Monday, January 31, 2005

 

Dangers of Blogging

Ellen Simonetti was a flight attendant for Delta Airlines. She started blogging about a year ago as therapy after a death in the family. She posted some pictures of herself on board a Delta plane; when her bosses saw them, they fired her.

I also used to read a blog on Journalspace which detailed the colorful love-life of a young British girl. A while ago she posted something about a friend who admitted to having some STDs, including one which she (and I) had never heard of. Obviously, she didn't identify the friend, other than by gender.

Now, her blog has completely disappeared. It's pretty obvious why: if all your friends read your blog and you reveal something like that, common sense should warn you that there might be unfortunate consequences.

To preserve our everyday relationships at home and work, we have to censor ourselves. Blogging provides an opportunity to express ourselves free from censorship.

The Internet can give you a false sense of security and anonimity. There is no immediate feedback like you get when talking to a real person to assist in the self-censorship process.

Bit by bit the identifying details leak out and the next thing, a relationship you value has been irreparably damaged.




Saturday, January 29, 2005

 

High Flight

I was reminded of the terrible tragedy nineteen years ago, the destruction shortly after take off of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

President Reagan went on the TV that evening to pay tribute and said, in part

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

President Reagan possessed the stature to deliver a eulogy for such brave people. I always wondered, though, about the phrase he used, "to touch the face of God."

Now, thanks to the miracle of Google, I have discovered its source. It is from a poem written by Pilot Officer John G. Magee, Jr., an American serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). On December 11, 1941, Pilot Officer Magee died in combat when his Spitfire crashed over Southern England. He was just nineteen years old.

The poem is called "High Flight".

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
1922-1941






Friday, January 28, 2005

 

Going to London?

Muggers operate pretty much with impunity on public transport throughout the British Isles.

One form of attack is known as 'Steaming' where a gang of knife-wielding thugs terrorise commuters into handing over money and valuables. This is not yet commonplace but there's usually an incident every six months or so.

Much more common is the 'distraction' mugging. These will typically be carried out by one to three people. If anybody approaches you in London, inquiring about the time, or claiming to be lost, or just trying to make conversation, ignore them and leave the area as fast as you can.

The police are well aware of who these people are. In any Police station there will be a noticeboard with pictures and details of 'PROMNOMS' - Prominent Nominals, in other words, well known local criminals.

Unfortunately, the revolving door system of justice in the UK means that these criminals view arrest as an occupational hazard, much like a taxi driver would view a flat tire. Arrest - fingerprinting - bail - and they will be back on the streets. Even if they get a jail sentence, it's going to be short, and it's unlikely they'll serve more than one fourth of it.

So I was particularly encouraged today to read this story from the fine city of Houston, Texas.

I would love to compare the robbery statistics in Houston with those of London.




 

Internment Without Trial

Britain has a new Home Secretary. The previous one, David Blunkett, was forced to resign when it became clear that he had used his influence to procure a visa for theFilipina nanny in the employ of his mistress. Like most politicians, his natural reaction when confronted with this admittedly minor charge was denial, denial and denial. When it became clear that there was irrefutable proof he was forced to resign. (In a fine old British tradition, he'll be back in a different post in a few months)

The new Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has come up with a great idea- he'll protect Britain from any and all threats, in perpetuity, by placing anyone he suspects of involvement in 'terrorism' under house arrest. He must have gotten this idea while on a fact-finding mission to Rangoon, where dissident Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for years.

What an excellent idea! With his new 'control orders' he will be able to hold incommunicado anybody the government doesn't like. People who disagree with him, for starters. In fact, if they weren't so utterly useless, I'm sure the first people to be interned would be the leaders of the so-called political opposition in the UK, the Conservative Party.

As it is, he'll every time the opposition leaders open their mouths it probably helps the Government, so Clarke'll let them remain free, while locking up people who oppose the hunting ban or protest in support of Fathers' rights. He'd probably like to lock me up for writing this blog - but, fortunately, I am in the USA.

I'm actually not too worried about any real threat to freedom in the UK. The Government is so monumentally incompetent and gutless that even if it could find the courage to try this in some of the 'minority' areas, they couldn't find anybody to lock them up, and if they did they'd probably lose track of them.

My concern is that these powers will really be abused when Britain officially becomes a province of the United States of Europe. After all, the people behind that project - the Germans and the French - have something of a penchant for repression and genocide.

Finally, my scribbling cannot match the sheer eloquence of Simon Jenkins' dissection of this odious proposal from the Times.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Like many men before him, David Blunkett got into trouble - indirectly - as a result of his involvement in an illicit relationship. Temporarily, at least, this has cost him a well paid job where he is driven around in a fast car or flown in a helicopter, has a $3M mansion in the centre of London, and is protected from the assorted goblins who plague the defenceless citizens of Great Britain by a heavily armed team of bully boys.

Like most British politicians who fall on their sword, Blunkett will be back.

Check out this tale of a guy who indulged in a one night stand which turned into a kind of Fatal Attraction for the dotcom era...


Thursday, January 27, 2005

 

Britain Can Be Proud

Crime is rampant; citizens are prosecuted for acting in self-defence; self-government has been surrendered, without a fight, to Brussels; public transport is the most expensive in the world, and the most unreliable; the Government is a laughing stock; schools turn out showers of uneducated yobs suited only to a life on welfare; thousands upon thousands of useless bureaucrats waste billions of taxpayers' money implementing rules and regulations dreamed up in Brussels and justify themselves with mission statements and glossy brochures; traffic congestion created by incompetent and malicious local authorities is at third-world levels; antibiotic resistant bacteria (MRSA) thrive in filthy state hospitals, making it safer to stay at home, even if you survive the twelve month waiting list to be admitted in the first place.

In one area, though, Britain can boast world-leader status.

Britain is home to the most prolific serial killer of all time.

Dr. Harold Shipman is believed to have killed 250 of his patients over a thirty year career.

The likes of Manson, Corll, Bundy, Gacy, Dahmer, Berkowitz, Neilson, Sutcliffe, et al, have nothing on Shipman, the most dubious member of the medical profession since Crippen.

I'm surprised the Government didn't give him an award for his contribution to reducing the strain on the National Health Service.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

There are still some heroes in the UK though, like this guy.

A PENSIONER whose wallet was snatched in a Frimley Green shop survived a terrifying ride on the bonnet of the thief’s getaway vehicle.
The 67-year-old victim flung himself on the bonnet after chasing the bearded villain out of the One Stop store in Sturt Road on Sunday afternoon.
But the driver, an accomplice of the thief, ignored his pleas to stop and sped into Guildford Road.
The terrified pensioner clung on desperately as the Astra van hurtled over two mini-roundabouts before it slowed down, allowing him to jump off.
Two other people in a car chased the van but lost it in Buckingham Road.


This type of robbery is now so commonplace in the UK most people don't even bother to report it.

But this guy's reaction is not common. Jumping on to the bonnet (hood) of the getaway car? At age sixty-seven? Well done, Sir!





Wednesday, January 26, 2005

 

Unintentionally Funny Headlines#2

Police chief blames Tarantino for violent crime

From the Telegraph. It's behind registration, so I reproduce it here.

Too much Quentin Tarantino and not enough Jane Austen are to blame for the increase in violent crime, a senior police officer has said.

Clive Wolfendale, the deputy chief constable of North Wales Police, said: "We have seen an unprecedented year in the number of violent attacks, which have led to deaths. All of these have been swiftly detected.

"In today's society, more people are likely to spend their evenings watching a Quentin Tarantino DVD than reading a Jane Austen novel. Perhaps we should not be surprised by the consequences."

North Wales Police investigated 11 killings between April and November last year, compared with just two in the same period in 2003.

