It's been one of those days, and is
shaping up to be one of those weeks as well, so I'm just
going to toss out a few quick news links and call it a night.
Sometimes, cross-training into plumbing seems so very tempting - and
it might mean that I could repair my own washing machine, too, which
seems to have failed in the middle of a batch of black dyeing. Not
The old guard passeth - Microsoft veteran Jim Allchin leaves the
company today after
years. He left Banyan (a long-forgotten company specialising in
network operating systems) in 1990 to work on
Windows NT4, and has managed teams responsible for almost every
version of Windows since then, including his swan-song Vista. He
left Microsoft on the day of the official launch but, oddly, I can't
find any mention of whether he is retiring or moving on to pastures
Never say die - meanwhile, Steve Ballmer has dismissed rumours
that Vista will be the last Windows client OS, saying that Microsoft
has "plenty more where that came from". Some people are
claiming that the day of the monolithic OS has passed, with future
offerings being based on web services and some kind of thin client,
but us old-timers have heard that all before - and several times, at
Sticking it to The Man - Sony BMG has agreed to pay victims of
their rootkit up to $150 compensation for the damage the software
caused, and will be obliged to inform consumers of any limitations
included on future CDs and to refrain from secretly installing
software without the user's consent.
Small mercies - Apple has been forced to compensate the online
journalists who it sued last over alleged leaks about new products,
paying more than twice the legal fees they incurred in defending
themselves. Most importantly, the court's ruling states that there
is no legal difference between online and print journalists, and
that Apple's suit to discover their sources should never have been
brought in the first place. Hah!
So Bill Gates is all over the media today, thanks
to the Vista launch, and I found myself shaking my head over the
introduction to a story on Channel 4 news: "five years in the
waiting is Vista worth the hype?" In fact, apart from breathless
announcements like that I haven't actually noticed much hype
about Vista in the mainstream media - the extended public beta seems
to have diffused the fuss somewhat, and from what I remember the
launches of Windows 98 and Windows XP were far more noticeable. The
irony of Channel 4 itself enthusiastically hyping the product while
questioning the value of said hype amuses me...
While I wait for the UK showing of Chairman
Bill's appearance on last night's Daily Show, therefore, a
few news links - and I promise that hardly any of them have anything
to do with Microsoft.
A new hope - Ars Technica founder Kyle Bennett has
written an interesting article on migrating from Windows XP to
Vista, and it's extremely refreshing to find a viewpoint that, like
mine, is generally in favour of Microsoft and their products.
not out - fans of the Commodore Amiga have always been
die-hards, as evidenced by the fact that a new version of the
venerable operating system has just been launched (together with a
new hardware platform to run it on) many years after the original
manufacturer expired in chaos.
computing - I have enough trauma hooking up my Palm to play
audiobooks in the car, but for those with more nerve my favourite
hardware supplier, Ayr-based Kustom PCs, has opened an entire
department catering for in-car computing.
A poor show - two geeks at an industrial robotics firm hooked up
the wireless remote from a Wii console to a large robot arm, and
then brandished things with it. Unfortunately the lag between moving
the controller and having the arm respond is painful, and its hardly
a good advert for their skills...
Mac revisionism - I stumbled across Folklore.org by
accident, today, but the site has some fascinating articles about
the development of the Macintosh. The only one I've read so far is
written by Mac Finder creator Bruce Horn, which attempts to dismiss
the widespread idea that much of the Mac interface was inspired by
work at Xerox PARC. The differences between the two outweigh
the similarities, Horn says, but I think that argument is rather
specious - the Mac was a far less sophisticated system overall that
the Xerox Star, and it would have been impossible to implement a GUI
in the same way without resulting in a product that cost far too
much to ever be successfully marketed: we know that was the case,
thanks to the example of the Lisa! Nevertheless, Horn was a key
player at both Apple and Xerox, and the article (and doubtless the
rest of the site, too) is certainly worth reading.
With the official launch of Vista scheduled for
tomorrow, it seems fitting to start off with a few items about
Microsoft's latest Great White Hope:
- the installation of Vista on my own Motion LE1600 tablet went very
well, yesterday, but at ZD Net's "All About Microsoft" blog
some of the early-adopters have contributed tips for making sure
that other transitions are equally smooth.
The party's over - "Upgrade" versions of the new Vista OS can
only be installed over the top of an existing Windows XP, it has
emerged, and the old practice of using an upgrade CD for a fresh
install by providing the previous OS's CD as validation will no
Guilty until proven innocent - The Register has asked
columnist Thomas Greene to evaluate Vista, but when the terms "bloatware
monster", "overhyped and confusing", and "Microserf" appear in the
introductory article, it's clear that he's made up his mind long
before ever actually installing it...
Over here - the infamous "Get a Mac" adverts, featuring John
Hodgman and some annoying bozo, are crossing over from the US to
England. The cast has changed to the alleged "comedy duo" Mitchell
and Webb, but the odd claim that PCs are only fit for boring office
tasks hasn't changed.
Only Google could go to China - search engine magnates Sergey
Brin and Larry Page have admitted that their decision to bow to
Chinese government pressure and censor their search engine was a
mistake, bringing the company's "Don't Be Evil" motto into question.
difference of opinion - although the media industry thinks that
illicit downloading of music and movies should be punishable by
multi-million dollar lawsuits and destruction of computers, much of
the American public seems to view the act as equivalent to minor
A fistful of sock-puppets - the problem of shill bidding on eBay
is as great as ever, according to a report in the Times Online, and
in spite of the auction company's claims a recent change that hides
the identities of bidders in auctions for over £100 has made it
harder to spot dubious bids.
Best of the
web - 1Up has compiled a list of the 101 best free games available online,
and a quick look through suggests a number of very interesting possibilities,
such as a Wing Commander clone set in the Babylon 5 universe. If only I had the
time to play games!
Dancing minions -
Pictaps lets you draw a stick figure (or something more
elaborate, if you have the patience and artistic ability) and then
have it dance on a podium surrounded by dozens of identical copies.
The effect is certainly impressive.
Catching up on some news from around the web
while the tablet is upgrading to Vista in the background... So far,
palpable miss - the Woot! blog brings us some of the less
impressive moments from this year's Consumer Electronics Show,
including a number of butt-headed spelling mistakes.
fat profit - industry analyst iSuppli suggests that Apple's
profit margin on the iPhone could be as high as 50%, although given
that it's still vapourware it may be too soon for such estimates.
Corporate violations - British Telecom is still not complying
fully with the licensing terms of the Linux OS embedded in its new
Home Hub router. Full story at the
Home Hub Blog.
Charity begins abroad - Cisco is donating $6m of its high-end
video conferencing systems to five Middle Eastern governments,
apparently to "improve future standards of living". Come again?
Everything here is real - eBay has announced that it will no
longer permit auctions for virtual items and real estate in online
games, cutting off a flourishing cottage industry.
Insecurity blanket - the latest scandal to hit disgraced
e-voting manufacturer Diebold is the revelation that pictures of
keys on their web site have been used to make real keys that open
Es are bad - electronic voting machines in Europe are just as
flawed as those in the US, of course, and in the UK the Open Rights
Group is trying to raise public awareness of the risks.
EULA madness - the backlash against bizarre and unfair licensing
terms is gathering momentum, with the latest offerings from
ReasonableAgreement.org coming in various fashionable varieties.
Evil is as evil does
- the heads of the RIAA and the CEA have clashed over fundamental
policies, culminating in the CEA veep suggesting that the recording
industry "makes itself look evil". Brilliant!
All too real - the New Your Times has picked up on the meme that
the imminent wave of high definition porn movies could expose every
pimple, pore and wrinkle in ghastly detail.
Soft white underbelly - the Month Of Apple Bugs nears an
end, and Ars Technica trys to look past the gnashing of fanboy teeth
to see the bigger picture: so far, there are no fixes from Apple.
A sad anniversary - it is forty years since the Apollo 1 capsule
fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom and astronauts
Ed White and Roger Chaffee, and there are still lessons to be
remarkable statistic - Microsoft says that 22% of Windows
installations scanned by the WGA tool failed their authenticity
checks, and actually the real figure is likely to be higher still.
Another remarkable statistic - similarly, net.god Vint Cerf
claims that a quarter of all Internet-connected PCs are part of a
botnet, and this is starting to affect the operation of the Internet
The OS formerly known as - as if the endless corporate
rebranding of Palm itself wasn't enough, the current owner of the
Palm operating system is renaming the latest version to "GarnetOS".
Format wars - the emergence of players supporting both HD-DVD
and Blu-Ray does not mean that there won't be a battle for dominance
between the two formats, according to Ars Technica.
