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31st July

Memo to Cisco: You can't put the cat back in the bag. The details of your IOS vulnerability are in the public domain now, and persecuting the person who released them is foolish, bloody-minded and counter-productive. Your hardware forms the backbone of most public and private networks these days, but you do have competition and it wouldn't take much for techies to start feeling the urge to abandon products made by a company that would rather punish security researchers than fix the flaws they find. Be warned.

Meanwhile, I'm currently re-reading Niven and Pournelle's SF novel "Oath Of Fealty" (the origin of the popular meme "think of it as evolution in action"), and have just come across a curious failure of the imagination. The story is set in a giant arcology, providing homes and workplaces to a quarter of a million people, the management of which interacts with the all-pervasive central computer system via brain implants. And yet -

MacLean Stevens kept his emergency phone on a fifty-foot cord rooted in the central hall. That way he could move around the house while tied up on the phone. In particular he could reach the coffee cup and the liquor cabinet, and when he got calls on that phone he often needed to.

When the novel was written in the early eighties, wireless and mobile phone technology was in its infancy but definitely a coming thing, and for two such seasoned and technical SF authors, who could write convincingly about direct human-computer communication, to fail to envision a cordless home phone is just a little peculiar!

Elsewhere, while I was looking for reviews of the book I came across the rather awkwardly-named Technovelgy, a site linking various technologies (both current and future) with the science fiction stories that first introduced them. The individual entries themselves are actually rather brief and trivial, but in spite of that it's a fairly comprehensive collection and acts as a good jumping-off point for further research elsewhere.

 

30th July

The UK electronics supplier Maplin had cans of spray stuff on special offer, last week, and as I needed some more air duster I grabbed a can of label remover to make up the numbers. I've always been a touch dubious about stuff like this, as I'm used to using naphtha lighter fluid for this sort of thing and it didn't seem likely that an expensive spray can of unknown hydrocarbons would actually be significantly better. This is not the case, however, as whatever is in there (and research has not shed any light on this as yet) is actually very good at loosening label adhesives, and as it doesn't evaporate quite so fast there's less of a tendency to leave a film of glue behind it as it does. Be warned, however, that it is actually rather a corrosive substance on some types of plastic, and should definitely not be sprayed liberally over the general area as I've just done - it ruined the clear front of the CD jewel case I was working on, and a couple of splashes seem to have left little marks on my keyboard as well. Used carefully, though, it really is the business.

I didn't notice at the time, but they also sell one with what is described as "a pleasant citrus smell", which might be worth trying as the brand I've got reminds me strongly of my salad days working in a chemicals factory... Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to open a window. The lights, man, the colours...

Meanwhile, I'm listening to the new CD from the Kerosene Brothers, a group based on the bluegrass covers band Hayseed Dixie, and it totally rocks. Tracks vary from some of the old mountain standards (I have never heard In The Pines played anything like that!) to new songs written by the band - principally singer, guitarist, organist and violin player John Wheeler, evidently a very flexible performer! The music is technically very accomplished, as it should be considering that the other musicians include two of the sons of bluegrass diva Don "Duelling Banjos" Reno - with hindsight this is obvious on the Hayseed Dixie albums too, but the basic concept of bluegrass AC/DC and Kiss covers is so outrageous, and the music is so much fun, that actually the quality of their work is easy to overlook.

Hayseed Dixie are actually mid-way through an extensive tour of the UK right now, and tonight are playing at Kingsmead School in Wiveliscombe, Devon - rather an improbable venue, but then I guess they are rather an improbable band. Their three current albums, together with the new Kerosene Brothers CD, only cost me £30 to have shipped over from the US, and at that price I recommend that you buy them all immediately.

Elsewhere, apparently Saddam Hussein got into a fistfight with an unidentified man during his appearance at a court hearing in Baghdad on Thursday. I have to admit that I find this rather funny, but it's interesting to see how other events have overshadowed the hearings in the UK media - when he was arrested eighteen months ago I was expecting a huge build-up to the trials but actually whatever is going on is doing so behind the scenes and, apart from those few lines on Yahoo, at the moment I can't see anything else about the Iraqi Special Tribunal at all.

Something else that has been missing from the news until very recently is the truth about the hapless Brazilian electrician shot by police in London last week. We were told that he was wearing unusually bulky clothing, we were told that he jumped a ticket barrier to escape, and we were told that he was only shot five times... However, it now turns out that none of these statements were actually true, and I'm very much in mind of the immediate aftermath of Watergate, where a cover-up was so completely inevitable that nobody actually had to order one. In the case of the British government the automatic response is to try to spin the news (Translation: lie through their teeth) in order to minimise the political damage, and then let the truth dribble out a bit at a time later on, once it can no longer be denied. Even now the Home Office is prevaricating over whether he had a valid visa or not, dropping all sorts of hints about the stamp "not being recognised" or some-such but refusing to actually say whether he was in the country legally or not! Frankly, these days I trust the UK government about as far as I could spit a rat, and find the overall experience of dealing with them about as pleasant.

Meanwhile, it turns out that a law intended to ban protests in the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament was worded badly enough that it cannot be applied to the main target of the legislation. Brian Haw has been protesting against the invasion of Iraq in Parliament Square for four years, and because his permanent vigil started long before the new Serious Organised Crime and Police Act was passed into law the High Court has ruled that he does not have to apply to the police for permission to demonstrate there - an application that would certainly be refused on some spurious grounds, I expect, along with every other similar request.

See? They're not only bastards, they're incompetent bastards too!

 

29th July

So it was SysAdmin Appreciation Day again, and as usual I didn't remember until it was rather too late. I've put a note in my calendar for 2006, though, so with any luck next time I can browbeat my users into appreciating me. They will if they like their data, that is, and want to keep it in the form to which they have become accustomed... This year, however, it's still not too late to shoot over to the Three Dead Trolls website and grab a copy of their System Administrator Song video.

Meanwhile, I'm currently watching the movie Dr Strangelove, and I always forget how very, very good it actually is. I'm just (barely) old enough to remember the end of the cold war, and the paranoia and fear that was endemic throughout the era, and even though the world is very different forty years later the film has aged surprisingly well. It certainly bears re-watching, and there are some fascinating snippets of trivia at the IMDb, together with all those marvellous quotes, to read through as you do.

Elsewhere, some quick links.

More on that Cisco fuss - at Boing Boing, a summary of the latest developments in the Lynn/Cisco/ISS/DefCon furore. ISS are still seeking criminal charges, Cisco are trying to put the cat back in the bag (much too late, guys!), the FBI are investigating Lynn, and the Defcon and Black Hat convention organisers are under an injunction. This one is going to run and run and run...

The danger of iPods - use of MP3 players and the increasing exposure to music in general may cause full-blown musical hallucinations, according to a new study. For all the fuss about iPods, though, I can't see that functionally they're any different from the Walkman cassette players of my youth, and although I can remember similar warnings back then they didn't seem to do anyone any harm...

Genuine Advantage cracked - a bypass for Microsoft's online product authentication has surfaced, only a few hours after the system went live as a mandatory part of the Windows Update process. The work-around is absolutely trivial, and it would be safe to assume that Microsoft are hopping mad.

Vint Cerf on the birth of the Internet - at The Register, the first of a three part interview with Cerf himself. It's a familiar story, of course, but it's nice to hear it from the horse's mouth and there are a few interesting little snippets in the footnotes.

No connection with the IT industry - also at The Register, although I have absolutely no idea why, is news of a breakthrough in female undergarments. The backless thong is a cross between panties and a pair of garters, and I have to say that, along with most of the other recent innovations in lingerie, it doesn't actually look very comfortable to wear.

And finally, a couple of links for UK victims of telemarketing phone calls - the Telephone Preference Service now allows online registration to opt out of the marketing databases, and Silentguard claims to allow opting out of the automatically-generated silent calls that are becoming increasingly widespread - although I can't understand why the latter isn't already included in the former! Obviously neither of these will help with call centres that don't comply with the UK's voluntary guidelines (and in spite of what the Direct Marketing Association claims, there are a lot of those) and neither will it help with calls originating from America and Europe - and there are a growing number of those, too, thanks to the crackdown on sales calls in their native countries and the impossibility of enforcing this kind of law across international borders. Still, every little helps...

 

28th July

I'm blogging first thing in the morning, today, rather than my usual evening session, as I'm currently sat at home watching two HVAC engineers drilling a 5" hole in the wall of my house to fit a vent for my new air conditioner. The company is more used to large-scale installations in offices and commercial premises, and a job this small is obviously not something they're often asked to carry out, but nevertheless they're adapting well and the end result is very neat. If you're in the Essex area, and need aircon work, then I can definitely recommend JJ Engineering of Dagenham.

The air conditioner itself is an Amcor PLM 15000EH, and if the rating of 12000 BTU/h (on the new European standard - 15000 on the old enthalpic rating) is to be believed it's one of the most powerful single-unit air conditioners I've come across. Its main selling point for me, however, is the elegant silver and black styling, the remote control, and of course the blue LCD display panel... much nicer than boring old white.  :-)

Meanwhile, all the news that's fit to 'blog:

Red Hat holes less severe than Windows - following the publication of a SANS report, Red Hat are trumpeting the obvious advantages of their Enterprise Linux server distribution over Server 2003, but they're not actually comparing like-for-like. For example, many of the flaws identified by SANS are in the Internet Explorer subsystem, allowing malicious objects on web pages to attack the client OS in some way - but how many people actually do any web browsing from a corporate server system, especially browsing to the sort of sites that are likely to contain malware? As usual, it's mostly hot air.

Storm over Cisco vulnerability - and talking of security, a generic weakness has been identified in Cisco's IOS router operating system, and the former employee of security company ISS that discovered the problem is now under fire from all sides. Having given Cisco what he considered plenty of time to fix the problems, Michael Lynn announced that he was going to reveal full details at the DefCon "black hat" security conference. As you can imagine, this caused a certain stir, and resulted in a flurry of discussion which ended up in the scheduled talk being withdrawn. However, two hours before the scheduled time, Lynn announced both his resignation from ISS and that he would proceed with his disclosure as planned - which he did indeed proceed to do. This was followed by a restraining order from both Cisco and ISS against the DefCon management, preventing the topic from being discussed further, together with threats of possible legal action from Cisco against all concerned. The cat is well and truly out of the bag now, however, and it's safe to assume that various hacking groups are working hard on an exploit even as I type this. Scary stuff...

