Friday 30 November 2007

OpenID and Blogger

So we've finally got a potentially useful OpenID implementation on Blogger - you can now choose to allow OpenID authentication for commenter identity handling.

Give it a whirl and let me know if it works.

Sunday 25 November 2007

Halting State.

I finally got around to giving some attention to Halting State, Charlie Stross's latest book where he builds out a near future plotline and avoids the singularity \ post-singularity themes of his earlier works. This near term SF focus has become a trend lately with Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End, Ken MacLeod's Execution Channel and William Gibson's Spook Country all demonstrating that the near future is pretty fertile terrain for good hard SF. Halting State's an especially intriguing book for me as it seems to have been written specifically for my demographic - socially challenged tech-geeks with a gaming habit and a short attention span - and it certainly pushes all the buttons in terms of my areas of tech interest: its basic premise is that viable attacks on cryptographic network security protocols could be a potential battleground for the next cold war, for crying out loud that sounds like me having a rant in the pub. Anyway the basic story line is great and would also have been entirely novel (a bank in an online MMO falls victim to an in game heist and this leads to massive oddness as the distinction between reality and the gaming\virtual worlds gets very messy..) had it not been for the fact that a "real" banking fraud on a virtual bank within an MMO game made headlines earlier this year just as Stross was proofing the book for release. The lack of true originality doesn't matter a bit though and the risk that the future may turn out just as weird as you predicted must be one that all SF writers hope they will have to deal with some day.

Like Vinge's Rainbows End and MacLeod's "Execution Channel" Stross makes a compelling SF storyline without having to rely on any genuinely magical technology. Of all three books Rainbows End goes a bit further in terms of extrapolating where current technological trends might take us but none of these books require anyone to suspend their basic understanding of physics in the way that Iain M. Banks' Culture series or Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth sagas' do. This near future stuff is quite risky given the pace that technology moves at and even though I think Rainbows End is an ever so slightly better book, Vinge does not keep the tech as well controlled as Stross does. That may well mean that Halting State ages much more gracefully than Rainbows End, time will tell.

I still have the nagging feeling that it really is too much of a niche book despite being an excellent thriller I think Stross is really only writing for an audience of people like me this time and I would worry that it is going to put off most potential readers. He certainly pulls no punches in dumbing down the tech aspects of his plot and I wonder how many non tech nuts will be comfortable with acronyms like ARG\LARP\MMO and concepts like haptic feedback and quantum cryptography being important parts of the storyline. However, now that the Wii and the Nintendo DS are demolishing the perceived boundaries of the gaming market in general and connected network gaming with haptic feedback in particular, there are some signs that the "gamer geek" niche may thankfully become a subset of all Gamers rather than the dominant form. I don't think we're there yet though and I am still a bit reluctant to recommend the book to anyone who hasn't spent a good 10 years playing with tech under their belts and, to borrow Stross's own description of himself, hasn't got a low saving throw vs "Shiny" (and doesn't know what that means).

For those of you who are sad middle aged tech geeks though this is a fantastic near future SF(ish) yarn that deserved to be a strong candidate for this years Hugo's.

Friday 23 November 2007

Standards Redux

Now I'm confused, much happier and still annoyed. I logged back into Vista 32 on the Dell M1330 and it connected to the D-Link router quite happily. I'm certain I tested this combination of settings yesterday with no joy but perhaps there was some sort of patch stuck in the pipeline. Clearly I forgot Rule #1 (Give it a good kick, turn everything off and restart before trying to do anything).

Performance was pretty poor though - Ixia's QCheck gaves me results in the 600kbps -> 1.5Mbps range between the Desktop (connected over 802.11n) and the laptop (connected over 802.11g) which is extremely poor even for 802.11g/n compatibility mode. Intel had much more recent drivers than those supplied with the machine or up on Windows Update so I downloaded and installed them and now I have transfer rates in the 5-7Mbps range which I suspect is as good as it gets when you are actively mixing standards concurrently on the same router.

It's still pathetic that we can still have so many problems with the basics of Wireless Networking. someone really should sort that 802.11 crew out once and for all.

