30th April 2007

If this is Monday, in Maryland it must be July.

Escapism - IT industry analysis pundits Gartner are predicting that in another five years 80% of private and corporate Internet users will have some kind of presence in an online virtual world, and has formulated five "laws" for companies considering making use of the growing phenomenon.

Customising Office - I've been generally impressed by the new "ribbon" interface in Microsoft's Office 2007 suite, but evidently this feeling is not universal and there are now a number of utilities designed to ease the transition from the traditionally styled menus in earlier versions.

iPhone gossip - an un-named tester who has been allowed to play with Apple's upcoming iPhone reports that battery life is actually very respectable, matching marketing claims which raised eyebrows around the web, but that in its current form the casing is annoyingly slippery!

The best of Ken - following the departure of Ken Kutaragi from Sony's Computer Entertainment division, gaming site 1UP has a list of some of the outspoken ex-CEO's more memorable sound bites; for example "The PS3 is not a game machine. We've never once called it a game machine".

Have they looked behind the cushions? - the UK Inland Revenue department has "lost" around £900 million of unpaid VAT which was not transferred to a new debt management system from the main VAT computer, the latest in a long, long string of major disasters affecting UK government IT projects.

Not guilty - a federal jury in New York has decided that Yahoo is not liable for copyright infringement over its LaunchCast online music service, agreeing that the system is "non-interactive", rather than interactive as Sony BMG had alleged - the latter would involve significantly higher licensing fees.

Too little, too late - although it is tempting to complain that senior police officers should have voiced their disapproval before the pointless Violent Crime Reduction Bill was passed into law rather than afterwards, in fact a number of them did and were simply ignored by the Home Office as usual.

Assigning blame - a mortgage broker that was left without Internet access after botched engineering work obtained an injunction forcing BT to restore the service immediately, which was was done in spite of earlier claims that it was physically impossible - and this sets a very interesting precedent.

Fungus fingered - in spite of shrill outbursts about radiation from cell phones causing a dramatic decline in the honeybee population, the better-informed entomologists are investigating links with the   fungus Nosema ceranae, which at the very least appears to be a "key player".

Left Behind - in what has to be one of the most selfless acts of blogging I've ever seen, Fred Clark of Slactivist has worked his way through the first of the ghastly psuedo-christian apocalypse fantasy novels and thoroughly picked it apart. He's reading it, so we don't have to...

An appropriate algorithm - for those unclear about the etiquette of posting to über-geek site Slashdot, and afraid of missing their footing on the first time out, this handy flowchart lays out the approved procedure. "Is the story about Microsoft? ... Say they suck".

And talking of which, an article by David Jewell at The Register claims that Vista is a poorly-constructed OS, with disappointing sales and an uncertain future - but his column has met with considerable rebuttal in the comments, with readers pointing out that actually sales are quite respectable, and using links helpfully provided by Jewell to refute his own arguments. This is part of a trend, I think, as I'm starting to notice a backlash against the traditional sort of "Micro$oft suckz" writing, with dubious facts being called into question and obvious bias being noted. I have the feeling that people are starting to realise that Microsoft is not alone in releasing buggy software, not alone in engaging in sharp business practices, and certainly not alone in its desire to crush the opposition and dominate the market - and that in fact the scrutiny and regulation imposed by anti-trust rulings in both the US and Europe mean that actually the company may be slightly better behaved than certain others... We shall see.


29th April

A few quick links...

The iron fist in the iron glove - IBM is dunning a California school district for a $5 million debt incurred in 1989 by the organisation that preceded them, now long-defunct, and opinions in the comments at The Register strongly divided over whether the company is being reasonable or not.

Sans Comic Sans - I don't recall ever using the Comic Sans font in anger myself, but I think the growing campaign to ban it smacks of discrimination against a fairly innocuous piece of typography. Maybe I should start an opposing campaign to protect endangered fonts from persecution?

The way the future wasn't - at the Paleo-Future blog, a wonderful collection of Edwardian postcards depicting their vision of everyday life one hundred years later. Unusually for this kind of futurism, some
of them (such as broadcasting of concert performances to the home) even came true!

Fresh brains! - IBM researchers have created a simulation of a cortical network modelled on a mouse brain, and have calculated that it's running at around 1/10th of the speed of the original. All we need now is faster computers - and someone to write the mouse "software" to run on it, which is harder!

Social engineering - the latest dirty trick in hacking is to leave USB memory sticks lying around in public places and wait for them to be found and taken home by the unwary. In this case the sticks were infected with an online banking trojan that attempted to capture passwords and account details.

A new arms race - it was only a few months ago that I was boggling at the news that Enermax had announced a 1000W PC power supply, and now Thermaltake has raised my eyebrows another notch with the launch of a 1200W monster. Honestly, you could power a small mainframe with that thing!

Fighting back - Utah-based anti-spam organisation Unspam Technologies has used the details garnered from its Project Honey Pot spam trap to file a lawsuit seeking the identities of people responsible for harvesting millions of e-mail addresses that are sold to spammers.

Paper cuts - these wonderful 3D models are crafted from a single sheet of A4 paper, and burst out of the page with an energy and solidity that belies their fragile nature. Remarkable work...


28th April

I've been growing closer to a very sweet Jamaican girl over the last couple of years, and this has lead me to take a growing interest in her country of origin and its culture, as well. I've met some very nice people, and been to a number of fascinating gatherings that I would otherwise never have experienced, and on the face of it my impressions have been very positive indeed. One thing I will never grow used to, though, is the endemic intolerance of gay, lesbian and transsexual people that infects the country and its culture like a disease - and today I am gritting my teeth in anger after reading an article in the Jamaica Observer about a cross-dressing man who was viciously attacked by a mob in Falmouth, a town in the north of Jamaica near where my friend grew up.

The man was first seen in the town square early in the morning, minding his own business while apparently waiting for transportation out of the area, and within a few minutes a mob of "scores of angry residents" had assembled, attacking him with sticks, stones and other improvised weapons. The article doesn't report the extent of the unfortunate man's injuries, but evidently the police appeared before the mob was actually able to beat him to death (no thanks to the so-called journalist taking the photographs, evidently!) and he was then hospitalised.

One of the most significant aspects of this wretched story are actually the omissions from the news report. Although the police had to fire warning shots before the mob would disperse, there is no mention of any arrests being made - or even attempted. There is also no mention of any action being taken to disperse the group of people who assembled later in the day outside the hospital where their victim had been taken, with the stated intention of beating him some more when he was released. And, finally, there is no suggestion of criticism of the mob's behaviour anywhere in the paper, in spite of the fact that it is the second such incident in this area in only a few weeks - the story made the front page headline, but the editorial is about cricket...

Although the population of Jamaica may not realise it, this is the 21st century - and for a country with such strong cultural and financial links to England and the US, the population's attitudes are disturbingly out of step with other Western nations. Sexual relations between men are still very definitely illegal (with a punishment of up to ten years hard labour!) and none of the main political parties have ever showed any inclination to repeal this law, or expressed any support for gay rights in general. The hateful breed of institutionalized Christian bigotry that views homosexuality as a sin (remind me exactly where the bible prohibits same-sex relationships, again?) is prevalent in the country, but in the case of gay people Jesus' teachings of loving thy neighbour and not casting the first stone have apparently been forgotten. In the dancehalls the most popular reggae musicians frequently encourage violence towards "battymen" in their music, and the local music industry has made little attempts to control such homophobic lyrics even though they have lead to performers such as Beenie Man, Buju Banton and others being banned from performing overseas on many occasions.

