some victims of malicious browser plugins are losing their jobs, their relationships, and their reputations. Trojan objects such as CWS can change the IE home page, open pop-up ads for pornography, create dozens of bookmarks to highly dubious websites, and redirect users to porn sites when they mistype URLs...

And, finally, a quick plug for the BOFH archive at The Register. Simon Travaglia isn't losing his touch, it seems, which is really quite an achievement after all this time.

 

11th May

Busy busy busy! Just a few odd links, tonight... And they are pretty odd, too.

"It isn't even wrong" - exposing a foolish science textbook with a little help from Wolfgang Pauli.

The boomerang is British - invented in Yorkshire, not Australia, claims author... but probably not.

Live-action Pac-Man - words fail me... except that evidently some New Yorkers have far too much time on their hands. The official web site is here.

Cooling your hard disk by encasing it in ice... BBspot to the rescue, once more.

The CPOD, a "black-box" data recorder for people.

More in the continuing saga of Infinium Labs' aptly-named "Phantom" console.

And, finally, a warning about a new variant of the Kazaa P2P client - and a new type of malware, that actually makes you pay to uninstall it! The bastards!

 

10th May

Sick of spam? Prepare for Adware - as mentioned in Epicycle passim, the pundits are predicting a massive upsurge in sneaky spyware. And they're probably right, too - I was browsing somewhere dubious last week, and clicked on a button I shouldn't have, and before I knew it I had installed at least seven different adware and spyware trojans. Now, I've been in IT for over twenty years, and have the healthy paranoia of a working sysadmin, and if I fell prey to a trap like this in a rare unguarded moment then the average user will be at the mercy of the malware authors pretty much all the time he is online. Oh, and it took three days to remove the last traces, too - boy, was my face red...

Something else that is on the rise, apparently, are the so-called phishing scams - and I can believe this, too, as I've seen an increasing number of those in the last few weeks, too. As well as the usual "please confirm your account details" messages purporting to come from banks or eBay, I also had one that was targeted at users of the UK online battery supplier MDS Battery. This was better thought out than most cons, as the scammer had registered the domain "mdsbettery.co.uk" to hold the fake login screens, which would escape all but the most alert eyes. What interested and concerned me, however, was how the scam emails seemed to be targeted to genuine MDS users, and I do have a suspicion that their customer list may have been stolen or leaked in some way. The company has so far refused to answer my questions about this, which is another reason why I won't be dealing with them again.

 

Still on computer security, or the lack of it... The Sasser virus - your questions answered:

What we know:

The author is named Sven Jaschan. He is just eighteen, lives with his parents, and acquaintances describe him as "shy, withdrawn and quiet" - this is pretty much the standard template for a virus writer, isn't it...

He did write Sasser (to the anti-Microsoft conspiracy theory bigots - he confessed, Ok?), and at least some of the NetSky variants.

He is falling back on the old "I didn't know it would spread so fast and cause so much damage, honest!" defence - which, in this day and age, has absolutely no credibility at all...

The arrest was made following information submitted by informers who hoped to claim Microsoft's $250,000 bounty.

The claims that alleged Iraqi "cyber insurgents" are threatening digital Armageddon if both Jaschan and the German author of the PhatBot worm (also arrested at the weekend) are not released, may well be true but are also completely laughable and irrelevant.

As usual, the media hype surrounding the virus and its effects on global business range from the unbelievable to the unimaginable, and fuelled by this hype a number of companies actually shut down their computer networks in a misguided and almost certainly futile attempt to avoid the worm.

What we don't know - yet:

Whether he really wrote the virus to drum up trade for his mother's computer repair business.

Whether he actually wrote all the other variants of NetSky as well.

Whether he really tried to release a damage-limitation version of the worm identified as Sasser.e

Whether he is actually part of the "gang" allegedly called "The SkyNet Anti-Virus group" - or, indeed, whether such a collective actually exists at all!

