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EPICYCLE

 

Administrative Note:

This site has now moved to a new server, and although the domain URL http://www.epicycle.org.uk will work as before, any direct links to the old http://www.cix.co.uk/~dominict/dominic/ address will cease to function once I wind up my dealings with that provider. If possible, I'll continue to update both pages until I've finished what is actually rather a complex migration of domain names, but in the meantime please change any direct links as soon as possible.

 

29th November

There is nothing wrong with your web browser
Do not attempt to adjust the MTU
We are controlling the bandwidth...

Preparations for the house move are getting into high gear, at last, so updates here are likely to be few and far between for the next few weeks - if at all.

As the saying has it, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

 

27th November

I have been using the same UK ISP - Compulink Information Exchange, better known as Cix - for my email and bandwidth ever since 1992 (Cix itself dates back to 1987), when I first moved from using standalone BBSes and the FidoNet network to the wonders of the embryonic Internet. However, although my first ten years with the service were marked by innovation, growth and continued development of the system, the last few have seen the service repeatedly changing ownership and direction, with each new incarnation apparently bringing nothing but unnecessary change, loss of functionality, service disruption and overall disappointment.

It began early in 2001 when IT support company Norsk Data bought Cix as part of a programme of expansion, running it under the name of one of its subsidiaries, Nextra - which itself was a subsidiary of Telenor. The Nextra name didn't last very long, however, and was soon dropped in favour of Telenor - this was the first sign of the shape of events to come.

At about this time ex-staff members of Cix proposed to Telenor that they run the core service of the Cix portfolio, the online conferencing service, on their behalf - and to do this they formed a new company, Parkglobe. This coincided with asset stripping within the Norsk Data group, with Cix and other parts of Telenor being unloaded to the successful but relatively unknown business bandwidth provider GX Networks.

In another phase of rapid expansion, GXN then proceeded to buy Pipex, one of the larger and more widely recognised of UK ISPs. The Pipex name was far better known in the industry, and so the parent company was renamed to take advantage of the branding.

The new Pipex  then amalgamated its rather ill-matched assortment of ISP services and began rationalising them. It's not exactly clear what they actually found desirable about Cix, but it's quite obvious that the flagship conferencing system was not it - development languished completely, and this year they actually decided to withdraw from using conferencing as a support tool. This was a landmark decision in the history of Cix, and one which caused more than a few eyebrows to be raised - especially when doing so brutally exposed the many flaws in the company's email and telephone support services.

So, in only a few short years, the elements of the Cix service have changed hands three or four times, been re-branded five or six times, and are now confusingly split between two different companies - one of whom seems to treat the long-time Cix users as second class citizens compared to their regular ISP customers. To make matters worse, the aging and rather under-powered hardware that runs the Cix web and email systems is starved of maintenance and investment, leading to frequent glitches and even complete failures.

These changes have left me in an extremely undesirable position - I'm paying what can only be described as an extortionate amount for a regular 512Kb ADSL connection, easily the most expensive of its class in the UK, and which comes with a positively miserly 50Mb of web space and an email system that has filled up it's disks completely, bouncing incoming messages and losing outgoing ones, over both of the last two weekends.

Obviously it is time (long past time, actually!) for a change - and to start with I've already moved this web site to my backup server on Fasthosts, which until now has been languishing under my other domain, chthon.org.uk. This has brought noticeably faster performance, and an increase in available web space from 50Mb to a generous 2Gb. The next step is to transfer my email address to Parkglobe, formed from the remnants of the old Cix Ltd and still dedicated to running the Cix Conferencing service - they provide an email service as well, and unlike the Pipex offering they do actually seem to be able to send and receive email messages! Best of all, for various complex legacy reasons, I can retain my existing email address, and as it is the one I have been using for the last twelve years that is no small incentive in itself...

To complete my divorce from Pipex I will cancel the DSL contract as part of the imminent house move, and although I haven't quite decided who I will replace them with I can be sure of getting a significantly faster pipe for significantly less money. Given that I'm changing web host, bandwidth provider and email service all at the same time, I do expect some disruption - and as I can't think of a way of avoiding the complete loss of my hard-earned Google indexing, I'll have to absorb the dreadful blow to my stats that will result. Even so, I think it will be worth it.

I'm going to be moving house within the next couple of weeks, now, and so I'll soon be putting this 'blog on hold for a while until I'm settled in - and hopefully by then everything online will have settled in just as well. Watch this space for updates...

 

25th November

I was over in Wokingham, yesterday, providing technical backup while my IT director talked business with a manager of an organisation who will be providing some support services to my company, and as usual the techies gravitated to the other end of the conference table and started talking shop. I found myself opposite their web designer-cum-network admin, who mentioned that he was having trouble tracking down the source of some rogue AppleTalk packets that he's noticed on his local network - in spite of not having any Mac systems installed! Now, I've run into this myself, as it happens, and the problem often seems to lead back to obsolete HP JetDirect print servers - annoyingly, one can't disable unwanted protocol stacks on the very oldest examples, so unless you replace them completely there are usually dribs and drabs of all sorts of zombie network protocols floating around even the most IP-centric LAN: Netware's IPX/SPX, the thoroughly obsolete IBM DLC, and of course Apple's own sluggish, chatty, curse of the undead.

The discussion was dragging on a bit at the far end of the table, and after a while we came up with the idea that actually this is how Apple manages to break into otherwise Microsoft or Novell-based networks - they bribe hardware appliance manufacturers to enable the AppleTalk stack by default, and this infuriates the network's sysadmins as they try to track down the source of the rogue packets. Eventually, driven completely mad by the torment, they start to think "well if I already have the AppleTalk protocol running on my LAN, why don't I just buy some Apple hardware to go with it?" It's the fast lane down from that point on, of course, and before you know it you have Macs and Xserves and find yourself wearing brightly-coloured braces and thinking about growing one of those little pointy beards... It's dangerous stuff, indeed.

So remember, children: AppleTalk - Just Say No!

Elsewhere, Spamusement - as the creator himself describes it, "poorly-drawn cartoons inspired by actual spam subject lines." Poorly-drawn they may be, but they're also rather funny. I especially liked this one, and this one, and this one.

At The Register - earlier this week, just hours before the Queen's Speech was due to reveal details of Herr Blunkett's new, upgraded War On (Some) Terror, news emerged of a thwarted 911-style attack on the UK. Details are so vague as to be non-existent, though, with even the source of the story apparently a complete mystery - and It's interesting to note that the timing of the announcement was so implausibly convenient that the source actually felt compelled to insist that the threat had not been deliberately exaggerated for political purposes. I have to say that I am extremely dubious.