Meanwhile, the police do not seem to consider violence against gay or transgender people as anything worth prosecuting, or even worth collecting statistics on, and in fact the organisation Human Rights Watch has claimed that the police have actually assisted gay-bashing suspects to evade identification. Amnesty International also reports widespread persecution, stating that "gay people in Jamaica, or those suspected of being gay, are routinely victims of ill-treatment and harassment by the police, and occasionally of torture".

The unfortunate effect of all this is hatred and intolerance, without even a hint of legislation to restrain it, is that Jamaica in the year 2007 is unpleasantly reminiscent of the southern states of America in the nineteen fifties, not so much for the redneck's traditional harsh treatment of sexual minorities, but for their famed contempt for niggers. Replace the crowd of black women in that hateful photograph with white men, instead, and you have any number of atrocities from the dark days before the US civil rights movement finally began to prevail.

You would think that a culture born from the violence and bigotry that slavery created would have learned something from it, but clearly not - so in order to reflect this obvious spiritual connection to the Alabama and Mississippi of the last century, I suggest a modification to the Jamaican coat of arms. Instead of the motto "Out of many, one people", which is obviously completely inappropriate, perhaps it should be "We don't take kindly to your sort here", instead...


27th April

Tonight's Epicycle is devoted to something that unfortunately seems to be increasingly common, these days: a collection of stories on bogus intellectual property lawsuits, misuse of copyright legislation, and the media industry's general abuse of its customers. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to cover it...

A blast from the past - the intellectual property suit filed against Apple earlier this week concerns a patent originally claimed 20 years ago by Xerox, and is specifically targeting the tabbed interfaces used in OS X - although why that particular product has been singled out is a mystery, as this kind of UI is now ubiquitous across modern operating systems.

Spreading the love - and talking of patents, another IP suit has been filed against Microsoft, claiming that their .NET development environment infringes an unknown company's incredibly vague patent covering object-orientated content management tools. This one is clearly just a fishing expedition...

The worst of the worst - and talking of dumb patents, Wired lists six thoroughly silly ideas extracted from a new book on the subject, including a head-mounted firearm and a pair of under-shorts with a built in airbag to protect against damage incurred when falling on one's ass... Indeed.

Stand up for your rights - meanwhile, at the other end of the intellectual property debate, a UK solicitor who specialises in the area says that people accused of file-sharing on the P2P networks should definitely resist legal claims made against them instead of agreeing to an out-of-court settlement.

Fighting back - as if to reinforce this message, a federal judge has denied the RIAA's request to reconsider the award of attorneys' fees to one of the victims in their file-sharing suits. Their case against Debbie Foster was dismissed with prejudice last year, allowing her to claim back the costs of her defence, and the recording industry association is hopping mad.  :-)

Losing touch - a new survey claims that many young people in the UK and France download movies and music illegally because they no longer trust the entertainment industry to provide value for money, or to respect the rights of people who do actually pay for entertainment media.

The old guard passes - MPAA figurehead Jack Valenti has died at the age of 85 following a stroke. In the eighties he was the mouthpiece for Hollywood's wild claims that the VCR would kill the movie industry, likening the technology to The Boston Strangler's effect on women, and more recently lobbied successfully for the controversial DMCA legislation.

The truth about cats and dogs - in spite of Steve Job's recent outburst on DRM, two quotes from delegates at the recent LexisNexis/Variety DRM conference are especially instructive: Jack Lacy of DRM interoperability group Coral Consortium says "Steve Jobs can complain about it all he wants to, but at the same time, he's done a lot for DRM", and musician Steven Page from Barenaked Ladies claims that Jobs "doesn't care one way or the other" so long as he keeps moving iPods.

Fark off (and on again) - changes to the terms and conditions at popular news aggregator site Fark (home of many Photoshopping contests) seemed to require contributors to assign all rights to their work to Fark, who would then assign limited rights back to them. However, the site's founder has now agreed that such a policy is undesirable and intends to rectify the mistakes.

Extortion - the cost of Adobe's software in Europe is massively higher than in the US (sometimes as much as 130% more!), and their justifications are completely lame and implausible. A campaign against such unfair pricing is gaining momentum, though - and this is something that the EU really ought to look into instead of endlessly hassling Microsoft!

A step backwards - following the University Of Wisconsin's initial refusal to assist the RIAA by forwarding "settlement letters" to students believed to be sharing media, a judge has ordered the university to provide full details of the 53 students accused. Full marks to the university officials for doing what they could, though!

And finally, copywrong - many publishers still seem unable to grasp the legal concept of "fair use" when it comes to using short segments of their material in reviews and comment, and even though in this case the threat has been withdrawn its clear that the owner of the journal in question is still badly missing the point. (Also, I don't believe the explanation provided that the legal action was brought "inadvertently caused by a junior staff member"... junior staff members do not generally have the authority to involve company lawyers in potentially time-consuming and costly IP disputes!)


26th April

It's been one of those weeks again, so before I retire to the settee to groan gently to myself for the rest of the evening, some random snippets of news from around the Interweb:

Finger-pointing exercise - following the settlement of claims against him with the SEC, Apple's previous CFO Fred Anderson has stated that he clearly informed Steve Jobs of the legal requirements for backdating stock options, and had every reason to assume that the correct procedures had been followed. Given that they obviously haven't been, perhaps the SEC's baleful glare will fall on Jobs himself next?

Beggars and kings - users of Time Warner's cable internet service can opt to share a portion of their bandwidth via a second channel in their wireless router, allowing other subscribers who are away from home to piggy-back on their connection. This is an interesting development, given that the first cases against unauthorised wireless users have now been prosecuted in both America and the UK.

A wretched hive of scum and villainy - according to web security company ScanSafe, as many as 80% of blogs contain some form of "offensive content" and a further 6% host active malware. Their sample size was unusually small, however, and their value judgement suspect: "there were as many blogs with the 'F-word' as the word 'China'", according to a spokesman - but right now I tend to find the latter considerably more offensive...

Do no evil - Jeff Freeman has written a long article analysing an extremely successful spam/advertising site that targets online gaming enthusiasts, and blames Google for contributing to the problem: its AdSense program makes these sites surprisingly lucrative if they are carefully crafted, and the PageRank system ensures a steady supply of duped visitors.

A prickly proposition - pioneering PDA manufacturer Palm is clearly planning to let its traditional user base twist in the wind, so it is interesting to see a third party working on a supplementary operating system (something like Windows 3.1 running on top of DOS!) that will bring a completely new look and feel to the platform, as well as permitting true multi-tasking of applications written for the environment. It's a fascinating idea, and bears keeping an eye on. This looks interesting, too.

