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Thu 29th May 2008 @ 23:38 2008: Lenovo Support

I got a Lenovo laptop about 8 months ago, and seriously considered the next-business-day support package. At about £275.00 it wasn't cheap, but certainly cheaper than getting a new laptop at a day's notice, if I was onsite and in desperate need of a laptop NOW!

I'm glad I didn't bother.

"Next Business Day" can apparently mean that they'll log it when you phone in, and respond immediately (by answering the phone); it may be days before replacement parts, and/or engineer actually arrive, though.

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Wed 28th May 2008 @ 23:42 2008: Aw, Bless

Windows has an equivalent to lsof...

this command shows all files that are opened on the box, indicating the process name interacting with each file. It's built into modern versions of Windows, from XP Pro to Vista. Like the popular lsof command for Linux and Unix, it'll show administrators all open files on the machine, giving the process name and full path for each file. Unlike lsof, however, it doesn't provide many more details, such as process ID number, user number and other information.

Considering the volume of information it gathers, it's no surprise that the openfiles command is a performance hog. Thus, the accounting associated with openfiles is off by default, meaning users can't pull any data from this command until it is turned on.


Aw, so lsof is a "performance hog" and has to be activated manually, followed by (of course) the obligatory Windows Reboot.

C'mon lads, it's not that hard, surely?

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Sun 25th May 2008 @ 23:35 2008: Comment Spam

This blog has been getting comment spam over the past 24 hours or so, much like the last attack, exactly one month ago).

It started with one machine (58.241.104.142 - No.156,Fu-Xing-Men-Nei Street, Beijing) browsing the blog via Google (presumably having got the URL from elsewhere; Yahoo, presumably, as per the last attack).

The MO was much the same; one Chinese PC has a sniff around, makes a few posts. Then 3h30m later, another Chinese PC (221.6.148.141 - also No.156,Fu-Xing-Men-Nei Street, Beijing, though a different netblock) makes a few posts. 19 hours later, a deluge starts, from all over the world (though mainly Eastern, it would appear).

All comments are temporarily disabled, because:
a) It's a holiday weekend; I'm not going to sit around blocking individual posts
b) This blog only gets about half-a-dozen "real" comments per month (which beats the average for coherent articles, but that's a different story!)

The previous attempt made it look as if the first was an innocent-enough manual attempt which soon got bored, followed by a more in-depth attack. Having seen the same technique again, I think that the first wave is an initial assessment (it tends to use random subject text: "fdsf", and some boilerplate text) followed by deeper probing, which uses the same technique. It could well be the same person, on a different PC (the User-Agent string is slightly different).

The subsequent deluge is from all over the place, with lots of different User-Agent strings (IE, FireFox, Opera...), and the content of the (attempted) posts is more "coherent", if that's the right word: They're plugging specific articles, with "proper" subject titles, and are generally lists of URLs, generally touting software, pills, etc etc.

Given the method of "port knocking" which this attack uses, it should be possible to script against this exact approach, though blocking China, whilst crude, and not 100% effective, might be a simpler approach.

1 Comment               

Fri 23rd May 2008 @ 23:05 2008: Curvy Tube Map

Curvy Tube MapI've just been down in London, and was looking for an image of the "Keep everything clear of the doors" sign that they have on tube trains now. It's good for some low-level innuendo, and it's a Friday night, so why not?

Instead, I found this excellent map. There's a blog post about it here, and the creator (Maxwell Roberts) is a lecturer at Essex Uni.

It looks like a much more usable map than the offical Tube map - check out the closeup, too - I think that I would find this much easier to use. I can't find a closeup of the full map; I don't know if he's made one available.Curvy Tube Map zoom

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Fri 23rd May 2008 @ 22:03 2008: Bush, Shut the Hell Up

Tell it like it is, brother!

I thought that it had all been said, but this is certainly getting all of it, and some more, quite eloquently, into a 10 minute tirade of GWB's legacy.

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Wed 21st May 2008 @ 23:52 2008: CULT

Teen battles City of London cops over anti-Scientology placard
"Faces prosecution for branding Hubbardites a cu*t"

That's "cult", before you ask.

Yes, apparently pointing out the fact that the Church of Scientology is a Cult, is now illegal under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

The Act makes it an offence to display "any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby".