Dan Rutter has been extremely prolific, recently, with letters column #132 (featuring lighting, vapourware, magnets and a contribution from someone who seems to lack even the most rudimentary clue) and #133 (filtering smoke, dubious security software and yet more magnets), some christmas present ideas for geeks, and also a review of the Barix Exstreamer, a device designed to deliver music from a network to a hi-fi - it sounds interesting, but unfortunately turns out to have some serious issues.

And, finally - from the dawn of time to Superbowl XXXVIII, the complete history of boobs. Indeed.

 

23rd November

I'm re-reading Terry Pratchett's SF novel "Strata", at the moment, and I've never read, never heard of, and never even imagined a book that is so hopelessly derivative of another, in this case the Larry Niven classic "Ringworld". Don't get me wrong - "Strata" is an enjoyable story, and as with most of Pratchett's work the punnish humour never strays too far towards making one cringe... But, oh, boy, it really is "Ringworld" in different clothes! I would love to have seen the look on Niven's face when, prompted by what were doubtless rather shrill exclamations from fandom, he first sat down to read a copy.  :-)

Political weblog The Sideshow is now secure at its new home on a dedicated server, courtesy of FastHosts, so here's a big RAAAAASP! to Free-Online, surely one of the more weasely of UK ISPs - they've sneakily introduced all sorts of bandwidth caps and download limits without apparently taking much trouble to let their customers know, which led to the sudden suspension of the 'blog last week without any warning whatsoever! I had been planning to move some of my own services to them after the imminent house move, but there's no way I'll touch them now, even with an antistatic barge-pole...

The migration of The Sideshow went very smoothly yesterday, though, and it's business as usual again. Courtesy of the first posting at the new home, then, a pair of links: The 213 Things Skippy is no longer allowed to do in the US Army (which made me stuff my hand in my mouth to prevent explosive laughter while I was reading it in a snatched moment at work, today) and Internet porn - worse than crack cocaine, which made me grit my teeth to prevent muttering and swearing at the stupidity and bigotry of the "clinicians" and "researchers" who testified before the Senate Commerce Committee last week. Grrrrrr....

Elsewhere:

Nanotech golf balls - exactly how it works is a closely-guarded industrial secret, of course, but the ball is somehow capable of subtly re-distributing its weight in flight to provide a degree of course correction. Remarkable stuff, and just one of a number of recent products to employ a primitive form of nanotechnology.

At Slate, how to steal Wi-Fi - an extremely irresponsible article, in my opinion, which encourages people to piggyback on unencrypted wireless connections on the grounds that nobody is really harmed and that, in any case, if you don't want people using your WLAN you should lock it up... Given the increasingly stingy bandwidth caps now in use by ISPs and the relative difficulty of securing an access point if you're not an expert, though, I think that argument is thoroughly specious. The author even links to a list of default passwords for common network hardware, which in this context is only a few millimetres away from hacking... In the UK, certainly, this kind of behaviour would be illegal under the computer Misuse Act. To compensate a touch, therefore, here are a few basic tips on securing a home wireless network.

And talking of malicious use of computers, in a follow up to their discussion of the whole spyware problem, Ars.Technica has reviewed the popular spyware removal tools - and apparently they were not all created equal...

Also at Ars:

Google: sue and be sued. In the same week that they mounted their own legal case against a blatant click-through advertising fraud, Google have found themselves on the opposite end of the legal spectrum following allegations of copyright infringement from a porn web site. The latter does sound like rather a tenuous case, though, certainly...

The end of the VCR? - This story was all over the news yesterday morning as I was getting ready for work: UK electronics retailer Dixons will be stopping sales of video recorders before christmas. Out-sold 40:1 by DVD players, evidently Dixons no longer feel that it's worth devoting their limited shelf-space to the humble VCR - but that's a marketing decision and I'm convinced that it's far too soon to announce the death of the format.

Stirling engines may become viable again - almost unknown since petrol and diesel engines became practical at the start of the 20th century, the Stirling or "heat engine" was actually invented around a hundred years earlier. Interest burgeoned a couple of years ago following Dean 'Segway' Kamen's application for patents related to the technology, and since then there has been a significant revival - culminating recently in a large-scale project funded by the US Department Of Energy. Fascinating!

 

22nd November

Since getting my beloved BMW back from having the crash damage repaired, a few weeks ago, I've had a couple of minor but nevertheless annoying problems... I wasn't convinced that they were caused by the work that was carried out, but then again I wasn't sure that they were coincidental either.

The first was to do with the interior light, which is supposed to turn on when you open the door, stay on while the door remains open, then give you another ten seconds or so to provide some light as you move away from the car before turning off again. Unfortunately in my case it was firmly in the off mode, although flipping the switch to the always on setting, or indeed pressing it in a little more firmly in the regular on-when-open position, showed that there was nothing basically wrong with either the bulbs or the electrical circuit.

On the whole I find vehicle electrics baffling and annoying - I cut my teeth on classic Triumph and BSA motorcycles, which have about three wires for the entire electrical system, and even imagining the 20 kilometre wiring loom of BMW's E34 525i is enough to make me break out in a cold sweat. However, it seemed fairly clear that this particular issue was probably down to worn or bent contacts and I thought I could probably do something about that - and with this in mind I ventured out yesterday for the traditional English Sunday afternoon activity of poking dubiously at a car.

The second problem was a complete failure of the heating for the rear windscreen and door mirrors, which given the sudden onset of a London winter has been more than a little problematic over the last week. My first inclination was a blown or loose fuse, but a quick check of the fuse box under the bonnet earlier in the week showed that all was present and correct. Driving along the A13 in rush hour without being able to see behind you is not to be recommended, though, and I decided to have another look before the trauma of dealing with a local garage - the East London area invented cowboy mechanics, I think, so that really is a last resort.

A quick look around the online forums, however, revealed an interesting fact - the BMW 525 has a second fuse box under the back seat, together with the battery (I was sure there had to be a battery somewhere!) and that box also had a fuse for the rear window heating circuits. A quick bout of fruitless tugging suggested that I would need further information before removing the seat, though, so I put that on the back burner and turned my attention to the interior light.

Prising the light fitting out of its socket was relatively easy, as was prising the switch itself out of its mountings, and in short order I was gently teasing up one set of spring contacts with a pair of needle-nose pliers. This seemed to work very well, and a few minutes later I was testing it out: open door... on... close door... pause... off again. Perfect! Feeling distinctly smug I turned back to the online forums, and unearthed a couple of pointers to removing the back seat. Neither were quite accurate for my particular model, but reassured by the knowledge that I was on roughly the right lines I put my back into it (and my side, too, as a twinging muscle is now informing me) and up it popped.