A French catastrophe - following the widespread and significant problems experienced with paperless electronic voting in the US, Britain and Holland over the last few years, it should come as no surprise that the recent French presidential elections have been marred by reports of hardware malfunctions, unacceptable delays and citizens denied their vote. You have to admire the salesmanship of the voting machine companies, as they seem able to convince governments to buy their inferior, insecure products even with an ever-growing list of disasters trailing behind them.

And, finally, the answer is still "no" - regular readers of Epicycle may remember my earlier scepticism over the Killer NIC gaming network card, and the latest review from Puget Custom Computers does nothing to change my opinion. I love the diagram that purports to show one less step between client and server, replacing the "regular NIC" and the "Windows Network Stack" with the single step "Killer NIC" to imply greater efficiency. Of course, given that the thing actually runs a Linux kernel it would be more accurate to replace those two with a dozen new steps, but of course that would totally spoil their pretty chart! The review follows the standard pattern of revealing that the actual measured improvements to ping times are miniscule, if present at all (in one test they were actually slower!) but then goes on to claim that the "gaming experience" somehow felt better. In the world of commercial enterprise servers delivering millions of transactions per second onto the network even a tiny improvement would be worth its weight in TPC benchmarks, and while Dell and HP and IBM are selling their high-end servers with plain-Jane Intel gigabit network chipsets onboard I feel quite justified in dismissing these subjective claims as the wishful fantasy that they are. I have three words for reviewers like this: double-blind testing. Perhaps you should read up on it...


23rd April

An unusually political start to today's Epicycle, just to make a change:

Shaming the guilty - Oxblood Ruffin of the infamous hacking group Cult of the Dead Cow has published an article strongly criticising Google for the assistance it has provided to China in what Ruffin describes as their "cultural genocide" of occupied Tibet. There is a flavour of the green ink about it, as you might expect given its authorship, but nevertheless he makes some valid points...

No fairytales allowed - the facts about the alleged terrorists held prisoner by the US military in Guantánamo are starting to trickle out at last, and this account from British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith makes sobering reading indeed. Thanks to Avedon Carol at The Sideshow for the link to the article

Iranian clothing crackdown - am I alone in finding it impossible to respect the leaders of a country that insists on trying to regulate how its citizens dress? To me this is a clear sign of desperate, unbalanced men, driven to grasp and to cling onto as much power as they can get - and history shows that people like this should be treated with grave suspicion because of the negative impact on the world's stability that they invariably provoke..

Backing the winners - figures have emerged for the current state of campaign contributions in the 2008 US presidential campaigns, and as always they make some interesting reading. Tech firms seem to be favouring the Democrats, but there's no clear choice of candidate as yet, with Cisco apparently backing Hilary Clinton, for example, and Google coming out for Barack Obama.

The RIAA vs the radio - an article by Brett Thomas of UK modding site Bit-Tech explains why the music industry has been so strongly opposed to streaming Internet radio stations, and is fighting so hard to regulate them out of existence or, at least, out of profitability.

Boots on other feet - an Illinois-based intellectual property agency has filed a somewhat dubious lawsuit against Apple, claiming that OS X infringes on a patent they hold concerning what appears to amount to the concept of a tabbed dialog box. Given how ubiquitous this technique is in any modern GUI, I'm surprised they didn't sue Microsoft instead. Perhaps they're treating Apple as a warm-up?

Bad drives out good - At Wired, Bruce Schneier laments the fact that the ever-present deluge of poor quality security products on the market makes the few genuinely useful products harder for the end user to recognise, and less likely to succeed commercially.

Gone in 60 seconds - a competition at the CanSecWest security conference has been won by a US researcher who in less than twelve hours discovered and exploited a new vulnerability in Apple's Safari browser. He walked away with the brand new MacBook Pro he'd hacked and a $10,000 prize.

Inadequate for purpose - anyone with a history of P2P file-sharing will not receive the security clearance required to work at the NSA, according to a report at Boing Boing - although there is a suggestion that this may just be a cunning ruse to allow interviewers to calibrate their polygraphs!

Sooner rather than later - RIM has only released vague details of the cause of the extensive outage in their BlackBerry email service last week, but an analysis by a ZDnet columnist suggests that such a highly centralised network is bound to run into problems when customer demand grows that fast.

The inkjet investigation - Trusted Reviews has been testing 3rd party inkjet printer cartridges against the genuine article, and it turns out that although there are occasional problems using remanufactured modules, the actual print quality is often as good or better than using expensive branded cartridges.

Inside information - at the venerable CD Freaks site, a useful guide to the file structure of a video DVD. If you don't know your Manager Information Set from your Video Object Set (and I certainly didn't, in spite of years fiddling with DVDs) then this is well worth bookmarking.

A fine collection - the Home Computer Museum is an online exhibit of microcomputers from the boom years of the late seventies to the early nineties, before the PC drove everything else before it. Everything I can remember using is there, as well as everything I can remember lusting after (or sneering at!) in the computer magazines of the day. Ah, the nostalgia...

And finally, giant robots - as Dan puts it, "If you download only one 157Mb AVI file today...", and I whole-heartedly agree. With Code Guardian, Italian animator Marco Spitoni has produced a remarkable piece of work, and proves that a desktop PC and an off-the-shelf 3D package, when combined with talent and enthusiasm, can certainly match the output of the big-budget commercial animation studios two or three years ago. Down at the other end of the spectrum, however, the Pivot Stickfigure Animator looks to be just as much fun, and is probably far better suited to mere mortals like myself than the 3DStudio Max software that Spitoni uses...


22nd April

I've been trying for a while to take a good photograph of my home server infrastructure, but the sheer size of the cabinet combined with the location near a corner of the room has made capturing its full height impossible in one image. A little fiddling this morning has produced something that I'm happy enough with, though, so for your edification and delight I present the power behind epicycle.org.uk.

The slightly fish-eyed appearance is due to Canon's PhotoStitch utility, bundled with most of their cameras to allow panoramic views to be assembled automatically from multiple photographs. I didn't have much luck with PhotoStitch when I tried to use it to assemble a picture of the cabinet a few weeks ago, but this time I tried with the camera on a waist-high tripod and the results were noticeably better. Evidently the image analysis algorithms are much more successful when the camera is actually being panned around a fixed point, as my attempts both to do that manually, and alternately to move the camera laterally instead of panning (PhotoStich has a setting for both), resulted in some extremely unusual results from the software!

As usual, the camera flash has washed out the black front panels somewhat, and differentiated the subtly different shades of black far more than they appear in real life.

From top to bottom:

Netgear ProSafe JGS524 gigabit Ethernet switch
Sun-Cobalt RaQ 4r web server, upgraded with StrongBolt Linux
Axis 262 Network Video Recorder
Compaq Deskpro EN running the Smoothwall Express firewall
Dell 15" TFT and Cherry 11900 compact keyboard
Dell PowerVault PV132T tape library with twin LTO-1 drives
Two EMC Clariion 4500 series DAEs, each with ten 72Gb fibre channel disks
Dell PowerEdge 4400, running Windows Server 2003 as an AD domain controller
APC SmartUPS 3000

On top of the cabinet, out of sight, are a NetGear WGR614 wireless access point and a set of Creative  Inspire P380 speakers, and the cab itself is a 42U AcoustiRack with the (allegedly) optional roof fan tray.