Whether he will ever receive any kind of realistic punishment for his crime - as a German citizen he is immune from extradition, and by some incredible quirk of timing he was actually only seventeen when he created the virus at the end of April. Even though he was eighteen a few days later by the time the virus was spreading in the wild, it seems likely that he will be tried as a minor and may even be at least partially immune from damages suits as well. Truly, there ain't no justice!

Oh, and one last thing... he is not a "mastermind", and he did not "outwit the word's best computer experts". He is a run-of-the-mill script kiddie with some rudimentary programming skills, who exploited a widely-publicised security flaw and capitalised on the fact that many network admins are over-worked and under-resourced. I am insulted by the German media's suggestion that he is anything else.

 

And, finally, Adidas launches digital shoes - complete with a 20MHz microprocessor, sensors and actuators, push buttons, LEDs, and an instruction manual on CD-ROM. "It's the wrong trousers, Gromit, and they've gone wrong!"...

 

8th May

German police have arrested the author of the Sasser worm, in what is surely the most significant anti-virus bust to date. The 18 year old student, as yet unnamed, lives with his parents in Rotenburg. He has confessed to creating the original worm, although it is not yet known if he was responsible for the later variants as well. However, many anti-virus pundits have speculated that the author of the worm is at least connected with those of the NetSky virus - a recent version of NetSky contains internal references to Sasser, and another variant was programmed to attack a server used by an education authority in the state of Lower Saxony where the creator lives. Now, experience has shown that teens charged with major computer misuse offences typically roll-over and squeal like pigs to the Feds almost immediately, so there is an excellent chance that this arrest will lead to others within the virus programming community. If you listen carefully, you can hear sysadmins around the world smiling with grim satisfaction. Personally, I hope they nail the little bastard to the wall and leave him there...

Elsewhere:

Linux source code could be infiltrated by dubious elements, including spies, according to a report released by Dan O'Dowd of Green Hills Software. Now, regular readers of this journal will know that I really don't agree with the hype surrounding Linux, and believe that claims that the OS has inherently better security are just hokum. However, even I raised an eyebrow at some of the statements in the report, and it wasn't until I discovered that his company produces high-security operating systems for embedded applications, an area of the market under growing threat from slimmed-down Linux variants, that his attitude became rather more explicable. I think I can hear the sound of an axe being ground...  However, some of his opinions are decidedly reasonable, especially the idea that examining source code is a lousy way to find bugs:

"Hundreds of bugs that attackers can exploit to penetrate Linux security are identified every year. Many of these critical security bugs have been in the code for years without being detected by the 'many eyes' looking at the source code," O'Dowd writes. "How can anyone believe that the open source process can eradicate all of the cleverly hidden intentional bugs put in by foreign intelligence agents and terrorists when the process can't find thousands of unintentional bugs left lying around in the source code?"

As the recent break-ins discovered in the servers holding the Debian and Gentoo Linux distributions show, it's a fair point...

Crying to beat iris scanners - an article in The Register reveals that the biometric scanners under test for David Blunkett's ID card scheme can be prevented from working correctly by watering eyes, long eyelashes, contact lenses, and eye malformations. Oh, and the predicted failure rate is between four and seven percent, too - which sounds fine until you realise that figure represents around three or four million UK citizens who won't be correctly identified!

And, talking of identity cards - another article in The Register reveals that not only will the cost of the scheme be far greater than the 3.1bn figure being bandied about (with considerable additional expenditure being effectively "laundered" via other government departments and private sector organisations) but also that Blunkett is setting himself up for a possible collision with Brussels, as the justification for forcing EU citizens to have a card is at least arguably fraudulent. I'm very glad to see that The Register is giving the proposals so much coverage, though, and not pulling any punches while it does so.

Meanwhile, it's official - MI5 does not assassinate people. The other "myths and misunderstandings" dismissed on their new website include illegal wiretapping (no need, when it's all perfectly legal!) infiltration of political pressure groups (only when they want to) and a policy not to recruit tall people. I believe them about the last one...

