Up

 

EPICYCLE

 

19th December

Administrative update:

It's that busy time of the year again, so Epicycle is taking a welcome break for a week or two over christmas. What passes for normal service will resume in the new year.

A few quick snippets of news before I go on hiatus:

Big Brother is still watching - the Home Office response to a question in Parliament has revealed that around a third of people documented in the National DNA Database have never been charged with a crime, a figure eight times greater than in the response given earlier in the year. The database is already the world's largest repository of human DNA profiles, and given that anyone who is arrested by the police for any offence has a sample taken the situation will only get worse. Needless to say, this policy has been widely condemned by civil liberties groups, and also by the man who originally pioneered the DNA "fingerprinting" technique.

Cheap at twice the price - unlike the Xbox 360 and the PS3, which are running at something of a loss per unit sold (especially the latter!), it seems that Nintendo's oddly-named Wii costs so little to manufacture that even the expense of providing stronger wrists straps to people who have hurled the wireless controller through their television screen won't put too much of a dent in the profit margin.

Under the radar - speculation that Apple is about to announce a smartphone of some kind has been rife, this autumn, but in fact home-networking specialist Linksys has sneakily used the obvious "iPhone" name for their new VoIP handset. Whether this will put a crimp in Apple's naming plans remains to be seen, as does whether the notoriously litigious company will sue to protect the "i" branding that they are increasingly treating as their own personal property.

 

15th December

I've just started reading George Gilder's "The Silicon Eye", an account of the digital imaging company Foveon and its founders, and although I'm not so fond of the rather flippant style in comparison to the other tech industry books I've read recently it does contain some wonderful anecdotes. For example, IBM's official account of the invention of the ground-breaking single transistor DRAM chip is very much as expected, involving "many months of work", a "disciplined innovation process", and "a unique research environment"...

But the way legendary chip design guru Robert Dennard relates it (and he was there!) is rather different. A lunchtime drinking session had become unusually competitive, and by the time the engineers made it back to the office it was clear that they were in no fit state to carry on with their work. Accordingly, it was decided that they should undertake some "Really Important Work" instead, and after a heated discussion about the current state of the art it was agreed that inventing a better memory technology was vital to the company's continued success. Various ideas were casually batted around, and in short order a solution emerged - the design that is still essentially at the heart of the vast majority of modern silicon memory devices.

The connection between clever people, alcohol, and technological progress has rarely been discussed in the literature, with most advances being attributed to long hours spent labouring in laboratories our sweating over workstations - but I suspect that a lot more leaps forward have been provoked by late night (or even midday) consumption of ethanol than is generally acknowledged...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Taxation without representation - the payment made to Universal for each Zune music player has already raised a few eyebrows, but now it looks as if Microsoft might end up paying a second tax to the Alliance of Artists and Recording Companies. This dates back to the notorious "Home taping is killing music" campaign (yeah, like that happened) which resulted in the Audio Home Recording Act of 1982, and obliges manufacturers of recording devices to pay "voluntary" royalties to the AARC. The Zune may well fall into this category because of its facilities to record directly from FM radio and share music with other Zunes.

Taxation reform - on a related note, in Europe electronics manufacturers are fighting to escape similar levies mandated by the EU. Also dating back to the era when home cassette recorders were being touted as the end of the music industry, the taxes allegedly to compensate for losses due to piracy have expanded from blank tapes and CDs (they killed DAT almost completely, relegating it to data backup) to hardware ranging from MP3 players, cell phones, and all varieties of other audio hardware. The Copyright Levies Reform Alliance has been lobbying hard on behalf of the manufacturers to have these charges put aside, but although they had received some indications of support from the legislature the EU has now decided to study the issue further before taking any action.

Stifling innovation - the Japanese programmer of the Winny P2P file-sharing tool (not one I've heard of until now, I have to admit!) has been tried and found guilty of enabling copyright infringement, and fined 1.5m or about 6,500. Although the size of the fine is trivial in comparison to cases against P2P software companies in the US and elsewhere, Japanese industry groups are concerned that the ruling will deter developers from creating new technologies that could conceivably be subverted to illicit ends. Encryption systems and file-sharing tools are obvious candidates, but end users are incredibly resourceful and the uses to which new software will be put cannot always be predicted...

Gone phishing - online bank fraud in the UK has grown 8,000 per cent over the last two years, according to the financial watchdog FSA, representing almost 50 million being stolen from bank accounts during the last eleven months alone. Part of the increase can be attributed to improved detection rates, but mostly its from the ever-increasing bombardment of misleading email messages and the ever-increasing number of people who are taken in by them. The FSA has rejected calls for US-style laws to force organisations to disclose that confidential information has been leaked or stolen, however, allowing companies such as the one that lost my credit card details earlier in the year to hide their security weaknesses and continue as if nothing had happened.

Sue and be damned - memory device manufacturer SanDisk is embroiled in a lawsuit over its newly-launched MP3 players, following allegations from Italian company Sisvel that their intellectual property is being infringed. Sisvel (and its US subsidiary Audio MPEG) licenses a number of music-related patents from Philips and others, and insists that all MP3 players are covered by their patents. Apple, Microsoft, Pioneer, and Motorola have all acquiesced to these demands, leaving SanDisk standing pretty much alone. Sisvel and its subsidiary are no stranger to litigation, either, having already sued Thomson (current owner of other MP3 patents originating with compression pioneer Fraunhofer), Creative Labs, and Samsung over similar allegations of infringement.