Attempted murders rose from six to nine and wounding offences increased from 89 to 115.

Mr Wolfendale was criticised last year for delivering a speech to the North Wales Black Police Association in the form of a rap.

He [sic] speech included the lines: "I'm just a white boy called the Deputy CC / They said I'd never make it as a bitchin' MC".


I am honestly not making this up.

Violent crime is out of control for the same reason it was in New York before the days of Kerik and Giuliani - a lack of political will to do anything about it and a willingness to blame society for crime instead of the criminals.

As long as cops are promoted for toeing the politically correct line and not for reducing crime, crime will continue to rise.

For more information on this from the 'front lines', check out the Policeman's Blog.


 

Best of British Pro-EU Bullshit

Today the British Home Secretary, Jack Straw called on patriots to back the new EU constitution.

Excuse me? How the hell can a patriot back a measure designed to remove his country's ability to self-govern and concentrate power in an unelected, corruption riddled body overseas?

If there were any patriots left in Britain they would be in the streets burning things right now. Too bad they're all at home watching satellite TV, reading the tabloid press and stuffing their faces with beer and chips (fries).

It's a good thing there weren't many people in the UK like Jack Straw the last time somebody tried to annex Britain. Back then, he'd have been hung for treason, along with Blair, Mandelson, Major, Howe, Heseltine and the rest of those scumbags.

Selling out your country to a foreign power for money or status is treason. Period. End of discussion.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Spot the difference:

"We'll negotiate a withdrawal from the E.E.C. which has drained our natural resources and destroyed jobs." - Tony Blair, Parliamentary Candidate, 1983

(EEC was the previous name of the EU, it originally pretended to be an economic - i.e., trading - community, rather than a political union)

[The European Union constitution will be...] "good for Britain and good for Europe" - Tony Blair, Prime Minister (and wannabe EU commission president), 2003











 

McDonalds Lawsuit Reinstated

Noticed today in the Chicago Tribune that the McDonalds lawsuit has been reinstated (registration may be required). I find this really depressing. A land of pioneers, adventurers and heroes is now supporting some fat kids who claim they were misled into thinking the food was part of a healthy diet.

Thirty years ago, for me at least, going to McDonalds was a treat. Our parents knew you couldn't base your entire diet on it and wouldn't allow us to. So now the legal system helps those lacking basic common sense or effective parental guidance?

McDonalds provide a product which lots of people, including me, like. Common sense says if you eat too much of it, you'll get fat. You'd have to be living on Mars not to know that.

What on earth is the legal system doing supporting nonsense like this - other than enriching trial lawyers?

If everyone today supposed to be treated like children? I see evidence of this on my daily commute. Metra has big signs everywhere warning you that trains are dangerous. No shit, Sherlock! If, despite all the warnings and the evidence of your own eyes, you decide you're smarter and can take a shortcut across a railway line, and get hit by a train, that's tragic, but in my opinion, an example of the natural process of evolution in action.

Parents need to start taking responsibility for their kids, and people need to start taking responsibility for their own actions instead of finding someone else to blame and looking to the courts for an easy payday.

If you're an enormously fat adult, there's only one person to blame: you. Not a fast food chain. Not your mother. Not people at school who were nasty to you. You. It's your choice.

If you're a fat kid, you need to start looking out for yourself, because your parents sure aren't. Life's tough. No attorney and no amount of money is going to change that.

If you get hit by a train, it's because you thought the warnings didn't apply to you, and you were proved wrong.




Tuesday, January 25, 2005

 

Great Movies#1: AVP

I recently caught AVP: Alien Vs. Predator on DVD. Oddly, when I was in my teens and twenties, I was never much of an action movie fan. But at a time when my gore-soaked contemporaries from Lethal Weapon days are sitting down with their wives to watch Amelie, I find myself revisiting, and thoroughly enjoying, movies like Predator, Predator 2, Alien, and so on.

Sidebar: Want to see a liberal's view of Predator 2? Check this out: (full review here)

"The creature in this movie is a work of subtle racism. Subliminal clues are slipped in to encourage us to subconsciously connect the menace with black males".

Er... that's right, Roger. The guys who designed the Predator, their main goal was to instil fear of black males among the audience. Sure. Why not go and have a nice afternoon nap, and leave the reviewing to someone objective, like the excellent James Berardinelli?

So I am a huge fan of the first two Predator movies. The first pits the Predator against two future US state governors (Schwarzenegger, CA and Ventura, MN) and one would-be state governor (Sonny Landham, KY) as part of a US special forces team in Central America. It's hard to believe this is John "Die Hard" McTiernan's first movie as director. The pacing is relentless and nearly 20 years later it looks every bit as good as it did back in 1987. Another member of Arnold's team picked off by the Predator is Shane Black who penned Lethal Weapon. Legend has it he was sent out there to keep an eye on McTiernan. They needn't have worried!

Predator 2 (1990) takes place in the Los Angeles of 1997. The actual jungle from the first movie is replaced by the urban jungle torn apart by a drug war. The sequel is very enjoyable and every bit as good as its predecessor in my opinion. Danny Glover plays the hero cop avenging the death of his partner at the hands of another Predator. He brings a lot of humanity to the role (in contrast to Arnold's seemingly invincible killing machine). Glover's an excellent, underrated, actor. The movie has some terrific dialog, some of the best from Blaxploitation star Calvin Lockhart: "You can't see de eyes of de demon.... ontil 'im come callin'!"

So after a 14 year delay they finally bring the Alien and Predator franchises together on the big screen. When I heard about this last year I immediately checked out who they were going to get to direct. Cameron? McTiernan? Hopkins? Fuqua?

Paul WS Anderson? Who? A bit of research revealed the dreadful truth. Oh dear God. The man who directed Shopping has been let loose on the two best action movie franchises of all time?

Sidebar: Shopping was Jude Law's first film. It is jaw-droppingly, eye-wateringly, head-scratchingly, forehead-slappingly bad. It's bad in the sense that you can't compare it to any other film for sheer incompetence. If you consider every way in which a film can fail, Shopping manages all of them. It doesn't work on any level. It invents a whole new category of cinematic dreck of which it is sole occupant. For his work on Shopping, I felt that Paul WS Anderson could well be the new Ed Wood, but that gives him too much credit.

My expectations were, therefore, not high going into AVP. It's the first film of the franchise not to get an R rating. So its projected audience was: adolescent boys and me.

The verdict? I actually enjoyed it a great deal. It turns out Paul is absolutely fine directing special effects. It's only when it comes to directing people and conveying a story coherently that he tends to get a bit out of his depth.

In this case, neither were necessary. In all the other Alien and Predator films, the real stars of the film were the humans. But in AVP, the humans are merely extras, and the stars are the Aliens and Predators themselves. As for a story, Paul can't really go wrong. There are certain things which Alien and Predator fans expect in a film, so he just has to copy them from the earlier movies and put them into some kind of order.

The special effects in AVP are great. They used a large hydraulically operated animatronic model for a lot of the Alien shots and they don't rely too much on CGI. One problem is that the Alien/Predator fights are too short and too dark. The Predators have never looked cooler or moved better than they do in this movie.

Another complaint I have is that by allowing the actors to speak instead of just letting them get killed in various inventive ways, Anderson has allowed some unintentionally funny dialogue to creep in, like when Raoul Bova (last seen boning Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun) says: "It's beginning to make sense". Oh really, Raoul? You must give me the name of your pharmacist!

Why is AVP a great movie? I have been a fan of these critters since the Carter administration. Acid blood, facehuggers, invisibility armor and laser-guided smart weapons are practically in my DNA. Of course I'm going to want to see these great creatures go at it, and I'm not going to let a bunch of adolescent boys get in my way!





