The news media were reporting on Lycos's new screensaver over the weekend. It's designed to send requests to websites that have been associated with spammers, and obviously the more people who download it (it's available here) then the more traffic these sites will get.
Why is this a good thing? It's because a lot of these sites are run on the cheap, and strangely enough, the last thing they want is lots of traffic. Lots of people accessing their website means they will get charged for using bandwidth. Will it work? Who knows, but after dealing with 1500 items of mail in my inbox this morning, I'll be very pleased if it's a success.
I have a Masters degree - in technology-based training - that I got using technology-based training and several years of hard but interesting work with some great folks at Lancaster University. Still, my inbox is regularly filled with opportunities to add some fresh letters after my name. These emails come from a bewildering variety of agencies all over the planet, and they have one thing in common: the resulting award will be worth about as much as the amount of effort that went in to acquiring it.
Do a search for "diploma mills" on the Internet, and you may be unpleasantly surprised. You won't be alone, either - the General Accounting Office of the United States Government is right there with you. They discovered that some of their own employees, who worked in militarily sensitive parts of the government, had fake degrees. Others with bogus diplomas worked in the nuclear industry. Are you scared yet? How about the fact that in the states of Oregon, Illinois, North Dakota and New Jersey, the problem is bad enough that they've made it a crime to "use" degrees from diploma mills?
New Scientist magazine had a great little snippet in their Feedback column this week about the sort of establishments that people have gone to to get an academic qualification without all that tedious mucking about doing things like research or submitting papers. Michigan's State Government has just produced a list of some of the establishments that they know of who operate without any accreditation, and it makes for entertaining reading.
How dumb do you have to be to be proud of a diploma that came from somewhere like The College of Nonsense in Nevada, His Majesty's University of Polytechnics in Sacramento, California, the Medical College of London (U.K.) - which is in St. Lucia in the West Indies and not in the U.K. at all - or, best of all, the North American College of the Artsy?
IMDB are reporting that Sigourney Weaver has divvied up a deposit for a place on Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spaceliner. Oh, great. Would you want to be on the same spacecraft as Ellen Ripley? Still, the other passengers may be safe after all - another customer who has put his name on the dotted line will be able to save the day. Yes, it's none other than William Shatner.
Just don't wear a red shirt if you're on the crew. Oh, wait: Virgin's main colour scheme is red, isn't it?
My pessimism was well-placed. The next response I got from Gateway's US support center (sic) suggested that I was having the problems I was experiencing because the CD was "probably scratched." To cap it all, my new support contact suggested that I try the CD in another Gateway machine, "to see if it works."
Remember how the CD is for wiping the C: drive and installing a fresh copy of Windows on the computer? Can you imagine what the response from the person whose computer I went out and "tested" it on would be? Hello?
So I gave up on the Americans, dug out the old tech support 0845 number, and rang Ireland. Gave the guy my serial number, and got an instant response of: "oh, I see you had your motherboard replaced. That's the cause of the problem. The CD was looking for a chip on the mobo to identify the computer and you need to run such-and-such a piece of software on the CD first to extract an update program. Run the program, update the PC, then it should work."
Wow, what a difference employing somebody who knows their stuff can make. I'll keep you posted on whether it works, but I'm not trying anything this week. I've had enough of home computers for a while!
And the East as well - I came across a report today about a guy who is about to complete a crossing of the United States by Segway. OK, he had some friends in a Jeep Cherokee following him with fifteen backup batteries, but all the same it's an amazing thing to do, and I salute him. I bet it was great fun, but if I ever fulfil my ambition of travelling right across America I'll do it from East to West and in something with a comfortable seat.
I will never tire of finding proof that the World is clearly off its collective trolley. Today, I not only discovered that there are people out there who will sell you the remains of a ten-year-old grilled cheese sandwich with the face of the Virgin Mary on it (actually, I reckon it looked more like Jesus, someone else in the office thought it was Mae West: you may have noticed a general Rorschach vibe developing here) but also that there are people who are prepared to sell you a replica of the thing if you can't afford the genuine item. Madness.<
It's rant time again, I'm afraid. Four years ago, I bought my second Gateway PC. The first was brilliant (at least, it was after I replaced the Pentium processor in it, which suffered from the floating point error - remember that?) and it stood me in good stead for many years. The second has been a disaster. Even if they hadn't closed down their operations in Europe, you'd never get me to buy one of Gateway's products again. The drives are noisy. The CD rewriter drive that came with the machine burned out after a year. If there was a power cut, when the power came back on the PC would boot up, even if it had been switched off beforehand. I had to have the motherboard replaced within the first couple of months, and the replacement's been pretty flaky too. The PS/2 keyboard port on it has failed completely, so the keyboard is now plugged into the mouse port and I had to go out and buy a USB mouse instead.
