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Monday 27 November 2006

Browser wars - your views [Lurks]

Short and sweet, what are you using and why? I was pretty happy with Firefox 1.5 really. It's not noticably as fast as IE but it does the job. Tabbed browsing and some security niggling feelings were why I used it over IE but I'm not a browser zealot. So now we've got something unprecidented, a couple of major revisions to the browsers we most likely use. So what do you used and why.
For me, when FF 2.0 came out I foolishly upgraded off the bat, having seen how long it was in beta I thought it'd be fine. It's not fine. It randomly doesn't start up and when it does this, even killing the dead exes from the task manager doesn't always coax it to start up. It locks up. It uses 100% CPU time, particularly on flash and PDFs. There's stuff I do like. Well, I like the form spell checker. To be honest, that's probably about it but otherwise the stability issues make it more or less useless.
So, IE7 then? The tabs are nice. I like the little blank one you click on. I like opening stuff in a new tab inserts it next to the parent tab. I love the speed of it and it's been rock solid for me. There's only two things I don't like, one is that when I do the toolbar folder bookmarks folders type thing, there's a bit of a fade/delay when hitting them which isn't as quick as FF. I'm also not happy about the fact that when I copy text from HTML tags in a form, IE7 randomly decides what character to start copying from and wont let me begin with < exactly, requirign me to edit every paste by hand. What's that about? Also, I've decided I quite like an in-form spellcheck as per FF although I'd like it with an English dictionary as well.
My options are to try get my bookmarks from FF into IE7 and then bin FF so I stop firing up the damn thing. Or to somehow downgrade to FF 1.5. I think on balance I'd prefer to use IE7 for the speed and because, I assume, FF 1.5 wont be supported forver. I bet I can find a little add-on to in-form spell checking with IE7 also and it's definately useful that those pesky ActiveX controls actually just work in your regular browser rather than having to dig out IE just for those.
So anyway, what about you chaps?

Sunday 26 November 2006

Who killed Litvinenko? [Lurks]

I think we've all been watching the remarkable developments concerning the poisoning of ex-ruskie-spook Alexander Litvinenko. I thought it might be useful to step back and take a quick overview of this chap, some recent history, and see if I can't fathom out of it a most likely scenario for who was responsible.
A good place to start here is with Boris Berezovsky who is widely described as Russia's first billionaire. This chap first surfaced as a Russian business man under perestroika. Under Yeltzin's presidency, he started building his empire with some shading dealings with state car manufacturer AutoVAZ. I'm no expert but near as I can tell as Russia threw off the mantle of communism, pretty much all of the "emerging oligarchs made their fortunes in the shady lawless space between a government defining capitalist concepts for the first time and the rise of organised crime.
Berezovsky had a bunch of connections to Chechnya and like any other Russian oligarch, got to where he was by supporting the current presidential regime (he was very tight with Yeltzin and having aquired numerous media interest, helped his cause considerably) in exchange for being the recipient of all sorts of deals in the emerging market. Berezovsky is, today, quite dimly viewed by Russians as an oligarch that basically defrauded the Russian state in those early years. Interestingly in later years Berezovsky supported Putin's presidency but was vehemently against war in Chechnya.
I'm having a headache straightening that out form the main meat that probably lead up to current events, but let's just put it down to me not understanding the Machiavellian politics of Russian business, crime and government. See, back in 1998 good old ex-KGB Vladimir Putin was head of the FSB, the reformed Russian secret police/security organisation. This is when FSB Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Litvinenko popped up on the public radar for the first time by informing Berezovsky and some figures within the Yeltzin administration of a plot to assassinate Berezovsky.
This launched an official investigation and meanwhile Berezovsky wrote an open letter to Putin, head of the FSB as you'll recall, in the Russian newspapers claiming that various members of the FSB were engaged in all sorts of illegal activities including kidnapping and extortion and that further more these activities had a political component. What he basically said was the old guard KGB chaps are up to their old tricks. Apparently in support of this, a new conference was held with ex FSB members claiming they had been ordered to kill Berezovsky. Putin replied to the open-letter saying that he doesn't want to play political games with the agency but they will cooperate fully with the military prosecutors investigating the allegations.
What's kind of being missed by the obituaries on Litvinenko lately is the fact that he was well known to be 'close' to Berezovsky, which I find as a somewhat strange position for an anti organised crime investigations officers to be in. That does make it rather unlikely he'd be asked to assassinate Berezovsky, as some Russian media pointed out (citing FSB sources) at the time. Conversely Litvinenko claimed that after he refused to whack Berezovsky, he was threatened by other elements for having protected "a Jew who has robbed half the country."
It's really not clear what was going on but some kind of internal power struggle within the FSB seems quite likely. You might have written it off as a political game from the Berezovsky camp (with Litvinenko as an insider) were it not for the group of former FSB officers coming out of the dark and supporting the accusations.
Remarkably, the result of investigation was purely to close down the anti organised crime section of the FSB and, despite the fact that Putin resided as head over the organisation during this scandalous time, campaigned in 2000 for the Presidency (supported by Berezovsky!) and won. Russia is a very strange place.
That said, Berezovsky pushed it a bit far with his opposition to events in Chechnya and Putin initiated investigations into his business practices. Fearing arrest, and all that entails in Russia, he fled and has been a resident of the UK ever since. Back onto our main subject, Alexander Litvinenko was arrested for abusing his office and spent 9 months incarcerated before finally being let go without charge.
Rather than leaving it there he continued to make a nuisance of himself to the Putin regime by publishing a book that the FSB was responsible for the residential block bombing in 1999 that killed 300 people, blamed on the Chechens and generally regarded as swinging public opinion into supporting the war in Chechnya. This strikes me as the work of either a very brave or very stupid man. At some point, however, he claims he was persecuted (and other sources claim another FSB corruption case was being prepared against him) and so he fled to the UK successfully seeking asylum. The BBC claims in their obituary that he acted like a pursued spy ever since.
Forgive me for the length of the background, clearly more recent events are rather better known. We know, for example that another critical of Chechnya policy and the Putin regime in general, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in the lift of her apartment. What may be less well known is that she spoke to Litvinenko in London shortly after she was poison. Litvinenko claimed subsequently to be investigating the murder of Politkovskaya although her son said he knew nothing about this.
Quite tellingly, Litvinenko told a Chechen web site that the documents he received from a contact on the 1st of November contained information about FSB involvement in the killing of Politkovskaya. Which is interesting. In fact on the day it's thought that he was poisoned, Litvinenko met two people. Firstly Andrei Lugovoy and another unnamed Russian at the xxx and then, arranged hastily, apparently, the Italian Professor Mario Scaramella.
Andrew Lugovoy was a former KGB officer and FSB colleague of Litvinenko who now is a security employee of a Russian television station (formerly owned by Berezovsky, interestingly). I can find no details about what that meeting was for but lunch, at the Sushi bar, was accordingly to Litvinenko to discuss the Politkovskaya murder. Perhaps even more intriguing is the fact that Scaramella said, having returned to Rome, that he had traveled to meet Litvinenko to discuss an e-mail he received from a source naming the killers of Politkovskaya and discussing his and Litvinenko's appearance on a hit-list.
This is quite remarkable but check it Litvinenko's version of events:

"I ordered lunch but he ate nothing. He appeared to be very nervous. He handed me a four-page document which he said he wanted me to read right away. It contained a list of names of people, including FSB officers, who were purported to be connected with the journalist’s murder."
"The document was an e-mail but it was not an official document. I couldn’t understand why he had to come all the way to London to give it to me. He could have e-mailed it to me."

That's a good point. Why would you come to London to give someone an email print out? This strikes me as remarkable smoking-gun type material to me. If any agency wanted to whack Litvinenko, they first have to track him down and the BBC would have us believe he didn't make that easy. What better way to entice Litvinenko to a meeting than to use a honey pot subject that he would find too juicy to pass up such as FSB involvement in the Politkovskaya murder.
You've got to take a step back though. It's all a little too obvious. Anyone could see how doing something like this would end up providing a horrendous anti-Russia platform and one which, as you can see, has been exploited to the full. Incidentally Berezovsky is thought to have been footing the $10,000 a day PR bill and I think some over-eagerness in that department is the reason for the rapid-fire erroneous reports of thalium, not thalium, coctail of drugs no wait, radioactive thalium before ending up with a diagnosis. What we've got here is PR bunnies pressing medical professionals as they tick of things it might be and the media, ever hungry for news, has been publishing the speculation as it goes on.
The overwhelming scenario would seem to support an FSB-based plot, the only question is whether you believe that the Putin regime could make a miscalculation on this scale. I would urge you to look back at the history. Putin is a former member of the KGB, former head of the FSB when it was torn apart by the most damaging scandal imaginable and this is a man which has repeatedly demonstrated his hand in dealing with foreign PR problems in the form of businessmen by instructing enforcement agencies to investigate said individuals. Then, finally, there's Politkovskaya. A failed poisoning and the brutal murder. Does anyone, really, doubt that was the hand of Putin?
If you believe, as the late Litvinenko would have us believe, that the FSB would bomb a block of flats in order to blame it on Chechens and seal support for his aggressive policy, then really this is hardly a moral stretch for a man capable of such things? One thing is very clear, you don't kill a man in this way via a highly elaborate slow-killing way like this, a way that can never be mistaken for the work of common thugs, unless you're sending a message.
Who might that message be for? If I was forced to speculate, I'd say Berezovsky. Litvinenko was his pet project from the start and he continued to be so, exploited as an anti Russia PR opportunity, as Litvinenko lay on his death bed. He paid Litvinenko's keep in London and co-authored an anti-FSB book and they clearly share the same sort of views when it comes to opposing Russia's Chechnya policy. Berezovsky might be too big a fish to openly try to whack, particularly since it had a previous plot exposed.
So if you can't get rid of Berezovsky, what about striking at his pet project FSB whistle-blower in a public unmistakably state-sponsored way such as this? It has a ring of plausibility for me, requiring you only to ignore the remarkable PR own goal and believing that Russia would have the sheer chutzpah to strike at a dissident on British soil. I'd put it to you that Russia is probably quite pissed off with our little collection of former state-raping oligarchs and anti-Putin activists so such a message might not be aimed at Berezovsky exclusively. I would expect it has a few former Russian nationals feeling a little hot under the collar so it may have had it's desired effect.
On the other hand, I find another telling comment from former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin who himself has fled the Russia and acts as a security consultant. His take is that Russian secret services have been given 'cart blanche' instructions allowing them to fight terrorism abroad through recent legal changes. Oleg says that the special units to fight terrorism abroad are tied up in an FSB 'caste' which hate traitors and hence decided to shut Litvinenko up.
This does, in many ways, make more sense. Russia incensed by terrorist atrocities has basically given their security forces a free reign and given the, ah, previous proclivities of their staff, this could be seen as a strategic move to erode support for the Chechen cause. Suitably devolved from the political process, such factions may not quite have the political comprehension to think this one through adequately.
For all Putin's faults I don't think the man is really stupid enough to go ahead and sign off on this sort of thing by his own hand. However as a former old-school KGB and FSB man himself, he'll understand only too well that oft-quoted concept of plausible deniability. Use the public's outrage (or manufacture it, if you're feeling particular sinister) to bring in the laws allowing the security forces to act as they will with an appropriate insulating chain of command which absolves you of specifically micro managing their efforts. This is the scenario that ultimately is where I'm placing my chips of likelihood.
Putin may not have signed the order but you can be damn sure he's not mourning the death of Alexander Litvinenko and is reasonably content that this is unlikely to come back and bite him on the ass longer term.