More corporate bullying - Virgin have joined the growing number of giant companies who are targeting tiny little companies over some imaginary trademark violation, this time threatening Virgin Threads, a site featuring the work of emerging independent fashion designers. A company that deliberately attempts to imply some connection with an established brand in order to trade off their success is obviously in the wrong, but having looked at the site in question there is clearly no intention of fraudulent behaviour and it seems very unlikely that anyone would make a connection with Richard Branson's extremely distinctive branding. The site owner is fighting back, this time, and the trial is scheduled for December... Good luck to them!

The naming of cats - at Tom's Hardware, news of the alternative names that Microsoft considered for the OS formerly known as Longhorn, based on the domains that they registered quietly in the run-up to the official announcement. As well as the obvious "Windows 7" and variations thereof, other candidates included "Windows Ruby", "Windows Sapphire" and "Windows Emerald". I'm not especially fond of "Vista", I have to admit, but all those gemstones don't really inspire me either. Call me a boring old fuddy-duddy if you will, but actually I think numbers are good for this kind of thing...

US army gets ray gun for Iraq - V-MADS, the "Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial System", is a Humvee AFV with an enormous, square microwave reflector on the roof. Anyone caught in the beam of 95GHz energy it emits experiences "an intense heating sensation" as the microwaves penetrate 1/64" into the skin, but the weapon is alleged not to cause genuine damage unless the victim stays in the beam for as long as 250 seconds. However, there are strong suggestions that eye damage may actually occur long before that, and there are also doubts over the efficacy of the weapon itself - covering the body with thick clothes, or carrying a metallic sheet or even a trash can lid as a shield will significantly reduce the effects, and it's unclear how well the system will work in rainy or foggy oconditions where the beam's energy would be absorbed by water in the atmosphere. And what is a "denial system", anyway - active or otherwise?

Transsexual Shaving Cream - and finally, a reminder of exactly how artificial the vast majority of product marketing really is - underneath a badly-applied label on a can of manly, hunky Gillette Series shaving gel (the same brand I use, as it happens) is another label revealing the product's true colours - girly, effeminate Satin Care gel for women. I mean, one knows intellectually that all these brands and products are pretty much of a muchness, but to see it revealed so blatantly still manages to raise an eyebrow or two.

 

27th July

Family Guy - Ok, look, I know the thing with the baby talking is confusing, so here it is. Brian the dog can understand Stewie perfectly, but although Lois can't hear his words, she can understand his moods; she is his mother, after all. The other family members, and all the other characters in the series, only understand him when, to quote the classic Roger Rabbit scene, it's funny. I hope that's clear now.

More Dell hardware arrived at the office, today, and we now have a generous pile consisting of four heavyweight 6850 quad Xeon servers for the core of the SAP system, nine mid-range 2850s for middleware, app servers and management, six slimline 1850s to act as domain controllers and other oddments, and a PowerVault 136T library with six LTO3 tape drives. There's still the SAN hardware to come, and a few other odds and ends, but that's the bulk of it. They're all cool toys, but with this project there's no margin for error at all and that really takes most of the fun out of it...

We've also had an annoying problem with the venerable Bay ASN router that feeds the leased lines connecting our regional offices, and as we're currently in the process of moving over to DSL and MPLS connectivity one of my PFYs has bravely volunteered to shoot off to Leeds tomorrow to migrate our office there ahead of schedule. Good for him!

Meanwhile, closer to home, a small handful of random links:

Russia offers $100-million lunar tour - space systems manufacturer Energia is proposing two week space excursion, comprising a week aboard the ISS and then an lunar flyby. Assuming that they manage to find any takers, the trips could start in around eighteen months. Thanks to Mike for the link.

A lawsuit waiting to happen - type some text into the "Logogle" Google logo maker and it comes out looking like (do I really have to tell you?) a Google logo. Unfortunately the search giant is extremely protective of its branding, and I predict that they will not be amused. Via Boing Boing.

A thoroughly crooked industry - in spite of the music industry's endless preaching about the evils of file sharing, they themselves are very far from the moral high ground. The latest culprit to be exposed is Sony BMG, who have been fined $10 million for a traditional radio payola scandal.

Dan on scams - hardware guru Dan Rutter has something of a down on technology frauds and useless gadgets, and his latest three-page letter column is devoted to little else. More stupidly pointless audio addons, engine tuning chips, and one of the truly great domain name scammers.

And finally, talking of useless gadgets, how about an in-car pizza oven? Ah, well, I suppose it could be worse - it could be a USB device...

 

26th July

The first two consignments of £308,000 worth of Dell server and SAN hardware arrived today, ready for our upcoming SAP and Siebel implementation. Bizarrely, although we're taking on plenty of new developers and analysts of one kind or another, apparently there's no budget for extra techies to manage the twenty-plus additional servers that are required. Trying to implement SAP on the cheap is no longer the fatal mistake that it used to be, as these days there is a veritable army of expensive consultants waiting to pull a company's ass out of the fire - but it's stilll a significant risk and in the small hours of the morning, when sleep is elusive, I foresee this all going horribly, horribly wrong...  And unfortunately I foresee myself getting blamed when it does.

Meanwhile, it's midweek, so it's time for those random links again:

Everyone Loves Eric Raymond - an online comic strip, with Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond and Linus Torvalds living together as a sort of open source Odd Couple. Bizarre, but funny in a lawn dwarf sort of way...

Sneaky printers - it is alleged that the US government has persuaded some printer manufacturers to embed a digital fingerprint in their output in order to trace counterfeiters. I heard a rumour about this a while ago, and dismissed it as net paranoia - and I'm still not convinced that there's anything to it.

Office weaponry - ideal for the disaffected employee, DIY firepower from components that come readily to hand - this particular design is made from bulldog clips, a laser pointer, and rubber bands, and can shoot a pencil clean through an empty soft drink can. Cool...

More very small things - materials only one atom thick at the University Of Manchester, a tiny tap that controls the flow of individual molecules at UCLA, and in Quebec a lens one fifth as thick as a sheet of paper. None of it is really nanotech, as yet, but you can tell that we're edging closer all the time.

An antidote to saccharin - as a direct response to the annoying and insulting "We Are Not Afraid" site, we now have "I Am Fucking Terrified"... and frankly any Londoner who isn't at least a little afraid - whether it's of being blown up by mad bombers or shot by trigger-happy police - is just plain stupid.

TV recording in bulk - the prototype Promise TV digital video recorder grabs an entire month's worth of broadcast television, on all available channels, and stores it on an array of high-capacity hard disks. This makes a TiVo or my Sky+ box look very trivial, and has a lot of potential.

When geeks are downsized - Joel Schachter, who once worked for Grumman designing components for the Apollo Lunar Modules, is now a building inspector in rural Pennsylvania - and he claims that he's having just as much fun with engineering of a very different kind.

Flying Star Wars models - radio controlled replicas of the Millennium Falcon, X-Wing and TIE fighters, and others, mostly driven by powerful electric ducted fan motors. They're impressive projects, and the various threads have enough details to build your own if you have the (not inconsiderable) talent.

Another Wi-Fi arrest - this time in England, where a 24 year old man was found guilty of "dishonestly obtaining an electronic communications service" and "possessing equipment for fraudulent use of a communications service". He was fined £500 and his laptop was confiscated. Very dubious...

A rash of Ph-words - at the Washington Post, news of yet more annoying IT slang to join the classic "phreaking" and the more recent "phishing" and "pharming" - "phlooding" turns out to be just a fancy term for a DoS attack, but it has lead to SANS seeking suggestions for other equally silly words...

And, finally, it looks as if Microsoft may end up in court over their Vista trademark - no sooner had they announced the name of their upcoming desktop OS (the server OS is still un-named at this stage) than someone decided to sue them. It's a bogus suit though, in my opinion, as I really don't see how anyone could become confused between a PC operating system and a company providing software and services for small businesses in the Seattle area. Just remember, children - if your company can't compete on the open market, maybe you can sue Microsoft instead!

 

23rd July

I've been using the shareware image viewer ACDSee for many years, but it has been becoming more and more frustrating over the last few months and today I finally gave up in exasperation. Back at the dawn of time, when Windows 95 roamed the earth, it was the best on the market, but over the years the company loaded feature upon feature and today it is a huge, bloated, fragile application that attempts to be all things to all men. My experiences with the recent versions have been terrible - it's slow to start up, slow to move from folder to folder, and crashes with annoying regularity, usually leaving its database in a somewhat distressed state when it does. It's not just me, either - there are hundreds of unfavourable reviews at the BetaNews FileForum site saying much the same thing, if often rather less politely!

The company still sells a slightly-reworked flavour of their version 2 code, now dubbed "ACDSee Classic", but but by modern standards it's just a bit primitive, lacking support for some of the more recent file formats and generally looking and feeling a little bit nineties. I've been using it for the last few months, as even though there are some flaws it's still significantly better than V6 or V7, but that's really not saying much and today I finally snapped.

My first thought for a replacement was IrfanView, a freeware utility that dates back as far as ACDSee itself. Although I've always been aware of the name I've never actually used it in anger, and unfortunately ten minutes experimenting was enough to show that that wasn't going to change. It's a perfectly competent and feature-rich utility, but it uses separate windows for the browser and the viewer which is an approach that I find inefficient and needlessly distracting.

Having uninstalled the hapless IrfanView I cast about for a replacement, and a good number of disgruntled ACDSee users on the aforementioned thread on FileForum suggested XnView instead. It's freeware, which is always a bonus, and as a relatively new application it seems to have been heavily influenced by both of the other utilities, taking the best features of each. It can be configured to use a single window for both browsing and viewing, but by default it uses multiple tabs in an MDI window more along the lines of IrfanView. I've tweaked mine into something very reminiscent of the ACDSee interface, however, which is extremely convenient as I don't have to overcome the basic habits of a decade or so, but there is unusual flexibility and another installation of the same software could look and behave completely differently!