Monday, January 24, 2005

 

How TigerDirect.Com gave me the shaft

In an earlier post I mentioned buying two 60GB MAXTOR drives. I got them from TigerDirect.com. I'm not hyperlinking that because I wouldn't want anyone else to get the shaft like I did.

The drives I ordered were: Maxtor 60GB / 7200 / 2MB / ATA-133 EIDE Hard Drive for $39.99 after mail-in rebate. Full price is $69.99. So anyway the drives arrive and I sort out how to go about getting my rebate.

Now I have bought hundreds of $ worth of kit from Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, and so on... and never had any problems claiming rebates.

When the drives arrive there's a note pointing you to www.tigerdirect.com/rebates to find out how to claim. You then put in the manufacturer (Maxtor) and find your product. You download a PDF file which basically tells you to go to www.onrebate.com and enter a bunch of stuff. They make a big thing about onrebate.com being a separate, independent organization.

Looks great, doesn't it? Well, go to www.onrebate.com and type anything you like into the "Quick Search", "Enter Your Rebate Tracking Number", "Enter your Email Address", boxes and click GO. Or, click the "Start Claiming your Rebate" button and type anything in any of the boxes on the screen which appears.

Whatever you do, you get "There was an error, please try again.".

Smelling a rat now, I did a DNS lookup on tigerdirect.com and onrebate.com

Domain Name: TIGERDIRECT.COM


Administrative Contact , Technical Contact :

Amato, Peter

(PA2428)

peter.amato@tigerdirect.com

16140 South Post Rd

101

Weston, FL 33331

US

Phone: ***-415-2351

Fax: ***-415-2352

Then I did one on onrebate.com:

Administrative Contact :
Amato, Peter
rw5xh4gc6z3@networksolutionsprivateregistration.com
ATTN: ONREBATE.COM
c/o Network Solutions
P.O. Box 447
Herndon, VA 20172-0447
Phone: 570-708-8780

Mr Amato is a busy guy!

C:\>ping www.onrebate.com

Pinging www.onrebate.com [199.181.77.77] with 32 bytes of data:

C:\>ping www.tigerdirect.com

Pinging www.tigerdirect.com [199.181.77.53] with 32 bytes of data:

Hmm.. what a coincidence!

Finally I just did a google search. Try it!

Earlier I observed that it's hard to be the first to write some cool software. It's also pretty unlikely that you are the first to be scammed. And indeed, I wasn't!

I cannot fault TigerDirect.com for the product itself. The drives arrived promptly and worked fine. I can and do fault them, however, for pretending to offer a rebate when they clearly do not. If it had not been for the rebate, I'd not have bought these drives. Having got your money they bank on forcing you to claim your rebate through a website which looks great but which I am sure is merely a 1-page site designed to make people give up in frustration.

And that, regretfully, is what I've done. Life's too short.






 

A 120GB RAID Server for $250?

How I built my own RAID file server for next to nothing

At home we have various laptops we use about the place, connected wirelessly to the Internet and to each other. Important business files, digital photographs, software code and so on were located all over the place and infrequently backed up to CD, DVD and USB-connected portable disk drives. I was never very happy about this arrangement, and recently resolved to do something about it.

The first problem is: what do you use for backup? CD and DVDs are slow and unreliable. It's quite common to burn files to CD and find they cannot be retrieved. Sure, I'm only using the lousy bug-riddled ROXIO software which came with my Thinkpad, but I didn't want to spend money on NERO when I was not convinced backing up to DVD was the way to go, anyway.

For a while I looked into getting a DAT tape drive. I have always hated tape of every sort since I started using 1600BPI reel to reel tapes on minis in the 1980s and later Quarter-Inch cartridges on SUN workstations and PCs. The sound of the tape buzzing back and forth while my colleagues placed bets as to whether the data would be retrievable or not remains with me to this day. A quick google search revealed that the situation has not improved in the past ten years. Not only that, the drives and tapes are still really expensive.

Around 1997 I'd experimented with the IOMEGA Zip drive but did not want to go that route either.

My solution was, therefore, as follows.

I decided to build a custom file server with two largish hard drives on it. One drive would be the 'primary' and would contain a shared directory below which I would organize all of our important files. The other would be the 'secondary' which would be hidden from the network but to which all changes to the shared directory on the primary would be reflected.

I first wrote a program in C++ which monitors file system activity and reflects changes from the main drive to the backup. Testing revealed that this worked acceptably.

The next step was to source the hardware. Itherefore scoured the Internet for a cheap tower system to act as the host. I found one at Monitorman. $60 bought a 1998 vintage IBM PC300GL, P-II 350Mhz with a 4GB internal drive, 64MB memory, 2xUSB, monitor, mouse and keyboard. You can't beat IBM, in my opinion. If I am buying a six year old computer, I want quality, and IBM kit is something I would be happy going into battle with.

Next, I bought two 60GB MAXTOR drives from a source which shall remain anonymous for the moment. I then bought a cheap authentic copy of Windows 2000, and finally a Netgear WG111 Wireless USB network adapter from CompUSA. Not only is the USB wireless card cheaper than its PCI equivalent, it's a lot more flexible too.

The first thing I did was dump the slow, clunky 4GB drive in the PC300 and install the two shiny new Maxtors. I got Windows 2000 installed and started the process of copying files. However, I started to get random Bugcheck errors and blue screens. After some pointless trial and error I tried installing Linux. The installer consistently failed with a Segmentation Fault (signal 11). This, apparently, is a sign of bad memory. I therefore headed over to memtest.org and downloaded the superb, free, standalone memory test utility there. This revealed that I had a bad memory chip with a consistent failure around the 6.5MB mark.

Monitorman didn't respond to my email asking for a replacement SIMM. To be fair to him, what did I expect for $60? To be even fairer, I may have fried the SIMM by stupidly running the machine overnight copying files with the lid off. Anyway, I purchased a replacement SIMM, a 128MB, from the absolutely excellent UpgradeMemory site for $33 excluding shipping.

With this in place I repeated the task of installing Windows 2000 and assembling all of our files into some sort of order. I left the Primary drive formatted as FAT to allow easy access from a boot disk, and formatted the secondary drive as NTFS to get the additional robustness that system provides.

With the server relegated to the basement, we now hit it over the wireless network. Any files we save to it get copied within about sixty seconds of a cessation of disk activity over to the shadow drive.

I still back up key files to DVD from time to time, but I can rest easy in the knowledge that our day to day work is now automatically saved to two different drives.

OK -- I know it's not really RAID. But in its favour, it's simple, cheap, and I can actually understand it. I can have either of those drives in another machine and have all my files back inside five minutes. All without setting up drivers, RAID arrays, and so on.


 

DELL Laptops

I have had a great deal of experience with DELL kit through work. As far as the desktops are concerned, I can't fault them.

The laptops, on the other hand, are a different matter.

Of around ten people I know who bought DELL Inspiron laptops, EVERY SINGLE ONE has had faults. DELL's technical support line is monumentally useless. They tell you to take out the hard drive and put it back in again. Seven of these laptops were bought to equip employees at a startup consulting company. I'm not exaggerating - every single one had crashes and failures which lost data and hours were wasted on the phone trying to remedy the situation.

I owned a 2001 DELL Latitude and know another person with exactly the same model. In contrast to the budget Inspiron models, these turned out to be very reliable. Mine had a hard drive and battery go down, but after two years of very heavy use combined with international travel, I can forgive that.

My wife on the other hand, has a 2003 DELL Latitude and is on her third motherboard already.

So if you possibly can, I'd advise you to steer clear of DELL laptops.


 

IBM Thinkpad G40

I have always admired IBM kit and recently got an opportunity to purchase an IBM Thinkpad G40 at half price through work.