In 1984, apparently, Justice Latey repeatedly said in a family division case that Scientology was a "cult" - one that was "immoral", "socially obnoxious", "corrupt", "sinister" and "dangerous".

Other than that, though; it is surely clear that CoS is a cult, particularly by the second definition:

cult

noun
1 a system of religious worship directed towards a particular figure or object.
2 a small religious group regarded as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.
3 something popular or fashionable among a particular section of society.


If the statement of a fact might insult a cult, is that a crime? Is protecting the wrong more important than freedom of speech? Discuss! ;-)

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Wed 21st May 2008 @ 01:01 2008: FaceBook

Link about removal from FaceBook - not as easy as you might assume, if you are up on the UK Data Protection Act:

Times Online article contains a tinyURL link to http://www.facebook.com/cs_forms/fshelp.php?page=9 which will apparently delete one's data.

Naturally, you will then need to create a new FaceBook account to verify that you can't see the old one, or get a "real" friend with an active account to confirm the status.

FaceBook is handy, it's convenient, it's an easy way to keep in touch with people whom I don't see as much as I should, or as much as I have the opportunity to see these days. I wouldn't have heard about the new car, the dead cat, the 15m swimming certificate, or even the wedding, if it weren't for FaceBook. That's really good, for someone like me, who finds it hard to keep up with what my own immediate family are up to. But it's also really bad, on so many, many levels. I've volunteered far more personal information to FaceBook than I would ever concede to BT, British Gas, or United Utilities - and they at least provide me with (quite) tangible services.

For now, it's fun, handy, convenient - not exactly "critical" words, are they?
In the future, it could be awkward, inconvenient, painful - rather more "serious" words.

For now, FB is the Good Things; I'll just bear in mind the potential Bad Things it can manifest before I (inevitably, at some point, I am sure) delete my account.

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Wed 21st May 2008 @ 00:22 2008: gzcat

gzcat seems to have disappeared a few years ago; I don't often need it, but occasionally it's useful.

I've got a gzipped file in one (nearly full) partition, with (just enough) space in another partition to take the uncompressed version of the data.

$ gzcat /iso/foo.gz > ~/foo
would do the job, but it doesn't seem to exist any longer.

It seems that "gzip -cd" (c to cat, d to decompress) will do the same job:
$ gzip -cd /iso/foo.gz > ~/foo
So the natural thing is to create an alias, or a local alternative:
$ cat ~/bin/gzcat
#!/bin/sh
gzip -cd $@
$


Here's the example using alias, which is possibly a bit simpler. Here, we gzip an original file (orig.mp3), and then uncompress it again.


$ file orig.mp3
orig.mp3: Audio file with ID3 version 2.3, MP3 encoding
$ gzip orig.mp3
$ file orig.mp3.gz
orig.mp3.gz: gzip compressed data, was "orig.mp3", from Unix, last modified: Wed May 21 01:22:38 2008
$ alias gzcat='gzip -cd'
$ gzcat orig.mp3.gz > new.mp3
$ file new.mp3
new.mp3: Audio file with ID3 version 2.3, MP3 encoding
$ file orig.mp3.gz
orig.mp3.gz: gzip compressed data, was "orig.mp3", from Unix, last modified: Wed May 21 01:22:38 2008
$


Therefore, "gzcat" == "gzip -cd"

QED.

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Tue 20th May 2008 @ 23:30 2008: Tech Support

Dilbert 20/5/08Yeah, that sounds about right!

(From today's Dilbert)

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Mon 19th May 2008 @ 23:03 2008: Security In Depth

There's a Milw0rm exploit for the recent Debian/OpenSSL bug, which takes the MetaSploit-generated keys - all 65536 of them :( - and tries each one in turn, to connect as root to a target.

This exploit assumes that the root user can log in via SSH directly, which is a very bad idea, even if there is no way whatsoever for anybody other than your two totally trused admins to access the box (or even - as in my case, one totally trusted admin).

By logging in as a regular user, and then assuming root privileges, you get the ability to see who was logged in when; root is not a person (Neal Stephenson implied some nasty config hacks when he gave his character Enoch Root an email address of "root@...").