I could live with all that if everything else worked, but over the last six months or so, things have been going downhill. As I mentioned earlier this month, I've been getting increasingly frustrated by the damn thing. Since my last comments, I tracked down some of the problems I was having to Norton Antivirus. When I replaced NAV with an alternative product some of the faults on the machine (such as the fact that it would only boot 25% of the time) went away. However, the machine is still clearly ill. I've tried to install three wireless network adaptors so far this month and I can't get any of them to work properly. I can only get one of the adaptors working as far as pinging the router, and I get faster data rates with my modem, so I've come to the conclusion that it's time to format the C: drive and reinstall Windows ME from scratch.
I need to stick with Windows ME because, unfortunately, I run a Pinnacle DC-10 plus video capture card. Oh yes, it's a great product, but the drivers I got with it won't work with Windows XP, and Pinnacle won't provide XP drivers on their support site. Why would they want to do that when they can make money off you instead? Yes, you have to buy a new video editing software suite if you want to upgrade to XP, so guess who else's products I won't be buying again.
After backing up my stuff to my second hard disk drive, I gritted my teeth and made a start. No luck: I got an error message that said that the restore CD I was using, which I got with the computer, was only for use "on a Gateway computer." Which, of course, is exactly what I am using it on. A quick search on Gateway's support site revealed that the problem is a FAQ (which is a bit of a warning signal in itself, really) and gave a solution. I duly tried it: still no luck. Step three of the solution said, "if you've tried steps one and two and you still get the message, contact our email support." So yesterday I surfed over to the support website again and used their online report form to submit a query to Gateway's support department. This is what I said:
> I'm getting the "This CD is only for a Gateway computer"
> when trying to restore the OS off the Operating system backup CD for
> Windows ME (the CD is marked "Rev 0, 7509269").
> I can't even create a Windows emergency boot disk at the moment. As you
> can see from the results of the scan below, there's a lot of stuff on
> the PC and I want to start again from scratch!
> I've followed steps 1 and 2 in the FAQ, but still get the message. I
> need to run Win ME as I have a Pinnacle DC10 plus card that isn't
> supported under XP - otherwise I'd have upgraded. What do I need to do
> to get the backup CD to work, please?
The support website then ran a small program that listed the characteristics of my machine and appended it to the bottom of my email. Quite a useful little diagnostic tool, and it makes tech support's life easier, which is always a good thing. All this makes it rather obvious that I'd contacted them through their support website, don't you think? Well, this is the response I got:
> Hello Chris,
> Thank you for using Gateway's Online E-mail Support. I understand that
> you are getting an error message when trying to install Windows. I am
> glad to assist you with this regard.
> Chris, to promptly resolve your issue, please follow the steps below I
> have located from Gateway web site:
> 1. At the command prompt, type:
> C:\Cabs\Setup C:\Cabs\Msbatch.inf /iw /is /p c-.
> Note: Do not copy any files to the hard drive to get this command to
> work. Normally these files are still on the hard drive. If you type
> this exactly and it does not work, the files may have been deleted.
> Locate the cabinet files on the Operating System CD, and then run the
> command again using the new path.
> For example, on some Operating System CDs, the cabinet files are in the
> E:\Win9x folder. If you are using a CD such as that, at the command
> prompt, type: E:\Win9x\Setup E:\ Win9x\Msbatch.inf /iw /is /p c-. If you
> have verified that you have typed the command correctly using the
> location of the cabinet files and it still does not work, please reply
> to this message.
> 2. The program starts and installs windows.
Can you guess what the first two steps of the FAQ that I'd already tried were?
