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EPICYCLE

 

29th September

Last night while while I was asleep the American government screwed up and threw away a document that has served their country well for more than two hundred years, and symbolised the ideals of the democratic process to which the people of many other countries have since aspired. As Avedon Carol illustrates with depressing clarity at The Sideshow, the Bill Of Rights, composed of the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, is now in tatters following the passage of a pair of bills that allow torture of prisoners and warantless domestic surveillance.

The United States Of America was founded on the belief that all human beings had certain "unalienable rights", and the Founding Fathers considered these rights to be equally valid in times of war, peace, prosperity and hardship - and although they have come under attack many times since they were codified in 1791, nevertheless they really have been a guiding principle for both America and for other Western democracies.

Now everything has changed. Using the pretence of national security, the power behind the Bush government has thrown these rights to the wind, purely to make it easier for them to gut the country (and as much of the rest of the world as they can reach, for that matter) for their own financial gain. The US has seen corrupt and self-serving presidents before, but men such as Nixon now seem like small-fry compared to the rapacious greed of the Bush dynasty and its corporate partners, and given the endemic loss of spine exhibited by the Democratic Party opposition the outlook seems bleak for democracy in America - and so for the entire world.

Sad times, indeed.

Life goes on, however, and where would Epicycle be without a few random news clippings from around the web:

Paying the piper - Computer Associates pretty much invented the "buy the entire industry" strategy since adopted by Symantec and subsequently used by them to beat CA at their own game, and their latest attempt at a counter-attack is the offer of cash payments to anyone who's PC is damaged following failure of CA security software to protect it. I have the feeling that, perhaps like the enormous financial cover offered by the warranty of Belkin's surge-protected power strips, this may turn out to be surprisingly hard to collect on when it comes down to it...

Morpheus in court - a US federal judge has ruled that StreamCast Networks, the owner of the Morpheus peer-to-peer file sharing software, is guilty of contributing towards massive copyright infringement. The judge's decision stated that because the company's business model actually relied upon copyright infringement, and that it did not attempt to block the sharing of copyrighted materials, it is fully liable for the illegal acts which its users performed. Streamcast is currently considering whether to appeal, but at this stage I suspect the directors of LimeWire are feeling decidedly tense...

A nasty piece of work - Peter Francis-Macrae, the UK's most prolific spammer, has had his appeal over verdicts of fraud and concealing criminal property rejected. Last year Francis-Macrae was convicted of a number of other charges arising from his £1.6 million domain name fraud, including making threats to kill police officers and trading standards officials who were investigating his activities. He is currently serving six years in prison.

 

28th September

I spent the first hour of the day trying not to listen to a pair of programmers trying to figure out how to configure an iPod that one of them had bought for her boyfriend. The interface language seemed to have be set to Chinese rather than English, which certainly presented some problems, but from what I overheard even after they'd managed to change that things didn't get any easier for them, and the slim instruction booklet didn't seem to offer much help. Before they'd managed to configure it to suit the battery went flat, leaving me giggling behind my hand and wondering about the much-vaunted ease of use of the iPod's infamous copyright-infringing interface...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Symantec bitching - the ever-expanding security company is complaining about Vista again, but I think their popular support is wearing thin as for a change the comments to the article at Ars Technica seem to be favouring Microsoft's side of the argument. Symantec's complaint alleges that Vista is "reducing consumer choice", but their strategy of attempting to acquire every security and systems company on the market definitely makes me think of pots and kettles...

Suing John Doe - as could be expected, Microsoft is hopping made since their PlaysForSure DRM system was cracked, and they have just filed a lawsuit against the faceless hacker "Viodentia" (and nine other unknowns, just in case) alleging that he has stolen source code. Viodentia denies this, and has consistently kept one jump ahead of Microsoft's efforts to repair their DRM by releasing a series of exploits to break it again.

An end to the IM wars? - Microsoft and Yahoo have announced that the new versions of their Messenger products will now be able to communicate with each other, leaving AOL as the only major player still to enforce isolation of its users. AOL has always strongly resisted attempts to integrate their service with others, repeatedly changing their protocol slightly to thwart cross-network applications such as GAIM and Trillian, but they may have to fall into line now or risk being sidelined.

Modding extreme - at Bit-Tech, a log of an ambitious project to build a widescreen video projector, something few geeks would consider. Other project logs include three systems based around the impressive CoolerMaster Stacker case that was on the shortlist for my Infinity 4 build.

A smear campaign - television adverts by Congressional hopeful Vernon Robinson, trying to unseat incumbent North Carolina Democrat Brad Miller, have sunk to a new low while simultaneously providing what must surely be the most surreal soundbites of the midterm elections.

Digital triptych - a new flat panel design from Sharp will display three different images depending on the angle from which it is viewed, and although technical details are scant at this stage the concept is undoubtedly as cunning as a weasel.

Antiquities - BBC engineer Matthew Sylvester has a Flickr album of some of the technology used by the broadcasting company, including a number of interesting images from the sixties and seventies, such as the UK's first satellite uplink dish.

And finally, "Hey Hey 16k" - following a recommendation in the Verity Stob book I've just started reading, a version of MJ Hibbert's classic song, animated by Rob Manuel. If you remember anything from the golden age of British microcomputing, this will prove as irresistible as it is cheesy...

 

27th September

Some random links from around the web - with thanks, as usual, to three of the net's best tech news and gossip sites - [H]ard|OCP, Ars Technica, and The Register.

Taking it down a notch - commercial virus writers are starting to change their basic approach away from creating code that propagates as rapidly as possible, instead designing slower spreading worms that will attract less attention and so avoid detection for longer.

Washable I/O - Texas manufacturer Unotron has an unusual range of mice and keyboards, with all the electronics sealed internally so that the devices can be cleaned with disinfectant and then rinsed off under a running tap - and unlike many similar specialist devices, they also look quite stylish.

The problem with HDTV - Boing Boing luminary, online activist and SF author Cory Doctorow is writing for Information Week about the history of High-Definition Television, and why it's a bad idea for consumers and media companies alike.

Eerily familiar - Sony's PS3 evangelist, Ken Kutaragi, has surprised industry watchers by giving a keynote address that is strongly reminiscent of one he delivered back in 2000 prior to the launch of the PS2. All I can say is, after all this fuss the PS3 had better be good when it finally ships...

Sticking it to the RIAA - Lime Wire, a peer-to-peer software manufacturer that was trying hard to clean up its image before being suddenly sued by the RIAA last month, has filed a counter-suit against the music industry for a whole raft of illegal and anti-competitive activities. More power to them!

Runaway litigation - Apple is flexing its legal muscles again, having sent a cease-and-desist order to the "Podcast Ready" website on grounds of trademark infringement. I've always been annoyed by the whole "pod" thing, but Apple's ever-present campaign of lawsuits is becoming even more tiresome.

The clasp - Hideaki Matsui's design for "Information Rings" would exchange personal information during a handshake, allowing the sort of data currently provided on a printed or electronic business card to be transmitted wirelessly. This would also open up whole new vistas for hacking, of course...

Google sticks its oar in - the search engine company is an unusual source for a campaign calling for significantly more efficient PC power supplies, and it's hard not to wonder if the move is intended to divert attention from the continuing controversy over relations with the Chinese government.

The leaky establishment - three AOL subscribers are suing the ISP following its accidental publication of the search requests made by some 650,000 subscribers, although given that the data was largely anonymous it will be interesting to see exactly how they are claiming to have been damaged.

Looking inward - the foundation behind the X-Prize private rocketry challenge has turned its attention towards sequencing the human genome, a move that has puzzled some experts on the grounds that the $1 billion commercial DNA industry is doing very nicely without any outside incentives.

