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30th October

I was ranting to a friend, yesterday, about the British government's appalling track record of failed IT projects and (perhaps worried by my increasingly wild gesticulations and the throbbing veins in my temples) she suggested that I write something about it here, instead.

I have a particular interest in this topic, I suppose, as back in 1998 I narrowly avoided getting sucked into the disastrous implementation of the new computer system at the main Passport Office in London. I was contracted via the IT outsourcing group Sema to build, install and then support the NT4 servers that were going to host the new system (itself provided by Siemens Business Services), but repeated problems in the final stages of the programming led to the roll-out being delayed indefinitely. After three months spent twiddling my thumbs and tweaking their tired old Netware servers to within an inch of their lives, I finally jumped ship to my current employer - just ahead of Sema themselves being fired.

[Parts of that contract were actually quite interesting, I have to admit, if only by accident - in an attempt to stave off the appalling boredom, I pimped myself out to any nearby government department that needed a spare techie, and ended up doing odd jobs for the Police IT Organisation in New Scotland Yard and for then Home Secretary Jack Straw's office at The Fortress in Queen Anne's Gate, to name but two.]

Hindsight shows that I had a narrow escape at the Passport Office itself, though... When the system was finally implemented in 1999, it immediately became apparent that it just plain didn't work... Long delays occurred immediately, with queues of angry people stretching right around the block, and the planned ten day turn-around for postal applications peaked at fifty days. By the height of the summer there was a backlog of around 565,000 applications awaiting processing, and many people had to cancel or postpone their holidays because they couldn't get their passports in time.

With no immediate solution in sight, the Passport Office staff mutinied, and refused to use the new system altogether. In desperation they reverted to the previous, mostly paper-based system, and optimised and refined it so that it worked even better than before. Three hundred temporary staff were taken on to help tackle the backlog, and this bought enough time to allow the software to be debugged and re-written. By December 2001 (three years late!) the new system was finally in place, but the repeated problems had lost the Passport Service a total of £12.6 million on top of the original cost of the project - and also lost them the government's Charter Mark for high quality customer service.

It should be noted, at this stage, that this was actually one of the last decade's better government IT implementations - at least it worked in the end, and apparently worked quite well at that! Since 1997, though, problems with other major projects have cost the taxpayer an estimated one and a half billion pounds, and led to years of stress, over-work and misery for both government employees and the UK citizens who depend on their services. The long-delayed Swanwick Air Traffic Control centre, the cancelled Pathways benefits payment system, other cancelled upgrades to systems belonging to the Prison Service, the Probation Service and the Immigration Directorate, the massive fraud that occurred in the controversial Individual Learning Accounts scheme... The list goes on and on and on.

The overall problem, as I see it (and this is where, when talking to my friend, I started waving my arms a lot) is that the government is using the wrong sort of IT company to design and build these systems: they are fixated on the idea that when you need a large scale IT project, only a large scale IT company can possibly do the job. This leads them inexorably to the UK's big name consultancies - the likes of Anderson (or whatever they are calling themselves since the Enron embarrassment), Ernst & Young, Siemens Business Services, KPMG, Cap Gemini, or indeed my old nemesis Sema.

I'm convinced that this isn't necessarily the case, though. There are some extremely keen and talented analysts and programmers working for small IT companies in the UK, and these little firms are sleek, nimble and hungry... Unlike the big boys they don't expect £100,000 just to turn up to the first consultancy meeting, and with a complete lack of giant glass-walled office buildings and squadrons of overpaid managers in Mercedes, their idea of an outrageous fee is many orders of magnitude less than anything their more bloated cousins would ever contemplate. Furthermore, their staff usually take a far greater pride in their work than the faceless contract clones who end up employed by the big consultancies, and really care about delivering what they have promised, on time and in budget. Contract staff can leave behind their mistakes when they move to other projects or other companies - but if a small company is going to survive at all, it simply can't afford to make those sorts of mistakes in the first place, and this almost always shows in the overall quality of the systems that they produce.

As my friend put it, the more layers there are between the people making the decisions and the people who understand the job, the less likely a system is to work. When a new or upgraded system is being designed, if the staff that actually carry out the job are encouraged to explain their roles to an intelligent, capable programmer/analyst, to describe the problems they face and the solutions they have devised, you can easily dispense with the many layers of consultants, project managers and paper-pushers that the big firms always bring to the job - especially as, under the current (if flawed!) philosophy of business, the more staff you employ, the more staff you need to employ to manage and direct them.

I'm not just pontificating, here, though - I have proof... A small consultancy of my acquaintance, with less than a dozen staff, has spent a significant part of the last few years working on various projects for a government department that should probably remain nameless. These projects have always been completed on time, within budget, and to the satisfaction of all concerned - until the most recent one, that is, when it emerged that an extra layer of bureaucracy had suddenly been created between the end-users and their immediate management, and the senior staff responsible for approving projects and signing cheques. This extra layer has caused endless problems for all concerned, I gather, stemming from a basic lack of understanding of the work in question combined with a desire to justify their own existence by making pointless and clueless changes. Having caused numerous difficulties and delays with these tactics, now that the current phase is over they are also delaying the sign-off and payment over contractual issues that are completely imaginary - and as this kind of behaviour really hits a small company where it hurts, in the bank account, right now several years worth of built-up goodwill are running out and things are tense all over...

The previous years of highly successful implementations, though, have clearly shown that it is perfectly plausible for a fair sized government department to use a tiny IT company for significant projects. The department in question has had extremely good value for money from their supplier, which of course has saved money for the taxpayers, and from all reports has found a little company to be far easier to deal with and far more responsive to requests and feedback than a big firm could ever be. And, on the other hand, the small IT company has been able to charge what is for them a significant amount of money for their labours (after all, the systems in question have demanded considerable skill and experience in their creation) and until now has been assured of timely payment without difficulties. Until the recent influx of unwanted middle management, everybody was happy - and if it works there, it can work elsewhere as well.

So this is my suggestion to UK government - you know, by now, that the way you've been doing it doesn't work... Every time (yes, every time!) you bring in one of the big names, it loses time, it loses money, and you end up with egg on your face - and as often as not with nothing to show for it all apart from that egg! So why not choose a little company, next time? The hardest part will be finding a good one, as they can't afford full page adverts in the Financial Times the way IBM or Cap Gemini can - but you could do worse than talk to your own techies and see who they suggest... Word of mouth can be a powerful and useful tool, down at the sharp end of IT, as it tends to cut through a tremendous amount of bullshit and hype.

And, after all - if a project involving a small firm does go horribly wrong, then it will be ever so much easier to bury the loss of only a few tens of thousands of pounds and a few man-months of work than anything you've had to try to pass the buck on so far. Go on, give it a try - you really don't have anything to lose!

