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EPICYCLE

 

30th April

Long, slow links up against the wall... With an extra twist of Microsoft.

MS should dump IE - IT journalist John Dvorak has called for Microsoft to discontinue all development work on Internet Explorer and both support and invest financially in the various third-party browsers. IE can never be anything more than a millstone around the neck of Windows, Dvorak says, and is their "greatest blunder ever".  Although Firefox is definitely eating into IE's market share, particularly in certain niche areas of the industry, the bundled browser still has a significant overall lead and with the public betas of IE7 looking extremely promising I really can't see Microsoft paying any more attention to Dvorak's rant then Apple did when he suggested that they should abandon the "Mac" brand...

FireFox development struggling - although Microsoft is pilloried by the open source fanboys if they drop a feature or slip a release date, anyone who has worked in IT for longer than a couple of weeks should know that any major development project is vulnerable to the unexpected. It ought to come as no surprise to FireFox enthusiasts, therefore, that the keenly-awaited revamp of the bookmark system has been dropped from the initial V2.0 build in order to achieve the scheduled Q3 release date - but given the perpetual rose-tinted glasses of many open source advocates I have the feeling that the news could be more than a little traumatic. Apparently the loss of this feature is a big deal for users of the browser, too, as the current versions have a worrying habit of losing large quantities of saved bookmarks at the drop of a hat - and I can honestly say that in more than ten years of using the much-maligned Internet Explorer it has never once done that.

Foaming at the mouth - one of the features of the forthcoming Vista OS is a disk encryption system called BitLocker, designed to protect confidential files even if the PC is lost or stolen. Given the open source movement's endless allegations that Microsoft does not take security seriously, it would seem at face value that they couldn't find much to complain about over this, but in fact a somewhat sensational article at The Register quotes Bruce Schneier as suggesting that the feature is "anti-Linux because it frustrates dual boot". I generally have a lot of respect for Schneier, who has been worrying about computer security for almost as long as I have, but in this case I think he left the lid off his jar of green ink...

Sony cheating (again) - here's yet another fine example of the media industry railing against the allegedly criminal behaviour of it's customers whilst nevertheless being dirty and corrupt itself... When it comes to paying it's recording artists, the company claims that digital downloads are "sales" and not "licenses", which means that they are required to pay less royalties. However, when dealing with the end-users, they insist that they are licenses, meaning that they can bind the downloader into all sorts of unfair and restrictive limits on what can and can't be done with the music. Obviously, they can't have it both ways, and a lawsuit from classic names such as Cheap Trick and the Allman Brothers is seeking to settle the issue in their favour. I'm not sure if this will benefit the end-user, in fact, but it certainly has the potential to at least partially redress decades of decidedly unethical behaviour towards the people who actually create the music, and I have no objection to that.

Webcam with attitude - Logitech's new Quickcam Orbit MP is a cunning device, it seems, as aside from a motorised pan-and-tilt mechanism that can track the user's face as he moves, the software can perform real-time video processing on the image to add comedy glasses, bug eyes, rabbit ears, sombrero hats, and (with some hacking) pretty much anything else you would care to have adorning your features. It can even replace the user's own head with one of a range of animated avatars with synchronised mouth and eye movements. It's no more than a gimmick, obviously, and applications would be few and far between once the novelty has worn off - but it's still looks great fun until that happens.

 

28th April

Short and sweet...

Sharp - a long and comprehensive FAQ on sharpening knives.

Time - a kitchen timer inspired by the classic Tetris game.

Time 2 - and a desk clock inspired by an hourglass.

Say no - Canadian musicians stand up against the media industry.

Trek - interior design inspired by the Star Trek universe.

Schwag - industry collectibles shipped out by mail from Silicon Valley.

HAL's father - synthesised speech from 1961 that inspired "Daisy, Daisy".

Cute security - razor wire doesn't have to look unfriendly.

Truth - "This is a pirate. This is not"... The CEA tells it like it is.

Ban it! - what the idiots did before the Internet was invented.

Bitchin' - Steve Jobs runs uncharacteristically short on words.

Massive - Microsoft are buying a company that places adverts within games.

Cool - tiny pumps for cooling future generations of CPUs.

Hot Java - Dan branches out, and reviews a coffee maker.

 

26th April

Earlier this month, I gather, was the 42nd birthday of IBM's System/360 mainframe, and whatever one thinks about the role of "big iron" in modern business computing it can't be denied that the S/360 was a groundbreaking system in its day. It was long-obsolete by the time I first talked my way into the computer rooms at my local university, sometime in the late 1970s (there were many Vaxen, of course, and also super-minis from Prime and Data General), but seeing those rows of mag tape drives and all the lights and switches and knobs certainly brought back the memory of how awesomely technical it all looked. The  Dell Poweredge servers in my own computer room at the office have many orders of magnitude more processing power, memory and disk space than that entire room of IBM hardware, and I wouldn't trade them in for anything else, but in spite of their sleek black and gunmetal colour scheme and the reassuring blue glow of what we call the "Everything's OK Lights" on the front panels I have to admit that they lack the futuristic mystique of their predecessors. Thanks to my colleague Chris, a man with an appreciation for IBM hardware that borders on the illegal, for the pointer.

Meanwhile:

Vista nagging - as expected, security guru and anti-Microsoft bigot Bruce Schnier is not in favour of the new flavour of Windows, which he thinks will throw up so many security warning dialog boxes that the users will just get into the habit of clicking them away without reading them.

