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31st May 2007

A generous handful of random snippets of tech news... I hope you feel suitably informed.

Wave of the future - I've seen various videos of computer interfaces using multi-touch touch-screens over the last twelve months, but none of them have come from Microsoft and I have to admit to being surprised to hear that they have just launched an actual product, now available for purchase. MS Surface is a more than just an input device, it's an entire working environment, and it looks really impressive.

A technological dead end - Palm has drawn back their customary veil of secrecy to reveal the answer to a question nobody asked. Their latest product, the Foleo, is essentially a dumb terminal that interfaces to a Treo PDA to provide a larger screen and keyboard, but the pair of them together do nothing that a laptop, tablet or sub-notebook can't manage, and I'm struggling to identify the target market.

Another key bites the dust - a new AACS processing key was released on the Doom9 forum yesterday, and only a few hours later it's already been published on at least a quarter of a million pages. This reinforces the idea that the crackers are releasing new keys faster than the licensing authority is able to revoke them, and I really can't see how they can catch up when they're already this far behind.

The mongoose and the cobra - a silly little article at Wired discusses the imminent D technology conference organised by the Wall Street Journal, at which it says Steve Jobs and Bill Gates will meet for the first time in a decade, and speculates about the tension that will arise. In fact, they met, and shared a table, at the same conference in 2005, and photographs taken at the time suggest that actually they got on rather well...

The thoughts of Chairman Bill - meanwhile, Bill seems to have ascended to cult status amongst the budding entrepreneurs of China, who apparently view his business success, his influence on the modern world, and his philanthropic works as a shining example of what can be achieved. Books on the Microsoft founder are best-sellers even in the most remote, low-tech areas of the country, as is Gates' own book "The Road Ahead".

Distorting reality - "This is the first time users can easily browse, find and watch YouTube videos right from their living room couch", said Steve Jobs. proudly announcing an upgrade for the Apple TV product - conveniently ignoring the fact that for several years people have been doing just that via their Xb0x 360, PS3, home theatre PC, or any one of a number of media appliances such as my (admittedly upgraded) Pinnacle Showcenter...

The harder they fall - arch spammer Robert Soloway has been arrested in Seattle after being indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of identity theft, money laundering, and mail, wire, and e-mail fraud.
Active between November 2003 and May 2007, Soloway used botnets to send out tens of millions of marketing emails, and faces a maximum sentence of more than 65 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

They never learn - in spite of the fact that every other state to have passed a law restricting the sale of video games has had their legislation struck down as unconstitutional, this hasn't stopped New York state from clambering onto the bandwagon as well. A new bill proposed by three Democratic assembly-people, with the support of Governor Eliot Spitzer, would introduce new felony offences for people selling violent or explicit games to minors.

What are they trying to hide? - the UK government is evidently desperate to conceal the behind-the-scenes workings of their ID card proposals, appealing against a recent order by the Information Tribunal that it must publish documents that assess the justification for the scheme, on the vastly spurious grounds that it is more in the public interest to keep the information secret than to publish it. I'll say it again - what exactly are they trying to hide from us?

Games not blamed - the Essex "hero" who intervened in a security van hold-up and was shot in the chest for his pains was apparently a keen player of the first-person shooter CounterStrike, and the irony is not lost on online gaming fans. If he had been the criminal instead of a victim, the press would be alive with condemnation of "violent video games" once more, but as it is there has been little mention outside of the gaming sites and their ilk...

The plot thickens - I mentioned HP's sneaky spying activities a few days ago, and as if on cue details of further shady activities are emerging. It is alleged that HP tried to obtain the phone records of ex-vice president Karl Kamb through pretexting, and that while he was still an employee of the company he was used to spy on arch-rival Dell during its entry into the printer market in the early part of this decade.

Wringing their hands - Cable And Wireless, the former owner of troubled UK ISP Bulldog, has blamed a sacked employee for the loss of 100,000 customer records, leading to customers receiving international phone calls trying to obtain credit card details. C&W insists its use of outsourcers was unrelated to the crime, but it's one of a growing number of frauds that have emerged from call centres in India and Pakistan and the security implications are becoming worrying.

A teeny-weeny problem - meanwhile, another UK ISP, Tiscali, has finally admitted that the "minor problem" affecting "some customer outbound email" this week was caused by the ISP's entire address range being blacklisted because of their poor record addressing spam. Their only suggestion to their increasingly irate users has been to use Hotmail or another free email service, and somehow I doubt that advice has been well received...

And, finally, still not ready for the desktop? - if Microsoft sponsored a car in the Indy 500, and it was the first to crash and the last to finish, the open source crowd would be crowing endlessly and posting
jokes about "if M$ built racing cars"... This is exactly what happened to the Chastain Motorsports car sponsored by a group of Linux evangelists, however, who had hoped to attract donations of $350,000 in order to become the primary sponsor of the car and gain valuable publicity for the OS. In the end they only managed to raise a meagre $18,000 (I always said open source users were cheapskates!), which according to their FAQ shouldn't even have been enough for the tiniest of sponsorship logos, but evidently someone took pity on them as on race day the car was undoubtedly emblazoned with a large, dramatic Tux on the bodywork. I hope the "investors" feel that they got their money's worth from the penguin's abortive outing...

 

30th May

Although my company is autonomous when it comes to day-to-day operations, we're actually a subsidiary of a parent organisation in France which oversees the grand strategy  for all the branches around the world. This mostly has little impact on my work and that of my department, but occasionally a technical decision is made at the highest levels and then I have no option but to implement it - no matter how ill-conceived and pointless it is. Today just such an edict was issued, in spite of pressure from myself and my IT director, and so we are going to have to adopt a new convention for our external email addresses, allegedly to bring improved clarity and conformity between the various parts of the group. Unfortunately, in my opinion it will actually serve to make life more confusing for customers and staff alike, and I have protested against this plan ever since it first reared its ugly head a year or so ago - evidently without success.

At present we use one of the most common forms of addressing, firstname.lastname@company, but the new standard will be initial.lastname@company instead. Our current format is one of the most forgiving for duplicate names, which is one of the reasons it was adopted. If we have two people named Bill Smith working for us, then we have to use bill.smith1 and bill.smith2 - but the new standard will demand numerals for any Smith beginning with B, so if we have Belinda Smith, Bob Smith and Barbara Smith as well, we'll end up with b.smith1, b.smith2, b.smith3, b.smith4, and b.smith5 in our address book... I would be interested if someone from the team that made the decision could explain to me exactly how that is an improvement!

Fortunately Exchange 2003 has considerable flexibility when it comes to email aliases, so I can keep the existing format as the primary address (thus avoiding the riot that would occur if we asked every one of seven hundred-odd users to inform all their contacts of the change!), and add the new format as secondary addresses to use for incoming email only. However, doing so is going to be an intensely manual process, as I can't see any way of automatically appending the appropriate numeral to the many duplicate names without more programming abilities than I or my team possess - and our real programmers are so busy with the ongoing SAP and Siebel implementation that even attracting their attention for long enough to offer them a coffee is almost impossible, let alone persuading them to take on bulk Active Directory imports. All-in-all, I am not very happy about this...

Meanwhile, for various odd reasons I've been installing NT4 Server onto an old Dell laptop, with the intention of creating a portable print server that can drop into a customer's network and allow tests of a print processing application without traumatising their existing server. I don't usually work with actual customers, but in this case I was flattered into assisting our technical services department - the manager of which, in his previous incarnation in the marketing department, was extremely reassuring and helpful when I was in the midst of the PR circus that surrounded our brief spell as a reference site for the afore-mentioned Exchange 2003 and culminated in my presentation at the official launch of the product, so I felt that I owed him a fairly big favour.

It's been many years since I actually installed NT, although I have to confess that we do still have a couple of servers running the venerable OS on our network, both of which ought to have been replaced several years ago but which have lingered for various complex legacy reasons. I managed to persuade our desktop support team to cough up a fairly contemporary laptop, which avoided the pain of trying to find NT drivers for widescreen accelerated graphics adapters and the like, and fortunately Dell's web site still provides drivers for hardware that was current during the lifespan of the OS. Although I was gritting my teeth in frustration at times (installing a 3rd party network driver during the installation process is no fun when you have to manually type the short path to the directory containing the drivers instead of just being able to browse to it!), it is charmingly retro in some ways and certain operations are surprisingly nippy! When I installed the first service pack for Server 2003, back in the autumn, it was taking about 45 minutes per server - but SP6a for NT4 slipped on almost before I could turn around, which was a refreshing change! However, it remains to be seen if I'm still as fond of it once I've written documentation that will enable a non-server specialist to insert it into an existing domain and configure it as a print server talking to HP JetDirect boxes via LPD. Watch this space for the inevitable angst...