 

29th October

Everybody wants a piece of me, today! The first task, this morning, was the next phase of an ongoing project to help my ex with what has become a rather problematic upgrade to Windows XP... After that my office called, and in the apparent absence of all my PFYs I ended up talking the company's IT director through rebooting a stalled email server. The afternoon was spent debugging disappearing browser toolbars and flakey keyboard language settings for a friend, and this evening I've been helping my father with the wireless modem connection on his laptop. For someone who is supposed to be on sick leave, I seem to be doing a lot of work - but given that in another couple of days I'll have to square up to the enormous backlog waiting for me at the office, I suppose it's a good idea to start blowing the cobwebs out of my brain again.

Meanwhile... Sun has teamed up with controversial games hardware manufacturer Infinium Labs to provide the network infrastructure for their aptly-named Phantom console. Personally, I think Sun may come to regret the day they ever crawled into bed with Infinium.

Another batch of security flaws in media players - yet more problems with the various Real players, and some in Apple's Quicktime as well. It hasn't been a good month for Apple's reputation...

Nintendo have apologised for over-reacting to a mention of two of their games in a user's profile on goth porn site Suicide Girls - but not before Penny Arcade had a chance to air their opinion.

The RIAA have welcomed students back to college by announcing lawsuits against 750 students at 13 college campuses. Surely they must realise the negative publicity these tactics are generating?

 

28th October

In an attempt to banish the boredom of this week's enforced inactivity, yesterday evening I played a quick game of Command and Conquer: Generals, the latest in the venerable real-time strategy series. The terrain of the map I chose was twisty and complicated, ideal for an infantry campaign, and evidently the masses of tiny soldier figures running around the countryside had a profound effect on my subconscious mind.

Later on, as I tried to fall asleep I was reading Chip Delany's autobiography, The Motion Of Light In Water, and had reached the part where he hitch-hiked down to the Texas coast to work on the shrimp boats, documenting his adventures in a style rather reminiscent of an X-rated version of Jack Kerouac's On The Road. It was a restless night when I finally managed to sleep, and in my somewhat feverish dreams I became obsessed with the idea that Delany had to send his writing back to New York in individual sentences and paragraphs, each one streaming North under its own power just like the soldiers in C&C.

For some reason I became very anxious about this, convinced that the work would be hopelessly mangled - I couldn't see how all those little ideas would survive the long journey intact, and was unable to escape the idea of them getting jumbled out of sequence, or dropping out of the trek and becoming lost forever, or even being killed by some unknown enemy... Every time I half-woke to take a drink, dehydrated and feverish, this problem stayed with me, without any kind of common sense intruding - I didn't make any connection with the game I had played, and the idea of having to send writing in this way seemed to be perfectly reasonable and necessary.

Finally, despairing of any significant sleep in the small hours of the morning, I got up to distract myself in the hope of banishing the anxiety - and finally, as I did so, my mind cleared and as I write this I still have the line "he wrote it down in notebooks, stupid!" echoing in my thoughts.

It's a funny old thing, the brain.

Incidentally, while I was checking a reference on Delany, I stumbled across a semi-official fan site for the author Robert Heinlein, one of his early sources of inspiration. With commentaries, media files, bibliographies and FAQs, it's certainly a useful resource. I suppose I should link to The Heinlein Society, as well, but they take themselves rather too seriously to do so with a straight face...

And now for something completely different - links!

Bush beats Gollum to Movie Villain of the Year, and bans non US browsers from accessing his official re-election website.

What appears to be a flying lawnmower - I'm not totally sure how this flies with so little apparent wing surface area, but it's an impressive beastie...

Microsoft battles piracy with free software, and submits a revised Sender ID policy to the IETF, this time with considerably looser patent terms.

AOL are offering freebies, too, this time bundling their licensed version of McAfee Antivirus together with the upcoming version nine of their software suite. I think that's a very wise move...

Web service provides caller ID spoofing to the public. The first attempt at this, a few months ago, ended in sudden failure, and it will be interesting to see if Camphone fares any better.

Online exhortation takes a new turn - East European crooks have threatened to send out emails containing child porn images in the name of online casino Blue Square unless they pay €7000.

White Men Can't Squat - Australian research into the perfect peeing position has stalled because a third of the women taking part in the study couldn't squat for even 30 seconds before falling over.

And, finally, a primitive artificial brain formed from rat neurons has proved capable of controlling a computerised flight simulator after only fifteen minutes of "training". Gosh, but that's a touch spooky...

 

27th October

Well, that bug I had a week or so ago resurfaced, so I'm back on the antibiotics and feeling distinctly off-colour - I have a comprehensive and unusual set of aches and pains, and bags under my eyes you could use to carry a Compaq SLT laptop. Given that I hadn't caught up from the last period away from the office, yet, the thought of the backlog that will be waiting for me next week is rather scary...

Meanwhile, elsewhere... Truly a company after my own heart - the aptly if rather unimaginatively named CableOrganizer.Com sells everything conceivable to help (do I really have to tell you?) organise cables: split loom, braid, heat-shrink, raceways, ties, wraps, clips, you name it. What a wonderful shop for someone who has often been accused of having a cable fetish!   :-)

Slightly further from home (and let's hope it stays that way), the bulging brains at NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office have calculated the risk to human population should the Hubble Space Telescope re-enter the Earth's atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner. As could easily be predicted, it would be bad news - the estimated 2000Kg that would survive re-entry would create a debris footprint stretching over 755 miles, so one has to assume that whatever the ultimate fate of the HST, that won't be one of the options under consideration.

Closer to home (in fact, so close that it's all around us, somewhere down around the Planck Length), Einstein's prediction that space-time is warped by a spinning mass has been confirmed. After 11 years watching the movements of a pair of Earth-orbiting satellites, Italian researchers found that each has been moved about 2 meters per year as the fabric of space is twisted by the Earth's rotation. The phenomenon is known as Frame Dragging, and was extrapolated from the General Theory of Relativity by a pair of Austrian physicists in 1918.

I'm not exactly sure what the point of this is, but having spotted it at The Sideshow a few days ago I've been dipping into it with mixed results... Logoogle has a collection of Google's own logos, as well as fakes, derivatives, jokes, and other oddments based on them. I rather liked the Dali-pastiche at the top of Art #3.

And, finally...

Q:  Why did Boddidharma come from the west?
A:  To get to the other side.

At least, I think that's what he said.

 

25th October

Last week I mentioned my doubts about the wisdom of the Guardian newspaper's US election letter-writing campaign, and sure enough the organisers have been deluged with increasingly rabid (and badly written) hate mail since then. The situation has come to a head now, though, with the server that matched letter writers to target addresses being hacked and disabled - presumably by US right-wing activists. The story was reported at Ars.Technica, too, and it's interesting to note that the unusually right-wing slant put on the news by the Ars staff writer was more than counterbalanced by a predominantly libertarian response from readers in the subsequent comments thread. A pleasant surprise, indeed, after the profusion of "Die Limey scum!" messages...