Sure enough, there was the fuse - and it was quite obviously blown. The fuse box under the bonnet has slots in the lid for a handful of spares, and to my delight the only one there was actually just the right sort. In it slipped and, after another short wrestling match with the seat base, a few minutes later the screen was showing definite signs of demisting. By this time you could actually see the smugness seeping out of my pores, but of course pride goes before a fall and when, after collecting my tools and tidying everything up, I closed the doors again and realised that the interior light wasn't actually turning itself off any more I was distinctly crestfallen.

Given that it was working perfectly ten minutes earlier, I started to wonder if repairing the electrical circuit for the rear window heater had somehow affected the circuit for the interior light. That sounds a little kooky, on first examination, but when you think that the heated door mirrors are on the same circuit as the window heater, and that the light is triggered by switches in the doors, and that one door was removed and replaced to repair the crash damage... Well, I put two and two together, and formed the theory that a short circuit or similar in the wiring inside the door had affected both the interior lamp relay and the heater circuits. I didn't really know if that was actually a sensible idea, but I intended to ask on the forums and see what emerged - and if it sounded plausible I intended to be quite firm with the garage that did the repairs. I'm not especially pleased with the quality of their work, anyway, as the repaired door doesn't close as smoothly as it used to and the surface of the door handle has been marked by whatever they used to mask it out for re-spraying - and this would definitely have been the last straw.

And then I went out to start the car for the drive to work, this morning, I realised that I hadn't closed the rear door properly after putting the seat back in - and that was why the interior light was staying on. So, everything seems to be working perfectly, and it's odd to feel such relief and yet simultaneously to feel like such a complete dingbat. Ah, well - it just goes to show what happens when a techie wanders outside of his own particular specialty... And at least I can see out of the rear window again!

 

21st November

So, security group Secunia says that it is "perplexed" by the motives of people who are revealing details of vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer on the web, often complete with sample exploit code, instead of informing Microsoft through the usual channels to allow a fix to be released before the weakness is made public.

Well, it's no mystery, really - these are Unix users (probably Linux evangelists, to be specific!) with an irrational fear and hatred of Microsoft, and who would rather see Microsoft and its users discredited and inconvenienced in any way possible no matter what harm is caused. I suspect they suffer from the delusion that if a user's life is made miserable by constant virus infections and security leaks, he or she will eventually give up on Microsoft and switch to Linux en masse. This is a pipe dream, of course, as we already know what a Windows user plagued by viruses does - on the whole, nothing at all! The recent article on the state of computing in China clearly shows how tolerant (or resigned, at least) computer users can be when they don't realise that there is any alternative to the crashes and poor performance that an extensive malware infection can cause.

The sad thing is that these people probably imagine that they're performing some kind of public service, helping to bring down the "Beast of Redmond" and so save the world for humanity and open source. In reality, nothing is further from the truth - by helping the hackers and virus writers to break into home PCs, the usual victims of these kind of vulnerabilities, they're actually causing real damage to real people. And that's not just hyperbole - a few days ago someone at my company came to me for advice, having fallen victim to an online identity theft that had left her with bills for hardware and services she hadn't ordered, and threatening phone calls from the hacker in the middle of the night. As could be imagined, she was extremely upset and anxious, not really understanding what had happened or how, and not knowing how much worse it would get. My advice was to contact her ISP and the police immediately, of course, and fortunately the process of changing her bank account numbers and passwords, and of refunding the fraudulent credit card deductions, is now well underway. Aside from having a nasty scare, and all the fuss of changing her financial details, she'll live to be hacked again another day.

However, I wish that the people who released details of the most recent IE flaw direct to the web, and so were instrumental in the creation of the Bofra worm that followed only a few days later, could have been there to see her the anxiety on her face... Would they have had the heart to inform a middle-aged office worker with no real understanding of computers that the crisis she was going through was all her own fault for choosing the wrong operating system, and that she ought to switch to something called Linux instead? Unfortunately, having talked to altogether too many evangelists in my time, I strongly suspect that the answer would be yes... Shame on them all.

On a lighter note...

Bill Gates is the world's most spammed person, apparently, receiving something like 4 million e-mails a day - but  he's also the world's most respected business leader among chief executives, for the third time in a row, which may offer some small compensation! The vast stacks of money can't hurt, either.

Human PacMan in Singapore - players wear immersive VR hardware which superimposes the 3D maze and contents on top of the city's streets and architecture, and their movements are tracked using GPS and inertial location with wireless links back to the central computer system. Wild stuff, especially as I've just finished reading "Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom", a science fiction novel by EFF luminary and BoingBoing co-editor Cory Doctorow. The story's characters are all wired with the just sort of personal information processing hardware that could be the logical descendent of that used in the Human PacMan project, and in that respect it's a thoroughly plausible, believable future. Well worth a read...

Shape-shifting robot shows off its moves - ATRON is composed of identical spherical modules 11cm in diameter; each module is split down the middle and can rotate one hemisphere using an onboard motor, as well as latching onto another module using connectors at either end, through which they exchange both power and data. This enables the robot to change its overall shape to perform different types of movement, and apparently gives a hitherto unparalleled degree of flexibility.

And, finally, Penny Arcade on making the most of gaming forums.

 

20th November

Well, my PFYs are in the office doing a full network shutdown so that we can have some electrical work done in the computer room (we keep bringing in more servers, and they're all hungry for power!) and I'm revelling in not being there with them. This is the first time that I haven't been directly involved in something of this scale, and it's extremely nice to be able to delegate the work in the knowledge that they'll handle everything just as well as I could.

Meanwhile, some links for the weekend:

The Subservient Chicken is one of a new breed of online promotional gimmicks - created for fast food chain Burger King, it's an interactive video of a man in a room, wearing a chicken suit (and, for some reason, what appears to be a suspender belt). One can type commands, and the "chicken" will attempt, much of the time rather ineffectually, to carry them out. There's an extensive range of key words that can be entered, but somehow the seedy, scruffy air of the whole thing left me cold...

Less bizarre and more lascivious, but otherwise along much the same lines, is the Virtual Bartender from online promoter Beer.Com. Instead of the chicken this has a scantily clad girlie and her colleagues, and the repertoire of commands and the resulting video clips seems to have been assembled with rather more wit and humour, as well as a distinctly titillating result. We're going to be seeing a lot of these interactive videos over the next year, I suspect.

Elsewhere, from the people who brought you the Boyfriend's Arm pillow, comes the new Girlfriend's Lap pillow. I have nothing to say about either of these, except that by Western standards Japanese culture is often very, very odd. I'm signed up for the mailing list from J-List, a supplier of strange and wonderful Japanese things, for this very reason, and it usually provides excellent exercise for my eyebrow muscles.