Ubuntu 7.10 Dual Booting

Earlier this week I attempted to run the Ubuntu 7.10 Live CD on my Dell M1330 and ran into some very surprising problems - the LiveCD borked about halfway though the boot process and presented me with a very confusing Debian command line. I wasn't sure if I had a dodgy copy and I knew I was going to have driver problems actually installing on the Dell since it only has SATA drives so I dug around on the Ubuntu download ftp server to find the DVD ISO that includes all of the drivers needed to get the SATA install working without messing about with additional driver discs. The DVD works a charm and all my Live CD problems went away. Once running everything appeared to work fine so I then bit the bullet and went about setting up dual boot install.

You can ask Ubuntu to resize the partition during the install but some checking online indicated that it is much faster (and probably safer) to use the Disk Manager MMC in Vista to prepare some space for Ubuntu in advance by shrinking the size of the main OS volume.

Once I had that done (I opted for a 30GB partition) I rebooted with the LiveDVD and ran the installer.
At the partition selection screen I now had the option to install into the partition that was already free space so that got selected and the install proceeded without a hitch.

Once it had completed and rebooted I was presented with a GRUB OS selection list that includes Ubuntu 7.10, Ubuntu 7.10 safe mode, Vista and Windows XP Embedded (This is for the Dell OS Recovery system I believe).

Interestingly from within Ubuntu I can now see two additional volumes (one 100Meg in size called Dell Utility that appears to be a DOS boot partition of some sort and one 2.5Gb one called MediaDirect that has some sort of stripped down Windows OS structure on it that is probably also Windows PE or XP Embedded). By default from within Ubuntu I have full read and write access to my main Vista OS partition and the 10GB "Recovery" partition that is referred to in the GRUB menu.

Most things work as far as I can tell at this stage including Bluetooth, the odd ball infra-red mini media remote, the touch sensitive media buttons above the main keyboard, the touch pad, laptop fn key functions (Brightness, Battery, Suspend etc). The only thing that doesn't appear to be working is the built in Web Cam but I haven't really tried very hard to get it working yet. The screen is perfect, Compiz works (unlike my old T43p), WLAN connects to my old 802.11g network with no issues.

Interestingly I again have issues with IPV6 and Firefox. For some reason my Eircom DSL router (a rebadged Cayman Netopia 2247) and I have to set netowrk.dns.ipv6 to True.

Otherwise it's very Sweet (So Far).

Standards Matter

No I'm not getting all conservative in my old age but I've fallen victim to two examples of declining standards in the last 24 hours and I feel the need to vent.

The two standards that have failed for me are the 802.11 alphabet soup of wireless lan specs and the eSATA standard for connecting external drive peripherals. I bought equipment in reasonably good faith, checked in advance that they claimed to support standards that would mean I could use them but when I tried to use them yesterday I found once again that some standards just aren't. This is not a huge surprise as I've had years of pain working with 802.11 in an Enterprise environment but I was very disappointed to see that things remain just as bad in the consumer field.

The gruesome details:

I bought a D-Link DIR-655 Gigabit Ethernet\802.11b/g/n router and a D-Link DWA-556 802.11b/g/n adapter for my desktop PC. Setup is simple and straightforward and I got these two plugged into my network and talking to each other at 60+Mbps without much trouble. The problem came when I attempted to connect my new Dell M1330 laptop running Vista 32. It sees the network and I can configure the settings for it (WPA2 \ AES 802.11g) but it instantly fails during the handshaking process. I upgraded firmware on the D-Link router to its most recent 802.11n (draft 2) version, selectively disabled every single WiFi extension I could find (802.11d, WMM, QoS, WISH, played with Guard Interval, disabled 802.11n\g mode and set it to 802.11g, then 802.11b/g and then dropped all the way back down to 802.11b. All to no avail. The Dell uses the Centrino (2) 3945 a/b/g Mini PCI adapter and I dug into its settings again selectively disabling things like "Enhanced Throughput", WMM, 802.11a and then 802.11g. Again all to no avail.

The part about this that is really nuts is that the 802.11 specification provides a capability advertising and negotiation feature that should have meant that I would never have to know any of the above details. The access point \ router broadcasts its capabilities using things called beacon information elements and the client should choose the best features it can support when handshaking. Everything should work but unfortunately the vendors have repeatedly forced through crap in the standards (opt outs that allow them to build cheaper crap) that means that this auto negotiation doesn't work and is often the root cause of problems rather than the hugely useful feature it should be.

I've now installed Ubuntu on the Dell and will be trying to see if that gives me some additional options later today. I'm not hopeful though as I think this is a firmware level incompatibility and has nothing to do with the OS.