 

29th May

PC keyboards really aren't what they used to be... The keyboard I was using when I started writing Epicycle in 2002, a mid-nineties AT workhorse built for AST by Cherry, lasted around seven years and was only retired because for some reason it wouldn't work with a new PS/2 KVM switch. Since then I've been using a succession of Logitech media keyboards, and unfortunately each one has had to be retired after only a year or two! Gone are the days when the captions were actually black paint filling moulded indentations in the keycap - these days they're just transfers, and my rather heavy typing style (often combined with unfashionably long fingernails!) starts to wear the more commonly used letters off after only a few months. It doesn't tend to be a problem for me until around half the keys are completely anonymous, as after all these years I'm something approximating a touch-typist, but it confuses partners, friends and colleagues no end - and I have to admit that I have problems too when I'm looking for a particular key rather than typing English sentences in full flow.

Fortunately there is no shortage of the models I favour on the second hand market, and this week I've picked up a unit that is malfunctioning but still cosmetically excellent for a few pounds including shipping. I'll swap the appropriate keys to the existing unit, and that will keep me going for another year - but I wish I could find something both elegant and hard-wearing. This one certainly looks nice, but it seems to use laptop-style key switches and I don't find their short travel conducive for hammering out email and blog entries - and as the keys still seem to be labelled with transfers it's an unappealing expensive proposition to replace every year or so! The search continues...

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Privacy on the line - I received an email at the office telling me that HP have updated their online privacy policy for the US, but strangely, even having read through very carefully, there's nothing in there about hiring private detective agencies to lie about their identity in order to illegally obtain confidential phone records of journalists, employees and their family members. How odd!

Whac-A-Mole - the recent song and dance over the cracked AACS high-definition encryption keys has proved that the pirates are still one step ahead of the media industry, and an article at Wired suggests that future DRM will need to be protected by technical methods instead of legal ones - although this rather suggests that the writer is as out-of-touch as the the AACS organisation itself!

Fair use on fair use - a short film created by Stanford University's Documentary Film Program uses a multitude of Disney characters to illustrate the concept of "fair use", and given the corporation's traditionally fierce defence of their copyrights the film seems to push the concept it is conveying as far as is legally defensible. It will be interesting to see if there is any objection from Disney itself...

The old places - an online representation of Australian landmark Uluru or Ayres Rock, created by telco Telstra in their PR area of Second Life, has aroused the ire of the traditional owners, the aboriginal Anangu people. The rock is sacred to them, and in the real world they have banned tourists from photographing and filming ancient paintings on the northeast face - in SL, however, virtual tourists can do just that with impunity and the Anangu are not pleased...

Angry penguins - as could be imagined, the Linux movement is frothing and foaming at Microsoft's assertion that key open source software infringes hundreds of Microsoft patents without actually detailing which ones, and a pugnacious press release from the director of the Linux Foundation threatens "touch one member of the Linux community, and you will have to deal with all of us". I'm sure Steve Ballmer is quaking in his boots...

Indefensible - the state government of Illinois spent $1 million trying to defend a clearly unconstitutional law heavily regulating violent and sexually explicit video games, and when their case was rejected by both federal and appeals courts they had to raid state funds to cover their costs. Departments looted included public health, state welfare and economic development, and now the news has broken the Illinois taxpayers don't like it one little bit.

Dismissing hysteria - at the always excellent Bad Science web site, Ben Goldacre is rebutting the recent BBC "documentary" on the alleged health risks of wireless networking. With highly emotive language throughout, independent experts who were anything but, and test results biased in order to confirm existing prejudices, it was an excellent example of how not to present science on television.

A question nobody asked - apparently the Home Office are in earnest discussion with cell phone manufacturers over the possibility of making handsets "thief proof", in spite of the fact that only a few weeks ago they proudly announced that mobile phone theft had almost been eliminated. The possibilities discussed range from the stupid to the infeasible, but that probably won't stop them wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on investigating them anyway...

A new attack - at The Register, Mark Whitehorn describes encountering a set of eBay listings that, when opened, redirected his browser to a phishing site. The auctions in question were still accessible two hours after being reported, thanks to eBay's usual glacial service, and although it is not known if the security flaw that makes such dangerous activity possible is still present, I'm betting that it is...

Three strikes and you're out - at the blog of Sun employee Alec Muffett, support for my opinion that the practice of locking a user account after a number of invalid logon attempts has definitely passed its sell-by date. The idea is still entrenched in the minds of some management, so I've had to retain the general concept on my own systems at the office, but at least I've raised the threshold to ten failed attempts instead of the traditional three.

A tale of two PDAs - Palm and RIM, two of the biggest handheld manufacturers, both had investor conferences a few weeks ago, and at ZDNet Larry Dignan is ruminating on the huge differences between the two companies. As I've commented here before, Palm seem to have lost their way in the market and are clouding any future releases in secrecy, whereas RIM just keep on releasing exactly the sort of products that people want to buy and aren't shy of discussing their plans for the future.

And, finally, a blast from the past (or perhaps the future) - I linked to these wonderful steampunk rayguns back when they were still prototypes, but the finished products are now for sale at New Zealand design house Weta for the only slightly outrageous price of $690 each. With all the furore about "realistic imitation firearms" in UK law, these days, if I wasn't on an economy drive right now they would be the obvious choice for the start of a new collection.

 

28th May

It's been a very pleasant long weekend away from the office and computers (except for the inevitable support call from an end-user who couldn't connect via our SSL gateway) so here's a quick handful of tech links before I plunge back into the chaos that is always waiting after a bank holiday.

A precedent is set - the long-running legal dispute between Google and the porn site Perfect 10, who alleged that the search company was infringing copyright by displaying thumbnails of their pictures in its search results, has been settled in favour of Google with the thumbnails deemed as fair use.

Coming out of the woodwork - the latest target in the increasingly controversial "Month of xxx Bugs" series of security exposés is the online search engines, many of which have already been hit by various embarrassing and highly-publicised flaws.

Sniping - UK tech journal The Register is still taking pot shots at veteran journalist Bob Cringely, who recently announced that IBM was to lay-off 150,000 workers, a claim that for some reason Register hack Ashlee Vance seems to have taken as a personal affront.

Kicking them when they're down - Stanford University is to charge students who have had their net access cut off following DMCA takedowns or media industry threats $100 before reconnecting them to the campus network. I wonder if I can adopt the same sort of policy with my own users?

The blind trusting the blind - a new study from Danish security firm CSIS suggests that the social networking sites are one of the fastest growing areas for harvesting email addresses to spam, establishing bogus trust relationships, and hosting phishing scams. This is hardly a surprise!

Encrypted theft - a new version of the Russian trojan horse Gozi seems able to read information from SSL streams established by an infected PC, and has already been fingered in the loss of confidential online banking and payment information from some 2000 home users worldwide.

Not all they should be - Apple is the target of yet another class action suit, this time alleging false advertising about the displays in their Intel-powered MacBook laptops. Apparently the LCD panels use 6 bits per channel rather than the usual 8 bits, and many customers are less than impressed.

Monobloc laptops - meanwhile, the company has filed a new patent for the structural design of laptop PCs, involving an outer casing bonded to an inner structural frame to give strength without either excessive weight or excessive bulk. It will be interesting to see what finally makes it into production.

The next big thing - in spite of unprecedented public opposition via the government's e-polling site, plans for road pricing in the UK are to go ahead anyway - and as usual we're expected to believe that it's more than just a massive boondoggle to raise pots of money for the treasury and spy on us all...

Convictions are based on this - as if there weren't already enough errors in the various databases used by the UK police forces, it has emerged that the National DNA Database has around 100,000 "unreconciled records" in spite of government assurances that the problems had been solved.

The circle is unbroken - I can remember when British Telecom was spun off from the Post Office in 1981, selling the country something that it already owned, so the news that the latter has signed up as the first supplier of BT's new managed broadband services just has me shaking my head sadly...