Tuesday 21 November 2006

Is WoW bad for your life? [Lurks]

That might sound like a bit of an obviously loaded question but there's more to it than that. Our guild has, over the last year, had thee different WoW-playing couples crash and burn out of the guild in a fashion which is rather more eventful, verging on spectacular, than anything like we normally see. Having seen three of them now, I think we have to look at this being a pattern and also being a WoW husband and wife team in this household, are there any lessons to be learned for me or is it just a case of WoW being a symptom of something being wrong in the first place, rather than the cause?
In each of the cases the central issue is basically that WoW-hubby has expressed a pretty negative attitude while raiding. The key symptom is moaning or bleating as we like to call it in EED and which has, like several other terms, been adopted with aplomb by the guild we spawned. WoW-hubby is generally down on everything. Complains about loot, complains about others and really doesn't appear to be having a very good time of it at all.
The most famous incident was a good year ago when one Swedish couple, both of whome were mages, had a spectacular falling out in a molten core raid. WoW-wife, in this scenario, did the unspeakable thing of bidding on an item that WoW-hubby wanted. He went proper mental and apparently just walked away from his PC and left the house for fear of actually resorting to violence on his wife. Driven by this guys insatiable selfish desire for loot, and combined with their failure to really socialise or genuinely desire the company of other guildies, they eventually took off another guild who at the time was raiding content at a higher level than us. We felt well and truly betrayed since they'd been with us for ages and it was a basic statement that the loot was more important than our friendship. This isn't something you normally see, certainly it's rare for our guild.
WoW couple number two, was all together more subtle. Again a pretty whiney negative WoW-hubby and rather like the first couple, this was known to be causing considerable friction within the household. In both cases WoW-wives were pretty unhappy at the asshat-like behavior of WoW-hubby and this seemed to place some sort of additional strain on the relationship. The second couple had WoW-wife take off from the guild largely because she didn't want to be in the same guild as her man. After that happened, WoW-hubby went sort of silent, didn't sign to any raids and then finally left without a word. Bizarrely they both ended up in the same low level guild together so we've nothing more to report on that. In this case WoW-wife appeared to enjoy social interaction in the game with others, while WoW-hubby absolutely did not.
And finally the most recent case. Yet again another case of a hugely negative WoW-hubby in raids. General complaining about everything, lack of socialisation, refusal to engage in jokes with others, quick to take offense and all that sort of stuff. Again, as in all three couples, WoW-wife got on with others and so when she announced that she wasn't having a good time in raids and was leaving the guild, we were a little shocked and disappointed as opposed to the first two couples that we were, quite frankly, fairly nonplussed about. Unfortunately it's a little difficult to peer into this relationship and know what's going on as to why they wanted to leave the guild, since WoW-wife sort of obfuscates the issue with another, seemingly trivial, grievance.
What we did know however was that all was not well in the home and they were not getting on very well. WoW-wife was also, as in the other two cases, pretty unhappy with the way WoW-hubby behaved in game. This, I think, is what we can take away from all three cases as the common theme. So the question we come out of this is, was WoW the cause or was it merely the symptom of other problems?
I don't know if my view is controversial but I kind of believe that men and women get on in a relationship long term, only so long as they have a decent amout of breathing space each. My relationship is very different from that I see with other couples. We pretty much never argue and even though we both work from home and are more or less in eachother's company all of the time, we get on fine. However I really do need to do my own stuff. However when I gave the wife a copy of WoW and upgraded her PC for Christmas, I didn't really think she'd pick it up and run with it. In fact now days, she plays more than I do!
However when usual couples are in close proximity for protracted periods, it seems to me they don't tend to get on that well. Men are naturally competitive and aggressive and I think what we've basically seen is simply three struggling relationships where the couples are in closer proximity, for several hours a night several times a week. If they're not getting on, we're going to see it. What I can't answer is, would they get on better if they weren't both playing WoW together?
Does this mean all WoW relationships are doomed to failure? Hell no, I'm not remotely falling out with my wife. She doesn't quite raid along side me, she's rather more casual and this being her first computer game ever, she's unlikely to be some uber end-game raider really. That also seems to be the case with a Norwegian couple in game too. Maybe in relationships where both are becoming addicted to WoW at the high end, it's some kind of transference. Focusing on WoW rather than deal with their relationship problems? I'm convinced there's an element of truth in that because in all three cases mentioned here, I've definitely got the sense that the latest tension isn't really about the things they complain about, eg loot, arguments etc, but really it's easier to get annoyed at the game than to turn to the person next to you and sort out your relationship.
Do I think WoW is good or bad for couples, is there some detrimental effect of having both play a game like WoW? On balance the evidence based on what we've seen would have to suggest there is but I don't feel that's the case in our house. I'm actually pretty happy to have something in common like this to talk about with my wife, if I didn't have this I think we'd not have that much to discuss really since we both like very different man/woman type stuff. I think it's down to the people.
In terms of personal development, I think the game has been brilliant for me and I've enjoyed it intensely. I've met countless new folks from around Europe, talk to them nightly on teamspeak. As one of the guild leaders I've had to basically u-turn my natural bad attitude concerning others and learn patience and diplomacy. I'm struggling to think of just about anything else in the world that could have done that for me.
So in the final analysis, I think WoW or indeed any other MMO type scenario, ends up being a basic reflection of your life outside of the game. People who are generally content in their own lives, tend to be generally content in game and people who are missing something, or unhappy with their lives or others around them, tend to reflect that in the game too. I don't think the game has the power to change your level of happiness over all, but I think it can hold a mirror up to yourself and actually allow you to make some changes if you have the strength to do so.