From a customer care perspective (remember, I've spent the last twelve months of my career developing customer care training for a large UK company) I was absolutely amazed by the patronising tone which suggested that I could have found this if I'd bothered to look at the support website myself.
I think it's fairly safe to say that I was not happy. Nevertheless, I politely emailed them back thanking them for their response, pointed out that yes, I had actually gone through all this already and that the reason I contacted them was that I wanted to know what I should do next. We'll see what response I get, but frankly I don't hold out much hope.
Anyone know where I can still get hold of a genuine Windows ME CD? Please?
It's a moment worthy of The Truman Show: there you are, sitting in your boat somewhere off the Scottish coast, and the newsreader on Radio 4's Today Programme suddenly starts talking to you, asking if you'd mind checking your radio. That's what happened this week after the Coast Guard realised that the reason they were picking up the news on the emergency broadcast channel was because a sailor had accidentally left his transmitter switched on.
One phone call to broadcaster James Naughtie later, and the problem was solved.
Coverage of Home Secretary David Blunkett's speech at the weekend focused on his use of just two words: "fear" and "hope." I'm sure he said more than that, but he needn't have bothered. Nobody was the slightest bit interested in the content! Why is this?
If you watch more than the smallest amount of television news, you will already have noticed that if you put some people in front of a camera, their response is to start talking in a strange new way. In management-consultant-speak, this would be called "interfacing." The rest of us are more likely to use words like "waffling," "spouting gibberish" or the less politically correct "talking crap." Certainly, the word "communicating" would be highly inappropriate. The overall effect is of someone who has disconnected their brain from the process of speech, but who hopes that by using the latest fashionable words every now and again, nobody will notice. Don't believe me? Try writing down some of the statements uttered on the evening news tonight, and then read back what you've written. Does it make sense? Can you gain any information from it, or is it just a collection of words, devoid of meaning? What was the message? Does anyone care?
I don't pretend to be perfect in the way I communicate, even if I have read my copy of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves from cover to cover several times, but I hope that most of the time you can understand what I'm going on about. Despite the prodigious sales of Ms. Truss's book, people do not take kindly to having their communication skills disparaged.
In fact, criticising someone's ability to communicate these days seems to be regarded as something akin to fascism. Just have a look in a few Internet news groups to see what I mean. We're beginning to see the result of this attitude on television, particularly on the news: people being interviewed or making speeches who persist in mangling the language every time they open their mouths. Politicians are by far the worst culprits. If you don't know what I'm talking about, just have a look at some of the gems a certain American president is coming out with on a regular basis.
Have we "misunderestimated" the motives behind this cavalier use of the language? Is the English language in danger of "destroyification"? I think so, and so does the journalist John Humphreys. He feels that the constant repetition of words like freedom and peace is devaluing their meaning, even if the approach seems to be working very well for politicians at the moment. After all, if we can't understand what they mean, we can't really accuse them of lying, can we?
Humphreys has just written a book called Lost for words which describes its subject as "The use and abuse of the English language." He's been promoting it quite a bit - here are stories from The Independent and Yahoo - and after reading these interviews I did the only decent thing and ordered the book from Amazon. I'll let you know if it's any good. Ah, the power of marketing.
What was I just saying about using words that are free of any informational content? Here's an example: NASA says Monday's X-43A flight was "scrubbed because of technical glitches." Are we any the wiser about why they cancelled the flight? Of course not. Oh well: NASA are planning to have another go today.
There was an interesting article in last week's Aviation Week magazine (I've been so busy that I only just got round to reading it) which led me to track down some research by scientists from Germany's Max Planck Institute.
Sami Solanki and his colleagues were looking at levels of the isotope Carbon-14 in ancient tree trunks. Why? Well, tree trunks can tell us a lot about the past. Each year as a tree grows, its trunk gets thicker. If you look through a cross-section of tree trunk you'll see a set of concentric rings, grown at the rate of one per year. You can figure out how old the tree was by looking at the rings, but you can also compare rings from different trees and identify a ring created in a particular year, even if the tree died centuries ago. With me so far?
As it grows each year, to make the ring the tree absorbs nutrients from the atmosphere. These nutrients include chemical compounds that contain the element carbon. So by taking a sample of a tree trunk that grew in a particular year, you can find out about the carbon it absorbed in that year. Okay, we're nearly there. Stay with me.