The President's lair - last month I linked to a picture of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's tiny, almost monastic office, but a photoset of Al Gore at Time magazine includes one showing a very different working environment - although his three widescreen LCD monitors are certainly an impressive sight!

Spoiler - one of the latest offerings from roll-your-own T-shirt company Threadless givs away the plot twist of eighteen movies ranging from Citizen Kane to The Usual Suspects, and is guaranteed to ruin the movie-going experience for at least one of your friends.

 

27th May

It has long been an article of faith amongst Apple enthusiasts that Microsoft has copied all the best bits of the various Windows GUIs from Apple's products, and that said products were invented in house by the company's own home-grown geniuses. Any suggestion that the design of the first Macintosh was anything other than 100% original meets with angry retorts from the fanboys, for whom "Xerox PARC" is apparently something of a swearword and Steve Jobs' declaration that nothing original ever came out of Microsoft is evidently written on the stone tablets he carried down from the first West Coast Computer Faire.

Having watched the evolution of microcomputer interfaces over the last twenty five years or so, however, I'm a far better position to comment on these accusations than many of today's twenty-something Mac fashionistas, and as can be imagined I've never had much sympathy with their dogma. Both Windows and the Mac OS clearly owe tremendous amounts not only to the Alto and Star systems created at Xerox PARC, and their development environment Smalltalk, but also to the earlier work of Douglas Engelbart's Augment project at the Stanford Research Institute. Engebert's team invented the mouse, bit-mapped GUIs, windowing systems, hypertext, video conferencing and groupware, while both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were still in high school... It is also inevitable that later versions of the Mac OS were influenced by the increasing number of other GUIs that came onto the market in the eighties, including Rob Pike's Blit terminal, Atari's TOS, Digital Research's GEM, Commodore's Workbench, IBM's OS2, and the Athena project at MIT that eventually became X Window. Major computer software is rarely created in a vacuum, after all, and only the most arrogant and foolish of developers would ignore the competition's work completely: much as I hate to quote Steve Jobs (even if he in turn was quoting Pablo Picasso), "great artists steal"...

This week, however, I've been reading Andy Hertzfeld's account of the first years of the Macintosh, Revolution In The Valley, a collection of short essays on different aspects of the project, and the people involved.  [These can also be found on Hertzfeld's folklore.org website, which has the added benefit of tagging and hyperlinking as well as the promise of future updates.]  It's a fascinating read, whichever side of the perennial Apple vs. Microsoft war one is on, but it would prove especially informative to those who refuse to acknowledge the debt that the first Mac OS owes to its predecessors:

Bill Atkinson remembered an interesting prototype that he saw at M.I.T. called Dataland, where data objects could be spatially positioned over a large area. He adapted the idea for Lisa, allowing icons representing files and directories to be positioned on a scrolling, semi-infinite plane.  - Andy Hertzfeld, on the origin of the "Filer" user interface.

This is obviously the biggest single jump in the entire set of photographs, and the place where I most wish that Bill had dated them. It's tempting to say that the change was caused by the famous Xerox PARC visit, which took place in mid-December 1979, but Bill thinks that the windows predated that, although he can't say for sure.  - Andy Hertzfeld on the Lisa's GUI, later ported to the Mac.

Still, I was used to the Smalltalk user experience, and wanted to do whatever I could with the Finder to approach the friendliness, flexibility, and ease of use that Smalltalk provided.  - Bruce Horn, who came to Apple direct from Xerox PARC.

Alan's speech was revelatory and was perhaps the most inspiring talk that I ever attended. I grew increasingly excited as he made one brilliant, insightful remark after another, and took out my notebook to write as much of it down as I could.  - Andy Hertzfold on a lecture by PARC luminary Alan Kay, inventor of Smalltalk and the Alto.

Xerox aficionados will note the use of Cream 12 as our first system font, which was the default font used by Smalltalk.  - Andy Hertzfeld, on an early demo of what would eventually become the QuickDraw program.

We were influenced by ideas from the Architecture Machine group at MIT as portrayed in a program called "DataLand" that allowed users to manipulate graphical objects in spacial arrangements.  - Andy Hertzfeld, on the origin of the "Finder" tool.

There are others, but I think the point is made. As is perfectly reasonable, and perfectly expectable, the Mac and Lisa teams borrowed both general concepts and fine details of their GUI from wherever they saw a good idea - which is exactly what Microsoft and every other GUI designer has also done in the subsequent twenty years. I certainly can't criticise that, as it's good business sense as long as it doesn't land your company in court, but I wish that the Mac zealots would at least occasionally acknowledge that part of the Apple legend they hold so dear is simply a by-product of the infamous Jobs Reality Distortion Field...

[Note: a colleague at the office reminded me that as well as Doug Engelbert, I should mention Ivan Sutherland, another pioneer of graphical user interfaces and virtual reality systems, and creator of the ground-breaking Sketchpad software, an acknowledged influence on Engelbert's On-Line System. Among Sutherland's students at the University of Utah was Alan Kay, inventor of the Smalltalk environment that was so influential on the Mac and Lisa development teams. Thanks, Chris!]

 

24th May

I'm repeatedly baffled and annoyed by the way that certain enterprise software companies seem completely incapable of designing their products to run on any reasonably modern server platform, and today's installation of a live test of the Canadian helpdesk system HelpSTAR, currently being heavily promoted in the UK, is the latest application to cause me to grind my teeth. Although we had built a server to the exact specifications provided by the sales rep, when a more technical staff member arrived to install the trial software today I was less than impressed to be told that the system also required Microsoft Outlook 2000 to correctly integrate with our Exchange email server. Installing a seven year old Office component is bad enough, but then he told me that it would be best if I didn't install any of the three service packs, either, leaving us potentially exposed to any number of heinous (and long-ago patched) security flaws.

Even having (reluctantly) passed that milestone, the software seemed to be expecting a far older operating system to run on in general, with all sorts of problems emerging that were finally traced to incompatibilities with the IIS V6 that ships as standard with Windows Server 2003 - itself hardly at the bleeding edge of technology! The final straw was that when it came time to install the software, instead of a nice, safe read-only CD, the rep produced a USB memory stick and asked me where to plug it into the server. I normally prefer not expose the core of my LAN to storage devices that have been connected to any number of unknown networks in the course of previous demos and installs, but my request to run a virus scan across the thing was met with a decidedly puzzled look - and if, as that strongly suggests to me, none of the previous recipients of the device have been that security conscious then it is even more important that I am!

The software itself seems competent enough, certainly, and is currently significantly cheaper than the competition, but the installation process has left a nasty taste in my mouth and if we do decide to go ahead with the purchase I am going to have to spend some significant attention on locking down that poor server again!

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Not for turning - the litigious creator of the "popular" seventies dance The Electric Slide, notorious for firing off DMCA notices at people uploading videos of themselves performing the dance, has had something of a change of heart following pressure from the EFF. Not only has he agreed to stop hassling people, but he has also licensed the dance moves under the Creative Commons, making them freely available for fair use.

Taking on the giant - evidently the crusading anti-games attorney Jack Thompson has been completely undeterred by a long string of failures to have his bizarre opinions ratified by the courts, and has now decided to go for broke by threatening Microsoft (and Bill Gates personally) over their recently launched Halo 3 game. Anyone care to place a small wager on the outcome?

The bleedin' obvious - a new study by US ISP Pew Internet suggests that although the overall volume of email spam is still rising, people are starting to adapt to it and are generally complaining less. It seems likely that the gradual switch from porn spam, which is more eye-catching and potentially offensive, to stock scams and phishing attempts instead, is also partly responsible.

Use wi-fi, go to jail - a man arrested for regularly parking outside a Michigan coffee shop in order to use their unsecured wireless access point to check his email, has been fined $400 and sentenced to 400 hours of community service. This seems vastly out of proportion to the offence, to me, and the local police chief who "had a feeling a law was being broken" should probably spend his time looking for real criminals instead...

And, finally, for the geek who has everything, a heated keyboard... It has two heat settings, "normal hand temperature" of 85F to 90F and "normal body temperature" of 95F to 100F, is powered from the mains, and is as ugly as a wart. Not something I'll be putting on my christmas list, I suspect...

 

22nd May

Ditto, and ditto...