If their lips are moving they are lying - the US government is contradicting itself yet again, this time reversing clear statements made about the domestic anthrax attacks of 2001. Were the original claims exaggerated to spread fear, or are they now being downplayed to avoid attention?

And finally, a little piece of classic stop-motion animation. "My Animated World" is nothing really new, but it's neatly done and pleasingly retro after some of the slick, over-produced offerings that are gracing the net these days. Thanks to The Sideshow for the pointer.

 

26th September

I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, today, and when I looked around the Crookes radiometer in my display cabinet was spinning its little heart out. The bright autumn sunshine was coming in low, and at just the right angle, to strike the vanes straight-on, giving a degree of activity that I've never seen before without borrowing the powerful work light from my desk. The effect was a chance discovery by the great Victorian chemist Sir William Crookes, and although both he and the equally great physicist James Clerk Maxwell both initially offered an incorrect explanation involving radiation pressure, in fact it is due to a process known as thermal transpiration, whereby localised pressure differences caused by the movement of heated gas molecules near the vanes make them rotate on the spindle.

That corner of the cabinet is a miniature homage to Victorian science, with a Galileo thermometer, a Newton's Cradle, a "hand boiler", an optical prism, a kinetic ornament reminiscent of an orrery, and various samples of minerals, crystals and fossils. The scientific history of the era is fascinating, as a significant proportion of the foundations of modern scientific knowledge was discovered by a relatively small number of people during a relatively short period of time - often by gentleman amateurs working largely in ignorance! For an excellent overview, I can thoroughly recommend Bill Bryson's bestselling "A Short History of Nearly Everything" - which covers the highlights of the age of enlightenment along with much, much more.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch...

(More) trouble in paradise - the once-tranquil world of open source development is becoming decidedly heated, these days, and drafts of an update to the GPL have provoked criticism of the Free Software Foundation because of planned changes concerning patents and DRM.

On the cheap - the UK's controversial ID cards "could cost less" than previous estimates of between £90 and £300 per person, according to a Home Office minister, if existing government databases (insecure, poorly-connected, and full of errors) are used instead of the planned dedicated system.

Mug shots - a new compact camera from Fuji can detect up to ten human faces in the frame, and adjust focus, exposure and flash automatically to ensure the best picture quality. It's about time that we had some trickle-down products from the increasingly intrusive security and surveillance technology...

Very tiny machines - a Harvard University project has produced a animation of some of the processes taking place inside a living cell, and it's absolutely breathtaking. The "walking" kinesin molecule pulling a vesicle towards a particular place in the cell has attracted particular attention.

No-one is safe - a report from Symantec claims (rightly, in my opinion) that none of the popular Internet browsers for Windows or Mac OS are adequately secure - although as a leading supplier of security software they may perhaps have something of an axe to grind?

A tight christmas - Yahoo has confirmed rumours that it is to close its US offices for a week between christmas and the new year, citing the need to allow staff to "recharge" their batteries. It is likely that a cost-cutting program is behind the decision, however, due to the company's ailing finances.

And finally, widescreen - geek site [H]ard|OCP points to the Flickr album of a certain mandolux, an extensive collection of striking abstract and semi-abstract photographs, many of which are ideally sized for use as multi-monitor wallpaper. I'm using the UltraMon utility for multiple display management at the moment, and although it's an unstable and cantankerous piece of software (apparently it always has been!) it's also extremely useful - even if most of its functionality really ought to be provided by the management tools that come as part of the NVIDIA Forceware driver suite. I can't say that I really recommend it, thanks to its habits of occasionally disappearing all my desktop icons until I reboot, or sometimes closing the active application when the screensaver terminates, but your mileage may vary and it's certainly worth a look.

 

25th September

Quick links, as I'm out of sorts today...

Quis custodiet? - a survey suggests that almost a third of company directors steal confidential information when they leave a company, using email and USB memory devices to copy data.

Corporate greed - Sun Microsystems made a loss of almost $1 billion last year, and the company's investors are angry at the generous pay rises awarded to Scott McNealy and Jonathan Schwartz.

If you can't compete - Symantec and Adobe, long-time foes of Microsoft, are once again pestering the European Commission to act against the Seattle giant because of features to be included in Vista.

Free ICANN! - the Internet overseeing body is to become autonomous in 2008, after extensive international pressure for the US Department Of Commerce to relinquish control.

No more Palms? - there is a growing belief that Palm is to abandon development of future hardware , leaving the market to RIM's Blackberry and the army of Windows-powered PDAs and smartphones

Open PVR - in a move somewhat reminiscent of the Chumby project, Neuros is offering cash bounties to developers who can add specific features to their new OSD set-top box.

Zune pricing - Microsoft have set the final price of the 30Gb Zune media player at $229.99, $60 less than originally planned in order to undercut Apple's latest iPod range.

1000 pages per minute - a new inkjet technology could print a page almost instantly, using an array of tens of thousands of nozzles fed by micro-reservoirs topped up by a wiper system. Cunning stuff.

Self-contained - USBCells are AA-sized NiMH batteries that recharge from a cleverly built-in USB plug, but as usual there are potential problems as they use a lower voltage than "real" AA batteries.

Shell games - the team responsible for creating the Windows user interface has their own blog, and as well as details of the new Vista interface it's full of ideas about GUI design in general.

Dinosaurs - Dan reveals that the humble D-sub VGA connector is now over fifty years old, and although it has been superseded by DVI and now HDMI, it's still in widespread use.

Processing power - The CPU Shack is a useful encyclopedia of modern microprocessors, and is sufficiently comprehensive that it actually managed to find one that I've never heard of!

Flow theory - Jenova Chen has written a thesis on game design, and although some of the text is pure psycho-babble, the ideas are fascinating and the games themselves are relaxing and trippy.

Hypo-allergenic pussies - an American biotech company is breeding cats that will not cause allergic reactions in sufferers, thanks to reduced levels of a specific protein in their skin and saliva.

Little brother is watching - the discovery of a sunbather on Google Earth has sparked a controversy on the forums: is it a man or a woman, is it lying face-down or on its back - and is that a bikini or not?

Censorship - Google has removed references to Inquisition21 (a site that campaigns against the Operation Ore witch-hunts) from their index, but have declined to give specific reasons why.

Updating - courtesy of Adobe, one of the classic dialog boxes: "The Adobe Updater must update itself before it can check for updates. Would you like to update the Adobe Updater now?"

Nobody knows you're half a dog - for devotees of home teleconferencing, a slip-on garment mimicking suit jacket, shirt and tie. Just be careful not to wave your hands around too much...

And finally, for services rendered - another optimistic techy is offering to repair PCs in exchange for "a gentle feel of your boobs", and although the advert has now been removed from Craigslist (I suspect that it violates their no prostitution policy) it's interesting to note that he set his pay scale considerably lower than last year's hopeful.

 

24th September

Having shown off the top half of my kitchen server cabinet a few days ago, today it's the turn of the bottom half, featuring my latest acquisition, a Dell PowerVault 132T tape library. My recent adventures with giant enterprise class libraries have been a source of great amusement to my PFYs (to the point where even having to unload the thing from a truck and manhandle it into the computer room wasn't enough to spoil their delight at watching me scratch my head over the impossibility of fitting it into my house!), but they're not actually achieving much in the way of securing my data. Something obviously needed to be done, and when I spotted this unit on eBay it seemed like a sensible investment. It was surprisingly cheap, considering its pair of LTO-1 drives and the presence of a Fibre Channel SNC module, but I've purchased second hand hardware from the company before and they have an excellent reputation.