It's absolutely excellent. It is double the weight of my Averatec, but is aimed at power users and developers instead of the Averatec's target audience of emailers and web surfers. Like the Averatec it had XP Professional preloaded.

It draws a lot of current. The power supply is almost the size of a house brick. It has the best keyboard of any laptop I've ever used, anywhere, period. It has a huge screen I can happily run at 1024x768.

I went for the 512MB upgrade giving me 768MB. I could have bought two 512MBs to give me a round 1GB which would have meant displacing the 256MB it comes with as standard.

It has four - yes, four - USB ports. A built-in 3.5" floppy drive which I have occasionally found useful. And a full-size parallel port so I can drive non-USB printers (there are still a lot around).

I was surprised that the hard drive was a relatively small (!) 40GB. I'll just have to rub along as best I can with it!

It feels bulletproof, robust and stable, almost 'battle ready'.

In six months, it has never put a foot wrong.


 

Averatec Enters UK

The Korean/US laptop manufacturer Averatec is apparently moving into the UK.

I bought an Averatec 3150P from Circuit City in Summer 2003. It was $900 for a 1.4GHz AMD Athlon based machine. What attracted me to it, apart from it being very good value at the time, was how incredibly light it was (4lbs). It also featured builtin wireless and XP Professional (not XP Home). It also has three USB ports, which is extremely useful, with the number of USB devices out there. Who wants a portable computer where you need to carry a USB hub as well?

I thought I was taking a risk, because Averatec had only just started.

Eighteen months later I can report that I have never had a problem with it. One time I contacted Averatec's email support line, to find out how to enable IIS without the XP Pro master CD, never expecting a reponse. To my surprise I quickly got an email back telling me where the XP Master was hidden on the computer's hard drive.

The keyboard is the weakest point of the computer, it's not very nice to use. But apart from that minor quibble I am very satisfied.


Sunday, January 23, 2005

 

Unintentionally Funny Headlines#1

Ukraine's Yushchenko Says He Wants to End Corruption, Join EU

From Bloomberg

Jan. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said he aims to boost citizens' living standards, stamp out corruption and bring the nation of 47 million into the European Union after being sworn in as the country's third post-Soviet leader.

Read More

Is it even worth commenting that joining the EU is a strange thing to do if you plan to eliminate corruption? It's like an alcoholic trying to reform by buying a liquor store.

The EU is so corrupt that for years their official Internal Auditors have refused to sign off their accounts. The whole edifice is corrupt from top to bottom; from the case of people at the top like Paul van Buitenen, the auditor who tried to throw a wrench into the machine and was sacked for his trouble;
Marta Andreasen who suffered similar problems; to the countless farmers who defraud the (itself fraudulent) Common Agricultural Policy.

Yushchenko worked his way to the top in a country where somebody thought nothing of having him poisoned with dioxin to try to eliminate him as a presidential candidate.

Maybe the sleazy bureaucrats, puffed up failed politicians, and other dirtbags, former communists, fraudsters and other assorted scum who run things in Europe are in for a shock!

Just looking at this lot makes me want to take a shower.

While you're here, check out the BBC's really unbiased and objective profile on the former EU President, Romano Prodi (sarcasm mine).

Illinoisians: You may think things were bad under George Ryan and the Illinois bipartisan machine. (Incidentally, I think the so-called 'corruption' here is small in scale and petty indeed). But if you're outraged by what Ryan has been alleged to have done... consider how you might feel if he was a Frenchman imposed on you from abroad that you didn't elect and cannot remove!

 

Airbus A380

The A380 is an amazing plane. Just for fun, I looked up the stats on Howard Hughes' Hughes Flying Boat (commonly referred to as the Spruce Goose).








Spruce GooseA380
First FlightNovember 1947Not Yet Flown
Wingspan319 feet 11 inches261 feet, 10 inches
Length218 feet 8 inches239 feet, 6 inches
Height79 feet 4 inches79 feet, 1 inch
Weight300,000 pounds606,000 pounds

 

Props to the Hardest Working Blogger on the 'Net

Raymond Chen publishes excellent technical articles every workday. He also speaks Swedish and enjoys Knitting. You can check him out here.
 

Memorable Taxi Ride

I recall a memorable yellow cab ride in a major US City a few years back. The driver and I got into a conversation about what it was like being an immigrant to the US. He was a real businessman, and wanted to wait around until after my meeting, and take me around my other meetings for the day, as he knew I was on an expense account.

I mentioned to him that his was the first cab I'd been in, where the driver wasn't separated from the back seat passengers by a floor to ceiling shield, which also stole all the rear legroom. The car had cloth seats, not the usual hard-wearing vinyl. Despite this, it was spotlessly clean inside and out and looked like new.

Didn't he feel a bit exposed sitting there? What about the 'crazies'?

"Oh, I ain't worried about 'dem!" he said, with a big smile at me over his shoulder. He reached over and pulled out a sawn-off shotgun from under the passenger seat and waved it about with a big grin on his face. "Not as long as I got 'dis!".

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Years ago back in the UK I worked for a guy who had started his own business with a type of computer hardware product. He worked designing and building prototypes of this item during the day and drove a mini-cab (like a gypsy cab) during the night to keep himself in funds. Eventually, he gave it up because he was fed up with people who just threatened him with a knife and walked away without paying, or who threw up in the back.


 

The BBC's view of the Presidential Inauguration

Want to see a sneering superior liberal/socialist's view of the President Bush's inauguration?

Check out what Justin Webb from the BBC has to say here.

The BBC is supposed to be impartial but it's OK for its employees to sneer at anything to their right... which is most things.

"So the town was full of Texans who had come to show their solidarity with their adopted son [....]Texans are used to marshalling cattle, not being marshalled like cattle. They don't have many security checks in the lone-star state, so its population is a little naive when the time comes to be x-rayed and frisked."

Good for them! God forbid anybody, anywhere, should ever think it's normal to be "x-rayed and frisked".

"Texans need snacks. They are often very large and very hungry. But all fruit is forbidden at inaugurals - too tempting to throw it at the president and go down in history for the price of a rotten tomato."

If there were a large Rastafarian contingent at the inauguration, can you imagine Justin saying "they are often found smoking controlled substances"?

Our media position was really spectacular - perched to the left of the podium, probably no more than 50ft (15 metres) from where the president would stand.

Someone in the State Department obviously has a sense of humour. Where better to put the mainstream media?

"And of course, all of us there were photographed and monitored. I had to have entire handprints taken weeks ago and checked against various criminal databases in order to get my vantage point. Is this just a nuisance, or is it more? Is America's freedom being undermined even as the president proclaims it from the steps of the Capitol? Perhaps future inaugurations will take place in secure locations with a fake backdrop and a few TV cameras."

I'll agree with him here. America's freedom has never been more at risk than today. Too bad that Justin derides the most freedom-loving people in the nation as being overweight and wearing cowboy hats.





Saturday, January 22, 2005

 

UK being tough on terrorists?

From This Is London

Belmarsh fears acknowledged
21 January 2005

Foreign Office minister Chris Mullin has said "any decent democrat" would be concerned at the holding without trial of terror suspects in a London jail.

Interviewed on the ePolitix website about detentions in Belmarsh Prison, he said: "I don't think anyone can take satisfaction in this situation."

But he said terror suspects should not be allowed to "walk the streets".

That would mark a change in UK policy, if it were true, Mr. Mullin!

Walking the streets at the moment, is Patrick Magee, the IRA terrorist who, in 1984, blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton, in an attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher and her entire cabinet who were staying for a conference. Among the wounded was Mrs. Margaret Tebbit, the wife of then Minister Norman Tebbit. She has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. Patrick Magee was released in 1999.




 

Microsoft Word Users: Are you leaking private information?