Starved for air - controversial Russian online music store AllOfMP3.com is close to expiring, it would seem, thanks to ever-increasing difficulties in actually receiving money for its services. PayPal and the credit card companies bowed to pressure last year to withdraw their payment facilities, and now the UK police have arrested a man selling "vouchers" for the site via eBay and the now-defunct AllofMP3vouchers.co.uk.

A new terror - although last year's publication of the results of a Danish study on more than two decades of cellphone use failed to show any health risk, the tinfoil hat brigade are still unconvinced - and worse, recently they have turned their sights onto Wi-Fi as well, as evidenced by overly-hysterical and factually inaccurate segments on last night's Panorama TV documentary. The Register is evidently as unimpressed as I am...

The bleedin' obvious - Microsoft says that not a single manufacturer has chosen to license the crippled version of Vista mandated by the European Union's anti--trust bully boys in the name of protecting the consumer, and in fact the retail version is "sitting on the shelves" as well. Does anyone still think that this ruling was anything to do with fair trade instead of just making a shed-load of cash for the EU?

The gospel according to Bill - And talking of Microsoft, the company's founder has never been backward in coming forward with opinions on the future of IT, and an article at the Seattle PI examines some of his predictions to see how well they stood the test of time. As could be expected, some are well off the mark - but a significant proportion seem to be close enough for government work. Gates is one smart cookie...

The tablet strikes back - industry pundits have roundly dismissed the tablet PC, which has always baffled me as within its niche I find my Motion LE1600 to be an absolutely marvellous device, but at Ars Technica Ken Fisher suggests that the improved experience provided by Windows Vista and Office 2007 will cause renewed interest in the concept, especially as Dell are preparing their own tablet for release later this year.

The worms turning - opposition against the government's ghastly ID card scheme is slowly spreading, it seems, with a recent report from the LSE calling for parliament to investigate the entire project following the increase of the official cost estimate (especially given that the scope of the project has now been cut back somewhat!) and a statement from a police chief constable saying that claims of the technology fighting terrorism are "fatuous".

 

21st May

It's been one of those days, in spades, so I'm just going to toss out a few quick links and run...

Microsoft vs. India - 350 Indian computer dealers have joined a nationwide strike to protest the outrageous behaviour of Microsoft, who have asked them to stop selling pirated copies of Windows and threatened to fine them if they don't comply. This policy shouldn't apply in India, the dealers say, and consider their provision of free unlicensed copies of the OS to their customers as a selfless act.

Still banging that drum - although the adware company Zango (who changed their name from 180solutions to avoid the latter's terrible reputation) have already been censured by the FTC for it unscrupulous business practices, they are still trying to convince the courts that their software is not malicious, and are currently suing PC Tools for their classification of said software as spyware.

Goodbye 32 - Windows Server 2008, the OS currently known as Longhorn (and just released as a public beta which everybody and their dog are apparently trying to download), will be the last version of Windows to support 32bit hardware. Given that the OS is expected to last well into the next decade, its reasonable to assume that the majority of servers will be 64bit platforms by then.

Silicon snake oil - Dan of Dan's Data has always been unimpressed by the fraudulent pseudo-scientific gizmos that cross his desk, but this time he has directed our attention to an equally scathing "review" at the excellent badscience.net. As usual, the Q-Link operates by means of previously unknown physical laws, and is allegedly endorsed by no less than Cherie Blair and Hillary Clinton.

An impressive fake - a memo purporting to come from an Apple insider proved convincing enough to fool major league tech site Engadget and, although Apple denied it later that day, warnings that the iPhone would be delayed until October and the Leopard OS update until January were deemed plausible enough to knock around $4billon off the value of Apple's shares in the market!

OLED madness - Russian design house Studio Art Lebedev has taken pre-orders for the first batch of its infamous Optimus Maximus fully-customisable keyboard, and even at a jaw-dropping $1565 the entire batch of 200 were snapped up in 12 hours. The lucky few won't see their hardware until December at the earliest, and given my experience with the Mini 3 I suspect that may slip further...

From the sublime to the ridiculous - the level of technical knowledge amongst British judges varies widely, it would appear, with Judge Peter Openshaw at one end of the spectrum, admitting in court that he "doesn't really understand what a website is", and at the other a list of un-named judges who have been caught by the Lord Chancellor's office browsing for Internet porn on their judicial PCs...

 

20th May 2007

I'd assumed that the PayPal electronic payment service, now an offshoot of eBay, had dominated the online auction payments market to the point where competition was fairly pointless, so I was surprised to discover after winning an eBay auction last week that the seller wouldn't accept PayPal and was instead using a system previously unknown to me, PPPay. As with the other electronic funds transfer systems I've used, PPPay requires a credit or debit card to be validated before it can be fully used, and although the mechanism by which it does this is almost identical to the others, there is a small but in my opinion rather important difference.

When PayPal validates a card it makes two very small deposits into the target account, of only a few pennies each, and the card holder has to check the account statement and enter the exact amounts of these transactions in order to confirm that he or she has legitimate access to the account - or, at least, has stolen the real account holder's identity comprehensively enough that there is no practical difference!

PPPay has a slightly different take on this, in that instead of making a deposit they actually make a debit - and, at least in my case, a surprisingly large one, too. The final total for the auction was £26.94, to which PPPay added a transaction charge of 49p. The security verification amount in my case was a further 71p (and from the format of the field where the amount is entered to confirm the card I assume that it could be as high as 99p) giving a grand total of £28.14 for a purchase that nominally cost £26.94 - in other words, I paid £1.20 for the privilege of using the service, or almost 4.5%. Given that PPPay also charges the seller 3% to receive the money, which I gather is very similar to PayPal's single fee, it is now clear why they feel that they can break into the online auction market in spite of the well established competition! With margins this high there's certainly money to be made, but I do have the feeling that as word spreads they may well find a distinct lack of people willing to use their service - and after this first experience I'm certainly one of them...

Meanwhile, back at the Interweb, my friend Graham was visiting this weekend and pointed me to another web site I hadn't come across before - but unlike PPPay the experience was completely pleasurable. Bash.org is a collection of amusing snippets culled from IRC, and although there are currently more than 20000 quotes in the database, a quick browse through the Top 100 revealed enough gems to guarantee that I'll be flipping through the rest as well. This one certainly raised a smile - and if it's not genuine then, well, it could be and certainly should be:

<Ben174> : If they only realized 90% of the overtime they pay me is only cause i like staying here playing with Kazaa when the bandwidth picks up after hours.
<ChrisLMB> : If any of my employees did that they'd be fired instantly.
<Ben174> : Where u work?
<ChrisLMB> : I'm the CTO at LowerMyBills.com
*** Ben174 (BenWright@TeraPro33-41.LowerMyBills.com) Quit (Leaving)

Indeed.   :-)

Elsewhere...

One born every minute - Didider Stevens created a Google Adwords advert that no sensible person would click on, apparently offering to infect PCs with a virus, but during the course of the six month experiment 409 people did just that. This will come as no surprise to anyone responsible for supporting non-technical computer users, of course, many of whom seem perfectly willing to click on anything that pops up in front of them...

Trouble in paradise - following the military coup in Fiji last December, the new government has followed the example of China, Thailand and India by cracking down on free speech on the Internet. The IP addresses of dissident weblogs are already being blocked by the country's only ISP, and there are reports that one of the country's few IT specialists has been detained and assaulted by police who thought him responsible for instigating some of the sites.

Long after the horse has bolted - in the wake of the first crack of the AACS processing key in February, the movie industry began to create updated HD-DVD disks with the key in question revoked - but even before their official release later this month a second key has been cracked and made available! By this time it should be obvious even to the DRM evangelists that the basic idea of the technology is fatally flawed, and it will be interesting to see how long they continue to cling to the concept. My bet is quite a long time yet, unfortunately...

Testing fans - Silent PC Review has re-evaluated the way in which it tests PC case and heatsink fans, and after a number of failed experiments they hit upon a method that seems to be considerably more accurate - and one which suggests that in spite of the grandiose claims by manufacturers for their latest exotic blade shapes, most 120mm fans provide the same end result when it comes to actual cooling ability.

 

16th May

I hadn't intended to rant on quite so voluminously, yesterday, and as it's been one of those days again you'll just have to survive on the handful of links that were earmarked for last night's edition. If you don't like it, sue me.

The biter bit - The Register reports that notorious torrent site The Pirate Bay has been hacked, and a copy of its user database stolen. The site admins insist that the email addresses and passwords themselves are heavily encrypted, and claim to know who is responsible for the intrusion.