Peak puffing - a report from industry analysts Gartner suggests that the blogging phenomenon will peak next year and then level out at around 100 million active bloggers. Their prediction is based on the idea that everybody who wants to start a blog (and stick with it!) has already done so, but this doesn't take into account the fact that large sections of the world's population has little or no Internet access at this stage - China already has an estimated 17 million bloggers in spite of government restrictions and poor connectivity, and given their vast population there's obviously plenty of room for growth in that country alone. I disagree with their definition of an "active" blog as one that is updated at least once every three months, however - in my opinion once a week is more of a sensible minimum...

The gospel according to Bill - in an interview with a group of tech bloggers Microsoft's departing chairman has admitted that there are huge problems with all current implementations of DRM, and that it "causes too much pain for legitimate buyers" because of constant problems distinguishing between legal and illegal uses. Although he didn't discuss Microsoft's future intentions, Bill's advice in the short-term is that "people should just buy a CD and rip it. You are legal then" - although of course this fails to take into account countries such as the UK and Australia where this is not actually legal at present, or the RIAA's insistence that ripping is not covered by the fair use legislation even in the US!

 

14th December

I would be expressing relief that at least tomorrow would be the end of the week, except that unfortunately a PFY and myself have to spend part of Saturday reconfiguring the clustered SQL database that holds our main SAP system. The procedure itself is relatively straight-forward (although I have to admit to being very reassured by the presence of said PFY, who has probably forgotten more about SQL than I'm ever likely to know) but the content of the databases in question adds a certain tension to the project. No rest for the wicked, I guess...

Meanwhile, while we nerve ourselves, all the news that's fit to blog - starting with an obituary.

The old guard passes - Storage pioneer Al Shugart has died at the age of 76 following unsuccessful open-heart surgery in November. Following a long career at IBM, culminating in a role managing their highly successful disk storage division, he left in 1973 to found Shugart Associates and then, after its acquisition by Xerox, in 1979 he founded Shugart Technology along with the eponymous Finis Conner. The company soon changed its name to Seagate, ultimately absorbing a number of competitors (including Maxtor, Quantum and, ironically, Connor) to become the most powerful company in the market. In 1998 he resigned to start a venture capital firm, and at this time he also became involved in a number of political and humanitarian organisations with which he remained associated until his death. Shugart's companies have been instrumental in the creation and development of large and small scale hard disks, 8" and 5" floppy disks, and the SCSI and Fibre Channel interfaces; Shugart himself has been a fixture in the technology industry for almost five decades and will be sadly missed.

Busted - An attempt by Sony to promote the PS using a fake blog and planted YouTube videos has backfired following almost immediate exposure on various discussion forums. The general consensus was that the site was simultaneously too desperately hip to be convincing and too full of marketing phrases, and Sony's marketing company Zipatoni confessed their deception after only a couple of days, making this one of the more pathetic attempts in a growing series of failed PR stunts that have dogged the company in recent years.

Retroviral marketing - on a related note, the FTC has announced that paying people to pose as ordinary members of the public and pitch or promote electronics products in online forums etc is unethical, something that has been blindingly obvious since stories of the apparently highly successful and profitable practice started to circulate on the web over the summer. Typically, though, the FTC has refused to initiate a general investigation of the industry, instead offering to address complaints on a case-by-case basis - and considering how sneaky and convincing some of the shills can be that's hardly going to help much.

Multiple identities - Parallels is an emulator that allows Windows applications to be run on a Mac, and a new feature in the latest beta provides the facility to hide the Windows desktop and run apps in what appears to be a native environment. It seems to be popular already, in spite of the scorn poured on all things Microsoft by Mac fanboys (the same scorn that they used to pour on all things Intel, as it happens) so evidently there are still some things lacking from the world of Mac applications and utilities that only Windows software can provide...   :-)

A spectacular failure - a disaffected New Jersey sysadmin who planted a logic bomb in his company's networks after failing to receive as large a bonus as he expected has been sentenced to 97 months in prison without hope of parole. It is estimated that his actions caused $3m worth of damage and crashed around 2000 servers in 400 branch offices, but his plans to profit from a fall in the company's share prices that he hoped would follow the destruction came to nothing when the stock remained stable. Both employers and employees could learn a lesson from this, I think.

You know. for kids - Boing Boing points us to a geek gift guide at Street Tech, and one of the featured items in the second instalment is robotics development kit called Picocricket. It's based around the highly successful Lego Mindstorms controller, and includes a number of other Lego components, but its focus is on incorporating microelectronics into toys, puppets, sculptures, crafts and the like. Given the recent commotion over "friendly" household technology like the Chumby, this is a very interesting project set.

An enlightened viewpoint - Boing Boing reports on an interview with South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, whose attitude to fans downloading episodes of the show from the Internet is a breath of fresh air:  "We're always in favour of people downloading. Always. ...  Its how a lot of people see the show. And its never hurt us. We've done nothing but been successful with the show. How could you ever get mad about somebody who wants to see your stuff?"  Indeed.

