Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.”


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


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.


Gypsy’s kiss

One of the wonderful things about traveling on public transport, that car drivers will never experience, is the joy of discovering you’re sitting in a pool of the previous occupant’s urine. For the whole journey home.
I convinced myself it was simply some spilled Dr Pepper but once I had reached home it became clear, on closer inspection, that it was actually 100% pure tramp’s piss.


Little Boxes

dog kennelNon-Americans: look at this fake house, built out of chipboard and plastic bags. What’s it for, you may be wondering? Is this for a movie set? Perhaps it’s some subterfuge to fool an enemy into bombing a fake encampment; much like the allies did to the Nazis in North Africa, and Sheriff Bart together with “the good folks” of Rock Ridge did in Blazing Saddles?
Well it’s neither of those things.
Do you give up? In fact this is actually how they build houses here in the USA! Really! And these are real houses for people, not dogs or anything like that. Not only that, but when they’ve finished building it they’re going to sell it for half a million dollars! That actual house, there! Not a real house based on that cheap mock-up, that is the actual house!
I don’t blame you for being incredulous, I didn’t believe it at first either but it’s absolutely true.
OK in fairness, the house isn’t finished yet and obviously the finished product won’t look like that. Firstly there will be more of those plastic bags stapled to it. They’re not your normal plastic bags either – over here they call it Tyvek and it’s a bit tougher than than the supermarket jobs obviously. Secondly they’ll cover it in other material like stucco or cheap Aluminium siding to hide the fact the whole thing is made of offcuts from the local lumber yard.
Half a million bucks – amazing isn’t it? It’s only a matter of time before this sketch becomes a reality:


Being a Tourrorist

San Jose, from the perspective of a non-driver in my hotel, is exactly the same as San Diego: a fucking horrible set of roads interspersed with malls and business parks. King of Prussia with mountains, palm trees, and mountains. The mountains are in the distance because you can’t walk to them. I tried. That’s another story.

Today we were supposed to start work with the client that was paying for our flights and rooms in this four star hotel, but we didn’t because of some bollocks I still don’t understand. They make so much money that it doesn’t matter apparently. Instead I slept off the bloody awful flights, went for a walk, and then spent the evening in the hotel bar.

The bar is also pretty horrible, with five 50 inch TVs above it forcing the miserable sport of American Football on all clientele. But I am happy as long as I’m left alone to read my books, respond to quiz challenges, and do all of the other things with my phone that keeps me feeling attached to sane people.

Then the drunk guy next to me starts demanding my attention. That’s fine, I understand drunk people, and so I use my drunk translation skills to express un-interest and preoccupation, but he doesn’t take the hint. Oh dear. He must be really gone…

We chat, which involves several circular conversations in which I tell him many times where I’m from, what I do, and why I’m here. He tells me his name, which I decline to print here, and that he is a pilot, for an airline that I also decline to name.

We talk nonsense, have a laugh, and then he notices that my nationality seems incongruent with my stated job as info-security guardian, and goes a bit weird. By this point he is slurring his words and thoughts so apparently that I fear for his passengers tomorrow morning at 10am – the time he told me earlier that he was due to fly. He asks me what clients we work for and I explain that it’s a closely guarded secret. He then turns serious and asks me if we’re working against ISIS! On being informed that we don’t directly work against ISIS, he makes a big, loud joke about how he’s going to call the police by typing 911 into the iArse login box of his iPhone. I play along with his stupid joke and hope that my new colleague, whom I have yet to meet, will appear and rescue me. At this point my opinion of the drunk pilot is that he’s hitting on me. I don’t have a problem with this because by now he knows, or rather would know if he’d actually absorbed anything I’d said to him, that I’m straight and married. So I don’t run away.

My new colleague appears and we recognise each other by the vague descriptions we gave each other over the phone a while before. I enthusiastically invite him to sit down at the bar and we talk nerdy stuff – he’s an awesome guy it transpires and we have a lot to talk about. Our drunken pilot friend meanwhile amuses himself by putting his head in his hands and murmuring to himself. As my colleague and I begin to bond about microcontrollers, Flight-Captain Pisshead clambers off of his bar stool, puts down some money, leaves the rest of his glass of Chardonnay and shambles off to talk to the bar staff. My new geek friend and I move on to discussing SDR, and begin to enjoy ourselves, especially as Orville Wrong is observed to depart the vicinity.

The geek-fuelled chatter continues now that the mad bloke has departed and it is a while later before I ask Mine Host if the Flying Sotsman was alright, and whether he had spoken about us. He laughed sheepishly before explaining that we had both been reported to the hotel management as terrorists!

As unlikely as this seems, we really had been reported to the hotel manager as terrorist suspects and, frankly, I’m surprised we’re both not incarcerated at this moment. Luckily his demeanor of an incapable drunk did not convince anyone of his theory. I only hope that by 10 am tomorrow – in 12 hours time – he has his shit together enough to pilot a plane load of passengers across the country.


