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Wednesday 31 January 2007

Sea Launch Rocket explodes on pad

Just in case you thought you were having a bad day, spare a thought for the Sea Launch folks.

"The Sea Launch Zenit 3SL vehicle, carrying the NSS 8 satellite, experienced an anomaly today during launch operations"

Sea Launch are obviously punting for understatement of the year there, which is forgivable I suppose given the mess they now have to clean up.

Video is up on YouTube
. (What would we do without it).

Sunday 28 January 2007

Freedom to Tinker » Blog Archive » 2007 Predictions

It's very late to be linking to sets of predictions for the year but I just came across Ed Felten and the Freedom to Tinker crew's 2007 forecast and they are well worth a look.
Freedom to Tinker » Blog Archive » 2007 Predictions

Saturday 20 January 2007

Six things I'd like to see in Google Reader.

I really like Google Reader - it has allowed me to expand the number of feeds that I can read and it provides me with an interface that allows me to do that much faster and with more control than before. I seem to be reading somewhere between 1.5million and 3 million words a month via its interface - that's about the same as 15-30 novels - so it must be pretty good. However there are a couple of things that I'd really like to see added or changed.

[1] Search and Filters. Apart from the simple madness of the fact that this is a Google product for gathering data that doesn't have Search built in there is much more that I want than a simple search box. A Custom Search Engine based on your feed list OPML can be a partial solution but a built in "Search and Do something" facility is top of my list of sought after changes. I would really like to be able to search my "feedspace" and treat the result like a labeled set of items. I could then:
  • Search and read the items (obviously).
  • Search and mark the item(s) (as read, unread, with a new label, for sharing etc...).
  • Search and mark (as read\as unread\ with a label) the source feed(s).
  • Save the search as a dynamic label so that new articles would automatically get added if they met the search criteria.
  • Search and mail. Ideally used with the aforementioned dynamic labels. I could then use Reader to keep an eye out for really important stuff and send a mail to my phone when something I'm really interested in pops up.
[2] Some clarity and development on the role of Labels. Are they "Item Labels" (where they function as tags on individual articles and are applied individually to articles - starring and sharing items is biased towards this view of Labels) or "Feed Labels" (where the Labels serve as general purpose desriptors that apply a management hierarchy to your subscriptions and are automatically applied to each new item that arrives). The interface is very unclear at the moment about what the differences are between the two views, if any. I see these as separate things with some common aspects and would like to see a change that made that fact clear but I'd be happy for someone to teach me why I'm wrong.

[3] Automated detection and removal of dupes across different feeds. I see identical articles in many feeds (e.g. the Engadget PDA feed often contains items that are also in the Engadget GPS feed). Once such a dupe is read in one spot it should be marked as read everywhere even if the feed source is not identical. Clearly some care needs to be taken with this but it's the sort of incremental intelligence that Google is usually brilliant at so I have hope.

[4] Mobile interface. I use the mobile interface more than anyone else I'm aware of and I love it. Unlike others I find that the current ultra minimalist interface design is almost perfect for me for the simple browsers and cramped screens on my mobile devices but I want to see a handful of extra features.
  • Authentication. Entering a Google Account password is a major headache on a mobile device. After seeing how Microsoft Live for Mobile handles this I think Google could make things dramatically simpler and safer as follows:
    • Give your mobile number to Google Reader (they have mine already for Google Calendar alerts) and choose a short easy to enter mobile access PIN.
    • Google Reader then sends an SMS to that number containing a URL to page that only requires that PIN to authenticate you to your Google Reader Mobile page.
    • Expire the PIN after use\after a short time just to keep us all nice and safe.
  • Add the ability to add labels to either an item or a feed.
  • Add the ability to edit or add new labels and subscriptions.
  • Add a "Share This" hot key. The interface already support the following in its Item read view: 1 - See Original , 0 - Next in Your Reading List, * - Add a Star (duh!), # Keep Unread, plus links to your home page, tags, subscriptions and signing out. It's a no brainer to add 2 - Share This, and 3 - Add a Label to this item. doing so would not clutter the display.
[5] More Stats and access to the data behind those stats. I love the new stats that but I'd like some more.
  • I'd like to know what fraction of my activity had been carried out via the Mobile interface.
  • Word counts would be interesting. Feedback into the Search and Filter features at the top and you have a way to manage your feeds based on activity.
  • A live interface to the raw stats data data would enable some interesting mashups (especially if others, like Amazon, were to do the same).
[6] Feed Suggestions. The data mining potential of our reading patterns could enable some very effective suggestions (similar to the "Interesting Items for You" Google Gadget).

