Space Mercenaries (A. Bertram Chandler)

Another book from the second hand bookshop that pre-dates ISBN numbers. I’m almost beginning to feel that’s the sign of a good book. Perhaps because people loved it enough to keep it before it found it’s way to the bookshop.

Anyway, this sci-fi book could easily be the beginning of a series… (thanks to Google and this site, it appears there are more in this vain though they are not grouped as a series of novels). This book was a short and comfortable read with an easy to follow story. One of the things I noticed most was that my thumb was never in the way. I’m serious, you know how when you hold a book your right thumb is over the bottom lines of text? Well this book has a huge 4cm bottom margin so your thumb is never in the way of the text. I have no idea if this was the style of typesetting of the time (there’s not a date in the front cover to even know when it was printed) but it sure made a difference to the quality of the read. Perhaps that was just novelty though.

Back to the story, Empress turned retired empress uses her battleship to do some ‘good’ in the universe. Mixes things up with a solar system of bird like creatures some of whom are are picking on an isolated human colony that got there way before the birds discovered space flight. Some neat ideas on future technology mixed with a little politics.

Rootie Rating…4 out of 5, though I could almost give it more for the thumb space!

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)

One of my rare moments of watching TV happened to be a segment that detailed the link between “1984” by George Orwell and “Brave New World”. I loved reading 1984, or at least, I think I remember loving reading 1984. I read it while at school around the age of 15. One of those books that everyone has spoke of and for some reason I actually read – even though it wasn’t part of my English homework. The impetus probably came from performing in “Animal Farm”, a play I thoroughly enjoyed (yes, I was one of the squares that did the am-dram at school. I wasn’t any good which is why I only ever had a a couple of lines.. like “and she’s got ribbons in her hair” while dressed as a pigeon).

Anyway, the link if I remember it correctly was that George Orwell was a student in Aldous Huxley’s class at whichever university it was. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is said to be another great Utopian Society type novel and a must read. Que my comment before Christmas to my brother “that’s a book I must read” and his reply, “Julia lent it to me, you can have it”. Wrapped and ready for Christmas day. I actually prefer that sort of present. It didn’t cost him anything and it was high on my list of desires. Perfect.

As for the story, I can’t be quite so enthusiastic. It’s a story of a modern highly ordered society with a ‘reserve’ for those weirdo’s who follow the old ways (that’s our ways of course). It’s interesting on how the story plays out but perhaps my expectations were raised too high from remembering my love of a story that others compared it too. It was undoubtedly well written and it’s quite clear to see why it has survived from it’s first publication in 1932 (according to the copy I have) to continuous reprints up until my 1984 vintage copy. Would I read it again? yes. Would I recommend it to others to read? yes. How do I rate it? Sorry to say I could only give it 3 out 5, just short of the 4 for me (perhaps Rootie Ratings should become a 10 point rating!)

The Stainless Steel Rat (Harry Harrison)

Every now and then you read a book and think “this would make a good film”. This book would make a good film. I could even place half of Hollywood’s famous actors in different parts of it.

The story is sci-fi but with all the best sci-fi I have read it could easily be applied to today’s world. In a society with planets of varying riches and sophistication, our lead character is one of the few remaining criminals. Quite what happens to all the wealth he is accumulating never becomes part of the story. He is caught quite early by another criminal turned policeman and recruited into a secret interplanetary anti-crime organisation. Who better to catch a criminal than a criminal. Our lead criminal is a nice criminal, in that he has never killed anyone in all his heists. However, his first assignment is to catch a criminal that has no regard for the life of anyone leaving death by the hundreds trailing behind.

There are so many details and twists in the story it was a joy to read. One thing I’ve noticed about a good book – it never dates. This was written in 1961.

Rootie Rating a clear 5 out of 5, and I found two others in the series too!

Automatic backups of my windows laptop

Backups are important. This tenet will be learned the first time you lose important files. Knowledge in itself is useless, it’s the application knowledge that reaps rewards.

Having learnt many years ago the cost of losing data from a computer, I’ve become a dab hand at setting up backup routines for my laptop, desktops and servers. In the past I used a windows shell script to copy files from my laptop to a space on my office server. That server backs up again to an off site server just to make sure the data is kept. Unfortunately this script has been somewhat unreliable of late. At some point, on a never quite identified file, the copy action would fail and backup would stop. I needed a new solution, one that would be reliable, simple to set up and cost nothing but setup time. I found it in the shape of some linux software called rsync and a windows client to rsync called DeltaCopy. Actually, DeltaCopy is more than just an rsync client, it can be an rsync server for windows machines but I didn’t need that. That would be very useful though if you are using an old windows PC as your file server though.

