Wednesday, August 30, 2006

We have a crisis! The perpetuum mobile has been invented!

The title of this post refers to the crucial words of one of the members of the 'Topmost Ten' in a Oliver B. Bumble comic by Marten Toonder. These Topmost Ten people were the richest people in the world, owning everything. They lead a horrible life of paranoia since they can only lose their possessions and gain no more. The story details of Bumble acquiring a certain machine from a woodland friend, which he claims has a wheel that turns forever, powered by nothing.
Understandably, the Topmost Ten immediately declare defcon 1 because this perpetuum mobile, when made public, will instantly turn all other fuel resources useless and without value. The story is great.

So, what about it? It's just a story, the perpetuum mobile does not exist. Not only that, it's a physical impossibility that would destroy the world if invented. (Because every machine produces heat, and a machine that produces heat from nothing will eventually cook the world.)
Well, there is this company, you might have heard of it. They're located in Ireland and are called Steorn. The first time anyone heard of them was when they put forward a promotional video, which was posted on BoingBoing. While the video is riddled with marketspeak, vague claims and snakeoil, it also describes a technique they invented that providesd 'free energy'. In other words, it produced more energy than it required for operation. They claim to have reached fuel efficiencies of 285%. Yes, they claim to have invented the perpetuum mobile.

So how does it work? Well, they won't tell. The promotional video just babbles vaguely about meticulously arranged magnets. On their website, they're inviting people to sign up for a chance to test their technology for flaws, but a recent article in the UK Guardian says that scientists who signed up didn't receive squat because Steorn is so afraid to lose the intellectuel property rights to their revolutionary technology. The whole thing is being compared to two scientists (Pons and Fleischmann) who claimed to have cracked the mystery of cold fusion back in 1989: a lot of claims and promises to change the world, but no actual proof.

Could Steorn be serious? The physicist in me says 'no' without a moment's hesitation. The perpetuum mobile is physically impossible in this universe. On the other hand, Steorn put a lot of money into a full-page ad in the Economist. They openly challenge scientists to come and prove them wrong. But the sentimentalist in me can't convince the physicist.

Plus, Marten Toonder is right: a perpetuum mobile would wreck the world's economy.

Quick note rollup on Intel Centrino wireless vulnerability

(This post sponsored by the F-Secure blog :P)

Just a list of quick notes about the recent problems with Intel Centrino's wireless network card drivers:

  • Aug 2: Very very bad bugs were found in certain Intel-based systems with wireless network cards. Basically, if you have a laptop (any platform, even Mac) with an Intel Centrino wireless network card, it can be rooted removely by someone within range of the wireless network. F-Secure blog post. The post includes a link to a demonstration video.
  • Aug 2: Luckily, Intel was notified beforehand and released an update about the same time. F-Secure blog post. The 'update' was 130MB, which was a bit large for a driver update.
  • Aug 3: The update was buggy. Driver incompatibilities. The enormous size was because of bundling 32-bit and 64-bit drivers as wel as some Intel network tools in one package. F-Secure blog post.
  • Aug 14: Concerned by user feedback, Intel split the download into two packages, as well as a driver-only download. F-Secure has the scoop.
  • Aug 21: One of the programs in the update packgage is insanely buggy, eating up memory and CPU at alarming paces. Killing the process has no adverse effect if you let Windows XP handle the configuration. F-Secure.
  • Aug 24: Intel finally releases an updated version of the update package that fixes all the bugs. The End.

Did you patch if you were vulnerable?

Did you re-patch if you didn't have the latest version already?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Linux has almost passed puberty

Last week, someone recommended a Linux distribution to me. This was the Ubuntu live CD distro, that is bootable off a CD and is immediately ready for action. I decided to give it a try. This is a write-up of the past two days where I played with it.

Linux in the past

Now before I launch into the boxing match I had with this CD, let me explain my past experience with Linux. About six years ago, when all I had was a crummy Pentium I laptop, I tried to make Windows 98 dual-boot with Linux. I tried no less than five different distros and all of them messed up in one way or another. Redhat, 2 versions of Mandrake, SuSE, Slackware with X... no go on each one. Either it didn't recognize half my hardware, or it failed to boot, it failed to leave Windows alone, it failed to let itself be configured by a Linux newbie like me, or installing it was just too incomprehensible. I concluded that Linux was not ready for the desktop by a long shot and vowed to never try it again.

Years later, I decided that it was time to take it for another spin on my new desktop system, seeing that there was this thing called Knoppix Live, which allowed you to try Linux from a CD, without changing anything on your system, bla bla bla, the usual. While the CD booted nicely and recognized most of my hardware, the UI problem was still there - I gave up when I had to reboot in order to change the screen resolution, which is useless since the whole thing was on a read-only CD. I know you're going to shout at me for not knowing the keyboard shortcut for restarting X without rebooting the entire system, and I don't care. I'm a Linux newbie. If I can't work it, it's not ready for the desktop yet.