The end of the movement - Microsoft's Platform Strategy Director, Bill Hilf, is responsible for keeping an eye on Linux, and in an interview at The Bangkok Post he claims that the free software aspect of the OS is no more, with all significant Linux development now being undertaken by corporates.

Electronic laundry - a panel organised by the UK Institute of Chartered Accountants has recommended that governments should prepare to apply the same financial regulations to virtual currencies in online worlds such as Second Life, as they do to real money in the real world.

Worse and worse - US Attorney General and all-round lying bastard Alberto Gonzales is proposing a new law that will extend the extend the reach and penalties of the DMCA significantly, and among other things it would make it illegal to even attempt to infringe copyright. This one needs watching...

Downhill all the way - ailing UK ISP Bulldog, now a subsidiary of the perpetually troubled Pipex group, is closing its call centres within the next few months. Given how the already poor quality of customer service from both ISPs, this is likely to be yet another nail in the coffin.

And talking of which - as if to prove my point, it looks as if PlusNet has committed another of the cock-ups for which they are becoming justly famous, after spammers stole a quantity of customer email addresses via serious and fatal flaws in the ISP's shiny new webmail service.

Better late than never? - the once-mighty PDA manufacturer Palm has announced that it is developing an update for its Desktop software to provide Vista compatibility - although I have to say that mine is already working perfectly, including the Quick Install Tool which is not supposed to be functional!

The birth of gaming - Wired has published a pictorial history of the first forty years of computer gaming consoles, starting with Ralph Baer's pioneering "Brown Box" and travelling forward via the Sega and Nintendo systems that dominated the nineties to today's XBoxes and Playstations.

When dinosaurs roamed - computer history is evidently the flavour of the month, as a new book from veteran tech writer John Alderman presents portraits of some of the more photogenic exhibits from the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. Oh, but I would love to see the museum, though...

 

15th May

In the last year or so I've become decidedly sour about the entire UK airsoft "community", and the industry that supports it, so when I received an email a few days ago asking me to link to a new airsoft forum I found myself with decidedly conflicting emotions.

Even before the misguided and ineffectual Violent Crime Reduction Bill was passed into law earlier this year, I was wearying of the endless bickering and abuse that characterised the two main forums, and although the general tone at the alternative site, Arnie's Airsoft, was considerably less juvenile and remains well worth a visit even now, every time I ventured into ASCUK or UKAN I would find myself gritting my teeth within a few minutes. The amalgamation of the two under a single banner only lead to further stupidity and invective, and having just checked both forums now seem to have been effectively wound up - presumably having imploded under their own weight of bad feeling...

The sudden demise of major UK retailer Airsoft Dynamics was another contributing factor in my growing disillusionment. It was well known that there were both financial and social links between the company and some of the big names in the airsoft community, but when ASD disappeared without trace literally overnight, leaving hundreds of customers frantically trying to find out what had happened to their money and their goods, there was a collective step back on the part of those big names and a set of increasingly rude denials - by the time any kind of official explanation actually emerged you would think that they had never even heard of the company! And, of course, my experiences with the notorious Dee Sheldrake of Area 51 Airsoft and the unbelievably infuriating Mark Wooley of Special Airsoft Supplies, the latter still unresolved in spite of taking him to court, have also done little to inspire confidence in the general quality of the retail establishments in the UK...

The last straw, however, and the one that pretty much drove me away from the hobby this time last year, was what I can only describe as the betrayal of the fringe areas of the community by its core in the final stages of the fight against another of the government's recent knee-jerk reactions to violent crime, the appropriately named Violent Crime Reduction Act.

I've already written a lot here about this appallingly ill-conceived legislation, one of the main clauses of which has essentially banned the import and sale of the so-called "realistic imitation firearms" around which the hobby of airsoft is based. This was a terrible threat to the airsofters, of course, but it was just as much of a blow to collectors like myself, many of whom were shooting enthusiasts back in the days before the tragic murders at Hungerford and Dunblane ushered in the first component of what has become the most restrictive gun control legislation anywhere in the western world, and who since then have relied on airsoft replicas to provide the only way of continuing with target shooting in the UK. The VCRA has a lot in common with the two Firearms (Amendment) Acts that followed the murders, in that they were provoked by tabloid outrage that followed genuine tragedies but completely failed to solve the real problems that caused them... It is not clear to me, or to many others, how the VCRA will prevent the use of genuine firearms to commit genuine murders by banning the sale of imitation guns that are only dangerous as a blunt instrument, but nevertheless the law is with us now and only the fine details remain to be decided on before it goes into effect - but one of those fine details is the cause of my growing dislike of the entire hobby.

When the various types of enthusiasts on on the forums realised how much the VCRA was likely to affect the ownership of replica guns, the collective shock caused a temporary cessation of hostilities in the name of protecting the hobby, and the initial months of the campaign that resulted did actually serve to make the previously feuding "community" more closely knit that I have seen in the five years since I first became involved. When collectors and WW2 re-enactors expressed concern that their numbers were too small to mount any successful lobby against  the law, we were repeatedly assured that as long as we added our support to the collective fight we would not be forgotten when it came time to reap the benefits. Given this, I and others willingly threw ourselves into the campaign, and I suspect that some of the letters to politicians and newspapers written by more mature and thoughtful people outside the main stream of airsoft, such as myself, had more weight than the incoherent emails from hot-headed adolescent skirmishers I often saw re-posted in the forums...

A year later, however, when the government finally started to acknowledge the not insignificant pressure being applied and indicated that they were amenable to suggestions, it was a different story altogether. When collectors posted on the forums asking for information on their own status, they were met at best with a shrug and a smile from the forum regulars, and at worst sarcasm and insults. We were told that we "should have been here two years ago", when in fact we most definitely were, and that "all we had to do" was organise a protest group ourselves and have the law changed - just as the "real airsofters" had done, but by now it was far to late. With a possible way out in sight, at least for the core of the hobby, the impression that we were all in this together had completely evaporated and the old bickering and abuse was back with a vengeance.

Eventually, the idea of an exemption for "genuine airsofters" was accepted by the Home Office, and given that one of the most vocal of the equally-bickering trade associations that had been formed in the meantime was founded by the companies running the skirmish sites, it was largely inevitable that the qualifications for being classed as "genuine" involved regular attendance at one of said sites... Now, I have no desire to crawl around in the mud with a bunch of teenage boys who are pretending to be Rambo (a feeling that I know I share with many of the other fringe elements of the airsoft hobby) and as at present the distressingly vague nature of the skirmishing exemption means that it is unknown whether the somewhat less juvenile offshoots such as airsoft "practical pistol" shooting will be considered sufficient, we're all left twisting in the wind somewhat... And if that wasn't bad enough, of course, there's a real risk that when the new law fails to reduce gun crime, as it surely will, a subsequent amendment to the Act will prohibit the ownership of realistic replicas as well as their import and sale - leaving me with several thousand pounds worth of illegal hardware, all of which is traceable to me thanks to its frequent appearance on the Internet in glowing Technicolor!

So the arrival of an email asking me to sponsor a new airsoft forum, Airsoft Haven, as anyone who has read this far will see, has stirred up some buried emotions. I was tempted to delete the message and forget it, but a quick look at the site suggests that the proprietors intend for it to be far more like Arnie's Airsoft than UKASC, and there's no doubt that we need a lot more of the former and a lot less of the latter. I doubt that I'll participate in the new forums, as Arnie's itself is still going strong, but it's nice to know that it's there nevertheless. I wish them the very best of luck!

 

14th May

A handful of random links to start the week... Thanks, as always, to the excellent Boing Boing from where many of these stories were culled.

Bear-baiting - it is estimated that the cracked AACS encryption code has now been published around 1.65 million times on the web, and it's becoming increasing hard to find new ways of presenting it.

Demanding money with menaces - DRM vendor Media Rights Technology is threatening legal action against Microsoft, Apple, Adobe and Real for not using their copy protection software - truly bizarre!

Still afloat - the Cryptome document archive has moved to a new home, and it is speculated that their publication of documents relating to the "Deepwater" defence scandal caused the fuss at Verio.

BT extortion - the UK telco is screwing every last penny out of its customers, increasing its penalty for late payment and imposing an annual fine of £18 on those who elect not to pay by direct debit.

