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31st January

Just a few snippets of news, tonight:

Up for sale at eBay - is it art or is it just a dead laptop? I'd like to think the former, but anyone who has heard my spirited defence of the Tate Gallery's infamous "pile of bricks" would expect nothing less.

Unwarranted disclosure - a Russian "security" company has unearthed a vulnerability in Windows XP SP2, but although they notified Microsoft of the flaw just before Christmas, they chose not to wait for a fix before releasing full details - presumably because they are selling their own security solution to the issue! I can't see how anyone can complain about Microsoft's anti-spyware strategy, for example, when third parties are playing dumb-ass tricks like this...  <sigh>  What a shower of bastards.

At Ars.Technica, the inside skinny on the MPAA's new software, designed to scan your PC for file-sharing applications and unauthorised media. It's not a terribly clever bit of software, it seems, and can't actually tell whether content is licensed, pirated, or home-grown! Personally, given the MPAA's stated desire to attack and destroy our PCs, I wouldn't trust the thing within a mile of one of my networks...

EU regulators butting in again - not content with forcing Microsoft to ship a version of Windows without Media Player and associated components, the EU has now forbidden them to use the name "Reduced Media Edition" to describe the product. What do they want, for Bob's sake? Blood?

Meanwhile, elsewhere in court, Hormel Foods has lost their lawsuit to prevent an email filtering company from using the word "Spam" in their product name. "The proposition that someone who encounters computer programming services under the mark Spambuster would think any less of the applicants' luncheon meat product or be discouraged from purchasing that product is more than a little fanciful". Well, quite.

 

30th January

I've just finished the audiobook of the first part of Bob Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles, and I have to admit that in spite of high expectations beforehand I wasn't overly impressed. If I had to sum the book up in a single word, it would be "uneven" - periods from which one would have hoped for a mine of fascinating anecdotes, such as his time in Greenwich Village during the late sixties, are dismissed in a few terse paragraphs. On the other hand, he writes in such an overwhelming level of detail about the New Orleans recording session that produced the 1989 album "No Mercy" that if I hadn't been doing 90mph along the M4 motorway at the time I would have been banging my head against the wall in frustration.

One incredibly annoying quirk is the almost complete omission of the sort of information that the readers of biographies usually take for granted. Firstly, he rarely mentions the date of the events he's writing about, and as he darts madly from decade to decade and back again that's not a trivial omission - even an occasional reference to the year would help to keep the chronology clear! Secondly, he is equally vague about song and album titles, both his own and those of others. To be told that a specific Robert Johnson track was a key early inspiration, for example, or that he wrote a particular song in memory of a dead friend, but not to be told which one, is somewhat bewildering...

I would like to blame the editing for both the unevenness and the foibles, but it seems likely that Dylan's own bull-at-a-gate writing style is just as much to blame. I'm told that he refuses to use a word processor, and so probably hammered out the bio on a typewriter in the same way he used to write songs - a process that does not lend itself to the techniques of modern publishing! Also, as a friend pointed out, he may not actually remember certain periods of his life very well - you know the old saying about the sixties, after all...

Either way, at this stage I'm not at all sure that I'll bother with the second part when it finally reaches Audible, and I really couldn't recommend the first segment to anyone except Dylan completists or particular devotees of the album "No Mercy". As his contemporary Hunter S. Thompson might say, selah...

[Elsewhere, author and Rolling Stone writer Jim Kunstler has published his own review of the book, in which he takes several thousand words to say "uneven".]

Meanwhile, the news...

The annoying MySQL worm has been effectively neutralised after the IRC servers that delivered its payload were isolated from the net. It's been a bit of a damp squib, in spite of early fears, and all that's left now is for the pundits to argue nomenclature - is it a worm, is it a 'bot, is it a bird, is it a plane?

On a related note, the hapless "Teekid" has been sentenced to eighteen months in prison for releasing a variant of the 2003 Blaster worm. Attaching your own widely-used screen-name to a worm version is the height of stupidity (he even owned the t33kid.com domain name) and I can't help feeling that he got exactly what he deserved. On the other hand, the actual author of the original Blaster code was never found, and it could be argued that Parson is more of a scapegoat than a protagonist... Apparently geek site [H]ard|OCP has sent him a soap-on-a-rope, which I found simultaneously tasteless and amusing.  :-)

French Python hits London stage - I'm still trying to get my head around this one: a French stage version of Monty Python's Flying Circus, in French with English subtitles (huh?), and which has apparently really tickled the surviving members of the cast. But "Le Perroquet Mort"? Hmmm. Elsewhere,  Eric Idle's own contribution opens on Broadway in February - "Spamalot" is a musical based on the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail". Again, Hmmm...

Intel's mystery trademark sparks intrigue - Intel has filed various trademarks based around the text VIIV, and as could be expected speculation is rife. Six and four, representing a 64 bit CPU? Two fives separated by lines, for a dual-core Pentium? Or just a logo for the presumably upcoming Pentium 5? Intel has declined to comment, so we'll just have to wait and see...

Finally, something I missed last year - an April Fool's prank at the wonderful airsoft geek site Unconventional Airsoft: allegedly a conversion of a real-steel RPAK-5 Assault Rifle (the Romanian cousin of the Kalashnikov AK-74) into a gas blowback airsoft weapon. It's a wonderful idea, but alas...