The Sandbaggers

The Sandbaggers DVDFor someone who spends an embarrassingly large proportion of his time watching detective and spy TV programmes, it was quite galling to discover I’d been oblivious to a British show that aired in 1978 and was described by the New York Times as “The best spy show in TV history.” Worse still, I was made aware of it by an American work colleague. The final indignity was to discover it was every bit as good as the hype suggested.

There’s no James Bond nonsense here, just a tiny Whitehall department, encumbered by budgets and politics, that nonetheless has to undertake missions ranging from foiling terrorist bomb plots to organizing foreign coups. There are no absolute rights and wrongs, and no conventional heroes. Instead there some extraordinarily plausible plots, brilliant acting, and superb characterization that combine into a thoroughly gripping, albeit traumatic at times, TV series. There are many reviews out there that express this better than I ever could, but If you’re a fan of complex, well thought out, realistic spy dramas in the mold of Le Carre then please get hold of this as soon as you can

As a final enticement, here are two Interesting facts about the mysterious author of this masterpiece, Ian MacKintosh:

  • One episode of the second series was dropped because it contravenes the Official Secrets Act.
  • Before the scripts for Series 3 were completed, Ian MacKintosh disappeared under mysterious circumstances in a private plane together with a friend and his wife. This is why the series was cancelled.

Laurel and Hardy Airways starring Deputy Doofus

The first time I encountered Deputy Doofus was a week last Saturday at John Wayne airport in Orange County, California, after flying in via Atlanta. It was around 10pm local-time, despite the insistence of the little clock in my brain that claimed it was actually 1am. The previous 12 hours (time-zone be damned) had involved various forms of travel, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t in the best of spirits as I waited by the carousel for my bag to appear – yes I checked a bag – no I won’t be doing that again on a domestic flight.
My plane-mates and I stood in languid silence as we watched the bags proceed on their perpetual journey around the carousel whose name, if it had one, was “Atlanta”, according to the monitors above. Occasionally a lucky passenger would recognise a suitcase and react for a brief moment as if they’d won a life-altering sum of money until they managed to regain their composure and wrestle their bag away from the scene and re-commence their journey. As we waited, Deputy Doofus lumbered into the scene to offer his valuable insight into the situation. He was about 50, adorned in a loose representation of the airline’s uniform and clearly appeared very happy with his role in the business of facilitating air travel. He approached some passengers standing nearby and asked them in a loud friendly voice if they were from the Atlanta flight. They affirmed his suspicion and he replied:
“Well, the baggage has all been unloaded and it’s coming on to the Carousel right now!”
They expressed mild gratitude for the information and continued to hunt for their luggage on the now busy conveyor. He walked two steps away and addressed me, with exactly the same question:
“Are you from the Atlanta flight?”
I nodded.
“Well, the baggage has all been unloaded and it’s coming on to the Carousel right now!” he enthusiastically repeated.
“Ah, OK.” I said, desperately trying to sound like this was even vaguely helpful, and he went on another two steps, then repeated the procedure for the benefit of the next group of people. It struck me as a very peculiar service for the airline to be offering, after all we obviously had some inkling as to why we were standing here. Perhaps he thought we were confused by the sight all of those big lumpy things going round and round?
Once he was satisfied that everyone in the general area knew exactly what was going on with the bags and our relationship to them, he changed gear; the work was over, it was fun time! He had been accompanied all this time by a short female colleague who had wisely decided to let him do the talking.
“And it’s Jane’s birthday today isn’t it Jane!” he announced, pointing at his colleague. “It’s her birthday!” he repeated to the next group of people standing nearby, as if they couldn’t hear his shouting it the first time around. “I’m embarrassing her!” he continued, and Jane did indeed look embarrassed while she followed him around the assembled crowd. However her look also conveyed a resigned weariness that suggested she had spent time with her colleague in public before.

A week elapsed. Hotel, work, food, drink, nice weather, etc.