The truth behind Operation Ore - thousands of the alleged "paedophiles" exposed by the increasingly-flawed international police operation could simply be the victims of stolen credit card details.

Spiralling out of control - with the official cost of the UK government's ID card scheme having grown by over £600 million in six months, it's hard not to believe that the real cost would be even higher...

Hand in the cookie jar - Bev Oda, the Canadian minister notorious for being in the pocket of the media industry, lied about returning money she should never have taken in the first place.

A giant leap backwards - Thailand has joined the select group of countries who seek to censor the entire Internet, with legislation being passed at high speed following the recent YouTube fracas.

Peace in our time - at Boing Boing, a link to an article discussing gun control legislation around the world has brought some interesting contributions from readers as well.

The loyal opposition - a broad coalition of technology companies, consumer groups and telcos are lobbying the US government to reject the WIPO's hated Broadcast Treaty. More power to them!

Throttling - UK broadband provider Virgin Media has quietly started traffic shaping on its nationwide cable network, as usual restricting the 5% of high-bandwidth users to reduce congestion for others.

Mergers and acquisitions - with Google still leading the way in search engines, portals and the like, renewed speculation on whether Microsoft will try to buy Yahoo was probably inevitable.

Turning a buck- the president of the Microsoft division responsible for the Xbox 360 and Zune thinks that it will achieve a profit next year, which is good going for such traditionally loss-leading technology.

Severed head - graphics specialist NVIDIA are showing off the processing power of their 8800 Ultra hardware with a spookily realistic human head rendered in real time.

Theme music - the latest project from legendary musician Pete Townshend is a program that creates a unique musical composition based on a portrait, a voice sample, and a clapped rhythm.

A closed cycle - a marvellous new piece of installation art by Bill Shackelford collects spam email sent to honey pot addresses, blacklists the senders, prints it out, and shreds it ready for recycling.

Home, home on Lagrange - NASA are promoting their plans to return to the moon with a neat little CG video - although some might say that it's long on Hollywood style and rather too short on content...

All the RFCs that are fit to print - books that publish Internet materials are often a pointless waste of time, but this anthology of the April Fools' Day RFCs is probably well worth shelling out for.

And, finally, fables for our time. Verity Stob has updated three traditional fables for the Information Age, following in the footsteps of Thurber and Aesop to bring us "The mouse who had broadband", "The prince and the straw man", and "The boy who told plausible but dull lies". As usual with Ms Stob, they're gems...

 

11th May

I was a huge fan of the space combat games that were one of the mainstays of gaming back in the eighties and nineties, starting with the seminal Elite on the BBC Micro and progressing through the long-running Wing Commander series as well as their less campaign-oriented siblings such as Descent and Hellbender. For some reason the genre seems to have withered over the years, though, and recent offerings such as Freelancer and Starshatter have proved decidedly lacklustre in spite of significant improvements on the graphics of their predecessors: Freelancer, for example, doesn't even use a joystick; something that I find thoroughly bizarre for a 3D space simulator!

I was pleased to discover a few months back, therefore, that although most of the mainstream games publishers have cooled on space sims, not only is there is still an keen fanbase, but a number of the games are still being actively developed by enthusiasts. Wing Commander Standoff is a reworking of the WC: Secret Ops game that was released in 1998, with an updated graphics engine, new ships and a new missions for both the training simulator and the game itself. Three complete campaigns have been released so far, and work is progressing on a fourth and fifth.

More recently, following the release of the 1999 Descent sequel Freespace 2 as open source, another group of enthusiasts has been modernising and enhancing the game into a sort of Freespace 2½, with improvements to not only the graphics but also the AI and gameplay, and including many of the fan-produced mods that appeared over the years. Both of these resurrected games look far more impressive than the originals did (although in their day, of course, they were undoubtedly ground-breaking in their own right) and the promised gameplay improvements are very tempting. I'm hoping to find time to try them out, one of these days!

Thumbnailed images courtesy of WMCoolmon's Freespace 2 Image Gallery - the full-sized originals are far more impressive, go take a look!

Meanwhile, in a frame of mind for antique software, I went back to visit The Underdogs, one of the original abandonware sites - but to my dismay the entire site has been polluted by advertising. In the course of a visit lasting only a minute I had pop-ups, pop-unders, in-page ads, adverts between one site page and the next, and finally the entire browser was taken over by an extremely aggressive advert for some bogus "registry scanner" that almost certainly does more harm than good. I can appreciate that the admin of a popular web site may find himself struggling to pay his bandwidth charges, but anyone who goes over to the dark side to the extent that this particular admin has is likely to find that the bandwidth problem sorts itself out in fairly short order. I doubt if I'll be going back, for a start...

Elsewhere, one hand washes the other - hot on the heels of the news that the BBC are to use Microsoft-based DRM to "protect" the archive content that they always promised to make freely available, comes the news that they have hired a former Microsoft exec from the Windows Media division to help keep their content securely locked away from the people who have already paid for it. Nice one, the BBC!

Activation virus - a new trojan closely modelled on the Windows product activation dialogs attempts to fool people into providing their credit card information, but although it looks quite plausible and will probably fool a number of people, I think the creators got greedy... One box on the form asks for the victim's ATM PIN number, and that's sufficiently unusual that I think it will start alarm bells ringing even amongst the more gullible of computer users.

And finally, the death of cassettes - high street electronics chain Currys is to abandon the music cassette format altogether, joining several other UK retailers who have already made the same decision. The move has been blamed on the way that digital downloads have changed how people use and listen to music, and given that it's impossible not to remember the anti-piracy slogan emblazoned across LPs throughout the eighties and exclaim "music is killing home taping!"

 

10th May

Around the web in eighty seconds...

Another nail in the coffin - it looks as if the notorious theft of customer data from T.J. Maxx was facilitated by a poorly-secured wireless network, still only protected by WEP even in July 2005.

A private number - with the AACS still frantically trying to close the stable door well after the encryption horse has bolted, canny individuals are laying claim to all the other 128bit numbers...

Used CDs - the grasping hands of the music industry are reaching out to second hand shops, with new legislation being proposed that will make selling 2nd hand CDs impossible or at least very hard.

Quis custodiet - the US Transport Security Administration has managed to lose an external hard disk containing the personal and financial details of 100,000 of its employees.

A shield for bloggers - the US House Of Representatives has amended the Free Flow of Information Bill to include provisions for bloggers to protect their sources in the same way that journalists can.

Going too far - a new wiki run by the Washington Watch public information site has been threatened by a director of the Library Of Congress for simply using its name in a press release.

Extortion - although the behaviour of the RIAA is undoubtedly shameful, counter-productive, and at times even illegal, it seems that they don't actually have to be scared of a RICO prosecution.

Privacy czar - US think-tank the National Research Council has released an extensive report on privacy (or the lack of it), and is recommending a top-to-bottom review of government policy.

Forseeing trouble - Uri Geller's flagrant misuse of the DMCA is to be challenged in court by the EFF, who are keen to make an example of people who are using the law as a form of electronic bullying.

The McCracken wakes - the departed editor of PC World magazine must barely have had time to open his leaving card before he was back on the staff again, following the relocation of his nemesis.

The word on the street - a US government worker has filed an appeal against his dismissal, alleging that his ex-employer's use of Google to investigate his previous employment record is unethical.

IBM layoffs - The Register has roundly dismissed Robert Cringely's claim that IBM plans to make at least 100,000 staff from its global services division redundant by the end of the year.

 

9th May

Wednesday flower 'blogging... Ok, so there's always a first time!

It's an Arum Lily, and although the blooms are huge and startlingly white, they never last more than a week or so - especially when an unusually warm spring lulls the plant into a false sense of security that is rudely dispelled by the traditional bank holiday rain... Still, they're beautiful while they last.

 

8th May

Today has been something of a whirl, so here's a few tech links I prepared earlier...

Publish and be damned #2 - PC World magazine has published the "10 Things We Hate About Apple" article that allegedly provoked the resignation of editor Harry McCracken last week. The article itself contains no surprises, and really needn't have been the cause of so much controversy, but needless to say I'm expecting the comments to be filled with fanboy venom by the time you read this...