Closer to home, Ofcom stand accused of helping phone scammers - premium rate fraud is a serious problem, right now, and it's bad enough that BT aren't accepting as much responsibility as they should. If Ofcom are working against the interests of consumers, as well, then that's just too bad...  :-(

In other security news, a fake security warning email is circulating, purporting to be from Linux vendor Red Hat, a new virus targeted at Mac OS X has been spotted in the wild, a flaw in the SuSE Linux kernel allows a denial of service attack, and a weakness has been identified in Sun's implementation of Java for mobile phones. It's been a busy week for the Black Hats! Meanwhile, concerns have been expressed over the decision to upgrade the onboard systems of British nuclear submarines to Windows 2000. I think that's unwise, too, although apparently for different reasons - to me, Server 2003 and Windows XP would seem to be a considerably better bet!

In Australia a retired policeman is in court accused of facilitating the download of almost 2Tb of MP3 music files between November 2002 and October 2003. The scale of his file sharing is pretty much unprecedented, and needless to say the Music Industry Piracy Investigations, the RIAA's attack dogs Doiwn Under, are keen to make an example of him. There is a twist, however, in that the accused didn't actually hold the MP3s in question on his own servers, but instead merely linked to files hosted elsewhere on the net - and this will be a critical factor in the defence's case.

Finally, Stanford Wallace of SmartBot.net Inc and Cyber Promotions, the man known as "The Spam King", has been ordered by a federal judge to desist using spyware that exploits security holes in operating systems and browsers, then tracks user's online activity to bombard them with pop-up ads. Ironically, Wallace is also accused of trying to sell spyware remedies, "Spy Wiper" and "Spy Deleter", that the US Federal Trade Commission says don't actually work. The case continues...

 

24th October

So, the Metropolitan Police deployed one of their brand new mobile weapons scanners in Lewisham, South London, for the first time on Friday night. Anywhere between 400 and 700 offices were involved, apparently, but although 14 people were arrested for various minor offences, no firearms were actually found. None at all. Does anyone else share my feeling that this was a vastly expensive and spectacularly unproductive political exercise, triggered by the announcement of yet another rise in gun crime?

Elsewhere, apropos of nothing much - Wikipedia's entry on the alleged Apollo moon landings hoax provides a rich source of links to both the conspiracy theories and some very well-written, scientific rebuttals. And talking of the moon, I've spent the last week flipping through a late birthday present, Full Moon, the most recent book of photographs from the Apollo programme. Often avoiding the more familiar images, the book has instead been assembled from some of the more personal moments (such as a dishevelled, unshaven Wally Schirra, sleeping in free fall during the Apollo 7 flight) and so brings a fresh look to the subject. The specially-scanned photos are mostly crisp and clear, and sometimes wonderfully colourful - it really is a very elegant collection, and is very reasonably priced, too!

Meanwhile, The Register discusses a new report that claims to tell the truth about the relatively security of Linux and Windows. In general this argument will run and run, of course, but the article certainly bears going through more thoroughly than I've had time to, as yet. The full report can be found here.

At Dan's Data, Dan has an interesting idea - The SnitchCam - which has quite captured my imagination. It's not a new idea, I guess, but as Dan explains the technology required to deliver this kind of service is maturing nicely. He has some letters, too, and a review of a rather worthwhile pair of RF cordless headphones.

And, finally, geek hobbies - and their likely affect on your sex life (or lack of it). Hmmmm... They don't seem to say anything about owning far too many computers, at least.

 

23rd October

It's another slow news day, it seems. Don't make me shoot that kitten...

There was a young man named Delany
whose verse wasn't overly brainy.
When you start to get with him,
he completely drops the concept of rhythm
and after a while doesn't even bother to rhyme.

 - poet Marilyn Hacker, on SF grand master Samuel Delany's own youthful attempts.

That's two poets I've mentioned, now, in the space of only a month or so! As a hard-core techie, I shouldn't make a habit of that talking about the arts - I'm in danger of losing all my geek-cred...

 

22nd October

This is an official Ansari X-Prize launch day T-shirt, all the way from The Space Store in Houston. I didn't buy it primarily to make Mike envious, but I have to admit that was an important factor. That's a very interesting shade of green you've gone, Mike!

 

I guess I probably shouldn't mention the International Space Station T-shirt I got at the same time, then?   :-)

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Sales of music CDs are on the rise again, it seems, and an article at Ars.Technica investigates why this might be happening. It's becoming increasingly hard for the RIAA to justify their outrageous demands for sweeping legal powers, now, but if the Republicans stay in power next month I expect they'll manage somehow in spite of that...

Also at Ars, speculation on a forthcoming upgrade to Windows XP. It seems that a new point release is due sometime before Longhorn ships in 2005 or thereabouts. The details of this upgrade are scanty at best, of course, but with Longhorn itself morphing from an operating system into a staged wave of technologies, at least some of them may feature in the new XP.

Urban Resolve is a new military simulation developed by the US Joint Forces Command, designed to play out wargames in an urban environment. The scale of the simulation is unprecedented, with the capability to model and track over a million objects - soldiers, civilians, military vehicles, cars, etc - as well as the infrastructure and services of the city itself. It's an impressive project, certainly.

 

21st October

The BackBytes column in this week's Computing magazine brings news of what sounds like a surprisingly exciting new computer game from publisher Serif. "The Times Bridge" includes all the usual features, including bidding systems for beginners and experts, the facility to save unfinished games to resume later, and, in a departure from all previous simulations, "real Newtonian physics for realistic collision, side, swerve and backspin". Presumably this is an attempt to replicate the ferocious under-the-table assaults which I'm told often accompany friendly games of bridge, and it certainly sounds as if they're reproducing all the pain of the real game. I've never enjoyed such dangerous, aggressive pastimes myself, and in my youth I always preferred comparatively safe, gentle hobbies such as racing sailing dinghies, full-bore target shooting and free rock climbing.

Elsewhere, a story in The Mercury News describes how certain key Republican web sites suffered a wave of mysterious outages yesterday. Various people are speculating about hacking, of course, but in actual fact the evidence simply seems to suggest DNS configuration issues. Given the lies and spin that are central to the GOP campaign, though, we'll probably never know the truth...

A report at CNet suggests that the age of the MP3 has passed, with various other file formats becoming gradually more popular for storing digital music. The data comes from a study by NPD MusicWatch Digital, which apparently surveys the hard-drives of 40,000 different people to track Internet and software trends. I don't think I'll be signing up for that programme, I have to say!

