Archive for the Tech Category

Some time ago I subscribed to for a number of reasons. Firstly, no matter how much I like my old favourites I crave the novelty of listening to music I haven’t heard before.

Secondly, I have completely and utterly lost the habit of buying CDs and I’d hardly know what to do with one once I got it. Thirdly, I can’t really be bothered with the hassle of finding and downloading music illegally. (RIP Oink, I miss you and your universal catalogue of well-ripped and properly tagged music.)

Fourthly, and in some ways most importantly to me when it came to actually signing up and paying money, eMusic did it right. The music you download from them is unencumbered moderately high-quality MP3s. No silly Apple or Microsoft enabled controls on what you could do with it or where you could listen to it.

I enjoyed using the service and got some good music to listen to (we’ll ignore the album of death-metal I downloaded by accident). But last year it didn’t seem worth it to me any more as I had no income and no decent internet connection, so I let my subscription lapse.

But eMusic is cunning and every so often they’d send me a little reminder email, “Come back! We has musics! Join us!” And then they got even more enticing and offered me 75 bonus downloads if I signed up again – so I did.

But there’s a new twist on the old service. eMusic’s catalogue was always a bit patchy and it was often a case of finding something good to download rather than going there with a particular artist or album in mind. But now it’s got even harder as:

We’re sorry. This album is unavailable for download in your country (New Zealand) at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

Even worse, eMusic is sending me titillating emails that are promoting the very albums that I’m not allowed to download!

Yes, the music industry is back to its old tricks of trying to impose their will on their customers, saying that they’d rather not take our money so that their “product/marketing geniuses” can continue to play their consumer segmentation games.

I thought they’d learnt, that the invisible hand of the marketplace had given them a good slapping around and that they had resolved to not be so stupid any more. Apparently I was wrong and we’re going to have to go through another round of watching the music industry indulge in self-destructive behaviour. Maybe one day they’ll finally get it and they’ll actually make it easy for me to give them money in exchange for music.

The New Wireless

I can still remember the event that made me really want wireless networking. I was sitting in a very boring developer meeting that had nothing of any interest or relevance for me. I day-dreamed about important things like lunch.

Then things went from bad to worse as the meeting started one of those silly go-nowhere arguments. It was at this point that I realised that the developer next to me wasn’t earnestly taking notes on his shiny TiBook (they were new and cool at the time) but was reading some website about digital cameras. This looked far more interesting than a pointless debate about code check-in comment style and I had to resist the urge to read over his shoulder. I then knew that I wanted the flexibility of that be-anywhere portable connection.

I’ve had wireless at home since soon after that meeting, starting with 802.11b at 11Mbps, then upgrading to the faster 54Mbps 802.11g when that was released. This upgrade was partly spurred by buying a new digital camera – loading 400kB photos over the old conenction wasn’t too bad, but the new camera’s 2000kB files just took too long.

We’ve been waiting for the next standard (802.11n at ~300Mbps) for some time now and it’s still not finished. That hasn’t stopped a number of manufacturers releasing equipment based on the draft standard, including Dlink and the DIR-655 that retails for just under $300. Of course you also need your computer to support 802.11n (many modern laptops do).

There has been some scepticism about the real performance advantages of using 802.11n, with some people reporting disappointing results that are hardly faster than 802.11g. Here’s the results from my simple test of copying a 1GB file (distance of a few metres from the access point, 802.11n network using mixed g/n).

Network Speed
802.11g (54Mbps) 2.3MB/sec
802.11n (300Mbps) 5.8MB/sec

That’s roughly 2.5 times faster. I’m happy with that.

IT Geek Culture

Are there any IT sites with more than a few servers that don’t have at least one named after a Simpsons character? I’m writing up the servers at my current job and the names are a wonderfully typical cross-section of geek culture. Here’s a list of some of the names along with what I believe the reference is to (corrections welcome):

BASIL – Fawlty Towers
BLUESTEEL – Zoolander
BORAT – Ali G/Borat
CORLEONE – The Godfather
CYBERTRON – Transformers
DRGONZO – Hunter S Thompson
MAGGIE – The Simpsons
PEDRO – Napoleon Dynamite
RAOUL – The Addams Family
RATCHET – Transformers rather than the Ratchet & Clank video game
REN – Ren & Stimpy
RIVENDELL – Lord of the Rings
SHELOB – Lord of the Rings
SHOCKWAVE – Transformers rather than The Shockwave Rider
STARSCREAM – Transformers
STIMPY – Ren & Stimpy
VERBAL – The Usual Suspects

Notable omissions:

  • Star Wars
  • Star Trek
  • Buffy/Angel/etc

(I did consider whether there were any confidentiality or security implications of posting this and I couldn’t think of any.)