And finally, two of the great counter-culture icons from the seventies have made an unexpected reappearance. Cult author Robert Anton Wilson, although seriously ill (if in considerably more comfort thanks to generous donations raised via the web) has managed to put together a weblog. There are only three entries so far, and they're as gnomic as one would expect from the creator of Illuminatus, but you can bet I'll be keeping my eye on it. Elsewhere, to promote a disturbingly expensive book of photographs and notes by the late and much lamented Hunter S. Thompson, some of the pictures are featured at a gallery in Los Angeles. Fortunately for those of less excessive means there's a fascinating taster on the web - from an elegant nude of 1st wife Sandy on Big Sur, to the West Coast Angels partying, via still life arrangements with guns and typewriters. Marvellous stuff...

 

13th December

This is turning into a looooong week... Imagine me groaning quietly to myself as I upload this.

Tit-for-tat - following a decision by Swedish ISP Perspektiv to block its users from connecting to controversial Russian music site AllOfMP3.com, the equally controversial torrent site The Pirate Bay has decided to block Perspektiv users from connecting to its own systems. AllOfMP3 is perfectly legal under Swedish law, and TPB clearly considers themselves to be in a similar position - it will be interesting if the blocks inspire frustrated Perspektiv customers to make enough of a fuss that the original censorship is removed!

Lip service - the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was mandated by Congress in 2004 on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, but thanks to White House delays has only just been sworn in - and in the intervening years it has quietly morphed from a fierce watchdog for civil liberties to an organisation designed to reassure the US public that warrant-less domestic wiretapping, pointless no-fly lists, and imprisonment and torture of suspects without charge is all for their own good...

Foiled again - a recipe for fooling the Vista product activation licensing system is circulating, which uses a VMWare image to provide a virtual KMS (the Key Management Server used within large organisations for ease of administration) to generate valid product keys for the Enterprise and Business editions of the client OS. This method will not bypass the Windows Genuine Advantage checks, however, and the fact that the scheme requires a fake external KMS suggests that the built-in
licensing security is fairly tough.

Polling the graveyard - the media industry has always been notorious for its willingness to distort reality in support of increasingly tenuous claims about losses from music sharing and movie downloads, and a recent advertisement in the Financial Times contained the signatures of 4,000 musicians who allegedly want the length of copyright on recordings in the UK extended from 50 to 95 years - in spite of the fact that a number of them are extremely dead. Time for a quick complaint to the
Advertising Standards Authority, I think...

Labour relations - Bunnie Huang, co-founder of the cuddly Wi-Fi appliance company Chumby and notorious hacker of Xboxes, has just returned from China where he has been arranging for the manufacture of the aforementioned wireless beanbag. His report suggests that working conditions are not necessarily as bleak as they appeared from the reports about the Foxconn factories that manufacture Apple hardware, which caused such a stir back in the summer.

Lunar real estate - it's been clear for a very long time that the companies selling title to plots of land on the moon (and also those offering to name craters, stars etc after your friends and loved ones,) had no legal basis for their claims, but now that NASA is planning a permanent moon base the organisation has quoted a 2004 ruling from the International Institute of Space Law to officially dismiss the entire idea and so avoid tedious arguments about paying rent or trespassing on other people's property.

On the quiet - Apple users have been surprised to discover that the long-standing facility to send faulty hardware back for repair by mail has been quietly withdrawn, leaving only the option of taking the unit to an authorised repair centre. Investigations have suggested that Apple hasn't actually informed either the AppleCare Protection Plan customers who were eligible for this service, or the Apple resellers who are suddenly receiving unusually high numbers of systems for repair.

A welcome reprieve - a few months ago DARPA announced that new federal regulations would prevent it from offering further cash prizes for winners of their increasingly successful (and expensive!) self-guided robotic vehicle contests, but evidently their hearts are in the right place and they have now managed to search down the back of the departmental sofas well enough to produce $3.5 million in prize money to fuel next year's keenly anticipated 60 mile urban challenge.

Sublime to ridiculous - the saga of the sex.com domain name shows no sign of coming to an end, with the con-man who stole the coveted domain being released from jail in order to retrieve from hidden offshore bank accounts the millions of dollars that he owes the original owner. In a further twist, on the day of Cohen's release his notorious Mexican lawyer, who may also have access to the stolen money, was the victim of an unsuccessful (and apparently unrelated) assassination attempt. Bizarre stuff...

Martian canals - evidence for the historic existence of liquid water on Mars has been growing steadily over the last few years, but recent surveys by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft suggest that it is present right now. Comparisons of photographs taken in 2000 with more recent images show definite signs that new gullies are being formed in the side of crater walls, and their shapes are startlingly reminiscent of known terrestrial patterns of water erosion. It certainly is very convincing.

And finally, for the geek who has (almost) everything, Biohazard is another ultra-cool wrist-watch, but as with all the others on the market it was apparently designed to make actually telling the time as difficult as possible. Another geek gift, equally wonderful and probably equally useless, is The Cubes, a set of miniature office workers (half Dilbert, half Lego) each inhabiting their own six inch cubicle. My soon-to-be-ex-PFY has bought a set of these, and the one he unboxed today is really sweet.   :-)

 

12th December

It's only Tuesday, but it's already been one of those weeks... Yesterday one of our two LTO-3 tape libraries decided to go belly up, and after some careful diagnostics Dell decided that the spring that tensioned the jaws of the picker had broken. This lead to the library becoming convinced that it had a tape trapped in the picker, and its futile efforts to unload it would have been quite amusing if there weren't forty-odd servers waiting to be backed up... Dell sent an engineer in the evening, and although the replacement of the picker assembly was straight-forward, when it came time to reconnect the library to the SAN I misread the labels on the two fibre channel cables linking the library to our redundant pair of switches and so the carefully-crafted zoning ensured that none of the servers could map to it. Unfortunately, the resulting symptoms were identical to a problem I'd already seen a few times when the library had been offline for any length of time, and so I wasted almost an hour chasing a completely imaginary problem before the engineer gently suggested that I swapped the cables to see what happened.