Another standard that is likely to last far longer than the rumours of its demise suggest is the venerable Transmission Control Protocol, the TCP in TCP/IP. "Rateless Internet" is a UDP-based protocol, which apparently maximises available bandwidth by using a symmetrical encoding method that is far less sensitive to packet loss than a conventional connection-oriented protocol such as TCP. It will be interesting to see how it develops.

 

20th October

It's been one of those days, at the office, and as it seems to be a slow news day elsewhere I guess we'll just have to survive on a couple of random links...

Universal Off Switch - the TV-B-Gone is a remote control with a difference... it only has one button, but will turn off almost any television in the world - it starts with the common models, and works its way down an extensive database of IR power-off codes until it finds the right one. Marvellous!

Calling International Rescue - a Toshiba flat screen television emitted a rogue signal on the 121.5 MHz international distress frequency, which was routed by satellite to the Air Force Rescue Center at Langley in Virginia, and ultimately led to the surprised owner being visited by a contingent of local police, civil air patrol and search and rescue personnel. Isn't technology wonderful.

Send me news or the kitten gets it ...

 

19th October

In an unprecedented and extremely contentious move, UK newspaper The Guardian has organised a letter-writing campaign intended to influence the upcoming presidential election in the key state of Ohio. Apparently they bought a list of registered voters in the state and extracted those declaring themselves as undecided, then gave out a single name and address to each of the 14,000 readers who had pledged to help.

Predictably, the reaction from across the pond has ranged from the unfavourable to the venomous... Responses from Democrat organisations both in Britain and America are being tactful but decidedly disapproving, whereas the right-wingers and neo-cons, especially in the Southern states, have fallen upon the campaign in their usual xenophobic, abusive, and confrontational style:

"Hey England, Scotland and Wales, mind your own business. We don't need weenie-spined Limeys meddling in our presidential election"   was one reaction from Ohio, with Texas contributing  "Real Americans aren't interested in your pansy-ass, tea-sipping opinions. If you want to save the world, begin with your own worthless corner of it"...

Sheesh! Some people really do get the government they deserve!

Redneck bigotry aside, though, I have to say that I think it was a butt-headed thing for The Guardian and its readers to do - their hearts were in the right place, I admit, and the fact that the organisers felt the need to do something like this is a clear indication that they appreciate the dramatic and far-reaching effects that US politics can have on Britain. However, anyone who understands even a little about America and Americans should have expected precisely this reaction, and unfortunately I suspect that the overall effect will be to lose votes for Kerry instead of bolstering support for him among the swing voters as intended.

 

"As weak as a kitten" #2

 

Elsewhere - differences between the various versions of the original three Star Wars movies analysed in minute detail, with pictures. I can't say I approve of all those changes and re-writes, actually.

The CEO of games company ID Software is offering a prize for the best tattoo inspired by logos or artwork from his company's products. Hmmmmm...

Dell claim that 90% of PCs are infected by spyware. It's not clear exactly which PCs they're referring to, but in any case I think that figure is unrealistically high.

Microsoft promises to treat multi-core processors as single CPUs for purposes of licensing. This is really only an extension to their existing attitude towards HyperThreading CPUs, but as an ardent SMP devotee, I am really glad to hear it anyway.

New head of e-government makes career-limiting announcement - earlier this week Ian Watmore described the Home Office's beloved ID card scheme as "technologically impossible and not today's big worry". That really is a very strange thing for him to say, isn't it?

 

18th October

Today's space image, courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope, is the planetary nebula MyCn18. The eyeball effect is uncanny, and I can't help but think of Niven and Pournelle's classic SF story "The Mote In God's Eye".

Meanwhile, slightly closer to home...

Via Mike - Chinese satellite plummets out of orbit. One of the advantages of running a totalitarian regime is that nobody dares to complain: "The satellite landed in our home. Maybe this means we'll have good luck this year," the tenant of the wrecked apartment, Huo Jiyu, was quoted as saying.

Virus writers in incoherent ranting shock - "Also we will attack f-secure,symantec,trendmicro,mcafee, etc. The 11th of march is the skynet day lol. When the beagle and mydoom loose, we wanna stop our activity <== so Where is the Skynet now? lol."      Well, excuse me while I tremble in my boots...

New Scientist's analysis of the state of e-voting - "annoying interface, inexperienced staff, shaken confidence, destroying votes, crying foul, conflict of interest"... And those are just the topic headings! The Republicans are out to steal the election again, and e-voting is one of their tools.

And, finally, as it's been running through my head for several days, now...

Give me a head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair
Shoulder length or longer
Here, baby, there, momma, everywhere, daddy, daddy
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, my hair

I let it fly in the breeze and get caught in the trees
Give a home to the fleas in my hair
A home for fleas (yeah!)
A hive for bees (yeah!)
A nest for birds
There ain't no words for the beauty, the splendour
The wonder of my
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, my hair

 - Hair

 

17th October

I watched the movie of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", yesterday, and I have to say that I enjoyed it a lot. The plot was wildly different from the Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill comics that inspired it, but it was exciting and extremely fast-paced all the same, and the Victorian steampunk technology was beautifully realised. I know that the movie was not well reviewed when it came out last year, but I do think that much of the criticism was rather harsh - however, I'm certainly not an aficionado of comic books and so maybe I missed the subtle nuances that made the original so respected and popular. Taken alone, though, it was a fun, light-hearted movie with neat special effects and a fresh twist - just the thing for a quiet Saturday night at home.

Meanwhile, at Arnie's Airsoft, a new review of the Youth Engineering H&K MP5 gas blow-back replica. I'm lucky enough to own one of these rare and highly sought-after classics, having stumbled across a shop selling it as clearance stock at a bargain price, and although it's a somewhat quirky piece of hardware, it really is as much fun as the review suggests. I'll do my own write-up, one of these days...

"Frankenfish" caught in Great Lakes - the Northern Snakehead fish grows to 18" long and eats other fish, frogs and even birds and mammals - and it's ugly, too... The article also mentions the Asian Carp, a huge fish that seems to make a habit of leaping out of the water and knocking out fisherman!

The Register offers their own, non-proprietary product in the burgeoning in-car satellite navigation market. Their BioNav™ solution sounds suspiciously familiar, though, on close examination, and experience has shown that this approach has a number of significant disadvantages..

Old-school virus spreading - Bacros replicates in a wonderfully traditional way, infecting the boot systems of floppy and CD discs. It has an old-fashioned payload, too - on Christmas Day, it attempts to delete all the files on an infected PC's hard disk. Bah, Humbug!

I'd somehow forgotten about Dan's Data, recently, but he hasn't been idle in the meantime - there are two pages of letters, reviews of assorted tech oddments, and one of a wonderful roll-up piano. The latter reminds me strongly of Laurie Anderson's keyboard tie from the Home Of The Brave video.