 

29th January

I was adding a few touches to my M4 RAM assault rifle this morning while waiting for a delivery (although I went upstairs after I realised that if the courier arrived and found me stripping down a large, impressive gun the next delivery I could expect would be a police armed response unit, and that I probably wouldn't have to wait very long for it, either) and thought that I'd post a photo to show off the current state of the art.

The core is an Asia Paintball M4 RAM shell-ejecting paintball marker, converted by the now defunct Area 51 Airsoft to fire solid 6mm BBs within the UK power limits and then fitted with the controversial "DeadByDawn" after-market 11mm barrel. The front end has been modified with a Mosquito Molds M4 RIS handgrip/rail, and an XM177-style flash hider from RAP4 to add some length.

The optics are a Soviet army-surplus Cobra reflex sight, and although not traditionally found on US weaponry (its last home was probably a real-steel AK-74) it's a wonderful piece of hardware and I'm rather fond of the look. The sling is the infamous Mil Force 3-point tactical (I still get occasional emails from perplexed users trying to install one) and the Knights Armament logo is a sticker obtained from Tokyo Model - the latter is what I was fitting today, and it really does add that finishing touch.

When fired it makes a sound like hell is breaking open (the closest thing would be a .22 LR on full auto), the air is full of flying brass shell cases, and 11mm rubber balls shoot off randomly in all directions - unfortunately the DBD barrel really isn't up to much, in spite of the massive hype, and accuracy is very disappointing. At some point I'll probably re-install the original front end and go back to conventional 6mm BBs. It's still great fun, though, in spite of all the problems, and never fails to bring a broad grin!  :-)

 

28th January

The end of the week at last - although I had to check with a colleague just before I left work to make sure that it was actually Friday. It's definitely been one of those weeks...

Meanwhile, links:

USB disco balls - we've seen everything else to plug into a USB port, I guess, but I really do think that USB mirror balls are probably taking it too far.

Digital satellite radio? Who knew this even existed, but suddenly there are reviews of portable receivers, comparisons of different providers, and FAQs on how it all works. Gosh!

News.com predicts the death of the email virus - I don't think so, Tim, especially with two new versions of Bagle starting to spread this week.

MS Office crypto flaw - PGP guru Phil Zimmermann speaks out on what he considers to be a significant vulnerability in the RC4 algorithm used in Word and Excel.

Not at all happy with Tiscali - DSL performance problems, clueless and unhelpful customer service, discounts that aren't passed on to existing users, and "unlimited" broadband access that definitely isn't... An ISP to avoid, by the sound of it.

Meanwhile, PlusNet polls its users to find out what they consider reasonable policies - I wasn't especially impressed by my last contact with PlusNet, and in fact decided to take several sets of business elsewhere, but this is certainly a step back towards professional behaviour.

Pretty network cables - braided silver shielding, a clear UV-reactive outer coating, and blue LEDs embedded in the connectors. It's clear that these are not your regular CAT6 cables...

And, finally, it looks as if the Royal Mail is following through on their plans to prohibit the shipment of anything even vaguely firearms related - including anything that "resembles" a firearm, which will cover all sorts of replicas and airsoft guns as well. Given that the majority of other carriers already have restrictive policies in this area, this could cause real problems for all concerned. The CyberShooters community and pressure group is writing a response to the proposal, and plans to assist others to do so as well. Even as a replica collector I can feel the hobby being gradually nibbled away from all sides, but of course the few remaining real shooting enthusiasts have that in spades. Difficult times, indeed.

 

27th January

Busy busy! Just some quick news links, tonight...

Loki in sudden U-turn - defiant BitTorrent hub Loki, having raised at least $40,000 dollars in donations towards their fight with the MPAA, is now advertising itself for sale as a going concern. Needless to say, the contributors are not amused...

Chinese government has no sense of humour - they've banned The Sims 2, and 49 other games (many with a military or combat theme) in order to provide "a good environment" for Chinese children. Totalitarian with a capital "T"... And a capital "otalitarian", too, for that matter.

Military robotics proliferating - giant battlemechs in Iceland, remote-controlled sentry robots in Iraq, and cybernetic rats in University of California. Dangerous stuff, from the look of it, and this is only the first generation...

MS contemplates doing the dirty - just as the detractors predicted, Microsoft is still contemplating charging for regular updates to their anti-spyware utility at some future date, but no decision has yet been reached...

Pressure group denies virus link - Fathers 4 Justice has distanced itself from a set of recent mass-mailing viruses which contain messages supporting the group. I can't say that I'm convinced, though, I have to admit.

US government suspicious of IBM sell-out - Prompted by concerns over industrial espionage, the Committee on Foreign Investments in the US is examining the sale of IBM's PC business to Chinese manufacturing group Lenovo.

Dell joins the ranks of bad guys - the PC giant is hounding a small website design company run by a Paul Dell (no relation) but it's very hard to see how the similarity of domain name has affected Dell's recently announced $23 billion revenues, and really this is nothing more than corporate bullying.

Microsoft preps WMP-less Windows - they won't appeal further against the EU order to create a version of Windows without Media Player... It was a thoroughly dumb ruling, though, and I can't see how the end user is going to benefit at all. Free bundled software is a good thing, surely!

 

26th January

I covet this... New from Japanese custom airsoft manufacturer Hartford, a limited edition replica of Deckard's blaster from the movie Blade Runner. Although based on the Tanaka Bodyguard revolver, the Pegasus gas mechanism is well disguised inside a stunning custom shell, complete with red LEDs under the barrel. In the UK Airsoft Dynamics appear to be the sole distributor, and they're taking pre-orders now. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear me drooling.   [Update: more pictures here]

Meanwhile, links... But just a few, as there's a war on and the rationing is starting to bite.