Equally Japanese, but rather less whimsical, the seminal Classic Airsoft site has a chronology of the earlier airsoft replicas. I was surprised to discover that my Youth Engineering MP5 is newer than I realised, dating from 1998, while my Sheriff SPAS-12 is considerably older, dating as it does from 1991. Interestingly, the YE MP5 is back in production, now, in limited runs hand-made by the original designer - and with a price tag to match!

And talking of militaria, Russian Combat Gear joins the growing list of suppliers of, well, Russian combat gear. They have all the standards, but one thing that caught my eye was an airsoft-type chronometer. I have the popular Combro CB-625, which I can certainly recommend, but this new one has the unusual feature of being able to record data on rapid fire bursts of up to eighty shots at once, which would certainly be of interest for checking overall consistency.

Finally, the thought for today:

Lenny:    "There's nothing like revenge for getting back at people"
Carl:       "Oh, I don't know... vengeance is pretty good, too"

 - The Simpsons

 

19th November

A colleague pointed out this afternoon that I'd date-stamped the last few entries as December instead of November, and the only excuse I can offer is that it has been one of those months. I'm slightly boggled at how many of the people in my department seem to be reading these pages, though - evidently the cat is now well and truly out of the bag...

Meanwhile, Ros sent me a pointer to a story in Time magazine's "Skeptical Eye" column, bemoaning the continuing encroachment of religious fundamentalism into education and public services in America. Aside from the damage being done to the school curriculum, frequently mentioned in Epicycle passim, it seems that parks managed by the federal government National Parks Service are also becoming infected with creationist doctrine. Examples include Dinosaur Adventure Land near Pensacola, Florida, where visitors are informed that man coexisted with dinosaurs, and the Grand Canyon national park where books on sale in the souvenir shop claim that the canyon was formed 4500 years ago by Noah's flood and bronze plaques bearing bible verses have been placed at the popular overlooks.

Amazingly, a large-scale organised protest campaign (involving senior university professors, the American Geological Institute and related societies, the pressure group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the Geologic Resources Division of the Park Service itself) has met with a complete lack of response from the government. Promised high-level reviews of NPS policy have not occurred and, indeed, there is strong evidence that the Bush administration itself is encouraging the spread of creationism within the Parks Service and directly supporting the so-called "faith-based parks" that are emerging as a result.

The damage that this creationist gibberish is doing both to the standard of education experienced by American children, and to the way in which the rest of the civilised world views American culture, cannot be underestimated.

Elsewhere, in best tradition it seems that recent rumours of Winamp's demise are greatly exaggerated. An article on their news page claims that everything is still very much business as usual, but speculation at Slashdot suggests that maybe the entire story was manufactured in order to attract attention to the product - and, if so, it has certainly been a massive success as apparently downloads of the various Winamp versions are now at record levels. Marvellous...

Blunkett completely clueless on weapons scanners - when asked about the health risk of zapping all and sundry with radar, x-rays and assorted other ionising radiation, the Home Secretary responded with the parliamentary equivalent of a shrug and a "huh?". Given that his department is actively encouraging use of the scanners at schools and airports, and on city streets, it would be very nice if he was able to provide safety data.  <bitter laugh>  Not that I'd actually believe anything he said, necessarily, after all the other lies he's told in the course of his career.

And, finally, as I don't seem to have posted any pictures of kittens with guns, recently, here's The Infinite Cat Project in an attempt to compensate. Not guns, but definitely a surfeit of cats.

 

18th November

A friend of mine writes a rather successful political 'blog, and to her surprise the entire web site was removed earlier today by her ISP, UK provider Free-Online, apparently for exceeding her bandwidth allocation. On the face of it this seems highly unlikely - her account permits a maximum of 250Mb per day, and as the page is almost completely composed of text it would take a far higher traffic rate than she usually gets to achieve that kind of usage. Indeed, her external stats service doesn't show any sudden increase in visits to the site, and given the left-wing content and the current political climate, it actually seems most likely that she has been the victim of some kind of denial of service attack. It wouldn't take long for a 'bot net making dummy HTTP connections to the virtual server to use all 250Mb, I'm sure, and those wouldn't show up in the page hit counter - but if that is the case I would have expected even a vaguely competent techy to spot it and over-rule the automated bandwidth limits... A DoS attack against a web site held on a shared server should start alarm bells ringing, surely?

However, while reading through her ISP's procedures to have a blocked site re-instated, I came across something that has annoyed me more than a little. This is the clause in question, reproduced from their web site FAQ:

horizontal rule

I have had my account closed/website removed due to excessive bandwidth, what do I need to do?

You will need to confirm that you understand why your website has been removed and agree take action to prevent this happening in future. You can do this by completing the form below and copying it into a new Contact Us query. Please replace all information within '(brackets)' with appropriate information.

++ MESSAGE FOR ABUSE MASTER ++

I, (ENTER YOUR NAME HERE), confirm that I understand why my site had access removed. I would like to request that my site is reactivated as soon as possible. I propose to prevent this action reoccurring by (ACTIONS TO TAKE).

I also understand that if this problem persists, then Free-Online may restrict my site further, and if necessary, remove the site permanently.

Once this request has been processed, your webspace will be reactivated. You can monitor the progress of your request by checking "Contact Us" at regular intervals.

horizontal rule

I have to say that I find their overall tone patronising and insulting. When I move house imminently I had been planning to transfer my DSL pipe to PlusNet,  the same ISP's more business-oriented brand, but this has totally changed my mind. I refuse to deal with any company that expects its customers to grovel in order to regain a service for which they are paying a not inconsiderable amount (the Free-Online name is definitely a misnomer, these days!), especially when exceeding a bandwidth allocation may be completely outside of the control of the account holder - you can't restrict who visits your web site, after all, and it only takes a reference on some widely-read site elsewhere (the infamous "Slashdot Effect" has overloaded a number of small geek sites) to cause a massive but temporary bump in traffic. Presumably under those circumstances, one would have to propose creating less interesting content in order to placate Free-Online and have the site re-instated?

Well, they've thoroughly alienated me with that attitude, and as well as voting with my own feet I will be suggesting to my friend that she considers transferring her weblog to a company that doesn't treat its customers like naughty school children. It's a buyer's market for UK service providers, right now, and there's no need to put up with shoddy service and insulting attitudes.

 

17th November

Microsoft released the long-awaited Device Management Feature Pack for their SMS 2003 client management system, today, and I've spent most of the afternoon wrestling with it. We're about to start issuing several hundred XDA II handhelds to our sales and service staff, with connectivity via wireless GPRS to service provider O2 and then a dedicated leased line right into our network, and so centralised management, inventory and configuration is absolutely vital.