 

16th October

I spent an annoying few hours in the office, today, powering down forty-something fileservers and their associated switches, routers, firewalls and other infrastructure - then waiting a few hours and powering them all up again after the electricians had done whatever it is that electricians do. As usual, 98% of the systems cycled back up again perfectly, but (again, as usual) that last two percent was a real pain in the neck. Today's choice annoyance was a little subnet of high-security systems locked safely away behind their own little firewall appliance. Although the servers themselves came up perfectly, they didn't seem to have any connectivity to the rest of the network, and all attempts to tweak, tune, and twiddle with the firewall's configuration and rule-base proved completely fruitless.

My PFY is feeling extremely smug, however, as he turned up when I'd already finished the rest of the work and was scratching my head over the firewall. He looked at it for a moment, and then diagnosed a routing issue - which did indeed turn out to be the case, as the default gateway had lost its static routes table again, meaning that the packets leaving the firewall had no idea where to go next. Data was flowing into the firewalled subnet, but without a route back out again for the replies, it might as well have been falling into a black hole.

I'm kicking myself, this evening, as I really should have spotted that - not only because the router in question did the same trick of eating its configuration only a couple of months ago, but mostly because having spent ten years driving TCP/IP-based networks I should have learned by now that any really odd problem, that doesn't seem to make sense, that can't be solved or even diagnosed by any other means... anything like that is bound to be a routing issue!

Maybe I've lost the knack...

 

15th October

"As weak as a kitten"

 

So, controversial PC manufacturer Liebermann Inc. has gone into receivership today. Trading online as L, the company offered desktop and laptop PCs with unusually high performance, but has frequently been the target of allegations of false advertising, especially concerning their "Hollywood" range of laptops. Grave doubts were cast on the benchmark speeds published, and on a number of occasions the hardware specification described would apparently have been completely impossible to achieve! Liebermann were always excessively hostile towards their critics, though, with responses from their PR department that could be interpreted as threats of physical violence, and as far as I'm concerned their departure is no loss to the industry.

Walmart was one of the companies that benefited from the anti-trust suite over the RIAA's illegal CD price-fixing, last year, and now they're flexing their muscles again. They are insisting that wholesale CD prices are lowered right across the board, and according to industry experts they may actually have the economic influence to force it through. And talking of the RIAA, they've had another setback in the courts, this time over their demand that they should be able to subpoena ISPs for the personal details of suspected file sharers without actually having to obtain any kind of court order. The smart money seems to think that this one will re-surface if the Republicans stay in power next month, though...

The ill-fated Canadian company Corel has made another in its long series of inexplicable corporate acquisitions, this time buying the small graphics software manufacturer JASC. Creator of the venerable PaintShop Pro image editor and its various spin-offs, JASC are one of the bigger names in the perpetually ailing shareware industry. Corel is obviously hoping to gain market share from Adobe's flagship Photoshop package and, indeed, recent versions of PaintShop have had definite delusions of PhotoShop grandeur... Which is another way of saying that they have become bloated, sluggish and over-complicated in comparison to the lean, responsive application it used to be. As with so many of Corel's previous purchases, though, this one is a touch perplexing - they already own the rights to the comparable PhotoPaint application (once an independent application but now bundled with CorelDraw) and which is a mature, fully-featured application in its own right. Corel has the dubious ability to break the products they acquire, though (where is WordPerfect, now, or Designer, or Ventura Publisher?) and it would be a shame if they managed the same trick with the old favourite PSP...

 

14th October

I'm out from under the blanket, now, but as usual the antibiotics are making me a touch short on both energy and enthusiasm - so you'll just have to survive on a handful of random links:

Everything for the conspiracy nut theorist - Alex Jones' Infowars site has all the classics: Illuminati, Freemasons, 9/11 plots... Unfortunately, however, all the stuff about the illegal, immoral behaviour of Republican politicians is probably true.

Memories of the Space Age - the forgotten space projects of the seventies, post-Apollo, pre-shuttle: NERVA, the space tug, moon bases and the manned Mars mission. All cancelled, thanks to Senator Proxmire and his ilk...

Intel roadmap gets confusing at the crease - Intel have abandoned the jump to a 4GHz Pentium 4, originally intended for the end of this year, and instead will divert resources to what appears to be the next big thing - dual core processors.

More problems with electronic voting machines - in Florida the back-end server that tabulates results died, delaying a test run for three days. How many more of these frauds, glitches and lies will it take before the American public wakes up and realises that electronic voting just isn't safe and honest yet?

Hair-trigger ISPs - Dutch civil liberties group Bits Of Freedom created ten web sites with perfectly legal content, then sent fake complaints (from a free Hotmail address, no less!) to the ISPs and hosting companies claiming copyright violation. Unfortunately seven of the ten companies pulled the sites in question immediately without even examining them - including big names Demon, Wannadoo and Tiscali, who really ought to know better. One other, iFast, even forwarded confidential personal details of the site's creators to the "complainant", in spite of not actually having been asked to do so!

More on the Indymedia seizure - the servers have been returned to host RackSpace, it seems, possibly after a mysterious court order. The reason for the seizure now seems to be that the Italian authorities wanted to examine confidential documents concerning lawsuits against the Genoa police over their behaviour during the 2001 G8 summit - accusations of grievous bodily harm, falsifying evidence, slander and abuse of police powers. This is an ugly business, certainly, but it does look as if the truth is starting to leak out (and surprisingly quickly, too) and it's just possible that for a change the appropriate heads might actually roll.

 

12th October

I'm reading a very odd book, at the moment, from a science fiction author I wasn't previously aware of. Set in the now familiar dystopian future America, Matt Ruff's Sewer, Gas And Electric is obviously and heavily influenced by both Shea and Wilson's classic Illuminatus! series, and by Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (and there's an unholy duo if ever I saw one!), with a touch of Fred Pohl's The Space Merchants thrown in for good measure.

It is surreal in just the same way as Illuminatus!, if not nearly to the same extent, and one of the central characters is a pirate submarine captain who could pinch-hit for Hagbard Celine. It's by no means slavishly derivative, though, in spite of that - it would be safe to assume that Ruff is a fan of  Illuminatus!, but he firmly stamps his own style onto the story, and instead of annoying me, the echoes are just making me smile and nod in recognition.

The influence of Atlas Shrugged is more ideological than stylistic, perhaps fortunately, but Rand herself appears as an AI-driven holographic genie-of-the-lamp and the book contains frequent (and highly informative) digressions on her life and works. Like one of Ruff's characters, the incredibly long, dense reputation of Atlas Shrugged has always dissuaded me from approaching it - but thanks to Ruff's excellent summary of the work I now feel excused from the task.

