Friday 29th February 2008

So Apple's much-trumpeted operating system security has been in the news several times this week, firstly thanks to their share in the embarrassment that resulted from the fascinating DRAM security vulnerability. Microsoft and Linux are equally vulnerable, it has to be said, but the pioneering work by a team at Princeton means that both hardware and operating system companies are going to have to take real steps to remove the risk.

Next, it emerged that user login credentials are preserved in memory, in plaintext no less and often in multiple locations, in such a way that they can be retrieved by several types of attack. Amazingly, the flawed code may date back to the days of the NeXT system, but as usual Apple seem to be waving the risk away and so far have declined to issue an update in spite of the early heads-up provided the the discoverer of the flaw.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, one of the Mozilla development team has just discovered undocumented APIs within OSX. The calls appear to work-arounds for a browser bug introduced in the latest Tiger version, and although a quick-n-dirty solution has been published for 3rd party developers Apple's own code uses a different, and apparently superior, mechanism that has never been released. It's instructive to note that when Microsoft tried tricks like that the entire industry rose up against them - and when the Justice Department jumped on the bandwagon the anti-trust lawsuit that resulted lasted for years...

And talking of companies that fail to put their money where their collective corporate mouth is, Sun has been lambasted by Roy Fielding on his departure from the OpenSolaris project. Fielding, one of the principle authors of the HTTP specification and co-founder of the iconic Apache web server project, has been an advocate of the open source development model for decades, and says that Sun has consistently refused to allow the community to make any significant decisions about the direction of development, ignoring firm promises that were made when the project was founded. Given the ten year battle to open source Java, perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise...

Elsewhere, and on a similar note, the record industry's claims that it is only concerned with protecting the rights of its artists have been called into question again, with a group of prominent managers claiming that none of the funds raised from more than 20,000 file-sharing lawsuits filed against individuals and P2P software companies (the latter of which resulted in payments of several hundreds of million dollars!) has been distributed to the musicians they represent. This won't come as a shock to anyone who has been paying attention to the way that the record labels treat the people they are supposed to be serving, of course, but given that some of the musicians are now talking about lawsuits, and that some financial analysts are recommending that their investors avoid the media companies, this may be the first few letters of the long-awaited writing on the wall...


Tuesday 26th February 2008

Vista SP1; what can I say. On my previously fragile home system, at least, it's noticeably faster, uses noticeably less system resources, and is noticeably more stable. Your mileage may vary, but as far as I'm concerned this is a must-have update and the end of months of annoyance.

Elsewhere from Microsoft, another of the growing range of offerings under the Windows Live badge has been released, this time an online data storage service dubbed "SkyDrive". In these days of multi-gigabyte USB memory sticks and pocket hard disks the utility of net-based storage is questionable, and I can't help but feel that the site will become just another short-term repository for sharing porn and warez, but the first 5Gb is free and who knows when it might come in handy.

Closer to home, I've just finished reading Iain Bank's most recent opus, "Matter", the latest in his magnificent series of Culture novels. For the early arrival of this I have to thank Amazon's damnably accurate expert system, which sneakily analysed ten years of online shopping and recommended the novel to me as soon as it was announced. Given that I have read and enjoyed everything else that Banksie has written (even his treatise on Scottish whiskey, a subject which in theory I have little or no interest in!) it was admittedly something of a no-brainer on the part of Amazon, but I took the bait like a starving fish and sure enough the book was in my hot little hands a few days before the scheduled publication date. It's another excellent story, although as usual I suspect that it will take a re-reading or two before all the nuances become apparent, and has a thoroughly unexpected ending that made me sniffle and think of his first SF novel, "Consider Phlebas"...

Unfortunately the hardback of Matter is large and heavy enough to stun small animals, so when heading towards the bath the other day I grabbed the first lightweight thing that came to hand as I was passing the library, which turned out to be W.T. Quick's "Dreams Of Flesh And Sand". This book, together with its sequel "Dreams Of Gods And Men", is functionally equivalent to William Gibson's rightfully-lauded early cyberpunk novels, but somehow Quick escaped the adulation that was poured on Gibson in spite of having 28 novels to his name (OK, so some of of them were written under a female pseudonym and others were co-authored with William Shatner, of all people!), and these days he seems somewhat of an afterthought.

Nevertheless, the two Dreams novels are excellent works, at least, in spite of their obvious homage to Gibson. They have all the elements of classic cyberpunk: the technology (both biological and silicon; the flesh and sand of the title) the casual but extreme violence, the endemic corporate manoeuvrings and espionage, together with the metaphysics of Gibson's novels, all overlaid with that grimy, sleazy street feel that characterises the genre.