This also makes it harder to know what account to attack; if root is configured not to allow remote logins under any circumstances, then any bugs related to dealing with SSH keys are irrelevant.

I have a few accounts active on my main system, but most of them are not enabled for remote SSH logins; my family don't log in remotely, and their passwords are, ahem, "more memorable" than I might generally like for security. So they cannot connect remotely.

The few accounts which are allowed remote ssh access have logged a few failed attempts per day (average 2 per day) over the past week; they failed, and were blocked by DenyHosts.

I'm lucky in that I subscribe to planet.debian.org, so I heard about the problem early on and replaced my keys immediately. But it hasn't changed the overall security of my system. Even with the Debian bug, specific, non-default user accounts would have to be targetted.

Ah, but....
The other side of this issue is that saved OpenSSH sessions can now be replayed and debugged. I don't work for MI5 (and nor does my wife!), so I'm pretty confident that it's very unlikely that anybody has saved any of my ssh sessions over their networks, just on the offchance that they can easily decode them following the later discovery of a flaw. Since those same server keys were generated on Ubuntu 6.06 (before the September 2006 introduction of the bug) anyway, there's no problem there, either.

In Summary
This is not such a big deal as some people want to make out.

  • It is likely to be a very small problem, easily dealt with, for the vast majority. Patches update keys automatically, move along, nothing to see here.
  • For a small few, it is a bigger problem:

    For those who run servers which contain keys generated by Debian-based boxes in the past 18 months or so, then remove those bad keys from authorized_keys. The bad keys are known and are blacklisted in the Debian and Ubuntu packages; these can be used for any other system too, of course.
  • For the very remote few, who suspect that their sessions have been saved by untrusted parties... well, you might as well assume that those parties have access to all your traffic, between the time of the generation of the key (if post-September 2006) and now.

    I don't know anybody in this category. They probably don't depend solely on Debian patches and otherwise wide-open configurtions.

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Mon 19th May 2008 @ 21:24 2008: Dogs on Bikes

Dogs and cycles (except guide dogs) are not allowed in this garden.Being in London Village, as I am, I decided to wander over to Hyde Park this evening, where I saw this sign.

Apparently guide dogs are allowed to ride bikes, but other dog-and-cycle combinations are strictly barred.

I don't know if they've allowed for the possibility of there being dogs which may be unable to read the sign...

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Sun 18th May 2008 @ 23:55 2008: WiFi

<rant>
I have a pretty good deal for broadband at home; £5.00 per month (conditional on using their TV package too) for 2Mbps unlimited. It's not the best deal on the planet, nor is it the worst.

I'm going to London for a week; it's a small city, not exactly mentioned on the "New York, London, Paris" kind of shortlists of major international cities. Oh wait - it somehow slipped in to that list. Maybe it is a largeish place, after all. Certainly, it's bigger than Manchester, where I live.

So broadband must be plentiful, right?

Well, I've got the best deal I've seen yet; £20.00 for a week of WiFi access. I've paid £15.00 for a day recently, so £20.00 for a week is relatively not so bad.

But I could get 4 months of 2Mbps access at home, for the price I'm paying for 1 week of in the country's Capital city.

As I see it, I could set my own WiFi router for open access, and give free internet access to all comers (though my ISP may not approve, I haven't checked the details. They may well charge a bit more for the right to open up the access (but then what about inadvertent open settings, etc...?)). Or, I could set it for open access, with a divert for non-paying customers to a web page asking for money. Non-HTTP requests would of course have to be killed.

This would appear to be a deliberate restriction of something which I would otherwise be able to give away for free; the cost to me, in setting up such a system, is purely in the development of the artificial restriction, and not so much in the provision of bandwidth.

So - if someone were to bypass the awkward "pay to get certain traffic through my network" restriction (which must happen, whether deliberately or not, due to the arbitrary rules by which some traffic must be allowed to advertise the "service" available, and other traffic blocked to encourage payment), then that must be a Good Thing for all involved. Maybe we could eventually come to a compromise, whereby we all get free WiFi access wherever possible.

Anything must be better than ridiculously overcharged services which we all take for granted... what's next - Londoners charging £5 for a cup of coffee?!!!
</rant>

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Thu 15th May 2008 @ 23:29 2008: Facebook sez: Don't use Facebook!