Relatively speaking - I mentioned definitive geek site Dan's Data, yesterday, but it should be remembered that his partner Anne has a 'blog as well, appropriately titled Anne's Data. She's an interesting columnist, and it's worth dropping in once in a while to see what she's kvetching about now.

Testing, testing - another of those online tests, this one to determine one's Nerd Quotient... It's not quite as fatuous as the usual varieties, however, and I didn't have to repeatedly choose between two options, neither of which are at all applicable. Needless to say, I turn out to be extremely nerdy.

A dubious distinction - according to an article in The Register, Londoners lead the way in leaving electronic equipment in taxis. In the last six months 63135 mobile phones, 5838 PDAs and 4973 laptops have been left behind, comfortably beating the figures from Helsinki, Oslo, Munich, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Chicago and Sydney.

 

25th January

Back at the silicon face, today, after a long weekend break, and back hard at work here as well. There's no rest of the wicked, as usual, and after a quick update today normal service will doubtless be resumed tomorrow.

Dan at Dan's Data has been busy, too. As well as moving house and maintaining a popular weblog (and boy, do I know how he feels, there - except for the "popular" bit, of course) he's managed to acquire another cat. I'm prepared to forgive that, though, as long as he keeps those letters coming...

Meanwhile, closer to home... For several years the front page of this site has had a "coming soon" reference to my brother's medieval and civil war period leatherwork, and it looks as if we're finally getting to the stage where I can showcase some of his creations. He has firmly put his money where his mouth is, these days, doing it for a living, and in the cut-throat historical re-enactment equipment industry any publicity is probably good publicity... I've spent the last while scanning a portfolio of photographs he provided (above is an ornate leather sword hanger, without which I'm told no 17th century military officer would consider himself properly dressed of an evening), and when time permits we'll start to put together something in the way of an online catalogue. Watch this space for further updates.

 

20th January

It's been an exceedingly busy and unpleasantly busy time at the office, hence the lack of updates here - and as the weekend looks to be equally full, it's likely that there won't be much here until next week. In the meantime, though...

Dissecting the iPod Shuffle - Apple's new music player under the knife - although it doesn't look as if it survived the experience.

Highly contentious - the president of Harvard University has suggested that women lack any natural ability in mathematics and the sciences. Hmmm.

.net domain up for grabs - five companies, including the annoying VeriSign, are bidding for control of the third biggest domain registry. It would be nice if it went to one of the non-US firms, for a change...

Backlash against online music - the major online music services have been criticised for poor site design, and proprietary formats, software and devices.

The vagaries of the market - eBay returned record profits again this year, but their forecast wasn't quite as bullish as the analysts wanted and so the share value fell by 11% after the announcement!

Opportunity still going strong - over a year after it touched down on Mars, NASA's rover is still very much alive and kicking, and recently discovered an unexpected meteorite on the surface of the planet.

Controversy over HTML tag - growing support for the rel="nofollow" tag will either prevent annoying 'blog comment spam, or destroy the entire point of searching and linking. Only time will tell...

 

17th January

Quick links...

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - there have been a number of abortive plans to make a movie of Douglas Adams' classic since the 1980s, but it looks as if it's finally imminent. HHG fans have high standards, though, and it will have to be something very special in order to impress...

The Annotated Pratchett File is an incredibly voluminous and comprehensive resource, covering all Terry Pratchett's published works and hinting about the ones that he hasn't even written yet. And for fans of the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, His Lordship's Library excerpts only those scenes in which he appears - unusual, but potentially useful.

The Sims on TV - I've yet to be even slightly impressed with any of the computer game to movie conversions (why would anyone think that would be a good idea?) and I'm equally dubious about an interactive television show based around The Sims. It isn't clear to me what the target audience would be, really, as I would assume most people would just play the computer game!

Bluetooth sunglasses - something else that seems to be a bizarre product looking desperately for a market... A collaboration between Motorola and eyewear manufacturer Oakley, the plan is to allow users to control electronic devices directly from their sunglasses. I'm sorry - can you run that one past me again?

Ebbers faces court showdown - the disgraced former boss of the telecoms company Worldcom is due to face criminal charges in court this week, following the $11bn accounting scandal that lead to the company's collapse in July 2002. Ebbers, who left the company only a couple of months before the improprieties came to light, is charged with fraud and conspiracy.

Panix recovers from domain hijack - the veteran New York ISP was hijacked on Friday, with the ownership of the panix.com domain being moved to a company in Australia, the DNS records moved to a company in the UK, and the MX records redirected to yet another company in Canada. Needless to say, this had a catastrophic effect on Panix's users and services, but the records have now been recovered and most systems are now back to normal. Nasty!

 

16th January

My space-head friend Mike has expressed surprise that I haven't covered the recent progress of the refreshingly successful Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn's moons, so here's the ten cent tour...

Firstly, clear evidence that the moon Iaptus is artificial, and in fact not even finished. A ridge up to 13km high (taller than Mount Everest!) extends right around the equator, showing where the two halves were joined during manufacture, but apparently the seam was never smoothed off to complete the job.

Given that the moon also contains a giant round structure identical to its neighbour Mimas (seen right), it seems clear that they were originally intended as a matched pair. Possibly earrings?