Disappointingly, given how much I enjoyed his stories, it turns out that Quick is now the author of the conservative Daily Pundit blog, and the style and tone of his comments in a thread that followed his admission of spitting at returning Vietnam veterans (in an attempt to debunk the popular belief that this was purely right wing propaganda intended to discredit the peace movement) shows that he has come a long way since the eighties. A long way down, unfortunately, that is...


Saturday 23rd February 2008

I just bought myself a Parrot car stereo and hands-free kit to replace the aging nineties cassette player that came with my BMW - but when I found out more about it I promptly un-bought it again!

I've never been very happy with the Samsung HKT1000 that I had installed a couple of years ago, as in general I can't hear my callers and they can't hear me, and when it recently started to lose pairing with my Samsung D900 phone every time the ignition was switched off I soon settled on a replacement. The object of my affections, if only temporarily, was the Parrot Rhythm n'Blue, a CD player combined with a Bluetooth car kit - and given that the manufacturer is the acknowledged market leader in hands-free systems I was envisioning a high quality product. In fact, it looks as if I jumped to a conclusion, as having placed the order for the player and the installation from specialist avrmobiles.co.uk, I rather belatedly discovered the Parrot forum - and what I read there, together with some startling statements from avrmobiles themselves, had me scrambling to cancel the order.

To begin with, avrmobiles warned me that the unit was not compatible with my D900 phone - and, in fact, that any attempt to pair the two could result in the Rhythm n'Blue crashing badly! This very much conflicts with the information on the marketing part of Parrot's web site, which makes sweeping claims about support for all "Bluetooth telephones", and although the rather less obvious compatibility chart on the technical part of their site does not list the D900, it also doesn't list anything else made in the last year or so, including pretty much any phone that one would expect to use with such a high-end hands-free system!

I had noticed this before the startling news from avrmobiles, but it's very common that manufacturers do not continue compatibility testing very long after a product launch, and given that Bluetooth is a relatively stable standard these days I didn't actually think much of it. The recommendation from avrmobiles was extremely firm, though, and although I even considered upgrading my phone to comply with the compatibility chart there wasn't much listed that I would be seen dead carrying, and my attempts to determine support for the current Blackberry, Nokia, Samsung (and even iPhone!) models was met with a stony silence from both avrmobiles and from Parrot themselves.

A subsequent attempt to search for compatibility advice from end-users, however, brought me to the Parrot forums, and unfortunately the first thread that caught my eye, a long-running discussion dating all the way back to 2006 and still very much alive, was titled "RNB complaints, please add your own so that Parrrot has to respond". This was not a good sign, as I've seen equivalents with other ill-conceived products (such as Pinnacle's lemon of a media bridge, the ShowCentre) and know from bitter experience that by the time a thread like that is being posted on the company's own forum the product is well-and-truly doomed...

This time the problems highlighted included poor radio reception, skipping and freezing of MP3 playback from CD, serious problems with playing CD-RW disks at all, Bluetooth connections failing to synchronise or dropping randomly, the unit switching to the radio for a few seconds in the middle of a phone conversation, problems with the volume control, bizarre behaviour of the voice activation function, poor microphone sound quality, the display freezing, and many more. Oh, and generally no response from Parrot to emails asking about these and other problems, either!

The final straw was the rather belated realisation that the Rhythm n'Blue doesn't support the Bluetooth A2DP profile that I was intending to use to connect my Palm, and as the unit doesn't come with an AUX input socket either I would have been left without my beloved audiobooks - just not a tenable position!

This parting shot from avrmobiles, after I told them about the strongly negative opinions of the Rhythm n'Blue on the Parrot forum in the email I sent cancelling my order, certainly caused a raised eyebrow:

I have also forwarded your comments to Parrot UK with regards there forum which is a forum not supported and monitored by Parrot and is a huge source of miss information from amateur installers and we are shocked daily by the horrors we see on there.

Spelling mistakes aside, I was puzzled to hear that a very extensive set of forums based at a company's web site has apparently been cut lose and left to fend for itself - but if Parrot really doesn't support and monitor the forums then surely it's no surprise that the only information available is from amateurs! I certainly can't see any sign that avrmobiles themselves are trying to correct any of this "miss information", although in fact it is clear that several other companies are indeed contributing heavily in an attempt to do just that...