Walking DNA nanobot - a feature at primo geek site Ars.Technica describes groundbreaking nanotech work at New York University. Researchers there have created a minute device with two "legs" formed from strands of DNA, which is capable of walking along a pre-defined pathway of DNA bases. The next stage of the project will be to give the robot a payload of a metal atom to carry. At present the device is severely limited, but it represents another step (pun definitely intended!) on the path to useful nanotechnology - and, in fact, I think work in this area is actually moving rather fast.

Doing away with paper cheques - US financial institutions Bank One and Wells Fargo are preparing to introduce technology into their ATM machines that will scan deposited cheques and then destroy the paper originals. This is an idea that has been coming for a long time, obviously, but one has to wonder about the potential for permanently losing money when the communications process fails - as it inevitably will on occasion!

Major labels force 70% price hike on Apple - EMI, Bertelsmann, Sony, Universal and Warner, the five big music labels that form the heart of the RIAA, have successfully forced Apple to increase the prices it charges for music on the online iTunes Music Store. The cost of some songs will rise from 99 cents to $1.25, an increase of over 26%, and some albums are increasing to $16.99, a rise of 70% over the previous cost of $9.99! As one music industry source commented, "That will really ingratiate the public and discourage piracy, won't it?"

Anti-spam laws baffle UK firms - 83% of businesses are ignorant of legislation aimed at stopping junk emails, a survey by content filtering firm Clearswift has revealed. The report also claims that although just 16% of businesses were aware of laws against spam, over 90% felt current rules were not tough enough to stop unwanted emails. Personally, I'm not getting much spam that is obviously from either UK businesses or UK-based spammers - although I have to admit that I am decidedly firm in my response to the occasional ones that do arrive...

And finally, (via The Sideshow), Aenigmatis - this is the web site of a certain Martin J Powell, and is one of the more interesting sites I've seen recently. I was lured there by references to his excellent photographs of the night sky and English prehistoric sites (and they are good), but soon found myself immersed in his analyses of some of the more famous UFO photos. Somewhat to my surprise, instead of being a committed debunker he seems to have an unusually open mind, and readily claims that some of the phenomena are not easily explained as conventional objects - but, on the other hand, his analysis of the Trinidad Island UFO is among the most convincing pieces of work I have ever come across, and as far as I'm concerned completely explains the image. Highly recommended.

 

6th May

So, this morning I received a terse and sarcastic email from Dee at Area 51, as apparently some of the other frustrated customers that I have been in touch with have rather tactlessly forwarded our email conversations to him! I can't say I approve of that, but what's done is done and now I think it's time to "go public". I've been busy pulling all the Area51 Airsoft weblog snippets together into one unified page, and I'm about to leave long overdue negative feedback on that two month old eBay auction containing a link pointing straight to that page. I can only be pushed so far, and after six months and more than one hundred emails trying to get what I'm owed from them, I think this is as far as I go... Dee also said that the new manager, Arnie of Arnie's Airsoft fame, would deliver my outstanding components himself this evening - but as it's11pm now, just as with the last two promises of personal delivery this one has also completely failed to materialise. What a company!

Elsewhere,

A new ergonomic mouse - like a soft, spongy joystick handle with a pressure-sensitive button on top along the lines of a laptop nipple. It's intended to reduce RSI symptoms, but I have to admit that I'm dubious - none of the alternative form-factor input devices I've seen over the years have ever been up to much...

Bill Gates was fined $800k when his accountants failed to file timely statements when one of his share holdings passed the limits for compulsory notification to the FTC. Normally a voluntary settlement would be sought, but of course in this particular case the Justice Department filed a suit against him...

Slimmed-down user interface for Longhorn - Microsoft are considering an ultra-slim media player interface for rapid access to music and video files on laptop PCs, avoiding the need to wait for the entire OS to boot up. Other enhancements under consideration include support for "complementary displays", small external mounted screens displaying system status and other useful information.