The jackals are gathering - The official launch of Microsoft's
new OS is tomorrow, and to mark the occasion the usual suspects have
revived their accusations of unfair practices with the EU.
Serendipity - the over-the-top DRM forced on Vista by the media
industry may actually mean that amateur content has better image
quality than expensive commercial media.
Bad traffic - the sudden spikes of traffic that occur when a
small blog is mentioned at one of the big sites may look impressive,
but it's not as useful as a smaller quantity of regular readers.
War is come down - when Microsoft offered to hire an independent
expert to check for inaccuracies in Wikipedia entries, the response
when he mentioned it on his blog was vicious and extensive.
I've been using the "official"
BitTorrent client since
I started moving away from the first generation P2P networks a year
or so ago, on the grounds that the person who invented the torrent
protocol and, indeed,
the concept itself, would probably have the
best and most complete client. I'm no longer convinced that this is
the case, however, as in spite of regular and frequent upgrades the
application seems to be getting flakier and and more annoying as
time goes on.
In the last couple of months I've started to
notice that my PC seems to run very slowly when the application is
open, with both the shell and network performance
feeling very sluggish and congested. Any torrent client opens a lot
of TCP sockets, of course, but in this case I have the feeling that
it just doesn't use them as efficiently as such a demanding network
application should, and software capable of choking a 3GHz dual-CPU
server-class system connected via a high-end DSL connection has to
be viewed with at least one raised eyebrow.
As well as this, recent versions seem to take a
disturbingly long time to initialise when the application is
launched, and a queue of a dozen paused torrents is
sometimes enough to stall it for several minutes! There are also a number of oddities with the
2nd generation user
interface, which often fails to update itself after a torrent is
removed from the queue until the application window is moved or otherwise manually
refreshed, and the progress bars for stalled torrents tend to show
exactly the same state as the torrent immediately above them in the list. Even more annoying, some torrents never seem to start at all,
with the client returning a pair of error messages that are both a)
completely obscure to me and b) completely undocumented in the help files and FAQs.
With more and more legitimate software being distributed via the torrent protocol (I downloaded the latest
version of the Nero CD burning software
in this way when the
company's FTP site was offline last week), it seemed time for a
change, and fortunately these days there is a
bewildering variety of clients to
Azureus immediately, as although it is certainly
feature-rich (overly so, some reviews claim) it is written entirely
in Java and long, bitter experience has shown that this is rarely a
good idea for anything other than web applications - and not even
then, a lot
Unfortunately this also ruled out the performance-optimised
Bit Tyrant client
which, although tempting, is based on the Asureus code. Moving on,
the popular BitComet
has a reputation for manipulating the Torrent protocol to its own
selfish ends that has now lead to clients being
blocked from connecting to certain other torrent software,
BitTornado's author is clearly some kind of anti-Microsoft bigot,
and none of the other offerings seemed to have anything much to
recommend them. After a little
I settled on
μTorrent, and so far my experience has
The interface is far more integrated than that of
the official client, with all of the low-level
information (precise details of the peers in the swarm and the files
in the torrent, for example) that BitTorrent hides in a secondary
window available instead on a set of readily-available tabs
lower part of the screen. These tabs also provide information that
BitTorrent does not, such as graphs of the overall transfer speeds
and a system log - very handy!
Perhaps most important, a selection of torrents that had repeatedly generated the afore-mentioned errors
from BitTorrent, proving almost impossible to connect to, burst into life almost immediately
under μTorrent and downloaded at
impressive speed, leaving me wondering what on earth it was that the
official client didn't like about them! This alone would have made
the switch worthwhile, but the improvements to the GUI and the
overall functionality, together with the complete lack of apparent
performance degradation even with five torrents transferring happily
in both directions, makes recommending μTorrent
something of a no-brainer. If you're struggling with the official
client, give it a try.
The management apologises for the unexpected
outage over the last week, and regrets that real-life intervened
with a vengeance. In an attempt to compensate, therefore, tonight's
Epicycle brings you the long-awaited Alien
My Test Tube Alien showed no sign of expiring two
weeks after hatching (that's equivalent to fourteen alien years, the
web site assures me) but it
had stopped growing just before completely filling its jar and it
seemed time to take a closer look at what makes it tick. Extracting
the beastie from the jar was something of a challenge, however, as
the lid had been sealed with a generous bead of glue and in the end
I used a junior hack saw to cut around the circumference just below
The body was some kind of medium density polymer
foam, as I had expected, absorbing water like a sponge to allow the
alien to expand in all directions once hatched from its protective
cocoon. It was obviously calculated carefully so that it nicely
filled the jar when fully grown, approximately doubling in size over
the two week period. The polymer was as slimy and unappealing as one
would expect after several weeks immersed in a solution of some
unidentified metal salt, but fortunately it only took one quick
slice with a surgical scalpel to sever the neck before moving onto
the more interesting parts of the cadaver.
A closer examination showed not only the two
brass electrodes at the base of the antenna, but also a third near
the tip of one of them. I'd guessed that the first two were
measuring the electrical conductivity of the water in the jar,
prompting the control circuit to flash the LED in different patterns
when the gradual topping up the water level caused the concentration
of the salt solution to decrease, and this still seems likely. The
function of the third electrode is something of a mystery, but it
could be the mechanism by which the system is powered up when its
cocoon dissolves away - I'm pretty sure that it wasn't flashing away
to itself all the time it was enclosed, as that would risk the
battery discharging long before the alien was hatched. On the other
hand, it could also be triggered into activity by the light sensor
to the left of the LED - without considerably more depth of
understanding of electronics than I possess, its anyone's guess...
Getting into the plastic skull was even harder
than getting into the jar, as the plastic itself was surprisingly
tough and the ever-present glue formed a tough bead around the seam
where the two halves joined. The hacksaw and some careful
persistence did the trick in the end, however, and its secrets were
exposed to my eager gaze.
There were no real surprises, of course - the PCB
sits on top of a fair-sized watch battery, and a bunch of wires lead
off to the antennae, the LED, and the light sensor. There are no
obvious ICs on the circuit board, although the two larger capacitors
are hiding a strange hemi-spherical blob, about 6mm across and 3mm
high, that I couldn't identify. As well as the usual handful of
discrete components, there are a pair of little cylindrical objects
(towards the rear of the PCB) that I think may be tilt switches -
certainly, the things knows when it is being agitated or inverted,
and flashes its LED in obvious protest!
The afore-mentioned lack of electronics savvy
pretty much brings the project to an end at this point, but it was
certainly an interesting toy both to play with and to vivisect. It
has a similar appeal to a
suppose, but the fact that it is a physical object rather than a
blob on an LCD screen, and the interesting addition of two-way
communication with the interactive web interface makes up for the
comparatively simple ways that it can be engaged with. I'd certainly
recommend it as a present for a technically-aware teen.
Meanwhile, I'm left with an open cranium worthy
Hannibal Lecter, the LED embedded in its forehead still flashing
away urgently in orange to indicate its lack of food, so I'll pop
that in my display cabinet to see how long the battery lasts - or
until my long-suffering girlfriend, who has been somewhat creeped-out
by the thing while it has been sat on the kitchen windowsill,
quietly throws it out while my back is turned...
I've just picked up a neat little gadget that has
gone some considerable way to tidying the clutter of cables
associated with my girlfriend's impressive array of tech gadgets, a
Charger" branded under the improbable name of "Mr Handsfree".
It's essentially a three way mains adapter, complete with its own
power switch and fuse, with a set of adjustable cradles at the front
to hold phones, MP3 players, PDAs and the like. A device's original
charger is plugged into one of the sockets, and the power cable is
neatly coiled up in a lidded compartment in the base of the unit
with a trailing end emerging to connect to the device as it sits
snugly in the cradle. It can sit on a desktop, the way I'm using it,
or the cradles can be rotated through 180° to
allow wall mounting.
In use the charger performs exactly as expected,
and is certainly of adequate quality for something that costs less
than ten pounds. The only problem that I encountered was that even
though several of the marketing photographs show the unit holding
what is clearly a modern Palm of some kind, in fact the cradles will
not open nearly wide enough for my girlfriend's Zire 72s and
some thoroughly warranty-voiding modification was required. Two
screws granted access to the interior of the cradle mechanism, and a
tiny hacksaw blade and a generous blob of superglue allowed the jaws
to open as wide as required - if at the cost of never, ever closing
I bought mine from the manufacturer's own
e-shopping site, and
considering that the company is based in Belgium shipping couldn't
have been any faster - I only placed the order on Saturday, and it
was delivered on Tuesday! Definitely recommended.