In the meantime, the D900 and the car kit seem to have reconciled their differences and are now maintaining pairing between journeys, so I shall wait a few months until the new Parrot RK8200 ships, which loses the CD player, but gains A2DP support and an AUX input, as well as USB connectivity and a SD memory card slot! I shall also wait until it has been reviewed in the real world rather than by gadget site staff who use it for ten minutes in their office car park (that's assuming that they even get any further than the manufacturer's PR materials!), which was part of the problem with my choice of the Rhythm n'Blue. For now, though, I feel that I have had a lucky escape - and given my previous experiences as an early adopter, such as with the aforementioned ShowCentre, it's probably about time that I did.


Thursday 21st February 2008

This week has seen further proof, if such were needed, that attempting to censor Internet content is usually not only futile, but can also have exactly the opposite effect to that intended. The previously little-known Wikileaks site, created to host confidential information that exposes criminal or unethical actions, has been the target of a court order intended to shut them down following a complaint from the previously little-known Julius Baer Bank And Trust over allegations of money laundering. However, the ruling from Californian district judge Jeffrey White has been completely ineffectual, as the site itself is hosted in Sweden and all he has been able to do is temporarily deactivate the Wikileaks domain name held at US registrar Dynadot, and the various mirrors and redirectors that sprung up almost immediately ensured that connectivity to the site continued with barely a hitch. In fact, the court order has only served to massively raise global awareness of both the web site and the allegations against Julius Baer, which must be pleasing the former no end while causing the latter to grind their teeth and shout at their lawyers. Marvellous!

Meanwhile, on a more personal note, Aussie ubergeek Dan Rucker of Dan's Data is shaking his head in puzzlement at the behaviour of bogus "fuel pill" manufacturer Firepower. In an attempt to refute Dan's scathing dismissal of their claims of increased fuel efficiency they sent him a document purporting to support their case, ordering him to publish it on pain of legal action. Dan obligingly did so, and then proceeded to refute it even more thoroughly - at which point Firepower ordered him to stop publishing it, also on pain of legal action! As befits his status on the web Dan has a fierce and loyal following, though, and as soon as he made this bizarre U-turn known the assembled readers swung into action and the document is already available on dozens of mirror sites, torrent trackers, personal web pages, and who knows what else. So, Firepower, how's that net censorship workin' for you?

Dan has also been the victim of an unscrupulous eBay seller who ripped off some of his photographs for a product he was reselling, and who became stupidly abusive (and threatened legal action too!) when Dan first asked him to stop then, when this only resulted in more listings being created, arranged for them to be removed by eBay. After Dan published this waterhead's email ravings on his blog, the response was the immediate creation of a hate site just for him, but of course this has only had the effect of making the hater look foolish and juvenile. Would you buy hardware costing many thousands of dollars from somebody who behaved like that? I certainly wouldn't!


Monday 18th February 2008

I'm not generally a fan of first-person combat games, but my eye was caught by the spectacular graphics of Bioshock during its launch last autumn and having heard that the plot and game-play were equally compelling I decided to give it a try. The game has certainly lived up to its reputation, in my experience - even my recently installed Radeon X1950XT AGP is capable of displaying the beautifully rendered Art Deco interiors and their population in all their varied glory, and together with the eerie soundtrack of post-war swing music and snippets of conversation, arguments and insane ravings constantly in the background as you creep through the decaying underwater city of Rapture the overall experience is genuinely spooky.

This probably explains why the continual references to Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy managed to pass completely over my head, as in spite of the fact that I have read (and enjoyed!) her doctrinal epic Atlas Shrugged it's hard to pay too much attention to the nuances when you're being stalked by a mutated semi-human permanently sealed into an armoured diving suit and armed with a rivet gun...

Nevertheless, as the article at Kotaku confirms, the central theme of the game's backstory is the philosophy of the submerged city's founder, Andrew Ryan, and the decline and fall of his objectivist utopia when exposed to the ugly realities of the human behaviour of its citizens. The game's creator, Ken Levine, says that he didn't set out to "torpedo objectivism", but nevertheless anyone who manages to find a split second to think about the game in between fighting for their life would be left with the firm conviction that any implementation of Rand's doctrine of capitalism, individual rights and rational self interest is doomed to fail.

They wouldn't be alone in that view, as many non-gamers have come to the same conclusion over the years, but Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Institute, says that the game isn't really a fair interpretation of her beliefs. This is an argument that I'm staying out of this time, though, as although I have some considerable sympathies with the Objectivists I can't help feeling that any society run along the lines they espouse would end up more like the classic Bob the Angry Flower cartoon...