Thursday 18 January 2007

More Comet McNaught

It's definitely turned out to be the prettiest comet of my lifetime so far and I missed it - there are times when I really regret having left the southern hemisphere. Anyway here's a stunning shot of Comet McNaught taken by Kevin Crause yesterday in Mossel Bay, South Africa.

Much more at

Wednesday 17 January 2007

You read it here first

I was quite chuffed to see that I commented on the (fairly obvious) fact that the iPhone isn't really "widescreen" within minutes of seeing it while most of the pro and not so pro web gadget commentators took more than a week to figure that out.

I'm also wondering if I should sue the New York Times for plagiarism - David Leonhardt's very good article "The Cost Of War" is remarkably similar to my "The Economics of War". OK to be fair he actually did a professional job on it and well, he can actually write but I could argue that:
  • He stole my title. Or his sub editor did, whatever.
  • He stole my idea of demonstrating how big a number $1trillion is by showing that you could eradicate entire diseases if you used it for that (rather than fighting a war)
  • OK so that's it.
Alright then he didn't really steal my ideas and I got the idea from Terry Jones' Grauniad article in the first place (although I did acknowledge that). In any case Leonhardt's article is excellent and it is really good to see the US MSM picking up on this theme - the criminal waste of half a trillion to a trillion dollars should be judged by the opportunity cost of that waste.

Friday 12 January 2007

Why does my WLAN not work?

Probably because I'm microwaving my dinner? I dont know whether most folks are aware of this or not but the average Microwave oven seriously leaks EM radiation in the 2.4Ghz frequency range and if you have a wireless LAN at home this might be a problem. It is probably also worth seeing the effect if you are concerned about radiation from cell phone masts because this stuff is a hell of a lot stronger than cell phones (range of kilowatts of radiation vs range of watts of radiation).

Anyway some snaps from tonight courtesy of my $100 WiSpy 2.4Ghz EM radiation detector. Great geek toy, every home should have one.

This is the signal with me copying down a very large file over WiFi Channel 6 (2.436 Ghz +-5 Mhz) Notice the very nice clean signal centered on channel 6.

Then I turned on the Microwave. OK so the signal doesn't quite fall apart at the seams but it is quite shocking to see that the most conservative interpretation would say that the signal at 2.455 - 2.466 Ghz is completely annihilated by my Microwave and by and large there is major interference at all frequencies at or above 2.436 Ghz (Channel 6).

Thursday 11 January 2007

Some more on the ApplePhone

There's some serious nonsense being put forward in this Steven Levy interview with el Jobs.

But it’s not like the walled garden has gone away. “You don’t want your phone to be an open platform,” meaning that anyone can write applications for it and potentially gum up the provider's network, says Jobs. “You need it to work when you need it to work. Cingular doesn’t want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up.”

This kind of thinking is positively stone age in this era of global cellular roaming and it's the type of drivel you only see today coming from US cellular providers. There certainly are some risks involved in allowing "open" platform handsets on your cellular network but it's not as if Cingular are bravely holding the wolves at bay by forcing this sort of policy on their subscribers - as an international GSM\UMTS roaming user I can (and have) happily connected a bunch of "open" devices to Cingular's network in the past when travelling to the US and I'm going to be doing so again shortly when I go back in February. The lock down is to enable profiteering not security.

This is a deliberate deception by Steve Jobs and poor reporting by Steven Levy. Both Cingular and Apple have a strong commercial interest in keeping the ApplePhone locked down as it will keep users tied to both providers as the sole suppliers of data, software and services. The intention (obviously) being that Cingular want to recoup significantly more than the $400 or so subsidy per device that they are paying Apple up front by selectively charging way over the odds for additional services and Apple themselves want to ensure that the customers can't break free of the iTunes\Apple Store ecosystem. There's nothing wrong with this by the way but I really do wish that Apple at least would be honest about their reasons.