Bloated plutocrats - and talking of Apple, a report at Forbes magazine suggests that Steve Jobs was the highest paid CEO in America last year, having earned a staggering $646 million. I use the word "earned" advisedly, as I don't believe anyone is actually worth that much money... It's a far cry from the days when Steve's reality distortion field only cost the company a single dollar.

One law for some - car manufacturer Volkswagen have been padding their web pages with hidden keywords designed to improve their Google rank, in contravention of the search engine's guidelines and potentially an action that can get a site banned from the database altogether. This is exactly what happened to sites run by BMW subsidiaries in Germany and the US last year, but in the the case of Volkswagen Google staff contacted them to help them remove the offending content instead!

A slow-moving target - Google and YouTube are fast replacing Microsoft as the company everybody loves to sue, it seems, with the latest action coming from the government of Thailand over video clips deemed insulting to Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej. If this suit proceeds and is successful, of course, it will re-open the whole can of worms concerning publication of defamatory media first made popular by the infamous Laurence Godfrey.

A great disappointment - Boing Boing reports that the BBC has reneged on its promise to make its archive media available without DRM, and in spite of overwhelming feedback from the British public (even I voted against a proprietary solution!) they will instead use their proprietary iPlayer technology based around the Windows Media format. As well as being an intrusive and obstructive piece of software, this is likely to restrict access to this content to Windows systems only, which is hardly in the spirit of the corporation's stated support for open standards.

Missing the point - the Digital Forums site has a helpful guide on how to hack the registry to enable the new ReadyBoost feature in Vista even if the OS has decided that your USB memory stick is too slow to support effective caching, and so I am unsurprised to see in the comments that many people are reporting that memory hacked in this way is not making any appreciable difference.  <sigh>

In the frame - [H]ard|OCP has tested a handful of contemporary games on both Windows XP and Vista, and as others have reported in some cases the frame rates delivered by the new OS are noticeably lower. Whether the main cause is immaturity in the video drivers from the hardware manufacturers or a slower graphics subsystem in Vista itself is still not clear, but it seems likely that improvements will come in time, just as with Windows XP five years ago.

A blast from the past - a virus unpleasantly reminiscent of those that swept entire corporates in the nineties has emerged, spreading not only on floppy disks but also via a hidden AUTORUN.INF file that it creates on USB memory sticks. Given the increasingly cavalier use of these devices in modern offices, and the reliance on border security to protect against the more common varieties of malicious code, I expect this one to make quite an impact.

 

7th May

After the collection of rather rather serious, heavyweight links I posted yesterday, something a little lighter for the bank holiday. Enjoy!

It all comes round again - I vividly remember my first jobs in PC support in the late eighties and early nineties, when floating point maths was only used by specialists and the 287 and 387 co-processors cost an absolute arm and a leg, so to see an add-in floating point accelerator in the form of a PCI Express card is wonderfully nostalgic - especially as at $8000 they're reassuringly expensive!

Bath time computing - and talking of nostalgia, The Register has apparently rediscovered "the original UMPC", Epson's HX-20 portable computer. I remember the adverts for this, with advertising showing it being used while sat in the bath - although actually I think it was more the inspiration for the laptops that followed it than for the media-focussed UMPC format...

Up there in the sky! It's Nabil Fawzi! - Boing Boing reports on little-known translations of 1970s superhero comics for the Middle East, complete with appropriately Arabic "Thwocks!" and "Pows!". It's a reminder that it wasn't so long ago that the region was becoming more and more Westernised as the oil economy started to flourish, in clear contrast to the recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Does whatever a spider can - the article doesn't mention if there was an Arabic translation of the Spiderman comics, but in any case this robot created by researchers at CMU in Pittsburgh uses a dry elastomer adhesive that can crawl up the wall and onto the ceiling at a rate of 6 cm/sec. A subsequent version will use an ultra-sticky fibre reminiscent of the spines on a gecko's foot pads, it is hoped.

Bigger than Jesus - it looks as if I was wrong when I posted that the infamous AACS key that is infesting the web wouldn't make any real difference to HD content security - the informed opinion is that it will probably make future decryption attempts significantly easier, opening the way for a so-called "third-generation" hack that will render the entire disk naked and vulnerable. Excellent!  :-)

Photoshop Phriday - courtesy of Something Awful, a Photoshopping contest on the theme of history's great telegrams. As always with these competitions, some of them are pretty limp while others are real gems - the first one, to Abraham Lincoln, is a good example of the latter, as is the third, which could easily have spared a certain newspaper an embarrassing headline that haunts them to this day.

Frozen music - with shades of Dan Brown's annoying novel The Da Vinci Code, two musicians (one with a background in military cryptography) have managed to decode a musical cipher carved into the stones of a 15th century church near Edinburgh. The chapel's arches contain 213 cubes bearing geometric patterns, which have now been translated into a piece of music from 600 years ago.

And finally, waffley versatile - for the geek who has everything, especially in the way of kitchen gadgets, a waffle iron that creates edible keyboards - and, in fact, the whole design has a retro air that makes me think of 1970s office equipment, which seems rather appropriate.

 

6th May

Even after Columbine and Virginia Tech, the levels of paranoia about school kids going on shooting sprees cannot sensibly be justified. The latest knee-jerk reaction follows the discovery that a Texas teen had created a map for the popular first-person combat game Counterstrike based on the layout of his own school. There is no suggestion that this particular teen had access to weaponry (or, at least, no more access than anyone in Texas does!), and he had no record of disciplinary problems or violent behaviour. Nevertheless, he was immediately suspended and sent to a "special school", and the case is currently causing strong disagreement amongst members of the local school board, some of whom are protesting about the obvious over-reaction awhile others are are insisting that they can't "take things lightly anymore".

Back in the seventies my friends and I often created Dungeons & Dragons maps based on our school, homes and neighbourhoods, and I certainly don't recall anyone finding that particularly disturbing even in the midst of the first backlash (it was linked to the alleged heavy metal suicide outbreak in some way, from what I remember) against the game. It's exactly the sort of thing that children always do, it seems to me - as a child another friend used to make up school stories based on real life, with equally detailed maps and descriptions to support them, and creating a combat game scenario based on the large building with which one is most familiar with seems equally harmless. What is undoubtedly harmful, however, is the zero tolerance policy that seems to be applied to children's imagination these days, with any slight deviation from what is deemed normal (often by conservative middle-class adults, who are hardly the best people to judge!) being met by police, courts, special schools and all that comes along with them. It's a damn shame.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Back from the grave - just when you though you'd heard the last of Tim O'Reilly's absurd blogger code of conduct proposals, British MP Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, Sport, and Pointless Things has apparently decided that the country should learn something from such a rare "good lesson from American politics". Indeed.

The truth will out - last year the LibDem MP Mark Oaten made Freedom Of Information requests to the Office Of Government Commerce for details of strategic reviews relating to the controversial identity card scheme, and following the OGC's refusal to comply the Information Tribunal has given them 28 days to make the information available. What exactly are they trying to hide?

An honest politician stays bought - congressmen Lamar Smith and Howard Berman, long-term mouthpieces of the RIAA and MPAA (between them they received at least $44,000 in campaign contributions during the last election), are delivering on their promises by threatening universities with congressional investigation if they don't crack down on "online piracy" amongst their students.

The evil that is Jobs - at Tom's Hardware, Rob Enderle is speculating over whether Steve Jobs will be forced to leave Apple over the stock options backdating scandal that is pointing an ever-increasing number of fingers firmly in his direction. However, I am greatly amused that the author's current consultancy firm, the grandly named Enderle Group, appears to be just him and his wife...

Green Apples - and talking of Jobs, [H]ard|OCP reports that he has finally responded to ongoing criticisms from Greenpeace over the company's 2.7 out of 10 score for use of harmful chemicals in its manufacturing process and poor recycling policies. As could be expected, El Stevo insists that the tree-huggers are deluded and actually Apple is ahead of most of its competitors in these areas.

Publish and be damned -  Harry McCracken, the editor of PC World magazine, has resigned following pressure from the magazine's publisher International Data Group to avoid printing stories that were critical of major advertisers. The last straw seems to have been a article entitled "Ten Things We Hate About Apple", which was killed by CEO Harry Crawford while still a draft.

The gold standard - the US Department Of Justice has indicted the proprietors of the E-Gold online payment system, alleging that they have knowingly allowed the service to be used for money laundering, financial scams and child porn sites. The service allowed users to convert currency into honest-to-goodness gold, thus breaking the audit trail that follows most electronic transactions.