Left, the view from the driver's window of the Huygens probe as it descended towards the surface of Titan. From 8 kilometres up it looks quite pleasant, but in actual fact it is cold, dreary, and spattered with whale meat. So cold, in fact, that all the oxygen and water has packed up and moved to a more hospitable environment, leaving only surly pools of methane, ammonia and an unidentified tar-like substance. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactica is expected to announce scheduled tourist flights within the decade.

All picture credits: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona - and apologies to all concerned, especially Mike... Further coverage is, as always, available from NASA, ESA, and the excellent Space.Com.

 

15th January

Get yer links here! Lovely links! Links inna bun, links onna stick! Get 'em while they're hot!

Five years of Ballmer - have things changed since Bill stepped down and Big Steve took over as chief executive? Not particularly, it seems, except for some rough edges smoothed down in the (apparently unsuccessful) hope of placating governments and pressure groups...

Unified Windows coming with Longhorn - no more "Home" and "Pro" variants, once the next version of Windows finally ships, and the functionality of the Media Center and Tablet PC editions will be built-in as well. That's good news, I think, as long as the licensing model isn't too perplexing...

FBI retires Carnivore - the legendary Internet and email interception system has snooped its last keyword, it seems, as reports suggest that over the last two years the FBI has turned to commercially available products instead.

Oracle and the culling of the 5,000 - now that the long, hard battle to acquire Peoplesoft is over, to nobody's great surprise Oracle have announced massive redundancies. It seems likely that the victims will mostly be sales and back-office staff, with middle and senior management somehow escaping.

Verizon persists with email blockade - ISP Verizon have decided that Europe is a dangerous source of spam email, and since 22 December their mail systems have been configured not to accept any connections from European servers. Amazing. I could talk about eyes, here, and motes and planks...

New worm comes complete with Tetris - the Cellery trojan distracts users by offering them a basic Tetris game while it sneakily scans for network shares in the background. It's not the first worm to purport to be a game, and given how gullible most users are I doubt it will be the last, either.

A new tool In the spam war - Ethan Preston thinks that a carefully-bated honey pot of email addresses combined with a strongly-worded license agreement binding the harvester to local legal arbitration will help, but I have to admit that I'm dubious. Is it actually wise to face-to-face with some of these people?

MS rubbishes DRM flaw - following the recent scare story about media files carrying trojan code, Microsoft have confirmed that Service Pack 2 will prevent the download and installation of this kind of malware, and that in fact even older OS versions are safe if the Internet security settings are sufficient.

Napster under attack - Again! In spite of it's aspirations to legality and respectability, the online music distribution company is about to find itself in court again, following the failure of negotiations with SightSound, a company that holds a number of somewhat dubious but sucessful patents in the area.

Dangers of UK's DNA database - advisory group Genewatch has warned about the implications of the fast-growing National DNA Database, now one of the most substantial in the world. Given the high rate of errors in both police data storage and DNA-based evidence itself, it certainly is a real concern.

Toilet brush wins absurd warning contest - the label "Do not use for personal hygiene" has sufficiently impressed US consumer watchdog M-LAW that it scored over other dumb warnings on childrens' toys, thermometers and food processors.

TRON to be remade - the classic eighties geek movie is going to be given the full Hollywood treatment and, like Ceasar at Ars Technica, I am simultaneously enthused and terrified. Rather than the innards of a mainframe, it seems that this time the hero is trapped in an online adventure game. Hmmm...

Space launches blamed for illness - children living near the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan are more likely to suffer hormonal problems and blood disorders, according to a Siberian study leaked to the journal Nature. The authors conclude that unburned hydrazine fuel is responsible.

 

13th January

In the wake of the recent capitulation by Infinium Labs in their lawsuit against tech site [H]ard|OCP, an enterprising fanboy is selling commemorative T-shirts featuring the order from Judge Kaplan that officially ended the case. Interestingly, it appears that some of Infinium's staff had their own T-shirts, too, which they delighted in wearing secretly under other clothes while representing their company at trade shows. Needless to say, they are not very complimentary of [H]ard|OCP and its owner, Kyle Bennett... Infinium have denied that any staff member has ever worn the garment in question, of course, but frankly at the moment their record on truth and falsehoods tends to speak for itself.  [Update: It looks as if Kyle has removed the images "for the time being". Interesting...]

Meanwhile, back in court, it looks as if the Mac rumour sites that were speculating on forthcoming hardware releases and so provoking Apple's legal ire were completely right... Tuesday's official launch of the Mac Mini, a thoroughly barebones entry-level system, and the flash memory-based iPod Shuffle, was no great surprise after Apple filed a civil lawsuit against the MacWorld web site for suggesting that those were likely future products. Meanwhile, the online specifications for the iPod Shuffle confirm that either Apple or its users are even more dumb than I'd previously suspected - is it really necessary to warn users not to eat the expensive hardware they've just purchased?

Elsewhere, the site of US telecoms operator T-Mobile has been hacked so completely that the admins might as well have copied their confidential databases onto an LTO tape and couriered it over to the hacker themselves. Twenty-one year-old Nicolas Jacobsen, currently on bail awaiting trial, had access to internal servers for at least a year, during which he monitored US Secret Service e-mail, obtained customer passwords and social security numbers, and downloaded candid photos taken by users of the Sidekick photo messaging service. Jacobsen was arrested in October 2004 following a sting operation, but the Secret Service are offering a generous plea bargain if he will help with similar stings to catch other hackers, and so have kept the entire case at a very low profile.

