Sunday, December 25, 2005

Monday, December 19, 2005

A certain irony

Some of the music CDs infected by Sony BMG's rootkit and spyware are quite ironic:

  • Suspicious Activity?
  • The Invisible Invasion
  • Healthy In Paranoid Times
  • Nothing Is Sound
And most ironically, the album that infected windows expert Mark Russinovich's computer and started the whole storm was:
  • Get Right With The Man
You couldn't make this stuff up!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Not-so-merry Christmas from Sony BMG

Your PC might just start to behave very strangely this Christmas, thanks to Sony BMG, one of the major (and, it seems, least ethical) record labels. They have released a large number of CDs which install hacker tools on your PC, in an attempt to stop their customers from copying the music. Unfortunately, preventing copying is not all these Sony "CD"s (sometimes labelled Epic or Colombia) do.

When you put an infected Sony CD into your Windows PC, it will sneakily install a range of hacking tools - even if you read the "licence", recoil in horror, and click "Cancel"!

The software will slow down your PC, periodically contact Sony to tell them about your listening habits, and use a "rootkit" to hide itself. And that's only the start. They can use the software later to come along and take over your machine. And if they can, other hackers may be able to as well. What's more, once you have installed this malware, viruses can use it to hide too. There is already one worm doing just that.

Sony BMG claim to have released a fix. To get it, you need to fill in a couple of forms on the web, and agree to receive spam from unspecified companies. Then they will mail you where to find it. Then you get to download it. Unfortunately this fix does not remove the problem - in fact it leaves software that Sony can use to download yet more evil onto your longsuffering PC, whenever they want!

Artists affected include Natasha Bedingfield, Neil Diamond, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and many more - there are over 50 infected titles in Canada alone, according to Sony BMG. Since they own a number of CD label brands, the CD may not even say Sony on the cover - some Epic and Columbia CDs are affected too.

Be warned!

Sony BMG are supposed to be organising a recall of the spyware CDs, but for some of you it may already be too late.

What can you do? I'll add a few links later (you can Google for Sony rootkit). For now, be careful what you buy people for Christmas. And be careful what you listen to on your PC. And for goodness sake, disable autorun.

Check the Electronic Frontier Foundation's page here for more information.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

It has not been a good week in Europe

Big Brother - used under fair use/fair dealing provisions for purposes of commentary or satire First the EU passes a snoopers' charter, in the form of a directive to create the largest monitoring database in the world. All your phone calls, every email, each connection to the Internet, and more, are to be timed and noted. Details of who you talk to, when, and for how long, will be stored for who knows what organisations to access, on the flimsiest of excuses, and without even the basic safeguard of a warrant. It's not even going to be limited to terrorist crimes, or mafia investigations. There will be no scrutiny of how it's used. And the data may be stored almost indefinitely. The authorities will even be able to track your movements using your mobile phone - even if they just think you've been speeding, or possibly if you're a day late with your tax returns, or maybe if you've criticised their policies a bit too much.

Big Brother - used under fair use/fair dealing provisions for purposes of commentary or satire To anyone who remembers how David Blunkett tried to give the Food Standards Agency and your local Council (of all people) the power to seize your phone records the other year, it won't be a surprise that New Labour was in the forefront of the campaign for this directive. But it's the EU, and it sounds technical, so maybe they hope nobody will notice. But these people at the FFII worked out exactly why it's a bad idea. The BBC noticed. Even the European Data Protection Supervisor stated that the directive is not necessary and does not respect human rights.

Then there was a story that even the most inattentive journalist couldn't ignore: Tony Blair hands back a huge chunk of the British EU rebate in exchange for, er, nothing! The French have agreed to take a quick look (in a few years' time) at the billions they waste on the Common Agricultural Policy, before they refuse again to do anything about it. And we pay them an extra 10 billion Euros - every year. Stand by for the spin!

Not a good week in Europe. The worst of it is that when it starts to bite, our politicians will hold up their hands and blame the EU!

Friday, December 16, 2005

On the run?

Here in Northern Ireland we have had to make many compromises "for peace". This is absolutely necessary. If there is a conflict there are not many choices: one side completely defeats the other, or enough people reach an agreement they can live with, or the protagonists die out or become irrelevant - and the struggle here showed no signs of dying out.

The latest compromise has been over convicted terrorists who are "on the run", and those who would face prosecution on their return. It seems that the price of the IRA's "going away" is for this threat to be lifted, and for the "bhoys" to come home. The plot unravelled slightly when it seemed that those the IRA had exiled under threat of death were left in an uncertain limbo. It thickened again when members of the security forces who might also face prosecution were included in the arrangements.

But what arrangements? What to do with the guilty parties? An amnesty would be unacceptable to the victims. A trial and prison term (the default option) was unacceptable to the terrorists.