Meanwhile, closer to home, ever since I migrated my home desktop PC Windows XP to Vista last year I've had a small thorn in my side. After restoring some data from the old system from tape, I ended up with a tree of nested folders containing a zero byte file that I could not move or delete, and it has resisted my periodic attempts to remove it ever since. The problem seems to have been that the file was in the \Documents And Settings directory, and so was a symbolic link rather than an actual data file, but no amount of tweaking the attributes, ownership and permissions achieved anything other than making it slightly less addressable! After a while any attempt to do anything to it gave "could not find this item" messages, and there the problem languished.

Last last night I finally admitted defeat and turned to the web for help, however, and right away I found references to a free utility named Unlocker. I have to confess to being sceptical, as the tool was clearly designed to release files locked by the Explorer or similar background system processes, and I was fairly sure that the file wasn't locked, as such, but that the symbolic link now pointed to a non-existent location on the old OS and so really couldn't be found! Nevertheless, I downloaded and installed it, and although on running it confirmed my belief that the file wasn't actually locked, it then informed me that it could help me anyway, and would I like to delete, rename, move or copy it? I chose "delete", and sure enough the file was gone, leaving me pleased, impressed, and several bytes of storage the richer. I can definitely recommend Unlocker, therefore, for manipulating any file that is proving troublesome - give it a try; it might just do the job!


Friday 15th February 2008

I'm sat at home watching over the shoulder of a SAP Basis consultant who is trying to tune our R3 server, and thanking the Raritan IP-Reach KVM-over-IP appliance which means I don't have to spend the evening in the office instead. So far all his performance tweaks make the SAP services fail to start, exactly the same result as his first attempts this time last week, and although I have to admire his determination his results to date are somewhat less impressive...

As promised, Vista Service Pack 1 was released to Microsoft's Volume Licensing web site late yesterday, and after having rushed it onto a test laptop before I left the office to make sure that it wasn't immediately fatal I installed it on my problematic desktop PC at home while watching the SAP consultant. So far I'm impressed - the system does feel noticeably snappier in general use - but time and heavier loading will tell and I'm not counting my chickens before they're fully downloaded.

Meanwhile, a few snippets of news from around the web:

Lawsuits from beyond the grave - Just when everyone thought that the SCO vs. The World legal battle had died a death, with the company losing all its courtroom battles and retreating into Chapter 11 receivership, a consortium of US and Middle Eastern financiers have agreed to invest up to $100 million in the moribund company. It's not clear how they hope to gain a return on their investment, given the lack of any obviously marketable products and the company's appalling reputation in the industry, but at least the Chapter 11 process will shield the firm from the debts of more than $250 million it has amassed in trying to claim ownership of Linux...   [Voices Off: "They tried, and failed?" "They tried and died"]

Picking your virtual pocket - A security flaw in Apple's QuickTime player has left users of the popular online world Second Life vulnerable to having their in-game money stolen simply by walking past an area of virtual land controlled by the thief - and given that there is a thriving black market converting the game's currency into genuine money, and the very real possibility of stealing from a user's credit card directly using the same mechanism, there is no shortage of people trying to set up such scams. Although Apple eventually released an update to QuickTime that blocks the original attack, the underlying framework used by the game's creator, Linden Lab, is unchanged several months after the risks first became apparent, and given the huge number of flaws in QuickTime (Secunia reported more than 30 last year alone!) it's clear that at present such frauds are going to remain a real risk. I do love The Register's disparaging terms for some of the popular online services, though... eBay is always referred to as "The tat bazaar", and now it seems that Second Life has been dubbed "Sadville". Brilliant.  :-)

Pots and kettles - UK ISP ClaraNet has fallen victim to a major vulnerability in recent versions of the Linux kernel, exploited only a few days after it was first announced at the weekend. A flaw in the sys_vmsplice call, which handles virtual memory management, was used to gain root privileges and replace index.html and similar files of a number of customer web sites with the hacker's calling card. ClaraNet claims that only 1% of their hosted web sites were defaced, but from comments at The Register it seems likely that the hacker used a script to automate the file replacements by working down the tree of web sites alphabetically and it is the execution of this fairly blunt piece of code that was actually detected by the ISP's techies. Had he employed something a little more subtle there is every chance that he could have owned the web server (and who knows how many more of their internal systems) for as long as he liked! Further insights suggest that a) the kernel in question is alarmingly new and untested to be used in such a critical production system, b) that the bug was a result of sloppy and poorly-checked programming, and c) that the flawed call was largely designed to artificially boost the performance of web server benchmarks. Interesting stuff!