Edited to add: The WLAN compatibility issue gets a bit weirder - I have now set up a profile on the Dell to connect to the D-Link 802.11n router that I couldn't connect to under Vista. It looks as if it is having similar issues as the WLAN connection "throbber" is still spinning away but I am actually connected to it right now. Maybe it is an Intel driver problem more than a D-Link firmware problem.

The eSATA problem is much simpler but equally annoying. I bought a 750Gig Seagate FreeAgent Pro a few weeks ago as a secondary backup device. It supports USB 2, Firewire 400 and eSATA connectivity which is why I spent the additional 40 Euros on the Pro model. It came with both USB and Firewire cables and they work perfectly however the data rate over both interfaces is limited to around 30-35Megabytes/Sec even though the drive itself should support rates of up to 60/70M/sec on its outer sectors. I hoped that with an eSATA connection I would see the drive perform much closer to its actual spec so I ordered an AKASA e-SATA cable to test it out. It doesn't work. Hot plugging just does nothing and attempting to boot the PC with the drive connected over eSATA causes it to go into some never ending loop during the boot process. Some online research (which I no know I should have done first) indicates that eSATA is very fussy and you must get a good quality cable or you're doomed. Searching the Interwebs seems to indicate that Siig make eSATA cables that actually do work so I'm going to try and find one of them somewhere (PC-World\Dixons are the UK and Ireland agents amazingly enough).

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Kindle Redux

So the initial wave of opinions are in and it seems to be about an 80:20 split between folks who who don't think it's worth the effort and those who think it's worthy of the hype*. Some of the preliminary info in the Newsweek article was a bit off - it has a user replaceable battery, data can be backed up / copied via a PC or Mac, it's browser is not all that great, the screen is good but not "just like a book" but overall it seems that it is pretty much what I thought it was.

Almost nobody has commented on the fact that the choice of EV-DO means this is restricted to major population centers in the US. I still can't get my head around that but what's even more insane are the per transaction costs. You can send documents to your Kindle via e-mail but (and here's the doozy) _you_ get charged 10cent for each inbound mail. Just wait until the spamheads figure out how to use that. The subscription fees for Blogs are stupid but I suppose I see where Bezos is coming from - he can't cover the cost of the cellular connection otherwise and basically he needs to get people back into thinking it's "OK" to pay for pushed content. I sympathize with the economic dilemma but frankly I think he spent far too much time with the cellular telcos and they put the poison in his head that it was "OK" to charge for data at a rate of a dollar or two per meg. These are the people who still think that since SMS is generally charged at around 5-10cent for 200 bytes that all data should be priced that way.

Of all of the commentary I've come across Mark Pilgrim really nailed it for me.

Props to the lads at Motley Fool for pointing out the head-scratchingly-obvious-in-hindsight point that naming a book replacing device "Kindle" brings disturbing imagery of book burning to mind - perhaps they should have gone hog mad and called it the "Pyre".

Finally Derek should have a Sony PRS-505 Reader sometime this week so if he's really nice and lets me get my greasy mits on it I may have more to say on the e-Book topic and the merits of a well built reader.

* I had a link in to a very favourable article from Business Week there but it started to hit me with a "Malware Alert" pop-up spamvert so I took it out. I can't believe that a relatively large organisation like that can still get duped into running such crap. Oh well, you can find the article on Google's cache if you really want to read it.

Lunch Mark II

In an attempt to improve on yesterdays lunchtime effort I popped into Marks and Spencers to see if they had anything that might improve the balance over yesterday.

Using a small french wholemeal country loaf as the base I followed a similar pattern to but modified the ingredients somewhat: Smoked Gouda, Mild English Mustard, Red Onion, Kalamata Olives, Radicchio,Baby Spinach, Red and Yellow Santini Tomatoes, Hass Avocado (with a little Tobasco) and Bresaola (cured lean beef). I avoided adding any salt at all this time, used a milder ground pepper and drizzled a little olive oil over the top to finish it off. I chose some fresh lemonade to wash it down and I've
got to say that this one was very nice indeed. The picture doesn't really do it justice, it doesn't really look it but it was a very big sandwich.

Monday 19 November 2007


One of the joys of not buying lunch in a canteen is that you can actually have a rewarding experience eating it. In fact being able to make it just the way you want to is pretty rewarding too..