And talking of horrendous hacks, it seems that messages sent via Google's GMail system have been extremely vulnerable to interception. Messages sent with a missing ">" character at the end of the sender's email address would arrive in the destination mailbox with some or all of a completely different email message embedded in the "Reply To" field. Needless to say, this is an extremely serious flaw, but fortunately Google are on the ball and although they haven't revealed how long the weakness has been in place, it seems that they patched it very soon after the original announcement on the hacker community HBX Networks earlier this week.

Additional JPEG compression - a new algorithm from Allume, creators of the "Stuffit" compression software, promises lossless compression of JPEG images by up to 30%. This is quite remarkable, as it was traditionally assumed that the structure of the data in a JPEG would not lend itself to any further compression, but real-world tests show size decreases close to those promised. Impressive!

Equally impressive is a cunning USB SD memory card from SanDisk. It isn't the first SD card with a built-in USB interface, but the competition doesn't have that neat hinged design and I think SanDisk's product is going to be a winner - although I expect a whole raft of similar designs in the next few months, as this really is a very clever idea.

Elsewhere, more news has emerged concerning the upcoming film of Philip K. Dick's wonderfully disturbing novel "A Scanner Darkly". Starring Keanu Reeves, the movie uses an unusual technique of live action photography overlaid with interpolated rotoscoping animation techniques, and the first few images can be seen here. I am really looking forward to seeing this movie...

Finally, the classic (if fundamentally erroneous) question what of happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object may soon be answered in the South Atlantic. An eighty mile long iceberg is on a collision course with an equally massive floating glacier near the McMurdo Research Station, and although the best view can be gained from orbit, for the next few days all eyes will be on the earth science satellites that are tracking the area. I wonder if I'll be able to hear the bang from Essex?

 

12th January

Midweek... Tired... Quick links...

Iapetus apparently made in two parts - new photos of Saturn's moon by the Cassini spacecraft have revealed a geological formation running around the equator that looks for all the world like the join between two segments of a plastic model kit. Almost as much fun as Mimas!

Fugitive in Circuit City - an escaped convict has finally been recaptured after hiding out in a disused electronics store in Charlotte, North Carolina, since June 2004. He'd settled in very nicely, it seems, with water piped in from an adjacent store, and entertainment provided by a DVD player and a basketball hoop... he'd even installed a smoke alarm for safety!

Microsoft UK fires several staff - seven employees have been dismissed, and the police notified, following what appears to be abuse of the internal purchase program. Microsoft products are available to staff at a discount, but only for personal use, and in this case the products appear to have been sold on the open market. There are also suggestions of some kind of shenanigans concerning internal security, too. Mysterious stuff...

Sketching art prohibited - a museum security guard in the North Carolina Museum of Art apparently stopped a six year old schoolgirl from sketching masterpieces by Picasso and Matisse on the grounds that the paintings were copyrighted. The guard was mistaken, as it happens, and the museum has now apologised - but I'm afraid this is very much a sign of the times...

Modern art all a trick of the CIA - Ken Macleod, noted SF author and part-time blogger, exposes the shocking truth... In an attempt to distract from art with a social or political content, the CIA funnelled significant sums of money through Nelson Rockefeller's Museum Of Modern Art to the abstract expressionist painters that they saw as an antidote to communist ideology. It's bizarre stuff, even for the CIA in the sixties!

Spyware EULA puzzler - the license agreements of malware that pretends to be legitimate software, such as Claria's Gator adware pest, usually prohibit the removal of the product via any other means than the tortuous and often malicious online operation triggered through the Add/Remove Programs utility. An article at Infoworld suggests that removing such programs via specialist software such as Ad Aware, SpyBot S&D, or indeed Microsoft's new AntiSpyware product, is likely to violate the agreement, thus bringing down plagues of boils and rains of frogs on the unwary user. Fortunately Microsoft, great proponents of EULAs themselves, are one step ahead of the game - the EULA of the AntiSpyware product specifically warns about this risk, and places all responsibility firmly back with the user of the software. Caveat emptor, indeed.

And finally, more on what is rapidly becoming a cause célèbre - the sacking of Waterstones employee Joe Gordon for comments posted in his personal weblog, and there's more to the affair than meets the eye, it seems, according to Charlie Stross. I expect the senior management of Waterstones are following the spread of this story with some considerable annoyance, but it remains to be seen whether they will find a way of repairing the growing damage to their reputation amongst some of their most hard-core customers...

 

11th January

We've been without an Internet connection at the office for the last week, thanks to an unprecedented mistake by our provider UUNet (now a part of MCI). For reasons that they have so far declined to reveal, they suddenly decided to cut off our 2Mbit leased line, and so we have been limping along since then on the 64Kbit ISDN backup circuit. As you can imagine this has not been a very satisfactory solution for a company of seven hundred employees, and the outage has certainly demonstrated exactly how dependent most segments of the business really are on Internet access. When UUNet make a mistake, however, it seems that they really go to town, and the only solution is for BT to provide a completely new leased line! I have no idea why the existing circuit can't simply be reactivated, but apparently this isn't possible and so tomorrow, after an outage lasting a week, an engineer will be arriving to install a replacement NTE box on the wall - and with luck after that we'll be rolling again. You can bet your bippy that we'll be pursuing a claim for compensation, though...