Facebook are apparently planning a redesign.
FaceBook
I can't see the difference on that sample page, so I'm obviously not a sufficiently devoted devotee of El Livre Visage.

I do note two lines on that page regarding feedback:

please send all feedback to profilespreview@facebook.com
Unfortunately, we won't be checking the comments on notes or photos. We want to hear from you, but will be able to process your feedback best if you send it to us using the email above.
So - in a nutshell; if you want to contact FaceBook, send them an email, because they're too busy having a life to waste their time reading FaceBook all day. Honestly; it's not as if they're a bunch of students with nothing better to do, you know ;-)

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Wed 14th May 2008 @ 23:05 2008: Duck with Whiskey

Duck with WhiskyI've not posted culinary recipes on this blog before now, but here goes:

Duck with Whiskey

I've not tried making it yet, but it sounds delicious!

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Tue 13th May 2008 @ 22:21 2008: OpenSSL on Debian

Predictable "random" numbers in ssh-keygen can be a real PITA - new keys, new certificates...

It's not just a Debian infrastructure thing, though - any Debian-based GNU/Linux system will have the same problem, so get regenerating those keys, folks!

Update: Summary of how it happened.

Update: ObLOLCAT

Update 23 May 08: Careful analysis of the code, communicated very clearly

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Mon 12th May 2008 @ 01:26 2008: Anthrax

Anthrax - Spreading The DiseaseI recently had the "opportunity" to reorganise the HiFi and TV cabinets (since the kids managed to rip the door off the HiFi cabinet whilst dancing to Aqua's classic Barbie Girl contribution to society). My fault - I put it on the stereo for them.

The HiFi and TV were on opposite sides of the fireplace; they're now together, which has meant the loss of the VCR and Audio Tape decks, and the (lovely) Scott PS-17A belt-drive turntable, which had been sitting, largely unused, in the HiFi cabinet for many years. The belt had rotted a few years ago through age and lack of use. When I removed all the kit from the cabinet after the cabinet door's destruction, the kids added insult to injury (or is that vice versa) by following Dad's "lesson in analogue audio amplification" with a practical in "scratching without a platter of vinyl between the needle and the slipmat", so its needle is knackered now, too.

The turntable was good enough to be treasured, but not valuable enough to repair.

On the plus side, I've now got the TV wired through the HiFi, so we can listen to music DVDs/Broadcasts through real speakers, not cheapo TV speakers.

Anyway...

The resulting furniture repositioning also affected another bookshelf, which had housed most of my (now totally obsolete) record collection. Some of it - like G'n'R Appetite for Destruction (in the (ahem) original sleeve - good condition, though not shrinkwrapped like this example) could be worth up to 100. Others, like Keeping the Dream Alive (Freiheit), whilst fondly remembered, probably less valuable.

Anthrax - Got The TimeThe clock-shaped 10" single of Got The Time by Anthrax I can't even find listed online; I suspect it could be worth a quid or two, but what finding it again has really done for me, is that I looked up its excellent B-Side, "Who Put This Together", and found a torrent of all Anthrax's LPs, EPs and Singles. Of the Albums:

YearAlbumDo I Already Own It (on now-unplayable vinyl)?
1984 Fistful Of MetalYes
1985 Spreading The DiseaseYes
1987 Among The LivingYes
1988 State Of EuphoriaYes
1990 Persistence Of TimeYes
1992 Sound Of White NoiseYes
1994 The Island YearsNo
1995 Stomp 442Yes
1998 Volume 8 The Threat Is RealYes
2003 We've Come For You AllNo
2004 Music Of Mass DestructionNo
2004 The Greater Of Two EvilsNo
2005 Alive 2No


As a loyal fan of the band while they were still great, I don't feel terribly guilty about the prospect of picking up a few of the newer albums, which I didn't even know they had made. If I like them, it is very likely that I will buy copies to own. If not, well, I've paid for all the old vinyl, and I should certainly be able to listen to that; they've had their money, as have the RIAA.

So ... it is possible for Aqua and some destructive young children to have a positive side-effect, after all...they can even help to justify torrenting music!