What I want from Linux

Now, another 3 years later, I hopefully burn the Ubuntu ISO to a CD, slam it into the CD-ROM tray of my brand new laptop and reboot the system. I'm mildly excited. I have several general goals and expectations of this Ubuntu thing in my head that I want to achieve and see:
  • I want Ubuntu to recognize all my hardware, including the Intel wireless network card and the plug-n-play wireless USB mouse I have.
  • I want to be able to access my NTFS Windows partition.
  • I want to find, install and be able to use the same (or similar) applications that I am using in Windows XP. These include:
    • A good browser. Opera is my primary choice, but FireFox will do.
    • A P2P program to connect to my DirectConnect hub. I know about Valknut and I'm going to try it.
    • An IRC client. I'm used to mIRC so I want one with a similar feature set.
    • An FTP client. Before I rebooted, I was uploading a few things to our home entertainment system computer. I want to resume those.
    • An multi-IM client. I'm used to Miranda. I know about GAIM so I'm going to try that.
    • A proper music player. I use Winamp almost continuously to listen to Shoutcast radios, as well as play MP3s. I heard about XMMS and seen it a few times. It looks a lot like Winamp so I'll try that.
    • A file manager. I'm used to Total Commander but I doubt something that advanced is available in Linux.
    • An easy-to-find command line. I know how Linux is centered around the command prompt more than Windows, so I want to use that.
  • I want to be able to achieve all of the above, without rebooting. (obviously)
All in all, these points are what I expect an average user would want to be able to do with Linux: getting things to work like they do in Windows, in a comparable amount of time.

The Linux Experience

[Hardware] The CD boots nicely, though the boot process is an ugly mess, with screens ranging from text scrolling past on a black screen right up to a GUI progress box with sound (ooh pretty), then back to text, back to the GUI, etc. But it works. I'm slightly more excited. The desktop looked like this, nice and clean.
First on the agenda is getting the Interweb to work. I'm baffled to see that just inputting the SSID and WEP key (bite me) works right off the bat. This is even better than Windows, where I need an installation CD, a migraine and three reboots to get the wireless network card working. Very nice.
[IM] Next up: GAIM. I've got a friend who uses it exclusively and it works very good. MSN is up and running in no time at all. No MSN avatars, but that's no disaster.
[P2P] Foolishly, I skip right to Valknut. This is where it gets ugly. The homepage for Valknut has no Ubuntu option, but after a bit of digging in the online Ubuntu help I learn that Ubuntu is based on Debian, so I pick that option instead. Unfortunately, the development page for Debian Valknut is dead. Hmm. Being the clever chap that I am (i.e. moron) I download the Valknut source and try that.
After a bit of reading I am greeted by an error message 'bash: 'make' command not found'. Uh. I thought that was the point of open source? Compiling things yourself? Apparently not. The Ubuntu folks probably didn't think someone who boots Linux off a live CD is going to compile things by himself. Curses.
This must be a nightmare to Gentoo users

By now it's near midnight and I need to get up early for work tomorrow, so I call it quits. I reboot and remove the CD.

End of day 1.

Next day, I decided to give it another whirl. Insert CD, reboot, start Ubuntu, setup wireless network, and on to the less obvious tasks. GAIM once again signed on perfectly to my MSN Messenger, ICQ, AIM and Yahoo accounts. GMail/Jabber did not.
[Music] The standard music player is Rhythmbox Music Player, which refuses to add my favorite Shoutcast station to its list of 'radio stations'. The Add/Remove Applications tool (which is very good) shows that XMMS can also be downloaded and installed, which I do. XMMS also won't let me add a Shoutcast station.
Well then, on to the music that is already on my drive. Since it wasn't auto-mounted (mounting is pretty hard for newbies like me) I searched the Ubuntu documentation for something that would. A script to mount all drives was quickly found, and surprisingly I was able to download and run it. A minute later I'm listening to the soundtrack of Pirates of the Caribbean. Nice!
[P2P] Now that I've got some music, I decide it's time to try Valknut again. Skipping the Valknut homepage, a Google search for 'debian valknut' has more success. One .deb package later and Valknut is running! No wait, it's not. It needs a few packages on which it depends. Easy enough to download and install them, but some of them require additional packages. Fortunately this doesn't devolve into a maze of dependencies and version conflicts and Valknut can be persuaded to run after four or five extra packages. Another goal achieved. Something to remark here that caught my attention: there seems to be no difference between a folder with execute rights, and an actual program.
The Valknut client itself seems pretty poor. I can't find tabs, accidentaly close it at least half a dozen times, it has no system log or visible system status, doesn't accept custom commands or user commands, etc. But it works. I can chat and I can download.
[IRC] Searching the software installation list yields something called 'X-Chat'. I heard of that so I install it and run it. The design is different from mIRC and it's a bit clunky. The usual networks I frequent are not in the list so I have to add them to the server list, instead of just being able to type /server like I'm used to. An incredible stroke of luck is stumbling upon a #linux help channel with some helpful people, which speeds up my progress.
[browser] Right about now I decide it's time to try Opera 9 for Linux. Firefox is great, but I really prefer Opera. There are 5 different Debian versions and 3 different Ubuntu versions of Opera, so I pick the latest Ubuntu one.
Stupid dependencies!
However, I run into something strange here: quirky dependencies. Opera requires some 'libqt' upgrade, but since the older, existing version is used by Valknut, it requires I uninstall Valknut?? It's almost like Ubuntu wants me to use Firefox. Fine then.
[File manager] I touched on this yesterday so I'll install it again: the Thunar File Manager. The file structure system of Linux is an absolute maze to a Windows user, and I keep forgetting where my mounted drives, my desktop and my home folder is. I need bookmarks. Thunar works pretty well though.
[Terminal] I'm making good progress here, even considering it's my second day on this. The Terminal is in the default application menu so no worries there. It seems I'm logged in automatically as some kind of limited user, and that the root account has no password. So anything I do in 'system settings' that needs root access only requires me to click 'Approve' and it works. Anything in the command prompt only requires 'sudo' in front of it. It's easy to work with, and I'm not working as root (which seems to be important in Linux).
[FTP] Last is the FTP client on my list. The application list recommends (i.e. lists as my only choice) gFTP so I get that. It works like a charm and resumes my uploads flawlessly.
It's almost midnight again so I sign off GAIM, set Valknut to away mode and close the lid. This was.. fun. :)