In use it's fast, predictable and well behaved, and so far I'm sufficiently impressed to have uninstalled the venerable ACDSee V2.42 that I had dug out of the archives as a stop-gap. There are a few oddities (apparently you can't move or copy a folder from one location to another, for example!) but if you want something to replace a certain utility that is driving you bats, XnView is definitely worth a look - although you should be prepared to spend quite a while tweaking the interface before you find just the behaviour you like.

Meanwhile, elsewhere... The excellent Spy Blog has a comprehensive rebuttal of a disappointingly inaccurate story that appeared in The Sunday Times earlier this month, allegedly describing the methods that MI5 use to track terrorist suspects but actually containing a disgraceful number of technical, legal and procedural errors.

And talking of fear and lies, at the equally excellent PledgeBank a second pledge has started to encourage people to refuse to sign up for the increasingly hyped ID cards. The first pledge for this cause reached its target of 10,000 people and £100,000 for a legal defence fund - this one is aiming for 50,000 people and £1million, both of which are significant numbers.

Microsoft is in the news again today, firstly for another stage in their highly dubious campaign to patent smileys and other emoticons, and secondly because it seems that the recently notorious Anti-Spyware application is actually based on the tired old Visual Basic 6 runtimes - a technology that Microsoft itself has withdrawn support for and strongly discouraged other developers from persisting with. Obviously the app wasn't actually written by Microsoft, but I'm surprised that they haven't recompiled the code since their acquisition of the original author, Giant, at the end of last year.

And on the subject of blasts from the past - some purchasers of the new "Electric 80s" compilation album have been getting a bargain when shop staff mistakenly scanned the large barcode that forms the iconic eighties cover art instead of the real barcode on the back of the packaging. This has caused all sorts of confusion, it seems, and the record company has already rushed a new version of the album out. I won't be buying this one myself, though, as from the look of it I actually have most of the original albums already! I didn't realise I had quite so much electropop until I started looking just now!

On a rather different note, an article at Wired suggests that Google's planned e-payments system could find its niche in the area that market-leader PayPal refuses to exploit - they spurn porn web sites and other adult services as part of the overall squeaky-clean moralistic attitude of parent company eBay, but this represents a huge revenue stream that is just waiting to be lured away from the expensive credit card companies that service the genre at present.

And finally, a purveyor of exotic bed linen that really goes that extra mile... Between The Sheets doesn't just sell the usual satin and silk sheets and duvet covers, but also velvet, latex, PVC and leather. Some of it looks wonderfully luxurious (if a little chilly until it warms up!) but of course the prices are something of a deterrent.

 

22nd July

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she's ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
Call Alice
When she was just small

When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you've just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice
I think she'll know

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen's off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said:
"Feed your Head
Feed your Head!"


 - Grace Slick

You know, that song is forty years old, now! Isn't that remarkable?

Ah, nostalgia...   :-)

Meanwhile, closer to home:

Power under pressure - Tom's Hardware Guide is destruction-testing power supplies, and while some of them are dying in various horrible ways there are also some real star performers - PCP&C's monster Turbo-Cool 850 SSI managed to survive an astounding 1060 Watts. On a related note, an interesting (but complex) thread at [H]ard/OCP gives further guidance on choosing a PSU with the right capacity for your system.

From the "How Fings Werk" department - one of the most annoying and flawed descriptions of the components of a computer that I've come across in ages. I really hope it's supposed to be a joke.

Microsoft back in court again - and this time they're the plaintiff, suing Google and a former MS executive who has defected to the company to head their new China R&D center. Microsoft's official statement is short and sweet, but essentially they're seeking damages and an injunction upholding various non-disclosure clauses from his contract.

And talking of Microsoft, the marketing name for Longhorn has been announced, and it turns out to be the rather uninspiring "Windows Vista". The initial beta schedule has been revealed, too - Beta 1 will be released on August 3rd, and Beta 2 is scheduled for sometime early in 2006.

HD warranties creeping back up - Western Digital have finally joined Maxtor and Seagate in extending their warranty periods to three years for desktop and laptop models and five years for enterprise disks. All the manufacturers cut the warranty length drastically a few years ago, but this caused a crisis of consumer confidence when people assumed (correctly) that there was a risk of the designed lifespan being reduced to match.

Top 10 Internet fads - CNet has published a list of the popular online fads of the last few years, including the Hampsterdance, All Your Base, Apple's "Switch" ads, Jib-Jab and the Dancing Baby... but Caesar at Ars.Technica disagrees with most of their choices.

The RIAA are lying bastards - the number of legal music downloads has tripled so far this year, and so the music industry enforcers are claming a victory for their bullying tactics. However, they make no mention of the massive popularity of the iPod, for example (when the European iTunes site opened it sold 800,000 tracks in the first week alone), or the huge growth in the number of online music vendors - three times as many (where have I heard that figure before?) as there were this time last year.

Broadband over vapour - erstwhile ISP Be has announced rough pricing for their much-publicised 24MBit unbundled broadband service. Somewhere between £25 and £30 per month will buy you an uncapped ADSL2+ pipe with a free Thompson wireless router thrown in for good measure. Am I alone in suspecting that this service will never materialise in anything close to the form advertised? Just because it worked in Sweden does NOT mean it will work in the UK... Some of our local loop telephone cabling is made of aluminium, for Bob's sake!

And, finally, for those who really want to spread their weblog far and wide - Florida company MindComet is offering to transmit RSS blog feeds into space in order to attract the attention of aliens. I've reading Niven and Pournelle's Footfall, right now, and somehow I don't think I'll be singing up, myself...

 

21st July

I am very good at paying too much for DSL. In fact, I do it better than anyone else I know.

My first DSL provider was the ISP formerly known as Cix, now acquired by GXN and trading under the Pipex banner. They were one of the very first companies to offer DSL, after British Telecom themselves, and their pricing structure reflected this - it started at the merely outrageous, and went up from there. I'm not quite sure why I stuck with them as long as I did, but inertia played a big part - for the last year or so I was constantly on the point of moving house, and there didn't see much point in changing providers until the move was finalised.

Once I finally did move, last autumn, I chose Zen Internet because of their consistently excellent scores in the ADSLguide league tables and their widespread reputation for good customer support - something that seemed extremely attractive after the years in the wasteland that was Cix/Nextra/Telenor/GXN/Pipex/whatever. (Just working out who one was talking to from one week to the next was enough of a problem in itself!) At the time I signed up Zen were clearly one of the more expensive providers, but I was aware that the competition was nipping at its ankles and I didn't expect that to last forever.

Since then, however, things in the UK DSL market have moved very quickly indeed. To begin with, BT has reduced the wholesale cost of their lines to the ISPs on a number of occasions, and the ISPs themselves have been falling over each other to pass the cost cuts on to the end users - to the point where most providers don't even bother with the old entry level 512Kbit lines at all, instead offering 2Mbit across the board, with varying levels of download capping imposed to differentiate the higher cost options. Existing users on slower connections have generally been upgraded for free, and for light users such as my friend Avedon the last few months have seen her PlusNet line boosted from 512Kbit to a generous 2Mbit with no real drawbacks at all!

On the whole, Zen have flaunted this trend. They still offer pipes as low as 256Kbit, and although in May they announced small cuts for their home DSL packages, the "Office" packages with the 20:1 contention ratio have stayed firmly at the cost of an arm and a leg. This general approach is a little unexpected, perhaps, but they have worked very hard to differentiate themselves from the great unwashed mass of the other ISPs as a "business class" provider and presumably they consider this a valid justification for the high charges.

What is really amazing, however, is the attitude of the users, which has made me start to suspect some subtle brainwashing technique being delivered subliminally along with the TCP packets. I know that sounds far-fetched but it's really the only explanation, as it is clear from the forums on Zen's own support site, and the much busier Zen forum at ADSLguide, that Zen's customers don't actually want to pay less for their services. In fact, some of them would even like to pay more!

I dip in and out of both forums every week or two, just to keep in touch, and pretty much every time I visit there is a post from somebody (often a newcomer to the forums) asking whether Zen have plans to match the other ISPs cutting their prices - even a little. This brings a storm of outrage from the forum regulars, who immediately leap to Zen's defence and stomp the hapless complainer into the ground: If he doesn't like Zen, why doesn't he just leave? Why did he sign up in the first place? Isn't he happy paying extra given the service he gets? How dare he even raise the subject in the first place? By this time the original poster has probably left in frustration, recognising a lost cause, but this doesn't stop the thread running on for dozens of even hundreds of posts - many of which are, if not directly abusive, at least sarcastic or acerbic to the point of rudeness.

Now, Zen must absolutely love this - they needn't defend their high pricing themselves, but merely have to announce that there will be no changes and leave all the justification to their loyal users. They should be warned, however - long experience of online communities has shown that ardent fans such as these will put up with a great deal from the object of their worship, defending it long past any common sense... but when they have finally been pushed beyond endurance they turn into the most bitter of enemies. I'm mindful of my problems with Area 51 Airsoft back in 2004, where after a year of being viciously slammed on forums worldwide for daring to criticise the company, I was amazed to find myself being thrust to the vanguard of what can only be described as the digital version of a lynch mob. It happens.

So I have two pieces of advice for Zen. Firstly, drop your prices - just a little. It won't harm your standing in the market as a "professional ISP" one little bit, and may even tempt a few more people to sign up. You're losing both existing and potential customers to Demon, themselves far from a cheap provider, who are viewed as equally business-orientated (they are UK's first ISP, after all, and are backed by telco THUS) but rather more competitive right across the board.

Secondly, and possibly more important... Don't leave the chore of answering forum complaints about your pricing policy to third parties. Partly because it makes it look as if you don't really care, and partly because in the absence of a clear official statement the fan club turns into a pack of rabid dogs, savaging people who are supposed to be paying you money - and that can't be productive in the long term.