Vodafone’s 3G Internet

Hallelujah, it’s only another week until we move and get real internet again! Since moving to Auckland we’ve been relying on Vodafone’s 3G data service (UMTS up to 384kbps) accessed through our phones.

The Good Bits

  • Sweet, sweet internet, how I love thee (or, the internet you have is always better than the internet you don’t have).
  • No on-site installation required.
  • You can take it with you. We’ll probably be travelling over summer so this’ll be very useful.
  • Receiving and making phone calls didn’t interfere with the data connection.
  • Having paid for a proper data plan on the phone means that I can happily use it for internet access while out and about, without having to pay the horrendous casual data rates of $10/MB ($10000/GB!). In particular I’ve liked uploading photos straight to Flickr, navigating using Google Maps, and just general web browsing.

The Bad Bits

  • We had some issues with the USB/phone connection on Kim’s computer. Rob kindly lent us a bluetooth adapter and this fixed things up.
  • Bluetooth itself can be more ‘fun’ to configure than it should be.
  • Windows Vista doesn’t cope with internet coming and going as well as it should.
  • The speed is just good enough at best, and it often drops well below best.
  • Take your phone away from the computer (bluetooth range of ~5m) and you lose your internet connection.
  • Providing access for other people and devices, while possible, is too much of a pain. (I could use internet connection sharing on the laptop but really, having your internet tied to your personal phone means that it’s a personal connection.)
  • We’re paying $60/month each for 1GB of traffic.

Using the newer HSDPA data standard would have been better for performance, but I didn’t want to spend the money to buy a Vodem or a phone that supports HSDPA (although the Sony Ericsson k850i has finally come out in New Zealand – parallel imported only, of course). And, as posted earlier, I found using the Vodem to be quite frustrating at times.


Of course, someone in South Korea or other civilised countries would probably sneer at me equating Telecom’s ADSL service with real internet. “What? It’s not even 10Mbit!” That said, I’m still looking forward to being able to:

  • Watch videos from YouTube and similar sites.
  • Get back into my eMusic subscription and download some more music (although I’ll miss Oink).
  • Download the latest TV shows.
  • Browse the web at a reasonable speed.

In summary, Vodafone’s 3G data service is definitely good enough for roaming use and as a backup service for transient people, but it doesn’t really substitute for a real internet connection for general usage.

Where Have All the Bookmarks Gone?

In years gone past I had an extensive collection of bookmarks (aka favorites), stored links to a variety of pages and websites all over the internet. They were hard-won spoils from the search for useful information and I looked after them, backing them up and carefully moving them across whenever I got a new PC.

These days? These days I don’t even use them and my carefully maintained collection is lost amongst the digital detritus somewhere on my storage server. So far I’ve managed to come up with the following list of reasons (technological and behavourial) that caused this change.

  • Domain names are easier to remember (there’s a general consensus on the grammar and patterns of domain name choice) and because I use them so much I’m better at remembering them. It reminds me of how I used to be very good at remembering phone numbers because I used them so much, but then I lost that ability when I started storing them in my mobile phone.
  • I recently spent 8 months travelling around Central America without a laptop. Internet usage was reserved for internet cafes so I just got in the habit of not having my bookmarks available (I never got into using any of the sites that store your bookmarks for you).
  • Searching on Google is a good substitute. Don’t bother remembering the site, just google for the relevant search terms and there it is.
  • I use an RSS aggregator (a fancy term for website reader). This not only makes it easier to keep track of news from multiple sites, it also means I don’t have to enter their URLs.
  • My web browser remembers the names of sites I visit a lot so I only have to type in the first few letters and then choose the relevant site from the drop-down list.

Of course, there is one exception to my rejection of bookmarks, and that’s my mobile phone. Using a standard phone keypad to laboriously type in long URLs is definitely something you try and avoid!

Why Do We Get Nonsense Spam?

I imagine we’ve all been annoyed by spam selling viagra, watches, penny stocks and penis enlargement creams, but at least they make a certain sort of sense. Spammers send out millions of ads, get tens of sales, and make some money while annoying everyone else.

But what about the spam that isn’t selling anything? What is the point of sending out spam with a string of unrelated words that doesn’t even mention a product name, let alone claim that it will make your stock portfolio larger and more satisfying? To understand this kind of spam we need to think about the entire spamming process and how it has developed over the years.