Crest of the wave - The latest V7 of Microsoft's Internet
Explorer browser has reached an estimated 100 million installations
only a few months after being launched, making it the second most
widely-used browser after IE6, and use is set to grow even further
with the launch of Vista in a few weeks. Of course, the fact that
Microsoft has distributed the upgrade as a critical update via the
online Windows Update service has gone a long way to boosting
uptake, and a number of anxious enquiries from colleagues at the
office have shows that it has the habit of sneaking onto PCs without
the owner even being aware that it was being installed! This is
certainly a reasonable approach, given the great improvements to
security that the new version brings, but it has to have skewed the
The fall and rise of Captain Crunch - love him or hate him, John
Draper is one of the icons of the seventies Silicon Valley computing
culture, but his complete lack of business acumen has left him
unable to capitalise on his notoriety and these days he is in severe
A fading star - some analysts are suggesting that demand for
Sony's PS3 is slackening already, with plentiful stocks of the
console in many stores while Nintendo's Wii, launched at almost the
same time, can't be found for love nor money. Well, maybe for love,
It all comes round again - Symantec's new "SONAR" security
product will sound very familiar to anyone who used computers in the
early nineties before the current signature-based virus scanners
became popular, as it looks for virus-like behaviour rather than
specific known viruses.
The spirit of Tesla - at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in
Las Vegas two companies demonstrated cordless power systems designed
to recharge small appliances without cables - and one, from
Powercast, was a genuine wireless system operating over distances of
up to three feet.
Host and be damned - plans by notorious torrent site The Pirate
Bay to buy the self-proclaimed principality of Sealand are unlikely
to come to anything, suggests a legal expert, as not only are
Sealand's claims invalid, but in any case TPB's activities may not
comply with the conditions of sale.
Evolution in action - one of a gang of the thugs responsible for
trashing an Edinburgh Burger King in December posted a cellphone
video of the crime on YouTube, and as he obligingly attached his
full name it didn't take police long to track him down and arrests
followed soon afterwards.
The vultures are circling - at The Register, Guy Kewney
wonders how Apple would cope if Steve Jobs has to resign following
persistent allegations of misconduct over highly dubious stock
options. I really do wonder if Jobs is replacing Bill Gates as the
IT figurehead that everyone loves to hate...
Not in front of the children - the latest offering from UK
roboticist Kevin "Captain Cyborg" Warwick is a disembodied head
which tracks humans as they move around the room, and the ethics
committee at Reading University has deemed it too spooky to be shown
to anyone under the age of eighteen!
Berman exposed - the new chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on
Intellectual Property is the infamous Howard Berman, sponsor of a
bill that would have allowed the media industry to attack people's
computers with impunity. Ars Technica investigates the man
behind the myth.
Serenity unleashed - the HD DVD of the cult SF movie has
been ripped and posted to the net as a torrent, a 19.6GB EVO format
file. This release marks the opening of the floodgates, I'm sure,
but also the failure of yet another butt-headed copy protection
Cats out of bags - it's been obvious for a long time that the
media industry's obsession with DRM is less about preventing
large-scale piracy than about preventing legitimate users from
copying media from one format to another for their own use, and
finally they seem to be admitting it in public.
And finally, at the WikiHow project,
how to make a Starship Enterprise out of a floppy disk - from
the same people that brought you instructions for
safely with piranhas and
All the fuss with my Palm earlier
this month has renewed my interest in a device that had faded
into the background somewhat as a reliable but fairly boring tool,
and since then I've splashed out a little upgrading various
applications to the latest versions and looking around to see what
is new and cool. One of the newest and coolest products in its niche
is the Softick
Audio Gateway, a driver intended to correct the disappointing
lack of A2DP support in the Tungsten T3's Bluetooth stack (an
omission still present in the latest T5 and TX models, amazingly!)
and allow use of wireless stereo headsets and other similar gadgets.
The application is still very much under
development, with new releases emerging every few weeks, and
although the list of officially supported headsets is still quite
anecdotal evidence suggests that in fact compatibility is
generally excellent. This is confirmed by my own experience, as I've
just successfully tested it with another new purchase, the neatest
little stereo Bluetooth headset I've yet to see.
I'd love to be able to recommend this device by
name, but unfortunately it is almost completely anonymous. The
eBay auction where I found it doesn't give any manufacturer
details at all, and the slim manual and packaging are equally
unforthcoming. In fact, the only identifying mark I can find
anywhere is the ID that appears when the device is paired with
another Bluetooth client, the gnomic BS-109. A web search points to
Chinese company Iton Technology
as a possible manufacturer, but their web site doesn't actually list
this model so who knows...
Although the publicity photograph I've borrowed
above doesn't show it, in fact the smoothly contoured casing is
split into two spring-loaded parts, forming a clip to attach it to a
pocket or lapel. This places the volume control in easy reach, and
as usual dangles the microphone under the user's chin. The device
can act as a mono phone headset as well as providing full stereo for
music and, according to the manual, smartphones with onboard MP3
players can switch between the two automatically when a call comes
The headset comes complete with a USB charger
cable and a pleasingly small adapter to convert it to a mains plug,
and all-in-all I'm very pleased with the build quality. The sound
quality provided by the Softick extensions is equally good,
delivering perfectly clear stereo even in the harsh environment of a
computer room filled with servers and wiring. Battery life is
claimed as 4 hours in use, which is probably far longer than I can
comfortably wear this sort of earphone, and 160 hours in standby -
although I will be more interested to see how long it holds a charge
when powered down, something that has so far proved a disappointment
with similar Bluetooth devices which never seem to be powered when I
need them. Aside from that possibility, however, at this stage it is
The Softick Audio Gateway works so well that it
started me looking around for a Bluetooth cassette adapter once
more, and as before the search has proved essentially fruitless. My
car has a thoroughly traditional
radio/cassette player, and as I skipped straight from audiobooks
on tape to the digital variety on my Palm I've never felt the need
to upgrade to a CD player. At present I'm using an equally
traditional wired cassette adapter to
connect the Palm, and although
the stereo seems to have the ability to support an auxiliary input
socket the possibility of making a wireless Bluetooth connection
instead has always been of interest.
A handful of companies have announced just such a
modern equivalent of my cassette adapter in the last year, but for
some reason neither have actually brought their products to market -
and the latest piece of vapour, the Abe BT 80C announced last year,
has also apparently died through a perceived (but not, I would say,
lack of commercial interest. I shall keep an eye open, of
course, but the idea of an auxiliary input socket actually seems
somewhat more practical to use, if not quite so sexy, and is well
worth investigating. Watch this space...
I spent the day at our disaster recover site in
Welwyn Garden City, north of London, shoe-horning a pair of servers
into a rack to provide an emergency fail-over system for our cash
cow Oracle database. The work itself went smoothly enough, aside
from the usual minor panics over wrongly-terminated cables and
wrongly-sized cage nuts, but gaining access to the building was made
far more entertaining by a sticky door that required an extremely
enthusiastic kick before we could leave again and an incredibly
pernickety alarm system that required repeated fiddling and fussing
before deigning to arm itself. There are days when cross-training
into plumbing seems ever more appealing...
While I sit back and dream of the delights of
PTFE tape and copper elbow joints, then, a few random news snippets
from around the web:
Behind the curtain
- the recent surge in "pump-and-dump" stock spam has been traced to the growing
Russian bot-herders, and a report at eWeek describes how a security
researcher gained access to some of their
working data, revealing a surprisingly sophisticated operation.
why - at Slashdot, a post linking to the analysis of the botnet prompted the
usual flood of patent schemes to "fix" the spam problem, and in turn that
prompted a response in the form of a neat checklist that covers all such
bastards - sales and marketing company Spoke is amassing a vast
list of personal and private contact details, many of which have
been extracted from subscribers' Outlook address books behind their
backs. In comments, the Spoke VP defends his company's actions, but
is then roundly rebuffed!
Not a good year - "intellectual property entrepreneur" Leo
Stoller created a bunch of low quality clipart then launched
groundless lawsuits against companies who he claimed were infringing
his "trademarks". He is under fire from both the USPTO and the
courts, now, and the outlook is bleak. :-)
Even Bigger Brother - the UK government has revealed grandiose
plans to integrate many of the disparate databases in use by various
public agencies, which given their
appalling track record on IT is sure to be a disaster in all
possible ways, even aside from the horrendous civil liberties
Locked up tight - the backlash against the designed-in
limitations of Apple's new phone continues, and Boing Boing
finds it ironic that a company with a long-running "switch" ad
campaign should be so committed to what it calls the "roach motel
happy life of the brown Oxford - meanwhile, Penny Arcade
laments the brief rise and imminent fall Microsoft's Zune media
player, which would probably be a smash hit if it wasn't even more
stuffed with restrictive DRM than the iPod. The music industry has a
lot to answer for, as always.