The PV132T is considerably more petite than my last purchase, but as it uses 100Gb LTO-1 tapes its twenty three slots give a capacity of 2.3Tb before compression, the same order of magnitude supplied by the physically much larger libraries I've been using before because of their lower capacity drives. The jump to LTO also brings a welcome improvement in performance, and even with both drives (temporarily) on the same channel of an Adaptec 39160 SCSI controller I can backup at a rate of more than 1Gb/minute, far ahead of the few hundreds of Mb/minute I'm used to from my previous DLT libraries. Tests also show that I can backup across the network from my desktop PC at twice the speed it can backup to its own local VXA library, as well, so I may consider retiring that library and using the PowerVault as the central backup for the whole LAN.

The only drawback is that the chassis is in stylish Dell black, of course, and the majority of the rest of my server hardware is in boring office beige - but at least the smoked glass door of the server cabinet mutes the contrast and I guess I can live with that now that I have good backups again at last. For the technically inquisitive, the sever is an old CompuAdd clone with an Intel motherboard supporting a pair of 450MHz Pentium III CPUs, hardly a speed demon but but perfectly adequate for a home Active Directory server. It has five 18Gb drives internally, hung from an Adaptec AAA1130 RAID controller, and the little square units above the tape library are Sun StorEdge MultiPack arrays stuffed full of 18Gb and 36Gb drives hung from a dual channel Adaptec 39160 SCSI controller. These host a pair of software RAID volumes totalling around 350Gb, and given that at present all the disk volumes are pretty much full to bursting it's no wonder I need a fairly capacious tape library - even if not something quite as expansive as an Adic Scalar 1000...

 

21st September

I'm busy installing network cameras, so you'll have to survive with the regular round-up from the web:

Fat margins - the pricing set for Apple's new iPod models is far from competitive, according to a report from Gartner, showing that the company is aiming for higher profits rather than to maximise market share. Given the almost simultaneous launch of Microsoft's Zune, and impressive products from Sandisk and others, this could be a dangerous decision...

Multi-standard discs - a new patent by Warner covers discs with a Blu-ray top layer that works like a two-way mirror, reflecting enough blue light for a Blu-ray player to read it but letting through enough light for HD-DVD players to read a second layer beneath. In theory the second side could contain traditional DVD and even CD audio layers, giving four media formats in one package.

"Very tiny machines" -  a team at MIT is designing tiny gas turbine engines using the same maqss production technology that has evolved for manufacturing semiconductors. The entire package will be about a centimetre across, and when complete the turbine will spin at an impressive 20,000 rpm to produce about 10 watts of power.

Ofcom must share - the Information Commissioner has ruled that Ofcom cannot conceal the locations of cellphone base stations on the spurious grounds of national security, and in a similar vein the EU Data Protection Supervisor has stated that terrorism should not be used as an excuse to pass legislation which undermines privacy and data protection rights.

Coming down to earth - another satellite broadband company seems to be facing difficulties, with users of the Ouranous service finding themselves cut off with no warning or explanation. Ouranos bought competitor Aramiska when it faced financial problems earlier this year, but now it looks as if their customers will be acquired by Bridge Broadband Services, one of the few remaining suppliers.

Can't pay, won't pay - an Illinois judge has ruled that UK spamfighters Spamhaus must pay $11,715,000 to junk email company e360insight, following Steve Linford's decision not to fight the suit on the very reasonable grounds that the court had absolutely no jurisdiction over a UK company. One positive note is the apparent effectiveness of the ROKSO blacklist which lead to the suit.

Buried but not forgotten - accusations of malfeasance levelled against the Federal Communications Commission are nothing new, and the latest claims that the agency destroyed a study on the implications of local ownership of television stations and newspapers, in order to justify a policy that departed substantially from the recommendations in the report.

Experience the power of the TSA - for those who feel the urge to throw their weight around, inconveniencing innocent people by carrying out the useless and draconian policies of a virtually unaccountable government agency, a new web-based game puts the player in the role of an airport screener trying to confiscate arbitrary objects from passing passengers.

Snail mail not quite dead - the Royal Mail has launched an e-postage service which allows home users to print postage onto envelopes or labels in the form of a unique barcode. At present first class and special delivery postage can be generated, for both domestic and overseas - but I can't see any mention of the new Pricing In Proportion mechanism for charging by size as well as weight!

And finally, a simulation of a simulation - a new service in the popular online game Second Life allows players to interact sexually with computer-controlled playmates, and I was greatly amused by the first of the article's comments, where one player complained that online virtual sex is pointless unless it involves another human being. Somebody is missing a point, somewhere...   [Link NOT work safe]

 

20th September

The neat little beige box at the top of this stack is my latest toy, an Axis 262 network video recorder that I've just picked up on eBay for a tiny fraction of its £2000+ list price. It supports eight Axis TCP/IP cameras, recording an aggregate of up to 240 frames per second at megapixel resolution. It uses a web-based management interface that will instantly be familiar to anyone who has used any Axis product, and although it's really quick and easy to get the basics up and running, as usual there are a million tweaks and twiddles available for the adventurous.

For the terminally curious, the next unit down is a Compaq Deskpro SFF running my Smoothwall firewall, followed by a Cobalt RaQ 4R (now upgraded to CentOS via the StrongBolt bundle from UK specialist Open Source Office, see Epicycle passim). I am embarrassed to admit that the majority of my infrastructure now runs some flavour of Linux, and as I only have four Windows systems (three clients and an AD domain controller) sat on top there is a significant danger of being thrown out of the He-man Unix-hater's Club... At the bottom of the stack is an old Bay Networks 100Mbit switch that my company's R&D department threw out several years ago for some reason I could never establish, and while it's not exactly high tech it serves the purpose for now.

In the best tradition of my hero Dan Rutter, the first thing I did after unpacking the box was to undo an impressively over-specified number of screws and remove the top cover. Somewhat to my surprise, this revealed a conventional Micro-ATX motherboard, complete with a CPU from Via or one of the other cool-running Pentium-clone manufacturers, together with a regular 160Gb IDE hard disk and a 256Mb DIMM filling one of the two sockets. All the usual VGA, USB and other ports are on the motherboard, and doubtless supported by the underlying Linux OS, but although they have been masked by a metal blanking plate presumably this could be removed if there was ever a need for additional I/O. The additional PCB behind the front panel holds a compact flash card to boot the OS, leaving the entire disk volume available for recording, and another PCB at the rear of the case provides the little block of electrical connectors that graces most Axis products, but on the whole the system is appealingly conventional.

I haven't had much time to fiddle with it as yet, but it only took a few seconds to add my pair of Axis 207W cameras, and my first impression is that it provides as much functionality as the eye-wateringly expensive Lenel OnGuard system we use at the office. Whether I roll it out to external clients in place of the existing Surveyor WebcamSat server, or keep it as a purely internal home security system, remains to be seen - but there is certainly a good case for consolidating all my network video functionality into a single appliance.

 

19th September

So the early morning news informed me that apparently today is "Take Your Dog To Work Day", and once I had suppressed an involuntary shudder at the idea I was minded to investigate. The event, now in its eleventh year, is organised by pet charity The Blue Cross, and is claimed to be "the most popular charity dog event in the canine calendar", whatever the hell that means. The basic idea seems to be that one's colleagues will be smitten by the cuteness and appeal of one's dog and so be moved to donate large quantities of money to the aforementioned charity, but I have to say that I find the idea both grotesque and inappropriate. The organisers seem to have overlooked the very real problem that many people are not just neutral towards dogs, but in fact dislike them intensely. I am one of the latter, and the idea of sharing a workplace with a smelly, dirty, noisy and intrusive animal (yes, even for a single day!) fills me with distaste. Certainly, some of the sentiments expressed on the web site are pure fantasy: "Taking my dog to work with me is good for me, good for the dog, and good for everyone", or "When (my dog) is around people tend to be better humoured and more relaxed. Therefore more productive". It's hard for me to express exactly how strongly I disagree with those statements...