I'm still only half-way through the story, and right now I have no idea how it will end - the first half seems to be a collection of almost unconnected vignettes laying out the lives of the central characters, but according to other reviews everything will start to come together imminently... And if the second half is anything as compelling as the first, it will be a very enjoyable read.   [Update: It was!]

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Polishing your hard disk - at the perhaps aptly-named Mad Shrimps, instructions for improving the finish of a drive's outer casing. I do think that this is a somewhat dubious procedure in terms of the risks from static electricity, but it has to be said that the result is certainly impressive... And talking of modding, just when you thought you'd seen everything - a review of Molex power splitters, would you believe? Also, rather less trivial, SystemCooling has an article on an unusual (and rather impractical) Peltier-based "air conditioner" for PC cases.

Was Bush wearing a wire? A number of factors strongly suggest that he was, and if it wasn't for the significant risk of being found out, and the serious loss of stature that would cause, I would consider it an open and shut case - but, as The Register comments, when it comes to his own political career he tends to play very safe indeed. Hmmmm.

At around £1200 per litre, inkjet printer ink is more expensive than perfume, according to a new report from Gartner. The manufacturers claim that this is merely an attempt to recoup their massive R&D costs, but as far as I'm concerned it's outrageous and indefensible. Having discounted the printers themselves down to the level of petrol station freebies in the ongoing price war, they have to make their money somehow - and maximising the mostly hidden cost of the consumables is a classic sneaky, corporate manoeuvre. Oops! There's Ayn Rand, again...

 

11th October

Well, I thought I had some trivial little macro virus, but it turns out that my boot sector is infected with something distinctly hostile. The doctor has prescribed antibiotics and some downtime for extended maintenance, so I'm going to be away from the office for the rest of the week... This will be a touch difficult for both me and my colleagues - there's a lot of work that will still need to be done in my absence, and I'm likely to go stir crazy after another week at home without being able to get on with doing any of it! Ah, well.

Meanwhile, the first glitch since I installed XP's SP2 has surfaced - Veritas Backup Exec V9.1 now seems to crash every time a scheduled backup job actually starts to think about writing to the media. The failing module is PVLSVR.EXE, the Device And Media service, which seems to be clashing with the (presumably updated in SP2) MSVCRT.DLL. This doesn't seem to be documented on the Veritas knowledgebase, yet, but it's 100% consistent on this system and I guess I'll have to open a support call as soon as I'm feeling a bit better.

Now I'm off back under a blanket, again...   <muted groan>

 

STOP PRESS

Servers belonging to left-wing independent news agency Indymedia have been seized from their location at RackSpace Managed Hosting in London's Docklands, apparently following instructions from the FBI. It is not clear at this stage whether the legal action was taken under the extra-territorial provisions of American legislation, or under the UK's own Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, but it is known that the first step in the process was the subpoena issued to the US head office of RackSpace - although it seems that this was actually in response to a complaint raised by the Swiss police! This is obviously a complex international issue, and as could be expected speculation is rife...

Stay tuned to The Register and to Indymedia themselves for details... Although, of course, under the terms of the UK's appalling RIPA legislation the parties involved may well be severely limited as to what they can actually say, not only in public but also to their lawyers!

 

10th October

About a week ago the web site of respected Japanese airsoft supplier Endoshoji disappeared completely, and as I write this it's still conspicuous by its absence. I'm sure they would be pleased to see how much interest this created, though - there are at least three threads on the Arnie's Airsoft forums, let alone ASCUK and UKAN, so there must be a lot of people regularly checking their product range. As Arnie himself pointed out, the site disappeared exactly one month after the renewal date of their domain name, so it's probably nothing more than an administrative error or a dispute with their domain hosting company - but that didn't prevent one particular fool-head from announcing that they had closed the site down purely in order to defraud him! Apparently he noticed somebody on a forum elsewhere mentioning that they'd just taken delivery of exactly the same gun that he'd ordered but had not yet received, and so decided that they'd deliberately sent it to the second guy instead, then taken the entire company web site offline in order to cover their tracks!  <sigh>  That's the thing I hate most about the hobby of airsoft - so many of it's enthusiasts are the most obnoxious, objectionable, annoying, egotistical and arrogant, teenage boys that you could ever imagine... I favour Robert Heinlein's solution of raising them in a barrel, myself.

[Update: Endoshoji Airsoft are now up and running again at a new domain, endoshoji.com]

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

From the marvellous Annals of Improbable Research - everything you never realised you wanted to know about the sexual behaviour of porcupines. As always, the entire AIR site is well worth dipping into. Start at the Ig Nobel Prize winners or the newsletter archive.

Just as predicted, the UK record industry has sued 28 file-sharers. The opening salvo in the war has been fired, and experience in the US has shown that unfortunately it is a short step from cracking down on serious copyright violators to fighting against the entire concept of "fair use".

I don't know quite what to say about Vibe-Rider - it has always been well known that the vibrations from motorcycle engines can have a... well, shall we say a "stimulating" effect on female passengers, but now there is an accessory designed to maximise that phenomenon. It isn't very subtle, though, is it...

Oh, and finally - I've just had my statement of account from the broker who processes my single "putting my money where my mouth is" share in Microsoft US, and it looks as if it earned me slightly over $3 this year. Thanks, Bill!   :-)

 

9th October

I took the plunge today and installed the infamous Windows XP Service Pack 2 on my main home PC, together with an upgrade from Office XP to Office 2003 while I was at it. I've been running SP2 on the laptop for a couple of weeks without any obvious difficulties, and apparently this morning the upgrade fever  took hold. I'm avoiding many of the potential problems, of course, by disabling the new Windows Firewall - with the entire LAN protected by my trusty SonicWall SOHO2 appliance, there's no real need for a software firewall as well. The new DCOM security enhancements may still cause a quirk or two at some future date, but I'll worry about that when I come to it. With both client PCs upgraded to SP2, and the server running on Windows Server 2003, I'm right back at the bleeding edge of operating systems again - just where I'm most comfy.   :-)

To give a sense of perspective, though, I've just finished reading a fascinating article at AnandTech, written by Anand himself, who selflessly abandoned his principles and used a Mac for a month in order to find out just what all the fuss was about. As could be expected, even an old-school Wintel user like Anand was favourably impressed with both the G5 hardware and the OS X operating system. Apple's current models are mature and polished, and like all modern computers they are extremely fast - and even if they're not quite as powerful as an equivalent Intel system when it comes down to the raw benchmarks, with all those MIPS on tap it's not actually that important.

When he comes to the operating system, though, I was rather puzzled to see praise for some GUI fundamentals, such as resizing desktop icons, or closing a window without giving it the focus, or some of the more exotic drag-and-drop operations, that Anand doesn't seem to have realised are actually included in Windows XP (and probably even Windows 2000) as well... There are a number of such references in the review, and it is rather curious!