Obsolete media - I've seen audio turntables that connect to a
computer via USB to digitise old LPs, and although I've been a touch
dubious about the sound quality the idea is certainly neat. Equally
so is a cassette tape player that is installed into a 5¼"
drive bay, and I have to say that I'm tempted...
Travesty - a Connecticut teacher is facing 40 years in prison
after being found guilty of exposing children to pornography on a
classroom computer, in spite of the fact that the lewd popup windows
were almost certainly caused by an adware infection that she had
already reported to her supervisors.
convenient roll form - geek clothing store Jinx.com is
selling loo roll emblazoned with the name of everyone's favourite
recording industry association - although it looks more than a
little institutional and would probably be best saved for display
Practical jokes - The early days of the space programme were
notorious for pranks and in-jokes ("Are you a turtle, Wally?")
but I'd never seen anything about the Playboy centrefolds that
ground crews sneaked into the Apollo 12 in-flight checklists.
I spent most of today cleaning a virus infection
from the laptop of a senior manager, and it proved to be a nasty
little bug. The McAfee AVERT labs classify it as "Win32/Virut.A",
but don't seem to rate it very highly as it's assigned to the low
risk category - but it had infected over 5700 EXEs on this PC and
proved more than capable of putting up a good fight when I came to
remove it so personally I'm inclined to disagree... Although the
virus is relatively recent, only coming to light a few months ago,
it seems to have a very traditional ethos - it doesn't use any
rootkit or stream techniques to hide itself, instead relying on its
ability to append its code to every damn file on the hard disk to
frustrate removal attempts. It's payload is bang up-to-date,
however, opening a back door in an infected PC to receive commands
via an IRC server that will incorporate it into one of the
It's not quite clear how the bug found its way
onto this particular PC, as it was well equipped with a corporate
grade software firewall and freshly-updated anti-virus software -
but the user had connected it to his home broadband via a USB ADSL
adapter lacking any kind of NAT or firewall functionality, so the
PC's security software was the only line of defence. A software
firewall on its own can never guarantee long-term protection, of
course, and in this case it must have glitched for just long enough
to let the virus in, at which point the payload disabled both
firewall and virus scanner, leaving the PC - how do the younglings
say it? - well and truly 0wned.
Although the virus immediately shut down all of
the removal tools I tried to use initially, fortunately it didn't
seem to know anything about the McAfee command line scanner, which
allowed me to clean the primary infection well enough after a few
false starts. After that I resorted to the
Console to replace the infected EXPLORER.EXE that was spreading
the virus on every boot, and then it was just a matter of booting
back into Safe Mode and, now that the malicious code was no longer
running in memory, using the more flexible Windows-based scanner to
sweep and disinfect almost every EXE on the hard disk. Just to
double-check I fired up a copy of
Knoppix from CD and used
to sweep the Windows folder, but by that stage all was well.
We've strongly suggested to the user that
he replaces his USB DSL modem with a nice little integrated
modem/router/firewall - the
Netgear DG834G springs to mind - and I hope that he acts soon.
It's a dangerous network out there, and man cannot survive on
Back at home, a couple of odd pictures... The
first, very odd! My Test Tube Alien is
definitely growing, as I had suspected: its body is made of some
kind of spongy polymer which is slowly absorbing water from the
container, and the ugly little thing is gradually expanding to fill
the tube. I'm not sure what will happen when the pressure starts to
build up! I think the thing may have some kind of motion detector,
too, as when I added some more "food" powder through the aperture in
the top, today, a gentle shaking to mix it in a little resulted in
an agonised green flashing from the LED in its forehead. I await the
autopsy with interest...
The second snap is one of a pair of little wooden
stands I built to position sensors under the computer room aircon
units. We've been getting some rather unpredictable results from the
airflow sensors on our new
monitoring system, but now that they're firmly mounted directly
in the airflow all seems to have settled down nicely. The stands
were made from a couple of off-cuts of wood from the B&Q bargain
bin, and cost a grand total of £1.39. It was only after I'd finished
spraying them the obligatory flat black that I realised I had just
reinvented the kitchen towel holder, but I could never have found a
pair of those for so little money so the company got a good deal in
Elsewhere, a few links before I head off to not
think about computers for the rest of the evening:
How soon they forget - now that the iPhone is, what, a whole six
days old, the initial gloss is apparently fading... An article at
Betanews describes it as a "gigantic disappointment", citing it's
obligatory two year contract with provider Cingular and the
thoroughly locked-down operating system, and the hackers are
already lining up and rubbing their hands at the thought of a new
target with known security issues and pervasive always-on
Chalk and cheese - with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both in the
public eye last week, the Canadian Globe And Mail is comparing and
contrasting. Chairman Bill's presentation at the CES show in Las
Vegas was "tired, flat" and "poorly-rehearsed", the columnist
thinks, whereas he was obviously very impressed with the boundless
energy and enthusiasm displayed by the 51 year old Jobs - in spite
of the pressure of the ongoing
Gone but not forgotten - AGP graphics cards are something of a
figure of fun in the geek forums, these days, but for people with a
significant investment in their current motherboard and CPUs, as
with my dual 3GHz Xeon desktop platform, there's a lot to be said
for wringing every last month of service from existing hardware
before finally upgrading to a modern dual core PCI Express system.
In a two part article, Tom's Hardware Guide investigates the options.
One of my favourite souvenirs from the wild and woolly days that marked the
dawn of the publicly-accessible Internet is a somewhat dog-eared (in a purely
virtual sense!) copy of the Usenet
from 1993, now something of a museum piece. While browsing through Wikipedia on
the track of something completely unrelated, therefore, I was delighted to find
that many of these almost-forgotten characters have been lovingly documented in
a series of entries on
Culture, and of course the
Net Legends themselves.
It's impossible to capture the real flavour of Ludwig Plutonium, Serdar Argic or
Robert McElwaine from the dry text of an FAQ (the Internet at the start of the
nineties was an adventure in communities unlike anything before or since, no
matter how hyped and popular the so-called Web 2.0 has become) but if you were
there then you owe it to yourself to dip into these entries to smile and shake
your head at how things used to be.
While doing just that myself, I was amazed to
discover the birth date of the notorious
James "Kibo" Parry, author of
"Happynet", one of the first memes to sweep the net from edge to
edge almost overnight. As a newbie making my first tentative forays
out from the world of the
boards he always seemed like one of the grand old men of the
Internet, so to discover that he is actually a year or so younger
than I am was both hilarious and somewhat unsettling!
Elsewhere, some quick links:
The plot thickens - the specialists at Outlaw think that
Cisco's "iPhone" trademark might be about to expire in Europe,
thanks to a failure to actually use if for a product during the past
five years. Gosh!
Blast from the past - meanwhile, G4 reminds us that even Linksys'
VoIP phone isn't the original holder of the "iPhone" trademark,
thanks to Cidco's 1998 home telephone-cum-web browser.
Under scrutiny - elsewhere, the federal investigation into the
Apple stock options scandal has finally widened to include Steve
Jobs himself. I have the feeling that Jobs is fast becoming the new
A small step forward - music giant EMI has announced that it
will no longer be producing music CDs infected with sneaky
copy-protection mechanisms capable of damaging their customers' PCs.
Flagging down - on a related note, US Senator John Sununu has
proposed legislation to prevent the FCC from ever bowing to
media industry pressure by introducing a broadcast flag system.
- two Princeton encryption specialists are investigating the recent
claim that the AACS copy protection mechanism used in HD-DVD and Blu-Ray
has been cracked.
Down with Canada - the odious Bev Oda, minister responsible for
taking massive bribes from the Canadian media industry, is hoping to
pass new copyright legislation surpassing even the US DMCA.
Defective by design - A suit has been filed in Ontario claiming
that certain models of Dell Inspiron laptop are suspiciously prone
to failing from over-heating just after their one year warranty
Changing their spots - in the wake of earlier allegations by the
LA Times, the Gates Foundation is launching a review of their
investment policy - although they claim that the two are not
A step backwards - the US Supreme Court has rejected EFF founder
John Gilmore's challenge to the law requiring domestic air
travellers to show ID before boarding their planes.
policy - security guru Bruce Schneier has written a definitive
guide to choosing a secure password, specifically with the
increasingly efficient offline cracking applications in mind.
DIY CNC - in the US, Sears is selling an $1800 desktop milling
machine controlled by a PC, capable of automatically producing
simple designs in wood, plastic, and other soft materials.