As an aside, in response to the raised eyebrows I always seem to encounter when I casually mention that I have an enterprise-level server installation in my kitchen, the proof. The cabinet isn't exactly slotted in beside the stove, the way it must sometimes sound, but instead is at the far end of the room where the previous owners had a dining table. I suspect that most casual visitors give it a glance and assume that it's one of the giant American-style fridges that are starting to become popular in England! However, I've run entire corporates and government departments with less processing power and much less storage, earlier in my career, and I have to admit to being exceedingly proud of the thing.  :-)


19th April

A few snippets of news...

And not a moment too soon - Google CEO Eric Schmidt says that the company is on the point of enabling a filtering system that will prevent users from uploading copyrighted content to the company's video-sharing site YouTube. Personally, I'll believe it when I see it...

Monopolisation - and talking of Google, their planned acquisition of banner advert company DoubleClick is raising hackles around the industry, with competitors such as Microsoft raising concerns over the potential use of Google's massive databases for advertising purposes.

The home of piracy - the Chinese government's continued failure to agree to any of the worldwide intellectual property agreements is brought into sharp focus by the news that only 244 genuine copies of Windows Vista have been sold since the product's launch in January...

Clamping down on freeloaders - two British people have been arrested in separate incidents of illicit "piggy-backing" on other people's wireless Internet connections, and given an official caution for "dishonestly obtaining electronic communications services with intent to avoid payment".

The jackals close in - in the wake of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the media is attempting to blame computer games for the violence once more. It was predictable that Jack Thompson would step up to say "I told you so", of course, but even TV shrink Dr Phil has thrown his weight behind the idea.

NIFOC - the Chinese government's draconian campaign against free Internet use in the country has met with a small hiccup, with officials forced to admit that they have no legal basis to ban nude web chats and online encounter groups. Expect speedy and wide-reaching new legislation imminently...

Data bozos - TV production company Lime Pictures has attracted the baleful gaze of the Information Commissioner following a massive leak on their web site of the personal information of up to 20,000 job applicants, which was freely available to the casual browser for several days at least.

Backing down - In what has to be one of the year's great understatements, Tim O'Reilly has admitted that his widely-criticised Blogger Code Of Conduct was "a bit misguided" - but the publicity he gained in the mainstream media may well make up for his loss of esteem in the online communities...

Once bitten - you'd think Sony would have learned from the rootkit fiasco last year, but apparently their latest adventures in copy protection have lead to newly-released DVDs such as Casino Royale being unusable in some DVD players, including Sony's own models

A curious omission - with a 1.8" TFT and 2Gb of flash memory this wrist-worn widescreen video and music player has a feature list that would make Dick Tracy green with envy, but one thing it doesn't actually seem to do is tell the time!

A change of heart - an industry insider suggests that Apple is seriously considering a mail-in rebate or airtime subsidy of between $50 and $150 to offset the eye-watering cost of the upcoming iPhone, presumably following widespread agonising over the expected $600 cost.

Supercharged - Intel's imminent release of a revamped Core 2 Duo processor will permit one core to go into a sleep mode, and the other to use the excess electrical power to increase its clock speed significantly, which could bring a real boost to applications that are not multi-threaded.

Blink and you'll miss it - I totally failed to notice the W32/Nuwar@MM "Storm" virus spreading around the Internet last week, but reports suggest that the people who always fall for social engineering malware fell for it once more, causing 20,000 infections on the first day alone. Sheesh...

And finally, ZDNet has put together a slide show of the "splash screens" that display while Windows is loading, from the original V1.01 in 1985 to the glowing orb that introduces the new Vista OS.


17th April

Considering that I've been on sick leave over the last week I seem to have spent an unexpected amount of time connected into the office fixing some problem or other. The weekend was enlivened by the faulty aircon unit in the computer room, and now that has been repaired today has instead brought fun and games with Windows, necessitating the hurried design and distribution of an SMS package to install a hotfix. Ah, well - no rest for the wicked!

I'll be back at the silicon face tomorrow, but until then some random snippets of news from around the web:

Pardon Me While I Roll My Eyes - as could be expected the absurd and annoying "Blogger Code Of Conduct" proposed by Tim O'Reilly has raised a number of hackles around the web, and this response from award-winning SF author John Scalzi says it all.

Massively parallel - a new inkjet design could allow consumer printers to print text at sixty pages per minute and photo quality at thirty pages, printing a full line at a time through more than seventy thousand picoliter-sized nozzles.

Losing the megapixel wars - another technological departure is looming in the world of digital cameras, with US researchers developing a system with only a single pixel - as well as an array of a million or more digital micromirrors to scan the entire image across it. Thanks to Mike for the pointer.

Eroding our freedoms - the incessant demands of the media industry have lead to increasingly sophisticated links between the levels of a computer system, and an briefing from AMD on restricting access to the frame buffer shows the direction that the next DRM developments will take.

The evils of DRM #437 - a security researcher has released proof of concept software showing how Vista's integrated copy protection systems could be used to conceal and protect malicious code from the computer's user, and although the tool is in an early stage the approach seems generally valid.

Debunking - the EFF are always working to reveal the lies of the media industry and its shills, and the latest announcement from SafeMedia that their Clouseau product will forever end P2P file sharing on corporate and academic networks is as flawed as all previous offerings in this area.

Taking their ball and going home - popular social networking site MySpace is once more laying down the law on which external services users can use to host their media, blocking photos and videos held on the equally popular service Photobucket from being embedded in MySpace pages.

A palpable hit - The Washington Post reports that sales of Vista have far outpaced those of its predecessor Windows XP, with 20 million licenses being sold in the first month after launch, compared to 17 million XP licenses in the first two months of its availability.

Gaming nostaliga - the first annual AdventureCon is being planned this August in Las Vegas, aimed at fans of the traditional computer adventure games that were the mainstay of the industry in the eighties and nineties. Guests will include Scott Adams and Al Lowe, both pioneers of the genre.

And, finally, wearing a cape... SF author, Internet pundit and EFF activist Cory Doctorow is something of a hero to many techies, but I hadn't realised that we should be looking up so high...


15th April

I've had a lot of time to catch up on my reading, recently, and this has included SF grandmaster Robert Heinlein's first work, "For Us The Living". In fact, this was my second attempt at reading the book, and I have to admit that just as before I gave up on the story in frustration. This is something of a surprise, as I have been a life-long fan of the author (his "Space Family Stone", included in a batch of second-hand books passed along by a family friend, was the first science fiction story I ever read - at the tender age of about eleven) and have read pretty much everything else he has written. This includes the travelogue of his 1950s world cruise and his essays on the boy scout movement, and as only the truly devoted would even contemplate those it gives you an idea of just how very bad FUTL must be...