Meanwhile, elsewhere... It felt like ages since I'd bought a gun, so apparently my subconscious lead me back to an old favourite supplier, Airsoft Kit (suppliers of my custom-built M4 CQB)  who have been holding a closing down sale for the last year or so. They're coming very close to actually closing, now, and prices on the last few oddments have plummeted even lower than before. One such oddment caught my eye on Saturday, and thanks to the proprietor Tree's customary rapid shipping it's now nestled safely in my hot little hands:

This is a Western Arms replica of the Beretta M84FS, and very neat it is, too. Rather reminiscent of the classic Walther PPK, bloated to incorporate a double-stack magazine, in actual fact of course it is closely related to the larger Beretta M92 model. The replica has the usual WA build quality, and although as usual the majority of the components are ABS plastic the look and the heft of the gun certainly live up to expectations.

Seen next to the more usual M92 model, also a Western Arms replica and my first airsoft purchase, the M84's compact size is quite obvious. Designed for concealed carry on the civilian market and as a lightweight sidearm for the military, the real firearm nevertheless manages to squeeze in thirteen rounds rounds of .380ACP / 9mm Short - impressive, considering that the replica only manages twenty of the usual 6mm BBs!

I don't actually have the opportunity for a worthwhile test, right now, but as soon as I come across one of those mythical free weekends I'm intending to pull the entire gun collection out of storage and make some poor cardboard box's life a real misery. And one day I may even get around to writing up the rest of the replicas on the airsoft page here, too. Watch this space - but don't hold your breath...

 

10th January

It's only Monday, but thanks to having worked all weekend it feels more like a Wednesday... And as I've now discovered that I'll have to work at least some of this coming weekend, too, I hate to think what next Monday will feel like. To match my mood, therefore, here are some depressing news items:

New spamming technique clogs DNS servers - by sending spam from an un-registered domain in the middle of the night, then registering the domain in the morning, spammers are now hoping to retain a low profile and escape prosecution. I have to admit that I don't quite see the logic behind this, but the trick has the unpleasant side-effect of clogging up servers providing the DNS lookups that are now an integral part of most anti-spam filtering.

And talking of annoying scam-artists, four Australian teenagers have been charged with being the middle-men in an East European phishing scam. They were promised of a share of the profits for allowing their bank accounts be used for laundering the stolen funds, and are implicated in the theft of almost half a million US dollars from more than sixty victims. Time to start hefting that book, all ready to throw...

Still on the topic of fraudsters, Enron scumbag Ken Lay is so desperate to re-write the history of the scandal, it seems, that he's paying search engines to point to his own revisionist version of events. Searches on phrases such as "Enron scandal" or "Ken Lay" are being weighted to return Lay's propaganda site, where presumably the truth can be found... Fortunately, a Boing Boing contributor has provided an appropriately constructed link to the site, and at the moment every click will cost Lay between five and twelve cents. As Cory says, "click early, click often!"

Today's entry seems to be full of thieves and bastards, so here are some more of the latter... The author of the little-known 'blog The Woolamaloo Gazette (based in Edinburgh, in spite of the name!) has been fired from his job at UK bookseller Waterstones for allegedly bringing the company's name into disrepute. The wisdom of mentioning one's employer in a satirical online journal is questionable at best, and regular readers will have noticed that I have never named or even described my own company, but for an employee of eleven years' standing to be fired without any warning or an opportunity to remove the text in question is thoroughly out of order. Unfortunately this is becoming a common occurrence, and Waterstones are just the latest entry on a growing list of firms who have fired, threatened or disciplined staff because of their weblogs. It's food for thought, certainly...

 

9th January

Ros has just reminded me that today is the 3rd anniversary of this weblog. The first month brought a whole ten visitors, presumably all of whom were people that knew me personally; last month bought over six thousand, the vast majority of whom found the page via Google and have absolutely no idea who I am! I'm still enjoying writing here, though, so for those ten loyal fans who still visit regularly, I'm afraid you're stuck with me for a while longer yet.  :-)

I've spent most of the weekend in the office patching-in wallports and running drop cables, so I have no energy for anything very substantive to make the anniversary - but here are a few snippets to reward your persistence:

BT sneaks in unexpected price rise - by quietly moving the start of the higher daytime tariff from 8am to 6am, around the 15% of callers who habitually make calls this early will see increases of up to 110%. BT deny that this will actually effect anyone, but of course they wouldn't have done it if they didn't expect it to bring in additional revenue!

Phantom wins hands-down - Wired have announced the winners of their 2004 Vapourware awards, and although my suggestion of the iBIZ Virtual Keyboard didn't make the finalists, as expected the aptly-named Phantom games console easily reached No 1.

Apple are still shooting themselves the feet by attempting to suing people who leak "trade secrets" about upcoming products. Although they are obviously desperate to prevent speculation circulating on the web, by filing the suits they have to identify the particular secrets that have been leaked and so confirm which rumours are actually true!

However, just to prove that the boot can be worn on both feet (in spite of the bullet holes, one assumes?), a frustrated user is suing Apple for anti-competitive behaviour, claiming that they force customers into using iPods by refusing to let other music-playing hardware work with their iTunes online music store. Apple seems to be spending as much time in court as Microsoft, these days, and having been a major part of the anti-trust suits of the nineties, I damn well hope that they're enjoying the experience...

And talking of Microsoft, their much-heralded AntiSpyware application is now in public beta. Ignoring the controversy about whether they'll charge for updates at some future date (a more plausible business model than suing people for a living, surely?) anything that helps keeps the great masses of non-technical Internet users from becoming unwitting sources of spam and malware can only be good!

Finally - I missed this story before christmas, what with one thing and another, but the New York Times published a comprehensive article on Penny Arcade, my favourite online comic.

 

There are ten million stories
in the naked city.
But no-one can remember
which one is theirs.