Fortunately I saw absolutely no signs of canine infestation in my office today, and as we are one of the larger employers in the county it seems likely to me that the event's organisers have grossly over-estimated the popularity of the concept. Before the veins start throbbing in my forehead, therefore, some random links from around the web:

Die, Diebold, die - we hardly need any more revelations about the appalling insecurity of the Diebold electronic voting machines, but last week's expose of how a machine could be infected with virus-like vote rigging software if physical access could be gained to the internals is highlighted very effectively by the discovery that the allegedly secure machines can be opened with off-the-shelf keys used for hotel minibars, office filing cabinets, computer hardware, jukeboxes etc etc. It's time for governments everywhere to stop paying attention to the reassuring lies repeatedly emitted by Diebold and acknowledge that right now the entire concept of electronic voting is dangerously flawed - and any government that will not do so should be viewed with grave suspicion as having a vested interest in fraudulent elections.

V for Vendetta - the European Competition Commissioner has denied that the EU is "targeting" Microsoft with their ever-increasing fines and penalties, and in fact claims that her agency is the victim of a "coordinated campaign" to discredit them. Given that the income raised from fining Microsoft exceeds that raised from many of the EU member states, however, it's hard to see the rulings as anything but a cash cow, and the absurd requirements to un-bundle Media Player and the suggestions that the Commission may force MS to remove certain security features from Vista do nothing to bring credence to their case.

Bank statement - at Boing Boing, news that new spyware is targeting the on-screen keyboards used as authentication mechanisms by online banks and similar organisations in the hope of avoiding key loggers. The trojan records a small video clip centred on the mouse pointer, creating a visual representation of the IDs and passwords entered to send off to its master. Citibank, one of the major users of this technology, has already replaced the system with a more conventional "secret question" mechanism, and I suspect that other organisations will soon follow.

Steampunk gaming - this enterprising gamer has hooked up a one of those wonderful miniature steam engines to a dynamo, and is using it to power his Gameboy. It's thoroughly pointless, of course, but I firmly believe that technology should be roundly abused as often as possible and this is a classic example. More power to him!

Cool hardware - details are a touch scant at present, but the latest offering from water cooling specialists Koolance is a 4U rack-mount unit designed to cool up to 20 CPUs. With five 6L/min pumps and the capacity to dissipate up to 3000W of heat, as well as the trademark blue illuminated reservoir, I'm already wondering if there's a suitable niche for it in one of my Dell racks at the office...

Changes - an experimental film from artist Ahree Lee consists of nothing but pictures of her face, taken every day for three years. The resulting three minute sequence is surprisingly captivating, and has rightly won a number of awards at film festivals around the world.

 

18th September

The weekend's upgrade to our email archiving system went very smoothly, thanks to meticulous preparation by one of my PFYs, and my own little twiddles with cloning and renaming some servers were equally smooth, with only one piece of low-level registry hackery required just to keep my hand in. Forty is quite old for a working techy (a significant proportion of us are driving a desk by this time, having succumbed to the dubious lure of management) and I'd hate to think I was losing The Knack...

Dubious notices - sites hosting the FairUse4WM utility, designed to remove the DRM from protected Windows Media files, are receiving communications from Microsoft ordering them to remove the utility on the grounds that it violates their copyright. This is unexpected, as although the software may well violate the terms of the DMCA legislation, it's hard to see how copyright is involved.

Unexpected DRM - elsewhere in Microsoft-land, the new Zune player is raising a number of eyebrows. To begin with, it won't import DRM-protected music downloaded from legitimate sites such as Napster and Rhapsody, and secondly, once media is imported, it is automatically wrapped up in DRM copy protection whether you want it or not - including Creative Commons licensed media!

Amazon bastardry - and talking of thoroughly inappropriate corporate behaviour, Amazon's new "Unbox" video-on-demand service has remarkably intrusive and restrictive terms of service. Boing Boing has a full analysis of the small print, but the executive summary is that Amazon can do pretty much whatever it wants to your PC, and if you don't like that it will delete all your movies...

Crypto for pedos - attendees at a recent meeting of the British Literary and Artistic Copyright Association, allegedly experts on modern copyright law, have exhibited a depressing lack of familiarity with both technology and society by expressing the opinion that data encryption is only used by paedophiles and probably ought to be banned completely.

Risks digest - an article in Wired News suggests that, in spite of the US and UK governments' desperate attempts to scare the bejusus out of us all in the name of national security, being murdered by terrorists should be a long way down the list. In fact, we're far more likely to be shot by police officers that al-Qaida, and even our own internal organs are more of a threat...

A tribute - I've never been terribly impressed with most of the machinima computer game movies, but this recreation of the classic Monty Python sketch "How Not To Be Seen" rather tickled me. As a staunch fan of Larry Niven's "Known Space" series I should like a game set on a ringworld, but I'm just not that fond of first-person shooters and somehow Halo never really grabbed me.

Crochet flora - I remember linking to these crochet designs from the wonderfully alternative Californian educational organization The Institute For Figuring a while ago, but work like this is always worth a reminder. Their stand at the LA County Fair has wonderful examples of their cacti and ocean kelp beds, both wonderfully realistic, and instructions for making them are available at their web site.

Dan's Data letters #173 - the latest letters column covers various types of high-tech scams and frauds, including a rash of fake dynamo flashlights and some mindless venom from an idiot who sells "morphic message foils" that stick onto the outside of hi-fi cases to improve the sound quality. Needless to say, Dan is less than impressed with this kind of snake oil.

Frankly, I'm dubious - a mention of Sword Salve in Dan's column (a wonderful 17th century idea for healing wounds by rubbing a nostrum into the blade that caused them) pointed me to the official FAQ of the Usenet group sci.skeptic. It's an extremely interesting resource for those with a scientific frame of mind, showcasing as it does some of the more bizarre beliefs held by those with anything but...

And, finally, tomorrow is the ever-popular Talk Like A Pirate Day, and Boing Boing provides a helpful roundup of all things to do with piracy - including a neat little mod for those with Mac laptops.  [Update: even Linus Torvalds contributed, with his nautical-themed announcement of the new V2.6.18 kernel.]

 

15th September

Some high-speed news links to end the week - although in fact I'll be back in the office tomorrow, helping one of my PFYs upgrade the email archiving server. No rest for the wicked...

Format war - to nobody's surprise (except perhaps that of the manufacturers!), consumers are waiting to see whether Blu-ray or HD-DVD wins out before committing their hard-earned cash.

Best of both worlds - on a related note, a new design for an optical drive from Toshiba will play and record both regular and High Definition DVD discs. How long before Blu-ray is on the menu as well?

On Zune - Microsoft's new pocket media player launched yesterday, and Engadget has an interview with J Allard, the division Corporate Vice President, on the direction the product will take.

Down on iTunes - only a few days after the launch of the new version 7, reports of major problems are emerging in both the Mac and Windows versions of the software.

One law for the rich - when Star Trek brat Wil Wheaton lost all his downloaded songs following an iTunes glitch, Apple pretty much fell over itself to help him download them all again.

Lay off Apple - a US Department Of Justice spokesman has recommended that European governments stop investigating the highly restrictive DRM embodied in the iTunes service.

iMockups - in the wake of the launch of the new iPods earlier this week (more of the same, as far as I can see!) Wired News has a gallery of ideas for alternative designs.