Although the novel was written between 1938 and 1939, even before the ground-breaking short story "Lifeline" that launched his professional writing career, it remained unpublished until 2003 when a long-forgotten proof was unearthed in a garage by a Heinlein scholar. The official explanation for this 65 year delay, provided by The Heinlein Society and endorsed by his fiercely protective wife Virginia, is that the novel was too racy for its time - to the point where as well as being virtually unpublishable it could not even be legally shipped through the US mail system! There well may be something to this, as although considerably more explicit writing was certainly being published and distributed in semi-secret (of course - no government anywhere has been able to ban erotica completely!) a respectable man like Heinlein would be unlikely to consider such an option:

It's important to point out that according to those favored few who have thus far read this long lost Heinlein novel, it did not go unpublished because it was bad--they say it's quite good, though clearly a first novel by the author. It was unpublished because the mores and culture of the time would not allow it.

However, this really isn't a good explanation as to why the story remained unknown until so recently, as by the late sixties and early seventies Heinlein's growing reputation and the more permissive climate allowed the considerably more risqué works "Stranger In A Stranger Land" and "I Will Fear No Evil", and surely by then a publisher could have been found without difficulty.

No, I'm going to stick my neck out, here, and directly contradict both the learned scholars of The Heinlein Society, from whom the above quote is taken, and the book's main apologist (and author of its introduction) Spider Robinson: the story is not good. It is dull, inconsistent, pointless, baffling, and has lifeless, two dimensional characters.

There, I said it.

I'm quite convinced that as Heinlein matured as a writer he began to view FUTL as something of an embarrassment, and even the thought of re-writing it to remove its worst deficiencies made him cringe inside. Ginny agreed (she always agreed with her husband, I gather - perhaps that was part of her undoubted appeal for him?) and so, as the Heinlein Society article itself reveals, "The Heinleins apparently destroyed all copies they had". That seems something of an extreme action, I would say - especially as most writers of the era were decidedly paranoid about losing their work. In the days before photocopiers and word processors it was depressingly common for type-written manuscripts to be lost by prospective publishers or by the postal system, and a number of Heinlein's contemporaries had to re-create stories from memory or give up on them altogether when the last-ditch carbons also proved lost or illegible.

So for a writer of SF's golden age to deliberately destroy all known copies of a first novel implies something far more than it being ahead of its time. To me it implies a work which he no longer wanted to be published, ever, and indeed never even wanted to be associated with! Given that there's little in the content of the story that an older, wiser Heinlein could take exception to (in fact, as Spider Robinson points out in the introduction, it contains a condensed blueprint for the politics, mores and sociology in many of Heinlein's later works) it is surely just that he realised that the thing was a real stinker of a book. It's not unreasonable or unusual for a first novel by a new writer to be dreadful, but it's a great shame that the assembled literary geeks of the Heinlein Society can't just come right out and admit it...


14th April

I am Jack's failing immune system.

Given that I suffered through a bout of 'flu back in February, it seems most unfair to find myself laid low by an identical set of symptoms only a month or so later. However, last weekend I was talking to a couple of people who had just returned from Spain, so presumably this is some exotic foreign flavour of the virus which just laughed at my existing antibodies and spurned them with the toe of its boot.

Typically, on the first day when I could do more than lie in bed and whimper, one of the aircon units in the computer room has gone on the fritz yet again (at this stage I would definitely not recommend the hardware itself, the company that installed it, or the company that currently maintains it!) and I've had to shut down half the network to prevent the other half from boiling in its cases. However, I certainly would recommend Raritan's IP-Reach device, which wraps up the proprietary KVM subsystem in the computer room into IP packets and routes them securely out over the net, allowing me to perform the work without leaving the comfort of my settee - which is just as well, at the moment, as I'm still running quite a fever and any attempt to drive to the office would likely result in wrapping myself around a passing lamp-post...

Meanwhile, elsewhere, a few oddments that I had written up ready to blog on Wednesday evening, before the bug laid me low:

After working with computers since the late seventies I ought to know better than to make predictions of the sort I made last month, when I suggested that my new Radeon X1950 Pro graphics card would be the fastest AGP card ever made. In spite of the fact that most people on both sides of the industry consider the bus obsolete, certain manufactures still perceive a market niche and are working to fill it, with GeCube now having released an AGP card based on the high-end X1950 XT chip, various factory-overclocked versions of the X1950XT shipping, and rumours circulating that Nvidia will soon be announcing a legacy version of the GeForce 7800 GTX. Will the latest DirectX 10 chips ever be released in AGP form? And what about multi-GPU cards? A month ago I would have said definitely not, but now I suspect that in the battle to dominate every corner of the market (and high-end AGP cards apparently only represent around 5%) nothing is out of the question.

And in the red corner - with Supreme Commander out on the shelves for a month or so, now, the other major offering in the real-time strategy genre has launched to meet it. I've always favoured the C&C series (and the lesser-known Warzone 2100 for its amazingly customisable vehicles) and although SupCom is graphically stunning, has considerable depth and breadth of play, and includes dual display support for the first time in the genre, its demands on the PC hardware are astronomical and it probably won't really come into its own for another couple of years! Command & Conquer 3 is less innovative and sophisticated than its competitor, but looks just as pretty in the reviews and is apparently capable of running pleasingly fast even on less outrageous hardware. I will certainly be taking a look.

The circle is unbroken - beleaguered PDA manufacturer Palm has announced that it will be developing a new operating system in-house, using a Linux kernel with the traditional PalmOS look-and-feel. This seems bizarre, as it exactly matches the strategy that led to the creation of the PalmSource spin-off and its Garnet operating system a few years ago, which Palm has just licensed back from the company they sold it to in 2005. What an incredible waste of money and resources!

A losing battle - only a few days after Corel released a patch to counter the initial flaws in the AACS copy-protection in high-definition media, a new crack has been announced that may well make the patch obsolete. The crack doesn't actually permit media to be copied, but it does make it possible to play back copies as if they were genuine discs, something that until now has required firmware modifications to player hardware.

Falling down - rumours suggest that the sell-out of UK ISP Pipex is floundering, with BT, Virgin Media, and Sky apparently having lost interest and only Carphone Warehouse still in the running... and their current offer has been described by a board member as "low-ball", perhaps owing to a recent profits warning from the phone company's accountants. Given this, it is expected that the ISP's chairman may well wait to see if the situation improves at some later date.

Capacity to self-destruct - Amazon's apparently unstoppable legal protection of the "One Click" e-shopping technique may have run into an immovable object at last, and perhaps one of its own creation. In their defence against an attempt to get the patent overturned, they have filed evidence that includes not only a disputed patent that forms the basis of an intellectual property claim against them, but also numerous documents obtained from Wikipedia, a source that has been ruled as inadmissible by the USPTO. Talk about shooting oneself in the foot...


10th April

Catching up on a backlog of links, after a long weekend away from blogging. Don't read them all at once, try to make them last...

Hidden agendas - eyebrows have been raised over the EU's probe into the differences in pricing between countries of Apple's iTunes service, as the licensing fees charged by the for music on LP, tape and CD have always varied from country to country. Given this, some legal experts are questioning why the EU should suddenly be paying attention to what simply appears to be the modern equivalent.