The sound of silence - Dan is pontificating on the possibility of building a noiseless, fully solid state PC, and since the recent launch of the first even slightly plausible silicon disk card he concludes that the idea is now within the realms of possibility.

BYOL - just the thing to make corporate tech support staff break out in a rash, a loopy idea from one of the Linux Journal staffers in the shape of a proposal to allow corporate workers to provide their own laptops. The subsequent comments reveal the many and varied flaws in the scheme...

Feel the burn - the meme is that modern CRTs don't really suffer from the screen burn that plagued monitors during the nineties, and that LCDs are completely immune, but this picture of an iMac G5 screen suggests otherwise. The burned-in image is the front page of Slashdot, of course!

The comedy of Scott McNealy - now that the co-founder and long-time CEO of Sun Microsystems is stepping aside, the industry will have to look elsewhere for a source of barbs against their rival Microsoft. Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison hate Bill even more, but neither has Scott's wit and humour.

 

25th April

So, today's Yahoo news has an article on the continuing rise of "cyber crime", and although it's so sensationally written that they should probably have used a green typeface (criminal gangs are attacking unsuspecting users "right in the heart of their own living rooms or bedrooms!"), on the whole there wasn't anything very new (Really? Online fraudsters are based in Nigeria, now?) until the final paragraphs caused an eyebrow to raise, here. It's a quote from a certain Stephen Bonner, apparently the director of technical security at Barclays Capital:

Gangs were now also prepared to wait longer before committing their frauds, said Bonner, using spyware and other techniques to learn an individual's pattern of use of the internet, and then using this knowledge to automate further attacks. "Why take a thousand pounds from an online bank account when you can open a mortgage and take hundreds of thousands of pounds from a person's identity?"

Excuse me? Has Mr Bonner actually applied for a mortgage recently? I had to produce so much identification and documentation when I did so two years ago that I was finding great difficulty in complying with the requirements, so the idea that someone could receive a mortgage in my name using only data harvested from web transactions or spyware is extremely far-fetched. I mean, in the end I had to provide a copy of my ID badge from work, notarised by my manager, before the various solicitors were happy - and I am actually me! I'm afraid that this is just more of the usual anti-hype that only serves to muddy the waters and confuse the non-technical - online fraud and ID theft is a genuine problem, and undoubtedly a growing one, but while Joe User is worrying about Russian scammers taking out mortgages in his name he's probably missing the eBay phishing scam that's happening right under his nose.

And while I'm ranting, an article reporting strange rumblings and booming noises in San Diego, California, contains one of the more butt-headed soundbites I've heard so far this year. Because the military have denied any explosives tests, NASA weren't launching anything that day, the FAA have no record of supersonic planes, and reputable scientists have ruled out earthquakes, the reporter evidently turned to someone who he hoped might produce something more sensational. Sure enough, he was rewarded, although probably not in the way he was expecting:

Even UFO experts are baffled by what happened in San Diego. Asked whether a flying saucer might have caused such an event, Peter Davenport of the Seattle-based National UFO Reporting Center said, “Probably not. UFOs almost never generate sonic booms or shock waves,” he added. “They accelerate so rapidly that they leave a vacuum in the sky, much the way lightning does.”

I was greatly amused by this, as although lightning does indeed leave a vacuum in the sky (well, OK, it's a little more complex than that), the sound made when air rushes back in to fill that vacuum is... you guessed it, thunder. Although it sounds improbable, one has to assume from this that Mr Davenport has never actually been out in a thunderstorm, as otherwise he would surely have noticed the characteristic earth-shaking bangs and booms that give one its name. I just hope he knows more about UFOs than he does about weather, or about physics in general for that matter - but I have to admit that I find that somewhat unlikely...

Meanwhile, elsewhere... The latest public beta of Internet Explorer 7 has just been released, and I'll definitely be giving it a try tomorrow - I've been running the first release on my main desktop PC at the office since it came out earlier this year, and have been very impressed. It's a touch feature-poor at present, but the multi-tabbed environment is very slick and apart from a few odd quirks with the new security model (apparently these have been addressed in the new version) I haven't found any significant problems. I use AM Browser (aka Crazy Browser) at home, a multi-tabbed wrapper that brings a facelift to the IE6 core DLLs, and although this is an excellent combination I'm finding that I actually prefer the way that IE7's interface works. The main problem, right now, is switching back and forth between them, but if the second beta of IE7 is as workable as the first I could easily decide to retire AM Browser and upgrade ahead of the pack. However, I've just noticed that the author of the aptly-named third party browser (the two applications differ only in the name, so presumably it's some kind of multiple personality disorder?) has released a new beta of his offerings, so if IE7 Beta 2 isn't quite on the mark I shall take a look at one of those instead.

 

24th April

I had a little free time, today, and needed a distraction, so I finished the current model kit. Having laboured for hours last week to create a smooth, even finish in the paint, today's first task was to thoroughly mess it up with various darker shades dry-brushed on to simulate wear and tear. The overall effect is very pleasing, although as usual the camera flash has brightened the entire model a shade or two.