RIAA members not fulfilling obligations to artists - a two-year investigation has found that many artists and writers were not being paid royalties because record companies had failed to maintain contact with them and had stopped making required payments. As well as one-hit-wonders, this affected major stars such as David Bowie, Dolly Parton and Gloria Estefan!

The Beagle 2 was poorly managed, according to a report on the mission by the European Space Agency - the project was compromised by its short timescale, inadequate funding and an overstretched project leader. The latter was responsible for soliciting funding at  same time as trying to build the space craft, which is hardly a practical proposition...

Plane-spotters recruited in War on Terror - a story in The Register reveals that police and British Airport Authority have recruited plane-spotters around Heathrow, on the basis that they spend a significant amount of time in the area, and are well-placed to notice any peculiar goings on. Aviation enthusiasts are being given ID cards and a code of conduct as part of the scheme:

"Clearly, there is reason to worry about people around airports who look like they might be checking out possible Stinger launch sites. Or indeed people who look like they might be carrying Stingers, so in that sense it is perfectly legitimate for security services to take an interest in people who are hanging around these areas. But in this particular case we have moved from a position where anyone was perfectly free to while away a couple of hours watching the planes to one where you must demonstrate a legitimate interest and ID in order to be able to do so. And the security services have figured out how to put a positive spin on the change."

And they've figured out how to make you pay for it, too - the ID cards cost 15 each! One other point of interest, as The Register notes, is the possible effect on other organisations who frequent airfields - such as the groups who campaign against the nuclear-armed US bombers stationed in Britain, long a source of annoyance for the government of the day...

And, finally, talking of activists... Fuck For Forest is an ecologically friendly porn site, showing pictures of tree-huggers and duck-squeezers getting it on in the great outdoors, with all profits going towards the conservation of threatened environments. I wish them well, but I have to admit that it's hard to stop myself giggling at the thought...

 

5th May

Arnies's Airsoft faked and hacked - as if being defaced by some pathetic script kiddie wasn't enough, later in the day, in what appears to be an unrelated and completely pointless exercise, another know-nothing apparently decided to jerk the site owner's chain a little more! Someone calling himself "Chikara Chinchin", apparently hailing from Ohio, sent in a carefully-crafted and thoroughly believable fake press release concerning a new replica from Maruzen, one of the big Japanese manufacturers. When the site owner obligingly posted it in the news section this idiot then fell upon him with unrestrained glee, upbraiding him for publishing stories without checking his facts, and generally being moronic and abusive... The phrase "get a life" is sadly over-worked, these days, but sometimes there's just no suitable alternative.  <long, heartfelt sigh>

Giant asteroid scare - for some bizarre reason a rumour is circulating around the net that we're all going to be destroyed by an asteroid the size of a city... Apparently it isn't true.

Anti-censorship web service is censoring - US government sponsored proxy Anonymizer, designed to enable web users in Iran to evade censorship, is itself massively censoring what they can see. Ok, but is anyone actually surprised to hear this?

Via Ars.Technica - apparently the US is losing ground in the science and technology race:

"The underlying factors for this scientific shift are many and varied. They range from an increase in the pool of talent emerging from Asian countries to decreases in basic science funding in the U.S. At one time, the best and brightest minds of the world came to the U.S. for education and their talents remained in the U.S. An increasing number of foreigners are taking their advanced degrees back overseas for use in improving industries in countries such as China, India and Taiwan. In addition, the tightening of visas after 9-11 has lead many bright minds to seek education and jobs elsewhere."

Hotmail to permit carefully screened spam - companies that agree to abide by the terms of the CAN-SPAM Act, and are willing to post a $20,000 bond to guarantee their good behaviour, will be permitted to send to all Hotmail users without falling foul of the spam filters. This may actually be a good thing, in some ways, although only time will tell...