The 4th generation - the latest version of the LTO Ultrium tape
format has been announced, delivering an increased native capacity
of 800Gb, and 50% better performance to match. Oooh!
A broken pencil - speculation is rife that Apple will be porting
their Safari web browser to Windows, but at this stage of the game
it's very unlikely to have any impact on the dominance of IE and
Opening up - the manufacturers of the popular MMORPG Second Life
have released their code as open source, eventually permitting
"citizens" to migrate between different online worlds.
The old in-and-out - and talking of the online world, The
Register has a long article on the main entertainment practiced
by the "citizens", namely (do I really have to tell you?) sex in all
Fontalicious - the 2006 Epica design awards include a complete
pinup calendar by design studio Taylor Lane, featuring hot babes
composed entirely of typographic fonts. It's really clever!
Periodic Table of Condiments - if you can hear a faint noise in
the distance, it's probably the sound of 19th century Russian
chemist Dmitri Mendeleev spinning in his grave...
Authority figures - the infamous "torture" experiments performed
by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961 are being given a new
lease of life in virtual reality using computerised avatars.
Gone, but not forgotten - the influential counter-culture writer
Robert Anton Wilson finally died on Thursday, after a long illness,
but at least his last few months were made
as comfortable as possible.
A maintenance man came to look at a problem with
my central heating boiler, yesterday, and almost before I had opened
the door fully he was announcing that he couldn't work on the boiler
or else he'd have to condemn it! The system vents out under an open
porch in front of my house, and initially he was convinced that this
didn't allow enough clearance for exhaust gasses to escape and so
was a serious risk. Fortunately I had the boiler's installation and
maintenance manual to hand, and after we'd restarted my heart and
picked me up off the floor (that is not something one wants
to hear first thing in the morning!) he read through it and finally
conceded that in fact everything was indeed installed in accordance
with the manufacturer's requirements. Imagine my relief!
Although I explained the symptoms as clearly as I
could (not much heat, and a small, irregular flame visible through
the viewport instead of the usual steady roar of the full burner,
his first action was to check the cold water tank in the attic. This
was fine, just as I had expected (I had a shortage of hot water, but
not of water in general!), and next he proceeded to dismantle the
time clock in the bedroom closet, provoking it into emitting an
annoying buzzing noise which later had to be fixed with careful
tightening of screws and a squirt of WD-40. After some head
scratching, back at the boiler itself he decided that a faulty
solenoid was not opening the main gas supply on demand - the small
flame I had been seeing was just the pilot light, and as could be
predicted this was making a fair poor job of heating my entire
This seemed a reasonable diagnosis, but
apparently it wasn't likely that he could obtain a replacement part
that day and my agonised look at the thought of taking a third
day of my precious holiday for the same trivial problem persuaded
him to investigate further. Fortunately, while he was fiddling with
the controls on the boiler he noticed that pushing the PCB in a
certain place would switch the gas flow on and off on cue, and
eventually he found a dry solder joint on the wire leading to the
same solenoid he had fingered earlier. Five minutes with a
multimeter and a soldering iron fixed the problem, and all now seems
to be well again.
It's not clear to me whether the initial
investigations were standard fault-finding techniques that just seem
eccentric because of my lack of understanding of hot water systems,
or a failure to approach the diagnosis in a logical manner, or even
deliberate red herrings designed only to push the time taken to do
the job into the second hour. Once he had found the real problem he
fixed it quickly and competently, but I've never had any faith in my
ability to spot any but the most blatant of cowboy tradesmen and I
just can't tell... In the meantime, however, at least the house is
toasty-warm again, much to the relief of my long-suffering
girlfriend, who was born in Jamaica and is yet to adapt to the
rigours of the British winter.
Armed response - Cisco's PR department has released a chatty
little blog entry explaining their lawsuit against Apple for using
the "iPhone" trademark without permission, and their argument is, of
course, perfectly reasonable. As they point out, Apple is currently
suing over products that merely begin with the letter "i", let alone
copying the entire name - and now that the boot is on the other
foot, on the face of it (if you'll excuse my continued metaphor)
they don't have a legal leg to stand on.
The Black Cloud - an expose in the Los Angeles Times claims that
some of the investments made by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
are acting in direct opposition to the philanthropic works that the
Foundation is undertaking. The article cites examples such as the
Foundation's financial stake in Italian petroleum company Eni,
owners of an oil refinery in Nigeria that has been blamed for
causing widespread respiratory diseases amongst the nearby
population - an area in which the Foundation is paying for vital
polio and measles vaccinations. To say the least, this is a damn
Feet of clay - one of the throw-away links at
Dan Rutter's new weblog points to an article published at Salon
a few years ago, where Donna Minkowitz laments the fact that
although she loves the writing of the prolific science fiction
author Orson Scott Card, she hates the man's political and
sociological viewpoints. I have to admit that I feel just the same,
as although I own the majority of his books and delight in the
publication of a new one, I find his rabid anti-gay sentiments
absolutely abhorrent. I have to admit that little of this, or
of his staunch Mormon religious beliefs, ever find their way into
his writing, but even so the knowledge that he thinks this
way sometimes threatens to take the shine off them...
Autonomous piracy - infamous
Swedish torrent site The Pirate Bay is hoping to purchase the
self-declared principality of Sealand, a World War II gun platform
situated seven nautical miles out in the English Channel. Sealand
has insisted on its status as an independent sovereign state since
the late sixties, but recently the owners have fallen on hard times,
in spite of recent attempts to set themselves up as a data haven
exempt from UK and US legislation, so an acquisition by the Swedish
torrent-mästare might be just the ticket. It will be fascinating to
see if this comes off!
Apple iPhone was launched on Tuesday, and as could have been
predicted it has polarised the web - the
fanboys are convinced that it will absorb the entire
communications market within a few months and drive all competitors
before it as Apple steamrollers its way to eternal dominance of all
things cool and technical. The less hot-headed are daring to mention
the flaws, such as the fact that at present it is only available
tied to a two year contract from Cingular, one of the less popular
US providers, and even with heavily discounted pricing it's still an
eye-watering $599 for the 8Gb model.
Another small problem, as mentioned in
Epicycle passim, is
that the "iPhone" trademark is actually owned by Cisco (acquired
with their purchase of Infogear in 2000), and is currently in use by
their subsidiary Linksys for
a VoIP handset launched in December. Reports suggest that Apple
and Cisco have been in discussions over licensing the name, but that
no agreement had been reached at the time of the announcement at
MacWorld - and, indeed, today Cisco announced that
they will sue to protect their trademark. The networking giant
will be a fierce opponent, and together with the long-running
the Apple name itself one wonders if Steve Jobs' legendary
arrogance has finally written a cheque his company can't cash?
There's no doubt that on the face of it Apple's
latest offering is just as cool, slick, and fully-featured as the
company's devoted fans had hoped, but the cellphone market is
extremely cut-throat in comparison to the computer industry, at
least in Europe, with customers swapping handsets and providers
almost on a whim, and breaking into it is not a trivial exercise -
Sendo! Aside from that, a significant proportion of high-end
converged smartphones are purchased by corporates to allow remote
email access to a mobile workforce - and the people making decisions
in this sector are not going to be impressed by kool toyz but
instead by user-proof unbreakability, remote management facilities,
and compatibility with MS Exchange or Lotus Notes - so marketing the
new phone like an iPod will carry little weight there.
Meanwhile, closer to home, I took the plunge and
set up one of the more perplexing of my christmas presents, a
Test Tube Alien. The first
stage in its life cycle is a mysterious white cocoon in a clear
plastic jar, and I spent quite a while staring at it before I
started to work out what it might be. To wake it up one adds water
through a little hole in the top of the jar, and then retires to a
safe distance while whatever forms the cocoon fizzes and foams
energetically and finally dissolves away.
After some enthusiastic fizzing a green glow
starts to show through the bubbles, and eventually an ugly little
plastic alien bug thing emerges. The green glow is replaced by a
flashing red light coming from an LED embedded in the bug's
forehead, and at this stage it is ready for its first feed.
The alien comes with three sachets of an
unidentified white powder, and after hatching the first of these is
dissolved in water and poured into the jar. After this the thing
behaves rather like a wet
that it has to be fed by further infusions of the powder, and cared
for by being exposed to the correct 50:50 ratio of light and
Once the water had cleared a closer examination
showed a small circuit board containing an IC and some discrete
components inside the bug's head, as well as the LED and what
appears to be a light sensor. The keen-eyed will also see two little
shiny pinpoints near the base of the antennae in the picture above
right, and presumably they are contacts measuring the conductivity
(doubtless affected by the powder in the "food" sachets") and level
of the water - if these fall outside preset parameters it will cause
the LED to change from red to green; similarly, the wrong lighting
ratio will make the "heart beat" flash faster or slower as well.