There were various options for building this model, including leaving the top hatch open to show the head of the pilot inside, and the kit also comes complete with a figure in WW2-style military garb to pose beside it. However, I had little confidence in my ability to paint a convincing human figure (or even a disembodied head, for that matter!) so regretfully opted for the simplest approach and glued the hatch down firmly. Dented armour plate I can manage, but skin tones and clothes would probably have been asking a little too much...

Thanks to the comprehensive articulation (there are three degrees of freedom in each ankle, for example, two in the knee joints and two at the hips) the conventional plastic components of the model were challenging enough, but as I'd half expected the little springs and wires that provide the finishing touches were even more fiddly! They were well worth the furrowed brows and pursed lips, however, and I'd say that the end result is one of the better finishes I've achieved.

The diorama base is one of a couple of 1/35th  WWII scenes that turned up in a web search, and is a fair match for the 1/20th Ma.K. model. In real life the colours of the ground aren't as close as the results of the camera flash suggest, but I chose them to be similar enough that the model's own colour scheme is a plausible camouflage. The base is roomy enough to hold a another similar model, too, which is just as well as I've already chosen the next one to build. Watch this space...

 

23rd April

This year has not been a good one for tape libraries... Leaving aside the six aging LTO1 drives in the PowerVault 136T library at the office, which last an average of two months each before requiring a complete refurbishment, the situation on my home network has been nothing short of disastrous. January saw the keenly awaited arrival of an Exabyte 690D for the server, which promptly suffered one hardware failure after another and is now little more than a giant, annoying paperweight. To add insult to injury, when I tried to bring the Dell PowerVault 120T unit that it was to have replaced back online after a few days of rest the drive had a conniption and now refuses to load tapes properly. As if this wasn't bad enough, a few days ago the beloved VXA Autopak library on my desktop PC started to misbehave, and having cycled the power the picker mechanism now seems completely dead in the water. This morning I checked the fuses and opened it up to look for loose connections, but after that my lack of electronics expertise rears its head and I'm about out of ideas. As I have a considerable investment in VXA tapes and storage cases I don't really want to switch to another format, but fortunately a look around eBay reveals a pair of similar libraries that could act as replacements or a source of spares - although as one is in America and the other Australia the cost of shipping will doubtless be something of an annoyance...

Something certainly needs to be done, however, as for the first time in many years I don't have a current backup of any of my systems! I'm still in a better position than the majority of home users, of course, as at least every single byte of data is held on redundant disk systems and so protected against hardware failure - but that's no substitute for regular backups and I have to admit that I'm feeling a touch tense about it.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Tell-tale noise - research at the State University of New York has shown that photos taken by digital cameras have their own "fingerprints" in the form of the unique patterns of noise created by the particular characteristics of their semiconductor sensors.

A blow to the RIAA - having failed to persecute a Michigan mother for music piracy, the industry association went after her 13 year old daughter. For some unknown reason, however, they failed to comply with the court's request for documentation and the case has now been dismissed.

XBox evolution - Microsoft is about to switch their console's CPU from 90nm to a new 65nm technology, reducing the heat output that has been causing stability problems for some users and potentially allowing higher clock speeds in future models as well.

Apple in court again - following last year's judgement in their favour after a leak of trade secrets to the Mac fansites PowerPage and AppleInsider, the first stages of an appeal against the ruling suggest that these judges are noticeably less inclined to look favourably upon the company's allegations.

Dept. Of The Obvious - at Amsterdam University's Informatics Institute, a study of keywords used on weblogs reveals that people drink more at the weekends, and that around Valentines Day they tend to feel either loving or lonely. Presumably someone received a research grant for this...?

 

22nd April

A long morning spent in the office cloning servers and helping my PFY reconfigure an apparently infinite number of Cisco Catalyst 2950 switches has left me with little energy and even less inclination, so you'll have to be content with am equally small handful of random links:

Blood and guts - not exactly machinima, Pirate Baby's Cabana Battle Street Fight 2006 is a short animation inspired by the sideways-scrolling games that were ubiquitous before 1st-person shooters took over the world. It's delightfully gory, elegantly monochrome, and deliciously twisted.

Squaring up - the anti-trust lawsuit filed against Intel last year is soon to take the first steps in what is likely to be a long and drawn-out process. AMD alleges that their giant rival abused their dominant position by waging a relentless worldwide campaign of coercing manufacturers to avoid their CPUs.

Trigger happy - I've seen various movies of geeks shooting up obsolete computer hardware, but this new marketing stunt from Hewlett Packard takes the biscuit. For reasons that seem obscure to me, they shot a StorageWorks disk array with a .308 cal round to prove... well, to prove what, exactly?

Tearing it down - the last couple of years have seen increasingly frequent analyses from engineering research companies such as iSuppli, documenting the likely manufacturing costs of products such as Apple's iPods, but Nate at Ars Technica has been looking at the other side of the story.

Cool cans - a new design for self-cooling beverage containers is set to shake up the market, utilising a desiccant that mixes with water in a sealed compartment to cause an endothermic reaction that reduces the temperature of the liquid in the neighbouring compartment by at least 16°C.

Safe at any speed? - the Windows XP Firewall has come in for a fair amount of criticism, especially in its first incarnation, and a mini-review at ZDNet suggests that although it's worthwhile with regards to blocking incoming connections, it still lacks an adequate degree of control over outgoing traffic.

 

21st April

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'

  - Bob Dylan

Machines for living - German art haus Dialog05 has created an exhibition of designs for everyday objects inspired by the humble USB interface. I really hope that nobody decides to manufacture any of them, but given the incredible range of gizmos and gadgets already on the market I'm not convinced...