Money for nothing - in a move strongly reminiscent of the Eolas suit, an unknown company is alleging that Microsoft's Xbox Live service infringes two of their patents in some undisclosed manner.

Popularity contest - analysis of image metadata on Flickr suggests that Canon is by far and away the best selling brand of digital cameras, at both the mass-market and "prosumer" levels.

Palast escapes - the negative publicity that followed the absurd  and vindictive charges laid against the campaigning reporter has encouraged Exxon and the Homeland Security Agency to back down.

Guerrilla marketing - The Escapist has a fascinating interview with an online marketer who promotes games and tech products by pretending to be a regular user in online forums.

RIAA weaknesses - at Slashdot an interview with two lawyers who specialise in fighting the RIAA suggests that the evidence presented by the association is often laughably weak.

Under threat - the CEO of Universal Music has revealed that he plans to attack MySpace and YouTube for copyright infringement, a move that I've been expecting for a while...

Fighting spying - the activist group Digital Rights Ireland is suing the government in the hope of overturning their implementation of the highly intrusive European Data Retention Directive.

Rootkit's revenge - just when you thought it was safe to go back to your CD library, further analysis of the infamous Sony rootkit shows the potential of a nasty interaction with AOL's software.

Corporate slime - Google has hired the Washington, DC lobbying firm DCI, who have a long history of highly dubious behaviour, including backing the notorious "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" group.

Selling contacts - Jigsaw Data alleges to be a "social networking" site, but it buys and sells personal contact details from its members without the knowledge of the people affected by the sales.

Sniffing pictures - inspired by the Mac utility EtherPEG, EtherWatch detects and captures image files being passed across a wireless network and displays them, even attempting to recognise porn!

Thanks for the memory - Samsung has announced a new generation of flash storage devices, using NAND Charge Trap Flash architecture to significantly increase both capacity and performance.

Free phones - the oddly named Reestit Mutton site analyses the maze of UK cellphone contracts and shows that if you're careful you can get a phone and airtime for free, or even at a profit!

Nowhere to hide - Greenpeace has warned that many sex toys contain alarming levels of phthalate  plasticisers, toxic chemicals that have already been banned from childrens' toys.

Rewriting history - my Trekkie friend Mike is outraged at the news that the original series of Star Trek is to be reworked with computer graphics and a better soundtrack. Talk about lipstick on a pig...

And finally, fashion victims - a survey by a commercial Exchange email hosting company suggests that IT staff are far more likely to wear black jeans, heavy metal T-shirts, ponytails, and cellphones on belt clips than any other sector of society, which makes me feel depressingly stereotyped. I used to be able to console myself that at least I wasn't fat, but the middle-age spread has crept up on me these days and I'm fast becoming a classic Type 3 sysadmin. Still, at least we're not nearly as common as Types 1 and 2, the Unix lawn dwarves and the spotty pocket protector nerds...

 

14th September

I'm still gritting my teeth after re-watching Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 a few nights ago, a state of mind that has not been improved by half an hour spent at the combined Nielsen-Hayden weblog Making Light, where Teresa angers and depresses anyone with a social conscience by her graphic descriptions of the brutal techniques authorised for interrogation of prisoners in US camps in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere:

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

"The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law", said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

When you use a technique that your toughest guys can't stand for more than fifteen seconds, one that instantly reduces prisoners to abject begging, you're not using "stress and duress interrogation" or "alternative interrogation methods" or "authorized interrogation techniques". It's torture, pure and simple.

The legacy of 9/11... Welcome to the New World Order.

Elsewhere, a handful of news items with a legal sort of a theme:

Level of incompetence - in a move guaranteed to offend and outrage, the police officer in charge of the operation that ended in the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes has been recommended for promotion to Deputy Assistant Commissioner.

Security theatre - the BAA is to relax some of its restrictions on airplane carry-on luggage next week, once again permitting such fearsome items as drinking water and baby food. This absurd exercise has achieved nothing in terms of security, but has simply brought inconvenience to millions.

Journalism in the first degree - The Department of Homeland Security is bringing charges against investigative reporter Greg Palast for the heinous crime of filming an oil refinery in Lousiana. Exxon has hated Palast for years, and this is obviously their way of trying to cause him some grief.

HP to fry - it now seems almost certain that Hewlett Packard will face charges in California following the commissioning of unlawful investigations into company employees and directors, and reporters and their relatives, following leaks of information concerning top-level planning meetings.

Zotob writer jailed - one of the writers of the "Zotob" worm that laid waste to Windows systems in 2005 has been jailed for two years by a Moroccan court, and one of his associates (not actually responsible for the worm itself) received a sentence of one year.

Police raid hoodie web - two Ipswich thugs have been arrested after police reviewed a website where they had posted video clips of themselves carrying out various criminal and anti-social behaviours. This seems to be a growing trend, and is another illustration of exactly how anonymous the web is...

Gmail vs. G-mail - a German entrepreneur has vowed to "shut down Gmail" following the failure of talks intended to smooth over the trademark dispute. This is very reminiscent of the various suits against Microsoft, I'd say, intended only to make a fast buck with minimum effort...

Die, Diebold, die - two Princeton security researchers have illustrated exactly how flawed the controversial electronic voting machines really are, taking less than a minute to install vote-rigging software into the operating system in such a way as to leave no trace of its presence.

Sky By Broadband hiatus - the legal movie download service attached to the UK satellite TV company has been taken offline following the news that the Microsoft DRM technology used to restrict the files has been compromised. Sky has not yet given a timescale for the service to be restored.

iTunes hacked - actually, it hasn't been a good week for DRM, with the newly revamped iTunes V7 application being hacked within hours of its release, once again enabling the restrictions on fair use to be stripped from music downloaded from the online iTunes store. DRM 0, Hackers 2...

And finally, nobody knows you're a dog - much angst and anger has followed the revelation that the popular teenage video-blogger "LonelyGirl15" was actually a publicity stunt created by a Hollywood talent agency, with some refusing to believe it was a hoax even after it had been thoroughly exposed.

 

12th September

A few random links:

Spamming Tony - following ever-increasing speculation about when Prime Minister Tony Blair will resign (we seem to have gone past the stage of "if"), one of the party faithful created an online petition intended to encourage his detractors to back off. Within a few hours it had been discovered by certain unruly elements, however, and the rest is history...

Crooked Canadian - the details of how ex-MP Sam "Hollywood" Bulte financed her unsuccessful campaign for re-election earlier this year are emerging, and it's all as sleazy as expected. Unfortunately it appears that her successor is also a puppet of the media conglomerates, who are just about to receive their reward in the form of Canada's equivalent to the USA's DMCA legislation.

Wikipedia won't censor - unlike Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, the founder of the increasingly popular online encyclopedia has refused to bow to the Chinese government's demands to censor its content, and so remains blocked by the country's filtering systems. Another meeting with Chinese officials is imminent, but Jimmy Wales insists that it's all or nothing for the encyclopedia.

Bean bag PC - La Jolla startup Chumby Industries is giving out pre-release examples of its strange little squeezable computing appliance to hardware geeks and designers in order to encourage development of software and... ah... "skins" to cover the frame. The target price is $150, which seems like a lot for a smart alarm clock, but I think it has great potential if it becomes sufficiently popular.

50 years of the hard disk - tomorrow brings the 50th anniversary of the hard disk drive, a unit which shipped with IBM's Model 305 computer system. The RAMAC (allegedly from "Random Access Method of Accounting and Control") weighed over a ton and required its own compressed air supply, using an array of 24" steel discs to store 5Mb, an impressive quantity of data in 1956.