What’s rsync?
From their web site: rsync is an open source utility that provides fast incremental file transfer. rsync is freely available under the GNU General Public License.

I’ve known of rsync for years, but never used it until now. Essentially the programme will compare files in two directories, if a file has been updated it will copy the updated parts and not the whole file. My script solution copied everything whether or not it needed to be. As I’m on the same network as my backup server bandwidth really isn’t a problem. However, the rsync solution means I will be able to succesfully backup from home over the VPN.

Setup was really easy.
First set up our linux server to run rsync as a daemon. That means it runs all the time waiting for other rsync programs to connect to it. That’s the same way a web server like apache works, sits there waiting until it has something to do, does it, then waits again. How to do that will depend on your server software but for my Trustix powered server it was simply “swup –install rysnc-server” and it was downloaded and installed automatically. Trustix has reached end of life now, so if you are looking for a new operating system you’ll find rsync on most ready to go, including redhat and ubuntu.
Second set up my laptop to use an rsync client. That includes choosing which folders I want to synchronise with the server
Third, enable the rsync client to run as a scheduled task on my laptop.

This is where the DeltaCopy program is so useful. It’s a windows point and click graphical interface. Installation was a breeze and I confess I didn’t read the instructions to see how it worked it was so simple. You create a “profile” for each synchronisation task you want. For me there’s only one, I called it “laptop backup”. Then add all the folders (or specific files) you want backed up followed by the server details. At the bottom of the profile is a section called “schedule”. DeltaCopy links seamlessly to the windows scheduler, so I set my backup to occur every day at 11am. Later I found settings that let me get an email on whether the backup worked and how well it went. If it works, the email includes the rsync result information too.

Today the first success email arrived at 11.07. In 7 minutes the folders had been synchronised and my backup completed. It’s so fast because only changed files have been copied across the network. The full backup is a huge 21Gb…. perhaps that explains why the script would fail, 21Gb over a wireless network would take…. a long time.

The final step of any backup: Test it worked and test regularly. Testing is easy using this method, just open the file from the server over the network. To think of all those hours I used to spend waiting for a file to be recovered from my TR1 tape backups.

The Floating Madhouse (Alexander Fullerton)

A pre world war one novel of… well, little interest to me as it turned out. The ships are the early ironclads of the 1900’s and although there were sections of interesting detail the story as a whole just didn’t hold my attention.

The setting was clever, a Royal Navy junior officer with Russian family connections joins a Russian fleet as an observer. The love of his life has just been engaged (against her will) to a Russian naval officer twice her age – who happens to be the Captain of the ship our officer is sailing with. It made for a love story of interest coupled with the difficulty of absence created by a sailors life. In one respect, it was realistic – the naval action when they finally reached their Japanese enemy was short and unpleasant. Our central character being most certainly on the loosing side of the battle yet being fortunate enough to survive to reach port.

It was readable but for me not enjoyable. I have another one of the other stories in the series though that I still plan to read, ever the optimist am I. Rootie Rating – 1 out of 5

Spam wars – "determination of damages" hearing date set

Taking a spammer to court to get them to stop isn’t for the faint of heart.

Here’s the history:
A company, “Cybernet Media” (stick .co.uk on the end of that and you’ll find their website, I’ll not give them the benefit of a link) started sending spam way back in 2006.
I asked them to stop, they continued.
I pointed out to them that by sending it they are breaking The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003. I asked them to reply and confirm they would stop sending the spam. I said that if they send any more I’ll bill them 50 per email for my time so far. I said if they didn’t reply I’d take more formal action.
They didn’t reply, I didn’t get round to taking the formal action… until they sent 2 more emails. I phoned them and faxed them. They said by phone they’d stop but decided to send 4 more emails within 24 hours. This was now August 2007.
So, I sent them an invoice for 6 emails. They didn’t pay or respond.
I called them again in September and said if they don’t pay I’d take them to court. They didn’t pay so I started a small claims court action against them.

Here I made a mistake: I asked for the damages plus a statement from them that they would comply with the regulations in future. That meant it had to have a “directions hearing” which of course cybernet didn’t turn up to either. Still the result of the directions hearing was headed by a line: “1. There be judgement for the claimant for damages to be determined by the court” – so I guess that means they agree I have a claim the only question left is how much.