Word is the defacto word processor. It's hard to believe that Word Perfect used to be #1, and before that, WordStar with its quirky command keys. Word is now everywhere, and those other packages are a distant memory.

If you put Word documents on the Internet, or send them to clients, bosses or other business partners, you should know about a feature of Word called Metadata.

Metadata are added to your document by Word and can be viewed using File>Properties and Tools>Track Changes.

If you have Track Changes turned on, and send a document, the recipient can see all the edits you and your colleagues made. This has led to embarrassment on more than one occasion; a UK Government department issued a document and you could see all the iterations it had been through as successive civil servants expunged all meaning and content.

File>Properties might reveal a whole bunch of stuff. Did you write a proposal based on a cool template a colleague gave you? Make sure File>Properties doesn't display your colleague's company name, instead of your own!

There's a utility available, iScrub, which removes metadata from Word documents. Disclosure: I have no connection with Esquire Innovations, and receive no revenue from this mention. A lot oflarge law firms use it, to ensure that their final opinion is the only one their client sees.

Another approach is to use Adobe Standard to convert your Word document into a PDF format file. This is a universal file format which can be read on just about any computer platform in use today. In the process of converting your document to Adobe PDF, the metadata are all removed and your client sees only the final copy (and also cannot edit it!)

There are other approaches and third party products which can create Adobe PDF files and remove metadata. Check google, and pick the one which is right for you!









 

What's the deal with email?

While I'm in the mood for blogging about technology, a lot of mobile workers encounter problems sending email while on the road. This is typically not the case for those workers who are part of a firm which offers a Virtual Private Network (VPN) client into a corporate network with its own mail server.

People who have email problems when working remotely are usually trying to use their particular ISP's email server. How come it works from home, but not from an hotel, or Starbucks? How come I can read my mail, but can't send? What's going on?

The reason is that users are being defeated intentionally by measures put in place to make life more difficult for Spammers - those pests who clog mail systems and inboxes with pitches for mortgages, viagra, cheap software, rolexes, and so on.

Mail is sent using a protocol called Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). To send mail, your mail client, such as Outlook or Thunderbird, initiates a connection to a computer which is set up to put mail on the Internet - an SMTP Server. SMTP servers listen on port 21.

You're sat in a hotel plugged into their network or wireless at Starbucks or an airport. You can't send mail. You're being defeated by the following measures, some or all of which may be in effect:



The answer is to create separate profiles depending on what internet provider you're using. If you're in a hotel room on dialup to Earthlink, you have to send all mail via smtp.balista.com. Don't ask me why, but that's the name of Earthlink's SMTP server. So you'll need to create a profile with these details for when you're connected via Earthlink.

If you're connected at home via Comcast, you'll need to create a profile which sends mail via smtp.comcast.net.


Good luck!



 

Protect Your Home Wireless Network

For the last three years, every laptop I've owned has had built-in wireless capabilities. When you boot up these computers, they automatically scan for available wireless networks.

I was amazed how many would typically be found. The computer will latch on to the nearest unsecured one. Practically everywhere I went, I would discover my computer had, without any prompting from me, taken it upon itself to locate a source of free Internet access.

The ethics of using such a connection are not clear; if you are just surfing chicagotribune.com, it's not like you're stealing a great deal of bandwidth from its rightful owner. But is it OK to walk uninvited into somebody's home through an open screen door and help yourself to a glass of water on a hot day? It's not OK... and in most places in the United States, it would be rather dangerous!

We have recently moved into a new home. I took the opportunity to order COMCAST cable internet. To the COMCAST-supplied cable modem I attached a basic Linksys WRT54G wireless router. This allows my wife and myself the flexibility to access the Internet from anywhere in our home, from any of our various laptop and desktop computers, and PDAs.

The WRT54G also has the welcome effect of acting as a firewall. A firewall allows you out to the Internet for surfing, but prevents uninvited Internet traffic crossing into your systems.

If you plug your standard Windows computer directly into a cable modem without a firewall in place, you are asking for trouble. As an exercise, I once connected an unpatched laptop running Windows 2000 to the Internet. Within one hour it had three separate executable programs running on it which had been 'inserted' and remotely started by nefarious people somewhere on the Internet, using vulnerabilities in that operating system.

So, with the WRT54G in place, and running the free version of ZoneAlarm on our computers, we're fairly safe from that type of attack.

But I also knew from experience that our Internet connection was now "open for business" for anyone with a wireless card. Even though our house is some distance from our nearest neighbours, I counted nine other wireless networks, most of which were not secured.

So what's the risk? Well, anyone connected to our Router could certainly have a go at breaking in to other machines likewise connected, as they form part of the same subnet. But they could also use the connection for a variety of activities which they could carry out in complete anonymity, while we would get the blame as it would all trace back to our IP (Internet) address:

- Downloading from illegal, obscene sites
- Song Swapping (hello RIAA/MPAA lawsuit)
- Sending unsolicited commercial email (SPAM)


It amazes me that given all the publicity surrounding public figures caught with various illegal types of porn on their computers, soccer moms being sued by the RIAA because their kids downloaded the latest Eminem songs, people are not more careful about who they allow to use their Internet connection.

If the feds bust down my neighbour's door and cart away his computer because someone at his IP address was downloading illegal types of porn, he may eventually be able to prove his innocence. Probably not before he's done the 'perp walk' in handcuffs, been named in a press conference by an aggressive publicity seeking prosecutor, lost his job and had the Feds smash up all his equipment, and maybe had DCFS take his children into care.

By now you're probably thinking, maybe I'll stick with wired Internet, and forget the wireless. I don't blame you. But I'm going to describe some steps you can take to reduce the risk that you're sharing your connection with some lowlife.

The WRT54G and, I am sure, any other wireless router worth the name, has two key security features which you will enable if you have any sense.

You access the configuration on the WRT54G by entering your favourite web browser and surfing to http://192.168.1.1

You'll be prompted for a username and password. Leave the username blank and enter the default password from your documentation. Hint: if you are lost at this point, stop and get someone more comfortable with computers to help!

Change the default router password

You MUST change this default password to something every ten year old hacker doesn't know. Otherwise anyone who can connect to your router from inside or outside your home can reconfigure it and lock you out.

To do this, click the "Administration" label. In the "Router Password" box enter a password which you'll use in the future to access this configuration page. Enter the same password in the "Re-Enter to Confirm" box and click Save Settings.


Enable Wireless MAC Filter

It's a little known fact that all devices connected directly to TCP/IP networks, which is what the Internet is, have a unique number known as the Media Access Control (MAC) address. You may know you will get assigned or set manually an IP address (of which 192.168.1.1 is an example). However, the MAC address of your computer's wireless network card is burned in at the factory and is globally unique. That's right - no other piece of hardware on the planet, has the same number.

If you're curious and are running Windows XP, 2003, 2000, or NT, you can see what your MAC address is. Start a command prompt and type:

IPCONFIG/ALL

The MAC address is the "Physical Address" that IPCONFIG is talking about. If your computer has a wireless card and also a built in wired Ethernet port, you will see two MAC addresses, one for each. There are ways to discover your MAC address whatever operating system you're running. But fortunately, I don't have to spell all that out in order for you to be able to enable Wireless MAC Filtering on your WRT54G router.

Wireless MAC Filtering is basically you telling the Router: Only allow the following devices on the network. Although people will be able to see your network, your router will reject connections from any hardware whose MAC address is not on a list. Can MAC addresses be spoofed? Almost certainly. Is this foolproof? No security measure is. Will it stop your neighbour's eleven year old kid uploading a huge collection of pirated music and games to the Internet? Unless he's incredibly smart and determined - and there are no other unprotected networks he can use instead - probably.