Thursday 14th February 2008

Another of the Internet's regular storms-in-a-teacup blew up last week, when problems with the undersea cables carrying voice and data into the Middle East came to light. Within a few hours of the news appearing on the usual web sites, damage to three cables in two locations was somehow blown up into a deliberate aggressive act on the part of the US Government, intended to cut off Iran from the Internet. A totally unrelated power outage was added to the tally, as well as a totally unrelated cable break several weeks ago, and before we knew it the tinfoil hat brigade were screaming about how five simultaneous breaks couldn't possibly be anything other than deliberate sabotage. As usual, the enthusiasm to see reds under every bed far-outweighed the technical knowledge of the commentators: a thread I was part of saw claims that the cables could be tapped by inductive means (hard to see how, when they use optical fibre!), that the breaks were obviously where the US were inserting taps (hardly likely, when a switch port in a nice, dry data centre on land can be compromised so much more easily!) and that the country of Iran had been completely cut off for a week. Even the Iranians didn't agree with the latter, and it has to be assumed that in this they are something of an authority!

Picture courtesy of Ars.Technica

Interestingly, today I mentioned this furore to a colleague who's parents are based in Dubai, and he was surprised to hear that it had been the source of so much fuss. In the Middle East itself, apparently, it is widely reported and generally accepted that an accident during the preparations for laying a new cable was to blame, when a dredger clearing a channel went off course and cut through the existing cables nearby. He reports that communications in general are still somewhat annoying, with telephone channels congested and of unusually poor quality, and Internet access sluggish and unreliable, but there was never a complete lack of connectivity and nobody is blaming the Americans!

It seems to me, and I said as much in the comments at The Sideshow, that the US Government is doing enough terrible things for us to be worrying about and making a fuss about, without dreaming up any more - and the green ink devoted to such flights of fancy serves only to distract attention from, and cast doubts on, those other issues.


Wednesday 13th February 2008

When ZDNet stalwart George Ou installed the recently released Service Pack 1  for Windows Vista, he ran into serious problems with both a desktop and a laptop system, and his "service pack of death" headlines left no doubt as to where the blame should be placed. It soon emerged that in fact hardware problems on both systems were probably to blame, however, and George was forced to edit the article considerably, even replacing the inflammatory headline with something more temperate.

In fact, reports elsewhere at ZDNet suggest that the service pack generally installs quite quickly and smoothly, and some are already reporting considerable improvements in stability and performance. Even the notorious issue of slow file copying has been addressed, although a fascinating article from Windows internals guru Mark Russinovich explains that the original behaviour of the copying routine was in fact more honest and, in many cases, more resilient, and the venom aimed at the developers over this issue is decidedly unfair!

As I'd originally hoped, the service pack is slated to be released to TechNet and corporate Volume Licensing users around the end of this week, and if this proceeds as scheduled only the fact that I'm going to be working from home on Friday evening, supervising a SAP consultant while he tries to tune our production R3 server, will prevent me from installing the thing right away. I really want to like Vista, but the performance and stability issues I'm suffering from make that almost impossible and I'm really hoping that the service pack brings some relief from the pain.

Elsewhere, the little-known Australian computer magazine APC has caused something of a storm in a teacup when it was quoted on other web sites, following a claim that the service pack "replaces the Vista kernel" with the Longhorn code of its contemporary Server 2008. For some reason the author blew this up into something of a conspiracy theory, claiming that Microsoft are sneakily concealing the fact in order to avoid causing fears of newly-introduced instability, but in fact, as the comments to the article are quick to point out, the two operating systems have shared a common codebase since the projects current phase began in 2005. All that has happened is that the builds have been aligned to the same version for the release of Server 2008 and, actually, given the respective ages of the two products it might be more accurate to say that Server 2008 is using the Vista kernel!

And finally, the first ever competitive cable untangling competition was held in Los Angeles last week, with local web developer Matthew Howell winning the contest using techniques allegedly learned from his previous employment as a pizza maker. I've spent several decades wrestling with everything from thickwire coax, as inflexible and unwieldy as lead pipe, to fibre optic cable that kinks and snaps if you even look at it wrong, and I reckon I could give today's techies a run for their money... Roll on the UK heats!


Monday 11th February 2008

Tonight's Epicycle is devoted to taking things apart - or, in one case, not being able to...

I'd missed this completely until it started being whored all over the net on other sites run by ZDNet, recently, but apparently Tech Replublic has been running a series of autopsies on popular electronics and IT hardware. As well as the compulsory iPhone and iPod photosets, they've also covered some rather more interesting devices, such as the iconic TRS-80 home computer from my salad days.