All in all this was the most successful I have been with Linux so far. Seeing how it boots from CD, I don't have to meddle with the installer, partitioning or dual-booting. Since both my hardware and the Ubuntu CD are new, everything is automatically detected. Desktop Linux has become way better, but it's not ready yet.

  • Hardware detection is excellent.
  • User support is great if you know where to look.
  • Everything is customizable. The default settings may not be the best, but most are very well thought-out.
  • No consistency. I installed about 8 programs, and 5 of them have differently-styled GUIs, ranging from extremely large-font and ugly (Valknut) to insanely small (XMMS). The WiMP styles vary wildly.
    Three different windowing styles

  • File and folder organization is very, very different from Windows. I keep losing my way.
  • When you don't know how to do something, there is hardly any guidance. When you do something wrong, there is hardly any explanation.
  • Performing basic tech tasks, such as determining the kernel version or memory usage are not as easy as they seem.
My answer to the question 'is Linux mature yet?' would be 'almost'. The user experience has improved vastly since the early years of Linux, and a lot of Microsoft Windows features have been mimicked (which is good). On the other hand, some things still need work, like consistency, standards and help.

It's clearly almost ready for the desktop, but not yet. Maybe I'll do another test drive in a few years and see if it's ready then. :)

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Jack is back

About ten months ago, I did a writeup of Jack Thompson's actions up to that point, which included throwing hissy fits over video games such as GTA, The Sims 2, and unsuccessfully bullying several online comics about video games. Well, there is some good news for people who, like me, love watching the first few rounds of Idols (American Idol in the US) just because it's so much fun to watch people crash and burn.

As most of you should know, Rockstar Games is close to releasing a game called Bully, where you play the role of a schoolyard bully, beating your fellow wimps, uh, students, ultimately taking over the school. It's like GTA for kids, by kids, with kids. Except that it's not for kids. With all the beating and stuff. The game will be released in October.

Anyway, Jack has taken it upon himself to make sure this game is a-ok to play for people. In early 2005 he supported a campaign to discourage Rockstar Games from releasing the game at all, calling it a 'Columbine Simulator' (though there are no guns in the game as far as I know). How did he do this you ask? Simple. On August 16, 2006 he filed a petition, demanding that Rockstar Games provides him with an early copy of 'Bully'.

Wait, what?

Yes. He wants it for himself and others, to analyze it "to determine whether it still poses a threat of copycat violence in our schools."

Not surprisingly, Rockstar ignored him. So, ever the resourceful fellow, on August 18 Jack Thompson sued Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, Circuit City, GameStop and Toys 'R' Us seeking an order to stop the release of the game in October.

This is great, I can't wait for the outcome of this, so much fun. I'll definitely be playing this here Bully game. Finally I can get revenge!

Oct 12 update: The judge actually ruled that a Take Two representative must play Bully for 100 hours while the judge watches, to determine if it's bad enough to be banned. Take Two seems to think this all publicity is good publicity for them, but this is starting to cross the line between 'funny' and 'what the hell'. Ars Technica has the full scoop.

Oct 13 update: The verdict is in! After only two hours of viewing, the judge decided that while he wouldn't want his children to play it, Bully will appear on store shelves normally. Jack Thompson states "I may be full of crap about this game, and I may be wrong, and that's fine." And I intentionally misquoted him on that. Source: Ars Technica.