The unfortunate proposal was that the criminals would not have to face a court at all. There would be no charges - just a pat on the head from a secret tribunal.

This is simply wrong - and today the Human Rights Commission pointed this out! [BBC News] Those who are guilty must be charged, and if they are to escape punishment, they should at least receive a conviction and the censure of a court of law.

This would still be a denial of justice - though arguably a necessary compromise in this compromised peace process. But at least it would be slightly less of an insult to those who are left behind to deal with the pain, injury, bereavement and loss. We may remit the punishment, but we must acknowledge the guilt and the hurt before we can expect to move on.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I claim this land for... Microsoft

The quick summary

It used to be, in the bad old days, that "undiscovered" lands were sometimes "claimed" by the first western explorer. Queen Victoria was fortunate enough to have quite a bit of the world claimed on her behalf.

Today we don't call it Empire, but we do talk about invention, innovation, and defending intellectual property - and it has gone out of control, and threatens to become as oppressive as any empire of old.

Software patents are increasingly used to keep out the competition in the US and Japan, where patent law has been stretched almost to breaking point. Microsoft and a few other multinationals are lobbying to have the system extended to the EU. Then the predators who have been holding off to avoid frightening the legislators can really get stuck in. It will become part of the globalisation project, and nowhere will be safe for innovation.

As the developing world catches up in computing, they will find that all the best ideas have been "claimed" by western commercial empires.

They won't be allowed to use these ideas without paying tolls.

And we'll call it free trade!

Beware - I have a longer version of this lying around somewhere!

Friday, November 25, 2005

It's snowing

The first proper snow of winter, and it's actually not melting as soon as it falls. And there is a new Harry Potter film. It really must be getting close to Christmas!

Friday, November 04, 2005

How gorgeous is he?

I went to hear George Galloway earlier this evening. His media coverage gave me the vague feeling there was something slightly suspect about the guy - but I wanted to hear the man himself. I'm not sure I'd give him my own money, but who could resist free tickets?

There was a hint of the commercialism that infests the cultural world when we were warned at the start not to record him. Heaven forbid we infringe anyone's right to make money from what Mr Galloway described as a political meeting! Before I had time to worry that journalists might be reduced to shorthand, George walked on to rousing applause and the strains of Aretha Franklin's R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

My first surprise was what a friendly audience he had. Perhaps opponents of The War found him a kindred spirit. Maybe they just liked anyone who could get the better of a US Senate subcommittee. But they liked him.

Mr Galloway (Bethnal Green and Bow MP for the Respect Party) is an engaging and charismatic speaker. He has a slightly self-deprecating, gently humorous and occasionally bitingly sarcastic manner. He was obviously in his element as he worked the audience - as he should be, having done it over 1600 times since 9/11. He's worked years to become an overnight sensation he conceded, smiling.

He revelled in being to the left of New Labour. He made very telling points on a number of topics, and gave a good account of consistent and principled opposition to Saddam Hussein, his criticism of UK support for Saddam in his earlier years, his attacks on the suffering brought about by the sanctions programme which followed Saddam's defeated invasion of Kuwait, and his opposition to both the case for the war on Iraq, and the war itself.

He said that there were worse things than dictators - like obscurantist fundamentalist regimes - and not just the one in the USA. He criticised Saddam Hussein's record and that of other regimes the West supports, but he also mentioned the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, which the West, he argues, is feeding. He argued that Western actions help form the swamp that breeds the mosquitoes of terrorism.

His main "swamps" were Israel's treatment of Palestinians, Western hypocricy in general, and the forces in Iraq. I didn't hear how a "drained" Israeli swamp would look (though he wants an end to support for Israel), but his solution for Iraq was for the coalition to leave. The killing might well continue, he said, but there was nothing we could do to stop it. The age, he said, of colonialism is over. It is not for us to intervene paternalistically, with lethal force. Or even with sanctions, presumably.

He deplored the rise of political spin, and the decline of Parliament from a watchdog which put country before party, to a group of people afraid to vote with their consciences on the National ID Card scheme. He has a point! At this point (sorry, pun) hecklers asked him why he wasn't in Parliament a bit more - he gave them short shrift.

Most questions were friendly, and gave him the chance to ramble entertainingly for a few minutes at a time. Some of the audience raised interesting issues, and he answered them well. I was impressed by the man.

Then a harder question was asked (I paraphrase a little, but like I said, recording was banned): Since military solutions were not the answer, and sanctions killed millions, what was his alternative approach to regimes or atrocities like North Korea, Burma, Rwanda or Zimbabwe? Hadn't action in Kosovo been a good thing, on balance?