A fit of pique - following the migration of the giant parked domain name host Go Daddy from Apache to Microsoft IIS, open source evangelist Bruce Perens has set up his own free service in order to get even, even though Apache's market share is already inflated by other domain parking services.

Fruit flies like a banana - ClockLink provides a marvellous collection of free animated clocks that can be embedded in web pages, ranging from the LED digital displays to analogue wall clocks and wrist watches. Thanks to The Sideshow for the link.

Fresh air - if the free variety isn't good enough for you, the latest yuppie trend may be little canisters of bottled oxygen; and not only regular O2 style oxygen, either, as it's available in a wide range of "flavours", including cherry, lemon, eucalyptus and mint.

Pure retro - in another truly inspired case mod, a Gateway PII motherboard and an LCD panel have been shoe-horned into the chassis of an early-eighties Commodore PET. Look at the pictures showing the original PET components, though - ah, the nostalgia.

xkcd - I discovered these web cartoons at the DRM strip, but flipping forward and back a few unearthed a number of other gems. The drawing style is... ah... somewhat primitive, but actually that doesn't seem to matter very much. Take a look.

Sleeping with the enemy - Sun Microsystems, the company that many credit with the very creation of the open source concept back in the eighties, has released details of it's own DRM strategy - and today's open source luminaries don't seem to think very much of it at all...

 

20th April

My first day back at the office was busy, as expected, and made more so by the delivery of couple of dozen Dell PowerEdge servers for our imminent Siebel implementation - a cross section of their current range, with slimline 1850s to act as front end web servers, 2850s to do the donkey-work, and quad-CPU 6850s to host the databases. We're still waiting on another couple of DAE disk cabinets for the SAN, and another couple of 48 port gigabit switch modules for our Cisco Catalyst 6509 core switch, but hopefully those will be arriving soon enough to give us something to connect all those servers to. All in all it represents another £260K plus change, and added to the similar batch we bought last autumn for the SAP project Dell have done quite well from us recently. In spite of this, however, the ungrateful corporate bastards haven't even given me so much as a free mouse mat... Tsk, what is the IT industry coming to!

Aside from unboxing and racking twenty-three servers, and then disposing of the mountain of packaging materials that resulted, one of the high-points of the day was running some tests on the pair of 6850s that form the core of our SAP landscape. We performed various exercises in manually moving the clustered resources from one node to the other to confirm the effects it would have on the end users, and as those were extremely successful we decided to stress the system a little more. In the end, the best way to properly test a clustered system is to jerk the power cables out of one of the nodes, and even though I had to grit my teeth somewhat that's exactly what I did. The cluster failed-over flawlessly, with all SAP functionality back online automatically inside a couple of minutes - and the SAP installation consultant who was helping us with the testing seemed to think that this was more than acceptable, as although the users had to log back into the GUI once the SAP system was up and running again the disruption from such a brief outage would be perfectly acceptable in real-world terms. I'm not surprised, exactly, as I've done enough ad-hoc testing on the cluster to be quite happy with its fail-over abilities, but it's very nice to have one's systems behaving so well under the eagle eyes of an specialist. If something is going to go wrong, that's usually when it will choose to do so...

Meanwhile, elsewhere - having been relegated to a dial-up Internet connection for the last week I'm running a little behind on the tech news, but here are a few highlights that caught my eye while I was away:

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers - the Opposable Thumbs gaming column at Ars Technica has posted a mini-review of a radio-controlled flying saucer, and for a mere $20 it looks like a fun little toy.

Very Tiny Machines - a team at MIT has re-engineered the M13 virus to assemble cobalt oxide nanowires 6 billionths of a meter across that will be used as electrodes for microscopic batteries.

Sexy hardware - using a beautifully-made cast of his wife's torso, this enterprising PC modder has created a remarkable hybrid of sculpture and computer.

CIA leakage - confidential data on hundreds of CIA employees in the US and abroad was unearthed by reporters at the Chicago Tribune, working only with publicly available records.

Big bang - the US military is planning to detonate 700 tons of conventional high explosives (the ammonium nitrate fuel oil commonly used for commercial blasting) at a Nevada test site, creating the area's first mushroom cloud since surface atomic bomb testing ended in the early 1960s.

 

12th April

Epicycle will be on hiatus for the next few days, as I'm off to the wilds of Devon for a well-deserved rest away from all the computers - well, all except a laptop, a tablet, a PDA, a smartphone and my family's collection of obsolete Dell hardware, that is. Updates will resume after the Easter holiday.

 

11th April

I've just treated myself to another set of little Japanese space miniatures, and my supplier this time was the eBay shop The-Reef Collectibles, which seems to specialise in these tiny little figures. As well as the "Royal Museum Of Science" series from which my models come, they also sell the equally grandly named "World Tank Museum" range, World War II armour and oddments in 1/144th scale - equally cute, I guess, but not quite my thing. I can certainly recommend The Reef, however: I made the purchases late on Saturday evening, and everything was delivered safe and sound (complete with a discount to the shipping costs thanks to the bulk purchase) on Tuesday morning. You can't get better than that...

