Author Archives: veg

You fool!

As I left the shower this morning I was shocked to see this on the kitchen floor – the dog had recently seemed pretty lethargic and they do get tummy troubles from time to time. Being completely unable to handle this kind of thing, I remained glued to the spot and yelled for Michele; after all, dealing with animal dejecta is her specialty. “Something really horrible has happened!” She came running in and looked pretty confused. Her immediate reaction was to try to diagnose the problem before even trying to clear it up. She knelt down and to my horror dipped two fingers into the horrific mess. There is a limit to my admiration for her professional interest in animal health and I thought I’d reached it with her sniffing the dog’s diarrhea when she upped the ante by putting both fingers into her mouth and licking them.

There were a good few seconds of stunned silence as my brain tried to come up with every possible explanation for what I’d just seen. It was only when she collapsed laughing that I remember the date…
OK, you really got me.
For the record, chocolate pudding, plasticine and brown leather paint are very, very convincing.


Welcome to London Heathrow

“The local time is 7:02 AM, and your internal clock time is 2:02 AM. We hope you managed to get a couple of minutes sleep despite our concerted efforts to make the journey as uncomfortable and cramped as legally possible. The weather in London is traditional English: grey, mild, with a chance of showers. UK and EU passengers should join the ludicrously long line for the newly improved rapid, automated passport control system. Simply walk into the slaughterhouse-style enclosure, place your passport on the glass and stare at the screen until the flashing sign asks you to seek assistance. Once the “Border Force” employee has attended to all of the other gates she will ask you to step out and back in again. The whole process should take no more than a couple of hours.
Passengers with checked baggage should wait by carousel number 3 for approximately an hour while a selection of mysteriously unclaimed suitcases are displayed for your entertainment.
Once passengers have negotiated the bewildering maze of customs passages, interconnection with London Underground is a short 45 minute walk along corridors decorated with beautiful murals depicting the wondrous experience you would bloody well hope to expect if you forked out 25 quid for the Heathrow Express. Passengers should be aware that by the time they reach the London Underground it will be rush-hour and consequently should prepare themselves for a hellish journey of about an hour and a half, packed in with commuters who want to kill them for bringing a large quantity of encumbrances and obstacles in the shape of suitcases and backpacks onto an already impossibly overcrowded train.
Thank you for flying Air Airways – we hope you choose to fly with us again, even though we are fully aware you didn’t actually choose us.”


Balls of the base variety

The company paid for us to have a day in the sun and even provided some food and beer – all while we should have been at work. Who could object to such a good deal? Me.
Without wanting to sound ungrateful, I feel the need to comment on my first baseball experience. The TL;DR version is:

  • Tailgating is a depressing testament to the failure of America to live up to its own hype.
  • The Phillies played like crap
  • Baseball is a stupid and boring game. Stupider than Cricket. Stupider than American Football (and that’s saying something).
  • It was 92F and there is no shade in the vast majority of the ground. But that doesn’t put people off for some reason.
  • Fans of the Phillies (pretty much everyone in Philadelphia) absolutely do not understand how anyone could not be thrilled by the experience let alone understand my view on it.

So, for the uninitiated, the start of a day of serious sportsfanship in this colony involves “tailgating” which means starting the day’s celebrations in the parking lot [car park] where people “party” by drinking beer, throwing things around and sometimes grill food.
Now, like every other human being on the planet, there’s nowhere I’d rather be on a hot sunny day than a massive concrete parking lot together with a bunch of people I don’t know from work who are all wearing the same clothes. Drinking a beer, having a sandwich and watching everyone thrill to the excitement of playing “cornhole” (they really do call it that) is indisputably fun of course. But doing so in a massive concrete car park, with all of the romantic and sensual sights and smells that go with it creates a truly memorable experience.
Wiley enterprising patriots set up stands near by where you can purchase bottles of overpriced water and “Trump for President” T-shirts; proud murcans all.

But of course, this rich cultural experience was just the hors d’Oeuvres – the main course (which is inexplicably known as “entree” in the U.S.) was yet to come.