Here's the clever part: there are different types of carbon. "Normal" carbon-12 can be turned into its heavier isotope carbon-14 if it gets zapped by a cosmic ray. Don't worry - it doesn't make it radioactive, this just means that it has a different number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus. But if there are sunspots on the Sun, there's more Solar wind. This is the flow of charged particles outward from the Sun. More of this Solar wind reaches the Earth. Luckily, we're protected by the Earth's magnetic field, but the field gets buffeted about. As a result, it lets fewer cosmic rays through, and - you've guessed it - there aren't as many around to produce the C-14.
So, if there are more atoms of C-14 about in a particular year, there must have been more cosmic rays about, therefore there must have been fewer sunspots and the Sun must have been less active. And, conversely, when the proportion of C-14 to C-12 dips, it means there were fewer cosmic rays reaching the Earth so there must have been more sunspots and more activity. So, counting the carbon in tree rings tells us what the Sun was doing. And you can figure out what the Sun was doing as far back as you can find corresponding tree trunks. The German scientists had access to tree trunks that grew as much as 8,000 years ago!
The study has revealed that the Sun has been more active in the last 60 years than at any other time in the last 8,000 years. What does this mean for us? Why am I so interested in this? Well, although it's not certain, sunspot numbers seem to map to average temperatures on Earth - during the "Maunder minimum" of 1650 to 1700, there were hardly any observed sunspots. At that time, it was so cold during the winter that the Thames regularly froze over. When there are more sunspots, it's warmer down here - hey, isn't there a big interest in global warming right now?
So, the big question is: is this what is driving our current climate change? It's unlikely to be as significant a cause as the increasing amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, but it's certainly feasible as a contributing factor. The team suggest that the current high level of activity won't continue for more than "a few decades" and that things should calm down again soon. After that, perhaps we could see things getting cooler. Perhaps your kids could be going to Frost Fairs on the Thames again.
Or perhaps not.
A few more conceptual illustrations have surfaced on Yahoo for the forthcoming movie of the Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy. They're mainly devoted to the designs for the Infinite Improbability Drive starship Heart of Gold and everyone's favourite paranoid android, Marvin. But for some reason, the buzz that Disney are trying to generate for the production is focusing on the Vogons, who have been created by Jim Henson's Creature Workshop. That's all very well, but the HFO says, "Forget the Muppets - what we want to see is Zaphod Beeblebrox!"
Monday afternoon will see the final flight of NASA's experimental scramjet aircraft, the X-43A. It's expected to reach a top speed around the 7,000 mph mark, which is the sort of performance you'd need if you wanted to get from England to Australia in a couple of hours (not counting the interminable circling in a holding pattern while you're waiting for air traffic control to let you land, of course...) As a transport concept, the X-43 is a bit stingy anyway: it's only 3.5 metres long - so it's too small to carry a pilot, let alone fare-paying passengers. You wouldn't really want to be on board, anyway: after the engine shuts down it'll crash into the Pacific and be lost for good.
You might find it somewhat wasteful that each test aircraft ends up at the bottom of the drink. I suspect that it's a carry-over from the days when NASA seemed to have access to almost limitless sums of cash. These days, things are very different and NASA can't stretch the budget to building more hypersonic aircraft and supporting President Bush's vision of the renewed human exploration of space. After this flight, that's it for the X-43A. So for the foreseeable future, if you want to get to Australia it's still likely to involve sitting in a cramped aluminium tube with screaming kids and crap movies for a day each way. What an enthralling prospect.
On Saturday, The Guardian mentioned a website that's cropped up in the US since the last election. Sorryeverybody.com is a website dedicated presenting photographic messages from representatives of those people who didn't vote for Dubya this month.
Current favourites in the office are, without doubt, the pandas on page 1:
Panda 1: "Sorry world, I was eating bamboo and forgot to vote."
Panda 2: "It's not our fault. It's really good."