Above, four little satellites - from left to right, Ranger 7 orbiting the moon, Mars 3 above (you guessed it, Mars), Sputnik, and Pioneer 10 with Jupiter. To give an idea of the scale, the planets are painted glass marbles 3cm in diameter, and overall they're just so cute.  :-)

Again from left to right, Apollo VIII orbiting the moon, a perfect little model of Mir, Gemini VIII docked with an Agena, and the crippled Apollo 13 command module and LEM boosting away from the moon on its way back home to Earth.

Finally, Soyuz TM-28 on the launch pad, and Ed White's Gemini IV spacewalk, sit on either side of the pick of this particular batch, a beautiful replica of Voyager One that is unique amongst these models in its size and complexity - it measures 19cm to the tip of the low field magnetometer and actually had seven parts to assemble! Seven!

There are another handful of models I'm after (they're not quite all to my taste, but there's a really nice Skylab 2 and another Soyuz in the process of launching) and I expect I'll pick them up after Easter to complete the set. I do find them rather hard to resist, so watch this space...

 

10th April

Another day, another dollar.

This particular day, however, brought the delivery of some interesting hardware in the form of a trio of Atto UL5D PCI Express Ultra 320 SCSI cards, a sufficiently new product that, when pressed, Dell insisted that such a beast wasn't yet available. In spite of that, however, the cards are now nestling safely in an equally new Dell PowerEdge 6850 server that is going to host the older of our two PowerVault 136T tape libraries, which in turn is on the point of having its six LTO-1 tape drives upgraded to shiny new LTO-3 units to cope with our ever-expanding data. The current server, a venerable Pentium III-based PowerEdge 4400, works pretty much flat out all night to back up a couple of terabytes of data, and given that the upgraded tape drives will place considerably greater demands on the system bus we thought that something with a little more oomph would be appropriate. Having installed the SCSI cards, however, and booted into Windows quickly to check the driver installation, I had to force myself to step back and move on to something else - one of my PFYs has been itching to get to grips with migrating the existing installation onto the new server, and as he's out of the office this week he'd never forgive me if I stole the project.

It's going to be a sweet server when he's finished with it, though - as the Atto cards are dual-channel, each tape drive can be on a bus of its own to wring the very last byte of performance out of the system, and also to minimise the domino effect that occurs when a drive chokes on a damaged tape and goes offline, usually encouraging anything else on the same bus to go offline in sympathy. As this library is responsible for backing up the forty-something servers that don't run SAP and Siebel (yes, in spite of the prevailing opinion of our implementation consultants, people do occasionally use computers for other things!) having two of the drives go out of service in the middle of the nightly run can cause the remaining servers to badly over-run their backup window, giving us the choice between missing the jobs completely or having them still running at ten o'clock in the morning - neither of which is really acceptable. The improved reliability, therefore, together with the significantly improved performance and capacity of the LTO-3 drives and media, is likely to preserve my receding hairline for a little longer, at least. It's good to be back at the cutting edge again.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Boot camp kicks ass - Ars Technica has been testing Apple's new boot loader, and although there are some niggles, such as the lack of proper support for the NTFS file system and the fact that not all Apple hardware devices are supported at present, it's certainly a worthwhile utility.

Movie bad girls - I like chicks with guns as much as the next man (well, unless the next man is ex-Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, that is) but this collection of almost 35,000 images from movies, television and elsewhere is a classic example of a geek's obsession.

Evolution in action - in what is becoming a depressingly common occurrence, a pair of teenaged boys firebombed an abandoned Air Force hangar and then posted film footage of the crime to a MySpace profile, making it depressingly easy for the local police to identify and arrest them...

Whiskers on kittens - the CAPTCHA technique of using obscured text to confirm identity is workable, but it's hardly friendly and is gradually becoming crackable. A new idea for image recognition could hold back the OCR robots for a little longer, though, and it's cute, too!

Pictures of Zen - almost forty years after the journey across America that became Robert Persig's classic treatise "Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance", the author has worked with one of his fan-sites to identify the exact locations that feature in the book so that they could be photographed.

Dan speaks - my wild-haired Australian role model Daniel Rutter has been building himself a pair of loudspeakers from a kit, and as usual his account is informative, witty, and copiously populated with some very unusual links.

 

9th April

So my friend Karlene brought me a clipping from The Metro, the free newspaper given away in London's train and tube stations. As we already know, it's bad enough when Western geeks have too much time on their hands, but when the same thing happens to geeky Chinese fashion designers evidently it is far, far worse...

Meanwhile, elsewhere, some random news links:

Roll your own - this week's hot news is Apple's release of a multi-boot utility that allows Windows to be installed on their new Intel-based PCs. I have to admit that I didn't see that coming (largely thanks to what is now clearly shown as a deliberate disinformation campaign on the part of the company), and as could be expected the reaction from the Mac fanboys has been mixed to say the least. Will this prompt a whole new group of users to migrate to OS X? I'm dubious, personally, and in fact I foresee a significant number of Mac users buying (or pirating!) a copy of Windows to gain access to the current generation games that are usually missing from the native OS.  <snigger>

"Where are they now?" - ex-HP CEO Carly Fiorina has joined the board of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, alongside has-beens such as the ex-CEO of BT and the ex-chairman of Acer.

Egg pirates - a story at Boing Boing lifts the egg on the Chinese trade in fake eggs, made from all sorts of unpleasant and toxic ingredients. Fake eggs? The mind boggles...