As if this wasn't fun enough in itself, you can
register your alien online and so gain access to a web page that
will communicate with it. Holding the jar up to the screen allows a
flashing pattern displayed in a browser window to signal to the bug
via its light sensor, and the bug can return information by flashing
its three-colour LED in patterns that are then manually entered into
the web page to be decoded - it's rather like diagnosing a faulty PC
BIOS beep codes! Having entered this information the web page
will provide the bug's age, state of health, and whether it has been
neglected or abused.
I never succumbed to the Tamagotchi craze, and I
have to admit that the Test Tube Alien is really just more of the
same - but the fact that it's a little more solid than the
intangible blob on a Tamagotchi screen adds appeal and I'll lavish
my attention on it until I've run out of its "food" - at which point
it will be time for the traditional
so that I can have a better look at that PCB... :-)
|Good grief, I've been writing here for
five years, today.
said that blogging never catch on! Hah!
My Palm seems to have been behaving today, but I
don't trust it quite yet. I don't know why it started trying to
hotsync continually like that, or why it stopped again, so there's
little reassurance that the problem won't resurface when I least
expect it! Ah, don't you just love technology...
While I wait nervously, then, some snippets of
tech news from around the web:
Evolutionary not revolutionary - HaHaUK has a pictorial
survey of handheld games devices, from the Milton Bradley
Microvision in 1978 (I remember pictures, but nobody I knew could
afford anything like that!) to the Nintendo DS Lite almost 30 years
later. It's surprising how little the look and feel has changed, in
oranges - at Ars Technica, a fascinating article on the
differences between the Xbox 360 and the PS3 in their best HDTV
display modes. On paper the specifications of the Xbox are streets
ahead, but in use the differences are slight, at least for current
games and media.
The shock of the new - and talking of the Xbox, rumours are
already starting to emerge about what is purported to be the third
generation console, code-named Zephyr and allegedly containing a
120Gb hard disk and a HDMI graphics interface.
Kicking and screaming - something else which is about to be
brought up to date is the UK pop charts, which will be extended to
cover online music purchases, which at present are only included in
a very limited way, as well as over-the-counter sales.
Legal mumbo-jumbo - the boot is certainly on the other foot for Apple, this
month, with another lawsuit arriving from the defunct Napster Inc. The company
is claiming that video sales at the iTunes Store infringe their patent from 2001
- and just for good measure they're including Google in the suit as well.
meme - the wonderfully-named "BitTyrant" is a BitTorrent-compatible
application that doesn't play nice, sacrificing the much-vaunted collaborative
ideals of the web in exchange for improved download speeds. Where do I sign up?
industry vs. The People - the RIAA has has had something of a setback in its
hard-fought campaign to keep its wholesale pricing details confidential,
grudgingly admitting in evidence during one of their ongoing cases that the
widely estimated 70¢ per track is "in the correct range".
Flouting the law - a survey by direct marketing company CDMS claims that 31%
of UK companies do not comply with unsolicited email legislation, but the
Information Commissioner's Office says that this is an exaggeration. My own
experiences tend to side with the former, however - and as I manage the email
servers for a medium-sized corporate I've seen a lot of spam...
- Ciber, Inc, a US organisation that tests voting machines, has had
its credentials revoked after failures to follow procedures has
caused it to certify insecure machines. This seems like a step
forward, but given that this information came to light last July one
has to ask why they have been permitted to continue operations since
of stupidity - the spirit of avant-garde composer John Cage is
alive and well, it seems, in a silent cellphone ring tone soon to be
available at a telco near you. I'm all for a touch of Dada, but I
require a certain level of functionality from my tech and this
really doesn't make the grade.
Measuring the Apocalypse - thanks to fundamentalist Christian
idiots in the US there has been more talk about the end of the world
in the last few years than there was in 1999, so this breakdown of
the possible existential risks is ideal for printing out as a handy
wallet-sized reference guide.
And, finally, the
Indexed blog is has a
wonderful collection of mathematical humour in the form of Venn
Diagrams. Some of their are a touch more opaque than others, but
they definitely raised a giggle or two - and at least someone has
finally found a use for the damn things!
I've had all sorts of fun and games with my Palm, this weekend,
and as with the battery replacement that began this
saga its been something of a roller-coaster. I managed to find
another Tungsten T3 going cheap on eBay, and the plan was to combine
its motherboard (with the battery socket intact) with the majority
of components from my original PDA, the alloy casing of which was in
somewhat better condition.
The swap went smoothly enough, and having run a hotsync to reinstall all my apps and data, just
as with the original battery upgrade I sat back and congratulated
myself on having saved the day. An hour later, however, I noticed
out of the corner of my eye that the Palm seemed to be syncing
again, and a look through the logs showed that it had been doing so
every couple of minutes since I left my desk. I tried various
twiddles and tweaks without improvement, and while I was doing so
the wretched thing kept trying to sync at every available
opportunity, even when it wasn't actually in the cradle! A search online failed to come up with any close matches for the
problem, but by this time I was wondering about a poor connection or
a short-circuit inside the Palm producing the same result as the
button on the cradle being pressed (especially given that even when
it was powered off it would still wake up and attempt to sync) and
the best thing seemed to be to take it apart and check everything
By this time opening the darn thing up was
getting fairly routine, although it was hard to miss the fact that
throughout the process it was powering itself up every minute or so
in a vain attempt to sync again, and it wasn't until I disconnected
the battery that it finally lapsed into unconsciousness. I checked
all the connections, smoothed the ribbon cables, and generally poked
and prodded it, and when I finally connected the battery again all
seemed normal. My relief was short-lived, however, because as soon
as I hotsynced again the cycle resumed, and at this point I decided
to give both it and myself a break. The Palm didn't get much of a
rest, of course, as it kept waking up and trying to hotsync every
minute or so, and by the time I got back to it later on the battery
was down to about half charge!
Another, more comprehensive, search online proved
almost as fruitless, and although I was still hoping for some kind
of software fix the only real clues that emerged hinted at a
hardware problem instead. This seemed to be confirmed when a further
strip-down showed that at one stage it tried to hotsync when the
battery had only just been connected, leaving it at factory defaults
and pretty much ruling out any kind of application conflict or
corruption - and as the lower part of the casing, complete with the
hotsync connector, was sitting elsewhere on my desk it seemed to
rule out anything but a motherboard problem as well.
The outlook seemed fairly bleak by then, so after
some more fruitless twiddling I put it on one side and plunged back
T5 vs. TX
debate, which was also looking fruitless. Both models have some
glaring deficiencies - the brand new TX is 100MHz slower than my
three year old T3, for example, and neither of them use the latest
versions of PalmOS, Bluetooth, or USB! <shakes head>
At around this point, however, I noticed that the
T3 didn't seem to be trying to sync any more, and although I've
poked and prodded it extensively since then I can't now reproduce
the problem. This strikes me as thoroughly bizarre, as a few hours
earlier nothing I did could halt the perpetual sync attempts, and I
hadn't knowingly done anything that should have helped. Only time
will tell whether the problem really has gone away, but given my
complete lack of enthusiasm for the newer models I really, really
hope that it has. Cross your fingers for me!
In the meantime, mostly for form's sake, a small
handful of random links:
- this solid metal pen uses a soft alloy nib which leaves a mark reminiscent of
pencil, but it's permanent and waterproof, and with no ink of any sort the pen
itself should last almost forever.
Lore's Almanack - at Wired, Lore Sjöberg is making
predictions for 2007, including the ultimate fate of Google, the truth behind
the Wii, and the future of the RIAA's endless series of prosecutions.
The sound of
silence - I'm not quite sure why, but this enterprising director has
created a montage of the first three Star Wars movies as a silent
black-and-white movie. It has a certain something, but...
Speaking watch - another marvellously useless wristwatch, this Japanese
offering has a traditional analogue telephone on its face. To find the time, the
user must dial 117 (the number for the speaking clock in Japan) to hear a
robotic voice announce the time... Presumably in Japanese?