This fixed the basic problem right away, of course, but unfortunately by then I had completely deleted the library objects from the Backup Exec central admin server and retargeted all the jobs to another server, which took some considerable fuss and some unscheduled server reboots to resolve. All is well now, but it made for a long day.

Meanwhile...

A (small) step in the right direction - legislation to be considered in the next congressional session could ensure that all electronic voting machines produce a voter-verified paper audit trail, banning the current touchscreen-only systems. The proposed framework is only the beginning, however, and any sensible legislation will have to go a lot further to guarantee free, fair and accurate elections.

Killer NIC on trial - I've been extremely dubious about the allegedly accelerated network card, especially given its $280 price tag, and a review at [H]ard|OCP does little to change my mind. The article shuns "canned benchmarks" and relies instead on subjective impressions of gamers, which frankly is a lousy way of testing anything, especially a piece of network hardware...

Next-gen RTS - Supreme Commander is a new RTS game from the creators of the popular Total Annihilation, and although it's still in beta the screenshots at GameSpot are certainly stunning - it will be interesting to see how it compares to the imminent Command & Conquer 3. My favourite was always Warzone 2100, though, and I've just discovered that it has been released as open source.

Head to head - The recent releases of games on both the Xbox 360 and PS3 platforms allows the graphics to be compared fairly easily, and it looks as if the Xbox has a clear advantage in most games tested. I was greatly amused by the second comment posted, though, where a certain fedex63 claims that "the graphics aren't that important". He may be the only one who thinks this way...  :-)

Born again - fans of the cult SF television series Firefly are campaigning to have further episodes of the series made, but in the meantime it seems that a deal has just been agreed that will turn the show into an online multiplayer game. For a series that lasted only for a pilot and thirteen episodes (leaving aside the the movie, the comics, the books and the role-playing game) it sure is popular!

Not for the family - the ever-litigious Apple Computer has brought its lawyers to bear on LoveLabs, the UK manufacturer of an iPod-driven sex toy. Although it's pretty clear that the suit is intended to cleanse the market of a product Apple deems unsuitable, the excuse being used is that some of the iBuzz marketing infringes on Apple's copyright. It's pretty weak...

Loose lips - Tesco has joined the ever-increasing ranks of organisations that have managed to dispose of confidential customer information in their trash, this time shipping plastic carrier bags filled with credit card information to a recycling centre and leaving them unattended. Is it any wonder that identify theft is now one of the UK's growth industries?

 

8th December

Last autumn my company extended and refurbished the computer room, and part of the project was to install a pair of 30kW aircon units to cope with the thermal demands of almost one hundred Dell PowerEdge servers and their associated network and storage infrastructure. Unfortunately they have not lived up to expectations, with the waste water pump on one unit failing three times in the last nine months, each time flooding the under-floor to the depth of several centimetres and threatening a genuine catastrophe - by pure chance we noticed the water in time, but if it had been left just a little longer the level would have risen high enough to short out the 3-phase power cables feeding the server cabinets. Ouch!

Last night the second aircon unit decided to join the fun and games, and when one of my PFYs checked the room first thing in the morning he realised right away from the comparatively tropical temperature that it was no longer providing any cooling at all. A reset of the compressor only lasted ten minutes before it tripped out again, so it was clear that something was seriously wrong. A maintenance engineer arrived in short order, but unfortunately by then the heat had built up inside our Salicru UPS and that decided to trip out as well, taking the inverter offline and throwing the unit into emergency bypass. Just to add insult to injury, the aircon engineer soon discovered that the waste water pump on the failed unit had also died, and so in fact another flood had been narrowly averted by the compressor failure!

When I left, my PFY was waiting for another engineer to diagnose whether the UPS problem was just a safety measure or a genuine hardware failure, but in any case it was enough for us to cancel some site-wide electrical tests scheduled for tomorrow morning - we just couldn't take the risk. As if that wasn't enough, at around the same time as the UPS went belly-up I discovered that one of our two PowerVault 136T LTO-3 tape libraries had developed a picker fault, rendering the library useless and stranding forty-odd servers without their nightly backup. I re-configured the other backup subsystem to jump across to the affected subnet and attach to the most critical of the servers without too much fuss, but all-in-all it really has been one of those days and I'm damn glad that the weekend is here at last! Oh, the trials and tribulations of the working sysadmin...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

The best form of defence - Sharman Networks, owners of the P2P file-sharing utility Kazaa, is being sued by one of the RIAA's victims for encouraging her into the murky world of copyright infringement by "deceptively" marketing the software as legal and by sneakily sharing out her media files onto the Internet behind her back.

Blu-ray ailing - a market analysis company says that Sony's next-gen video format is not highly thought of around the web, at present, with far more positive comments being made about the competing HD-DVD standard. I expect that this kind of automated text scanning will have been heavily influenced by the disappointment surrounding Blu-ray and the PS3, however.

Under fire - environmental activists Greenpeace have been a frequent critic of Apple's record of pollution in recent months, but the company has been trying hard to ignore their complaints. The latest Green Guide to Electronics lists Apple at the bottom of the league table, however, with a rating of just 2.7 out of 10 - will that make Steve Jobs sit up and take notice?