Memory problems - and talking of Chinese fraud, a letter at Dan's Data tells the story of a1Gb memory card that wasn't. On the web, the advice "caveat emptor" has never been more apt.

More on Tuttle - the Oklahoma city manager who has been lampooned online of late following his threats to Linux distro CentOS really wants it to stop, but really isn't going the right way about that...

Plush plagues - I am constantly impressed at all the cool Jewish stuff available online, such as this bag of cuddly plagues just in time for Passover.

Implausible life-cycle - Nvidia won't be releasing a PAL version of their new TV tuner, apparently because of the UK's mandated switch to digital in 2010. You'd think they could sell a few before then!

Dangerous software - the "anti-spyware" tool UnSpyPC will actually identify certain antivirus and ant-spyware tools as malicious code and attempt to remove them, which is probably not a good idea...

The art of retouching - I linked to an earlier version of this page a while ago, but it's grown - before and after photographs showing exactly how fake photos of glamour models have become.

2 Minute Photoshop Tricks - if you're inspired by the above, rather than just annoyed by it, then this excellent Wiki-based resource will start you on the road to digitally resizing boobies for yourself.

Bizarre accessories - I always keep an eye open for strange, unusual and pointless things to connect to a USB port, but specialist EverythingUSB now has a whole section dedicated to the genre.

The gospel according to Woz - I watched "Pirates Of Silicon Valley" the other day, and to my delight there's a whole section at Steve Wozniak's site that confirms the accuracy of the events portrayed.

Crying wolf - in spite of the RIAA's constant prophecies of doom and gloom, although CD sales are indeed slipping the deficit is more than made up for by the growth of online music purchases.

Spreadshirt ÜberShop - I have to admit that I couldn't find anything I really wanted to buy, here, but I thought that their create-you-own T-shirt engine was rather a neat idea.

US geography quizzes - I was minded to brush-up on the geography of the US, recently, and found a whole site full of neat little puzzles to help one learn the locations of all the states, capitals, and rivers.

 

7th April

I hadn't intended to do any work on the kit, today, as the next stage was painting and thanks to a passing virus I'm really not feeling at my sharpest - but boredom won in the end and I broke out the airbrush. Well, it's more of a spray-gun, to be honest, but an unsuccessful attempt to get to grips with an expensive dual-action model several years ago proved that I'm actually far better off with something rather more primitive...

I chose a fairly standard military drab (Humbrol enamel matt 26, to be exact, thinned to about two thirds) and somewhat to my surprise achieved a pleasing finish without significant fuss - in fact, right now everything looks so smooth and even that it will almost be a shame to add wear and tear marks! The arms and legs will need another few passes, I expect, as all those nooks and crannies are impossible to fill with a single coat, but if I can avoid over-spraying (one of my usual weaknesses!) then hopefully I won't lose too much of the articulation along the way. After that I'll reassemble the limbs and torso, and then paint and attach the small external details. There's still a fair way to go (and this is where it gets really fiddly, too) but I expect it will be finished by the end of the weekend.

 

6th April

The pair of arms have been joined by a pair of legs, and a torso... The legs were even more fiddly to assemble than the arms, but the model is fully articulated and the effort was probably worth it. The finished figure will stand about 4" high, which at the 1/20th scale of most of the Ma.K. kits would make it a respectable 6½' tall, and certainly not something you'd want to meet in a dark alley - or any other kind of alley, for that matter...

The two halves of the body are only push-fitted at present, as it looks as if it will be preferable to paint the limbs and body separately at least for the undercoat and base colours. After that I'll assemble all but the fine details (of which there are a significant amount in this kit!) and then paint the remainder, adding the various wire antenna and coiled hoses right at the end. I haven't decided on the overall colour scheme as yet, but I do want the final effect to be dirty and battle-worn, so it's likely to be an airbrushed base coat in something suitably drab and military, with mud, oil and soot appropriately applied with a dry brush over the top. Easier said than done!

 

5th April

Several weeks ago the little monitoring utility for my HP OfficeJet 6110 printer/scanner started telling me that both the black and colour ink cartridges were running out, and today I can reveal that it's been lying through its teeth. I don't usually respond to these warnings right away, as I imagine some people do, but even so I tend to change the cartridge fairly soon after the alerts start and have never thought much of it... A month or two ago, however, PC Pro magazine ran a long and extremely revealing article on the hidden costs associated with inkjet printers and how to minimise them, and since then I suppose the topic has been on my mind.

When the monitor started warning me that the ink levels were low, therefore, I balked a little, and decided to see exactly how much ink really was left in there. The results have amazed me, as although I was expecting to be able to print a fair handful of pages at that stage, in fact I have printed not only several dozen pages of assorted text, colour maps etc, but also several dozen full-colour A4 photographs at the maximum quality settings on glossy paper, and all without any sign of either black or coloured inks running out! The printer industry has been under fire recently because of some decidedly dubious tricks (such as selling a new printer with a special cartridge that only contains a half or a third of the usual amount of ink), and evidently writing ink monitoring utilities that grossly exaggerate the imminent demise of the cartridges is another of those. Be warned!

[Later] After I wrote that, I managed to print another six pages of full-sized colour photos before both cartridges ran out almost simultaneously half-way through the page - and having to re-print a single spoiled photo is far cheaper than paying attention to the pessimism of the status monitor around fifty pages earlier...