I now know the small claims court can’t make people say they will comply with regulations (that’s what the judge explained to me in the directions hearing). To do so I would have to take out an injunction. If they break the injunction and send more spam, they commit a criminal offence of contempt of court (and could even go to prison for that). Problem is I still haven’t figured out how exactly what to do to take out an injunction. At the moment all I’m claiming from them is the damages from them sending spam and me having to chase them to pay the damages (which, incidentally, they’ve never contested. They haven’t even replied to the court which as directors of a limited company may be another offense under the Companies Act, I’m not sure though). Anyway, damages so far 1,005.37.

I still have another week in which to decide if I want to take out an injunction on them but to be honest I have proper work to do and I can’t afford the time to research it. I do now realise why the information commissioner has never taken anyone court for breaking the regulations though. The judge raised a good question – “Do you think they will actually pay?”. I have no idea, I’d rather hope that with a court order against them they would have to. My case is against both an individual and a company. They don’t declare their company number on their website (they really should, but hey, no one’s perfect), “Chris” who I spoke to didn’t know the company number and then claimed he worked as an agent, not for the company. As he sent the spam, I put him down personally on the claim as well as the limited company. Mid February is the hearing date – I’ll keep you posted!

BBC iPlayer – still not worth installing but worth watching online

41-iplayer.gif

The BBC iPlayer came out of beta recently and they’ve been advertising it’s release to the masses across BBC TV. I tried the beta version earlier in the year (well, 2007, you know what I mean) and my first response to it coming out of beta was simply “Have they fixed it then?”.

Why?
When I tried the Beta there were two big flaws. First, “Peer to Peer”, second “Kontiki“.

What’s Peer to Peer (For those that haven’t already come across it…. probably most of you)? Traditionally if you want to download a file from a server, your computer visits that server and asks for the file. The server sends it to you as quick as the smallest bottleneck in the system would allow. For example, on a lightly used web server like mine, I can download a file as fast as my broadband connection will allow. A quick test gives me 4,656kb/s (or about 4.5Mb which is what my router says my BT Broadband speed is running at). Now, what happens when a hundred people try and do that from my server? Well, the server only has a 100Mb connection to the internet so the best all of the 100 visitors would get is 1Mb of speed each. More likely, some get the file slowly, others get a ‘server busy’ response. Time to buy another server, but what if your budget doesn’t stretch that far? Some bright spark realised that if 10 people have already got the file, they could start acting as servers themselves and share the file with other people. Their upload bandwidth from their internet service can be used to increase the speed at which others can get the file and take the load off the original server. If the server were to be unavailable, people would still be able to get the file from other people who already had it, thus the network becomes faster and more reliable as more people download and share the file.

All good so far. This technology, known as “Peer to Peer” file sharing, was the reason Napster became so successful in sharing music (OK, mostly shared illegally) and other still available software (like BitTorrent) helps people share digital files and software (for example OpenOffice) legally (although there is a lot of illegal file sharing on BitTorrent and other Peer-to-Peer networks too).

So where was the problem with Peer to Peer in the BBC iPlayer Beta? Simply – they never said they were using it. Installing the software then downloading a programme meant I started to upload it too. This unexpected extra upload bandwidth caused me problems. The video was uploading so other more important things got delayed (EG: why did that server backup take so long today? Why is my email sending so slow today?). I’m a great fan of using Peer-to-Peer to share files but I like to have control of how much network upload bandwidth it can use and the time of day it can use it.

The second problem was the peer-to-peer software itself. It’s a programme called Kontiki and while being simple for the user to install (well, I didn’t even know it was installed) it gives NO control of upload or download speed. Now in Peer-to-Peer situations download speed generally isn’t a problem, you are limited by the upload speed of everyone else and as typical broadband upload is 450kb/s I would need to 10 uploaders for me to download at my broadband line’s capacity. No control of the upload causes a real problem as I said above, important traffic can get delayed. With software like BitTorrent I would simply limit the upload speed but Kontiki doesn’t allow that. I read since then that turning off the iPlayer didn’t turn of the Kontiki file sharing either – files uploading even when the software was turned off.

Anyway, enough about the Beta, Betas are meant to find real world bugs so they can be fixed. Surely our great BBC found fixes to them before releasing the product to the masses?