A few of us were unable to suspend our excitement and so left the parking lot before all of the beer had been quaffed and headed over to the stadium. The obscene heat punished us for daring to leave the shady serenity of the concrete but we persevered in the knowledge that excitement, refreshment and seating awaited us in the cathedral of sports that was only an agonizing few minutes walk away in the 92F heat and 90% humidity.
We eagerly presented our company-bought tickets and were permitted entry to the ruby city of the Phillies stadium. It was everything I imagined it would be! A vast amphitheater packed with armies of identically dressed people sampling the gastronomic delights and audaciously over priced beer before returning to their seats where the non-stop action can be enjoyed.

There was some initial confusion regarding the location of our seats, but after a long and tiring slog through the labyrinthine stadium village we eventually found the oddly shaped grill that was our alloyed seating: the Budweiser Rooftop! Imagine the top shelf of the oven but with a good view of the lush green sportsball field.

I started writing this over a year ago but ran out of inspiration, though you can pretty much imagine the rest – especially if you’ve seen a baseball game.


A Phoenix and a Magic Carpet: rights and wrongs

TL;DR. Phoenix and ChildrenIn the 1970s the BBC produced a TV adaption of “The Phoenix and the Carpet” by E.Nesbit. The images stuck with me and it was probably my first introduction to the concept of a magic carpet – something that I’ve been intrigued by ever since.
On a whim, I decided to see if the Internet could provide me with a way to watch it again, but all I could find was a 15 minute clip on YouTube that served only to whet my appetite even further. So I kept searching. It transpires that the BBC remade the series in 1997, and I did manage to find a torrent of this, but it just didn’t suffice: I’ll explain why further down.
On further searching I discovered a tantalizing link to a BBC site with the title “The Phoenix and the Carpet | Watch Online | BBC Store” and a summary containing the magic date 1977. Of course, disappointment was only a click away and came in the form of the only-too familiar “BBC Store.com is not available in the US and Canada.” together with a page explaining why you may be seeing that page even if you’re not in the US or Canada.
Now, it’s not necessarily the BBC’s fault that they have to enforce this ludicrous restriction, but it still irritates me in the extreme when archaic legal restrictions based on national boundaries attempt to apply themselves on the Internet: apart from being illogical, it doesn’t work.
So after trivially bypassing the comical IP address restriction I am delighted to discover the BBC are selling the original 1977 series either per episode or for 12 quid all in! Now that’s more like it! I don’t want to end up watching this on my laptop though, I thought, so it better be downloadable. It is! Whoopee! A quick financial transaction later and I was able to start viewing the episodes right then and there, and under each episode was a button that said “Download”.
Now this is what it’s supposed to be like in 2016. This is what all the fuss was about. Technically there’s no reason why this wasn’t possible a decade ago but it has taken a while for the provders to realise they can open up their archives and even make money from it! Everyone wins!
I excitedly clicked the download link so that I can watch it on my TV and was interrupted by a bolt of misery that was a big modal pop-up informing me that I had to install a download app. Gaaaah! This is another menace that seems to proliferate on the modern web. There is absolutely no need to install some potentially insecure downloader/uploaded spyware solely for the purpose of getting stuff from, and putting stuff to the web. Seriously, browsers can do this stuff now!
This wasn’t the first time I’ve capitulated and sold my soul – Amazon, Google and now the BBC had got me beaten down. I reluctantly ran the package installer and instantly froze in fearful shock and terror when the dread phrase that no ordinary sinner should ever have to read, appeared on my screen:

You must install Silverlight.

I cried out in anguish as the terrible truth had begun to dawn on me: the BBC have turned to the dark side and by my foolish eagerness I had followed them along the fetid path to eternal misery and damnation. Silverlight? Why? WHY? DRM is bad enough but the added insult of a moribund, failed Microsoft exercise in power-mongery was too much to bear. My laptop has already been compromised enough by my greed and bad judgement in the past – I couldn’t do this to it. So I had a choice: give up on watching The Phoenix and the Carpet and demand my Monday back from Aunty Beeb, or…resort to…methods.

It’s been a while since I was motivated to dabble, and this was the perfect opportunity.

They allow streaming of the media to your web browser. This means there is a way to get the media from them to me and watch it. No matter how much clever encraption and obfuscation they shroud the process in, it’s possible. Not only that, but they support iPads which means there is almost certainly a high quality stream available that doesn’t rely on ropey old flash.