ID card pods just plain don't work, at present - David Blunkett's much-hyped ID card scheme has already run into significant problem even on it's extremely limited pilot implementation. The biometric scanning systems have apparently experienced hardware, software and ergonomic problems, which doesn't sound very encouraging:

"Blunkett told the Committee yesterday that "it is important to get it right rather than quickly." He failed, however, to explain how this stacked up against reducing the term of the pilot from three to six months because of the initial technical problems. So maybe he meant, 'it's important to stick to the rollout schedule, whatever..."

Cheap MP3 downloads - Russian online music site offers music downloads at $14.95 per month for one thousand downloads, and thanks to a loophole in the country's somewhat antiquated copyright laws, they are probably still completely legal.

 

4th May

So, Area51 Airsoft are continuing to provide their expected but still thoroughly disappointing levels of customer service. It's been seven weeks since the eBay auction for the replacement barrels ended and, as far as I can tell, it seems that none of the winning bidders have received their items yet. I'm actually in regular contact with a pair of them in America, and apparently manager Dee Sheldrake is blaming import problems - but I've warned them that as my barrel hasn't been delivered within the UK, either, it probably isn't quite as simple as that...

Having sent yet another email to ask for an update on Monday afternoon, I received a reply from Dee saying that he would be in the area that very evening and offering to deliver the barrel himself. After the last time he suggested this he then failed to turn up or even to contact me, so I wasn't at all surprised when he didn't turn up again this time... In fact, I can't think of a single promise that he or his colleagues have so far made to me that was actually fulfilled on time - and the vast majority of them haven't even been fulfilled at all!

Bizarrely, having stated earlier this year both in private email and on various public forums that the shell ejecting rifles for which these barrels are designed are neither economical to produce or reliable in operation (and my own experiences certainly support the latter!), and subsequently playing down the entire shell ejecting range, this week they announced a major ramping up of production for the US market instead. What a ridiculous state of affairs!

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Dan is back with a special two-part letters column - today he covers bogus petrol-saving gadgets, dead hard disks with no backups, and that perennial favourite, electrocution.

SASSER worm spawns two new, more disruptive variants - although after my work on Sunday, the impact on our network has been minimal so far. Truly, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure... I have the definite impression that the Internet as a whole is running slowly right now, though - that damn thing is creating a lot of excess traffic.

A remarkable PC case at Bit-Tech - Project "Dark Crystal" is a hand-built wood and Plexiglas composite, and manages to achieve an overall look unlike anything else I've seen before.

And, finally -

Krusty: [singing to the tune of "Folsom Prison Blues"]

I slugged some jerk in Tahoe
They gave me one to three
My high-priced lawyer sprung me on a technicality
I'm just visiting Springfield Prison
I get to sleep at home tonight...

 - The Simpsons

 

3rd May

I've just watched a programme on the Discovery Channel about the huge digging machines used in open-cast mining, and I was quite amazed by the walking dragline excavators. Apart from the fact that these monsters are fascinating pieces of engineering design in their own right, I was especially interested as I used to work for a company that was the final UK incarnation of Ruston Bucyrus, the premier manufacturer in this field.

The largest ever built, the Bucyrus 4250-W nicknamed "Big Muskie", weighed 15,000 tonnes, and had a 94m boom supporting a bucket capable of moving 173 cubic metres at a time! Even the small ones, though, weigh several thousand tonnes and are able to handle many tens of cubic metres of material. Powered by electricity taken directly from the nation grid (although with a motor-flywheel-generator arrangement to act as a buffer against high current surges) these giant machines can actually be moved when required, walking on equally giant sled-like feet - although they certainly wouldn't win any prizes for their speed, as it takes weeks to move them around the quarries to work on a different face and "shuffling" might be a better word than "walking"...

Elsewhere,

Catching spammers by following the money - investigators tracked the source of the junk emails by purchasing a bogus weight-loss product and waiting to see who actually collected the money.

Turning over a new leaf - infamous hacker Kevin Mitnick has gained some sorely needed brownie points by helping to catch a fifteen year old who was phoning in hoax bomb threats to his school.