I still want one but Eddie forwarded on some info on the Cowon Q5 earlier today and I'm thinking that this might be much more desirable depending on its eventual price. It isn't as ultra compact as the ApplePhone and runs Windows CE 5 rather and OS X but it solidly trounces it on every other specification.
  • 5" 800x480 16million colour touch screen. ( vs 480x320)
  • GPS ( vs not featured on the Apple)
  • HSDPA (thats 1Mbps+ 3G UMTS vs < 100kbps for the Apple)
  • 30-60 GB storage depending on model (vs 8GB max)
  • Wifi, Bluetooth and Infrared (vs WiFi+Bluetooth)
  • USB+USB2Go Client and host (vs iPod proprietary sync )
  • DMB (TV) receiver (vs not featured on the Apple)
  • FM-Radio (vs not featured on the Apple)
  • Available from February. (vs June possibly in the US
  • No Cellular lock in (vs 2 year lock in to Cingular\Vodafone)
And this one runs Windows CE 5 so developing homebrew apps may well be pretty straightforward. It is big though as you can see in this very short CNET video review.

Wednesday 10 January 2007

Comet McNaught

The brightest comet in 30 years will possibly be visible in the early evening sky over the next few days if the weather clears up. It's now bright enough to be seen with the naked eye if you check out the sky just above the horizon a couple of degrees south of west as soon as the sun sets.

Here's a shot captured earlier today in the eastern UK by Sunspot from

Tuesday 9 January 2007

Apple iPhone

Worst kept secret in years but the fact that it runs OS X is pretty neat. Multi touch interface as expected from earlier patent discoveries, decent res screen(3.5 inch @ 160ppi I think he said), 8GB storage, 2Mpixel camera, 11.5mm thick, no buttons, accelerometer on board for more control interface fun, GSM Phone with GPRS\EDGE data, EDR Bluetooth 2.0 and 802.11b/g WLAN. Much more info at Engadget and Apple.

Gonna have to get one I think.

Edited to add: The screen is definitely not what normal folks would call a widescreen format - it's a 3:2 ratio so it has the same aspect ratio as NTSC at 2/3rds the resolution.

Monday 8 January 2007

Guns, Germs and Steel

Just finished one of my Christmas presents - Guns, Germs and Steel:The Fates of Human societies by Jared Diamond. Diamond expounds at length on his theories about why the dominant modern societies developed in Eurasia and not Africa, Australia or The Americas. It has some weaknesses, as the Amazon reviewers are more than happy to point out, but it's a goldmine of genuinely insightful analysis nonetheless and you should add it to the list of books you must read at some stage.

Sunday 7 January 2007

The Economics of War

From Neil Gaiman's Journal - Terry Jones on the sums of war.

The amount of money the US has spent on the current war in Iraq will hit $500bn this year. Terry Jones proposes some alternative ways such a sum might have been spent. He closes with an interesting metric - to date each dead Iraqi has cost the US approximately $1 million each.

Hardly value for money it might be said but of course the US is not prosecuting the war as a means to kill loads of Iraqi's. It's a shocking number none the less.

$500billion is a lot of money and to help you get an idea of just how mind numbingly huge a number it is here are some comparisons:
It does just go to show what a US government can do as the richest state on the planet when it set its mind to it. It did just such a thing in 1947 - rather than leaving Europe to handle the mess it had created for itself The Marshall Plan led to the rapid post WWII economic and social recovery of western Europe and forever changed this part of the world for the better. In 2006 money The Marshall Plan only cost around $130bn so I'm pretty sure an equivalent for Iraq today would have cost a lot less than $500bn.

Thursday 4 January 2007

Google Reader adds Personalized Trends

This is really cool. Google Reader now has a "Personalized Trends" option that gives you very comprehensive analysis on your reading\sharing\starring trends and the status of your individual feeds. Looking at those numbers though - I clearly need to get a life.

Wednesday 3 January 2007

Wil Wheaton reviews ST-TNG Episode 1, Encounter at Farpoint

As a lifelong member of the Wesley Crusher Must-Die Society I am proud to introduce Wil Wheaton's personal review of the very first episode of Star Trek - The Next Generation.

Wonderful .

I should probably admit that I found this on Digg.

Free (as in Beer) Software for Windows.

I had started to prepare a post containing a list of the freely available useful applications that I keep in a single portable directory that I can rapidly move between systems when I came across this Download Squad link to the Software for Starving Students CD for 2007. That list has a lot in common with mine but it is a lot more comprehensive and much better packaged so you can just hit a single link to download the whole lot as a single ISO. It also includes a lot of quite interesting games that I hadn't come across before so I strongly recommend that you head over there and get a copy. Like my own "free application" list there is no particular requirement here for something to be Open Source but the license must be free for individual private use.