Grooming - McAfee claims that the computer underground is recruiting the next generation of "cyber-criminals" in very much the same way that the KGB recruited high-flying academics as spies in the forties and fifties. Like The Register, however, I have to say that I consider the idea somewhat far-fetched.

Just say "no" - Western IP telephony firms such as Skype and Net2Phone may be prohibited from selling their services to Indian businesses if new legislation is passed. The proposals are designed to protect licensed domestic firms, who have to pay a 12% service tax and a 6% share of revenues from VoIP services they provide.

Better than life - Dan is pontificating again, this time on the definite possibility that once video games are sufficiently immersive and compelling (and that time is approaching very fast) real life will suffer badly in comparison, leading to the inevitable decline of civilization and collapse into pointless hedonistic trivia. Indeed.

 

7th December

Still catching up with the tail end of last week's news - but with some recent stories mixed in at last:

Are hackers winning? - FBI figures suggest that the money to be made on the malware black market, selling 'botnets and adware trojans to unscrupulous advertisers, now rivals the revenues to be gained from the anti-virus and security software industry. It is extremely difficult to generate accurate figures about criminal activity, and I'm dubious of the reported $62bn cost of malware over the last year, but in any case there is no doubt that commercial malware is a growing industry. The anti-virus vendors are currently predicting doom and gloom as always, but there's definitely an element of truth there too.

Personal firewall - given the growing unease about the appalling levels of insecurity provided by the growing number of RFID devices we are finding ourselves obliged to carry, a personal radio jamming device that only permits RFIDs to communicate when and where the user wishes sounds like a great idea. RFID technology does undoubtedly have certain benefits, mostly in terms of ease-of-use, but at present the serious compromises brought by manufacturers' and governments' fundamental failings to understand security requirements more than neutralise the desirable aspects.

Civil disobedience - a poll carried out on behalf of the Daily Telegraph claims that the Blair Government's plans for compulsory ID cards are even less popular than previously realised. Of the 1979 people sampled, 39% opposed the basic idea and 8% said that they would refuse to sign up to the scheme even under threat of "a small fine". If this is truly representative of the population as a whole, the government could be facing 23.4 million people who disliked the scheme, and 4.8 million active opponents - figures that might just give the Home Office pause for thought...

15 minutes of fame - in contrast the the US media industry's attempt to shame their victims into submission (along with the massively disproportionate financial penalties, of course), in France a 29 year old woman convicted of downloading music from the P2P networks in 2004 has become something of a celebrity. Her defence was that she only downloaded music in order to discover new artists she would then buy or see live, a claim that has been supported by a number of academic studies showing that in fact the P2P networks promote music sales rather than harming them.

Hitting them where it hurts - the Washington Attorney General's office has received a large settlement in the first suit brought under the state's new anti-spyware law. Secure Computer's "Spyware Cleaner" product, in fact a scam that damaged users' PCs and urged upgrades to even more expensive and useless software, was marketed by spam emails and misleading pop-up adverts. Although the company has since gone out of business, president Paul Burke must pay $200,000 in penalties, $75,000 in compensation to Washington residents, and $725,000 to cover the state's legal fees.

Identity crisis - Palm (the hardware manufacturer) has paid a relatively reasonable $44m to PalmSource (the software manufacturer, once part of the same company) for a perpetual licence for the source code to "Garnet", the V5.4 version of the PalmOS operating system. This appears to reaffirm their commitment to the once-popular PDA OS, following considerable speculation that future handhelds would be based on Access Linux, or Symbian, or Windows Mobile, or whatever was the particular flavour of the month at the time.

Made in China - the PRC is about to come the world's major source of spam email, with rapid growth over the few months bringing it to around 26% of all spam filtered by Irish email monitoring firm IE Internet. The US has seen a significant fall from 48% to 27% in the same time period, as the spammers are moving overseas in response to state anti-spam laws. The UK is currently in third place at 21%, and considering the small size of the country in comparison to America and China that says a lot...  :-(

Absent without leave - The register has been poking fun at erstwhile-Unix vendor SCO (a slow-moving target if ever I saw one) because of errors on their web site, and after six days of merciless teasing the dead links and spelling mistakes have now mostly been repaired. A good look around the site is not likely to reassure potential licensees, however, with seven month old software engineer vacancies (in India, no less, a country that currently seems to have more programmers than beggars) apparently still unfilled and the odd broken link still scattered around.

Out of China - deterred by the stiff licensing fees required to manufacture DVD player hardware, in 2003 China created their own competing standard. Enhanced Versatile Disc (EVD) is basically a DVD using a more efficient data compression technique, and although it has failed to make much impact even inside the PRC the format is far from dead. Inserted, the technology ministry has repositioned EVD as a rival to the next generation formats HD-DVD and Blu-ray, and twenty Chinese manufactures have just unveiled a full range of EVD-compliant players ready for export next year.

Democracy betrayed - at The Sideshow Avedon Carol is cross with the Congressional committee that advises the U.S. Election Assistance Commission for failing to recommend that states avoid electronic voting systems without an independent audit mechanism, and with The Washington Post for failing to give adequate coverage to such a serious story. Given the widespread reports of serious problems with electronic voting machines in the recent midterm elections, its hard to see how what purports to be a panel of experts can have failed to appreciate the enormous risks involved.