I have to say that it's far less polished than previous feature packs and add-ons for SMS, and configuring the infrastructure has been a real challenge - after several hours intensive head-scratching, though, I've managed to remotely install the client to a couple of test PDAs and persuaded it to report back to the central management server. The next step is to install an application or two, and then to test the fabled remote control facility. The feature pack shows great promise in spite of the difficulty of the installation, though, and if it lives up to expectations it should make the entire PDA project manageable instead of nightmarish... Watch this space for updates.

Meanwhile, elsewhere... More from Dan at Dan's Data - this time on the many shortcomings of surge-protection products.

The Home Secretary has blamed the philosopher Immanuel Kant for the UK's concerns about identity cards. Apart from swearing and shrieking at the arrogant stupidity of the man, I don't know quite what to say about that...

The bizarre state of Chinese IT - At The Register, a letter from an anonymous Westerner lecturing at a Chinese university provides the inside story. Software piracy is the norm instead of the exception, and "every virus you can imagine is still alive and well". With 80 million computer users in the country, a number that is growing all the time, it's an extremely scary prospect.

The Guardian should know better - part of their new digital curriculum service for schools covers the topic of multimedia copyright violation, and among the arguments against it is the statement that DVD piracy is used to fund organised crime and terrorism. We've heard this from the RIAA et al, on occasion, but even they seem to have back-pedalled over such wild allegations, recently. To have The Guardian apparently distributing green ink propaganda on their behalf is really too much, but fortunately The Register takes a very close look at the facts of the issue.

And, finally, a new candidate for the biggest digital photograph in the world. Beating the previous record holder, a picture of Bryce Canyon National Park with dimensions of 40,784 x 26,800 pixels or about 1.09 gigapixels, the new image, of the considerably less photogenic Delft University, weighs in at a remarkable 78,797 by 31,565 pixels - about 2.5 gigapixels. Gosh!

 

16th November

Links! Links! Get 'em while they're fresh!

19" server racks that look like expensive furniture - and almost have certainly have a price tag to match. Oh, but they're beautiful, though...

Voting records and parliamentary activity of British MP's - another invaluable resource from the people who brought us the "Fax Your MP" web site.

The RIAA are getting all snitty about P2P advertising - everything that happens on P2P network is illegal, they say, so companies shouldn't support them with advertising revenue.

More letters to Dan - including a long traetise on regenerative braking, and why although it's a great idea on paper, in practice it's rarely worth bothering to implement.

At Ars.Technica, a new edition of Science.Ars - interesting snippets, such as the use of plants to clean depleted uranium from the soil of battlefields.

Unix for Dummies - I'm resisting the temptation to make wisecracks about the title, as the article is actually extremely informative and useful. It covers the fundamentals of the Unix operating system itself, some common shell commands, and the basics of the structure and security of the filesystem.

And, finally, a new grid computing project - sponsored by IBM, excess CPU cycles on home PCs worldwide will be used in various biochemical research projects, the first of which will be another protein folding simulation. There is no shortage of competing distributed processing groups, though, and I would have thought that everybody who wants to participate in something like this is already doing so... You can only run a single grid client on any one PC, so unless they launch a massive advertising campaign and poach users from the other projects, it's hard to see how they will be able to compete.     [Thanks to Ros for the link]

 

14th November

The end of the weekend, and the prospect of the silicon face again in the morning.  <groans>

Meanwhile...

The end of Winamp? The last members of the original Winamp development team have resigned from AOL, the software's current owner, leaving the fate of the program in considerable doubt. It was obvious right from the start that corporate AOL's acquisition of trendy little Nullsoft would lead to friction sooner or later, and sure enough the unauthorised development of the Gnutella peer-to-peer app less than a year later started to raise blood pressures on both sides. It will be interesting to see what the ex-Nullsoft programmers turn their hands to next, though.

Firmly in the too much time on their hands department, an article at AnandTech investigates the possible applications of putting Linux on an XBox games console - including running eight of the things as a Beowolf cluster for distributed processing. Well, it's all very clever, I grant you, but I can't help but wonder if the whole Linux-on-an-XBox thing is so popular simply because Microsoft doesn't actually want people to do it...

And talking of Microsoft, apparently they forgot to register the trademark for Excel, back in 1985 when the application was first launched (gosh, was it really that long ago?) and although the name has been protected semi-officially under common law, the company only got around to registering it officially earlier this year. However, it seems that the trademarks for certain other major apps, including Office and Word, still remain unregistered.

I guess the fluffy, cosy, all-for-one-against-Microsoft era of Open Source is over, though, with major web application firms JBoss and Apache bickering over allegations that one has re-used the other's code without following the licensing terms. Excuse me while I snigger behind my hand.  :-)

Space.Com has the first of four background articles that lead towards a proposal for an as-yet undisclosed development of the SETI project. The first one explains the classic double slit experiment that formed one of the foundations of quantum physics, revealing as it did that a photon is not the discrete particle that it had previously appeared to be, but instead a smear of probabilities propagating through spacetime rather like a wave in water. It's an excellent little article.

U.S. airborne laser fires test shot - I've been watching the development of this project since [pauses to think back] the early eighties, even before Reagan's SDI programme brought it out of the back rooms of Bell Labs and into the rather dubious, raised-eyebrow gaze of the assembled geeks... and I remember the original live tests, where even a specially red painted drone, flying slow and level in perfectly clear skies, barely got hot under the collar. One has to assume that the current incarnation, "First Light", will do a little better...

Still on weaponry, if on rather a smaller scale... At the somewhat controversial MadOgre site, a fascinating and informative article on the various firearms used in the Matrix movies. I'm currently restraining myself from considering a pair of HK MP5Ks in a custom shoulder rig.

And, finally - via [H]ard|OCP, a PC built into a microwave oven. It's a great idea, and looks like a really nice piece of work, to boot.

 

13th November

I'm feeling very lazy today, so rather than doing all my chores I've been playing Warzone 2100 in preparation for a head-to-head with my IT Director some weekend soon. I'm already quite confident of my chances at the other game we share an interest in, C&C Generals, as I've played several dozen of games over the last month or two - but I'm extremely rusty at Warzone and definitely need the practice. Although at first glance it seems comparable to C&C, in fact the unprecedented size of the research tree and the flexibility of the vehicles that can be built from that research makes it a very different game to play. Ros and I battled it out on a number of occasions a few years ago, and we were pretty evenly matched - I would usually win in a blitzkrieg-style conflict over open ground, but her lateral thinking and innate sneakiness (well, she is a business accountant, after all) were very hard to overcome when the terrain was twisty and unsuited to a massed armour attack. I still shudder at a memory from one game of her air force repeatedly smashing my carefully constructed base to rubble as fast as I could build it up again.

