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
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
I've just started reading
"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
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
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
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!
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.
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 5½" 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
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
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
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...
|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.
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
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)
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.
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
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.
(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
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
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
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?
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...
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
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
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...
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
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.
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
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.
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
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....
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
- 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.
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.
Scott Adams' Dilbert blog has joined
the growing groundswell of sites encouraging the Microsoft
to run for high office. He'd get
my vote, for sure!
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
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.
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...
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.
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.
- 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
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.
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
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...
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.
- 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.
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,
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.