Ahhh, the end of the week at last - although
there's no rest for the wicked (or for sysadmins, wicked or
otherwise) and I expect to spend a proportion of the weekend
connected to the office networks upgrading some of the last few
outstanding systems with Server 2003 SP1 and the latest Dell
firmware and drivers to match. I've upgraded eighty-something
servers over the last couple of months, and there's still a dozen or
so to do - but of course by now they are all the awkward, fragile or
potentially problematic ones, and I'm not looking forward to the
final stretch. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it... And
for reasons I don't fully understand that somebody turns out to be
Before I fire up the KVM remote client, however,
some news from around the web:
Farewell p-mail - the creator of venerable freeware email system
Pegasus, David Harris, has run down the curtain on the software
after seventeen years of active development, blaming "ongoing
difficulties with funding". It's a real shame to see another
old-timer go to the wall, but in these days of free 2Gb Gmail
mailboxes the biggest surprise is that Harris has managed to
maintain both a loyal customer base and his own enthusiasm for so
Fighting back - following a Taiwanese court's decision that
Luxpro's Tanger MP3 player is not a rip-off of the first generation
iPod Shuffle (although I have to admit that to me it certainly looks
like a direct
copy!), the manufacturer has launched a countersuit for $100 million
in damages for loss of "valuable market opportunities" arising from
Apple's legal action.
Radio silence - Ofcom's plans to auction off wireless spectrum
currently used by analogue TV channels will have a significant
impact on wireless communications systems used in theatres that
occupy the spaces between the channels. A modern stage show can use
these frequencies for radio
microphones, lighting control and automation, and the regulator's
plans will require them to move to a new aloocation or abandon use
of wireless systems altogether.
Blue for you -
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been extremely coy about his Blue
Origin private spaceflight project, but following a successful test
flight the cat is starting to creep out of the bag. The first test
vehicle, Goddard, is an unmanned VTOL somewhat reminiscent of NASA's
DC-X project, which
achieved a height of 285 feet before returning to a perfect soft
landing on the same pad from where it launched.
Accessorising - and talking of Amazon, the US division has just
launched a new site selling nothing but handbags and shoes,
Fortunately it doesn't ship outside the US at present, but when it
does I shall have to use a straitjacket to restrain my girlfriend,
as handbags and shoes are to her as esoteric computer hardware is to
me... To the point where I've had to give up my prized walk-in gun
cabinet to give her space to store them all. Oh, the sacrifice!
The drowned world - an article in the Telegraph discusses what
would happen to London if sea levels rise by a mere 39", or 1 metre,
as some experts predict will happen over the next century. The map
accompanying the article shows The City, Central London and the West
End completely under water, and in my neck of the woods Barking and
Stratford are on the banks of the newly expanded Thames estuary.
It's a sobering thought...
Sad times - to the great disappointment of liberals everywhere,
the newly appointed chairman to the House Intellectual Property
committee is none other than Howard Berman, a notorious extremist in
the pocket of the media industry. For example, Berman once proposed
a bill to allow copyright holders to remotely destroy a computer if
its owner was suspected of infringing copyright, and to immunize
them from liability if they targeted an innocent user's computer by
Flouting the law - A while ago it emerged that D-Link had based
the firmware of its popular DSM-520 media player (as well as a
number of their network routers, as it happens) on Linux code
covered by the GPL. Under these circumstances the open source
license obliges manufacturers to publish their source code, and
although initially they seemed willing to acquiesce after pressure
from the community, in in fact no code has been released in spite of
a lawsuit against their German division.
I'm still muttering under my breath about killing
my own Palm during a routine upgrade, but I've decided to take the
safe (and cheap!) option by replacing it with another T3. Both the
T5 and TX have some very appealing features but both are lacking in
several important ways, and the annoyance and cost of replacing all
my USB charging cables, external battery packs, car mount, etc etc
finally tipped the balance. Fortunately they're changing hands on
eBay for not too painful sums, so hopefully I'll be back in business
Meanwhile, the usual random news links:
Dirty tricks - during the 2002 presidential election campaign
the New Hampshire Republican Party hired a telemarketing firm to jam
the phone lines of a Democrat voting drive in an attempt to prevent
their opponents from co-ordinating transport to the polls for
Democratic voters. Amazingly, given such incredibly unconstitutional
behaviour, the court has awarded damages of a mere $135,000, to be
paid over five years!
diagnosis - visitors to this site are invited to enter what they
know of President Bush's character and behaviour into a standard
checklist for diagnosing psychopathic illness. As I write this,
after 4600 responses the corrected average score is 36 points out of
a possible 40, with values of more than 30 (or even as low as 25,
according to some experts) indicating a psychopathic disorder. An
average of the non-criminal population as a whole is closer to 5...
A setback for Dean - the Dutch police have banned the Segway
from all public roads, pavements and cycle paths, following a
continued failure of the country's Royal Traffic Agency to agree on
approval for the device. I'm surprised, as Holland has a long
history of enthusiastic support for bicycles and other alternatives
to the internal combustion engine, and I wonder if there has been
some quiet lobbying by manufacturers of more traditional "personal
Boots on other feet - following the ever-popular Month Of
Kernel Bugs and Month Of Browser Bugs, January is the
Month Of Apple Bugs. The first two days have brought
documentation and sample code to exploit vulnerabilities in
Quicktime and the open source VLC player, both of which could be
attacked via a malicious web page in order to run arbitrary code.
Time for the Mac fanboys to wake up and smell the coffee?
Added incentives - Microsoft is taking some criticism for
"bribing" key tech bloggers with the gift of a high-end Acer laptop
running Windows Vista and Office 2007, but nevertheless it's a very
good way of getting the word on the street ahead of the official
launch later this month. At Tom's Hardware, Barry Gerber is writing
a month-long diary of his experiences with the new OS - but his
first acts have been to turn off half of the fancy new interface
features and revert to an XP look and feel!
Things to come - SanDisk have released a solid state 32Gb NAND
memory device with an Ultra-ATA interface in the standard notebook
1.8" form factor, and the specs suggest that it's significantly
faster, more reliable, physically tougher and draws less power than
the traditional hard disks it is intended to replace. The only
problem is that the company hasn't yet revealed ANY pricing details,
which is rarely a good sign, and I don't see the technology gaining
mass-market appeal quite yet...
Stresses and strains - the UK government's online electronic
petitions website is struggling under the load, it seems, and is no
longer including the names of signatories below the petitions they
have signed to - although in this case the straw that broke the
camel's back seems to be a list of a mere 640 names. It does make
one wonder about the specification of the hardware running the
service, as it's organised by the excellent MySociety.org,
who are hardly strangers to this kind of system!
Help for the stupid - a new service from UK charity Sense
About Science offers scientific advice to celebrities who wish
to support causes and campaigns, in the hope of dissuading them from
endorsing inaccurate and misleading viewpoints. The organisation
cites recent comments by actress Juliet Stevenson, who was
"alarmed at the idea of three diseases being injected into her
baby's system in one go" by a MMR vaccination. Indeed.
I've noticed recently that my trusty Palm
Tungsten T3 doesn't seem to last as long between recharges, with the
final confirmation coming on my abortive journey down to Plymouth
this christmas. The battery didn't even make it as far as Bristol
(just like the car, in fact!) whereas normally I don't expect to
hook up the external battery pack until I switch from audiobooks to
loud rock music for the final burn down the M5 from Taunton. I had
the idea that replacement batteries might be available, and a casual
search on the web showed that not only was that the case, but that
they were available in a slightly higher capacity than the original
and at a very reasonable price.
The company with the highest profile on Google is
the US supplier PDA Parts,
which also has an extremely helpful library of
instructions and video guides for taking apart a whole range of
Palm and Windows handhelds. They don't ship overseas, although they
have a Canadian associate
that does, but further investigation showed that were several
and also a generous quantity on offer at eBay. In the end I
purchased a 1100mAh Lithium Polymer module to replace the original
900mAh Lithium Ion (apparently only 850mAh in the first T3s) from an
eBay seller for less than £10 including shipping - and I consider
that something of a bargain. Armed with the instructions at PDA
Parts, I set to work...
Opening the T3 is relatively simple as long as
you have a good selection of precision screwdrivers, although the
ribbon cable connecting the keypad in the sliding part of the case
is as fiddly to edge out of its socket as these things always are.
The next stage is to separate the two halves of the main body, and
the instructions don't mention that they are connected by two
friction clips on each side and need to be pried gently apart with
a screwdriver. The instructions suggest disconnecting the battery
wire (circled in red) before this stage, but as far as I can see
that would be extremely difficult because it is largely obscured by
In fact, the battery wire is potentially a major
problem, as (in my T3, at least) the plug was tighter in its socket
than the bond between the socket and the PCB, and while trying to
carefully tease the two apart the entire assembly came away from the
board. However, I'd seen this symptom before and know that with a
magnifying glass and a steady hand it's possible to superglue the
plastic socket back onto the PCB, the electrical contacts pressing
firmly onto the solder traces again. Reassembly was easy enough
after that, but it wasn't possible to test the battery connection
until everything was back together and I was decidedly relieved when
I dropped it into the cradle and the screen lit up as usual.