On a similar note, TakeItApart.net has equivalent user-created content, but although the site showed considerable promise unfortunately it now seems to have become moribund, with no additions since last summer. However, while it lasted, posts included instructions on disassembling everything from electric guitars to obsolete electronic calculators, via Zippo lighters and wireless routers.

Elsewhere, I found a useful guide to stripping the Palm Zire 72 handheld, not one of the models that generally seems to be covered elsewhere, and just the thing if you need to replace the battery. Repair4PDA doesn't have so much on the contemporary Palm devices, but has excellent coverage of the other brands of handhelds, including the Apple Newton series and most of the early Windows CE devices. It also has a wealth of basic information on how to effect repairs once you have the unit spread out on the desk in front of you, as well, which isn't as common on the other PDA sites.

Most of the disassemblies above have been carried out without the knowledge of the manufacturer, or in the case of Apple's gadgets doubtless to the manufacturer's distinct annoyance, but a tiny new cell phone from Israeli manufacturer Modu Mobile can not only be stripped out of its exterior casing and re-installed into others with alternative button configurations, but can also be broken down into smaller pieces by removing the camera module to save weight, or sliding off the keyboard module to expose a USB port that allows it to be plugged directly into a PC. It's a fascinating and innovative idea, and the company certainly bears keeping an eye on.

And finally, Apple's ever-hyped MacBook Air follows the trend set by the company's other mobile products in having a non-removable battery. Yes, that's right, when the battery starts to lose capacity and needs to be replaced, or if you just want to carry a spare when you're going to be out and about for an extended period, then, well, that's just tough. Just as with the iPods and iPhone, the entire laptop will need to be returned to Apple to have the battery replaced, a process that costs a hefty £99 and takes five working days. Expect to see some grumbling from annoyed owners when this fact becomes more widely known later this year, and then expect to see the Apple zealots respond with their typical venom and bile at the effrontery of the idea that Apple might have made a less than optimal design decision...


Thursday 7th February 2008

Tom's Hardware Guide has published the second and third parts of their Intel D5400XS Skulltrail review, and unfortunately the news just gets worse and worse. It has to be emphasised that the hardware under test is still very much a pre-release version (a fact that is not given as much weight in some other reviews as it should!) but even so the list of disappointments is lengthening steadily the more I read. As well as the expected benchmarking (generally unimpressive, given the massive purchase cost), under the microscope this time are the overclocking abilities (poor, unfortunately) and the power requirements - and Tom's gives the startling news that running a Skulltrail-based system in its present form, if under load 24 hours a day with distributed processing projects as many enthusiast systems are, could add an eye-watering 744 to your annual electricity bill. Gosh!

All-in-all it does seem that the D5400XS is the answer to a question that nobody had asked, being manifestly unsuited to its target market in a number of critical areas. I have to say that this isn't uncommon with Intel, though: the Pentium Pro CPU had techies shaking their heads over its poor price/performance/power ratio twelve years ago, but the innovations that it heralded went on to form key components of the subsequent Pentium II and III ranges over the next ten years, and those were the CPUs which powered the Internet revolution. I don't know if Intel intends Skulltrail to be the first of a series of gaming/enthusiast platforms, but I do know that I certainly won't be investing any of my hard-earned dollars in this version.


Tuesday 5th February 2008

So I read last week that eBay is changing the way that its useful but often controversial feedback mechanism works. From May, sellers will no longer be able to leave negative or even neutral feedback against buyers who fail to fulfil their side of the contract formed when an auction is won.

I can certainly understand the idea behind the change, as far too many sellers use "tit-for-tat" negative feedback to punish a buyer for leaving negative feedback of their own - and the threat of such feedback can sometimes be enough to deter a buyer from expressing an honest opinion in the first place! Indeed, the four incidences of negative feedback that have been left for me in almost six years of using what The Register refers to as the "tat bazaar" have all been left purely in retaliation to negative feedback that I wrote, following what in my opinion was grossly inadequate performance on the part of the seller. I have to say that in all these cases I paid promptly, and kept my side of the bargain in every way, and only resorted to leaving negative feedback once all other channels of communication had proved fruitless - and although it doesn't seem to have affected my overall standing in any significant way it does seem rather unfair...