Curves win over angles - The Sideshow also points to a Daily Mail article on the recent "reality" show Make Me A Supermodel, which I'm very glad I didn't watch. Apparently one of the two female finalists was roundly criticised for being "too fat" at size 12, while her main rival, a walking skeleton more reminiscent of a famine victim than an object of beauty, was praised by the judges for her "sensational" body. I wish the former well, wherever her career takes her, and hope that the latter gets help with what is clearly a serious mental illness.

 

6th December

So my senior PFY took me aside the other week to tell me that he was moving on to greener pastures, working as the infrastructure and systems design specialist for a company that provides managed services to legal firms. This is a real blow, as he's been with the team for several years and is by now an excellent all-rounder - which is why he's leaving, of course, as within a small computer department the best approach to advancing his career is to wait for me behind the computer room door with a baseball bat... I can sympathise with this, as my own career path is currently extremely similar (although in my case it would be my manager, the car park and a shotgun) but in any case he will be sadly missed.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Sneaky - a file that purports to be a crack for the product activation in the recently released Windows Vista OS is circulating around the web, but in fact it is a delivery mechanism for some nasty little malware app. As could be expected, some of the Slashdot fanboys are blaming Microsoft themselves for the trojan, which I think is very unlikely.

On the market - on a related note, pirated versions of the Vista RTM on DVD are freely available in Thailand for just a few dollars, with the proviso that one has to set the PC's date forward to 2099 before installation. It is alleged that this will remove the need for activation, but the hack's effect on the Windows Genuine Advantage system is currently unknown....

An OS, not just for christmas - The Register has asked a broad collection of anti-virus companies and security experts whether Joe Public should buy his new PC with Windows XP this christmas, or wait for Vista in January. Most agree that Vista is an improvement, but given that it's not yet available to consumers the entire article is somewhat moot...

A fruity little number - Dan points to a 2002 article in The New Yorker which reveals that in a sufficiently blind testing, some experts can't reliably tell the difference between red wine and white! Many people have suspected for years that wine buffs are full of hot air, but this pretty much puts the final nail in the coffin for me...

Back and forth - the results of a long-term study into the health risks of mobile phone use in Denmark have been published, and there is no detectable increase in the incidence of cancer among users. A sample size of 400,000 and a trial period of almost 25 years in some cases makes this is a very convincing set of figures.

Blind leading the blind - New Zealand is poised to adopt legislation remarkably similar to the fatally-flawed US DMCA, and Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow is puzzled as the DMCA has manifestly failed to prevent illicit copying, but instead is regularly used to stifle competition and bully individuals. The explanation is clear, however - as always, just follow the money...

A bigger bucket - at Tom's Hardware, a fascinating analysis of the changes in the hard disk market over the last fifteen years. Although the capacities of desktop drives have soared from a few tens of megabytes to 750Gb, performance has failed to increase at anything like the same rate, and from one viewpoint has actually decreased instead!

Chemically assisted - gaming organisation the Cyberathlete Professional League is to institute a program of drugs testing from next year. Given the money at stake in competitive computer gaming these days this policy was widely seen as inevitable, but some say that it marks another step towards acceptance of gaming as a proper sport.

And, finally, seasonal interference - shiny christmas decorations and flashing tree lights can cause havoc with Wi-Fi signal propagation, it seems, and even the humble christmas tree itself is an excellent absorber of the 2.4GHz frequency. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the fourth floor of my office to remove all their decorations. Muharharhar!

 

5th December

First day back at the office after a long break, and somewhat shattered from the backlog... Before I retire to lie on my back and groan gently for the rest of the evening, then, a few snippets of news:

Fair and balanced - Future Force Company Commander, a new game to promote interest in the US armed forces, plays well but has some curious limitations programmed in - the enemy never learns, it seems, and the wonderful military high-technology the game showcases is 100% reliable and cannot be hammed or interfered with.

A small step - Boing Boing brings news that the Australian Attorney General responsible for introducing anti-fair use legislation on behalf of the media industry has been forced to moderate the terms of the bill, permitting music to be downloaded to MP3 players and television programmes recorded onto VCRs.

The tentacles, the tentacles! - a new desktop hub from the ever stylish LaCie resembles a glossy white squid, or perhaps a triffid or a traditional anarchist's bomb... Its eight semi-rigid arms contain USB and FireWire ports, coloured LED lights, and a miniature fan. Now, if only they'd sell one in black or industrial grey to match my own desktop!

Charmingly quirky - Sony's new PS3 can play games designed for the PSOne if you have the game CD, and can download PSOne games from Sony's online services for transfer to a PSP, but for some bizarre reason these downloaded games can't actually be played on the PS3 itself. One really does wonder about Sony, these days...

One law for the rich - as reported last week, the CEO of Warner Music has admitted that his children have probably downloaded music via the P2P networks, but unlike other children who are guilty of the same heinous crime for some reason their family will not be hounded for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars worth damages by the RIAA.

Reality bites - as a follow-up to yesterday's news of anti-poverty billboards being erected in Second Life, another charity has created a homeless teenager living in a cardboard box on the street. Given the levels of obsession that SL players can exhibit, anything that reminds them of the harsh realities of real life can't be bad - but frankly I doubt that many of them will actually notice.  :-(

If you can't beat 'em - following the recent wave of Beatles "mash-ups", most of which have been censored into oblivion by rights-holder EMI, it seems inevitable that two of the original musicians, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (together with producer George Martin) have released their own remixes from the original session tapes. Unlike the others, it is of course a commercial work...