In the absence of a battery the Palm had lost its
configuration and data completely, but a hotsync took care of that
readily enough (isn't PalmOS wonderful in that respect!) and all
appeared well. Half an hour later, however, I was less than pleased
when I removed the Palm from its cradle only to see the screen go
blank immediately. Some testing revealed that although it did indeed
work fine when cradled, the battery wasn't charging at all - so
evidently my repair to the socket wasn't as effective as it first
appeared. I stripped it down again and replaced the old,
fully-charged battery just to be sure, but unfortunately it showed
an equal lack of life - and although I've double and triple-checked
the socket and it looks to be in perfect order, evidently there's a
bad contact somewhere and having repaired it once there may not be
much more I can do at this stage. How annoying!
Assuming that a further repair is indeed
impossible, I'll have to decide between buying a second T3 for use
or as a source of spares, or buying the latest incarnation of the
high-end Palms, the
The latter is certainly nice, with it's built-in 802.11b wireless,
but unfortunately it lacks a number of what ought to be standard
features, such as a voice recorder and a docking cradle, has a
slower CPU and less memory than its T5 predecessor, and has
something of a reputation for poor build quality and comms
flakiness. It's a tough decision.
All the news that's fit to blog - beginning with
a handful of stories that were overlooked in the pre-christmas rush:
Cats out of bags - the UK government's case for going to war in
Iraq has been further weakened by the publication of evidence that
Tony Blair knew that the infamous WMDs were fantasy, and that
UK officials were trying to convince the US of the chaos that would
inevitably result if Hussein was overthrown. I'm depressed that this
news apparently hasn't reached the wider audience it deserves...
The price of progress - Peter Gutmann's article on the fallout
he expects from the DRM embedded deep in Microsoft's new OS has
caused something of a stir throughout the industry, and having
finally caught up on the article I can see why. The changes forced
upon MS by the media cartel harm Vista itself, Gutmann says, and
will effect all hardware and software that ever comes into contact
HD-DVD not quite cracked - the news that the AACS copy
protection mechanism had been defeated spread around the web in what
felt like minutes, but a closer examination shows that in fact the
technique simply uses a weakness in the WinDVD software (a
decryption key can be read from working memory) that is sure to be
rendered unusable in fairly short order.
Linden lies - the company behind the popular Second Life online
game has repeatedly clamed that it has over one million "residents",
and these figures have been widely parroted by a credulous media.
It's impossible for anyone outside the company to know for sure, at
this stage, but just for a start it appears that at least 20% of
those accounts have never been logged into... Tsk.
The rich get richer - far from empowering the individual, says
Sion Touhig at The Register, the growing use of "user created
content" in the media is actually serving to ruin freelance artists
and photographers, while the giant companies use the increasingly
biased copyright laws to impose their will on anyone they like. So
much for "Web 2.0"...
Butt-headed policy - in spite of protests from national park
staff, and the scientific community at large, a book claiming that
the Grand Canyon was created by the biblical flood is still for sale
in the park book shop. In spite of this pressure, however, a
promised review by the National Park Service was never even begun,
and it's clear that the religious loons are still in positions of
Discourses on science - at the American Scientist online
magazine, Brian Hayes has published a fascinating article on the
nature of mathematical proof and how it is applied in the real
world. Starting in his youth, where he wrestled with one of the
age-old problems of trisecting the angle, he works forward to the
little-known proof by the obscure mathematician Wantzel that shows
it to be impossible.
Mining the moon - NASA's plans for a permanently manned moon
base could provide the first steps towards large-scale extraction of
Helium-3. The isotope is considered to be the optimum fuel for the
first generation of commercial fusion reactors (when they eventually
arrive!), and although rare on Earth it is plentiful in the lunar
soil. Where is
D. D. Harriman when you need him?
The death of Morse - when I was interested in amateur radio,
back when dinosaurs walked the earth and the
was the best rig on 2m, the Morse code exam required for a Class A
license was a major obstacle. The 5 WPM requirement has seemed
increasingly unnecessary with the rise of computers over the last
two decade, however, and in America the FCC has finally eliminated
- Matt Barton has published the first part of a guide to computer
role-playing games, covering 1980 to 1983. I'm a little dubious
about the start date, as it misses out the text-based adventure
games like Zork and Colossal Cave, clearly the RPG's precursors, but
the article is fascinating and well-written and I'm looking forward
to subsequent instalments.
three buttons - I've been very pleased with my Optimus Mini 3
OLED keypad, in spite of a distinct lack of the huge community of
add-on developers that the manufacturer obviously hoped for. Art
Lebedev's blog has some fascinating tidbits on the grown-up 103 key
vaporware), however, and there are finally a few
3rd-party widgets available for the Optimus Configurator.
Multi-mode TV card - the latest offering from PC-TV pioneer
Hauppauge (pronounced "Ho-Pog", I gather) will tune into digital
satellite, digital free-to-air and traditional analogue signals,
radio and teletext - truly an all-rounder. I used to use their
original WinTV products before I switched to the Radeon
All-In-Wonder cards, and in the current morass of standards the new
card looks like a winner.
And finally, opinions vary on whether the Sony
PS3 is the best games console on the market, but if it can
fry a steak there's no doubt that it's hot hardware...
It wasn't the best of holidays... The car let me down
travelling both too and from my parents' house in Plymouth, so I spent an
annoyingly long time in a succession of breakdown trucks, the drivers of
which varied from the teeth-grittingly chatty to the despairingly surly.
Still, at least I saved on the petrol costs...
Back at home after christmas, however, I added another
entry to the list of things I can bodge back into life. My bathroom shower
started leaking just before I went away, but thanks to an excellent pair
of web sites, The Shower Doctor and
Shower Warehouse, I received
expert advice on the likely cause of the problem and assistance in
choosing the correct replacement parts, followed by sufficiently speedy
dispatch of said parts that they arrived the next day. Highly recommended.
Meanwhile, back on the news circuit...
collaborative effort - Cellphone manufacturer Ericsson is using
monitoring equipment mounted in New York cabs to automatically map areas
of low signal strength around the city, a cunning way of covering
extensive areas of the city without using specialist vehicles. I wish my
provider, T-Mobile, would do the same thing in Plymouth - the signal at my
parents' house is almost non-existent...
Fighting back - Intel may hold the technical and performance crown
right now with their multi-core Core CPUs, but AMD are anything but cowed.
Homogenous multi-core is a flash-in-the-pan, they say, and their plans
include combining a CPU and GPU onto the same silicon complete with on-die
Northbridge functions, and multi-core chips with different, complementing
varieties of processor.
Up before the beak - a report at News.com suggests that 2007
may be a difficult year for Apple, with a number of lawsuits in the offing
as well as the likely fallout from their share options scandal. The suits
include claims of monopolistic behaviour over the iTunes/iPod lock-in, of
patent infringement from a pedometer addon, and that the logic board of
the G4 iBook fails at "an abnormally high rate".
The shape of
things to come - the anti-virus companies are predicting doom and
gloom for the coming year, and although they have a vested interest in
inspiring FUD their claims probably shouldn't be completely dismissed. The
number of phishing attacks will continue to rise, as will those against
instant messaging and VoIP users, and bot networks will become ever more
An improbable vulnerability - following the revelation that computers
can to some extent be identified by their clock skew, the fact that this
time drift is affected by a system's operating temperature might be used
to pinpoint a particular computer over the Internet by forcing it to
process a heavy workload and detecting the resulting rise in temperature.
If this was April, I wouldn't buy it for a minute...
worst nightmare - meanwhile, The Register suggests that
wireless hacking is about to move from demonstrations at black hat
conferences to a genuine risk to business. The rise of the botnets mean
that commercial hackers are always on the lookout for new victims, and
corporate laptops taken outside the office with their wireless adaptors
still enabled, especially when used on insecure home networks by senior
staff with confidential data on unprotected hard drives, are an easy
paranormal investigations - PC Perspective has reviewed the
Killer NIC gaming network card, and although their verdict is not quite as
glowing as that of the recent review at [H]ard|OCP some of their
assumptions are equally wacky: "these freezes are caused by the game
waiting on networking data from the server -- something the Killer NIC can
help with". It really isn't clear to me how a faster network card
(even assuming that it actually is!) can reduce delays caused by a remote
system. I'd really like to see these tests conducted using some genuine
An average month in the stats, especially considering the
christmas slump: Site Meter shows that the vast majority of the
site's visitors are using their employer's systems in office hours (I am
greatly amused by this, somehow), and the holiday period is enough to knock
ten percent off the monthly figures. I'm expecting a steady if gentle climb
throughout the coming year, but that breakthrough into fame (even the
variety) still eludes me...