In fact, as far as I'm concerned a seller ought to leave feedback as soon as a buyer has paid, as at that point the buyer's basic obligations have been fulfilled - but although some sellers do indeed behave this way they're definitely in a minority. Needless to say, the majority of their colleagues do not seem to share my opinion, and given an equally unpopular recent change to the structure of fees paid to list an item some are predicting a mass defection to the other auction sites. I can certainly see their point of view, however: it seems to me that in preventing sellers from leaving their own feedback eBay has tipped the balance too far in the other direction. There's no doubt that some sellers do have real problems with deadbeat buyers and timewasters who either refuse to pay, complain about VAT or postage charges that were clearly stated in the listing, or just bicker unreasonably about the description of an item (not to mention the allegedly widespread incidence of shill-bidders, hijacked accounts, auction wreckers, and assorted other scammers) and in these cases it seems perfectly reasonable that they should be allowed to highlight this behaviour for the benefit of the community as a whole. What we really need, of course, is for eBay to be willing to listen to complaints about feedback that is clearly unjustified and retaliatory, and then to remove it where appropriate - but given their rubber stamp approach to all aspects of customer service, with great reluctance to approach any problem that needs a subjective opinion or a modicum of intelligence to solve, this is one thing that certainly won't happen! Only time will tell whether this change does serve to alienate a significant number of sellers, but as at present eBay represents a significant majority of the online auction market I don't imagine the company's management are that concerned.

Meanwhile, yesterday's news of the Vista SP1 release to manufacturing has been tempered by the revelation that in fact nobody will be able to obtain the service pack until at least mid-March. Apparently the installation mechanism has not yet been completed, and although I would have thought that was an integral part of the update and so would have been in development at the same time as the code patches themselves, evidently this is not the case, and we're told that the Vista team are determined to bring everyone "a great install experience". Reading between the lines, it is safe to assume that the rather demanding prerequisites for the service pack have delayed the release while all the various compatibility issues are ironed out. Damn, but I hope it turns out to be worth waiting for...

And talking of disappointments, my department director pointed me to another review of Intel's enthusiast workstation platform, the D5400XS "Skulltrail", this time at Tom's Hardware. As usual the geeks at Tom's have gone into minute detail, and in fact they make the offering seem even less desirable, revealing further flaws with the physical PCB layout, confirming the enormous power requirements, highlighting the incredibly noisy fan cooling the Northbridge and PCIe switches, and throwing severe doubt on the suitability of the quad channel memory the board is based around - just to start with! Considering that I am exactly the sort of user that this hardware is aimed at, and that I'm less than impressed even at this early stage, I'm starting to get the definite feeling that this is going to be a real lame duck of a platform.

And finally, from the cutting edge to the rusting edge, a lucky Mac fan discovered a mint, fully boxed Apple IIc from 1988, and has lovingly documented its deflowering on Flickr. Even more decrepit, The Register has a fond look back at one of the ugly ducklings of the home computer boom, the Coleco Adam. Computer users were a tougher breed back in 1983, but even so I'm glad that I never had to contend with the electromagnetic pulse emitted by the Adam on power up, which apparently was strong enough to erase floppy disks left in the drives - or, sometimes, even on the desk nearby. Eventually the model's bizarre design and many flaws killed the entire company, and many would argue that this was a Good Thing...


Monday 4th February 2008

The pressure has been building, and as many predicted I'm too opinionated to stay silent for long. Let's see if I still remember how to do this...

It's been a busy time on the home network over the last few months, with a new server in the shape of a quad CPU Dell PowerEdge 6650:

and an updated water cooling system for my desktop PC:

which unfortunately has proved far from trouble-free, to the point where my confidence in the manufacturer Koolance, previously one of my stalwarts, has been seriously shaken:


I'll try to catch up on all the changes when time permits...

Meanwhile, the first service pack for Windows Vista has been released to manufacturing today, and all over the world frustrated Microsoft enthusiasts must be breathing an anticipatory sign of relief. I've been playing with Vista since the first public beta, and have had it installed on my tablets since the corporate release in the autumn of 2006 and on my primary home PC since the retail release a year ago, and I have to admit that overall the OS has been a disappointment. There's a lot to like about it, and although it's still not as visually arresting as Apple's offerings it certainly has its moments, but there are too many quirks and flaws to have made the last twelve months of heavy use an enjoyable experience overall. On lightly-stressed systems like my two Motion tablets it's a dream, and for the casual web browsing and media playback that those systems are used for I really can't complain - but on the desktop that same dream has a decidedly nightmarish quality at times and if it wasn't for my unshakable faith that Microsoft would one day pull their collective thumbs out of their collective asses and fix the problems I would have rolled-back to XP long ago.

I'm happy to dismiss the common criticisms of poor application compatibility and driver support, as those are largely the fault of bone-headed 3rd party manufacturers and software houses. Just as with the transition to Windows 95 and Windows 2000, many companies have used the requirement for a new driver model as an excuse to abandon support for their "old" hardware, even when some of that hardware is actually relatively recent and still perfectly useable, and although that can be a considerably annoyance to a user who has to purchase a brand new scanner because Epson have decided to slim down their product range, it's hardly the fault, or the responsibility, of Microsoft.