 

4th December

A quick handful of random tech links...

Second thoughts - Eric Allman, creator of the original email routing system Sendmail, says that he would never have agreed to work on the project if he'd realised how challenging it was going to be.

Protection racket - Google is offering nine-figure "licensing fees" to major media companies in order to buy some time free from lawsuits while they sanitise and formalise the YouTube service.

Wake up - anti-poverty campaigners The World Development Movement have erected billboards in the online game Second Life to remind players that the real world is more deserving of their attention.

Hermetically sealed - a backlash against the ubiquitous but almost impenetrable plastic blister packs is likely to bring a fundamental change in packaging techniques right across the industry.

Management shuffle - outspoken and controversial PS3 evangelist Ken Kutaragi has been promoted within Sony's entertainment division, leading some to predict that there will never be a PS4 console.

Graphical investigations - chip manufacturers NVIDIA and AMD have received a flurry of subpoenas from the US Department Of Justice as part of an investigation into the graphics industry.

A new flaw - all current versions of Adobe's Acrobat software leave a security hole in Internet Explorer that could allow the PC to be compromised when a PDF file is opened from the web.

Unusual candour - Seagate's PR types must be gnashing their teeth in frustration following the CEO's admission that his products "help people buy more crap - and watch porn".

Lower than a snake - the character of the MPAA has been highlighted again following reports that it successfully lobbied against a law prohibiting companies from lying in order to obtain information.

Not all that - anti-virus company Sophos has revealed that the current three biggest malware threats, Stratio-Zip, Netsky-D and MyDoom-O, infect the new Vista OS as readily as they do Windows XP.

Restrictive behaviour - the movie studios are demanding that Apple either implements significantly tougher DRM on downloaded films or remove the media from iTunes altogether.

Geek chic - just in time for christmas, a selection of jewellery made from resistors, diodes, ICs, etc. The idea certainly isn't new (I did it myself in the eighties!) but the ideas are nicely implemented.

Inside Microsoft - the company's R&D arm has opened its doors to Information Week, and has revealed some of the next-generation security technologies currently under development.

No end to it - the FBI are using bugs concealed in cell phones (or perhaps a software hack) to eavesdrop on suspected criminals, a technique that works even when the phone is switched off.

And finally, Scott Adams' Dilbert blog has joined the growing groundswell of sites encouraging the Microsoft ber-geek to run for high office. He'd get my vote, for sure!

 

2nd December

The long-awaited fan tray for my Acoustirack server cabinet was delivered to the office while I was at home fighting the 'flu bug this week, and so I combined a quick visit to delete the worst of my email backlog with a trip to bring the tray home - and just as with the cabinet itself, I have to say that I'm not completely happy with it. Installation was a touch annoying with the cabinet already in place and working, as I had to unfold a stepladder to get up high enough, but apart from that the plastic twist fasteners attaching both roof and tray components to the chassis made the swap quite straight-forward.

The new tray is made of the same thin metal as the "dummy" tray it replaces, and the additional weight of the fans and transformer makes it a decidedly wobbly, floppy affair to handle. That wasn't a very reassuring sensation, but once the unit was safely installed in the roof of the cabinet everything seemed sufficiently solid again.

Rather than using the 240V fans usually found in cabinet cooling trays, Acousti has opted instead for six 12V units fed via a laptop-style transformer. The fans are Minebea-Matsushita 4715KL-04W-B30 models, and although Acousti's specs list them at 94.4CFM and 41dBA, in fact my own research suggests that they are actually 108CFM and 42.5dBA. In any event, they are the loudest 120mm fans I've heard in recent years, and the relatively high 2950rpm rotational speed gives an annoyingly whiny component to the noise that actually seems largely undiminished by both the acoustic foam and the silicone rubber anti-vibration mounts. With both the cabinet doors closed almost nothing can be heard of the dozen or more 120mm fans in the servers and disk arrays (not to mention the large handful of smaller fans elsewhere in the peripheral hardware) but you sure-as-hell can hear the cabinet fans themselves... In fact, the overall noise level with the doors closed and the fans installed is broadly equivalent to that with the doors open and no fans - an observation that makes me wonder whether the entire purchase has been a complete waste of time!

Right now I'm closely monitoring ambient temperatures inside the cabinet, and spot temperatures in the servers themselves, and although the former are a touch higher than I'd like (and still rising as I write this!) the actual CPUs, disks etc. seem to be stable within an acceptable working range. I really hope that it stays this way as the evening progresses...

I have to admit that in its current form, and at its current price, I cannot recommend the Acoustirack. The build quality is acceptable in spite of the list of flaws I discussed in my initial report, but for something costing such a significant amount of money "acceptable" isn't actually good enough. Secondly, I'm dubious about the capacity for effective exhaust airflow through the heavily baffled rear door, and wouldn't recommend that anyone contemplated a passive cooling strategy for anything but the least thermally demanding server installation - but if an active cooling is required unfortunately the addition of the optional fan tray seems to completely negate the undoubted benefits of the acoustic foam! Given that the very best non-soundproofed 42U cabinets on the market go for less than a third of the price of an equivalent Acoustirack, without the dramatic overall silencing effect I expected it's hard to see where the benefits lie.