Monday 20 November 2006

Casino Royale may be the best Bond film ever [Beej]

Retrospectively when you look back over the Broz era - starts on a high, plummets to a low - you can see there's a theme of flashy gadgets, gleaming hair, and cheesy one-liners. He's good... but only compared to the last guy. GoldenEye was a kickstart for the 90s, but ten years on and the series already needs another kickstart already? Broz had become the new Roger Moore before our very eyes, contracted from his initial and only Bondian success through a talent-free meatgrinder of forgettable sequels like TND, TWINE and then ice-surfing DaD. Oh the horror, and I suppose, oh the waste.
Late 2006, enter the Blonde Bond and Casino Royale.
They say raw, they say back to the books (yawn), they say gritty (sigh). And, well, like many Brits I've seen the film on opening weekend in a packed Kino and you know what - they're right. You wouldn't fucking believe it, but this is a Bond film with a down-to-earth plot, strong characters, and edge-of-your-seat fights where Bond is being punched... and punched again... and golly, he's bleeding and cut and he's in a bit of a state. C'mon James, you can do it lad.
Unguiltily washing away ten years of Broz, Casino Royale fixes the broken Bond legacy. A line has been drawn under the 90s, and then also the 80s, and most of the 70s too. The whole premise of the film is that it pretends that the shit stuff never happened. You the viewer are not constantly drawing comparisons to the last film. Or the Scottish guy. Or the last car. Or even Halle Berry, or whatever floats your boat. This makes concrete the new film almost as a stand-alone, almost as if... it might be the first Bond ever made.
This is more than about finding a good actor for the lead character, and Daniel Craig appears to be a pretty damn determined, talented, craggy-looking actor who gives Bond a real edge, a ruthlessness and also an independence that he has been sorely lacking. Blonde Bond spends the movie figuring things out. Following people. Reporting to M, and scrapping with dangerous people. Sure, there's an Aston and there's a PPK, but they're second fiddle to Bond and absolutely not the other way around. The whole movie is woven with plot, pace, and character development that is on a par with a 'normal film at the cinema'. It is in so many ways not a Bond film.
It is not a perfect film by any means. You will mostly cringe at the product placement (too numerous to list, but for your post-movie agreement: £15m GBP buys the Ford Motor Company a 20 second advertlet; buy a Sony Vaio because it is endorsed by James Bond; Omega eye-rollingly gets namedropped over its famous competitor; oh and drink Smirnoff and Heineken, which spookily you may notice only subconsciously from prominent placement). It is slightly too long, but I wouldn't cut the important poker game, personally I'd look at a trim from all three reels of the movie, including the blood-pumping freejumping chase and also the airport shennanigans that you'll have seen in the trailer. Some might also say that Bond doesn't actually have much script, but that's because he's too busy punching people and making them bleed.
It is a little ironic to compare this film to its predecessors, when it is deliberately washing away so much that has come before it. I felt sorry for Brosnan after watching this because there's this realisation of oh my God I've been hoodwinked because I don't remember any of Brosnan's efforts at all, the poor man.
Casino Royale is emotional, dramatic and violent, and this makes it stronger and better than GoldenEye. Is it better than Dr.No? I think that question might depend on how you like your Bond girls.

Friday 17 November 2006

Does Britain need nukes? [Lurks]