  - Laurie Anderson, City Song.

 

7th January

The worst of my 'flu bug is over, now, and I slogged through a day of packing and moving at the office without keeling over more than a couple of times... But I had no idea that I'd collected so many papers and gadgets and cables and CDs and things and stuff over the years until it came time to sort it all out and pack it into crates. Remarkable!

However, I got home to discover that the new V3 update for my Navman in-car GPS navigation gizmo had arrived, and spent an entertaining hour upgrading firmware, applications, maps, and speed camera databases. The management software that runs on the PC is rather an eccentric creature, tending to crash at least once during a set of updates, and Navman's obsession with online product activation (involving at least two long serial numbers and a whole bunch of DRM-like license key synchronisation) doesn't help. The justification for the latter is rather mysterious, actually, as the software can only be used on their own dedicated hardware and the risk of piracy would seem to be minimal - so the only real result, as usual with over-restrictive licensing mechanisms, is that honest users are forced into a whole bunch of annoying fiddling and fussing...

Once all that was out of the way, though, as expected the V3 software seems to be another worthwhile upgrade. It provides topographical map views, a new mini-map plus turn directions display mode, increased flexibility in setting the routing preferences, an improved time-to-first-fix, and support for customisable Points Of Interest sets such as the speed camera database provided by the excellent Pocket GPS World web site.

There are full details of the new features in their review of Navman's other V3 devices, such as the iCN650 - but note that the current equivalent to my 630, the recently announced 635, differs only in the addition of an IR remote control and the V3 software pre-installed... If you can live without the remote control, the cost of the older 630 plus the upgrade is noticeably less than the cost of the current model, and if you can find one as remaindered stock they currently represent excellent value for money.

 

6th January

I'm coming to the conclusion that 'flu is like seasickness, in that even if you're not likely to die from it, you certainly wish that you would... I've spent the last three days running through the entire range of annoying and uncomfortable symptoms (today's main feature being a sore throat that has turned my voice into a creditable impression of Charles Bronson) and so have had to stay at home under a blanket in spite of the million and one things that I ought to be doing in the office. With my whole department moving to a different floor at the weekend, this is not a good time to be ill - if I'm still not up to going in tomorrow, I'm likely to find myself working in a cubicle on the roof next week!

To distract myself, then, a few more links...

No one knows which diets work best - with the exception of the classic Weight Watchers calorie counting, a summary of more than 1,500 diet studies has failed to draw any significantly positive conclusions. Food for thought, certainly...

A cunning disguise for your laptop - to avoid the risk of having a laptop snatched while travelling, this carrying case looks like a pizza box. In fact, it is a pizza box, with only the addition of a bit of foam and a couple of straps to justify the £12.99 cost.  [On closer examination it seems to be a hoax product, but that didn't prevent a very long thread at Slashdot before anyone noticed...]

"Spam King" ordered to cease and desist - in advance of his trial, the FTC has instructed arch-spammer Sanford Wallace to stop infecting computers with spyware and advertising trojans in order to sell useless anti-spyware software. About time, if you ask me...

[H]ard|OCP vs. Phantom, a win! - The long-running lawsuit between geek site [H]ard|OCP and alleged-console manufacturer Infinium Labs has ended, with Infinium withdrawing all their objections (in a remarkably badly-spelled document!) to the article that prompted the suit, and calling it a day. As Kyle Bennett points out, though, there is still the little matter of the $200,000 he spent on legal fees, and hopefully he will be able to recover at least a proportion of this from Infinium themselves.

Sims 2 hacks spread like viruses - unfortunately the features that make it easy to exchange Sims objects and entire houses between players allow any hacks and mods to propagate with them, whether the destination user wanted them or not. At the moment it's just an annoyance, but it seems likely that sooner or later some genuine malware will be released in the same way, and by that stage users will be lucky if the game is the only subsystem affected...

 

4th January

I gave up on the office at lunchtime and came home, as I was spending more time blowing my nose than working. Damn, I hate having a cold! Just a few odd links, then - and think yourself lucky you're getting that much!   <grumble> <mutter>

A free science fiction calendar - courtesy of The Website at the End of the Universe, the images are from the classic Ace Doubles paperbacks.

And talking of classic SF - a movie of The Call Of Chtulhu. Filmed in black and white for that authentic period spookiness, it sounds wonderful. The trailer is online now...

And talking of classic stories in general, The Sherlock Holmes Society has made available as MP3s hundreds of radio broadcasts - although after a link in the increasingly popular Boing Boing weblog, it looks as if the entire downloads section of their website is currently offline!

And finally, something lewd... Courtesy of knitting 'blog Yarnivore, body parts. I just love the knitted uterus, complete with ovaries and fallopian tubes. It looks so cuddly!  :-)

 

3rd January

Last month I mentioned the complete failure of iBIZ to bring their virtual keyboard to market, and did indeed nominate them for Wired's 2004 Vaporware awards. It looks as if they've badly missed the boat now, though, with an extremely similar product just announced by another manufacturer. The review is not altogether favourable, but just as with the pre-release versions of the iBIZ hardware most testers seem to feel that the basic concept is sound, if only applicable to certain niche uses. As an occasional user of both the 1st and 2nd generation of Palm's decidedly non-virtual offering, I'd certainly be interested in fondling one myself to see if I agree.

Meanwhile, I'm down with some kind of unpleasant flu/cold symptoms (just in time to go back to work tomorrow, dammit!) so here's another handful of random links:

Windows DRM flaw allows RIAA to attack PCs - the recording industry's lapdog, Overpeer, is concealing malware in Windows media files in the hope of causing difficulties for file-sharers.