Adding insult to injury - the EU's anti-trust ruling against Microsoft three years ago forced them to licence technical information to competing companies (allegedly to allow them to design better Windows-compatible server software) but a new ruling has refused Microsoft's request for licensing fees of 5.95% of related revenue has been rejected, and a report in the Financial Times suggests that they will never see anything like that percentage.

Backfiring - the music industry's desperate attempts to preserve the status quo have resulted in serious losses to their own business, reports the New York Times, and the collateral damage has forced the closure of record stores both large and small: "The major labels wanted to kill the single. Instead they killed the album. The association wanted to kill Napster. Instead it killed the compact disc". It's a sobering story...

Consumer demand - media industry analysis service Nielsen VideoScan has released figures that suggest sales of individual hi-def titles are remarkably low, with Blu-Ray and HD-DVD disks appearing in the weekly Top 10 with only 800 or so disks sold! Other titles have sold less than 200 discs since their release, and although the VideoScan summary does not include some retailers and online stores, it's still a real eye-opener.

The dominos fall - in the wake of Apple's much-hyped decision to remove DRM from part of its iTunes catalogue (if at a premium cost, of course!) it was probably inevitable that Microsoft would follow - although the Seattle giant claims that this is simply a result of a change of policy by the actual license holders and not just a "me too" marketing ploy. Microsoft's change will affect music released on other labels than EMI, which does seem to lend weight to this claim.

Unwanted technology - last year pressure group IPac sent free iPods to US Congressmen in an effort to educate them about copyright and technology, but many of them were returned unopened. Among them was the player sent to presidential hopeful John Kerry, and as he accepted $3.6 million in campaign contributions from the entertainment industry IPac have decided to auction the iPod on eBay to raise funds for their campaign against the media industry's draconian behaviour.

I don't think so, Tim - a report from Internet analysis pundits JupiterResearch claims that 50% of net users are looking for "food and cooking information", and that food marketing companies should leverage a previously unexploited market. I find this claim extremely hard to believe, and wonder if they've become confused by the messy-sex enthusiasts who apparently delight in bathing in cold baked beans or coating themselves in whipped cream and chocolate sauce...

Sucking spam - Vancouver-based start-up Mail Channels is working on a way to make sending spam unattractive by slowing the process of sending an email down as much as practical. This has little effect on legitimate messages (although the number of open connections on the SMTP server will rise significantly) but could be particularly effective to deter the recent surge in "pump-and-dump" stock market spam, which is fairly time-critical.

Blog or die - parts of the corporate culture have embrace blogging to such an extent that music giant Song BMG recently made it mandatory for all senior staff at both Columbia Records and RCA Records to start "blogging actively". It is highly questionable whether this will achieve the intended marketing goals, however, as it has already been shown that their target audience can easily distinguish genuine cultural comment from self-serving "astroturf" propaganda.

Faker faking - paranormal fraud Uri Geller has joined the growing ranks of offended people who are misusing the DMCA to have what they think is defamatory material from the web. By law, only the copyright holder of a video can make a site owner remove a video, but Geller has been harassing YouTube into removing videos that debunk his spoon-bending tricks without any such rights, thus potentially exposing to him to legal liability himself.

If their fingers are moving, they're lying - White House staffers are increasingly using their own off-the-shelf email accounts in the hope of avoiding future subpoenas to disclose messages sent via the official wh.gov secure systems. The downside of this, of course (apart from the obvious and illegal loss of governmental accountability!) are that the levels of security provided by Blackberry and the cellphone companies are not necessarily up to the job of handling genuinely sensitive information.

Data from the bilges - three petty officers in the Japanese navy have been implicated in a file-sharing scandal, after inadvertently sending out the technical specifications for the US-designed Aegis missile system in amongst "a large collection of obscene images". The POs should not have had access to data of such a confidential nature, of course, and so the Japanese press is speculating that senior officers must have been involved in the porn sharing ring as well.

Fully justified - the investigation of the raid on the controversial Swedish torrent site The Pirate Bay has been completed, and although both police and prosecutor were charged with official misconduct over the way that dozens of completely unrelated servers were removed from the hosting company's site and held for an unusually long time before being returned, none of the charges will actually result in further investigation.

Not invented here - proof of concept code for a trojan that will infect iPods which have been converted to run Linux has been demonstrated, but it is essentially harmless in its current form - it cannot be installed or launched without user involvement, has no significant payload, and of course the number of Linux iPods must be fairly small - but nevertheless, it shows that people are thinking about ways of attacking platforms other than Windows, and it may only be a matter of time...

A little knowledge - At Dan's Data, Dan is bemoaning the realisation that in some cases the less you know the happier you are, something I realised when I first started monitoring the internal temperatures of my home PCs. His current bugbear is poorly processed video clips, where the original aspect ratio has been changed willy-nilly so that "all of the cars have oval wheels and Chewbacca looks like Wicket", something that he thinks a significant number of people just never notice!

The photographic arms race - mathematical techniques to analyse photographs to detect digital tampering are becoming more sophisticated, says Dartmouth College computer scientist Hany Farid, but it is always easier to create a fake than to detect one and in the long term he is sure that the forgers will win. This is the first time I've actually seen the controversial Reuters image of smoke billowing from Beirut after last year's air-strikes, though, and I'm stunned at how amateurish it is.

A losing battle - Corel has issued a mandatory update to its WinDVD video player application, following the release earlier this year of hacks that bypassed the AACC high definition copy protection system. The patch will need to be applied in conjunction with matching firmware updates from the drive manufacturer in order to play current or future HD-DVD and Blu-Ray disks, and given the apparent weakness of the security mechanism will presumably be the first of many...

And finally, someone who is badly missing the point... A list of gigs by progressive rock musician Arthur Brown starts with an unexpected warning:

"POLITE NOTICE: Can whoever keeps adding a link to this page from wikipedia please stop it if you do it again I will remove this page."

Now, most people would be happy for their work to be referenced from one of the prime clearing houses for online information (I'm damn sure that I would!), but evidently this chap would prefer to keep his little corner of the web private and exclusive, out of sight of the great unwashed masses. It makes me laugh, but at the same time it's a little sad, too....


6th April

I don't normally pay any attention to this stuff (after all this time on the net I've seen most of the email jokes worth seeing) but this one arrived in Karlene's mail today... A composite, of course, although it's been put together quite neatly, but even so it rather ticked me:

Police are urging visitors to any city centre to be especially vigilant for a new gang operating a slick routine that is aimed at stealing from unwary persons.

They say that the gang usually comprises four members. While the three younger ones, all appearing to be cute and innocent, divert their "mark" (or intended target) with a show of friendliness and fun, the fourth, the eldest of this gang of criminals sneaks in from behind the person's back to expertly rifle undetected through their pockets and bags for any valuables being carried. The attached picture taken from CCTV operating in the inner city shows the gang in operation.


5th April

Somehow I missed out on the furore that resulted when Microsoft's Jim Allchin suggested that Vista users might not need to run antivirus software, last November, and although I suppose the venom directed towards him is to be expected actually what he says is perfectly sensible for a certain type of users in a certain type of environment, whatever the OS they're using.