Tennessee Board of Regents rejects RIAA bullying - the RIAA wanted to impose a mandatory tax of $9.99 per student per month to compensate for expected losses due to file sharing. What nerve!

California decertifies faulty voting machines - touch-screen systems from manufacturer Diebold have been banned after the company's failure to deal honestly with numerous security issues.

eBay auction provokes threats - frustrated after failing to acquire a collection of second hand band uniforms, the unsuccessful bidder broke into his rivals' house and confronted his wife at gunpoint!

X-bit Labs has an extremely voluminous article on server CPUs, comparing all the common (and some of the less common!) high-end processors.

The beginning of the end? SCO backs off from claims that the GPL is unconstitutional, leaving them with only the allegations of pirated code - which have already been widely rubbished...

 

Meanwhile, I managed to recalibrate the UPS's microprocessor, and all now appears to be well. It's actually quite hard producing a 30% load on a 2200VA UPS (that's more than three Amps of honest-to-goodness current drawn) and in the end I added a couple of table lamps to the regular load of servers and hardware. This is not really recommended, as the procedure ends with the UPS shutting down completely, but I stopped all the active services etc to minimise the chance of data corruption and crossed my fingers! It took at least an hour to discharge, and after another few hours to recharge again the PowerChute status display is predicting a run-time of over seventy minutes - and I'm certainly happy with that!

 

2nd May

It's definitely been a busman's holiday, today... The morning was spent in the office, putting some infrastructure in place to cope with the imminent attack of the new Sasser worm and its even newer variant. Like last year's Blaster/Lovesan worm, Sasser is another one that spreads directly from PC to PC, using a recently announced vulnerability in the Windows LSASS subsystem, and one of my colleagues has already reported both variants on his laptop after a few hours spent browsing the web on Saturday. The timing of this worm is especially unfortunate for us, as the updated DATs were only released after everyone left for the long the bank holiday weekend, and I expect the majority of our laptop users will have spent at least some of that time online, completely unprotected and vulnerable. Then on Tuesday morning, of course, they'll all come trooping back in, and connect their infected, purulent cancerous PCs right into the core of my network...

However, these days we're in an extremely good position to minimise the damage that ensues... the Network Associates ePolicy Orchestrator antivirus management system is in place ready to hand out VirusScan DAT updates and the Stinger stand-alone removal tool, Software Update Services is poised to distribute the Microsoft patch that will prevent the desktop systems from becoming infected in the first place, and Systems Management Server is ready to report on the propagation of the patches and the presence of the worms' files. Given the awkward timing I couldn't stop this outbreak from happening, but I can certainly make sure that it doesn't cause us any significant problems. The only missing element is the patch management system that can be bolted on to SMS 2003, but unfortunately thanks to unusually sparse documentation that is proving extremely difficult to implement.

Having spent the morning updating servers and tuning virus management systems, for some unknown reason (latent masochism, I suspect) I came home and immediately set about replacing the batteries in my short-lived UPS. I've already had a rant about MDS Battery, the company who don't think unhappy customers are their problem, but I just want to add that the packaging they shipped the batteries in was woefully inadequate for such heavy units and had burst completely in transit. I really can't recommend this company at all, right now...

Now, I have to admit that I am quite scared of electricity in general, and this makes operations such as replacing UPS batteries a fairly stressful business at best. The last time I did this, on a much lower capacity unit, I was rewarded by a fat blue spark at an unexpected moment that made me levitate about three feet up and three feet backwards almost instantaneously. Fortunately some cautious prodding verified that these cells were shipped completely discharged, which certainly made things less fraught.