At this point, in spite of his earlier complaints about spin and his comments about other politicians, he seemed to treat the question and the questioner with contempt. It was interesting, he digressed, that the questioner was concerned about the countries the Americans were concerned about. Why not the Congo? The questioner asked him to talk about the Congo, if he'd prefer. Once the microphone was safely retrieved from the troublesome upstart, George took the opportunity to complain that the West had removed a great statesman in the Congo and installed Mobutu, but completely failed to discuss the actual question. He admitted that Mugabe of Zimbabwe was a bad thing, but his only suggestion was that the West should not support people like the President of Pakistan.

I would have loved to hear his view on the Iranian President's wish to "blot Israel from the map". Or what badness he hadn't been up to with Oil for Food, and charity funding. Or even an answer to the problem of tyrants who were not anti-western enough for America to depose. But it was not to be.

Gorgeous George, as he's sometimes known, is a charismatic speaker with a great deal to say - some of it very important. But he's no less a politician than any of the people he criticises.

Another venerable gentleman of the left, Tony Benn, comes across in person as a man of strong principles and great integrity. George Galloway is a man with valid criticisms to make, but by the end of the evening there seemed to be too many questions, too few answers, and maybe not enough respect.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

We were hacked

I know that security is important.
I know that you need to keep your software up to date.
I know that low traffic is no guarantee of safety, when google can point people at vulnerable versions of a system.

But in my defence, we hadn't much traffic or many users. Hardly any, in fact. We're busy. It didn't seem a priority. And there would have been a fair bit of customisation to redo. (On the other other hand, those are terrible excuses, and an upgrade would also have stopped most of the Russian pill spammers).

Anyway, a young turk who claimed to be "hacking for Allah" (kind of like vandalism for God, I suppose) forced our hand. So now everything is being restored from backups and upgraded. And hopefully the spammers will be gone as well.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Not again!

Earlier tonight my crown fell out. Again. That's five times now, and twice this week. It's getting beyond a joke.

It fell out last week, late, so the weekend was a bit awkward. On Monday I was able to arrange an emergency appointment for Tuesday, for the crown, and another for Friday, for another tooth that had apparently decided to join the insurrection and start protesting about coffee and icecream.

On Tuesday the crown was cemented back in, and just that evening, out it popped.

Back to the dentist on Wednesday, where they stuck it in again.

Thursday was a day off dentistry.

Friday was time for a filling, which seems to have held so far. But on Friday evening, out popped the crown.

Here we go again...

Friday, October 21, 2005

Can I afford to save this much?

Don't worry, I'm not starting a finance or debt blog. It's just that I was shopping in Sainsbury's the other evening, and according to my enormously long till receipt, I "saved" £9.54. Apart from the slightly churlish thought that they could at least have rounded the discount to £10, I'm not sure about the marketing. Does this mean I'm Sainsbury's nightmare customer, hitting the special offers and the 2 for 1s, or have I just fallen into their little trap and done exactly what they wanted me to do - bought more stuff?

Certainly I can't afford to make savings like that every time I go shopping. In my defence, the fridge and cupboards had got rather bare, and I did need to get some food...

What I did on my holidays

Here's a quick summary of my holiday postings, since they are rather scattered about this blog, and completely out of sequence:


St. Petersburg
Home again :-)

I hadn't realised I'd written so much.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Pictures of Tallinn

Tallinn is a beautiful old city, with winding streets. They also have a rather good garlic restaurant - not recommended if you need to talk to anyone for a week or so afterwards though!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Ethnography by any other name - Tallinn

Most museums in the Baltics are shut on Mondays - we knew that, so we went to Tallinn on Tuesday. Unfortunately many of the good museums (if our tyrannical guidebooks are to be trusted) are shut on Tuesdays as well. Fortunately there is another attraction a short bus ride from the middle of the city.

At home we call this sort of thing a folk park, or folk museum. Calling anything "ethnographic" sounds to me like it would make visitors run a mile - which would be a real shame! Maybe they are much more serious and intellectual over in the former Soviet Republics?

Whatever the name, they have traditional wooden buildings from all regions of Estonia, and they are adding more all the time.

This is a perspective on the hard but simpler life, in the centuries before communism, capitalism, industrialisation and globalisation changed the world. Mediated by a tourist board, of course, with an interpretative centre and gift shop. Capitalism.

But they have a nicer cafe than you get in tourist attractions at home - almost untouched by the globalisation of coke and chips (or should that be fries?). They actually dare to have a menu of traditional local fare.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

St Petersburg IV - Peterhof

When you're in St Petersburg you have to go to the old palace of Peter the Great, and wander round the gardens - especially if they are having anniversary celebrations. Just don't arrive at the ticket office as they pull down the shutters and close early to set up for a firework display, like we did.