 

20th July

I've managed to spend around £300,000 on Dell server and SAN hardware, this week, and all that effort has left me too worn down to do more than recycle a handful of random news links...

SAP seeks executive - all that new hardware is destined for our upcoming SAP installation, so where better to start than news that the software company is seeking a very particular type of director, with at least ten years experience in an "irrelevant" industry and no urge to travel. I wish them luck!

Death to The Frog - if you find yourself gritting your teeth or covering your ears when you see the ubiquitous adverts for Jamster's "Crazy Frog" ring tones, don't miss this opportunity to wield a baseball bat where it will do the most good. Very satisfying indeed...

Home delivery damages e-commerce - the only remaining difficulties with shopping online involve the delivery process itself, according to a new group that is trying to come up with recommendations and solutions to cure some of the problems. I have to say that my own experiences mostly bear this out.

College Sex Advice - I'm still trying to decide whether this is a serious advice page or an elaborate joke, as it seems to be about equal parts of each. Take a look, and see what you think. Thanks to Ros (who seems to think it's the latter) for the link.

Fatalities rise in speed camera hotspots - recent figures published by Motorcycle News magazine suggest that fatal road accidents are more common in areas where many speed cameras have been deployed, threatening the credibility of the government's desperate rebranding as "safety cameras".

Tiny little robots - it may be smaller than most of the competition, at only around ten inches tall, but this Swedish robot prototype has an impressive 22 degrees of freedom, stereoscopic vision, speech, and a neural network supporting face recognition and tracking. Not too shabby!

Greasemonkey drops its trousers - a nasty flaw has emerged in the popular Firefox DHTML browser extension, such that access can be gained to any file on the client's hard disk, and unusually, this applies to either the PC or Mac platform. A fix is expected in another few days.

Dark Blade by G69T - on the Bit-Tech forums, a pair of extremely impressive hand-built cube cases. It's amazing what access to a few pounds of aluminium alloy and a few hundred thousand pounds worth of computerised lathes and milling machines can produce. Beautiful work.

IT pros need a cuddle - a new study from SkillSoft suggests that more than half of IT staff don't feel valued by their employer, but that actually they are often held in high regard by colleagues. The Register suggests that glum techies need a cuddle, though, and I can't argue with that.

Longhorn faster than XP - the first beta of the long-anticipated OS is drawing near, and Microsoft is starting to drop tantalising hints. Among the improvements claimed are 15% faster application launching, 50% faster system startup, and 50% fewer reboots required after updating. Gosh!

Oracle as slow as a slug - the database manufacturer is being roundly criticised for not having patched a series of security vulnerabilities almost two years after they were first warned about them, and in desperation the company that discovered the problems has finally made the full details public.

Paying for WinZip? - together with the original PKZip that inspired it, archiving utility WinZip is probably the most pirated shareware application of all time. That could be set to change, however, as the struggling manufacturer is now receiving funding and advice from the notorious Vector Capital.

Google the Moon - to celebrate today's anniversary of the first manned moon landing, Google Maps is showcasing an annotated map of the area of the six landing sites. If you zoom in all the way - well, try it and see. It's funny the first time, but really I'd rather have an extra level of detail.

Arch spammer surrenders his crown - self-styled spam king Scott Richter has changed his ways, earning his removal from the Spamhaus blacklist after six months of sending only confirmed opt-in messages. Stiff legal action by New York state and Microsoft can be thanked for this, it seems.

UK regulator toothless against spam - the fight against spam in England is not going so well, however, as the Office of the Information Commissioner has received around 600 spam complaints in the past 12 months but it has taken no legal action in part because its powers are inadequate.

Pakistani geek girl - at the tender age of 9 Arfa Karim Randhawa became the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional, although there may be competition from India with claims of at least one 8 year old MCP - and given the intense rivalry between the two countries one wonders what will come next!

Indian porn drive makes audience sit up and notice - New Delhi police who raided an illegal sex cinema paraded the customers out into the street and forced them to do sit-ups before making them vow never to watch pornography again. You know, I really don't think that will help...

And finally, Penny Arcade on GTA Hot Coffee - the controversy over the semi-secret sex scenes in GTA San Andreas receives the PA treatment, but as usual Tycho has words of wisdom to back up the strip. There's certainly something wrong with the ratings system when the only difference between the "Mature" and "Adult" categories is the length of the content in question!

 

19th July

Regular readers of Epicycle will know that I've been having difficulty finding a suitable power supply to replace the noisy PCP&C unit in the new water cooled chassis, as finding a quiet and visually appealing EPS12V supply is hard enough, without also needing one rated at 600W or more!

I arrived at this alarmingly high figure partly from the perceived wisdom of the various modding forums, and partly from a selection of online power usage calculators - when one takes into account the dual Xeon CPUs, the four SATA hard disks, two DVD drives and a VXA tape drive, the water cooling hardware, and all the various lights, fans, gizmos and gadgets... well, one of the online calculators I tried simply couldn't display that high!

However, over the last few weeks I've noticed a gradual emergence of obviously knowledgeable techies suggesting that most people drastically over-estimate even the peak power requirements of their system, let alone the power used under regular working load, and although I discounted this to begin with (I suspect myself of secretly wanting an 800W PSU!) the seeds of doubt started to grow. I wasn't alone in being dubious, as for obvious reasons the manufacturers have encouraged us all to think that we need to upgrade to an even bigger, more exotic power supply ever time we add a new stick of memory, but the simple advice to doubters on the forums has been to buy a plug-in power meter and see for yourself!

The "Kill A Watt" meter that is most often recommended isn't available in a 240V version for use in England, but I tracked down an equivalent (it may even be made by the same anonymous Chinese factory, given the remarkable similarity in appearance) at old-faithful electronics supplier Maplin, for an extremely reasonable £12.49.

Having seen the theory espoused so frequently, of late, I was not dreadfully surprised when I plugged it in and discovered that even after trying quite hard I couldn't get the reported power consumption to go much above 330W. That's right - the whole thing is drawing rather less than 1½ Amps, which is not really very much at all! Even allowing for gross inaccuracy on the part of the power meter, and equally gross lies on the part of the manufacturers, I don't need anything like the 600W-plus hardware I've been looking at so far. Suddenly there are a lot more options to pore over, and because in the 500W region of the market a greater proportion of the units on offer are designed for home enthusiasts rather than servers, they tend to be both elegant and quiet instead of being massive grey bricks with 40dB fans.

Meanwhile...

At Bit-Tech, a useful summary of all the various techniques for keeping the cables inside a PC neat and tidy - useful tips, but in my opinion braided sleeving is really the only way to go...

An extremely clever keyboard - each keycap is a tiny OLED colour display, allowing the keyboard to be completely customised for particular users, or applications, or even just changing moods. It's still just a prototype, but I have the feeling that the idea is going to be huge.   [Update: More pictures here]

Holding back the waves - the new Harry Potter novel has already been pirated extensively, it seems - firstly by a collaborative scanning project, coordinated via IRC, that has resulted in a high-quality e-book being made available via various underground servers; and secondly as what is apparently a very well-produced audiobook, available via equally dubious channels. Pundits suggest that this wouldn't have happened (or, at least not happened so amazingly fast) if Rowling has not been so concerned about piracy that she refused to allow official e-book or audiobook versions of the novel...

 

18th July

There is something of a minor scandal brewing, at present, over Microsoft's definition of spyware. The beta of their AntiSpyware product has been generally fairly well received, and I've been using it myself to supplement Lavasoft's venerable Ad-Aware and relative newcomer Spybot Search & Destroy.

Recently, however, they have chosen to change the classification of software from Claria, who in their original guise as "Gator" virtually invented the entire adware industry (their so-called "Precision Time & Date Manager" is still something of a bane to gullible users), along with equivalent malware from 180Solutions, WhenU, New.net, eZula TopText, and Webhancer - all names that make me groan out loud when I see them in the list of installed programs on a home PC on which I'm working. Although earlier versions of AntiSpyware flagged these applications to be removed or quarantined, the recent releases now recommend that they are just ignored - really not a safe option considering the damage they can do, especially en masse!

It's not clear exactly why they have done this - initially there was some shrill speculation that they were intending to acquire Claria, but this doesn't seem to have amounted to anything and was in any case extremely dubious. Claria's business model consists of tricking people into installing software that they don't actually want and then using that software to deliver a flood of pop-up adverts, and it's hard to see what interest any of the company's assets could be to a company like Microsoft - and given that in any case they wouldn't have intended to acquire all the other companies that have been reclassified, I think that idea can safely be discounted.

Actually, it seems more likely that this is a political decision, stemming from Microsoft's involvement in the rather bizarre Anti-Spyware Coalition, a group that also includes AOL, Computer Associates, Lavasoft, McAfee, Symantec, EarthLink and Hewlett-Packard. These companies are normally on the side of the consumer when it comes to malicious software and, indeed, both Microsoft and AOL have launched very successful lawsuits against adware and spyware manufacturers. However, the Anti-Spyware Coalition was apparently formed to publish a standard definition of spyware that seems merely to insulate companies such as Claria from any accusations of misbehaviour, giving them an official seal of legitimacy that is absolutely the last thing that they should have. This is NOT a good thing, and it's disappointing to see such big names involved in what is basically a whitewash.

Microsoft's response to the complaints (what they describe as having "received some questions" must surely have been considerably more than that!) is brief, obscure and unhelpful. However, whatever the reason for their decision, it seems rather unlikely that they will change their mind (Microsoft do not make a habit of changing their mind, it has to be said) and if this policy of pandering to malware authors does continue it casts serious doubts over the value of their AntiSpyware app.

Meanwhile, Dan is pontificating on The Future - he favours Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display (SEDs) and holographic micro-projectors for the next generation display technologies, and software-defined radio (not something I'd heard of, before!) for all-purpose broadband wireless communications. Fascinating stuff.

 

17th July

My mother sent me a newspaper clipping a few days ago, and although it actually dates from April it didn't get much news coverage at the time and still seems very relevant given the current Home Office proposals to ban everything down to and including water pistols.