I must admit to feeling more ambivalent about some of the other offerings. In particular, I'm not convinced that the planet needs politically active nanotechnologists: for me, that one has "plot of bad horror movie" written all over it...
shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
For the lucky ones, the early morning of 10th November saw a pretty impressive display of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. It's quite an unusual occurrence in the UK (well, in England and Wales at least), and I've never seen them. The Aurora was even faintly visible down on the south coast, at Selsey. Pete Lawrence managed to take some pictures. As for me, I'd looked out of the window before turning in for the night. I saw that the stars were out but didn't notice anything unusual, and went straight to bed. Doh!
When you look at the stars at night, they twinkle. That's because we're looking at them through the atmosphere. Those twinkles are a more subtle version of the shimmer you see above a road on a hot day - air may be great for breathing in and out, but it's not great for looking through, especially when it's not all the same density or temperature.
So, differences of air density and temperature help to give us our weather, but unfortunately they also wobble light passing through it. Wobbling light like this is a pain for astronomers, because it blurs the pictures they're trying to take. The reason that most of the big telescopes here on the ground are built at the top of mountains is because it tends to get cooler at night and there's less air to look up through. But even though the air's thin at the top of mountains, there's a lot of it around: astronomers still have to breathe, after all. And as a result, the stars they see still twinkle. What can be done about it?
One solution is to move your telescope above all of the the atmosphere. The Hubble Space Telescope is a couple of hundred miles up, above all that inconvenient weather, and it takes gorgeous pictures. The trouble is, it's rather expensive putting a telescope in orbit, it's very complicated to run it by remote control, and sadly it's very difficult to get at it to fix things when they start wearing out. So back on the ground, somebody came up with the bright idea of tracking that wobbling light with a computer, and wobbling a specially-made mirror inside a reflecting telescope by the same amount. For good results, find a way to do this several hundred times a second and hey presto: you've just invented Adaptive Optics, or AO. The folks at the Keck Telescope on the summit of the volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii have used AO on their telescope to take pictures of the planet Uranus, with jaw-dropping results. The planet is so far away that nobody noticed it until the 18th Century, but now they're photographing the ring round it. When it comes to taking pictures, you don't get anything much more staggering than these.
IBM's BlueGene/L supercomputer rocketed to the top of the supercomputer speed charts this week with an awe-inspiring rate of 70.74 Teraflops. That means it carries out 70,740,000,000,000 floating point operations every second. Floating point notation is the usual way computers use to perform calculations on very large (or very small) numbers, so that means BlueGene is doing 70 trillion calculations with big numbers every second. The previous record holder, Japan's Whole Earth Simulator, manages about half that speed. In perspective, the average Pentium 4 manages no more than 750 Megaflops. But don't expect it to end there: IBM are still testing their technology at the moment, and they've said that they expect the eventual performance figure to top 360 teraflops. That's pretty quick.
Meanwhile, I think it might be time for me to start thinking about getting a new computer. At the moment I'm suffering from a home PC that only boots on about every third attempt, and which completely refused to work with the PCI 801.11g network adaptor I kindly bought for it last week. I'm beginning to suspect that despite the fact it's only five years old, it's past it!
I recently registered with my village's own bulletin board, Charfield.Org. I was about the 500th user to sign up, but for some mystifying reason most of the other recent arrivals seem to be from India. Very strange.
It was Bonfire Night on Friday and Solihull was reverberating to the sound of loud explosions for most of the weekend. It was quite a contrast to Charfield, which has been pretty quiet. On Saturday night the twins' former primary school had their firework display, and despite a light drizzle I think they had a good time. The display stopped and started several times, but it was quite impressive. It also gave me plenty of opportunities to try out the night scene mode on my camera. I took nearly 50 pictures, but all that extra processing eats batteries. After a couple of minutes manipulating the images, I came up with this:
OK, it's a bit more psychedelic than I remember the actual event being, but it brightens up a damp Monday evening, doesn't it?
My sister recently traded in her old mobile for a shiny new 3G phone. She's been very taken with the while idea of video messaging and the like, and the tariff seems quite reasonable, too. I still think that video phones are a solution in search of a problem, but there are some quite innovative uses cropping up for them. For instance, rock band Rooster are making a gig available to video phone users for five pounds a ticket. I'm not sure I'm particularly taken with the idea - after all, can you imagine being in a band and playing to an virtual audience in an empty hall? It just wouldn't be the same.