It's interesting to see that one of the issues Blair appears to want to tackle in the last stages of his leadership is the debate on the replacement of replacement the British Nuclear deterrent. With the withdrawal of the last free-fall WE177 nukes (ancient 'small' 10kt nukes) from service in 1998, the remaining British nuclear deterrent consists of four Vanguard-class SSBN submarines. Each carries up to 16 Trident II D5 ballistic missiles which carry an American MIRV delivery system with an eight warhead capacity. However it's thought that they'd generally be loaded with three warheads each on 10, 12 or 14 of the Tridents with the remaining carrying a single warhead for an extended reach single-strike capability which provides a greater range, up to about 7,500km.
The Trident system is designed to launch W76 and W88 warheads, the latter being the only really 'modern' nuke with better accuracy, fusing and a 475kt yield. However British warheads are based on the older W76 units with around 100kt yield. The yanks have, however, been doing quite a lot of work in improving the lower-yield W76 and that's probably of interest to our military. The thing is about nukes, you need to periodically rebuild them because of decay, issues with the trigger sources and that sort of thing. So it's possible to tinker with them during that phase. No one appears to believe that the UK would consider replacing W76 with W88.
Also, in total it's held that the British warhead stockpile is around about 200 warheads. There are enough Trident II D5 missiles to fully load about three boats but then since only one SSBN is on patrol at any one time, that's considerably redundancy. In times of heightened alert, it's expected two SSBNs would be on patrol and, surprisingly, the patrols are coordinated with the French, not the Americans. One assumes that's to ensure a reasonable Western European coverage of potential launch sites and target coverage.
So having detailed what we have now, what's the analysis on the capability and do we need to maintain it or scrap it? In terms of capability, it's 'plenty' enough really. It's not cold war craziness but it's enough capability to categorically eradicate most significant military and civilian targets in a medium sized country which is, basically, all the deterrent you should reasonably need.
Maybe it's useful to compare what we have with France. It's actually quite similar, they also have four SSBNs deployed with shorter-range ballistic missiles but also with MIRV capability based on French-designed TN75 100kt warheads. They are thought to have slightly more of them, between 250-300 operational warheads. France also has something Britain does not, an active bomber-based nuclear force based on 300kt yield French TN81 warheads, of which they have about 60 operational. Perhaps more importantly than all of that, France has already been where we are now in deciding the future of their nuclear deterrent. They have broad support for the continuation of the program and it remains funded (around 10% of their defense budget) and even has a component for the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons. They actually tested a nuclear weapon as recently as 1996.
The British people, conversely, aren't in such broad support of a nuclear deterrent when polled, however retaining some form of nuclear deterrent still has the lead. Until such time as the cost of the necessary maintenance and replacement of the Trident system is mentioned, around £25 billion, at which point some polls show an opposition to the idea. That said, this is a little like leading the witness, if you put those sort of numbers in front of the man on the street and say emotive things (like the Guardian quotes) that it's the equivalent of building 1,000 schools, then it's little wonder you get that kind of result.
It's a bit of a moot point because the Convervatives widely favor a commitment to the nuclear deterrent and with their renewed fortunes, any move to renew the program (supported, after all, by Gordon Brown before backtracking a bit and saying 'let's discuss it) will lightly meet with a solid majority in the house and be passed.
Where do I stand? I guess I'm for retaining an equivalent-level nuclear deterrent as we do today although I think we should have some additional air-based delivery systems because that's a closer fit to any remotely conceivably threat we might face in the short and medium terms. It's hard to really see a need for nuclear weapons today but that's the thing about war, rarely do countries expect to see it coming but when and if it does, you'll be wishing you had a little something up your sleeve. That said, nuclear weapons aren't even really about that, they're about the deterrent. I'm having a hard time seeing a country in the world which we might want to use nuclear weapons against.
That said, the world is a pretty scary place and things are going to get more interesting when the scrabble for the remaining resources kicks off. And given, at this stage, we're purely talking about just giving a broad thumbs up to a system that needs replacing by 2020, I think it would be short sighted to consign the British nuclear deterrent to the dustbin just yet. Let's face it, rogue states will probably end up with nukes in the next 25 years and I think we can all sleep a little safer at night knowing that they know any conceivable use of them against us would be a somewhat foolish thing to do.
That does little to protect us from loony fringe extremist groups who will, let's be honest, will be the first people who might reasonably obtain nuclear weapons with the will to use them against us. I think this serves to underline the importance of not allowing rogue states who, let's face it, wont be trying that hard to keep their nuclear toys out of the hands of said loony fringe extremists, going on their current policies and rhetoric.
Perhaps the solution is to make it abundantly clear that the use of any nuclear weapon manufactured by said rogue state against us will be met with a retaliation on the makers of said weaponry. Would that make them think twice? So how about it Ahmadinejad? No, I expect not. Perhaps Persia is destined to attain a distinctively glassy sheen to it within the next 50 years.

Thursday 16 November 2006

Blizzard Bans - could it be you? [Lurks]

It seems that a bunch of people have been banned from World of Warcraft today due to some new detection mechanism from Blizzard for finding of 'bots' or basically stuff which automatically farms things to make gold while unattended. In general our attitude to that is good! but while one newer guild member of ours recounts the story of being banned, another also tells a story about having been banned a long time ago. No decent reason given, just a late terse reply that no action will be undertaken to renew the account.
Now, some caveats. I suspect that Blizzard aren't complete morons and that this latest chap has been doing something which warranted getting banned. He'd certainly not admit it to us, given the guild's dim view on this sort of thing. However the longer term member I trust implicitly since there's no real reason for him not to fess up about the whole thing.
Basically Blizzard spawn a task that looks for 'third party programs' that interfere with the operation of WoW. I don't know any real details having not looked into it and simply trusting that not being inclined to do this sort of thing, I'd be pretty safe. However there's stories of people getting banned for running WoW under WINE on Linux and other stuff too.
So the question is here, is there a chance that they could just decide that some application we're running - I don't know Netlimiter, some clipboard tool or something like that - is a third party application and then just ban us. And then wont tell you why, other than you've been caught doing something against T&Cs and refusing to talk further or reinstate your account. Is this a possibility?
I think I'd like to know because as an officer in a large end-game raiding guild, wearing equipment which I've spent months accruing, if they did that I'd just jack in the game and vow not to give them another penny. Course I'm not saying they'd care, they have millions of subscribers and I'm sure they've got it all worked out. They need to take action against these people and the odd banned innocent accounts, well, if they were a real WoW nutter they'd probably just start again?
However we have a guild of over one hundred accounts. I think we have some kind of right to know how we'll be treated. I want to know that if I'm putting all this time and effort in the game, and most importantly helping to organise it for many many others too, that I'd have some kind of protection against them falsely deciding to ban my account. I bought some gold awhile back, is that banworthy? I run the guild raid bank and have 8000G in it, does that look like I'm a farmer and I'm selling gold? You tell me.
What I think they ought to do is put up a public list of the servers, names of accounts etc of banned folks and tell everyone why they're banned. We'd like to know, why not tell us? It's not personal information. Also, there should be a proper appeals process. I'd hate, if hypothetically-speaking our guildmaster was just banned out of the blue, to end up having to do the childish thing of threatening many people of quitting the game but is that, at the end of the day, the only thing we have?
That said, at least some part of Blizzard's customer service team is actually commercially minded and responds to this sort of thing beyond the legendary bot-like insanely unhelpful replies we currently get for any enquiry. Our server had a guild come back from the dead and a player who had sharded all of his gear got it reinstated, all by promising that players would come back to the game and re-subscribe.
So maybe we have to give a thought to it. Maybe we have to work it out ahead of time, if Blizzard wont square with us from the outset, and start saying that we as a guild agree to pack in the game if they're not actually going to give us a proper human response to banning any one of our players.
I'd like to believe that mistakes in something so important as automatically banning accounts can't happen, that Blizzard would be absolutely sure but come on, we've played this game for a couple of years and we've seen they're as fallible as any other software developer. It's just most other companies don't see the whole thing as some big numbers game and forgo any human interaction in this kind of process at all.