Flaming copiers - home office life is becoming increasingly dangerous these days, it seems, with the ever-popular stories of various models of exploding laptop being joined by news that Canon is recalling a popular model of personal photocopier because of (you guessed it) a risk of it bursting into flames. My advice is to always keep a bucket of water handy when working with technology...

No escape - New Scientist's tech blog brings word that a new system will allow television adverts to be displayed clearly even when they are being watched in fast-forward on a PVR. A simplified version of the advert is encoded into the key frames displayed during speeded up playback, ensuring that the basic message gets across anyhow. For this we have UK inventor Colin Davies to thank, apparently...

 

11th September

On the anniversary of the WTC destruction it seems appropriate to link to Project Censored, which each year publishes a list of socially significant events or topics that have been missed, underreported or censored by the mainstream press. This year's list includes the perennial issue concerning the way that the World Trade Center buildings collapsed, which a professor of physics at BYU claims is far more reminiscent of controlled detonations with explosives than the effects of the collisions. I have to admit a considerable degree of scepticism about this, as it's hard to see how such deliberate destruction could have been arranged so successfully in secret, but there's no doubt that the facts as presented do raise questions.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Death to AllOfMP3.com - the somewhat dubious Russian commercial music site is likely to be the first target of a newly-passed law that attempts to close the loophole the site is exploiting and bring the country into compliance with the requirements of the World Trade Organisation.

The next big thing - Release Candidate 1 of Windows Vista is available for download as an ISO CD image, and the word on the street is that this build is extremely workable. But I'm waiting until the real thing ships before I to treat my desktop PC to it's first clean installation since the year 2000.

Anything But iPod - as someone who manages to play music and videos on a handheld device without having given any of my hard-earned salary to Apple, I was delighted to find a site devoted to reviews and discussion of all the other MP3 players on the market, with not an iPod in site.

Craigslist scandal - a Seattle "prankster" planted a provocative but fake advert on the local branch of the dating site, and then reposted all the replies to a web site, complete with personal details and photographs. Needless to say, this has caused something of a fuss, and the threats are flying...

Table of elements - Ig Nobel Prize winner Theodore Gray has been working on his literal Periodic Table since 2002, and the work has spun-off a column in Popular Science magazine, an impressive library of photographs of the elements, and a beautiful poster based on the collection.

Fakers - the pop-science television show Braniac is at the center of a minor scandal following revelations that they faked experiments allegedly involving the highly-reactive Group I metals and water, using explosives instead, and Ben Goldacre at The Guardian is less than impressed.

Second Life hacked - the popular online game has revealed that their user database has been broken into, compromising the personal details of more than 600,000 registered users. No credit card details were stolen, but pretty much everything else was at the mercy of the hacker.

Spot the difference - in the UK Sky TV is showing the re-worked versions of all six Star Wars movies, and as usual Wikipedia is an excellent source for a list of the somewhat controversial changes. For the truly obsessive, the entry also links to StarWars.com, where they can be found in minute detail.

 

10th September

The Site Meter stats service tells me that I passed 200,000 visitors last week, just around my birthday, which is nice. I'm still recovering after last night's celebrations (half computer geeks and half Jamaican party girls - a bizarre mixture which nevertheless worked out very well!) so just a few quick links to keep you going:

Confidentiality clause - a post at Boing Boing suggests that searching Google for the phrase "Confidential do not distribute" might prove surprisingly interesting - and contrary to expectations this is indeed the case! Evidently some companies have odd ideas as to what constitutes distribution!

Copyright thugs - the creator of a Beatles / Beach Boys "mashup" album has been threatened with a massive lawsuit by EMI , who have also demanded the IP addresses of everyone who has downloaded the music from his web site, presumably in order to threaten them as well. Bastards...

The Ultimate Blog Post - courtesy of Wired, the big name blog entries that we're all waiting for. My favourite was for Slashdot: "AMD, SCO patent MP3 over TCP/IP, sue ATI, EA. Microsoft probably responsible somehow."

Pocket gaming - I've seen a collection of classic video games built into a full-sized Atari 2600 joystick, but these miniature joystick and paddle controllers are charmingly cute as well as fashionably retro. Each one contains two or three games, and are a steal at $15 each from Think Geek.

A useful tip - intrusive logos and branding on cellphones and PDAs can often be removed without damaging the finish of the casing, according to this tip at Instructables, by sanding the area gently with sugar crystals.

Death from above - having suffered a long train and tube journey after visiting me this weekend, my friend Mike passed on a link to a microlight personal helicopter. In Japan, where the design hails from, they can legally be flown without any form of license - which I find somewhat scary...

Curious perversions in IT - I hadn't come across The Daily WTF before, but it's worth a look. The front page currently has a collection of startling error messages, and the usual agonised tales of encounters between hardened techies, and clueless users and consultants. Good stuff.

 

8th September

I have made something of a miscalculation...

For the last month or two I've been eying-up a pair of enterprise-level tape libraries that have been listed and re-listed on eBay at increasingly tempting prices, and last week my heart got the better of my head and I bought one of them. It's an Adic Scalar 1000, a massive beast capable of holding tens of terabytes of media and multiple tape drives, with alarmingly rapid robotics to move one to the other. Given the perpetual white-elephant status of my last such purchase, a Exabyte 690D library, I need some kind of fat-ass backup solution for my home servers and there is no doubt that a Scalar 1000 would keep me going for... well, pretty much for ever. I know that at some point I pulled out a tape measure and checked the cabinet measurements on Adic's technical documents, but I must have had a moment of brain fade as based on that I decided that in fact it was slightly narrower than the Exabyte library (if taller and deeper) and so would fit into my kitchen-cum-datacentre very nicely.

Having measured properly, however, unfortunately this turned out to be very much not the case, and even before the unit had shipped out I was already aware that I was going to have a problem. Moving it through the double front doors would be difficult, but possible, but the internal door between the hall and the kitchen is several inches too narrow - but having taken the plunge I thought that I'd wait and see the library in the flesh and hope that inspiration would strike.

The delivery of the library to the office yesterday brought two realisations. Firstly, that there was no way that this monster was ever going to fit into my house, and secondly that it wasn't quite as described in the listing. Rather than four obsolete DLT-7000 drives, to match the large collection of 35Gb DLT tapes left over from my previous libraries, in fact the chassis is fitted with four dual-drive AIT-2 modules, a much more recent 8mm form factor holding 50Gb before compression. The smaller physical size of each tape raises the maximum capacity of the library from 158 to 237 cartridges, providing a jaw-dropping 11.5Tb of storage.

This means that for £310 including shipping I have something of a bargain on my hands - although a bargain that is unfortunately completely useless to me, as even if I could find space for the thing, the cost of acquiring enough AIT-2 tapes to make it worthwhile would be prohibitive. However, the almost contemporary drive technology makes it far more attractive on the second hand market (similar models are being advertised for many thousands of pounds), and my current plan is to tout the thing around the companies that provide support and maintenance for enterprise-class backup solutions. If that fails I'll have to break it for components myself, as there is a good chance that selling just one of the AIT drive modules would recoup my expenses, but it would be a real shame to write-off such a wonderful piece of technology just for spares and that will definitely be a last resort. In the meantime, the thing is skulking in one of the aisles of the computer room at work, looking hugely black and monolithic, and generally getting in the way. Anyone care to make me an offer?

 

7th September

Happy birthday to me!

I'm forty, today - apparently one day older than Star Trek, the first episode of which, "The Man Trap", was shown on America's NBC on September 8th 1966 at 8:30pm. Given my abiding interest in both science and science fiction, that seems extremely appropriate.