Click the Wireless tab in the Router setup. Then click "Wireless MAC Filter".

Set "Wireless MAC Filter" to "Enable". Select the "Permit Only" option.

Then ensure all the computers you want to access your wireless network are powered up and click "Edit MAC Filter List". In the window which appears, then click "Wireless Client MAC List". You'll see a list of computers the Router can see connected. Does the number of items on the list correspond to the number of computers you own? Any more, and you already have an uninvited guest! Before you dash off a note to your attorney, remember, computers will seek out insecure networks and connect automatically, so don't assume a malicious intent here.

In the "Wireless Client MAC List: Enable MAC Filter" column, check all those computers you recognize. Then click "Update Filter List" and "Close". In the "MAC Address Filter List" provided you can see the MAC addresses you expect, click "Save Settings" to close the window. Then click "Save Settings" on the "Wireless" tab.

Next power off the router and cable modem and wait thirty seconds. Power on the cable modem and wait for a minute. Then power up the router.

You're good to go!


Friday, January 21, 2005

 

Heroes#1: Robert Nairac

An occasional series on people I regard as heroes

Capt. Robert L. Nairac, GC

The brutal conflict in Northern Ireland was at its worst in the 1970s. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) carried out its 'armed struggle' both at home and on the British mainland. For a regular infantryman, a posting to Norther Ireland meant exposure to urban warfare in all its forms - riots, petrol bombs, sniper attacks, checkpoint duty, roadside bombs detonated by command wire as a vehicle passed nearby; and, in the worst possible case, capture, interrogation and murder by the IRA.

Also operating in Northern Ireland during the 1970s were the British Special Forces, the Special Air Service or SAS. The job of the SAS was to go to ground in the areas known as 'bandit country' in South Armagh and try to stalk and intercept terrorists before atrocities could be carried out.

Capt. Robert Nairac was a Grenadier Guardsman who served four tours of duty in Northern Ireland. His task was to conduct surveillance operations against the IRA. He was unofficially 'attached' to the SAS.

Capt. Nairac attended the Catholic school of Ampleforth in England, and also studied at Oxford. Upon arrival in Northern Ireland he grew his hair long and adopted an Irish accent, the better to blend in with the locals and gain their trust. He wrote a manual for the benefit of his colleagues, "Talking to People in South Armagh". He believed that by working with local people he could build relationships with them in such a way as to make it harder for the terrorists to operate.

He was a true adventurer and a throwback to a bygone age. A schoolfriend remembered that he owned a pet hawk, and would enjoy a game where he would place a piece of meat on the bridge of his nose, and let the hawk pick it off.

In May 1977 Capt. Nairac went to a pub in South Armagh to meet with an informant. He never returned.

Capt. Nairac's Posthumous George Cross citation reads, in part:

"On his fourth tour Captain Nairac was a Liaison Officer at Headquarters 3 Infantry Brigade. His task was connected with surveillance operations.

"On the night of 14/15 May 1977 Captain Nairac was abducted from a village in South Armagh by at least seven men. Despite his fierce resistance he was overpowered and taken across the border into the nearby Republic of Ireland where he was subjected to a succession of exceptionally savage assaults in an attempt to extract information which would have put other lives and future operations at serious risk. These efforts to break Captain Nairac's will failed entirely. Weakened as he was in strength-though not in spirit-by the brutality, he yet made repeated and spirited attempts to escape, but on each occasion was eventually overpowered by the weight of the numbers against him. After several hours in the hands of his captors Captain Nairac was callously murdered by a gunman of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who had been summoned to the scene. His assassin subsequently said "He never told us anything".

"Captain Nairac's exceptional courage and acts of the greatest heroism in circumstances of extreme peril showed devotion to duty and personal courage second to none." .

It has emerged that Capt. Nairac's body was disposed of in a meat processing plant. He was 28 years old.

No words can adequately describe my respect for this man. An Oxford graduate, he could have had a successful, rewarding career in any area of business and finance, raised a family and had a comfortable life. Instead, he chose to play his part in defending the people of Northern Ireland against a band of killers, and ultimately paid with his life.


Capt. Robert L. Nairac, GC 1948-1977 Posted by Hello



o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Postscript

In future posts, I plan to highlight the subsequent course of events in Northern Ireland. To give a foretaste of what's to come, consider that when the current Mayor of London, "Red" Ken Livingstone, first became an MP in the 1980s, he used his maiden speech in the House of Commons to attack the late Capt. Nairac, claiming that he was some type of assassin.

Also ask yourself, how do we know what happened the night he died? The killer must have been brought to justice, and be serving at least a life sentence! You'd think so, wouldn't you?




 

Starbucks: Original Business Plan

I'd love to see Starbucks' original business plan:

"Customers stand in line for twenty minutes on their way to work to get a paper cup of hot milk with a splash of coffee, for which they'll pay $3.50. For atmosphere, we'll have a unique colour scheme, from an artist who went on an LSD trip in 1965 and has not yet returned; and, practically every surface will be covered with a sticky residue of spilled coffee and sugar. For seating we offer wooden chairs to remind you of kindergarten, or bizarre armchairs, from which the sitter may need the assistance of a rope to extricate themselves."





 

Processor Developers Hit A Wall

There's been a lot of well-founded speculation recently in the IT industry that the phenomenal growth in the power of the CPU chip has started to tail off. A good article is here and another is here. Apparently, extrapolating from previous growth, by now we should all be using 4GHz chips. But Intel's fastest chip today runs at 3.2GHz.

I have a copy of the world's first spreadsheet, VisiCalc. Thanks to Microsoft's philosophy of backwards compatibility, I can run this 27K (yes, K, not MB) executable on my Windows XP machine.

Think about that. The first 'killer app' - which provided the impetus to sceptical managers and executives to bypass their IT (or Data Processing as it was then) departments, go out and buy microcomputers like the Apple II and become empowered to crunch their own numbers without waiting on the DP department to do it for them - fit in 27K. It would run - and allow the user to accomplish real work - on a PC with 64K of memory or an Apple II with 48K and a 1MHz 6502 processor.

It took true skill and insight to develop applications for platforms like that. The first version of Microsoft BASIC that I used was on a 6502 based computer. It fit into 8K of ROM and would work in 4K of RAM. Disassembling this ROM revealed tricks like squeezing a few extra instructions in by using the (fairly redundant) BIT instruction and hiding an opcode in its operand. I can't remember the opcodes exactly but if you did

LABEL BIT $A900

All that would happen in the normal flow of control would be that the processor flags would change. But if you jumped to LABEL+1 byte, the instruction hidden there (LDA #$00) would be executed.

That trick saved memory but the real challenge was getting sufficient performance, in other words, fast response times, out of the slow computers of the day. That took a great deal of knowledge and skill on the part of the application designer. "Real Programmers" in other words.

Part of the boom in technology over the past fifteen years can be attributed to the fact that prior to around 1991, if you wanted to develop a serious business application, you needed a great deal of skill as an application developer (programmer).

Now, everybody uses the "Dummies" books and code generation facilities in packages like Access, Excel and Visual Studio, in conjunction with pre-built components, and calls themselves a programmer. The programmer's role has been dumbed down of late.

Today people want to use their computers for processor intensive tasks such as full motion video editing, which were unthinkable ten years ago. It's ironic that precisely at the point that we've come up with applications which can use all the power the processor manufacturers have given us over the past five years, tempting us with all the possibilities, they hit a wall.

Getting adequate performance going forward will mean knowing how to exploit the parallelism technology in the new generations of multicore chips. Multithreaded and parallel programming requires a good deal of knowledge and experience to do right.

Maybe the development tools and operating systems we use will hide all the complexity. But maybe, just maybe, we are on the verge of the programmer needing to be a wizard once again. To build new development tools for the masses, if nothing else.