Wednesday 15 November 2006

Kofi Annan to star in Spooks [Lurks]

Well, obviously not but the thought of that headline being crawled by Googlebot was too much to pass up. There is a point to this though, I read this story on the BBC about Kofi Annan (he's the UN Secretary General for our American readers) saying that country leaders are being a bit slack when it comes to agreeing action, particularly on a timetable, on climate change.
The other bit of my faux-headline was Spooks, having recently aired the last episode in this series and one of such low quality that I think we can now safely declare the series dead and buried. They even snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by failing to drown the horrendously miscast foppish lead 'Adam Carter' at the end of the show, thereby paving the way for several hours of television next year that I wont be watching.
Back to the point, if I may. This episode was about some eco-terrorists who hit upon the existence of a document called Aftermath. The reason for this blog is because I think the writers of the series have stumbled across a concept that might be worth exploring. The idea of Aftermath is that it was a draft policy/agreement document between the US and the UK on what to do in the face of catastrophic climate change. The synopsis being that catastrophic climate change is inevitable, countries will not agree to any meaningful global consensus. The central concept of our economy is growth and anti climate change measures hamper growth so why bother? Make a grab for the natural resources that remain and prepare to try be last man standing in a drowning world.
Alright, it was hammed up a bit too since they threw in a silly bit about this all justifying a new nuclear weapons program to act as a deterrent, but still I found the idea kind of interesting.
I mean look at it, the core idea is depressing close to where we're at. The UN or indeed any other International negotiating body proves that age old adage that it's impossible to get anything done by committee or 'too many cooks spoil the broth' to quote an even older one. The central gamut of our Western capitalist civilisation is build around the idea of growth. Companies will do anything they can to grow, they're not in the business of holding steady to avert a possible catastrophe in the future. It's all about delivering a return on investment.
And then we have the problem of the third-world hitting their own industrial revolutions. They're trying to work out how to get industry and mass manufacturing and consumerism to lift their populace out of poverty and don't really have the luxury of mandating what EU standard of emissions each farm tractor should comply with. Then there's China and India building coal power plants as fast as they can, China alone built 117 new coal power plants last year.
Each nation has it's own interests and beyond the really rather abstract idea of there being a bunch less land around by the time of the patterning of feet of your grandchildren's children, what immediate pressures are there upon the governments of the nations of the world? All the usual stuff. Feed us, care for us, do it now and do it better right now or we vote for the other guy.
Each nation with their own interests, all of which motivated by short-term pressures and with that ever present drive of Western consumerism grinding on, encouraging you to spend, consume. Grow, grow, eat more, make more money. Yay! So what real chance, what real chance at all is there of the world reaching a genuine wide-reaching agreement on the massive changes required to combat climate change? If I was a betting man, I'd have to say not much.
So would our governments be remiss to consider the possibility that catastrophic climate change is inevitable? I think they would be, I think it's their duty to consider that possibility and, at the end of the day, they were voted in with one mandate only and that's to deliver us what we want and generally speaking, that's a better quality of life or at least to preserve the one we have.
Looking to the UK, our energy situation just like the US doesn't look particularly great. Ignoring the imports of petroleum from all the usual suspects in the middle east, we're basically becoming reliant on natural gas from abroad. This has been problematic already because it basically starts off in Russia and goes along a pipeline where each of the ever-more-hungry European states grabs a share. There have been warnings about a lack of supply and us being at the mercy of the continental markets. For that reason a massive pipeline has been built, the longest undersea pipeline in the world, to the Langeled gas fields of Norway. This should ease some of our short term worries but longer term we're actually in the same boat as the United States.
To be fair, we talk a much better game about what needs to be done to combat climate change than the US does. Our population is better educated and already a good deal more frugal with resources than our American allies. Even our government is starting to make the right noises and necessary steps, unlike the US, have already started to filter down to your average British citizen. I look out my window and I see two bins, one of which is for recycling, and the council ceaselessly bombards us with information and motherly chiding about how to run a more efficient household.
So I think there ends up being two distinct schools of thought. If the waterhole is going to become a scary place with the lions circling, do you become a lion too or do you learn to live from mountain streams?
I think in this day and age, our government would be almost certainly considering both, especially if your best pal is the biggest lion at the water hole.