The journey home was due to commence with a flight at 6:45am, and so in preparation I arranged with the hotel desk to order a cab for 5:15am.
At around 10pm, as I was preparing to go to bed in advance of the early start, an email popped up on my laptop. It was from the airline and it explained that my flight would be delayed until 8am. So, I put on enough clothing to allow me to schlep down to the hotel reception without causing a scene and travelled in the elevator to the desk. The guy was extremely friendly and understanding and I returned to my room with a comfortable feeling, partly derived from the knowledge I had an extra hour of sleep ahead. Obviously, I’d left my access card in the room and so had to return downstairs to ask the guy, who was slightly less friendly now, to give me another one. But eventually I got to bed and slept.
The lovely, lovely sleep was broken by the harsh sound of my mobile ringtone at around arse-o-clock, or 3:45am whichever is more accurate. On answering the call a robot announced that my flight had been rescheduled. It wasn’t clear whether this was the reschedule I knew about, or an entirely new reschedule so I reluctantly climbed out of bed and investigated the situation, after negotiating the hotel’s crappy wifi captive-portal for the umpteenth time. The airline’s website indicated that my flight was leaving at 6:45 as originally planned, with no indication as to whether the 8am rumour was ever true or mattered any more. Wide awake (that ringtone is really jarring) I acknowledged that the only solution was to aim at the earlier of the two deadlines and stay on the safe side. So, I showered, put on some clothes and returned to the lobby where a new assistant was in attendance. This guy was older, grumpy looking, and wearing an ill-fitting suit jacket over a hawaiian shirt. I explained my predicament and he sighed. “I’m not even supposed to be working now,” he explained without my asking. “I’m haven’t had a day off in four weeks.” Restraining the temptation to quote Monty Python and ask him if he knew his statement was irrelevant, I asked if he could reschedule the cab. Several heavy sighs and a couple of unnecessarily long phone calls later I went back to my room to spend the last fifteen minutes of my time in the hotel rapidly stuffing a weeks worth of dirty clothes into my rucksack. Up until that point I’d be overjoyed with the hotel and genuinely wanted to give them a 10/10 on the customer survey – so much so that while I was waiting in the lobby for my cab I asked the guy if they had my correct email address on file. He faffed about on the computer for a minute or two before saying “I don’t know what you want me to do – send you an email or something? There is no email, it was a web booking.” I was tired and suddenly lacking in enthusiasm for the rest of the conversation and so sat down and waited for the cab.
We got to the airport very quickly – for some reason the roads were relatively clear, who knows why? After taking part in the surreal interactive security theatre the TSA had put on, I put my clothes back on, collected my dignity and went to look for my flight. Consulting the large screen containing details of all upcoming departures I located my flight and was irritated to discover the 6:45 departure time had been amended to…8. It was 5:30 and I had been up, and in a grumpy mood, for 2 and a half hours already but the tiredness was successfully beating down the anger and so I staggered to the departure gate where the departure time was still listed as 6:45, so asked the lady at the desk what was going on. “Look, let me announce this over the PA, because everyone is asking” she said. She announced that there were in fact two flights, one at 6:45 and one at 8. All of the assembled people looked as confused as I felt. I tried to explain about the email and the contradictory phone-call but she looked incredulous and continued to repeat the same story. But whatever was to happen, there would be a way out at either 6:45 or 8 and so I sat down in a sleepy-haze and waited. Many of the other passengers looked non-plussed, and overheard conversations frequently included snippets such as “did you get woken up at 3:45 too?” and “is it 6:45 or 8 that this plane is leaving?” The desk clerk only once offered a suggestion and it was that perhaps whoever had been in charge had managed to obtain another plane and switched it…or something. No-one looked convinced but waited patiently, or more accurately sleepily, for something more concrete or someone who knew what was going on. We had nothing to fear, because the airline had called in the A-Team to clear up the mess: Deputy Doofus!
Wasting no time, he headed straight to the PA microphone and turned on the magic.
“As you may have heard we had to swap out the plane for your flight this morning and although it’s the same type of plane, a 757, it’s a slightly different model and so the seat layout is different. If you confirmed your flight last night and have an electronic boarding pass, your seat may have changed and so you should approach us and we’ll take care of it for you.”
Immediately after he’d finished speaking, a planes-worth of unhappy passengers left their seats and mobbed Doofus’ poor colleague who, up until that point, had been doing a reasonably good job of keeping tempers at bay. She began frantically tapping away on her terminal and before the full wrath of the crowd was upon her she started yelling to anyone who would listen, “it’s alright – everybody’s seat is safe. No-one is affected!” Doofus re-engaged the microphone, repeated his colleague’s announcement and the bitter mob slowly dispersed back to their holding pattern in the seating area.
Eventually the boarding commenced and within a period of around twenty minutes, everyone was on board. A further twenty minutes elapsed during which nothing happened – the most notable instance of nothing being the movement of the plane. We were still attached to the gate and certainly not about to take off any time soon. There was a growing air of disquiet on board which was interrupted by the sound of Deputy Doofus over the plane’s PA system.
“Well, as you probably know there was a whole lot of bad weather in Atlanta that caused a whole lot of disruption to flights going in and coming out, and that’s why we originally moved this flight to 8am, and then found another plane that could take off at the original time. Well, it seems that this information didn’t make it to the pilots, and that’s why we can’t take off. Hopefully, if they believe the flight is due to take off at eight, they’ll actually be here any moment now and then we can take off.”
So the airline had done everything to salvage the flight except arrange for someone to fly the plane. Either Deputy Doofus had been given way too much responsibility or the airline is actually run by Laurel and Hardy, I thought as I desperately tried to sleep and make it all go away. Another twenty minutes of bugger all dragged by. Cue Doofy.
“Well we’re still trying to find the pilots, and right now there’s someone at the gate waiting for them. As soon as we find them we’ll be able to take off. Now, for those of you with a connecting flight at Atlanta, we have representatives there who know the situation and will be waiting for you. If you’ve missed your connection you’ll have been rebooked on another flight. You may know that Atlanta is the biggest airport in the world, that’s the world! They have 750 flights out of there a day! So you will get another flight, and there will be people there to help you.” Then, with a flourish that could only be matched by Alan Partridge he added, “And in case you were wondering what the second largest airport in the world is…it’s Frankfurt.”

Obviously when we reached Atlanta the airline reps didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on, and the only advice I was given was “you betta run!” I did.