So today I decided to see what I could come up with in the sandwich arena and I ended up with this: Some sort of generic brown bread roll, Gubbeen cheese, Strong Irish Mustard, some green and red onions, avocado, kalamata olives, vine tomatoes, a couple of baby spinach and rocket leaves, and some salami, sasoned fairly generously with pepper and salt. I probably should have washed it down with a nice cold beer but the cloudy apple juice was more than enough for me at lunch.

Verdict: It was quite good but the Gubbeen, Salami and Olives have more than enough salt on their own so I probably should not use any additional salt the next time. It would have benefited from having more tomato too and ideally we'd want a really nice artisan bread to wrap it all up in. Anyone know of a good baker near Celbridge so I can get it right tomorrow?

E-Books: Amazon, Sony and the Rest

Amazon have scored a major bit of Apple style pre release ad placement by getting Newsweek to run a cover story on the Kindle, Jeff Bezos' attempt to launch the concept of the E-Book as a mainstream product.

Engadget have a picture
that may or may not be a mock up.It looks pretty much like the FCC application pictures from last year so maybe it is sort of real but frankly I hope not as it's pot ugly and I can't for the life of me see why anyone would make an ugly consumer device these days.

Anyway apart from that I'm very happy to see a resurgence in interest in the area as I am a huge fan of the e-book concept and I am in the market for one.

To date nothing has beaten the Windows Mobile 5 Dell Axim X51V - it's small enough to carry anywhere I would bring a book and with a 2GB SD card I could carry every book I ever owned if only I could get the damn things. I have a library of about 200 of my favourites that I was able to carry everywhere. It had a great 200dpi full colour VGA screen and the user interface with reader applications like MobiPocket or MicroBook was excellent. The three drawbacks it had were; the lack of available titles, poor battery life (I used to carry two) and a general dependency on a host PC. Dell have stopped making them but I could still buy one off e-Bay if I wasn't so reluctant to buy second hand gadgets.

The new Sony Reader has been looking like a potential buy because I would be able to migrate my library to it (well most of it, I have un-DRM'ed most of the stuff after getting burned repeatedly in the past by DRM expiries and systemic revocations). I held and used the V1 version briefly and it really was quite cool. It's a very nice gadget. It's not very cheap but at Euro 200-230 I think the price is OK so it is definitely top of my list at the moment. It sports an SD-Card slot, can read un-DRM'd material, looks great, loadsa battery life etc etc. It definitely still needs the host PC though and the Sony Book Store is pathetic.

So the Kindle really has my attention but judging by the content of the Newseek article I'm not so sure. Thetech media\blog preview blather has all been very uncritical despite what I see as some glaring issues with the proposed architecture and some very worrying hints from Mr Bezos.
  • It will use a proprietary sounding data connectivity network called WhisperNet that is actually a cellular data connection using EV-DO. EV-DO is a 3G data net only available in the US (more or less). What the Fuck is that about? At least the iPhone made some play at targetting global audiences. And who needs EV-DO (100kbps data rates) for E-Books (the biggest of mine is still <<10mb)>
  • "Classic" books (as in stuff that you can get for free of Project Gutenburg and read on my Dell or a Sony Reader for free) will cost $1.99 each, one off blog articles (cough the content of which is also free!) will chew up 99cent or you can Subscribe! for $1.99 a month (Per Blog !!) or you can cough up $9.99 for new best sellers (that might be OK depending on the DRM).
  • It will be DRM'ed up the ying yang and Mr Bezos is also not averse to using some of the most crap-tastic features of DRM:
    Libraries, though, have developed lending procedures for previous versions of e-books—like the tape in "Mission: Impossible," they evaporate after the loan period—and Bezos says that he's open to the idea of eventually doing that with the Kindle.
  • "it is instant-on and requires no batteries". Translates into no user replaceable battery which would be OK if the radio doesn't tend to flatten the battery in an hour or two of browsing and shopping for books. We'll see.
  • My biggest problem with the whole thing though is the pure 1980's "Multi-media is the future" tone of the Newsweek article. It's full of crap like this:
    "Another possible change: with connected books, the tether between the author and the book is still active after purchase. Errata can be corrected instantly. Updates, no problem—in fact, instead of buying a book in one discrete transaction, you could subscribe to a book.."
I'm reserving judgement at this stage but I am not hopeful that the device will significantly change the (correct) perception that E-Books are crap. Their E-Book marketplace might be good but I doubt that they will allow it to work with other devices which kind of puts us in a bind until they have a good device. We'll see.