No blog update yesterday, as I spent yesterday evening seeing Nils Lofgren at Cheltenham Town Hall. It was a great gig: just him on guitar and occasionally keyboards with Buck Brown on guitar, keyboards, mandolin and backing vocals. The guitar sound was gorgeous, and he played all the tracks I hoped he would. But he took a moment or two to explain that he's dropped out of the mainstream music business because it's become, in his words, "soft-core, exposed-belly porn." These days, he sells his albums over the Internet instead. It's a damn shame that a guy as talented as he is should be struggling to get his music to the public when you look at some of the dross on Top Of The Pops. What we need is the return of the Old Grey Whistle Test. I can still remember being amazed when, at the end of a live performance on the show, Nils ran at a carefully positioned mini-trampoline and, still playing guitar, finished the song by executing a perfect backflip.
As you may have gathered, I've been listening to his stuff for quite a while: one of my favourite albums is Trans, recorded with Neil Young in 1982 (and my copy's on vinyl, not CD) but it's scary to think that it's 22 years old. Even Flip (I will always think of the album title as Pilf; if you've seen the cover you'll know why) came out nearly 20 years ago. His voice is still amazing, and he's a very impressive musician. What's particularly impressive is that he really doesn't appear to have got any older in the last 20 years!
No, not a reference to the upcoming bonfire night festivities. There's been a quite large volcanic eruption in Iceland, under the Vatnajökull glacier. Luckily, it doesn't seem to be anywhere that's likely to place people in danger, and NASA have some rather nice satellite images of the plume. Nevertheless, according to the BBC it's caused quite a lot of disruption for airlines, with nearly 60 flights from Schiphol cancelled. I wonder if it will have much effect on the weather in the next month or so?
They used to say that Ronald Reagan ended up believing that he'd lived through the plots of some of his movies. Well, it would appear Arnold Scwarzenegger could take things to the next level and make one of the plot lines in the Wesley Snipes/Sylvester Stallone movie Demolition Man really come true. Arnie said that he'd support an amendment to the American constitution allowing foreign-born nationals to become President. You might remember Sandra Bullock's line in the movie:
Yes! Even though he wasn't born in this country, his popularity at the time caused the 61st Amendment which states...
"You always shoot for the top," Arnie said on CBS's 60 Minutes programme last night. If the rest of the story in the film comes true, I'm not sure which is the scarier prospect: impending global war, or the idea of the comedian Dennis Leary ending up running large parts of Los Angeles. Mind you, one element of the population seem to believe absolutely everything they see on TV so they're probably sitting out there convinced that it's Nigel Hawthorne running California right now, not Arnie.
You don't agree that some people believe everything they see on TV? How else can you explain all those home shopping channels?
Talking about the blurring of fact and fiction in the popular psyche brings me to the American presidential election, which takes place tomorrow (just in case you hadn't noticed.) For me, each candidate's campaign has focused more on what the other guy would do wrong rather on what they would do right. There's no clear indication of how either of them will get America out of the dreadful mess it's found itself in for the last few years.
Indeed, the impression I have of politics the world over is that these days is that it's more about personal gain than it is about serving your country. With all that money at stake, things can get silly. You may have seen recently that one of the Bush campaign TV adverts apparently used "manipulated" images although why the image was manipulated wasn't clear. However, it's an example of the way in which the electorate's perception of reality is being manipulated. There's a report from the Program on International Policy Issues (PIPA) available here that analyses in some detail just how distorted a view of reality many voters have. I find it rather alarming when it starts using phrases like "such perceptions often diverge from reality."
Whatever happens, so the saying goes, Americans get the President they deserve. That's not the most inspiring conclusion for the rest of us, though, is it?
No, I'm not referring to the comedy heavy metal band, but to the fact that the clocks went back early on Sunday morning. It was nice to drive to work in the light this morning, but tonight, it'll be getting dark by five o'clock. So that's the cue for the annual bout of stories about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the BBC were first out of the blocks. The article noted that the urge to consume chocolate increases, and advises that if you give in, "go for dark chocolate." From personal experience, I'd say that chocolate does indeed work very well at this time of year. Yesterday, after eating my way through some of the sweets I'd got in the house for trick-or-treaters and spending an extra hour in bed, I felt fine!