I haven't played either game head-to-head for a long time, though, and although I can crush the computer with a fair degree of regularity at C&C, and expect the same at Warzone once I've found my feet again, it will be very interesting to see how I fare against my director - no matter how well written the AI routines are, playing against another human is a whole different kettle of fish. Watch this space...

Meanwhile, some links:

Sorry Everybody - from the 49% of American's who didn't vote to re-elect Dubya, an apology. It runs to 326 pages as I write this, and even aside from the genuine sorrow expressed by the majority of the contributors, the sheer bulk alone is quite touching. Well, well...

Elsewhere, the Give Bush a Brain game rewards you when you manage to drop a pulsing green brain into Dubya's empty head by playing an assortment of his more notable sound bites -  "Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country."

At the sporadic but decidedly worthwhile Anne's Data, advice on how to snag yourself a nice nerdy boy. Well, it certainly worked for her - boyfriend Dan is definitely one of the finest nerds I've come across!

Via the current DNRC Newsletter, now available on the web: Dilbert's Ultimate House. It seems that Scott Adams has finally succumbed to the temptation to spend a whole bunch of money on something really silly. Well, more power to him, I say!

And, talking of Dilbert - here's a comprehensive trivia page courtesy of the aptly named Trivia Asylum. It hasn't helped me acquire a JPEG of the second Mordac password policy cartoon, though, unfortunately, although at least it provided a date for the sequence, which started on the 6th April 1998. The first strip can be found on the front page at the useful and highly informative Center For Password Sanity, by the way.

Oh, now this is marvellous - The Zoomquilt is a collaborative art project, and an extremely impressive one at that. It's a huge picture, perhaps rather reminiscent of Escher and Dali in overall style, that can be zoomed both into and out of in an endless loop. The project's home page, with various offline implementations, is here.

And, finally, what happens when one's desktop icons get out of hand. Fun...

 

11th November

I saw this pretty little doodle in a sig on Microsoft's HIS support newsgroup, today. It's nice to see that, even in the century of the fruitbat, ASCII art is still alive and well:

,`,,`,,`,,`,,`,,`,

 

Meanwhile, links...

The history of the Hello Kitty vibrator - originally intended as an innocent "shoulder massager", it was withdrawn from the market by the outraged holder of the popular (in Japan, at least) Hello Kitty license after it was thoroughly corrupted by the Japanese porn industry.

And talking of corruption... A new sex advice show on the UK's Channel 4 features volunteer couples making love on camera while the presenters advise on their performance. It would be a neat idea if the UK's tough censorship laws didn't guarantee that it will be sanitised to the point of sterility...

Elsewhere, in the wake of Janet Jackson's carefully choreographed nipple slip at the Superbowl, McSweeney's offers their General Broadcasting Standards Concerning Upper-Torso Nudity. To avoid immense FCC fines, follow their simple rules...

And, on the subject of immense fines, a bear of very little brain has been arrested for trying to sell the stolen Microsoft source code from his website. He was only asking for $20 per copy, paid via the comprehensively monitored and audited PayPal service - an amount which pales into insignificance in comparison to the fine of up to $250,000 he is now facing, along with up to 10 years in prison.

Immense fines may also be helping to discourage spam emailers, too - figures from Symantec suggest that the amount of spam is starting to level-out for the first time, and it's safe to assume that the recent highly successful lawsuits are mostly responsible for this. It's also safe to assume that the spammers are merely pausing to regroup, though, while moving their operations to less helpful and accountable ISPs in China and South America.

As has been reported recently, the MPAA is about to launch a RIAA-like series of lawsuits against people sharing movies online. However, The Register reminds us that the parallels between the two organisations, and the media they are trying to assert their control over, are not nearly as clear as it might initially seem.

Inspired by the highly successful Ansari X prize competition, the rules for a new $50 million award known as "America's Space Prize" have been announced. Sponsored by Bigelow Aerospace, the winners will have to launch a reusable craft capable of carrying five crew members, and perform two orbits at a height of 400 kilometres. It's a tough challenge, but definitely an exciting one as well...

 

10th November

Mid-week links...

Devil customers - US retail chain Best Buy joins the growing number of companies that have decided they can do without a certain subset of their customers. It's a disturbing trend, I think.

Arch spammer bailed for $1 million - one of the top ten spammers in the world, Jeremy Jaynes dealt in such high volumes that he allegedly sent 7.5 million spam messages on July 16 2004 alone!

MS shareholders approve plans for massive payout - the $3 per share dividend will cost around $32 billion, around half of the company's current cash reserves. Oh, and one of those votes was mine.   :-)

Novell's serial litigation strategy - I've said it before, and I'll say it again: if you can't compete in the market by selling products or services, it is not good form to keep your company afloat by suing Microsoft. Sheesh!

A 25Gb optical disc made of corn? - Yes, you heard me, corn. Weird science indeed, courtesy of Pioneer...

Vibrating hard disks - the article itself is rather more trivial than I would expect for a technical subject like this, but the central idea is certainly interesting.

The case that must not be named - not a new modding project, but rather nice piece of work anyway... Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's "Cthulhu" mythos, it comes complete with eyes and runes and twisty bits.

Voodoo overclocking at BBspot - a 5.4% performance increase using only simply, readily available ingredients? It has to be worth a try, but I'm worried about all that blood in the server room...

And, finally, somewhere to put your CDs - a review at Tom's Hardware of a neat little rack gadget, the DiscHub. I've seen a whole bunch of these, over the years, but this looks like one of the better ones.

 

9th November

I'm feeling clever, today, as together with one of my PFYs I managed to fix a funny little routing problem that has been bugging us for a few months. Without going into obsessive detail, some data requests leaving our local network were taking a slightly different route than that taken by the replies coming back in, which rather upset the firewall. We put our heads together, though, and with 50% logic and 50% inspired guesswork we managed to fix the problem neatly and elegantly. Colour me smug...

Meanwhile, links... Useful technical documents, courtesy of old-school techie Bob Baumann - PDF versions of some common RFCs, the classic Protocol Decodes poster in handy economy size, and the infamous IEEE documents on the evils of wireless networking. His whole site is a fascinating and eclectic mixture, actually - well worth a browse around.

Another intelligent fan controller - like the mCubed T Balancer (where did they get that name?) I mentioned a few days ago, The Zephyrus from VL Systems is a USB-based device, but only has support for approximately five fans. I say approximately, because apparently one of the main problems with the device is that the documentation is appalling and the control software eccentric and obscure.

Eight fined in eBay auction scam - this is an odd one... It's not clear from the story whether they've been fined by eBay or by the courts, and although bidding up the price on your own auctions is obviously against eBay rules, nobody forced the "victims" to pay over the odds on the auctions in question - I can't see why, when the price passed a realistic level, they didn't just stop bidding! Peculiar, indeed...