Meanwhile, while I'm griping... I've been listening to an audiobook of Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson's biography "Crystal Fire", an account of the lives and work of William Shockley and the other men who invented the transistors and microprocessors that brought the computer revolution, and I have to say that it's not one of Audible's shining examples of the breed... To begin with, it's actually a rather poor recording or digitising (this happens, sometimes, and there's nothing much that can be done about it), but mostly because the reader, one Dennis McKee, has evidently made no attempt to learn how to pronounce the names of the protagonists!

To cite just the two that have been annoying me most today, Hans Bethe is not pronounced "Bethy", John von Neumann is not "von Newman", and every time I hear the former, especially, I have to stop myself from grinding my teeth in irritation. I must confess that both of those were names that I mispronounced myself when, in my early teens, I first came across my father's physics textbooks and started to devour them - but then, nobody was paying me to read the names aloud and at least I learned from my mistakes... What worries me is that if I can spot so many errors in the names of the great theoretical physicists with which I am familiar, how many similar mistakes am I missing amongst the experimental physicists who are generally not such well known figures? Tsk...

 

4th April

Blog like you were living in the early days of a better nation...

Only Yahoo could go to China - founder Jerry Yang continues to defend his company's actions in providing information that has enabled the government to jail dissident journalists, but Rebecca MacKinnon thinks that they could still do business in the country without such questionable behaviour.

Breaking the law - following the lawsuits successfully brought by Apple against web sites that published rumours about its forthcoming products, the EFF has filed an appeal claiming that the basic rights of journalists are at stake both online and off.

Duke Nukem Forever - Ars Technica has published what purports to be a review of the long-awaited shooter, but by the end of the first page my eyebrows were virtually in orbit and by the end of the second I was pretty sure that it's their April Fool's joke for this year.

Optics for insects - a classic example of what happens when geeks with too much time on their hands are given too much money as well, engineers at German manufacturing firm Micreon GmbH have used a laser micromachining system to make a pair of designer glasses for a housefly...

Musical mushrooms - and talking of geeks with questionable taste and too much time on their hands, one of the more unusual of the US Department Of Energy's large library of atomic bomb tests is this montage of footage set to Rossini's "William Tell Overture"...

Blogjects - hi-tech media guru Julian Bleecker has published a paper describing "the Internet of Things", his ideas for highly-connected autonomous devices, reminding me of the localizers of Vernor Vinge's marvellous "Deep" novels.

The consumer speaks - this user-created advert for the Chevy Tahoe SUV perfectly illustrates the downside of the viral marketing techniques that have recently become so popular with corporates: once you let your product's image loose on the Internet, you give up a large degree of control over it...

The fools on the hill - the MPAA have announced their plans to lure the consumer away from illegal movie downloads by providing them in a Windows-only, Internet Explorer-only, heavily DRM-restricted digital format that nevertheless costs twice as much as buying a DVD! Absurd...

Broadband wireless - UK ISP Pipex, funded by $25 million from Intel's venture capital arm, will be providing widespread broadband services to both businesses and consumers in major population centres using the new WiMAX standard. The roll-out will begin in London and Manchester next year.

 

3rd April

Having pointed a colleague to this web site, today, I realised that the Network Fan Counter was now woefully inaccurate and so have brought it up to date. As I should have expected, the numbers of both fans and LEDs etc have increased sharply since the last update a couple of years ago, and as I lost an entire PC installation when Ros and I parted ways that must mean that either the LEDs are breeding in there or that I've added enough additional hardware for several people. I shall choose to assume the former...

Meanwhile, just to add a couple more LEDs to the counter, I was out shopping for silicon sealant in B&Q today and came across something far less prosaic. I already have a couple of the ubiquitous eight-way surge-protected mains extensions for my AV hardware from electrical manufacturer Masterplug (unusually in this day and age, a company without an obvious web presence), but hadn't come across their Desktop Connection Centre before and was instantly smitten.

It's a neat little pod that clamps onto the edge of a desk, and basically acts as a pass-through for both power and data. It plugs into the mains to provide a readily-accessible 13A socket with basic surge protection, and a separate DC transformer powers a built-in four port USB 2 hub. Other sockets at front and rear provide pass-throughs for RJ-45 Ethernet, RJ-11 phone or DSL, and a 3.5mm stereo jack socket for headphones or audio line-in. In my environment, this has allowed me to replace the somewhat eccentric Adaptec X-Hub 7, and tidy a bunch of cables and my secondary network switch away out of sight under the desk, reducing the clutter that has become somewhat more obtrusive since I installed the pair of flat panel monitors recently. Keyed connectors on either side of the plastic housing would also allow multiple pods to be locked together, which could provide a very neat solution for a small office space where the PCs were kept under the desks. It's a good idea, certainly, and reasonably priced - and so far it appears to perform exactly as it should. Recommended.

 

2nd April

For the last few weekends I've been hoping for enough free time to start building one of the stockpile of model kits I accumulated a few years ago, and thanks to an early start this morning I managed to spend a few hours on the first of a series of science fiction models. The Maschinen Krieger (or "fighting machines", usually abbreviated to Ma.K.) kits were designed by the Japanese model maker and artist Kow Yokoyama in the early eighties, and became very popular thanks to extensive coverage in the hobby magazines of the day. Various companies have produced mass-market kits based on his work in the intervening years, and in spite of licensing difficulties and legal injunctions the full range is are now back in production - if still somewhat rare in this country.