Following an appeal against a conviction for carrying a "bladed instrument" under the Criminal Justice Act, the High Court has ruled that even the humble butter knife can be an offensive weapon. The defence counsel argued that the knife in question had no handle, no edge and no point, and so could hardly fall foul of a law intended to cover dangerous weapons.

The justices disagreed, however, stating "I would accept that a sharp or pointed blade was the paradigm case - however the words of the statute are unqualified and refer to any article that has a blade".

To quote Charles Dickens - "If the law says that, the law is an idiot".

The deadly butter knife. Beware...

 

Meanwhile, elsewhere, a rather appealing toy launched recently, and is available in UK shops now. Designed by the same company that made the popular RoboSapien robot toy, the new Roboraptor may be a little late to cash in on the dinosaur craze but is impressive all the same - it stalks, walks and runs; bristles with contact, sonic, optical and infra-red sensors; has three different "moods" which influence its response to external stimuli; and even bites. I do kinda want one...

Incidentally, a new version of RoboSapien itself is about to be launched, and it looks equally impressive - it can lie down and stand up again, distinguish between different colours and sounds, interface with and control the Roboraptor and Robopet toys, pick up and carry objects the size and weight of a beer can (I wonder what use that could be...?) and even throw lighter objects a distance of up to ten feet! This is nothing compared with the third version, however, due to launch sometime around 2007. For a start, it will be around three feet tall, which opens up a whole new realm of possible activities thanks to the increases in strength and leverage that size will bring, and is expected to be completely controlled by spoken instructions. Cool, indeed!

Further afield...

Dell shuts down customer service forum - the PC manufacturer has joined the growing list of companies who have realised that the mass of complaints on their support forums are making them look bad, and so, just like most of the others, have decided to shut down the forum rather than fixing the problems highlighted there. Shame...

Nuclear pulse propulsion - apropos of nothing much, I just happened to be in Wikipedia the other day (somewhat to my surprise, it is growing into a seriously significant and useful resource) and came across their entry on atomic spaceships. I'm still reading George Dyson's excellent account of Project Orion, but the Wikipedia entry discussed the various other approaches to the problem and is extremely informative.

Things that go bang in the night - and talking of nuclear bombs, the 60th anniversary of the "Trinity" atomic bomb test was yesterday, and the Simnuke organisation marked the occasion by setting off a sophisticated biodiesel incendiary device carefully designed to look like the classic mushroom cloud. It used six large fans to produce a column of flame hundreds of feet high, which much have been extremely impressive.     [Update: Photos here]

Hackers 0wn Mozilla site - last weekend a site run by the Mozilla foundation and used to promote the Firefox web browser was compromised and briefly used as a vehicle to distribute spam email. Given that the open source evangelists are constantly bleating about how their development model makes security vulnerabilities a thing of the past, they ought to be mortally embarrassed that the web sites of the major systems companies are apparently so prone to break-ins...

Oracle pricing a comedy of fractions - unlike most other OS and application manufacturers, who license their software per physical CPU chip, Oracle have been determined to charge per core or per execution engine, effectively doubling the costs for the recent dual-core CPUs in comparison to their competition. They seem to have relented just a little now, but the formula used for calculating the number of licenses required for a particular system is thoroughly Byzantine and bizarre.

 

16th July

The old VCR on the television in my bedroom made a funny noise and refused to eject a tape, today, and when I opened it up to coax it along it actually exploded, with springs and cogs and little rollers flying everywhere. It looks as if some kind of creeping plastic fatigue had spread through the mechanics, and once one joint let go the rest followed in short order. Once I'd collected my eyebrows from the ceiling I started looking for a replacement, and discovered (with no great surprise) that VCRs are actually something of a dying breed, with the only ones worth spending any money on being the high-end SVHS units that would be thoroughly wasted on the occasional use I'd put one to.

Some further browsing showed that one could obtain a combination TV / DVD / VCR for only a little more money, and although I've been fairly disparaging about those in the past a check at my favourite AV reviews site, What Video, suggested that these days some of them are really rather good. After that it didn't take much effort to narrow the relatively slim choice down to the Toshiba VTW2187, readily available from most of the high street chains.

Unlike my old television, however, the Toshibas don't come with a stand, and I'm currently vacillating wildly between a wall bracket and a traditional cantilever stand. Conrad (a German company newly entered into the UK market and competing head-to-head with old-timers Maplin and CPC) has a good range of the former, and as I type this I'm veering towards one of their offerings. There's a lot to be said for something quick and simple (and which can't drop your new hardware onto the floor if it feels bloody-minded) however, and I'm still torn. Isn't it typical of a geek to spend more time choosing a mounting bracket than the television itself...

Meanwhile... I've been telling friends for several years that the animated SF comedy series Futurama is not just another mindless cartoon, but instead something rather more complex, classier and better thought out, and the frame above rather illustrates my point.

The series is absolutely stuffed with science and science fiction in-jokes, and any SF fan will have no difficulty in recognising the last two options on the remote control wielded by the evil owner of Mom's Friendly Robot Company in the "Mother's Day" episode - a direct allusion to Damon Knight's classic short story "To Serve Man", winner of the 1951 Retro Hugo Award (the "Retros" are not something I'd heard of until today!) but perhaps more famous as an episode of The Twilight Zone.

The frame is only on the screen for a tiny fraction of a second (I had to work quite hard to freeze it to be captured) and couldn't possibly be read by anyone who wasn't actually looking for it - it's a fine example of the attention to geeky detail lavished on the series by the writers and creators, a surprising number of whom have degrees in maths and the hard sciences.

Futurama is also the only cartoon I've seen with a single coherent plot line running through all four seasons, and moreover it's a relatively sophisticated plot line at that - Fry, the hapless hero, travels forwards and backwards through time in order to (largely unwittingly) save the universe, becoming his own grandfather along the way (rather evocative of Robert Heinlein's classic story "All You Zombies") and eventually winning the heart of Leela, the girl of his dreams. Although the majority of the episodes stand alone to one degree or another, once you're familiar with the series you can see how they build towards the unusually moving climax. Randomly chosen highlights include marvellous pastiches on the movies Fantastic Voyage, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and Titanic, any number of Star Trek references, a handful of wonderful songs, and guest appearances from Beck, The Beastie Boys, The Harlem Globetrotters and the head of Richard Nixon.

The series is being repeated extensively on the UK satellite channels at present, but if you're a fan it's well worth splashing out on the DVDs. They're available on Amazon for the usual arm and a leg, but I found mine on eBay for only a handful of fingers.

Highly recommended.

 

14th July

My Yat-Kha CDs arrived today, which took me rather by surprise as I hadn't realised that their distribution company is based in London and was expecting a much longer wait while they shipped from somewhere foreign! I'm listening to the brand new Re-Covers disc right now, and it's everything I expected from the wonderfully bizarre Joy Division track that was my introduction to the album. Definitely recommended - if you have the same peculiar and eclectic tastes that I do, along with a willingness to suspend disbelief. I haven't heard anything like it since Hayseed Dixie's bluegrass covers of AC/DC.

Meanwhile, a few quick news links:

MP3's tenth birthday - exactly ten years ago today the German Fraunhofer Institute announced that it was recommending the extension "MP3" for files holding audio data encoded using the MPEG standard's Audio Layer 3 specification, although the specification itself is actually a few years older. Who would have expected, back then, that so much fuss from the RIAA and its lawsuits would follow...

Data retention rears its ugly head - although the groundwork for compulsory data retention was laid by the controversial RIP Act several years ago, the ISPs and telcos that would have been affected made such a fuss about how expensive and impractical the proposition was that the government back-pedalled somewhat. Following the terrorist bombings of the last few years, however, the UK government is fighting hard to persuade the European Union to introduce similar laws.

Lego Turing Machine - it incorporates the RCX microcontroller to store the transition table, so it's not a purely mechanical TM in the classic style, but it's clear that the electronics are merely there to make the machine a little more practical and manageable, and that really doesn't detract from the genius of the design. What a wonderful piece of work!

Mario on physics - I'm speechless at how clever, witty and innovative this is... 1 player, 2 player, or Physics Tutorial. And while I think of it, I spotted another wonderful animated thing at Boing Boing, if of rather a different nature - it's a sort of Rube Goldberg musical instrument, and although it's not immediately easy to get anything more than bings and bongs out of it, it certainly bears some experimentation.

Internet Archive sued - this week's entry in the Butt-Headed Lawsuit contest is Healthcare Advocates, a Philadelphia firm that mediates in health insurance disputes. Having lost a lawsuit they brought against a similarly-named competitor when evidence from the Wayback Machine was used to prove trademark infringement, they have decided to sue the Internet Archive on the grounds that their preservation of the old web pages in question is illegal. This is a spurious claim, I suspect, but the verdict will set an important precedent anyway.

Dead pixel camouflage - a new technique developed by projection TV industry founder Barco allows dead and stuck pixels in LCD, OLED and plasma displays to be masked by adjusting the properties of their neighbours during the final stages of the manufacturing process. This could dramatically increase the currently rather disappointing production yield pf these technologies, especially in the  larger screens, which is bound to be beneficial for the cost to the consumer.

And finally, today's best spam subject line, advertising (as usual) a porn site: "A woman and peanut butter". Yummy, a snack afterwards!

 

13th July

I'm still trying to find the right power supply to replace my rather noisy PC Power & Cooling unit, and today my travels took me to this review of Antec's new Phantom 500 at Dan's Data. It's certainly very elegant, and Dan rates it highly, but even at 500W it probably isn't quite beefy enough for my system - this useful calculator suggests I need at least 550W, and that doesn't take the Koolance hardware into account! One plausible candidate is the Thermaltake Pure Power 680W, but in spite of claming to be EPS12V compliant it seems to be lacking the 8 pin "processor power" connector that is required by Intel's SSI specification. Supermicro, the manufacture of my dual Xeon X5DAL-TG2 motherboard, promises dire events up to and including a rain of frogs if you attempt to run the board without this additional 12v feed, and I'm certainly not prepared to take any chances. I've mailed Thermaltake to ask how their claim of EPS12V compliance can possibly be true given that they're missing one of the two main characteristics of the standard, but I really don't expect I'll hear anything useful back from them.