2 Comments               

Sat 10th May 2008 @ 22:38 2008: The game

I lost The Game. Now, so did you ;-)

People with Altzheimer's

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Sat 10th May 2008 @ 22:14 2008: Stephen Fry on the BBC's Public Service Broadcasting remit

BBCStephen Fry, the British actor, writer and director gave a speech on 7th May, which was broadcast tonight on the BBC Parliament TV channel. Last week's talk (by Sir David Attenborough) is online
now , so hopefully this week's talk will be online next week.

Fry talked for about 50 minutes about his relationship with the Beeb, from his childhood and into his career, but he made the point repeatedly that he was speaking, not as someone who has made his career, and a good living, from the BBC, but as a British citizen who relies and depends upon the BBC, and its Public Service Broadcasting remit.

It was an excellent, well informed and well-presented talk (as we have come to expect from someone of Fry's experience. He concluded by asking if we can afford to continue funding the BBC, a question to which he responded by stating that we can't afford not to.

I do hope the talk will eventually be made available online, because its audience on the obscure BBC Parliament channel (Fry estimated an audience of "36", IIRC) will have been miniscule, and such an well-reasoned, intelligent talk on a topic of national importance deserves a wider audience.

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Fri 9th May 2008 @ 01:50 2008: Run As Administrator

My laptop came with a license for Microsoft Windows Vista.

Thank you, Microsoft, and Lenovo, for such a considerate addition to my purchase. I didn't ask for it... oh yes, that's because I didn't want it. As I have mentioned previously, I have had some level of difficulty in obtaining a sufficiently crippled version of the software to match that for which I have a license. Still, I have finally managed it. And - for what it's worth - it seems to accept that it's running under VMPlayer courtesy of Debian GNU/Linux, and not on the native machine, with the genuine license key which tells it it should be on a Lenovo laptop.

Either the licensing confirmation is poor (it did query it at first), or it's going to complain again at some point in the future. Really, who knows? For now, let's assume that it's happy to be running on the hardware to which it was licensed, which it is.

I wanted to transfer a file to my lovely Windows Vista system, so I needed a way to communicate with the Debian box. I tend to use hostnames, rather than IP addresses (call me awkward if you will), so I thought I'd set up the /etc/hosts file under Windows Vista.

From previous experience, I know that they store it somewhere like c:\windows\drivers\system32\etc\hosts, so I found the file. Double-clicking on it gave me the file - with IPv4 and IPv6 entries for localhost.

But I can't save it, and nothing within Notepad (their idea, not mine - but apparently it doesn't matter what app you use to open the file, the permissions are the same) will allow me to tell it that I am allowed to edit the file.

Run as Administrator
This is where the "Run as Administrator" feature comes in... except it only seems to work for applications, not for files.

It is not enough to browse to the file, and click "Run as Administrator" - one must first select the application you want to use (why should I even know what it is, let alone where to find it?!), and run the entire application as rootAdministrator, and then use the application to locate the file again, and once more open the file, edit it, and save it.

With this method, there seems to be no accountability whatsoever; it may be logged somewhere (I've got no idea!) that "Steve" took Admin rights over "Notepad.exe", but it won't know what I did with those rights. If it was logged that "Steve" took rights over "/etc/hosts", then, it would be possible to see what kind of thing I was up to. If your logs (I kindly assume that some must exist) simply tell you what applications were used, but have no other control, then what is the point in their existence?

608Mb - About 1h36mI will ignore the slow disk access (96 minutes for 608Mb? That's 6Mb per minute, or 10Kb/s)... As it is running under VMWare, and "could be" due to issues beyond Windows' control. Since the rest of the machine seems to be running fine, it is somewhat unlikely, but let's give the benefit of the doubt wherever possible, eh?

After all that, the game didn't install, so the whole event was a waste of time.

Nearly as bad as when I tried to use it to write a MS Word document based upon an MS Word template; OpenOffice.org struggled, and created a 30Mb document. With some messing, got that down to 3Mb - still a huge thing for a 7-page document. MS Office 2003 (borrowed use) refused to open the template. MS Office 2007 ("trial" use) opened it, messed up the ToC, and still created a 3Mb document.