Web site for complaints sparks lawsuit - customers of a spray-on siding company in Georgia were unhappy with the service they had received, and created a web site to air their complaints. However, this has lead to a lawsuit from the company in question, who are claiming trademark infringement and defamation. This is something close to my heart, given my own griping pages, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out.

Palm ponders turning coat - veteran PDA manufacturer PalmOne is actually contemplating abandoning PalmSource (the software division that split off from the main company last year) and using an alternative operating system, either from Microsoft or something Linux-based. Boy, that would be a kick in the teeth!

'See through clothes' scanner gets outing at Heathrow  - hot on the heels of spectacularly unsuccessful deployment of a mobile weapons scanner by the London police, comes news that London's Heathrow airport is about to deploy their own system. The technology itself is impressive, I have to admit, but the handguns so spectacularly detected in all the articles would have shown up just as well in conventional metal detectors, without the massive cost to the consumer and the highly dubious policy of bathing airline passengers in assorted X-rays and radar frequencies.

And finally, it was announced a few days ago that the two flights of the wonderfully successful SpaceShipOne private spacecraft have officially met the requirements for winning the Ansari X Prize, and the designer, Burt Rutan, has been presented with a cheque for $10 million - along with a trophy weighing a staggering (literally!) 150 pounds. This is a real milestone in the revitalised space race, I think, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the now annual X Prize Cup competitions will produce in future. I'm celebrating, tonight, by wearing my "Go" T-shirt.   :-)

 

8th November

There's a new batch of letters at Dan's Data, this time covering such diverse subjects as the scarcity of big-screen CRT monitors, a bozo who seems to think that Bill Gates has banned parallel port card readers, and a thorough bashing for homeopathy - the latter with a fascinating (if bizarre) link to a guide to homeopathic remedies specifically for left-wing political protestors... Indeed.

And, on the subject of loons - the school board of Granstburg, Wisconsin, has taken a giant leap back into the dark ages by revising their science curriculum to mandate the teaching of creationism as well as evolution. I can't even begin to express my contempt for the people who made that decision.

Elsewhere - a utility that allows you to use Google's GMail facility as a file storage system, the accurately named Ultimate Boot CD, the third part of the Rojak Pot virtual memory guide, and a lawsuit against Microsoft over defective Xbox disk drives.

Also, a new animated movie from CG maestros Pixar, The Incredibles, portrays a family of superheroes who must come out of seclusion (necessitated after a barrage of lawsuits!) to fight the traditional evil nemesis. Definitely one to watch out for, by the look of it.

Meanwhile, here's the result of my labours on Saturday. It's not as neat as it will be in another few days, as a shortage of long patch leads necessitated the bundle running vertically down the middle (and a generous handful of ad-hoc revisions by my colleagues on Sunday hasn't helped, either) but it's not bad for the first draft. I really love the orderly layout and the pretty colours - but I'll have to do another four of these over the next six months and I expect the appeal will have faded a touch by then.

 

6th November

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

"Aedh Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven" - William Butler Yeats, 1899

 

5th November

I'd be expressing considerable relief over the end of the week, having survived my first week back after sick leave, except that I have to go into work again tomorrow to help with a department move. My employer is refurbishing the entire office building, one floor at a time, so the next six months or so are going to be punctuated by frantic weekends moving and rewiring hundreds of PCs at a time. It's an annoying job, for sure, but hopefully the end results will be worth it for all concerned.

Meanwhile, some links...

F-16 strafes New Jersey school - for reasons that are currently unknown, a small intermediate school has been attacked by the US Air Force. The school was empty apart from the caretaker, who was unhurt, and it seems likely that the plane had drifted off course from the nearby firing range.

Music industry scorns downloads - veteran artist Robert Fripp was told that digital downloads "were not important", and that he shouldn't concern himself with the 6 cents per download royalty. EMI themselves receive 69 cents per download, though, and they don't seem to find that so trivial...

BSA raises fink payment to 20K - The Business Software Alliance, responsible for enforcement of software licensing in the UK, has increased the bounty payable to an employee who informs on his company for using pirated software.

Hot on the heels of Apple's shenanigans concerning iTunes and 3rd party software utilities, comes news of an even more dubious business practice. Any Apple products on their online store are automatically given the maximum rating of five, whereas competing products have a genuine customer-created rating and so have to stand on their own merits!

Wired on the loss of the ability to hold recounts after electronically tallied elections - although I'm annoyed that they are presenting this as news, when the left-wing 'bloggers have been bemoaning the situation for several years! Hmmmm.

BitTorrent using 35% of the net's bandwidth? - I'm dubious about this, I have to admit, as uptake of the utility doesn't seem particularly widespread in my neck of the woods, and my own experiences don't seem to suggest that it's a particularly efficient system, anyway.

Dell sued over "international transactions handled over a computer" patent - some no-name little company, possibly even created for this very purpose, is suing Dell over something that on the face if it seems to be a thoroughly frivolous claim. Eolas Mk 2, anyone?

Grand Theft Auto ported to the original NES console - this is one of those things that really is very clever, but one has to wonder whether it was actually worth doing in the first place. It sounds rather like a case of having too many hands and too much time on them, to me...

 

4th November

Just a few quick links, tonight - it's been one of those days... One of those weeks...

Apple's iPod shenanigans - forced upgrades to iTunes software to prevent use of 3rd party software, and issues legal threats over a particular download utility.

CRT displays not quite obsolete yet... New technology from Samsung will enable a 32" television or monitor with a depth of only 13", around half that of current models.

The MPAA have been inspired by RIAA's strategy of frequent and voluminous lawsuits, and have decided to bite off a piece of that action for themselves.

Tabbed browsers contribute towards a massive rise in phishing scams - so far 1.8 million web users have fallen for some kind of online scam, and there's no sign of the situation improving.

Finally, this week marks the 16th anniversary of rtm's worm - around midnight on November 2nd, 1988, an experiment conceived as part of a research project got badly out of hand, infecting and overloading many thousands of Unix-based systems around the world. As the original worm author, Morris is pretty much the only person who could ever reasonably use the "I didn't know that was going to happen" defence... Everyone else since him should have known better - and probably did.

 

3rd November

Oh, America, what have you done?

When Bush stole the election in 2000, I was shocked - I hadn't realised that such blatant fraud could actually happen in a civilised western country, and the sense of moral outrage that it happened, and that the American people let it happen, is still with me four years later.

This time, though, I'm just saddened. To realise that what should be one of the world's great countries, one of the leaders of civilisation, has allowed itself to be hoodwinked by an unprincipled crook like Bush; that in spite of all the lies, and the bloody, unnecessary war, the failed economic policy, the sleaze and corruption in Iraq, the bigotry and intolerance at home... In spite of all that, around half of you voted for him anyway.