There are a couple of applications in my own list that I find important\useful that are missing from theirs, hopefully you will also find some thing here that's useful. If nothing else you will find a couple of apps in the list below that will allow you to actually use the SFSS ISO image even if you don't have any idea what to do with it right now or don't have a CD Burner and the software needed to handle ISO images already installed.

Wireshark. Ver Version 0.99.4 - Ethereal is now Wireshark. The definitive Protocol Analyser , if you need to really see what data is flying across your network connections then this is the best way to go.
Multiping Grapher - Pings multiple addresses continuously and graphs the result. Handy for quick testing of connectivity issues.
TFTPD32 V3.03 - Free DHCP, TFTP, SNTP and Syslog Server + TFTP Client. Does what it says on the tin and all in 150K. Handy for ad hoc trapping of Syslog events or setting up a DHCP server for a small LAN party.
GETIF V2.2 - SNMP utility for querying\setting\graphing SNMP data\stats. Have fun exploring network equipment. for more serious fully automated monitonring you should use Tobias Oetiker's MRTG or RRDTool but GETIF is much better for interactive exploration\trouble shooting.
SQL Query Express V3.7 - Completely free SQL Query Analyser. Quite useful if you don't have MS SQL server handy and it adds some additional features to the stock query analyser.
Microsoft XP Virtual CD V.21 - mount ISO's as virtual CD or DVD drives. Very simple and very useful - mount that Starving Students ISO image without even burning it for example.
MKBISO - Make a Bootable ISO image.
BURNCDCC - Small (140k) Burn a CD or DVD from an ISO image.
Folder2ISO V1.3 - Convert a bunch of folders to an ISO.
LCISOCreator - V1.1 - Tiny (14kb) utility to rip CD\DVD discs to ISO. Has some issues with some DVD's and copy protection systems but not bad for 50K.
CPU-Z V1.38 - Get detailed System information from your CPU\MB\Memory. If you want to know your CPU stepping level , L1 Cache details or RAS# to CAS# delay then this is your man.
Panopsys Throttlewatch V2.01 CPU TM2 Throttling, Frequency, Load and CPU Voltage monitor for supported CPU's.
FastStone Screen Capture. V4.8 - Vast improvement on PrtSc\AltPrtSc. If you ever had to make a lot of screen caps then you really want something like this as PrtSc + Pasting into some other app + Saving gets old very fast.
Pmeter - Pixel Meter V 1.03 - On Screen Pixel measurement tool. Very simple but totally effective if you just want to measure things by counting pixels off the screen.
Pstart - V2.09 Portable Start Menu. Very handy menu\shortcut manager - ideal for portable apps.
SyncToy V1.4 - Microsoft's GUI File\directory synchronization utility. This is a really excellent sync utility with multiple sync types support, possibly one of the smartest hidden extra available for Windows from Microsoft.
Sysinternals Utilities. Now Brought to you by Microsoft. :) Start with Process Explorer and Process Monitor but just get them all or at least burn the site address into your head for when you need it.
Robocopy +Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit tools. Includes lots of useful stuff if your running Windows 2000\3 Servers but it is worth getting solely for the 2003\XP010 version of Robocopy. Robocopy idoes for command line junkies what SyncToy does for the more graphically inclined. Now includes bandwidth throttling too.
IRFanView V3.99 - The best image viewer\slideshow utility for windows. Has plugins for every image file type on the planet and a fair few video types too.
DVDX - DVD Ripper. Single step rip and transcode to SVCD\VCD or custom resoltion\bit rate DivX\WMV.
GraphCalc - Windows Graphing Calculator V4.01. Does what it says on the tin, getting a bit dated now but vastly superior to the standard calculator provided by Microsoft.
Notepad++ V3.9 - Fully featured source code text editor and Notepad Replacement.
PureText V2.0 - Convert Clipboard items to plain text before pasting. It's very sinlge minded but if removing the formatting from pasted text is a common problem for you then this is a god send.
The Regex Coach V0.9.0 - GUI Regular Expression debugger. If you use regular expressions at all and your name is not Jeffrey Friedl then this will save you a lot of time.
Password Safe V3.05.02 - You can't live without em so at least keep them safe. This is by far the best way to handle passwords/PIN's and all those nasty details you invent for sites you really dont want to be totally honest with.