Right now, this leaves me looking at the OCZ PowerStream 600, which is technically adequate but possessed of a lurid green illuminated fan that would not match with the aesthetics of my case. I could probably perform an emergency fanectomy and replace it with something more blue, but the idea of hacking around a brand new $300 power supply, with all the associated flaunting of warranties that involves, is not terribly appealing. The search continues...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Acrobat Reader security risk - a vulnerability has been discovered in Adobe's widespread reader software, and an update has already been released - but you have to spend quite a while poking around their web site before you'll find the official announcement.

Students spurn Napster (again) - The University of Rochester is one of the organisations that forces Napster's subscription service on the student body on the highly spurious grounds that as they're bound to steal music anyway the company is only collecting its dues. Once again, however, the students have voted with their feet and turned to competitors iTunes and MusicMatch instead, with not a single student admitting to have downloaded music from Napster itself during the last semester.

Ambulance-chasing bloggers - The Register fulminates on the tendency for disasters such as the recent London bombings to generate first a disguise for a new virus, and then a wave of self-congratulatory blogging about how wonderful, how enabling, the Internet is for allowing communication in times of crisis. The Reg is right, too - both suck approximately equally.

An Extended History Of The BBS - as mentioned in Epicycle passim, Tom's Hardware reviews the history of the Bulletin Board Systems that predated the Internet and the WWW. The three DVDs contain 40 minute segments on such diverse topics as ASCII art, the hacker culture, BBS operators and developers, and a lot more besides. It's available from the maker's own site or, at a slightly higher price, from Amazon US.

Neither beautiful or true - Dylan Sisson is an artist at computer animation company Pixar, and in his spare time he draws and paints "wall-eyed curiosities with big teeth". They're almost the polar opposite of cute, and in fact some of the are just plain ugly, but somehow they're really rather appealing in spite of that.

Das virtuelle computermuseum - another online exhibit of classic computers, focussing mainly on systems from my salad days in the late seventies and early eighties and including some of the less common hardware that is usually (and perhaps best) forgotten - the Epson HX-20 that was advertised as being useable while sat in the bath, the doomed MSX systems from Sony, Philips and Yamaha, the "Trash-80" series from Radio Shack, and a lot more. The site is a touch German (well, Ok, actually it's completely German) but the pictures bring back fond memories anyhow.

The Coming Boom - Wired discusses the next big thing in recreational pharmacology, the female equivalent of the Viagra, Cialis and Levitra drugs that boost sexual response in men. Some progress has already been made using relatively primitive techniques such as testosterone patches, but it seems that the biochemistry of the female is far more subtle and sophisticated than for us coarse, hairy men and researchers are turning to some seriously complicated analytical hardware.

Learning to tell the time - another of those incomprehensible watches that only hardened software geeks can operate - although even my friend Mike, a programming guru if ever I saw one, has declined my suggestion of various binary and hexadecimal offerings in the past. This one has an equally incomprehensible name, too - "C Version by Twelve 5-9". Don't you just love the Japanese.

Arrested for stealing Wi-Fi - via Boing Boing, the news that a Florida man has been arrested for connecting his laptop to an unprotected home wireless network while sitting outside the house in his car. He's been charged with unauthorized access to a computer network, which is a third-degree felony, and although the "crime" seems harmless enough and many would blame the network's owner for not securing it, I suspect the courts may consider it equivalent to stealing from a house where the front door had been left unlocked...

And, finally, still in court - Google Inc has been awarded the rights to the domain names googkle.com, ghoogle.com, gfoogle.com and gooigle.com, which were being operated by a Russian "businessman" who used the misspelled URLs to redirect hapless users to sites that attempt to download viruses, Trojans and spyware to their computers. I thoroughly approve of this, as it's a sneaky low-down trick that even the most technically aware can fall victim too. I'm not too scared of actual malware, but Javascript that opens approximately two hundred advertising windows can certainly be a real pain in the neck...

 

11th July

I moved house at least eight months ago, now, but some of the annoying details are still hanging on and today I've been making a real push to get them out of the way. The problems all relate to changing my address with the myriad of companies, organisations and government departments that want to know where I live (and doubtless what I did last summer, too), and in a couple of cases the difficulties seem almost insurmountable.

Although my various credit card issuers were all perfectly happy to accept a change of address notification in the form of a letter, as were pretty much all the other companies with whom I have accounts of one form or another, my bank (possibly the least important in terms of the actual sums of money involved!) has been rather more stubborn and now I seem to have got myself into something of a logical loop.

One of the most popular forms of identification in the UK at present is the photocard driving license, which has gradually been replacing the old paper licenses as addresses and personal details change over time. However, the last time I moved house the photocards were still optional, and (for much the same reason as I now oppose the planned UK biometric ID card) I chose to stay with the old non-photo style. With hindsight, this was not a sensible decision, but I didn't realise back then that the abject terror of large-scale money laundering that our financial organisations are now apparently suffering from would provoke the changes in both law and policy that have rendered proving one's ID so difficult a few years later.

The other major form of ID is a UK passport, and as it happens I don't have one of those, either - not through any great political conviction, this time, but simply because I hardly ever go abroad! I have a succession of thoroughly-expired short term "visitor's" passports, but I suspect that any attempts to use those to prove identity would be doomed to failure.

Changing my address with my bank is difficult without either a passport or photo driving license, but armed with sufficient weight of utility bills, credit card statements, tax notifications, payslips etc etc, today I finally managed to convince them that I was actually me, and not an international terrorist trying to assume control of my overdraft as the first step in some fiendish plan to subvert the western economy by spending money I don't have on cool but extravagant computer hardware. God knows, I can manage that well enough on my own, without needing anyone else to help out!

In order to apply for an updated driving license however, whether in person at a post office or via mail, I really need a passport. And this is where the fun starts, because in order to apply for a passport (and I'm very tempted to do that, actually, before all the biometric nonsense arrives) the best means of identification is  - you guessed it - a driving license. Both the The Passport Office and the DVLA make some reference to using a birth certificate instead, but both state that those are not a very solid form of ID (they're probably right, I have to admit) and so will need additional identification as well - which takes me right back to step one. I'm not sure how I'm going to resolve this, except by presenting such a vast mass of other forms of ID that they're finally forced to admit that even if I'm not Dominic Thomas, I must have killed him and taken his place so comprehensively that it actually doesn't matter!

Ho hum...

Meanwhile... I've been a fan of Tuvan throat singing for years, coming to it the traditional way that geeks do via an interest in the life and times of Richard Feynman, so when I saw a reference on Boing Boing to an unusual example of the genre I was quick to follow it up. The singer is Albert Kuvezin, one of the first Tuvan musicians to leave the steppes and capitalise on the Western thirst for world music, and the song is the old Joy Division track "Love Will Tear Us Apart" - performed in in the traditional Kargyraa overtone style, accompanied on equally traditional instruments by his band Yat-Kha.

By any normal standards this is a depraved and perverted musical fusion, so of course it appeals to me greatly, and when I discovered that the rest of the album contains covers of Motorhead, Kraftwerk, and Captain Beefheart, to name but a few, I was already reaching for my credit card. While I was at it I picked up copies of the Yenisei-Punk and tuva.rock CDs, both containing rather more traditional songs, to replace the bits and bobs acquired over the years in MP3 format. It's all good stuff.

 

10th July

No regular entry today, as I've been working to finish the project pages for Infinity4. I stuck with the next name in the series, in the end, thanks to my abject failure to design a satisfactory logo based around the idea of a square root. Maybe next time...

The first phase of the build is complete, now. I still need to install my MoJoMeters into the vacant top bay, and fix a couple of glitches with the floppy drive and internal tape drive, but I've achieved everything that I planned in the original design. I may still replace the side panels with either bigger windows, or multiple windows, or even mesh to match the front bezel, but the factory-fitted option has grown on me and I'm in no hurry at this stage.

Enjoy! I know I am.   :-)

 

9th July

Adventures in tablet land continue, and the thing is really growing on me. Experiences are somewhat mixed after the first flush of enthusiasm has worn off, but in spite of a few quirks and quibbles (many of which disappeared after I learned how to configure the particular utility or subsystem to match my preferences) the overall verdict is still strongly favourable.

The fingerprint recognition is actually far more fussy that my initial foray last night suggested, as it seems extremely sensitive to the placement, angle, and motion of the digit in question - having trained it while slouched on the settee, any attempt to login while standing or sitting fails completely, and apparently it will only recognise me when I'm horizontal! It looks as if I'm going to have to spend a while practicing rolling my fingertip across the sensor in just the right way before I can reliably use it for authentication.

Another frustration is that Windows Media Connect, the service that streams and synchronises media files from a desktop PC to a tablet, will not install on Server 2003 - and when running on Windows XP, it won't share files on a drive mapped to a server elsewhere. This makes the technology a bit of a dead duck in my case, and as Microsoft's own figures suggest that 30% of their Small Business Server suite are actually sold to home users it seems to be a problem that needs addressing. Apparently the decision to omit support for the server OS was taken because of the security implications of the UPnP protocols that drive the system, and won't be addressed until the semi-mythical Longhorn release - but the lack of support for mapped drives has no such justification and seems just plain silly.

Configuring yet another PC started me thinking, though, and I suddenly realised how many computers I have at home these days: my desktop PC, the Dell Latitude laptop, the new tablet, the old dual Pentium II that acts as domain controller and fileserver, the Compaq SFF PC that runs the Smoothwall firewall, the Cobalt RaQ web server, and my Tungsten T3 PDA. That comes to four Windows systems, two Linux systems (oh, the shame of it!) and a Palm, which is bad enough in itself - but I could probably build another two or three fairly respectable computers out of my stock of spares! I've worked for companies (although not for a long time, admittedly) that owned fewer computers that that. I'm hanging my head in shame...