And I'm disappointed that Kerry gave up so easily, too. No, more than disappointed - I actually feel betrayed... And if I do, two thousand miles away in a different country, then surely the Democrats of Ohio, waiting anxiously to see if their votes would be enough to tip the balance, must feel that in spades! Having said only a few hours earlier that every vote would be counted, to cave like that with a key state still undeclared, with issues over uncounted ballots, with questions over faulty voting machines - I just don't understand why he felt the need to act so hastily. Even if the final outcome was in no real doubt, it was the perfect time to challenge the disputed results, to investigate the allegations of intimidation and fraud, while the eye of the media was still focussed on the election. It's too late now, I fear, and some of these issues may never get the attention they deserve - which will set an extremely dangerous precedent for all future elections.

I also worry for the UK election, next year - with America voting its approval for the war in Iraq, this can't help but act as an endorsement of Tony Blair's own stance on the conflict - and as this is one of his major weak points, I am concerned that today's events will help to shore up the gaps in his armour.

It really is a sad day for the whole world.

 

2nd November

I mentioned last month that after I installed Windows XP Service Pack 2, my BackupExec system developed the bad habit of hanging at the start of backups. I logged this with Veritas using their nifty-looking "DirectAssist" utility, but for some unknown reason my call languished there without receiving even a case ID. After several weeks and several frustrated queries, I gave in and logged it again using the more conventional web-based form, and this time it evidently attracted someone's attention. As I had feared, their initial advice was alarmingly generic - evidently the mention of XP SP2 triggered the standard response, as they suggested disabling the firewall and trying again. Pointing out that the firewall was already disabled, and that a problem involving a single isolated PC was not typical of a firewall-related issue provoked the next rubber-stamp response, so I spent half an hour earlier this evening painstakingly collecting and organising a huge variety of log files, diagnostic dumps, system, information etc - especially frustrating, as the DirectAssist tool I tried initially was supposed to have done all that for me! I hope that they come back with something worthwhile after all this fuss...

Incidentally, Veritas seems to have released a flurry of Hotfixes in the last couple of weeks, one of which, Hotfix 30, purports to be a cure for the annoying problem introduced by Hotfix 19 where IDE tape drives in a hybrid IDE/SCSI system like mine go offline spontaneously. The logs display "Event ID: 58053 - Backup Exec cannot use this tape device because it has detected a mismatched tape device serial number", and the drive is permanently unusable. It will be interesting to see if the new hotfix helps with this - and, indeed, whether it breaks anything else while it's at it!   <mutters>

Ah-ha - new, interesting technology at last! PC fan controllers seem to have been in the doldrums over the last few years, as although the number on the market has grown considerably, with large variety in the degree of cosmetic snazzyness or otherwise, they're all technically very bland, nondescript devices. The "mCubed T Balancer SL4" seems like a breath of fresh air, though, apart from the somewhat overblown name. I spotted it at my favourite UK modding shop Kustom PCs, and jumped from there to a thoroughly favourable review at MadShrimps. A USB device that comes in two flavours, it uses a combination of digital PWM and conventional analogue voltage regulation to allow precise software control without losing the ability to read the fan's rotation speed. With support for up to eight thermal probes, this is the best thing I've seen since the venerable DigiDoc 5 that graces my current PC case.

Finally - what does the Linux distribution you use say about your character? Reading it in reverse, I suppose that if I used Linux at all, I would probably be a Mandrake fan...

 

1st November

The last week has provided a powerful reminder of why I was so glad when, around a decade ago, my career started moving me away from the intensely customer-facing 1st and 2nd line telephone-based technical support and into the safe seclusion of the computer room instead. In the last few days alone, however, I've been asked to help repair a problematic Windows 2000 installation and then upgrade it to Windows XP, export application configuration data from the registry of one OS to the other, install a tape drive and a wireless modem, configure AOL, rescue a stalled Exchange email server, setup a DVD and VCR to work together (just for a change from computers), and probably some other stuff that I have already repressed the memory of... All this was done purely over the telephone, with non-technical users at the far end, and I'd forgotten how very tiring that could be when done in any quantity. I certainly couldn't do it all day, for a living, now - and for that matter I can't quite remember how I used to manage back then!

Meanwhile, in case you've been lying awake at night wondering what kind of cheese you are, the Online Cheese Comparator is here to save the day. I am boursin or mozzarella, it seems - which just goes to show how very arbitrary these little applets are... Thanks to Ros (who, surprisingly, is also boursin or mozzarella, I gather) for the link.

Better late than never, a pair of links at Slashdot showcase the current state of the art in pumpkin carving. Needless to say, most of these are not whittled away with a kitchen knife, but are the result of carefully designed patterns and the use of that classic geek tool, the Dremel.

Via a link at Arnie's Airsoft, a pair of replicas of Deckard's blaster from the movie Blade Runner. One, from movie prop specialist Monsters In Motion, is a functional plastic model kit, but the other (once it has actually been released!) will apparently be a working airsoft replica. Very interesting...

More letters at Dan's Data, and an excellent article on the use of computers in space flight. Dan has obviously done his homework, as usual, and it's a fascinating read. It does remind me of something, though:

You see, I come from a time in the nineteen-hundred-and-seventies when computers were used for two things - to either go to the moon, or play Pong... nothing in between. Y'see, you didn't need a fancy operating system to play Pong, and the men who went to the moon - God Bless 'em - did it with no mouse, a plain text-only black-and-white screen, and 32 kilobytes of RAM.

 - Three Dead Trolls In A Baggie, "Every OS Sucks"

And talking of spaceflight... NASA are planning to resume shuttle flights in May 2005, in spite of the fact that there is significant work still to be done - not all of which actually has a clear solution at this stage. They've also retired the second and last "Vomit Comet", the aircraft used for simulating weightless conditions for astronaut training and low gravity experiments. A commercial variant of the Boeing 707 airliner, two of the KC-135 aircraft have been in service since 1959 as general work-horses, as well as in their more infamous role.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is considering a classic science fiction idea, researching how mammals hibernate with a view to devising a technology to use on astronauts on a future manned Mars mission. It's thought-provoking stuff, certainly...

Another good month in the stats, even if without the meteoric rise that September brought. It looks as if I passed the 60,000 mark sometime in the last week or so, as well, although at my current rate of around 5000 visits per month it's going to be halfway through next year before I reach the next real milestone of 100,000.

Still, it looks as if the kitten is safe for another month, at least. You should probably consider voting with the button below, though - evidently my recent lack of threats concerning ice weasels have lulled you into inactivity, as I've fallen from my traditional place in the back-end of the twenties to the doldrums of number 31. Shocking...

 

 

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