Normal service will resume tomorrow.

 

6th September

A few random links from around the web:

Ageism - UK phone supplier (and erstwhile ISP) Carphone Warehouse is refusing to provide Internet service to anyone over the age of seventy, on the spurious and insulting grounds that they wouldn't understand the contract they were signing. The company claims that their policy is intended to "protect the elderly", but I suspect that bigotry like this will cause a backlash they will come to regret.

Coherency - Dan of Dan's Data has always had a soft spot for lasers, and his latest review of some of the products from laser specialist Lexus is absolutely riveting. As usual, Dan mixes a healthy dose of physics in with the practical testing, and the end result is informative and amusing - and the lasers themselves are an order of magnitude scarier than anything I've seen in the "pointer" form factor.

Trained bacteria - scientists working in Japan have designed and manufactured a nanotech motor, using tailored bacteria crawling in protein-covered circular groove, and dragging a star-shaped rotor around with them. As it stands the motor delivers an unimpressive level of torque, but apparently the solution is simple - just add more bugs!

Telephone telepathy - controversial (some would say "batty") English scientists Rupert Sheldrake is back in the news again, following publication of what he claims is proof of the alleged phenomena of thinking about somebody just as they phone or send an email. The sample size seems vanishingly small, however, the results statistically insignificant, and the methodology questionable in the extreme.

Ministry of DRM - the New Zealand government has published a blueprint for official state use of DRM which it is hoping will be adopted world-wide, but as could be expected from a consultation fed by Microsoft, IBM and Hewlett Packard there was no mention of the fundamental conflict between DRM and open source systems - a concept which the government claims to encourage.

WiFi warning - the state of California has passed a bill making it mandatory for wireless network hardware to ship with a warning to activate the product's security features in order to prevent data theft or unauthorised use of the network. The warning can either be detailed in the software installation process, or in the form of a bright orange sticker applied to the power button or similar.

Ending migration woes - in the forums at Ars Technica, and extremely useful guide to swapping a PC motherboard to a different model with a minimum of trauma. I've successfully performed this basic process myself on a number of occasions, but the posting has a few new tips to minimise the risk of AGP video driver incompatibilities and reduce the litter of old drivers etc that may be left behind.

More power! - and talking of hardware, the ever-informative Silent PC Review has updated its perennial PSU guide to include the latest guidelines from Intel and the issue of a high-efficiency power supply that won't fire up a motherboard with a staged-start facility. This guide is now one of the definitive works in the field, and has been through enough peer review to be extremely trustworthy.

Those formats explained - the number of differnt flavours of flash memory card is expanding monthly, it seems, to the point where I see USB card readers badged as 40 or even 50-in-1... This useful thread at cellphone specialist Howard Forums clearly illustrates the difference between the original SD, Mini SD and it's new cousin Micro SD, or "TransFlash" as it is known in the phone industry.

 

5th September

My long-awaited Optimus Mini Three keypad arrived today, and it really is a nice little toy. It seems to have been sent directly from the manufacturer in China, rather than from Russia, and the customs declaration was sufficiently spurious to avoid duty and VAT - naughty, of course, but very welcome... First impressions are that the hardware is gorgeous (the OLED screens are everything that were promised, and the overall build quality is certainly impressive) but that the Configurator software which allows images and functions to be uploaded to the buttons is very fragile. It crashed three or four times in the first ten minutes of playing, which is far from ideal... I don't have time for more than that right now, however, but I'll post my impressions when the opportunity permits.

The picture really doesn't do it justice... The camera flash has turned the sleek black casing grey, as usual, and also highlighted every speck of dust - and the comparatively slow refresh rate of the OLEDs gives rise to the same "scan line" effect that makes photographing a television picture awkward. In real life, the images are crisp and clean, with a soft glow from the backlighting. Mmmmm.

Meanwhile, back on the web...

Biting the hand that feeds it - ISPs are finding increasingly hard to cope with the ever-increasing traffic from the popular BitTorrent P2P clients, to the point where some have been forced to throttle it back at their routers. Recent clients that encrypt the traffic to prevent it from being categorised and shaped have bypassed this, however, and both the ISPs and the protocol's creator are becoming concerned.

On the warpath - flushed with success following their patent infringement victory over Apple, Creative have announced their intention of perusing other companies who's MP3 players or cell phones use the same type of interface. In my opinion the patent is overly-broad, and should probably never have been granted, but given its widespread use Creative is certainly onto a good thing while it lasts.

Start me up - you can tell that we're still in the grip of the Silly Season when the web succumbs to hysteria over whether users will be able to disable the start-up sound that may or may not be included in the upcoming Vista OS. Rumours that a distinctive musical sound is being written by Robert Fripp have been circulating for ages, but surely it's premature to be worrying about such tiny details?

Exotica - a new PC case from Thermaltake has space for two motherboards and the sort of pull-out LCD display usually found on in-car DVD players. It's an interesting idea, certainly (even if  it is promoted by the sort of fake blog that companies really should stay away from!) but I can't help thinking that there are better ways of delivering the same flexibility and processing power.

We know what you stole last summer - Apple maintains a database of iPods that are reported as stolen, it seems, and could track them by their internal serial number if the new "owner" used one to connect to iTunes. They show no signs of wanting to do this, however, and there are growing calls for them to refuse to provide the iTunes service to users of stolen players.

Viruses down, phishing up - as the monthly number of viruses spread by email starts to creep down, the number of phishing scams has risen sharply, accounting for a third of all dubious messages. The web sites referenced in the messages remain for online for an average of around five days before being removed by the ISP, which unfortunately is plenty of time to reel in a sucker or two.

Adventures in video - the UK government's Cabinet Office is doubly embarrassed, this week, having uploaded a batch of informational videos to YouTube... but almost before anyone could realise how excruciatingly dull they were, they had to be withdrawn when it turned out that the copyright was held by a different government sub-department, the Central Office Of Information. Oh, dear...

And, finally - Linux weenies, you gotta love 'em... In Switzerland, open source advocate Alex Antener is demonstrating that marketing a free product is as troublesome as ever. GNU / Linux Ubuntu is such a popular OS, it seems, that you have to dress up as an animal and give it away in railway stations...

 

3rd September

Something for the weekend...

Keep taking the tablets - at portable computing site GottaBeMobile.com, tablet PC guru Rob Bushway is writing about what has changed in the upcoming Vista OS with regards to "ink" support. There are some noticeable improvements, he says, but in many ways Microsoft has missed an opportunity to revitalise support for a technology that is sure to grow during Vista's lifecycle.

Whatever happened to? - in 1999 the small town of Halfway, Oregon, was paid $110,000 to change it's name to Half.com as a way of advertising the eponymous shopping site. With a population of only 377 when the company was acquired for $312.8 million by eBay a year later, William Drenttel wonders how one of the web's more successful PR stunts affected the town.

Cool styling - Yanko Design is a designer housewares store masquerading as a design weblog, but I have to admit that their container ship power strip is a lovely item. Obviously designed with "wall wart" transformers in mind rather than regular mains plugs, it's so elegant that it would be a shame to relegate it to the usual location on the floor under a desk.

The truth about the frog - the announcement of plans for a free music downloading site, The Spiral Frog, has created something of a stir around the web, but rumours suggest that there are a number of significant drawbacks: music that expires if you don't go to the site to view adverts (and maybe after six months, even if you do!), and heavyweight DRM that seriously limits flexibility of use.

Underachieving - AOL's new movie download service looks "rushed and unready", according to The Register, and the overly restrictive DRM means that films can only be played on Windows platforms and can't be burned to DVD. The latter is especially unimpressive, considering that downloads can cost up to $19.99 - the same as buying an actual DVD! Oh, and like The Spiral Frog, it's US only...