 

8th July

I've been using computers of one type or another since around 1977, if my memory can accurately stretch back that far, and these days it takes something quite impressive make me exclaim "cool" out loud - and it takes something even more impressive to make me say "kewl", which was the sound I emitted when my new Motion Computing LE1600 tablet PC connected itself to my wireless LAN and began downloading from Windows Update. Involuntarily lapses into l33tspeak aside, it really is an extremely nifty little gadget.

I always read manuals before trying to set up new systems at the office, but with my own hardware I allow myself the luxury of diving right in. The learning curve for a first foray into Windows XP Tablet Edition is quite steep, of course, but after some initial puzzling over how exactly to press CTRL-ALT-DEL on a device with no keyboard, some random button pushing revealed that the little round button in the top left of the tablet has the same effect. Having then logged in, I could enable the fingerprint reader (the little strip just below the aforementioned button) for biometric authentication and after that everything has progressed smoothly. I taught it my voice, I taught it my handwriting, and I taught it my fingerprints - in fact, it probably knows more about me now than I do about myself!

With 1.5Gb of RAM I've disabled the pagefile, and thanks to a 1.5GHz Pentium M/Centrino CPU everything seems to fly along very speedily direct from memory. The 12.1" screen is actually very small compared to my 19" Iiyama desktop or even the 15" 1600x1200 monster on my Latitude C840 laptop, but this is very much a case of horses for courses and it certainly doesn't feel too cramped in use. The optional "View Anywhere" wide angle screen is as clear and crisp as everyone said it was, and apparently it adjusts automatically to the ambient lighting, allowing seamless transitions from indoors to out.

The whole tablet weighs a touch over 3lbs, according to Motion, and feels nicely tactile and grippy. I'm handling it a little gingerly at present, as befits an expensive new toy, but as I become more familiar with the size and shape I think it will fit the hand extremely well. Several early reviewers have complained that the port covers on the pre-release models were annoyingly loose, and that the PC-Card blank rattled in its socket, but neither of those problems are at all evident with my unit and the overall impression it gives is of sleek, smooth quality.

Even without a docking station there is an impressive range of ports to hand - a pair of USB 2.0, PC-Card and SD memory card slots, DVI-D and VGA video output, IrDA (in case anyone still remembers it), Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet, and of course the 802.11g wireless. Multimedia is catered for by the usual audio in and out jack sockets, dual stereo speakers, and an array of three microphones designed for optimum speech recognition - which certainly seem to work very well, if my smooth experience with the speech recognition training process is anything to go by.

It's going to be a busy few days learning the fine details of the various data entry methods, and filling the thing up with my usual software (I wonder if it plays games?) and at some point I still need to dive into the new desktop PC and tidy up the last few cables and pipes before uploading the final photos to the project log. So many computers, so little time!

 

7th July

It was only a matter of time before the legacy of Britain's complicity in the US-sponsored invasion of Iraq came home to haunt us.

I worked in the center of London during the nineties, when the IRA were blowing things up every six months or so - but in contrast to the earlier campaigns, by that time many of their attacks on the UK mainland were timed for early mornings, evenings, or weekends. They made their point, and left their mark, but the number of civilian deaths stayed relatively low.

Today's terrorists think in a different way, and as I write this the death toll is given as somewhere between thirty and forty.

I was lucky, this time, as I had no particular reason to believe that anyone I knew or cared for would be amongst the casualties... But one of my colleagues in the IT department suffered through an extremely upsetting couple of hours until he finally managed to contact a close friend and confirm that she was unhurt.

I've spoken out against the Labour government's involvement in the Iraq war before, and about their lies and evasions - and doubtless I'll do so again - but even though it is clear to me that Blair and Bush provoked this retaliation I will never, ever defend the hate-filled scum who can use explosives against innocent civilians. I hope that justice comes swiftly to them in the form of a 5.56mm round from a NATO assault rifle.

 

Meanwhile - for most of us, at least - life goes on...

China signs anti-spam pact - second only to the US in its output of junk email, until now the attitude of the Chinese government has been thoroughly unconcerned. If they're serious, this is excellent news.

New Trojan attacks Symbian phones - the so-called Doombot-A acts as a loader for the existing Commwarrior-B virus, and between them they can pretty much kill affected hardware.

Microsoft UK web site defaced - apparently the work of a certain "Apocalypse" (with a name like that, betcha he's a teenage boy) the message supported Venezuelan hacker Rafa, currently awaiting trial.

Jaschan throws in towel - the author of the Sasser and Netsky worms has broken down in the middle of his trial and confessed to everything, probably rather to the annoyance of his defence counsel.

Phishing reaches new high - as previously reported, phishing attacks are now the most popular online fraud, with many of them organised by large-scale criminal groups and growing in sophistication.

Fractal-generating programming language - Context Free is a new language, rather reminiscent of my old favourite LOGO, specifically designed for wasting time by creating pretty pictures. :-)

Clarke's ID card cost laundry - in the face of mounting public opinion against the charges for the card, the Home Secretary is floundering about looking for ways of partially funding it privately.

Nuclear fusion update - the new International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project replaces the initially promising but ultimately rather disappointing JET, but will it fare any better in the long run?

Solar power update - the "SoLong" test plane has a 15' wingspan containing 76 solar cells which produce 225W of power - but the craft draws only 95W from the Li-ion batteries during level flight.

Astrologer sues NASA - as if further proof was needed that some people don't have the brains that god gave an amoeba, this fruit loop claims that the Deep Impact mission will bring the end the world.

And finally, musician and activist Bono has torn a strip off the Canadian PM, apparently for being prudent, sensible and honest. "He won't agree to things that he doesn't believe he can deliver", ranted Bono, standing right next to the PM as he spoke. "That is very frustrating and annoying and infuriating". In an age where most politicians are depressingly eager to promise anything that will win them a vote or two, a man who would "rather commit to small increases he knows he can afford than make long-term promises" may well be someone to admire instead of to abuse... I think that some of these politically aware rock stars are not only in severe danger of losing their common sense, but of taking themselves altogether too seriously as well.

 

6th July

There has been a lot of griping about Microsoft's Tablet PC operating system over the last year, thanks to a nasty memory leak in the handwriting recognition subsystem that pretty much necessitates a daily reboot. Microsoft had been fairly cagey on when an update could be expected, but growing media attention seems to have prodded them into action and - lo and behold! - today they quietly released KB895953, a successful patch for the bug.

This is extremely timely, as today I placed an order for the newly released LE1600 tablet from market leader Motion Computing - I've been yearning for something like this for ages, but when Microsoft abandoned the Mira "Smart Display" project I rather went off the idea. However, Motion's new tablet is getting rave reviews, and seems to be everything that Mira could have been and more.

I'm maxing out the memory with the addition of a 1GB DDR2-4200 SODIMM from Crucial (have you noticed how incredibly cheap standard memory is, these days? I paid more than that for a 256Mb EDO to revive an obsolete laptop earlier in the year) which will probably let me operate completely without a swapfile for maximum performance and battery life.

My tablet is on order from The Technology Factory, who are not one of the suppliers that Motion themselves will point you to when you make an enquiry... But I had the strangest experience with preferred supplier Box Technologies, who stopped replying to my messages after sending me two copies of the price list, leaving me high and dry just as I was ready to place the order! After two days trying to get a response I gave up, and a quick search revealed that there were a handful of other UK companies with stock ready to ship. TTF were the cheapest, by over £100, so we shall see if they can deliver as promised.

Most of the accessories for the LE1600 aren't available until later in the month, but that's probably a good thing as by then I'll have decided what will be useful and what will just gather dust. I expect that I'll want a keyboard of some kind, for example, but whether it will be the clip-on portable unit or the desktop base station is not clear at the moment - and had all the various gadgets and gizmos been available now the temptation to load up on everything under the sun would have been hard to resist.

I don't see the tablet as replacing my trusty Latitude C840 laptop - especially for blogging, as I doubt that speech or handwriting recognition is ever going to be as nippy as a regular keyboard for hammering out blocks of text, but for recreational browsing once the work is done, for doing my online grocery shopping from the kitchen, or for playing movies in the bedroom, it sounds extremely plausible. Watch this space for further details...

 

4th July

It's only Monday, but thanks to a day spent auditing part of our network security procedures in preparation to beefing them up a little over the next week, I'm completely shattered and you'll have to content yourselves with a few quick links.

Copycat lawsuits - no sooner had the ink dried on AMD's anti-trust lawsuit against Intel than it was joined by two almost identical class actions brought on behalf of individual PC owners.

Surely not again - it must be the time of the year for lawsuits, as the founder of the long-defunct Go Corporation is suing Microsoft with the usual claims of anti-competitive behaviour and bullying tactics.

The Internet is not a safe place - according to new figures released by AV vendor Sophos, an unprotected PC currently has a 50% chance of being compromised within 12 minutes...

"The best thing about free software is the price" - according to Sun president Jonathan Schwartz, in a statement just guaranteed to stir up an angry response from the open source software community.

Next-gen consoles not impressing? - Ars.Technica discusses an article at Anandtech which claims that developers are extremely discouraged by the lacklustre performance of the PS3 and Xbox 360.

Grandmaster beaten hollow by Hydra - UK chess grandmaster Michael Adams lost five out of six games against a cluster of Xeon-based PCs... and it was only using 32 of it's 64 nodes, at that!

No ban on guns by mail - mail regulator Postcomm has rejected the Royal Mail's proposal to ban traffic of legal firearms-related items (including replicas and air guns) through the postal network.

Jeff Bezos' space plans - the billionaire founder of Amazon.com has kept the details of his Blue Origin spaceflight company close to his chest until recently, but details are finally starting to emerge.

Still in mourning after Columbia - NASA personnel are set to resume the roles they played before the Columbia disaster, and for some of them it will be an especially tense and emotional time.

Things that go bang in the night - nicely timed for the 4th July, the marvellous How Stuff Works site has an explanation of the mechanics of fireworks, from sparklers to multibreak aerial mortar shells.

Grab 'em before they're obsolete - the US National Archives has huge, high-resolution scans of the Declaration Of Independence, the Bill Of Rights, the Constitution and the Amendments.