The back-story involves a war between colonists resettling a once-devastated Earth and an occupying military government descended from the German Third Reich, and all the models have a deliciously retro WW2 look and feel to them. Armoured fighting suits of various types form the mainstay of the infantry (did the designer swallow Heinlein's Starship Troopers at an early age, one wonders?) and some excellent hover-tanks and flying gunships provide the heavy weapons. There are more than twenty kits in the range, of which I currently own nine thanks to a job lot found on eBay, and if I manage to acquire the majority of the others they will certainly make an impressive collection.

The quality of the kits seems very high, and unusually for designs like this they include etched metal parts, springs, lengths of fine wire and other oddments to provide a level of fine detail that wouldn't be possible with polystyrene components. These parts, together with the unusually high level of free-moving pieces in the design, means that they are challenging kits to make, and after three hours I've only managed to construct a pair of fully-articulated arms:

At some point the arms will be attached to the chassis of one of the more basic of the range, the SAFS "Super Armoured Fighting Suit" - and if mine looks even half as good as these wonderful examples on show at Starship Modeller I'll be very pleased indeed. Painting is going to make or break the finished product, though, and unfortunately that is not actually my strongest point... Nevertheless, when I bought the kits I also invested in one of the books that goes along with the range, the Ma.K. Chronicle And Encyclopedia, and although 99% of the text is Japanese it provides both excellent inspiration and additional painting guides to supplement the already fairly comprehensive sheets included with the kits. The popularity of the genre ensures a good number of fan sites around the web, too, if I need to "borrow" an idea or two for those finishing touches.

Watch this space - assuming that subsequent weekends permit! - for further developments...

 

1st April

This week I've been thoroughly wrapped up in the turn-based science fiction strategy game Laser Squad Nemesis, and as I write this Mike and I have just started facing off for our fifth game in a row. So far he's won most of them, but he's an old-hand at the game and I'm expecting to catch up somewhat once I've learned my way around. Even being repeatedly crushed like a bug is proving very entertaining, though, and I can thoroughly recommend the game to anyone who likes the whole real-time strategy genre but lacks the solid blocks of time to invest in Command & Conquer, XCom, Total Annihilation etc. There's a free demo which opens up both the single player and the online games, and it's well worth a look.

Meanwhile, taking a short break from the laser bolts zipping past my ears, some news links...

Looking down - courtesy of Autodesk founder John Walker, a little applet that displays the view of the earth that would be seen from a particular orbiting satellite. It's something of a fake, as most of the satellites aren't actually equipped with cameras, but hey... It's an interesting site overall.

Serving the consumer - British Telecom is in a snit with the online utility price comparison service uSwitch following allegations that the service offered to add BT to its list of suppliers for £40,000, together with a £50 commission for every customer who signed up following their recommendations.

Heads up - virtual reality headsets have been on the market for a decade now, in one form or another, but none of them have yet broken out of their extremely narrow niches. The latest offering, from Emagin, looks like perfectly competent hardware but somehow I don't see it being any different...

Impossible ID cards - on a similar note to my comments a few days ago about the various disasters that await the ID cards project, an article at BlairWatch suggests that the government won't be able to collect all the data required in time even if everything works as well as it possibly could!

I hate DRM - this new site is intended to act as a clearing house for DRM-related news and opinions. It's a touch sparse at present, though, and only time will tell whether it actually amounts to anything or not - there is already a fair bit of competition for attention elsewhere on the web, after all.

Leetspeek - at Wikipedia, an extremely comprehensive and informative entry on the underground geek language, from its origins in the phone phreaking communities of the seventies, via its growth alongside the initial expansion of the Internet, and it's current incarnation in the online gaming forums.

Tech chic - I've linked to the creator of this geek jewellery before, I think, but the Fractalspin store has a good range of other similar items as well and is worth a browse around. I have to say that I was making jewellery from resistors etc back in the early eighties, though, and it wasn't new even then...

The sound of silence - at the always-excellent Silent PC Review, a comprehensive article on the design and construction of a quiet, overclocked Pentium D system for multimedia processing. They've used a completely different approach than my Infinity4 system, and it's good to see the contrast.

And finally, small Utah-based PC supplier Totally Awesome Computers has closed following a period of poor sales, with the somewhat eccentric owner claiming that he is a victim of... well, it's not clear exactly what he is a victim of, but with tirades like this one from the final meeting with his staff last week it's clear that he's a victim of something:

“It’s too bad that all of the media in Utah are liars and murderers,” he said. “You just destroyed the greatest computer company of all time. We were the best in the world, the world champion. All this hatred was created by you. You’re basically angels of Satan. All I can say to the people in Utah is, please pray for all the news people.”

Indeed.

Closer to home, it was another good month in the stats, with the number of visits hovering around the high water mark and the number of page views setting another new record. Part of the traffic this month is thanks to the usual mentions at The Sideshow, and part from references at Arnie's Airsoft, Digital Spy and a few others - all very welcome!

What pleases me most is that the ratio of page views to visits continues to creep upwards - in other words, many people are staying to read two or three pages rather than just clicking in and clicking right out again, and as a large proportion of traffic still comes via Google this suggests that a fair number of them are finding that something other than the specific text they searched for is attracting their attention once they're here. Neat!   :-)

 

 

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