I shall relate these thoughts to Acousti, as I did with my initial comments on the cabinet build quality, and see what transpires. Their reply to my last email was certainly friendly and interested, if also decidedly non-committal, but these whining fans are something of a deal-breaker and in fact I am hopeful that they will offer replacements. Watch this space for any news.

 

1st December

Ok, now where was I?

I'd better start by catching up with my backlog of links before they become uselessly stale - so buckle in for a high-speed trip through last week's news...

Purely mythical - a wild rumour that Ford car stereos could be used to decode digital TV signals led to a crime spree in Cardiff over the weekend, with 205 vehicles being broken into.

Spreading the word - a proof-of-concept adware trojan has been developed for the Mac, silently installing itself as a system library using unspecified vulnerabilities in OS X.

Signs of progress - The Sideshow reports that the US National Institute of Standards and Technology is recommending that the main type of electronic voting machine should be decertified from use.

Legal niceties - the UK's chief surveillance commissioner has warned that automatic number plate recognition cameras could qualify as illegal covert surveillance under current codes of practice.

Open season for hackers - the security company Scanit claims that many call centres using VoIP telephony have woefully inadequate security, with 7 out of 10 calls being open to interception.

Unlocking - the US Copyright Office's third review of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has finally allowed American cellphone users to transfer their phones to alternate networks.

Give and take - unfortunately, along with other improvements, the review has failed to legitimise media format shifting, and the hard-won right to reverse engineer net censor blacklists has also lapsed.

DRM - an executive at the IFPI, another of the plethora of international recording industry associations, has announced that "DRM as we know it is over", although it certainly doesn't look it from here.

Fighting City Hall - the EFF continues its recent barrage of lawsuits against the US Government with a suit against the DHS over their handling of passenger information obtained from European airlines.

You go, girl! - an elderly Texas woman has joined the growing number of victims who are deciding to fight back against the RIAA rather than giving in to their extortion, and is following the Kazaa defence.

Copywrong - it seems likely that the British music industry will not be allowed to extend copyright from 50 to 95 years, but it's not certain and it would be safest to sign the Open Rights Group's petition.

The Soul Of A New Microsoft - new faces are stepping forward to take the place of Bill Gates, and an article at Business Week suggests that they're bringing a very new feel to the company.

Winners and losers - Microsoft has denied granting any special pricing to Birmingham City Council, who have abandoned their planned roll-out of Linux across the region and reverted to Windows.

Fame at last - Linus Torvalds has gained a place in the "rebels & leaders" section of Time magazine's 60 Years Of Heroes list, and as it happens I'm just about to read his odd little semi-autobiography.

Zune means zilch - none of the payments collected from Microsoft by Universal Music will reach the artists in question, according to industry experts, and it is just another money-grabbing scheme.

Selling out - BitTorrent's reinvention of itself into a media distribution hub continues with the planned addition of content from 20th Century Fox, Paramount and MTV, but I do wonder about their future...

The Godwin Defence - an excellent advert from lobbying group No2ID that portrays Tony Blair as Adolf Hitler is not offensive, the Advertising Standards Authority has ruled - in spite of eight complaints!  :-)

Creature comforts - the US Government has applied what must be the oddest trade sanctions against North Korea, specifically targeting premier Kim Jong Il's love of Western consumer goods.

Spring cleaning - one mans music is another man's noise, and a new swapping service called Lala aims to capitalise on that by allowing unwanted CDs to be traded back and forth by mail.

A better mousetrap - Slimplug is a regular 13A mains plug with retractable prongs, which is wonderfully clever but annoyingly only available with a figure-of-8 connector on the other end.

Digital bling - if you already have the full set of weird and wonderful USB gadgets attached to your PC, the obvious next step is a USB hub styled after a gold ingot.

Disproportionate - in comparison to all the other reviews I've read, the article on Microsoft's Zune at the Chicago Sun-Times is so completely critical of the player that it ought to be dismissed out of hand.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly - Ars Technica has a long, thorough review of the new Sony PS3, and it isn't terribly favourable at this early stage.

Gimmickry - I can't count the number of nights I've lain awake wishing that my watch had a belt-driven reciprocating self-winding mechanism, and fortunately Swiss specialist Tag Heuer has now obliged.

Altair reborn - a new replica of the original hobbyist microcomputer is being made, and the attention to detail is extremely impressive. At somewhere around $1700 the price is a touch daunting, though.

Creative relents - following an outcry from their users after a sneaky firmware "upgrade", the manufacturer has restored the ability to record from FM radio to some of their media players.

Classical computing - the mysterious Antikythera Mechanism, a sophisticated brass machine dating from 150-100 B.C. Greece, has finally been identified as a moon phase and luni-solar calendar.

From the monster's point of view - a new twist on an old favourite, Asteroid's Revenge lets the player take the part of a giant lump of space rock menaced by pesky little triangular spacecraft. Marvellous!

And finally, a well-deserved panning - it's unusual (and as I said earlier, somewhat suspicious) to read a review that has nothing at all positive to say about its subject, but in this case the white "supremacist" role-playing game Racial Holy War seems so thoroughly without merit that everything the reviewer says seems fair and justified. I read the whole article, enthralled, and his original summary  of the game as "an epic piece of shit" seems if anything to be a generous under-statement...

 

Another day, another few hits... The numbers rise slowly, but there isn't much to say about that that I haven't said a dozen times already. If anyone feels like mentioning Epicycle at Boing Boing or Slashdot, or anywhere else for that matter, please feel free.

 

 

Weblog Archive