His final conclusion is that both Mac and Wintel systems have their pros and cons, and that neither has a clear edge for the majority of applications - an eminently reasonable viewpoint that I can thoroughly endorse myself. The G5 is undoubtedly a sleek and elegant creature, and I would be proud to have one on my desk, but it has to be said that I'm extremely fond of moody case lighting and smoked Perspex windows, too:

Out of academic interest, though, I've just priced up a dual CPU Mac G5 system that would give something close to the performance and features of the current incarnation of my Infinity desktop PC - and the cost comes to an eyebrow-raising £3912. I spent at least a grand less than that on Infinity, I'd say, and that expense includes a number of significant options that simply aren't offered by Apple - accelerated hardware RAID, for example, and the All-In-Wonder multimedia graphics card, and the internal VXA tape backup drive... Still, as Anand says, buying and using a Mac isn't about the money - I guess it's more of a religious thing.

 

8th October

Some nasty little bug has sneaked through my body's own anti-virus defences, but I have just enough energy left to crawl out from under a blanket for long enough to post some quick links. The things I do for you!

New fuel cell technology close - Hitachi and Toshiba have both unveiled prototypes of methanol fuel cells for a range of applications, including PDAs, cell phones and laptops, that could start to replace conventional Lithium Ion batteries as early as 2005. Hitachi's laptop cell is designed to provide at least five hours of continuous operation for for high-end laptops running multiple applications.

Induce Act shelved - The Senate Judiciary Committee has postponed a final review of the Act after negotiations among the parties involved in crafting the bill failed. Under the current wording, the technology companies would be held liable for copyright violations using their products and systems, and understandably they  are not too happy about this... Discussion will resume in the next session.

A new cartoon from JibJab - their last political animation resulted in the threat of a lawsuit from the estate of Woody Guthrie over use of his song "This land is your land", which fortunately turned out to be as unsuccessful as it was misguided. The site is impossibly overloaded at present, but it will be worth a look when the fuss calms down a little.

Keep your hands on the keyboard - an article at UK site Bit-Tech has a cautionary tale of an inappropriate use for an office PC, a corrupted Windows installation, and a shed-load of lost data. Bit-Tech is going from strength to strength these days, actually, evolving from a small-scale hardware modding site, a few years ago, to something more like a pocket version of Ars.Technica.

And, talking of Bit-Tech - here's an article they're hosting on a very impressive homebrew computer... Designed as a render farm for a digital graphics hobbyist, it has five relatively low-end AMD Duron motherboards giving a total of 9GHz. It's an extremely proficient piece of work, especially given that its creator is only in his teens, and has reduced his render times by 70%.

Recall for faulty Dell laptop power supplies - Dell has announced that many of their recent laptop power supplies have a potential risk of serious overheating, including those shipped with the Latitude and Inspiron models. I have a large handful to check at home, but we have hundreds of the damn things at the office and examining them all is going to be a real drain on resources... Gah!

Finally, for the PC modder who has already illuminated everything else - Akasa has introduced Power Eyes, little PCBs with LEDs that slip inside a Molex power connector and make the white plastic glow brightly in a variety of colours. I have to admit that this is rather a neat little idea, and as they're only around £5 for a pack of five, I think I may be forced to invest in a handful of the red ones.

Right, I'm off back under that blanket, now.  <stifled groan>

 

6th October

Midweek links:

Via the new-look Ars.Technica - as mentioned here last week, the British Phonographic Industry is gearing up to launch lawsuits against UK music sharers. Their justifications of falling sales and lost profits are just the same as those given by their US counterpart the RIAA, but grave doubts have already been cast on the American figures and given the similar behaviour of copyright owners worldwide, frankly I don't trust the BPI as far as I could throw them. Which, in case you're wondering, is not very far at all...

Cray launches new system - once legendary supercomputer manufacturer Cray has been mostly eclipsed by other companies since their slump of the late nineties and subsequent acquisition by SGI and, unfortunately, it doesn't look as if the new XD1 system is going to help restore their former glories. Based around AMD Opteron CPUs, it's certainly a rapid lump of hardware, but it's being marketing against Linux clusters hosted on off-the-shelf PCs, which is quite a come-down for a company that used to set its own benchmarks. Disappointing revenues this year have led to speculation of another takeover, this time by Sun, and given the latter's interest in AMD-based systems that doesn't sound out of the question.

Bill owns three million EU techies - an IDC study commissioned by Microsoft suggests that, of the nine million people employed in the European IT industry, just over one third are working in some kind of Microsoft-related job. IT jobs in the nineteen countries surveyed generated $200 billion in tax revenue, which is expected to rise by an additional $160 billion over the next four years - the survey estimates that by 2008 there will be 5.2 million software-related jobs in Western Europe, which is a major slice of the workforce. Gosh!

eBay "second chance" scams spreading - yet another reason to be increasingly suspicious, paranoid and sceptical when shopping and trading online...  If the winner of an eBay auction drops out of the deal, for some reason, the second highest bidder may be offered the option to purchase the goods at his losing price. However, a growing number of these offers are now being sent by unrelated third parties after an auction has completed normally, hoping to extract payment for non-existent goods from disappointed unsuccessful bidders. It's worth checking names and email addresses very carefully, these days, I'd say...

 

5th October

Today's email brought a pleasant surprise in the form of a note from writer and journalist Peter Hyman, author of "The Reluctant Metrosexual", a collection of witty and amusing essays on hip urban life in the 21st Century. He'd obviously been ego-scanning and found himself on my reading list, and as the book apparently hasn't yet been published in the UK he was curious as to how I acquired it. In fact I ound the digital version almost by chance at Audible, purveyor of the audiobooks that I play in the car while commuting and, as I told Peter, I found it a very enjoyable read... uh, listen... whatever... Keep an eye out for it when it finally reaches the UK, import it from Amazon US, or grab it now as an e-book of some sort - it's recommended.

Meanwhile, I stumbled upon a wonderful site, Bikini Science, which is devoted to the history, design and sociology of, you guessed it, bikinis. The heavily-hyperlinked text is informative and extremely comprehensive, obviously the result of a long-time interest (some might say obsession!) on the part of the creator, old-school computer graphics wizard Judson Rosebush - and of course the site is stuffed with pictures of women in bikinis ranging from modest to minute, which always gets my vote.

Elsewhere, astronaut Gordon Cooper has died at the ripe old age (for a test pilot) of 77. "Gordo" was one of the original Mercury Seven, flying in both the Mercury and Gemini programmes, and training for the Apollo programme (although never flying - he blamed internal politics) and the cancelled manned nuclear Mars mission. After leaving NASA he became somewhat notorious for his outspoken belief in aliens and UFOs, claiming widespread government cover-ups since the 1950s. The jury is still out on that one but, regardless, there's no doubt that Cooper was one of the true heroes of the space age. Safe landings, Gordo...