Equally, the perplexing sluggish response to the new OS exhibited by many first tier software houses is also nothing new... It seems sometimes as if the planning departments of such giants as Adobe, Symantec, Ulead, and the like are never convinced that a new Microsoft operating system will actually catch on, and would much rather watch the market for a while before they commit resources to the development required to support it - and in this case many of them didn't seem to start work on Vista-compliant versions of their flagship products until after the retail launch last spring! Some of the hardware manufactures were just plain slow, as well, such as TV tuner manufacturer Avermedia, who several months after the official launch responded to my question about their complete lack of Vista drivers with the news that that they would report my requirement to the software department for future planning!

However, some of the more glaring problems with Vista must be laid squarely at the door of Microsoft. One that has been a perpetual irritation for me is the frequent morass that my desktop system sinks into thanks to warring backgrounds tasks sapping the CPUs and disk I/O channels. Between the Search Indexer, the Windows Media Player indexer, and a poorly understood service called the Trusted Installer, I sometimes find that the entire PC slows down to the point of becoming completely useless for time periods ranging from a few seconds to a few hours - and this is a dual 3GHz Pentium 4 Xeon with 2Gb of RAM and a pair of hardware SATA RAID controllers, so heaven knows what the same processes can achieve on the sort of single CPU system that is still prevalent on most desktops. Add to the mix the agent for Backup Exec, Diskeeper's background defragmentation, and Internet Explorer's frequent desire to seize an entire CPU for its own mysterious ends, and at times I'm forced to shut down all apps and reboot just to regain control of my own PC. It's not funny...

The appalling performance seen when copying files between local disks and, worse, to network volumes, is another problem over which that Microsoft must hang it's head in shame. The twin performance and compatibility updates that were released last summer helped a little, but there are still clear problems and this is one area that SP1 is known to have improved - although some of the brave souls who have been testing betas of the service pack admit that it still isn't as quick as the same operations in Windows XP...

As I write this, however, the service pack doesn't actually seem to be available, with the Vista Team Blog suggesting that it won't be released to Windows Update until mid-March, but I'm hoping that, as with previous releases, it will be available via the corporate downloads for customers with Select and Software Assurance agreements, and I am already haunting that site in anticipation. Given the many and varied problems with the OS, I don't imagine that I'm the only one...

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, the grass may not be nearly as green as we've always been assured. Apple has just launched a site containing instructional videos and tutorials such as "how to use a screensaver" and "how to customize your mouse". I find this perplexing, as we've always been assured that Macs are so easy to use that you can drop one down in front of your grandmother and she'll be editing her own videos and uploading them to YouTube before you can say "Bill suckz", so the suggestion that in fact she needs to be taught to use a mouse that after all these years of development still has only one button is somewhat unexpected. The basic concept of online tutorials seems somewhat flawed, as well - as Steve at [H]ard|OCP comments, "That’s like putting the instructions for “how to use a door knob” inside the house. If you can’t work the door knob, what are the chances you’ll be able to get in and get the instructions?" Indeed.

Also at [H]ard|OCP, a preview of Intel's upcoming Skulltrail enthusiast platform confirms that it is indeed as sexy as previous reports have suggested - but also predicts that one will need even deeper pockets than we previously thought to experience that multi-socket goodness. In these days of dual and quad core CPUs many people are questioning the need for two actual sockets on a desktop motherboard, as few applications or games will actually make good use of the eight Xeon-style cores that this will support, and I have to admit that even as a die-hard SMP user I can't readily see how the additional cost, complexity, and infrastructure requirements will actually make the system worthwhile.

The reference design has a number of flaws, according to the review, with poor layout around some of the PCIe slots and enormous power and cooling demands, but the BIOS is unique amongst Xeon-style workstation platforms in that it offers considerable control over CPU and memory voltages, bus multipliers and RAM timings; features that are generally only found on single socket gaming motherboards. Benchmarks against one of the current hot motherboards, based on Nvidia's 780i chipset, are somewhat inconclusive, though, as most current applications are simply incapable of making the most of such a massively multi-threaded environment and overall the two boards came out pretty much neck-and-neck. Nevertheless, the reviewer was extremely impressed with the platform, and right now it's still the most likely candidate when I finally retire my old AGP-based Supermicro Xeon motherboard and move to a contemporary Core / PCIe system. I'd better start saving...



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