 

United Airlines

With the exception of Government-run organisations and Government departments, there are no organizations on earth other than the major airlines where the employees actively hate their customers.

Here's my message to any employees of UA reading: we hate you guys too! Believe me, we don't fly for pleasure, and we are certainly not troubling you by trying to check in for our own amusement.

Just like you, we'd rather be anywhere else and doing just about anything else other than standing here trying to check in.

We'd prefer to check in using the automatic machines, but you haven't quite got them working yet, have you?

We're sorry to be distracting you from whatever it is you'd prefer to be doing, but we'll be gone soon, as long as it's not raining out, and so too, with any luck, will your airline.



 

Trump: Redux

Remember Donald's famous mantra: "I. Don't. Like. Excuses. You're fired!".

Check this out from his Casino operations:

Our Company faced many challenges in 2003, which impacted our operating results. A very stormy and cold winter with many major snowstorms made it difficult for our patrons to get to Atlantic City. A blizzard during the Presidents Day holiday weekend, historically one of the best performing periods, basically crippled the market. In the early spring, the market was affected by the Iraqi war. The second half of 2003 saw the opening of the Borgata, which initially drew many patrons away from the existing casinos. Our Marina property was further impacted by the fact that the return ramp necessary to get from the Borgata to the Trump Marina was not completed by the State until October 2003.

I'm being a bit unfair. Trump's not United Airlines or the British Government. I'm sure he employs top-quality people and his losses probably were unavoidable. But still worth including I think.



 

Cars That Suck#1: Lexus ES300

This car exists because women who know nothing about cars like to show off. "Oh, we have a Lexus". Wow!

I'm here to tell you now: don't buy one. It's a piece of shit.

For a start, it is a Toyota Camry with a slightly different interior. I don't mean it shares some components. It's the same damn car. The Toyota Camry wins reliability awards and is very popular. But it's not a luxury car.

They are all automatics, like most cars in the US. Automatics in that price range should be about effortless power. Unfortunately, there's no power from this engine until you hit about 4000 RPM, it's like a motorbike in that respect. The auto box's ability to 'kick down' is poor. It takes so long that if you want to pass someone today you have to manually change down using the gear selector. Because this car's aimed at dummies, believe it or not, as soon as you subsequently get anywhere near the red line, it takes it upon itself to change up, regardless of the position of the gear selector lever, or the position of the car (facing oncoming traffic alongside an 18 wheeler, for example).

Good luxury cars offer the driver a feeling of rock-solid stability. This car is terrible in crosswinds, and in all conditions once you go over about 75 MPH. The steering is so vague and woolly that going into a bend you have literally no idea what the front wheels are doing and whether you are going to make it or not.

I saved the best till last. Like many modern cars the ES300 has a 'traction control' facility which is meant to reduce power in the event of wheelspin. My first exposure to this feature came when I attempted to turn left from a residential street on to a very busy road. After waiting some time for a small gap in traffic, I floored the accelerator and the car lurched reluctantly forward. A surprise was awaiting me, however. As soon as I started to turn the wheel, the power was killed. Stone dead. What the ****?! (It reminded me of a 1970s car I had where some bad fuel caused a sudden power loss and it slowed down by itself). This time I was lucky. To this day I flip off the traction control when driving away in the morning. You never know when you'll need a sudden burst of acceleration and I don't want some piece of shit car overriding me.

Hint to Lexus: If the driver accelerates hard, it may not be because he's suffering from dementia and has mistaken the accelerator for the brake!

On a practical basis there's very little legroom in the rear if the driver is more than 5'2" tall. There's barely space in the trunk to get a stroller in.

Stylistically the car is a hideous slabsided characterless lump.

What pisses me off about this car we got it on a lease and still have 17 months left. We're paying $400 a month for a car which is totally outclassed in practically every respect by cars costing half as much. I'm especially pissed off that a month after we got stuck with this car, they brought out the 330. Mind you, that will still have the suicide traction control and lousy auto box.

Better cars: 1975 Rover P6 V8, Oldsmobile Intrigue.

Recap: a gutless, underpowered slug of a car. Avoid at all costs.

 

Apprentice 3: #1

I'll admit it. I watch The Apprentice. It's one of two shows I actually make sure I watch, the other being The Shield.

So Season 3 kicked off last night. As usual you had Donald talking about how great New York is and about its "energy", and various other things, many of which were "yooge", whatever that is.

I don't know if it's deliberate self parody, tongue-in-cheek, or if it's done in absolute seriousness, but I always laugh when they use footage of his 'Trump' personal aircraft, or show him getting in and out of his 'Trump' helicopter or limo. But the absolute best bits are when they show him on the street, among 'the masses', with people cheering and clapping him.

Yesterday night, I got the distinct impression that the crowd cheering him were his own employees outside Trump Tower but this may have been due to the editing. I can imagine what went before: "OK Folks, the people from NBC are here and I want a yooge cheer when I get out of my limo. I don't like people with low energy. If I see people not cheering me when I get out of the limo, they'll come back with me to the boardroom and *will* *be* *fired*. Ok. Let's go".

Personally I have a lot of respect for Trump. I like people who dance to their own tune, don't care about convention, and yet manage to make a lot of money.

Trump's making money by turning himself into a Brand. Why do people pay $400 for a purse which some kid in an Asian sweatshop made, at a cost of $2? Because it's got a famous brand name on it. Why do people buy a Jaguar when it shares most of its components with a Ford and is basically the same car? Again it's the name. Why invest in real estate when there are thousands of square feet of unlet space downtown? Because it's got the Trump name on it.

So you have the Trump Tower, the Trump Casinos, the Trump National Golf Course, and for all I know the Trump Extrajudicial Detention Facility, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Apprentice 3: At first glance, the producers seem to have assembled a more down to earth bunch of people than on Apprentice 2. Anyone who saw Apprentice 2 will remember that show's signature moment: Andy the Harvard debating champion's 'shoot-me' expression while Jennifer M and Elizabeth attacked him in stereo. At the end Trump told him, he'd been out debated. If I'd been him I'd have said, that wasn't a debate, it was a cat fight.

Anyway, no surprises that Todd was fired and not Danny. Danny adds some much-needed colour and makes good TV. I sometimes disagree with his firing decisions: firing Pamela in the last series? What was that all about? But in this case he was absolutely right from a ratings perspective at least.







Thursday, January 20, 2005

 

British Political Figures #1 - John Prescott

An occasional series profiling leading figures in British politics

John Prescott is the British "Deputy Prime Minister". In other words, Tony Blair's deputy. It's not strictly true to say that he is equivalent to the US Vice President, because, at least officially, Britain is a constitutional monarchy rather than a representative republic, and Tony is not, other than in his own mind, the President. You can see John Prescott's official bio here.

John is famous for several things. He is well and truly aboard the British anti-car bandwagon. This is despite one, or rather two, main drawbacks: his collection of Jaguars. And his official Government limo, of course. Once at a party conference he had his driver drive himself and his wife 200 yards to avoid her hair being blown by the wind. But according to John, seventy year old widows have to drag their shopping home on the bus, risking assault by out of control schoolkids or stray "care in the community" pond life, to protect the environment! Of course.

It's a bit risky to call John out about this. The other thing he's famous for, as you can see, is his tendency to debate with his fists. But if he gave you this look it might serve as a bit of a warning, don't you think?

John owes his position to the fact that his boss, Tony, isn't really a Labour politician at all. He's actually a Conservative. After the Thatcher revolution, the British electorate convincingly and repeatedly rejected state socialism, which was all the Labour party of the time offered. When Blair became leader in 1994 he realised the only way he was ever going to get the top job was to move Labour's political views nearer those of the Conservatives. However, the party at that time had a large number of traditional Labour movement members steeped in the party's activist past - veterans of many a picket line, go-slow, lock-out, and well organised riot.