Sending Spam

Originally spam used to be sent fairly directly. You’d sit (virtually at least) at your internet server or PC and send out your ads to unsuspecting mail servers all over the world. This approach didn’t work for long – blacklists were created to block known spam servers, anti-spamming clauses were written into internet service providers’ contracts, and anti-spam laws were passed in a number of countries. The spammers had to go under the radar.

At the same time this was happening, PCs all over the world were being infected by spyware, trojans, adware and other malware (a catch-all name for ‘malicious software’). Some of these were just annoyances that generated popup ads everywhere, but others would take over your PC and hand control of it to someone else.

The spammers saw this happening and realised that they could write malware that would send out spam – what could be stealthier then getting someone elses PC to send your spam for you? You’d infect their PC with spam-bot software, the spam-bot would connect to the spam server to get the latest ad campaign, and off it would go merrily sending spam out to all and sundry. If you could infect thousands of PCs with your software it didn’t matter if some got shut down, there were always plenty more to keep pumping it out. Spam was not only back, it was back in enormous volume.

Blocking Spam

However, the battle against spam wasn’t solely concentrated on stopping spam being sent. The other major front was stopping spam getting in by blocking incoming email that met certain rules. Originally these rules were fairly simple, looking for key-words like “viagra” in combination with links to websites. These worked somewhat, but they weren’t very effective (“Hey, let’s spell it as v1agra!”) and blocked too many real messages.

The anti-spam filters had to get more sophisticated and the new technique was something called bayesian filtering. Simply put, this technique works by taking a large body of email that has already been sorted into spam and non-spam. When a new email arrives, the bayesian filter is used to ask a simple question – does this new email look more like the emails in the spam group or more like the emails in the non-spam group? This method proved to be much more effective at filtering out spam and the anti-spammers were once again winning the battle.

Naturally the spammers fought back, this time by adding extra bits and pieces to their ads. A typical spam message would have the ad followed by a few paragraphs of pseudo-random generated text, with the hope that the email would look more like a real email and therefore get past the bayesian filters. (The pseudo-random text was quite surreally pretty at times and some geek-literateurs got quite excited and ran off to write learned papers about it.)

Tying it All Together

So the pieces are in place now but how does this explain the nonsense spam? Simply put, the spam-bot software isn’t very well written. It works something along these lines:

1. Infect PC.
2. Connect to spam-server and download the latest ad campaign.
3. Add nonsense text and other anti-anti-spam measures.
4. Start sending spam.

I believe that the nonsense spams happen when step 2 fails, either because of a bug in the spam-bot or because the spam-server has itself been shut down.

Well written software would just stop at this point, but spam-bots don’t have to be good and the software just marches on, adding the anti-bayesian text to the non-existent ad and sending the resulting ad-free nonsense spam out to the world.

And, for a final ironic twist, because the nonsense spams don’t have ads in them they’re more likely to get through the bayesian anti-spam filters and end up in your inbox!

IRC Proxying/Bouncing with Spexhost and psyBNC

My current lifestyle tends to mean I move around a bit, connecting and disconnecting from the internet as required. However, I still want to use IRC to keep up with my online friends. One of the things about IRC is that ideally you want to leave it going all the time so that when you return you can see what’s been happening in your absence.

The simple answer is to use an IRC proxy (often called a bouncer) hosted on a well-connected system somewhere on the internet. The proxy remains connected all the time and logs everything that happens, you just then connect to the proxy as required and it plays back everything you missed.

The problem is that it can be hard to find a suitable system to host your proxy on. My normal solution would be to ask a friend if they would host it – but many IRC servers ban multiple connections from the same IP address so that would cause problems for their own proxies. The next option is commercial hosting, but a lot of hosting companies ban IRC proxies. So, it was time to look for a specialised hosting company and I decided to go for Spexhost.

They offer a suitable shell account (one login, up to two concurrent users) with a pre-configured IRC proxy called psyBNC for US$4/month. I signed up online and paid by Paypal and they responded with my login information within 12 hours. However, the documentation for setup wasn’t as good as I’d have liked, particularly around logging/history, so I decided to write this to help the next person.

Setting up MIRC with psyBNC

1. Use MIRC (or your favourite IRC client) to set up a new server with the details from Spexhost (Tools – Options – Servers). Remember to include the server name, port number and your password.

2. Change the ident and the first part of the email address in MIRC to your spexhost username (Tools – Options – Connect).