I always have the latest version of McAfee VirusScan installed, and it is usually configured to scan some or all of my desktop PC overnight. It doesn't do any real-time scanning, however, unless I've enabled it specifically because I know that the sort of web sites I'm visiting at the time are likely sources of malware. I've never left it enabled permanently, because of the performance overhead when working on large files, and yet somehow I have escaped without falling victim to the army of trojans, back doors, spambots and who knows what else that the media and anti-virus companies constantly assure us are waiting to pounce just around the next corner.

However, I have always used proper stateful packet inspection firewalls since the start of the broadband era (initially Sonicwall appliances, and now a Linux-based Smoothwall system), and I've never used an email application that is capable of automatically decoding and running executable attachments. In fact, all my email is charmingly ASCII based, and it's clear that over the years that has saved me a whole bunch of grief...

Between these two measures, and coupled with twenty-something years in the IT industry and a healthy level of paranoia and suspicion when it comes to the Interweb, I haven't ever had a virus infection on my home PCs. Lucky? Perhaps... Careful? Of course... But while I would never claim that the threat of malware is over-stated (I've cleaned enough bugs out of office PCs to be very sure that it's a tough old network out there) I'm also convinced that much of the actual risk from malware comes from inadequate understanding and excessive trust on the part of the user. If Vista's new security measures can block a proportion of the malware that a user actually invites into the system by clicking on a duplicitous web pop-up offering to "clean the registry", and there early indications are that it will, then I think a large part of the current class of threats is avoided at a stroke. Time will tell, of course, but maybe Vista will be the version of Windows that starts to turn the tide back in our favour.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

After the horse has bolted - at ZDNet Georg Ou is less than impressed by Microsoft's handling of the recent animated cursor vulnerability, which he says was reported privately to the company on December 20th. Given this, it seems disingenuous in the extreme for Microsoft to be bragging on the 1st April about its rapid response to the flaw, by which time both an exploit and a 3rd party patch were already circulating.

Pots and kettles - given that in recent months the Firefox browser has had more exploits than Windows XP and Vista combined, it is something of a puzzle why the Mozilla Foundation is dragging its feet over implementing the Protected Mode that the Vista OS makes available. This is already supported by IE7, of course, and goes some way towards guarding a PC's data from the worst excesses of browser-based malware - similar support in Firefox ought to be a priority at this stage.

Confidence and paranoia - a rather breathless post at the TutorialNinjas site (and later picked up by pretty much everyone else) claims that Apple are reaching out over the wires every night to disable mods and tweaks performed on the new AppleTV appliances. The popular consensus seems to be that this is very unlikely, however, and that the culprit is probably a scheduled CRON job designed to reset damaged permissions in order to keep the device working and secure.

UnreadyBoost - the new ReadyBoost caching feature in Vista needs a fairly high-performance flash memory card to operate, and by no means all of the current offerings are up to the task. Fortunately AnandTech has an extensive roundup of USB storage devices, which reveals huge differences in both read and write performance, and UK developer Grant Gibson is hosting a user-submitted database of devices that are known to be compatible. Based on these reports, the best devices on the market right now are probably the Kingston DataTraveler Elite and Lexar's JumpDrive Lightning.

And finally, recycling - this easily the best use yet for those odd plastic cylinders that optical media comes in, and actually make me wish that I was fond of bagels... Marvellous.


4th April

A random handful of tech links:

Beware of the firewall - a lot has been written about the new TCP/IP stack in Windows Vista, but a presentation by a Microsoft systems architect at the recent IETF meeting in Prague reveals that there are definitely a few wrinkles, still. The designers were forced to disable support for ECN (a relatively recent feature to prevent network congestion, specified in RFC 3168) at the last minute, for fear of problems with firewalls that do not yet support the standard. However, they left in the RFC 1323 window scaling facility, and it has just emerged that this may well cause problems with firewall appliances as well. A patch is available, but the standard is hardly new and at this stage the onus is really on the firewall vendors to update their systems instead.

From beyond the grave - the "legal" Napster music service has been written off by most pundits in the face of competition from iTunes, AllofMP3.com and the illicit P2P networks, but a statement from the company claims that it now has 830,000 paying customers, making it the largest subscription service in the world. The company is still losing money, but considerably less than it was a couple of years ago and this increase in revenue is driving a matching increase in the stock price. Who would have thought it!

Fraud or incompetence - it has emerged that customers calling the Reading branch of The Carphone Warehouse for updates on phone repairs were routed to a phone socket without a telephone (and, in fact, one that has never had a telephone), and charged a premium rate for the privilege of hearing it ring endlessly. Given that up to half of this revenue goes to the company receiving the call, and that the staff knew about the mysterious lack of a phone, the customer that discovered this accusing CPW of perpetrating a deliberate scam.

Climbing down - ambitious plans to link the country's various police forces (a media-driven twitch reaction after the Soham murders) will almost certainly be abandoned because of the universally poor quality of the information held in the various disparate databases and the usual political disagreements between forces. The likely fate of the project has been recognised internally for a while, it seems, but the National Police Improvement Agency, which replaced my old employer PITO, has finally admitted it publicly.

Riding the rollercoaster - during the first weekend it was available some 600,000 of Sony's new PS3 console were sold in Europe (165,000 were shifted in the UK, for example, compared to the 105,000 Wiis and 50,000 Xbox 360s sold during their own launch weekends), but following that dramatic burst of sales demand seems to have slumped by 80% or more in the following week. Perhaps everybody who wants a PS3 now has one? I'm sure Sony will be delighted... :-)

The lawyers are circling - a Washington woman is suing Microsoft over the marketing program used to indicate the level of Vista compatibility of new PC hardware. She failed to distinguish between "Vista Capable" and "Vista Premium Ready" classifications when she bought a computer, and is now alleging that the software giant has deliberately engaged in deceptive practices. Microsoft and the IT press has gone to considerable lengths to describe the various different editions of the OS, and I think the suit is wholly without merit - but the law firm that filed it is seeking class action status and even from here you can hear the sound of the sharks filing their teeth.

Optimus Prime - with news that the full-sized Optimus OLED keyboard has been delayed until December 2007, Russian design house Art Lebedev is pushing ahead with software for the Mini 3 USB keypad featured in Epicycle passim. The latest release of the Configurator brings a different user interface and, apparently, more flexibility, and to complement it the first alpha of a Windows Sideshow supplementary display driver has also been released. It's only text mode at present, thanks to a dearth of documentation from Microsoft, but it's certainly an interesting project. I'm also pleased to notice that, at last, 3rd party developers have started creating plugins for the Mini 3 Configurator. A device like this will usually sink or swim based on software from outside the company, so this is definitely a good sign.


3rd April

Just a few snippets of news, tonight, as it's been one of those days at the silicon face...

Tempting fate - security guru Bruce Schneier has announced the Second Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest, intended to illustrate the absurd "security theatre" run by the US Transportation Security Administration by devising a "terrorist plot" that will force them to ban some everyday item: "Make the TSA ban wristwatches. Or laptop computers. Or polyester. Or zippers over three inches long. You get the idea". It's amusing, but it won't help the current situation (airport security is now a multi-billion dollar business) and could conceivably lead to an actual ban...