 

2nd July

So it was Live8, today, and a very impressive line-up it was, too, with many stirring speeches... So now the G8 movers and shakers are sweating in their boardrooms and executive offices, cowed by the overwhelming weight of popular opinion and swearing to reform their arms dealing, tariff fixing, trade limiting, worker exploiting, corporate greed-head ways.

My ass they are.

But it probably doesn't hurt to try, anyway.

I didn't get a reply from Dan about yesterday's 128Gb partition issue, but shortly after I mailed him he quietly edited the column, removing the dire warnings about using a large boot partition even with an appropriately patched OS version. I don't imagine I was the only person who pointed out the mistake...

Via Boing Boing, a couple of bizarre but fascinating animations - the first is a bikini-clad female mannequin falling through a sky full of giant bubbles (prod with the mouse if she gets stuck!), and the second is a strange liquid man-shape that kind of flows to follow the mouse pointer. Strange, but somehow rather compelling.

Wonder Weapons - at the Defense Tech blog, a link to Information Unlimited, a New Hampshire company that sells some very unusual weapon-like hardware... Take your choice from the instructions, which start at around $15, the complete kit of parts, or the fully assembled unit. With airsoft on the point of being criminalised out of existence, does an electromagnetic railgun or a CO2 cutting laser take your fancy?

Anti-spam success backfiring - now that some progress is finally being made against the spam problem, both at the server and in the courtroom, the scum who were making their money from junk email are moving towards phishing and ID theft scams instead. These may have a lower profile than an inbox full of Viagra adverts, but unfortunately their effects are potentially far more damaging.

And talking of scammers - UK comms regulator ICSTIS is increasing the maximum fine for phone fraud and similar from £100,000 to a quarter of a million, as there is so much money to be made from the various premium rate call scams that the risk of being fined simply wasn't a deterrent. This is a growing problem, I'm afraid, and even the increased figure probably isn't actually enough.

Biometrics won't deter passport fraudsters - the head of the UK passport agency has admitted that the improvements in passport security (and the notorious ID card) will not actually eliminate fraud or terrorism. This is nothing that the campaigners haven't been saying for years, of course, but it's extremely telling that even certain parts of the government apparently agree!

Hubble keeps its eye on the target - the HST has snapped a couple of neat shots of the Tempel-1 comet ahead of Monday's culmination of the Deep Impact mission - and the ESA has pitched in with what must surely be the worst astronomical photograph since before the Hubble optics were corrected back in 1993. Fortunately the source of the image, the spacecraft Rosetta, will actually be watching the impact in the microwave and infrared portions of the spectrum and the visible range is merely an incidental.

NASA sets a date - the space shuttle Discovery will launch on 13th July, if all goes well, on a badly-needed mission to resupply the International Space Station. This is the first flight since the redesign provoked when Columbia died on re-entry in January 2003, but there may still be problems lurking - an advisory panel has stated that NASA failed to meet three of the 15 safety recommendations issued by accident investigators. In an unsettling echo of the agency's attitude after the Challenger disaster NASA Administrator Michael Griffin and other senior officials are claiming that all risks have been reduced to an acceptable level, but I'm afraid that only time will tell...

Rocket brews its own juice - not content with making unwitting test pilots out of hapless brine shrimp (see Epicycle passim), model rocket manufacturer Estes has released a hydrogen powered rocket, with the fuel generated by the electrolysis of water inside the special launch platform. Cunning!

What science doesn't know - but knows that it doesn't know... Courtesy of the 125th issue of Science magazine, 25 short summaries of the most compelling puzzles and questions facing scientists today, together with a list of 100 more just to keep us busy. Mind you, as I was telling a friend the other day, if you want an example of something that is very poorly understood and yet has a direct impact on the everyday world around us, the problem of turbulence in liquids and gasses is a damn good start.

And finally, one of the better uses for Apple's silly little Mac Mini thing I've yet seen. These enterprising French modders evidently noticed the form factor's remarkable resemblance to a toilet paper dispenser, and made the obvious next step. Cosmetically it works rather well, I think, but of course the problem of grossly inadequate capacity found in the Mini's original role as a computer carries through to its new function too... Thanks to the excellent UK geek site Bit Tech for the translation.

 

1st July

Tech guru Dan Rutter has been unusually quiet in recent months, so it was a real treat to visit Dan's Data this evening and find a mammoth four page letters column. Dan's reply to one of the letters has me distinctly anxious, though, as either the data on the boot partition of my desktop PC is at significant risk or <dramatic chord> Dan has made a mistake!

A hapless user wrote to him to relate the sorry tale of how the OS and data stored on his 160Gb hard disk has just gone west, and Dan's explanation for this was that the system fell foul of the 128Gb limit imposed on a Windows boot partition. I was under the distinct impression that this issue had been fixed by the 48bit LBA support included in Windows XP SP1, but Dan insists that the boot partition of even a service packed installation cannot be greater than 128Gb - apparently the setup program will prevent the creation of a partition greater than this limit at installation time, and there is no safe way around this.

Now, I did pretty much what the letter writer did, installing XP onto a smaller partition and then expanding it out to fill the drive with Partition Magic at a later date. [It's more complex than that, actually, as this instance of the OS used to be a Windows 2000 installed onto smaller drives on a Promise IDE RAID controller, before being upgraded to XP and then cloned onto the current 160Gb SATA RAID volumes - but the end result is the same!]  I haven't seen any problems, but I'm currently only using around 40Gb of the volume and the flaw would only manifest if data was written past the 128Gb boundary, at which point the Windows IO subsystem would "wrap around" in some unpleasant manner and most likely corrupt the entire partition.

However... Two things make wonder if Dan hasn't slipped up, here. Firstly, as the Diskeeper screenshot above shows, I do actually appear to be using the section of the disk that falls past the 128Gb barrier - that little yellow block is a 512Mb pagefile, and a rough estimate suggests that it's sat at around the 145Gb mark. Secondly, I can't find any reference to this particular issue online, even after half an hour of worried searching... There's plenty of discussion of the 128Gb limit itself, complete with frequent pointers to Microsoft technote Q303013 which describes the various ways of enabling 48bit LBA support, but this mentions nothing about the boot partition. In fact, several documents from usually reliable sources (a white paper from hard disk manufacturer Seagate, and part of the FAQ at specialist site 48bitLBA.com) actually recommend the work-around of installing the OS to a 128Gb partition and then expanding it at a later date.

Now, Dan's correspondent was actually using Windows 2000 instead of XP, and his letter mentioned nothing about the EnableBigLBA registry tweak required to support big disks on this rather creaky old OS - and, indeed, he didn't even confirm that he was using SP3 or later to provide the required version of the ATAPI.SYS driver. Moreover, he used the rather unorthodox method of manually creating a full-sized partition with FDISK and then installing Windows onto it in spite of the rather ominous query that resulted. None of those factors are ideal...

So, in this case I suspect that it was the lack of the registry tweak (and maybe even an obsolete driver version) that was really the source of the data corruption, and that a correctly service packed XP system is immune to the 128Gb limit even on a boot partition. Is it possible that Dan has made a mistake, if the first one I've noticed in several years of reading his articles? I shall point him towards Epicycle and we'll see what he thinks...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Cosmic billiards - NASA's Deep Impact probe is due to smack into the comet Tempel 1 in a couple of day's time, and PhyOrg.com has a handy guide on watching the collision yourself. It's unlikely that anything will be visible with the naked eye, but as Patrick Moore often said, a good pair of binoculars will make all the difference. This is a fascinating mission, as well as being rather more violent than NASA usually plans for, and I'm looking forward to seeing the results.

AMD vs. Intel - microprocessor underdog AMD has been alleging all sorts of things about their bitter rival for years, and now it seems that they're ready to put their money where their corporate mouth is. They are claiming that Intel has misbehaved in much the same ways that Microsoft were alleged to have done, unlawfully maintaining a monopoly by bullying manufactures, distributors and retailers across three continents. It's quite a claim, and I suspect that (as usual) the legal battles will run and run.

On the menu tonight - the European Space Agency has developed a comprehensive menu designed to keep astronauts healthy and content on long voyages, such as the much-vaunted manned Mars missions. The nine organic ingredients are designed to be tended either by the astronauts themselves when time permits, providing a measure of recreational activity as well as food, or by robotic systems during busier parts of the mission. "Spirulina gnocchi" - Hmmmm.

Ringing down the curtain - MS have released a post-SP4 hotfix rollup for Windows 2000 instead of the rumoured SP5 (shades of the semi-mythical NT4 SP7 that was only made available to NASA for use on the International Space Station!) and although they will still provide critical security patches via Windows Update that's pretty much the end of development for W2K. It was definitely one of the classic operating systems of the decade, bringing as it did a very workable combination of the Windows 9x GUI and the stability of the NT4 OS upon which it was based.

Etch-A-Sketch coming to cell phones - I can't count the number of times I've felt the urge to draw a crude rectilinear diagram on a tiny handheld gadget but have had by desires cruelly dashed by the heartless consumer electronics giants, so if you're like me you'll delight in the news that the venerable seventies toy is being ported to a range of handsets from UK provider Orange. Ah, well, I suppose it could be worse - how long before we get Etch-A-Sketch as yet another bizarre USB add-on?

 

Ahh, how the mighty have fallen. Well, not that my stats were exactly mighty, but they were at least lush and full and they were mine own. My little juggling trick with domains and web servers back in May has slashed my figures to a pale shadow of their former selves, but in fact there are already signs of a recovery in the monthly figures (in spite of your pessimism, Mike, there is a definite upwards trend!) and I'm hoping that in another month or two I'll be back to something approximating the levels of the first part of the year.

One solution, if my pride permitted, would be to troll for attention from one of the heavyweight 'blogs - such as Slashdot, Boing Boing, or Instapundit - and there are several sites that have tips for ensuring that this happens. I am too dignified for such cheap tricks though, it seems, so I shall just have to rely on Google and my friend Avedon Carol, proprietress of noted left-wing 'blog The Sideshow, who is kind enough to mention me from time to time when one of my less geeky scribblings catches her eye. <sigh> I suppose I shall have to go and write some more political stuff, then...

 

 

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