I decided to save some money by buying Yuma-branded batteries rather than the genuine article from the manufacturer, and it has to be said that the 3rd-party equivalent was considerably more rough and ready. APC's own instructions assume the cells ship ready assembled, but the offering from MDS Battery required (as the saying has it) some assembly. I had to prise off the plastic terminal covers from the old cells and steal the bolts from their connectors, tape the new cells together back to back and then connect all the wires to their terminals, before replacing the covers with fresh sticky pads and reattaching the pull tags for extracting the cells from the UPS in future. Hardly difficult, I have to admit, and worth the cost saving for most technically able people - but it would be nice if MDS mentioned somewhere on their web site that it wasn't just a drop-in replacement!

It looks as if I'll have to recalibrate the UPS completely, though, as at present it still seems to be sticking with its story of single figure run-time. I always find this to be an awkward procedure, unfortunately, as it requires a fairly precise 30% load to be present on the UPS and arranging that usually causes some considerable head-scratching. I shall have to try it tomorrow, though, as at present the UPS is periodically bleating that its batteries are discharged even though all evidence suggests that is not the case. Sometimes these things are just too smart for their own good...

 

1st May

I've linked to this before, a marvellous translation of part of the dubious Sir Mix-A-Lot rap Baby's Got Back into idiomatic Latin, but since then the canon has expanded a little... Another "scholar" has translated the remainder of the lyrics, and the concept has even spawned spin-off merchandise in the form of mugs, T-shirts, mouse mats etc. And, just for good measure, here's a not dissimilar homage to geek girls, plus another offering from the original translator, some lewd Latin, and some decidedly colloquial Latin. Has a dead language ever been so entertaining? Not when I was failing to learn it at school, for sure...

Elsewhere:

GAIM voice and video support - the open source AOL Instant Messenger equivalent forks temporarily to allow development of additional media support.

BASIC language 40 years old today - it's a long way from Dartmouth to Microsoft's Visual Studio, but the principles of the language are still intact.

Gibson launches digital guitars - although they're not quite as new as the story suggests, as a friend of mine was experimenting with MIDI stringed instruments back in the early eighties...

Walmart begins first live RFID test - Walmart have always been at the forefront of the controversial tagging technology, and as they own the ASDA supermarket chain in England I expect we'll be next.

Mirra Personal Server - a Linux-based SOHO web server with a built-in data backup facility. Reviewed here at Sudhian Media although, strangely, without a single photograph!

New USB device aimed at recording live music - a USB flash memory drive in the regular thumb-sized form factor, with the added twist of a microphone and direct-to-MP3 recording facility.

Cassini Imaging Diary - the space probe's approach to Saturn has produced some excellent pictures of the planet and its moons. Today's image is the last "full field" picture of the whole ring system.

Iraq mobile network scandal - a senior government official is under investigation after allegations that he attempted to alter a contract to benefit a consortium that includes friends and colleagues.  <sigh>

The illicit trade in compromised PCs - the complex relationships between the virus writers, middlemen and criminal gangs held largely responsible for the growth of spam in recent months. Gosh!

People feel loyalty to computers - research at Penn State University shows that people tend to develop strong ties to a specific computer, even if it means waiting to use their favourite machine.

Laying down the copyright law to children - the MPAA has funded and developed an education program aimed at presenting a biased and highly objective version of media copyright law.

Google vital statistics - The Guardian wonders why Google is so vague and secretive about its computer facility, when most companies would be bragging about the world's largest Linux cluster!

And, finally, BMW drivers get the most sex, according to a survey in a new German car magazine - although not from where I'm sitting, I have to admit!

 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch... A new pair of records for visits and hits, last month, if only slightly higher than the previous peak. The overall trend is still upwards, though, which is neat.   :-)

The Tweakers Australia Top 50 poll seems to be back online again, these days, even if it is still dominated by the completely artificial presence of Elite Guides at number one. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - these guys are total frauds, as their site doesn't even have the voting button, and I don't understand why the Tweakers admins allow them to continue faking the stats in this way. Still, once you move down a few entries the figures become both more believable and more relevant, so feel free to do your bit to boost my ego by clicking on the button below, and keep Epicycle hovering down there in the middle of the list.

 

 

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