Tuesday 14 November 2006

Can we handle cheap booze? [Shedir]

Article in press yesterday, challenging rights of UK government to tax imported booze n cigs. Internet delivered fags is a huge saving, booze...nah it's too fragile in the main (barring cans of beer). Cost of deliver is really going to erode any savings you'll make....probably.
Wider question is do you think the UK populace have the werewithall to cope with even cheaper drink? Our town centres are awash with steamers who get into almighty barneys, or are sexually assaulted, becase they can't cope with the amount the consume. You can buy cans of tennents lager for less than a bottle of volvic ffs.
In Scotland, best country on earth come visit, the smoking ban had a surprising effect. Fag sales are up. People are smoking at home more, when they were in the pub it was ok. But now it's outlawed and they have to go outside, while paying over supermarket prices for drink....they're saying fuck that I'll drink n smoke in the comfort of my own home thankyourverymuch.
As I said bevvy it's hardly an ideal thing to transport in the main, but the cigs. Cartons of fags with a huge amount off the highstreet price. Thats highly dangerous for public health, more worrying than the drink for my money.
It's always seemed farcial I can get a bottle of Famous Grouse cheaper in spain on holiday, than I can where it's made n bottled. So whats the possible outcome here......
Government lowers levvy on cigs n booze, but taxes people in other ways to keep revenue through coffers.
Government puts head in sand and employs a gazillion lawyers to maintain it's right to tax our stuff to the hilt.
God they must be worried about the levvy on petrol at this rate as well!
End of the day the market will decide, the morally outraged will squeal about kiddies getting fags n booze through the evil internet. The healthies will bemoan a nation intent on killing itself through ever cheaper methods. Man on the street, he'll just be glad to save a few quid.
I'm drinking too much at home, I know that, but am still tempted to get a proper homebrew kit and begin to make my own. Not for the quantity, just because I find I've moved from proper beers to cheap lager purely on cost. Which is fucking daft, but hey I'm half puggled ;)

Friday 10 November 2006

BNP off Scott free? [Lurks]

The news today is that Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP party, and crony were aquited of inciting ratial hatred. Now on the face of it, this is a bad thing. The guy is obviously a bit of a scum bag and if you heard the speech in question, which was recorded undercover by the BBC shooting an investigative documentary and then subsequently handed to the police, you'd be pretty offended. However if there's one thing I'm becoming increasingly unhappy with in Britain is the that red-top dominated policy of stepping out to ban something you don't like.
This is dangerous and if you go down that road, you end up having a deeply unhealthy regulated society. What I'm talking about here is the fact that this guy is a bit of a loon and I think you'd have to trawl the trailer parks of Bradford to find anyone who agrees with this prick, but what he did was actually criticise Islam. What he did not say was "death to the pakkis" or anything else which would have been clearly actionable under the intent of inciting religious hatred or other crimes. What he did actually say from my recollection of the programme, distastful as it was, ought not to be illegal.
This multicultural, bipartisan, politically correct, liberal softy bullshit approach is wholly incorrect and it disgusts me that the BBC subsequently shoving a camera in front of Gordon Brown today filmed his response to the aquittal as saying that he thought they needed to be looking at changing the law. Words (momentarily) fail me. If they change the law to a situation where these men would have been convicted then it would then become illegal to criticise a religion. That, I submit, is a step back towards the dark ages.
It ought to be our goddamn right to be able to criticise Islam, which is what Griffin was doing, or indeed any other religion, body, whatever. Are we so insecure that we need to ban these views? This is absurd. This is the kind of loony tunes stuff that Islamic radicals demand when they don't like something.
However, outside of the Islamic community and their well demonstrated refusal to deal with their own fire-brand extremists, we have a laudible track record of confronting extreme views. This is where the BBC comes in. These exposed the unsanitised back-room views of these men, outted them before millions and we were all stunned and I'm sure at least some of the BNP's moderate(ish) supporter of the BNP might have been shellshocked into reevaluating their position.
I'd just like you to consider the above paragraph for a moment. Consider that if we can take Gordon Brown's comments at face value, if we can expect laws to be introduced to convict Nick Griffin of what was said then I could very well be prosecuted for saying the above because I singled out a religion for criticism.
I fully except that the dear concept of free speech is no justification for preaching of hatred and incitement to violence against individuals and groups of people whoever they are. What I submit is that we're losing sight of the value of proper free speech. Finding intellectual ideas distasteful is not a reason to make them illegal. Unfortunately in the new age of the red-top nanny state, it may be all about to change.
There's a world of difference from some fire brand loon standing on the sidewalk preaching racial hatred and someone criticising Islam. The difference is blatantly clear to me but unsurprisingly not clear to the famously lefty liberal BBC, nor to the crown prosecution service it would seem.
This guy is a fringe nutjob which, if anything, has provided a valid target for anti-racist activists. This court case has done nothing but drum up awareness of the BNP and inevitably, in court, common sense prevailed on the state of the laws today and he and his impressionable oik clinger-on was aquitted. Wasting tax payers money in the process and providing new political capital to the BNP allowing them to punch in an altogether difference class than the shady little building-site demountable where the original grainy vid was doubtless shot.

Wednesday 8 November 2006

Victory Over Cold Calling [Spiny]

Just had this through from my bank, I've added a translation...
Telemarketerspeak:Our records show that your phone number is currently registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) which means that if you'd like us to update you about products and services with the occasional phone call, we need your special permission.
Translation: We're really suffering with our cold calling marketing because of this damn no-call list from the TPS, you're on the list and we want to bug you with shit you don't want.
Telemarketerspeak:When we spoke to some of our TPS-registered customers, almost 90% of them told us they didn't realise, for example, that it prevents their branch from calling to update them about a product or service that may be of interest.
Translation:We decided to bug people when they came to the branch instead, or when they rang us up. We managed to get most of them to let us call them any time of the day or night to try & sell us stuff - w00t! Only 10% of people were snotty & held out. You don't want to be in that lonely minority surely? Go on, join your friends, the sheep, baaaa.
If you'd like to opt out of crap, click here
As Strong Bad would say...DELETED!