Without substance - rumours that the self-declared independent principality of Sealand was to offer asylum to the hacker Gary McKinnon are completely unfounded, it seems, which is probably just as well as the British government has always insisted that Sealand remains firmly within their legal jurisdiction and would probably have no hesitation in grabbing him should the situation arise...

 

3rd May

Several years ago I acquired a nice Bay Networks 100 Mbit ethernet switch which my company's R&D department were throwing out (for reasons I never established!), and in order to obtain updated firmware and management tools I had to register at their customer support web site. Bay were absorbed into Nortel a while back but, although my account was apparently preserved in the acquisition, by that time the switch had been replaced by Netgear and Dell gigabit units and I had no further use for the service. However, over the last six months I have been regularly barraged by email messages from Nortel informing me that my password was about to expire and needed changing, and although I have been ignoring these as far as possible, when yet another message arrived this morning I decided to do something about it.

There isn't a specific "Delete my account and stop bugging me dammit" link on the Nortel web site, but I filled in the contact form that seemed most appropriate and sure enough within an hour or so one of their support staff had mailed me back. They asked me to provide the address and telephone number I used when registering, presumably to prove that I wasn't maliciously trying to close someone else's account (do people really do this, I wonder?) and although I'm generally reluctant to provide personal details to giant foreign corporates with murky policies on personal data in this case at least it was an outdated address.

This soon resulted in a notification that a support case had been opened, and almost immediately afterwards by the news that it had been closed - and this is where everything becomes a touch ironic, as the emails were just status notifications and in order to read the actual messages I would have to - you guessed it - log into my account... Although it would be easy to write this off as just a standard procedure applied to a slightly non-standard requirement, in fact the header of the emails show that they had been assigned to the particular case category of "inactive account", so evidently it was actually designed this way! I assume that my account has now been deleted, but I won't really know until a month or so passes without further anxious communications about the imminent demise of my password... We shall see!

Meanwhile, back on the Interweb, the widespread publication of an AACS encryption key that protects HD-DVD media has caused all sorts of fun and games. The key was originally posted at the popular meta-tracking site Digg, and the site admins' attempts to remove posts because of the very real risk of heavyweight legal action under the DMCA, lead to a full-fledged user rebellion. Eventually the founder Kevin Rose announced that he would allow the keys to remain on view, but of course by this time it had been spread far-and-wide across the web and although the AACS Licensing Authority is rushing around like a headless chicken trying to stuff the worms back into the can, they are obviously far too late.

In the meantime, the 16 digit key has become something of a cultural icon, spawning a gallery of Photoshop images at Wired, a colour palette based on the numeric values, a song, a tattoo, a steganographic poem (very clever!) and, of course, numerous T-shirts. Even thought the key is now thoroughly compromised, and in fact doesn't really change the security of existing media very much, I would be very surprised if the AACS LA don't press ahead with legal action, and with the precedent of the extremely similar lawsuit brought against 2600 magazine following their publication of the DeCSS DVD protection algorithm back in 2000, one of the DMCA's first successes for the media industry, it would be a hard case to defend. One thing is sure, though - whatever happens, this one will run and run...

 

2nd May

A few snippets of news from around the web: I've blogged them, so you don't have to...

UAC for all - the new and somewhat controversial User Access Control security feature in Vista is so good, says Microsoft, that other operating systems should work towards adopting similar technology: not only because it protects the end-user from malware but also because it encourages developers to avoid triggering the UAC alert by avoiding what are often unnecessary attempts to make use of administrator-level privileges. I expect a degree of dissent in the online forums over this one...

The gauntlet thrown down - meanwhile, security researcher Joanna Rutkowska is to run a training session at the Black Hat event in Las Vegas this summer where she will demonstrate techniques to compromise Vista, including new rootkit technology and an attack on the BitLocker file encryption.

Photoshop oops! - and talking of security flaws, several versions of Adobe Photoshop, including the recently-released CS3, have a critical flaw in the PNG format plugin that can be exploited remotely to run malicious code. This is the second such flaw in only a week, and Adobe must be furious... :-)

Pots and kettles - we've seen before that the RIAA and MPAA are curiously elastic over respecting copyright when it comes to media that they want to use, and Boing Boing brings news of another anti-piracy group with no compunctions against stealing material when it suits them.

The usual suspects - the US government has announced that it is "targeting" twelve countries that fail to respect copyrights held by American producers of music, movies and software. The list is headed by China and Russia, of course, and it will be interesting to see if they pay any attention!

A solid defence - Google has finally filed its initial statement in the Viacom vs. YouTube bunfight, and as could be expected they will be relying on the Safe Harbour provision included in the DMCA and on the general concept of fair use. Many legal experts thinks that Viacom is fighting an uphill battle, here.

More money grubbing - Ars Technica reports that the small software house Savvysoft has settled with Microsoft over the name of their TurboExcel product, as although Excel itself was launched nine years earlier it seems that Microsoft didn't get around to  trade-marking the name until April 2004!

Dead goats and nude chicks - a PR event organised by Sony in Greece to promote the game God Of War II involved a decapitated goat and a number of topless women feeding grapes to guests, and as could be predicted both the animal rights and the anti-gaming lobbies are foaming at the mouth.

A good reason for a recall - Apple is the latest company to be hit by a batch of faulty laptop batteries, this time in the latest Lithium Polymer Ion technology used in the Intel-based MacBook range. Apple is playing down the actual danger to users, but the swollen, bloated batteries are certainly impressive.

Is it hot in here? - a study by software company Aperture Technologies claims that "ignorant" data center managers who installed high density blade servers without understanding the demands the technology would place on power and cooling systems have caused frequent and costly outages.

More cores than you can shake a stick at - Intel's 80 core technology demonstrator has been making the rounds again, and although the latest version obviously needs some careful babying, nevertheless it can provide two TeraFLOPS of processing throughput at a mere 192W of heat output. Gosh!

And finally, Cryptome on notice - the infamous repository of free speech, cryptography and leaked documents has been given notice by its ISP Verio that it is no longer welcome at their hosting service, and although the site has already been offered a number of new homes Verio is being unusually cagey about exactly why they have chosen to evict the site. Some consider that the founder John Young sometimes take things a little too far, but personally I'm glad that he's out there keeping an eye on people who really need to have an eye kept on them...

 

1st May 2007

In a speech at Infosecurity Europe, the Chairman of the government's All Party Parliamentary Olympic Group, Derek Wyatt MP, has revealed that only companies which have heavily sponsored the 2012 London Olympics will be eligible to supply IT security technology for the event. I can't begin to express my contempt for people who would make such a wrong-headed decision, and in fact the entire Olympics is clearly becoming the boondoggle that its detractors said it would from the very start. The predicted cost to the taxpayer has already increased from the £2.35 billion documented in the official bid in 2005 to an official estimate of £9 billion (which you can bet your ass is a conservative figure in any case!) and we're not even a third of the way there yet... To hear that instead of best-of-breed IT systems provided by the winner of a straight-forward tendering process, companies can simply bribe their way into the security contracts, is just outrageous - and the fact that the main contract has already been "won" by Visa, acknowledged masters in the art of permitting widespread identify theft, losing vast amounts of confidential information, and enabling electronic crime on a massive scale is exactly the likely outcome of such a flawed selection process. Meanwhile, Derek Wyatt himself had demonstrated once more the clear qualifications he has for advising the government on issues of Internet security and the like, admitting in his speech at Infosec that he has little idea of the source of potential threats to the event: "who are the enemy? I wish I knew”, he admitted... “Don’t ever underestimate the intelligence of the opposition, whoever that is”.

<long, heartfelt sigh>

Meanwhile, back at the stats... Not quite such a surprising set of figures as last month, but I put that down to having failed to attract so much attention from my friend Avedon Carol at her political blog The Sideshow. In spite of the fact that we started blogging within a few weeks of each other, back in the heady pre-Web 2.0 days of 2002, her blog receives three or four times as much traffic as mine even on a bad day - the majority of which are real visitors, as well, rather than random drop-ins from Google. This just goes to prove that people would much rather read about politics than computers (ahh, just you wait until the technocracy of the nerds takes over the world - things will be different then, I promise you!) but nevertheless I'm always very grateful for the occasional bump of interested parties when she links to something I've written here. We shall see what the next month brings.

 

 

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