Erm, Yes and No.

Yes, they added a warning that it uses a Peer to Peer application to share the file. Even have a nice video on their web site with Huw Someone (the newsreader whose name I forget) saying how peer to peer works. They didn’t really make enough of a point in my opinion about how people on capped broadband connections may use up all their bandwidth allowances without realising. I also wonder how the ISP’s will find this, with everyone uploading files (knowingly or not) their bandwidth usage will increase and I’m sure somewhere along the line that will cost them more money. Still, the BBC do now tell you that iPlayer will use Peer to Peer technology and I gather other online TV providers don’t yet do that.

No, they didn’t fix Kontiki. Within minutes of installing my laptop performance suffered. Aside from the issue of not being able to control upload speed (my hardware firewall at work thought it was being attacked and stopped all the uploads though – it emailed me several hundred lines of blocked traffic logs to tell me) it took almost exclusive use of a processor. Fortunately my processor is a Dual Core and only one core was getting hammered. It still destroyed the start up time, shut down time and generally made everything perform slower than normal.

I went online and looked around for fixes for Kontiki, there doesn’t appear to be any. It appears that Kontiki have made a very good job at selling themselves as the software to use if you’re a TV company and want to send TV over the internet for the lowest cost to you. Sure it saves the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky a fortune on bandwidth costs and should be improving the download speed to people who want to watch the programs – it just takes out decent PC performance in return.

I did allow it to continue to download a program. Once downloaded the program played fine. It played on Windows Media Player (albeit in an iPlayer view of WMP), quality was OK, sound was OK, sure it won’t win any awards for perfect clarity but then I didn’t take the time to plan to watch the program on the real TV so I don’t mind that.

Looking for Kontiki fixes I found some people moaning about the DRM security in the files. DRM (Digital Rights Management) stops you copying the program to other devices, like another PC at home or to your friends PC. It’s necessary because the people who created and own the program only allow the BBC to show it to people in the UK. Unfortunately the DRM system they are using limits the iPlayer download software to work only on Windows PC’s with Windows Media Player. Read on though, iPlayer’s web only version solves the Microsoft Only problem quite nicely.

Sorry to say it BBC, Kontiki isn’t for me – I’m uninstalling iPlayer shortly and I just HOPE you made sure it removes all traces of itself. (later note: it appears it did – phew!)

Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of being able to catch up on programs at times other than the TV schedule says. Which brings me onto the one GREAT thing about iPlayer. You can now watch the program online, on demand. No downloading to watch later, just fire up your web browser (Firefox for me, Internet Explorer for others, or perhaps Safari if you’re Mac way inclined), press play and enjoy the program. The quality seemed to me much the same as the downloaded program quality. Hooray! no Kontiki! no PC performance issues! no software to install!

I ran a bandwidth monitor to see just how much bandwidth the iPlayer wanted to just watch the program and was pleasantly surprised, it averaged between 530 – 605Kb/s over the 1 hour program., about 0.6Mb/s. Even if you don’t get the maximum ADSL 8mb/s second your ISP offers, 0.6Mb/s should be well within your range. In December, BBC news carried a story comparing broadband speed across the world and gave 3Mb/s as the average UK speed, so for most of us iPlayer online should work fine.

So in summary, I think iPlayer is a good thing if you only use the online version. Perhaps the download version will improve over time.

Jennifer Morgue (Charles Stross)

Another completely surreal novel by Charles Stross, it somehow takes real world technical knowledge of mundane things like TCP/IP (that’s the protocol the internet uses to send and receives information), compares it to using carrier pigeon instead of copper wire and then uses it set up a network via demon worlds to save our realm/domain/planet/reality (or however the here and now can be referred to).

The story is a continuation of “The Atrocity Archives” but prior reading of that is not necessary. Our hero becomes a secret agent of the James Bond ilk, at least, he thinks he does, but the real James Bond hero is ****** (well, I can’t tell you that would spoil the story) which he discovers much later.

My favourite bit was the short story at the end of the story. It begins with Charles Stross writing what I would imagine would make a good PHD thesis on the James Bond series. Clearly Charles is a man who knows his James Bond fiction. However the factual presentation degenerates rapidly into a hilarious interview with one of Bond’s enemies giving and his side of the story. I’ll never look at the Ariane Launch site in quite the same way again.

Rating this book: Demon’s aren’t normally my thing but the creative plot more than makes up for it – Rootie Rating 5 out of 5