MS Office 2007 still believed that the 7-page document's "Total Page" count was 10, and - although OO.o sorted the ToC properly, I had to hack the ToC by hand to make it work in MS Word.

I keep on saying: "Microsoft Windows will not catch on", and nobody believes me. I don't know what I'm missing out. The "killer apps" are either nonexistant, inwardly incompatible, or simple undocumented. The OS itself is inherently unstable, too open to 3rd-party closed code, and demonstrably insecure.

There is no compelling reason to use Windows, let alone Office.

OpenOffice.org (and StarOffice) are not perfect, but it's taken this experience to remind me how far ahead of MS Office they are.

As for Windows Vista; that's another story.

GNU/Linux will remain the dominant desktop Operating System until Microsoft can fix these major misfeatures. Microsoft simply don't stand a chance, given the currently available alternatives, be it on the OS level (GNU/Linux), the tools level (GNU and others), or applications (OpenOffice.org and all the countless others).

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Fri 9th May 2008 @ 01:18 2008: Wishlist Update

A small update to the Wishlist search functionality - actually a reduction in functionality, if you like.

If you search for "Bob", and "Bob Smith" had no active WishLists, it would tell you so.

Now, it doesn't confirm that "Bob Smith" has an account at all.

There was no major privacy breach previously - your full name is not exactly a national secret, unless it's "James Bond", but this should improve the system somewhat; if you don't have an active wishlist, then according to the search function, you don't exist. Or at least - it doesn't say whether it knows of you, or not.

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Wed 7th May 2008 @ 23:38 2008: Nine Inch Nails

NIN CoverIt seems that Nine Inch Nails have released their latest album as a free (in exchange for your email address) download via BitTorrent.

NIN

It's available in MP3, FLAC, M4A, and even better-than-CD-quality 24bit 96kHz.

What really surprises me though, is the speed it's downloading as a torrent... I'm used to Torrents taking days to complete - does that mean that I just like obscure stuff, and I've now gone mainstream with NiN?

No, it seems that it may be that the already-neglected Gnome client possibly does have flaws already showing; btdownloadheadless shows about 175Kbps, which is still better than I usually get from BitTorrent.

Still, when I looked at it again, a few minutes later, it had finished downloading.

4 Comments               

Sun 4th May 2008 @ 22:57 2008: Do Not Enter When Closed

PortalWhen I ventured into the big city the other day (I really must get out more...), I went via the tram station, where I saw this intriguingly-marked door.Do Not Enter When Closed

The door covers the entire doorframe, so it's not as if this door could be closed as an indication that one should not travel through the space; the only way to "enter when closed" would be if one could possibly drill through the door, or maybe in some kind of Portal-type of scenario, simply reappear on the other side of the door.

What kind of incoherent existentialism leads to such a sign being created?

What kind of stupid blog allows the images to flow through to previous posts, though?

I seem to need this filler, so that those weirdos with wide resolutions get the right images in the right blog posts.

I really ought to work out what I need to do with "clear:both" or suchlike to make it really work properly.

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Fri 2nd May 2008 @ 21:12 2008: Comedy Car

One of the nice things about my job, is that I'm not stuck in an office 9-5, and I can pick up the kids from school from time to time.


Comedy CarThe downside is the other parents, or more specifically, their cars... there seems to be one more 4-wheel-drive every day. Some of them seem quite practical, some are quite clearly just trying to show off.

However, there's one, which arrived on our local school run recently, which was clearly bought for the sole purpose of entertaining me while I wait for school to finish.

The Dodge Nitro makes me laugh out loud whenever I see it. Our school-mum has got it in silver, like this one. I say silver... it's more of a "we forgot to paint it" kind of a colour.

Bless it, it's trying so hard to look cool and rugged, but it just looks like the pictures I drew when I was five years old, knew nothing about car design, or even about perspective.

But it's trying so hard... Aw, bless!

I'm not a big fan of 4-wheel-drive cars for the school run in the first place, but this one looks as if somebody decided to build one without having ever seen the competition, but having only heard somebody describe them.

Roll over the bulletsSo, given its "tried to look like a military vehicle but failed epicly" looks, I think that the "roll over the bullets" caption must have been a deliberate inclusion by some intrepid soul with no fear for their job... especially given the rest of the text. Was that "like a badge of honour" in the sense of "almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a badge of honour", perhaps?