 

4th October

Links! Get your links here!

Viral movies possible with RealPlayer flaw - exploits involving buffer overflows, allowing files ostensibly containing harmless data to hide arbitrary hostile executable code instead, are coming thick and fast. Although a handful have been found in Windows itself, this year, a far greater number have been found in third party applications. The latest affects the Real music and video player in all its various incarnations - RealPlayer 10 for Windows and Mac OS X, RealOne Player for Windows and Mac OS X and Real Helix Player for Linux.  Beware...

MS announces plans for spyware tools - as a follow up to their recently revealed plans to offer anti-virus software (exact details and pricing yet to be confirmed), Microsoft supremo Bill Gates has revealed that anti-spyware software is also to be developed. Gates also predicted that he is expecting conventional passwords to be gradually replaced by biometric technologies over the next five or six years.

Via Ars.Technica - the fourth "cybersecurity czar" in a year has quit the Department of Homeland Security in frustration, complaining that the US government simply does not take electronic security seriously. Amit Yoran joins disaffected predecessors Richard Clarke (author of the controversial expose on the Bush administration's misguided and inadequate policies on terrorism), Howard Schmidt, who resigned after just three months, and Rand Beers, who actually quit after just one month and joined the Kerry election campaign! Something is obviously badly wrong...

Sound advice for the media industry - at The Register, a transcript of a speech given by staffer Andrew Orlowski explains how, if the music industry can only reign in their natural greed and change their antiquated licensing model to something less restrictive, they can avoid all the current unpleasantness with widespread piracy and annoying lawsuits, regain the respect of their marketplace, and still make a shed-load of money. Will they listen? Unfortunately, my gut says "no"...

Kodak beats Sun in Java lawsuit - Kodak have won their claim that Sun's Java environment infringes on some of their basic patents (a mechanism for one program to "ask another for help", bought from Wang Laboratories in the late nineties) and later this week the court will award the settlement. Kodak are claiming $1 billion in damages, as well as unpaid royalties past and present, representing at least half of Sun's operating profit from it's server and storage hardware between 1998 and 2001. I'm still annoyed over Sun's spiteful lawsuit against Microsoft, which has had terrible effects on the reliability and stability of Java applications for the end user, so I'm quietly amused by this latest development - he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Or actually, in this day and age, by the lawsuit...

Buying a Linux PC to save money, then putting Windows on it? - following the various anti-trust suits of the late nineties, Microsoft was prohibited from obliging hardware manufacturers to bundle a copy of Windows with every PC sold, and these PCs are generally a little cheaper to reflect the lack of the Windows license. In fact, they are usually bundled with a copy of one of the Linux builds instead, but a report from Gartner suggests that (Shock! Horror!) 40% of these buyers actually throw away the Linux and install a pirated copy of Windows instead.   :-)  Talk about voting with your wallets...

And, finally, just to show that the traditions of craftsmanship are not completely lost, a PC modder with the skills of a cabinetmaker. It's beautiful and innovative work.

 

3rd October

My newly-arrived Navman GPS unit (together with the borrowed Mercedes!) has just taken me safely to and from deepest, darkest Kent, where I was staying overnight with my parents during their holiday near Tunbridge Wells. It was all very green, and full of wildlife, and made a very pleasant change - you don't see many squirrels in East London, as a rule...

Right now seems to be a good time to buy Navman GPS hardware, actually - their new range is about to be launched, which has led some dealers to heavily discount the existing models to clear out the stock. However, aside from the colour scheme the only significant differences between the old iCN630 and the new iCN650 are a software upgrade to SmartST V3 and the addition of an infrared remote control. The former can be purchased separately, and I can do without the latter, which makes an upgraded iCN630 a very reasonably priced option until pricing settles on the new models.

 

1st October

I mentioned a few days ago that I'd been having problems with a couple of online hardware suppliers, and I'm glad to be able to report that at least some progress has been made. Although NavCity called me on Thursday morning to say that they finally had stocks of the iCN 630 I wanted, by that time I had found a different supplier, the unimaginatively-named Global Positioning Systems, who not only offered guaranteed next day delivery from a specified stock level (the web site showed four, then I placed my order, and it went down to three!), but were also asking around £70 less for the same hardware! They delivered it exactly when they said, with no fuss or bother, and I drove home with it nestled on the dashboard of the Mercedes only 48 hours after placing the order. Nice one!

I'm still not having much joy from Zion Media, though... Although Mark Whalley, the Managing Director, and Jon Emmett, the Sales Manager, have both been helpful in the extreme, every contact I've had with the front-line sales staff has been very disappointing. I have no idea if it's all the same person, as no names are provided, but their communications are terse, unhelpful, and badly spelled to the point of  farce. Indeed, the most recent experience was almost the last straw - in spite of the fact that I had been promised my router would be delivered today, I received another brief, anonymous email saying that there were problems with my credit card and could I fax them a utility bill to prove my address!

Apart from the fact that they had already debited my credit card back when I placed the order (which certainly caused a raised eyebrow at the thought of being billed twice for something I hadn't actually had, yet), I had specifically asked them to change the delivery address to my office two weeks ago when the initial delay meant that nobody would be at home to receive the parcel in the daytime - this was agreed without a quibble, at the time, and suddenly expecting me to be able to produce a utility bill in the middle of the working day, on top of all the other fuss, was more than I was prepared to accept.

Having had direct contact with both of the two aforementioned managers over the delays, I fell back on the old favourite of CCing them both with my distinctly abrupt reply, something that conveyed "If you don't stop jerking me around, I am simply going to cancel the order, so please talk to your bosses and then SEND ME MY ROUTER!" As expected, this had the desired effect, and I received further helpful and apologetic messages from both managers informing me that it had been sent. It seems probable that it will arrive at the start of next week, now, as promised - but it is very disappointing to have had to wait well over a month for something that I had every reason to expect within a few days, and, worse, that this simple order has generated at least twenty four email messages (as of this evening) trying to sort it all out! I really can't recommend Zion, at this stage, in spite of their helpful management...

 

Meanwhile, back at the stats... Wooooooh! After a lacklustre few months over the summer, September brought a gradient of almost unprecedented steepness, as for some reason the site just became slightly more popular right across the board. Neat, indeed! I am sufficiently encouraged by this, in fact, that I have become all enthusiastic about the Tweakers Australia Top 50 again - so get that mouse finger clicking on the vote button below, or I will make you all wait patiently while I breed, train, and finally unleash a fresh batch of ice weasels to perform unspeakable acts of violence upon your persons. Hah!

 

 

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