Levelling the playing field - the EU's anti-trust arm has turned its baleful gaze away from Microsoft for a few moments to focus instead on Apple and the Big Four record labels. At issue are the country-specific storefronts used by Apple's iTunes Store, which offer higher pricing to customers on the continent than those in the UK - the difference is about _0.17 per song, which over a large music library could add up to a significant difference. Apple claims that the higher cost is mandated by their licensing arrangements with the record labels, of course, an excuse that may actually be true but in any case is becoming decidedly tired.

The rotten underbelly of the Internet - as Internet access and technical awareness soars in China, the country is rapidly becoming the source of a significant quantity of online threats. A new report from anti-virus specialist Sophos claims that 35.6 percent of malicious web sites are hosted in the country, and 30% of malware also originates there. These figures take China into the lead for the first time, ousting the US from its traditional number one spot.

Turning on each other - since migrating to the newly released Oracle version of Linux, Australian financial company Opes Prime Stockbroking has been beset by calls, emails and blog entries from Linux enthusiasts to complaining at the company's decision. "People called us out of the blue to tell us we were idiots," said Opes executive director Anthony Blumberg. Oracle's flavour of the OS is considered by some to be inferior to builds such as RHEL, but the level of fanboy mania required to provoke unconnected outsiders to telephone a company to criticise their choice of OS is just mind boggling.

And finally, the benefits of hindsight - courtesy of the Playstation blog pspsps.tv, ten things Sony execs may regret saying about the PS3... My favourites are "The PS3 "is not a games machine" and "It's probably too cheap" from the infamous Ken Kutaragi, and "If you can find a PS3 anywhere in North America that's been on shelves for more than five minutes, I'll give you 1,200 bucks for it" from Sony US mouthpiece Jack Tretton. Um, Jack, I think you owe me some money...


2nd April

To kick off today's entry, primo geek site Ars Technica has a whole raft of news stories about copyright and intellectual property. The MPAA has named its "top 25" colleges for piracy, the Digital Freedom Campaign is fighting the RIAA by educating students on their rights, EMI has announced that it will allow Apple to dell DRM-free music on iTunes (for a premium price, of course!), and four US students have filed a lawsuit against the company that supplies plagiarism detection software on the grounds that the service stores and utilises the work they submit via without their permission.

Rabid litigation - adult web site company Perfect 10 seem to be creating a significant quantity of legal precedents concerning Internet copyright, nearly all of it against their company. Their latest suit against adult web services CCBill and CWIE for copyright infringement has met with an equal lack of success, with the Appeals Court upholding the defendants claims of a DMCA safe harbour.

War between the gods - music giants EMI and Bertelsmann have settled a long-running dispute that arose from the latter's $100 million investment in the original Napster service, which EMI claims helped P2P users steal its music. In a similar settlement Bertelsmann paid $40 million to Universal last year, meaning that its brief adventure in P2P must have cost well in excess of $200 million...

All publicity is good publicity - the latest edition of the controversial Grand Theft Auto series of games is set in a city with a certain resemblance to New York, which has prompted a storm of protest from city officials. Strangely, though, it doesn't actually seem as if any of them have played the game, or even know very much about it...

Take Two, take two - meanwhile, the software company itself is in something of a turmoil, with a shareholder revolt ousting CEO Paul Eibler, named worst CEO of 2005 by analysis company MarketWatch. The previous CEO, company founder Ryan Bryant, was convicted in February of backdating stock options to boost their value, and is facing a fine of $7.26 million.

Selling up - UK ISP Pipex has had an incredibly chequered history in recent years, culminating in their buy-out by sponge-like holding company GX Networks in 2004, and every change of hands has brought poorer and poorer service. Now the company is up for sale again, with both BT and Virgin Media being tipped as likely buyers. I doubt either of them will improve things for Pipex users.

Egg on faces - the US parent company of UK clothes retailer T.J. Maxx has admitted that it has lost details of at least 45.7 million credit cards to hackers. The breaches started in 2005 and carried on until January of this year. It is instructive to note that a UK company would have been under no obligation to report the theft - and probably wouldn't have done so.

Slow as a slug - reports are spreading of problems in the file system of Vista, which can cause huge slowdowns for simple operations such as copying and deleting files. I've noticed some pauses in what ought to be virtually instantaneous operations, but I've certainly never seen any of the absurd delays claimed by some of the ranting loons on this Slashdot thread, so obviously it's not universal.

Topping out - and talking of the new OS, other reports suggest that the claimed support for 4Gb of memory are less than accurate, with a fair chunk being stolen for PCI bus addressing, video memory addressing, etc etc. In fact, out of that four gigabytes you may only be able to access three, and some (probably those with 256Mb or 512Mb video cards) are reporting even less!

And finally, a round-up of some of this year's April Fools' pranks: Swedish torrent tracker The Pirate Bay is moving to North Korea, software house Verse Studios is releasing a new meta-game, "de-mastered" episodes of the original Star Trek series get a frosty reception at MediaLoper, The Register reveals that CPUs lose performance over time, and Google has launched a pair of new services. There were a lot to choose from, this year...


1st April 2007

The latest version of Realtime Soft's UltraMon multi-monitor utility has finally been released, and at last it has a degree of Vista support. I've had my gripes about UltraMon (after installing it on my Windows XP system last autumn I started noticing that about one time out of five the application with the focus would be closed every time the screensaver exited, which was annoying to say the least!) but even so I'm very pleased to have it up and running again. Vista support is a touch primitive at present, but the author has promised to improve this in subsequent betas - although his software development moves at a positively glacial pace and I'm not holding my breath!

At present the titlebar buttons which allow an application to be easily moved from one window to another do not work reliably in many recent Microsoft apps, with cosmetic issues in Office 2007, IE7 and others, but that's a minor weakness. Most importantly, though, the Smart Taskbar feature (which displays the icons for applications on the taskbar of the window on which the application is open) is working well, and on Windows XP I found that brought a major improvement to productivity. It's also very nice to have the improved wallpaper handling available again - I've been missing my pirate flag more than I'd realised!

There's obviously more development work to do (and I will be watching eagerly to see if the screensaver closing the focussed application bug is still present) but from first looks the software is definitely useable in its current state and that's a good start. Next on the list is for the authors of the otherwise excellent μTorrent P2P app to fix the bizarre problems with UPnP (and a few other cosmetic bugs) on the Vista OS - but I'm not holding my breath for that one, either...


Meanwhile, well there's a turn up for the books! This month's stats saw my visitor count jump from less than 10,000 to around 15,000, and page hits from around 15,000 to almost 25,000 - which was quite a surprise. Examination of the tracking logs at the excellent Site Meter service didn't show any one particular cause (although a handful of provocative references at popular left wing political 'blog The Sideshow certainly helped, as have a few one-off links from other forums) but as always most of my visitors have come via Google and, to a lesser extent, Yahoo. It's not clear why traffic should suddenly have increased by 50%, therefore, but I'm not complaining.

As it happens, for various reasons I've written rather less here this month than I usually do, and the irony of the fact that a record month in the stats has coincided with a significant slump in my output is not lost on me. This month I plan to write even less and see if I can beat 20,000 visitors...



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