The home page of Bryan Berg, world record-holding stacker of playing cards... And comments about hands and too much time notwithstanding, they're certainly remarkable structures.

Boing Boing on laser attacks - airline pilots are increasingly complaining that they are being targeted from the ground by hand-held lasers, and one manufacturer has pulled out of the market in response. [Update 4th January: A New Jersey man has just been charged following two such incidents.]
[Update 6th January: The pundits are now calling the allegations into question, though. Interesting...]

Honda's Asimo robot upgraded - now it can walk faster, and run at up to 3km/h. It's extremely impressive, although its gait is still somewhat... ah... eccentric.

Laddermill - high altitude kites designed to generate electricity by harnessing the steady winds found at 10,000m. As a some-time kite enthusiast, I have to admit that I'm dubious about the practicality...

London Underground shops for spares on eBay - some hardware is so old that replacement components are only available from collectors! Eek!

People vs. Technology - At the University of Maryland, Kent Norman is studying the far end of the curve when it comes to man-machine interaction. "I once shot a computer with a .50 cal BMG sniper rifle".

Preshrunk - a brand new weblog for neat T-shirts, and given my fondness for geek slogans this is definitely one I will be keeping an eye on.

Wallet essentials - a wide range of indispensable gadgets, formed from stainless steel in the size of a credit card: bookmark, bottle opener, comb, ice scraper, emergency cufflinks. Clever stuff.

Unlock your car by knocking - responding to a twelve digit code number tapped on the windows or body panels, this gadget does actually sound like rather a clever idea for emergencies.

And, finally, What's really wrong with Gollum? - courtesy of the British Medical Journal, we now have an official diagnosis of dietary deficiencies combined with schizoid personality disorder.   :-)

 

2nd January

It's Sunday, and I'm feeling lazy, so here are some random links...

Killer hoover attacks Scotsman - just when you though it was safe to go back under the stairs...

PlayBot 2005 calendar - hi-tech hardware in lewd poses. You heard me.

Tulip offloads Commodore brand - so valuable that the buyer is paying in instalments until 2010...

BitTorrent hub ready to rumble - LokiTorrent plans to fight back against the MPAA's attack.

BT has second thoughts about ID card bid - anxious about their public image, it seems!

Security flaws in Acrobat V6 - just as well that the V7 reader has just been released, I guess...

The smart way of voting with your feet - and unfortunately Amazon are looking decidedly dubious.

Switching back from Linux to Windows - incompatibilities, performance and support issues...

Is it art or is it a PC? - Intel's Laptop Art Project blurs the boundaries, but impresses anyway.

 

1st January

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

Merle Travis  - Sixteen Tons

Ahhh, another year. Still, at least it's been a good year so far, for which I'm grateful... A number of my friends seem to have been poorly to one degree or another, unfortunately, so best wishes to them all -especially Richard, whose pancreas seems to have turned on him and attacked him from within, giving rise to a thoroughly miserable christmas holiday for all concerned. Get well soon, dude!

Thanks to the increasing availability of Pioneer's DRM-5004X CD library on the second-hand market, my page of resources often generates enquiries from fellow owners asking for advice or offering tips, and before christmas one enthusiast started his own Sourceforge project to write a suite of control software. The site is a little sparse at the moment, but his ideas seem thoroughly plausible and the project will definitely be worth keeping an eye on in the next few months.

Elsewhere...

Corporate PCs are "riddled with spyware", according to a survey carried out by anti-spyware vendor Webroot. Most of the items found were harmless cookies, but around five per cent of the PCs scanned had some kind of Trojan horse programs relaying information to third parties.

Malware is a growing problem for home users as well, of course, and given that this the time of the year when techies are likely to be visiting friends and family, The Register has advice on how to educate them about the hordes of digital nasties that are laying siege to their computers.

As if to illustrate their point, a new Trojan has emerged to threaten Windows XP systems, including those with SP2 installed. The vulnerability it exploits dates back to October, but although Microsoft are currently working on a patch nothing has yet emerged. "Phel" is distributed via the web as an HTML file, and at present the only defence is up-to-date anti-virus software.

Meanwhile, another worm is attempting to thwart the Santy worm that attacks sites running PHP Bulletin Borad software. It searches Google for sites using the software, infects them, and attempts to install a patch to make them more secure. It's a laudable aim, I suppose, but the worm is unwelcome all the same - any software that makes unauthorised changes to a system is inherently bad, whatever the intentions of the creator.

And talking of unacceptable computer use, another article at The Register suggests that the stiff penalties being handed out to large-scale spammers are actually out of all proportion to the real severity of the offences themselves. I rather think they have a point, too, as the recent nine year prison sentence handed out to spammer Jeremy Jaynes significantly exceeded typical sentences for crimes like sexual assault and armed robbery... It's something to mull over, certainly.

 

Meanwhile, conclusive proof that I don't have to write anything here to keep the traffic coming... What with the house move and christmas, Epicycle was offline for a significant portion of December - and yet the stats show a slight rise over November's figures all the same. Well, tough! I'm going to go on 'blogging whether you like it or not, so there! Hah!

Given that, it would seem wise to vote for the site at the Tweakers Top 50 before I'm forced to devise an entirely new set of threats for 2005 - and I have a vivid imagination, so be warned...

 

 

Vote for Epicycle!

 

 

 

 

 

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