Friday 3 November 2006

New house network [Am]

Time I sorted out my stuff a little. For reasons too tedious to relate, my router is in my garage where the principal phone line comes in. Although it transmits wirelessly, due to the berlin wall type construction of my house, the wireless signal is pretty intermittent in various rooms and I'm currently running a cat cable from the main pc.
Deciding to get round to sorting this out and also thinking about storage and backup of a lot of digital photos, I am now thinking of putting a NAS 1tb or 2tb box in the garage (after discussion in the crosshatch, can't see much point in it being a server) with the router and then running the network signal over powerline adaptors which use your conventional home wiring to transmit at up to 200mbps. You can now also get wireless ones so that you could transmit your network signal all around the house and have a wall transmitter pumping out wireless signal in the bedroom for instance. I've been watching this for a bit but wonder if anyone has experience or a view;
Any views on - garage is unheated - would the NAS box have any trouble if the temperature falls to freezing. Thought in the crosshatch was that probably not if it is always on.
Powerline adaptors? The idea? Any make?
Any particular views on NAS boxes? Terrastation? Although you can run the boxes in a number of RAID configurations, if you were really paranoid like me would you run two of these to back each other up or is that really redundant?
Other cool stuff that you could do with this in general? Stream mp3 even HDTV?

EA scum part 1587 [Lurks]

EA are scum. If you want to save time, more on to the next blog. This latest thing that annoys me is their attempt to go up against Valve's Steam. Course it really must have chapped EA seeing someone else successful at digital downloads so they launched their own service called EA Link. I unwittingly installed this so I could download BF2142. For a start I think it's hiliarious that you have to pay full whack for the game via digital download, despite the fact you get no box, manual, DVD and so on. They try sweaten the deal with extras but I really don't think they get it.
The thing that really annoys me though, which is something of a recurring theme and which I generally refer to as 'EA bullshit' is how this fucking EA Link thing basically fires up every time Windows loads up and proceeds to download advert shite and try flog me stuff. Surely the twats would make a simple place, some options somewhere, where you could tell EA Link not to start up every time Windows starts, right? Wrong!
In the end I had to get down and dirty with the registry editor, after scratching my head trying to find what the hell it was. They've called it 'Core.exe' like a nice bit of stealthed spywhere shite. Still, it's gone now.
EA are just fucking unreal. They watch someone else do somethng well and then they get in after but do it just that bit more commercially aggressive with absolutely no regard for their customers convienience. I shudder to think how many Windows boxes around the world are booting up with EA Link and I bet deep within the Evil Headquarters of EA, they're loving that concept.
Still, EA aren't the only ones that suck. Other shit things this week in gaming would include Dark Messiah: Might and Magic. This game takes the Source engine and manages to break it somehow. It's buggy, crashy and has a massive memory leak. Oh and you can't alt-tab because that's obviously some entirely fucking superfluous feature that no-one would want to use. Many people can't get out of the tutorial at all. I'm not sure what the hell is going on, don't these wankers do any testing any more?!
What else sucks this week, oh yes an actual good amazing game was released. Neverwinter Nights 2. Ace, I head over to the only digital download store in the world that has it, Direct2Drive, and start buying it. Naturally they let me get all the way through setting up an account before curting informing me that the game is removed from my basket because of a country restriction. Eg, I've said I'm in the UK and these fucking morons have once again not released the game in the UK for a couple of days yet.
Nice one guys. There I was with my 50 bucks, right there, and you told me I couldn't have the game. So I fucking warezed it instead.
To be fair it's amazing so I'll buy it because I'm probably one of the last remaining moral game buyers, despite how fucking shoddily the industry treats us. However had this not been an amazing game, I would have played it for a bit on the warez and you'd not have seen a penny. When I was willing to get my wallet out. Dark Messiah being the perfect example. If I couldn't download it, I would have warezed it, realised it was fucked and not bought it.
The moral of the story is simple for you games industry cretins, world-wide English release on digital distribution on DAY ONE and we'll come with wallets open and this isn't a license to install hard-to-remove adware shite on my PC either. I'm not naive enough to think I'm getting through to them but it helps to rant eh?

Thursday 2 November 2006

Jobs you love to hate [shedir]

There's certain things about being a grown up you love and some you don't, but if there's one thing I despise wasting time on above all others it's gardening.
I've no interest in it, I've got hay fever and if it wasn't for the weans i'd slab the bloody thing. But they need grass to play on, so it's there. Mocking me. Annoying me. Consuming my TIME.
This time of year, blessed winter, has only one curse leaves. I hate the ritual lifting of the leaves, hours of toil to show...grass. ARGH it's a proper PITA and I've not even got a big garden, but it's all fenced so stuff gets blown in with no escape route.
A trip to B&Q to get a leaf rake at £15 turned up a leaf blower/shredder at £25. 15m extension cord at £12 and I'm armed :)
I've woken the neighbours, decimated the hated leaves and cleaned up in time for the wife to produce my dinner. Money well spent.
N.B. Wives are not allowed to continue this blog
So what tasks do other clannies have to do with they despise yet wierdos out there adore?