After a bit of probing with Firebug, and some judicious Googling I learned that they were streaming the video using Adobe’s HDS: sending it in 4 second chunks of MP4 video, each with a MIME type of “video/f4f”. Your browser does an HTTP request for each one and seamlessly stitches them together in realish time for your entertainment.
So, with this knowledge, and the observation that the download file names were predictable (identical except for an incrementing decimal number at the end of the file name), I could now get hold of entire episodes by writing a simple little shell script.

After about 20 minutes my script had pulled down all of the 500 or so chunks of video that form episode 1. But now what? How do I join these things together and tune them into something I can play on my telly? A quick google provided the answer: some lovely soul has written a little tool called AdobeHDS.php that does exactly what I want: it looks for downloaded chunks of f4f and combines them into a nice playable FLV file as easy as typing:
php AdobeHDS.php --fragments episode1
BOOM! I have my own copy of the episode that plays on my FMT and that I can keep forever to play at will – long after Silverlight is a piece of historical comedy. Which is fair enough considering I paid for it!

Actually, AdobeHDS.php can even do the downloading of the file pieces and decrypting for you as it turns out. The author deserves a lot of love.

Of course I watched all eight episodes back to back and reveled in nostalgia and wonder at the magic of it all. I’m not sure whether the 1977 version was actually better or whether it was just because of my attachment to it but one thing I can say is that the 1977 Phoenix was far superior, and the crappy 1977 low budget SFX were no worse than the crappy 1997 low budget SFX. The other main difference between the two was the replacement of the 1970s mandatory white actors blacked-up and put in grass skirts, with black actors. I don’t know what was up with people back then that they didn’t consider this to be bizarre and ridiculous behavior but I’m grown up enough to write it off as stupidity from the past so it didn’t mar my enjoyment of the show too much. People did stupid things in the 70s such as enjoying Bernard Manning.

So what have we learned?

  • Copyright is broken and ruins everything. Surely it’s better that works of art are made available, even for money, than being hidden away for nebulous reasons of “rights”. Especially if the owners and creators of the work get paid!
  • Trying to impose national laws on the Internet is a foolish waste of money and is technically unenforceable.
  • DRM only serves to punish people who try to pay legitimately. If you are foolish enough to buy DRM encumbered media you are buying damaged goods. Something you “own” may cease to exist or be rendered unplayable over time.
  • Breaking DRM only needs to be done once. After that the genie is out of the bottle and the media is liberated. Spend money on trying to copy-protect media at your peril.

Intel hardware backdoors

From https://libreboot.org/faq/#intel:

In summary, the Intel Management Engine and its applications are a backdoor with total access to and control over the rest of the PC. The ME is a threat to freedom, security, and privacy, and the libreboot project strongly recommends avoiding it entirely. Since recent versions of it can’t be removed, this means avoiding all recent generations of Intel hardware.


didmicheleleavethestraighteneron.com

webpageApparently the fear of leaving hair-straighteners turned on is a widespread phenomenon. My wife certainly suffers from it to a ludicrous degree: pretty much every time she uses them there will be a phone-call or a return home to ensure that the things are indeed off. To limit my frustration, and to mitigate the risk that she ever does leave them turned on I’ve created didmicheleleavethestraighteneron.com. Not only does it let her monitor the state of her straightener, but if she should ever leave it on, she can turn it off remotely. Thank you Z-Wave


Finest American Wingnuttery

This morning I received some spam via a comments form on my website. Here it is with identifying information removed so as not to accidentally generate traffic for them:

The 2016 President of the United States is . . . Hillary Clinton!

Did I scare you?

We’re [A Bunch of Delusional Simpletons] and we’re committed to keeping Hillary Clinton out of office in 2016. Unfortunately, if voters do nothing this election cycle, Hillary stands poised to take the presidency.

But you can help! Join us in the fight against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Sign up and be entered to win FREE CCI Mini Mags 22 lr.

Paid for by [A Bunch of Delusional Simpletons] Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. Contributions from foreign nationals or entities are prohibited. Contributions are not tax deductible for federal income tax purposes.