Apple Sends a nastygram - Apple has always been a heavily litigious company (remember their war on clone hardware back in the eighties, and their persecution of Mac news sites over the last few years) but these days they just don't seem to be able to find the same calibre of lawyers and this attempt to scare a tech weblog that wasn't even hosting the material in question is just laughable.

Another laptop explosion - a UK family watched their Dell laptop explode, and apparently in a very spectacular way at that, with the individual battery cells "shooting out like fireworks" - but in an unusual twist this wasn't one of the infamous Latitude D Series that have been in the news of late, but instead an antique C600 Pentium III. Dell is blaming a 3rd party replacement battery for the explosion.

A new weakness - the latest hacking hobby amongst so-called "video hams" is using search engines to track down the web interfaces of networked cameras in use in homes and offices, many of which have little or no security enabled. I have a raft of IP cameras both at home and at work, and the latter are very definitely not accessible from outside the corporate network!

An old flame - NASA has released preliminary details of their next generation spacecraft, designed with a manned Mars mission in mind but also intended to take over from the Shuttle as the general purpose vehicle. I was amused to read that it is to be named Orion, though, which of course was the nineteen fifties programme to design a colossal spacecraft propelled by nuclear explosions.

Cartoon anatomy - a Korean artist is exhibiting cleverly mocked-up skeletons of the great cartoon characters, including Wile E. Coyote and the Road-runner, Bugs Bunny, and Mickey Mouse. It usually takes a moment to recognise the character from the shape of the skull and the distinctive posture, but then it suddenly clicks and is wonderfully obvious!

A storm in a sweatshop - the fuss over the giant Foxconn factory that manufactures Apple's iPods continues, with news that the Chinese government has ordered the company to allow the workers to set up a union. Unfortunately this may not be a step forward, as in China the government-backed unions often ally themselves with management rather than with the workers!

And, finally, at the Ambiguous.org weblog, a modest proposal - "I think someone should try to blow up a plane with a piece of ID, just to watch the TSA's mind implode". I like the way he thinks...

 

2nd September

I'm feeling smug, this evening, having added car stereos to the list of technology that I've managed to fix using only complete ignorance and an extensive collection of tools. The factory-fitted "Business RDS" stereo in my 5 series BMW died last week, and as I still use a cassette adaptor to play audiobooks from my Palm, replacing it with one of the exotic CD players that seem to be the only things on the market these days wasn't a practical option. Fortunately eBay came to the rescue, and I managed to acquire the exact same model (avoiding the grief of attempting to rewire BMW's highly -proprietary modular connector block) for a relatively reasonable price. At £15 the postage charge was rather less reasonable, but I was reassured by the thought that for that price at least it would be well packaged - so I was less than impressed when it arrived wrapped only in a sheet of brown paper and a tired old square of bubble-wrap. As could be predicted for something weighing a couple of kilos this packaging had proved grossly inadequate, and given the obvious damage I wasn't surprised when I connected it up and the LED display was completely unreadable and none of the controls functioned. Previous experiences of eBay sellers with no sense for appropriate packaging have shown me the futility of complaining, so although I allowed myself to mutter under my breath a little the priority was definitely to get the damn thing fixed.

Having opened it up and re-seated the transport mechanism's motor, which had been sprung loose by the impacts, it did at least seem to cycle tapes in and out correctly, and as I now had one player that would power up correctly but not play tapes, and one that was couldn't be controlled but would load and eject on demand, the solution was obvious. What wasn't so obvious, of course, was whether I would be able to implement that solution, as cassette players are a wonderful hybrid of mechanical, electric and electronic components (just like my arch nemesis the tape library, in fact!) and previous experiences of working with them, before the rise of audio CDs and then computers, were generally unrewarding. However, the traditional German love for modular designs meant that after a little experimentation the entire transport mechanism could be disconnected from the circuit board without significant bloodshed, and swapped into the other chassis just as easily. To my delight, it worked first time, and after a week of straining my ears to hear the Palm's built-in speaker, I assaulted my long-suffering girlfriend's hearing with loud rock music on the way to drop her off at the tube station. Bliss...

Meanwhile, elsewhere, there has been an unexpected degree of opposition to the government's offensive and intrusive plans to criminalise the possession of so-called "violent pornography". The long-standing censorship watch site The Melon Farmers has published a transcript of a column printed in, of all things, The Daily Mail, a tabloid that is notoriously staunch in its unquestioning allegiance to the government of the day - especially when that government is engaged in something butt-headed to restrict civil liberties or human rights. Even this organ seems to finally have had enough, however, and their columnist Tom Utley has spoken out against the plans in no uncertain terms. Good for him!

Meanwhile, for those who are busy burying their head in the sand, confident in the supposition that their own minor sexual peccadilloes will never be of interest to the powers that be, The Melon Farmers points us to an article on the UK police National Criminal Intelligence Service's anti-paedophile campaign "Operation Ore". The original posting, from a serving police office who is delighted with the results from this notoriously corrupt, ineffectual and downright cruel campaign, is instructive in illustrating how far certain sectors of the police are willing to go to jail "perverts and deviants" - even if they are innocent ones. Even more instructive, however, are the comments posted by victims of the operation, and their friends and relations, documenting the lives ruined, marriages broken, and careers trashed... Think of Pastor Niemöller, and don't assume that it couldn't happen to you.

 

1st September

My friend Avedon Carol is an activist who has dedicated most of the last two decades to fighting censorship, and given that the group she co-founded, Feminists Against Censorship, was instrumental in persuading the BBFC to relax its absurd restrictions on "hardcore" pornography a few years ago, it is clear that her efforts have not been in vain. She must find it all rather depressing, therefore, to hear exactly the same lies and misdirections that she has argued against for so long dragged out into the light once again in order to justify a ban on so-called "violent" porn.

 

 

In spite of the moralising and dogma emitted by government and police spokesmen over the last week, there is no known link between pornography of any type and violence towards women. In fact, even the government's own consultation paper on the subject acknowledges this, and legal experts are concerned that in spite of the lofty pronouncements of ending violent behaviour, the new law will only serve to criminalise and, indeed demonise, people who's only fault is to have rather unusual sexual tastes.

This is uncomfortably reminiscent of the consultation that preceded the Violent Crime Reduction Bill earlier this year, which admitted that realistic replica firearms posed little or no danger - but the Home Office is pressing ahead with that ban as well, in spite of the overwhelming effect on collectors and airsoft enthusiasts. It is evident that to the New Labour government the consultation process that precedes legislation is now merely a formality, and that whatever the views of the experts and the citizenry, the desire to pander to the latest media bugbear and the relentless quest for power are the only things that actually matter.

What consenting adults choose to do, or to look at, in the privacy of their own homes is nothing that the state should involve itself in, and this attempt to do so is another infringement of basic human rights.

Sad times, indeed.

 

 

Another so-so month in the stats, in spite of some generous linking from Avedon's political blog The Sideshow. I am always envious of her impressive visitor stats, as she receives more visitors in a week than I do all month, but I gather that she is equally envious of the first tier left-wing bloggers like Atrios, who gets over half a million hits per week... I know that Epicycle is never going to attract that much attention (unless I am implicated in an Islamic extremist terror plot, of course, or turn out to be Gordon Brown's illegitimate love-child) but I dream of a mention in Slashdot or Boing Boing (even if they make fun of my pro-Microsoft stance!) that brings a spike in the stats sharp enough to impale myself on.

One day, one day...

 

 

Vote for Epicycle!

 

 

 

 

 

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