3. Connect to the server. psyBNC will open a private channel to you that you can use to send it commands.

4. First you need to setup the IRC servers you wish to connect to. In the psyBNC channel type the following (these are obviously my settings for undernet, modify as required):

/addserver : 6667
/addserver : 6667

5. Next up we have the logging. I want to log everything that happens in my usual channels (psyBNC automatically logs private messages so this doesn’t need to be setup):

/addlog #wellyhaven : *
/addlog #nz : *

6. At this point you should be connected to one of the servers and logging your desired channels (use /listservers and /listlogs to check). Next we need to set MIRC up to automatically retrieve the contents of the logs when we reconnect. I added the following commands to the Perform section (Tools – Options – Options – Perform):

/playtrafficlog last

And that should be it. You can close MIRC (or, in my case, take your phone out of bluetooth range of the laptop and thereby lose your connection) and when you restart it and connect to your IRC proxy you should be back in the same channels with everything you missed.

New Phone – Sony Ericsson k770i

This may expose me as being a sad and geeky person, but I’m completely enamoured with my new phone (Sony Ericsson k770i). A repackaged version of the k810i, not only is it small, svelte, purple and a good phone/text device, it’s also doing quite a lot more. This includes:

The Really Useful Features

  • Access to Google Mail and LiveJournal from wherever I am. This is particularly useful at the moment as my temporary workplace blocks access to these sites.
  • Internet access device for my laptop using 3G UMTS (up to 384kbps).
  • High quality 3.2 megapixel digital camera, complete with direct upload to Flickr or LiveJournal courtesy of Shozu.
  • Listening to music using the included headset and a 2GB M2 memory card.
  • Using the Google Maps application for on-the-go navigation.
  • Easy synchronisation of the phone calendar with my Google calendar using GooSync. If only it supported contacts as well (yes, it can be done in a two step Google-PC-Phone process but I don’t want to).

Bits of Good Design

  • Sony Ericsson have replaced the sometimes fiddly joystick with a functionally equivalent but easier to use directional pad.
  • They’ve replaced the superior Xenon camera flash with a LED photo light. While this isn’t so good for photos it means you can use the phone as a flashlight. I used this feature a lot on my last phone, especially when going down dark paths on steep Wellington hills at night.
  • It multitasks! You can receive/send texts while connected to the internet while listening to music.
  • You can set multiple alarms and even specify which days they operate. I’ve got one setup to ring at 6:45 from Mon-Fri but not in the weekends. (I cunningly remembered to turn it off for Labour Day.)
  • While the connector is the same old ginormous Fast Port plug, it’s been moved from the bottom to the side which seems to work better, especially for headphones.
  • It charges itself from USB.
  • The shiny metal lense cover is beautifully integrated both physically and electronically. Once you get over the initial hesitation about using enough pressure to open/close it, it works very well and switches the camera immediately into camera mode.

Bonus advantage! We got a Sony Ericsson k530i for Kim the week before and the way that they both use the same chargers and cables and so on just makes life easier.

Stuff That Isn’t So Great

  • I’m now paying $86/month to the dreaded Vodafone for my voice and data plans.
  • The video quality is still limited to 176×144 pixels (aka crap).
  • I miss the clock screen-saver on the k750i. This meant you could check the time without having to press a button.
  • Why does the little power bar show the battery to be about 80% full when the phone status reports it’s 55% full?
  • Power consumption when doing 3G data is high. When plugged into the mains it still manages to charge but only very slowly.
  • I have no idea why the PC software takes 10 minutes to install itself.

My Next Phone

But no matter how good this phone is there’s always something more to desire. Some things I’d like in the next one:

  • An even higher res screen. 320 x 240 pixels on a 1.9″ screen is pretty good but a bigger screen with even more pixels would be even better.
  • Better text entry. I’m not sure how this would be down while still keeping the same size – and not losing the tactility of the buttons ala the iPhone. Maybe haptics will save me.
  • An even even faster data connection.
  • It’s going to have be an even better internet terminal (see all three points above this one). I’m impressed with what this one does but it’s still far short of a ‘real’ internet terminal. I wonder whether I’m going to have to sacrifice my desire for small size to get what I want.

And to finish, I’d like to mentally apologise to the very helpful woman at Etown who got me to change my mind from buying the k810i to the superior k770i. Yes, I shouldn’t have been surprised when you were reasonably knowledgeable about the product lines even if you were female and young and dressed like a [classist epithet deleted]. If only stereotypes weren’t so useful much of the time…

Living in the Future

I had some web development work to do for one of our old website clients. They want some changes and a few new features added – nothing major and it should take just a couple of days. However, our current living quarters are really not well suited to working (no desk, no comfy chair, unstable internet). The obvious answer was to go out.