In case you don’t know what “CCI Mini Mags 22 lr.” refers to, allow me to save you the effort of Googling: it’s ammunition for rifles.

So help us defeat Hillary, and we’ll send you some ammunition. Could there possibly be a more perfect example of deranged Tea-Party insanity?
So here’s a challenge: if you can formulate an offer of equal or greater batshit-craziness then please let me know. The best one will win a picture of an Eagle holding an M16 on a Harley Davidson, signed by Donald Trump’s hair.


Bottles (1936)

Early Halloween fun – I’ve been trying to find this classic cartoon for years but I didn’t know what it was called. Turns out it’s called “Bottles” and from 1936 – set in a pharmacy after hours, the bottles come alive.


How the US Reverse Engineered Soviet Typewriter Bugs

This is a fascinating and in-depth description of how the US uncovered and reverse engineered sophisticated bugs placed in the electric typewriters of embassy staff in Moscow in the late 70s/early 80s.
Bruce Schneier suggests these devices may the worlds first keyloggers and it’s easy to see why. These astounding devices buffered characters typed by the golf-ball and sent them to the soviets using RF burst transmitters. It took 8 years to discover they were there!

https://www.nsa.gov/about/_files/cryptologic_heritage/center_crypt_history/publications/learning_from_the_enemy_the_gunman_project.pdf


Doing your business

Ever since I first encountered the world of business, even from schoolboy dealings with coins and chocolate bars, it made me feel extremely uneasy. Through the passing years my discomfort has slowly transformed itself into a solid loathing for everything even vaguely associated with the term “business”.
To me, business is the art of squeezing money out of something by crushing it until any creativity, humanity and beauty within has been turned to dust. Frequently there is no money to be had in the first place and so the destruction is pointless, except to help power the unrelenting business machine. Despite being created by humans, businesses are inhuman creations that behave like sociopathic monsters. This simile is explored in detail by the film The Corporation. Actually, rather than read my pathetic attempts at spelling something out that to me seems self evident, spare six minutes and watch George Carlin’s masterful description of the ruthless nature of business which not only sums it up but somehow manages to make it funny.

So there’s that. But then there’s the problem that the only way to be taken seriously in this society is to play the business game. At my age, being a techie isn’t really on unless you can bring something really special to the table. I can’t, but I’m persistent and have enough experience to blag my way through technical quagmires by fixing things that can only be fixed by obscure tricks picked up through the years. As a result, I’m still bottom of the ladder but in demand and pretty happy about it. The only fear is that it can’t last: why would someone want an elderly developer, who requires a great deal of sleep and AFK time, rather than a fresh-faced college gobshite who will happily work themselves to death for the tech-glory?

By now I should be managing a team and spending my life in the bizarre rituals and ceremonies of business protocol whilst communicating exclusively with phrases taken from the latest edition of the newspeak business dictionary. But I can’t. Physically, I can’t do it. Every time I attempt to get involved I just feel an overwhelming nausea that disgusts me. Every minute spent talking about the work we should be doing, but aren’t, because we’re talking about it, hurts. I’m not talking about planning, or practical discussions about how to attack the work – it’s the stuff that goes on in the rest of the business side that I can’t abide.

From the outside, the business side of any company looks like a continuous round of closed doors, behind which are endless people-hours of worthless discussions that result in nothing but the occasional egress of weary-looking people who claim to have been put under pressure “from above”. Infrequently, but frequently enough to be a perpetual nuisance, a decision is made during one of these meetings that involves we outsiders performing a task that is apparently the most urgent, high-priority thing in our to-do lists, and we are asked to ignore everything else until this task is completed. Obviously, our to-do lists are comprised of the previous outputs from previous meetings which were, at the time, the most urgent, highest priority things. Additionally, the new tasks are invariably born from terrible ideas, that totally invalidate other tasks on which we have been working. This goes on forever until someone dies, or the company goes bankrupt or gets sold.

How any of this makes money is the biggest mystery of all, but somehow it does. It seems that as long as you perform these rituals, the money just appears. How does talking bollocks produce money? There’s nothing about that in Marx or Keynes is there? I just don’t understand any of it.