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Fri 2nd May 2008 @ 01:34 2008: Richard Stallman

RMSI went to the University of Manchester tonight, to hear Richard Stallman speak about Free Software in Ethics and in Practice - or, in other words, to give his usual speech. It seems to have been organised by BCS, IET and Manchester Free Software. It doesn't seem to have been publicised, though - I came across it on the FSF website, and when I asked, got an email saying that I was the only person who had asked about it. I phoned the University, who passed me through a few departments, to get me the number of a Professor's voicemail, where I left a few messages.

Somebody must have publicised it somewhere, though; the room had a capacity of around 200-300 people, and it was packed. It was due to start at 1845; I was there around 1800, and went into the building around 1810. I asked someone if this was the venue for the Richard Stallman talk. He looked around at the largely young, white, scruffy, male, often-bearded, and generally geeky-looking people surrounding us, and said, "Well, it looks like it, doesn't it?!"

It was a good talk; it looked as if someone was "officially" videoing it, so it may come online at some point. I recorded the audio of when he was speaking about Free Software in schools. I've only got it in AMR format for now (RMS on Free Software in Schools - 7m30s) - not a widely used format outside of mobile phones. If I can convert it, I will do. In the meantime, here is my precis of this part of the talk.

His main point on this topic (which is the subject I hadn't heard him talk about before) was pretty much what one might expect:

  • Cheap / Gratis copies of closed-source software for students won't won't become Cheap / Gratis copies of the software in the workplace, certainly not for the companies that the students go to work for.
  • Schools should not accept cheap / gratis software, just as they should refuse to accept gratis samples of addictive drugs for their students to experience.
  • Schools have a social mission to educate the next generation to be good citizens of a strong, independant, cooperative and free society.
  • This means teaching them to use Free, not Proprietary, software.
He then suggested a typical 13-year-old student, who learns a program and wants to know how it does its job. The teacher can only reply "I'm sorry, it's a secret." - And thus, education is not permitted. If it's Free Software, the teacher can say "Here's the source code. Read it, and you'll understand everything." (laughter)

He then went on about how hard-to-read software is badly-written software, and how learning how to write good code is about reading lots of code, and writing lots of code.

He then suggested that writing lots of small code doesn't really help, whilst writing small contributions to large projects, does help a student to learn how to write complex code. He spoke of his history with hacking on other OSes, and points out that "today, any school can offer a similar opportunity to its students, but only if it's a free software stack"

He then goes into a theme of "Ethical Education" - teaching the spirit of goodwill, and the habit of helping your neighbour. He suggests a system whereby you can bring your code to class, but you have to share it with the class - otherwise we'll confiscate it!

This was a new slant, to me, on what was otherwise the talk I expected to hear.

One thing which I would have liked to have discussed with RMS further, given the chance, was how his views on WiFi cards having firmware (effectively, assembly code) encoded in Hex in the Linux kernel source (a Bad Thing, apparently) tied in with his acceptance that Microwave ovens are programmed in a certain way, but are "really just hardware - not programmable" and therefore not subject to his moral views of software freedom. The Oven and the WiFi card operate with their own code; at some stage, it has been written in a higher (human-readable) level, and at some level, we must admit that our cars, cameras, phones, and ovens, are all programmable in the same (though at a distance removed) as our PCs, laptops, and Servers.

The questions levelled at RMS were at a somewhat higher level, though - it's hard to be sure quite what the audience demographic was, but a number of the questions showed some of the classic misunderstandings of the GPL license; another missed quite how forcing GPLv3 upon users who had accepted and modified GPLv2 software would not bring software freedom. (Subjects which I raised with RMS back in 2001). Two questioners seemed sure that they had some kind of right to expect a financial return for their coding efforts, and that F/OSS would remove that right.

It was an interesting evening. I'm glad to be able to say that I've spent an evening in the same room as RMS, and that I've sat and listened to his talk. It is different from simply reading online documentation, or listening to / watching recordings of talks.

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Thu 1st May 2008 @ 00:50 2008: LOLcats Bible



Hmm, which is the NIV Bible and which is the LOLCat Bible?

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