So, there I was sitting at Katipo Cafe working away. I had my pot of tea, my laptop, and the Vodem for internet. I was busily editing, uploading, chatting, reading, testing, researching, emailing – and it all felt very normal. When I did this two years ago I felt “hip and cool” in a geeky kind of a way, but now it just seemed routine. It doesn’t help that laptops are pretty damn common these days or that mine isn’t particularly ‘cool’!

Note: the Vodem worked much better in the Wellington Central Public Library and at Katipo Cafe than it does in our flat in Mt Cook.

Portable Internet with the Vodem

I’m currently staying in a small flat in the Mt Cook area of Wellington. The place has no internet connection so a friend kindly lent me his Vodem (aka the Huawei E220).

The Vodem

This is a cute little USB modem that plugs into your computer and connects you to the internet via Vodafone’s 3G network (supports GPRS/UMTS/HSDPA). It’s quite stylee in curvy white and has a fully Hardware 2.0 blue LED light on it.

One of the cool things about the Vodem is that it not only installs itself as a communications device, it also includes a built in flash-drive that contains the software and drivers you need to make it all work. This means there’s no need for a separate CD. Also, when you update the modem firmware you’re also updating the built in software. Nifty.

The Network

The idea was that I would plug the Vodem into my laptop and then share the internet connection over our internal wifi network so that Kim could also use it. Finally we’d plug the NAS storage device into the wifi access point and our little internal network would be all set up with both of us able to get onto the internet. Even better, we’d be able to do this wherever we went as long as we had power and a Vodafone signal, so it would be a perfect way to keep connected during our planned South Island touring/camping trip.

While none of this was incredibly complex I was a bit wary at first – Vista’s built-in networking does some odd things at times, partly because it’s trying too hard to help. I see what they’re trying to do with it (easier to setup and good default security settings) and I think it’s a good idea in principle but they haven’t got it right yet. I look forward to the whispered-about SP1.

However, in this case I was pleased to see that it was all very easy. Install the Vodem, share the connection, plug in the AP, plug in the NAS box, tell Kim’s laptop to connect through mine – and everything worked. Yay, we had ‘net! And then the connection dropped. And came back. And dropped. And then it wouldn’t come back at all, with the software reporting some nonsensical error message about an incorrect broadcast address.

The Problems

The first problem was the Vodafone supplied software. For some reason that I completely fail to understand, it appears that telephone companies and manufacturers of telephone equipment are incapable of writing good PC software. Fixing this wasn’t too hard – discard the software and set up the connection within Windows as a normal PPP connection using the Vodem. Problem #1 solved.

Sadly there was a problem #2 as well. While the PCs and internal parts of the network were happy, there was still a problem with the Vodem and Vodafone’s network. They support three of the multiple data standards used for mobile data (GPRS at up to 60kbit/sec, UMTS at up to 384kbit/sec, and HSDPA at up to 3600kbit/sec) and in theory the Vodem will seamlessly switch between them depending on what network is available. And it’s that word “seamlessly” that’s the problem.

The Vodem would rather spend time endlessly hunting between GPRS/UTMS/HSDPA, flicking its little indicator LED from blue to greeny-blue and back again, then actually moving data back and forth. Each time it switches there is an interruption in your internet connection that lasts 10-30 seconds, and there’s no guarantee that when the connection is re-established that it won’t immediately switch back again.

The Verdict

In practice this means that you have a tremendously annoying and frustrating internet connection. You’re happily surfing/chatting away and then suddenly it stops. You glance over at the vodem, see the light flickering, sigh, and wait for it to re-establish itself. It does so and you get the next page and …wham, it stops again. It’s frustrating to press submit on a web form, see the LED change colour, and know that there’s definitely going to be a service interruption and there’s only about a 50% chance that whatever you submitted will actually get there.

It’s got to the point now that I’m looking for the commands I need to disable some of the connection types in the hope that it will be more stable (because it’s treated like a modem it uses a very extended version of the AT command set). GPRS may be slow but I’d rather have a stable slow connection than an intermittent fast one. Sadly the documentation isn’t very good and the Huawei website doesn’t let commoners like me download the manuals. Time to go googling, I’ll post an update when I find the solution.

Verdict: The Vodem is a neat idea and I really want it to work but I can’t recommend it at this time.