Still, on the way back to town we met a parade, with bands, flags, and a man on a horse. More anniversary celebrations. I felt quite at home, but Peter tried to start a Concerned Residents' association. Fortunately the locals refused to be offended by even the Estonian and Lithuanian flags.

We had to go back the next day - but the gardens and fountains were spectacular.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Serenity / Firefly

I saw the film Serenity a couple of weeks ago. It's good. Go see it!

Serenity Ship Logo: copyright some movie types - portion of promotional flyer reproduced under fair dealing / fair use provisionsApparently there is a rule at Fox Television that if a show is any good, it has to be cancelled. If there are plot lines that run from episode to episode, Fox will show them in a random order first - for added tauntage, as Buffy might put it. We'll return to Buffy later.

It seems Fox has done it again with a series called Firefly.

In spite of the show being cancelled, it has quite a few fans here in Belfast. Don't ask me how - it's probably something to do with technology. Or that Interweb thingy. Anyway, there was a preview showing of a film based on the series, and I was dragged along to see it by two real enthusiasts.

As the start of the film grew closer, the anticipation in the cinema rose, undimmed by the dreadful canned music they play before the show. I was in the midst of a crowd of true believers, initiates into the mysteries of the crew of the Serenity. I was in a cult, and I alone hadn't drunk the Kool-Aid.

Then the film started.

It was visually gripping. The characters seemed to be individuals, not just featureless, pretty clones from casting central. There was a story, a sense of things happening below the surface - a past, and a direction. The futuristic world felt like it had substance.

And there was humour, banter, and wit. Joss Whedon, also responsible for the Buffy franchise, displayed the same sense of fun and vitality here. The crew really were like old friends - a team, with the easy familiarity and the sudden bickering of a family, forced to live together on the run on the creaking ship Serenity.

Serenity has been described as a Western in Space - but it's more than just that. I want to see the series now, to see where these guys were coming from, and what else happened.

I don't know what the guys at Fox are playing at.

Perhaps, though, their habit of axing brilliant shows explains why Fox News is said to be so bad - the news team are just trying to keep their show from being cancelled!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Train to Trakai, and on to Russia

We went to Trakai for the day...

Then, after a mad dash (actually a very brisk walk, but why spoil a good story?) to catch a bus back to Vilnius, we got the night train for St Petersburg.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Vilnius - the pictures

Here are a few photos from our time in Vilnius, on last month's tour of the Baltics.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Everyone has the right...

The Republic of Užupis declared independence from Vilnius and the rest of Lithuania on All Fools' Day, 1989. Their constitution, written in French, Lithuanian and English on a wall in the town, contains a few gems:-

click to see constitutionEveryone has the right to make mistakes.
Everyone has the right to be unique.
Everyone has the right be be silent.
Everyone has the right to idle.
Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.
A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.
A dog has the right to be a dog.

Do not defeat.
Do not fight back.
Do not surrender.

If only the proposed European Constitution were as wise.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Too many Crosses?

On the way from Riga to Vilnius, we visited Šiauliai to see the Hill of Crosses. We got a bus out of town - back the route we'd just come, in fact - and then walked for half a mile or so. Getting off the bus we met a couple of students from the local university. She spoke English, which Peter and I can manage, and he also spoke in Russian to Trevor, which he's rather good at by now.

As we chatted and walked along the tree-lined road, we neared a low hill which rose from the flat farmland. Gradually we saw it was literally packed with crosses and crucifixes of all shapes and sizes. Small tracks wove through this thicket, and a broader path let to the top of the hill.

Originally locals had placed crosses to commemorate those who had died during the Soviet repression. From time to time the Soviets removed them, but people brought more - it became a symbol of Lithuania against the regime. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it grew, as people from further afield brought their own crosses (or bought them from stalls at the site), and added them to the hill.

I have rarely felt so protestant as when I looked at the sea of crosses. It was hugely impressive, and I felt a sense of how much oppression and how many victims there had been. But the jostling religious symbolism and the souvenier stalls by the fence left me uneasy. I couldn't help reflecting that there was only one cross that mattered. Hanging crosses on crosses, simply because that is what pilgrims are expected to do, seemed to miss the point - maybe even to obscure the uniqueness of the One.

The hill has become a site of pilgrimage and an attraction - even Pope John Paul II came, and addressed huge crowds. I'm not sure if it's about the original victims any more. There is no longer a Soviet Union to defy, though Russia still seems like a threat to many. In spite of the crosses, I don't think it's about Christ either. I think perhaps it just IS. But just being there, in its sheer scale and detail, it's an arresting sight. It made me pause and reflect. But spirituality is more than just reflecting occasionally, isn't it?.

We'd promised to email the photographs to the couple we met. Unfortunately, when my organiser was nicked in St Petersburg, so was the email address. If you do see this Regina, contact me and I'll send you them...