Therefore, Tony appointed John, a firebrand traditional left winger, as a sop to this body. As it has been increasingly sidelined in Labour and replaced by the liberal intellectual tofu eating holiday home in France tendency, he has remained, isolated and irrelevant, frozen in time, like a chunk of Berlin wall unaccountably left in the middle of a bustling market square, which people do not really notice.




 

Life in America

America gets a bad press. Look at the President. He's not a charismatic leader. When he appears at press conferences and squints into the camera he looks like a mole who has just emerged from his burrow at the wrong time of day. People think America is all about guns, violence, porn and drugs.

I live here, and I can tell them, they're wrong.

Chicago is the best city I've ever visited. My suburban house is the best I've ever owned. Were I to earn triple in London what I earn here, I could not even approach the standard of living I enjoy today.

What's so great about Chicago?

- It's very safe. There are no aggressive beggars or groups of feral kids harrassing passers by. It's spotlessly clean. There are wide sidewalks with no broken paving slabs or potholes. I've never seen a garbage bag on the sidewalk outside a restaurant.

- A bus ride is $2. The bus drivers don't need to hide behind armoured shields.

- I can park all day in the middle of downtown for $17.

- The CTA (underground) is cheap, frequent and safe. Fares haven't risen since 1991.

- Cabs are plentiful and cheap.

- METRA, the local rail system, is cheap (monthly season ticket from the suburbs is $120 for a 45 minute ride). Delays and cancellations are so rare that when they happen they make the morning traffic bulletin on the radio. METRA operates during periods of rain, snow and heatwaves exactly the same way.

- The traffic volume downtown in the rush hour is reminiscent of that in London in the 1970s - on a Sunday. They don't carry out endless, pointless roadworks, close roads, and change traffic signals to stay on red for inordinate periods of time, just to create congestion to justify a 'congestion charge'.

Those are the practical benefits. Then you have the stunning architecture. Drive North on Lake Shore drive just as the sun is starting to come up. Try not to be so distracted by the awesome vista of downtown that you plough into the back of the car in front. A lot of the buildings are just stunning - like out of a science fiction movie. This is truly the "first world".

Chicago is a city run by "the machine". "Machine" politics is when a strong, autocratic leader uses patronage to build up a powerbase by rewarding those who help him. Our leader is Mayor Richard M. Daley, son of the famous Mayor Richard J Daley who ruled uninterrupted from 1955
to his death in 1976. Daley takes a lot of flak for the corruption which goes on here. There's a columnist in the Chicago Tribune, an excellent writer, John Kass, who has a crusade going against Daley and his cronies.

My view? I think Daley's a great mayor. He's been in power since 1989. I hope he stays in power another sixteen years. I don't like politicians, but Mayor Daley - you're doing a great job. You'd have my vote, if I were allowed to vote!

You can't run a city like Chicago unless you're an autocrat. You have to be tough and know how to knock heads together and make things happen.

As far as I'm concerned I'm happy if people make a little money on the side. Better than the situation in London with thousands of useless bureaucrats writing mission statements while the place slides down the toilet.





 

Chicago Weather

The weather here is easy to report on.

It's either:

- Cold
- Very Cold
- Bloody Cold

Today it is merely "Cold" although the wind-blown snow gets right in your eyes.


 

A Job for Life

Back home in the UK, 2005 is going to be an election year. In the UK the voter has a choice - between two Socialist parties. There's no political discussion at all there. Fifteen years after the end of the cold war, the to and fro between left and right has been replaced by left wing homogeoneity.

In fact, due to the massive influence of the European Union, membership of which their own leaders conned Britons into voting for in 1973, the Government of the UK is now more or less irrelevant. They simply figure out how to implement policies dreamed up by their bosses in Europe, with occasional 'rows' staged for the benefit of the tabloid press, so the British public can delude themselves they still live in an independent country. Britain's tax rates used to be among the lowest in Europe. Now after eight years of that miserable bastard Gordon Brown, UK tax is at more or less European levels. (Tax competition's unfair, you see)

There are three groups of people in the UK who benefit from all this Government. The first is the vast army of work-shy scroungers, which exist on generous handouts from the taxpayer. The second is the enormous coterie of advisors, civil servants, consultants and various hangers on. And finally you have Government itself - the Members of Parliament. All six hundred and fifty nine of them. They rake in about sixty thousand pounds a year each, added to which they can employ their wives as 'secretaries', funded by the public purse, for a similar amount. They can drink 24 hours a day in the only bar in the UK which opens round the clock. They park for free in Central London and until recently at Heathrow.

But what do they actually do? They don't show up much in the Houses of Commons, that's for sure. Just watch the Parliament Channel! Tony Blair rarely shows up there - what's the point? MPs are meant to represent the interests of their constituents. But if that means upsetting their party bosses, and derailing the gravy train - well, they'll probably just write a stiffly worded note of protest instead.

If you can stand being ignored and irrelevant on the world stage and a laughing stock in your own country, being a Member of Parliament is a great living. Why else are there dozens of applicants for every position? And why, when they are caught in bed with some bimbo by the tabloids, do they fight so hard to keep their jobs?

So what does the British public think about this?

The average Brit is a moronic drunken lout whose horizons do not extend further than beer and football and the occasional violent outburst. He probably has a reading age of about ten. If he grew up in the 1960-1970s, he has been to a succession of Government schools where the 'child centred' philosophy of the Department of Education meant that there were actually no formal lessons. He has a strong sense of entitlement - to handouts for unemployment, disability, or whatever. He lives in a cramped, pathetic little house owned by a Housing Association. His neighbours are mostly unemployed. If he went to school in the 1980s, the complete absence of any discipline there has achieved the same effect as the absence of any teaching did in the preceding decades. Feral kids roam the estate outside vandalising cars, assaulting people, taking drugs and sniffing glue.

Brits think the Government should solve all their problems. They've been bred to this by sixty years of state Socialism, under both main parties. Socialism needs to turn people into clients who need Government to intervene in their lives. They identify oppressed 'minorities' to champion and 'problems' which need 'solutions'. After all, as we have seen, being in Government is a great living. Better than having to meet stockholder expectation or build something which works better than the competition.

As long as you can think fast on your feet, fake sincerity, and know who to brown nose, and have no decency or backbone, go into politics. It's a job for life.



 

Why Blog?

I like to think I have something to say. I read many blogs, and in a lot of cases, they are about as engaging as the contents of someone's shopping list.

Life rarely gives one the opportunity to vent. To maintain relationships at work and home, one is required to censor oneself. My blog's title is actually inappropriate. In a real gunroom, it was rare for any of those present to offer strong opinions - if you were going to be sharing a cramped space, bad food in conditions of extreme danger for two years it was as well to ensure you got along.

At age forty I think I have useful insights to offer. Certainly, I wish I'd known at age twenty, what I know now. I've made a lot of mistakes. The only way I can rationalise this is to say - if I can prevent somebody else making the same mistake, maybe it was worthwhile.

I'm not very challenged at work. Writing a blog means I can be hammering away at my keyboard when the bosses walk by instead of staring into space or surfing random websites.

I'm not posting any biographical details, save that I am forty, a British expat who has lived in Chicago for quite a number of years now.

Maybe other stuff will emerge in time.




 

"Blogifesto"

My blog aims to:

- Give me a forum to vent about things which annoy me;

- Amuse and entertain;

- Annoy liberals;

- Inform.

Comments are welcome. Excerpts of particularly critical ones are likely to be posted prominently, particularly if they contain bad grammar and misspelling.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?