Autonomous Source


October 26, 2007

Liveleak browser hijacker?

My wife just got a nifty-kewl new tablet computer courtesy of the Quebec taxpayers. It's loaded with muscular software to protect anyone from doing anything naughty with it. It's mostly for her office, but I managed to connect it to our home network. I had to install her mail program in her documents directory.

I was trying it out, reading a few blogs and news sites, when something odd happened at The London Fog. It started loading fine -- and then after a moment it started loading this Bulgarian Youtube clone. Hijacked! The browser was MS Explorer (of course) 6.0.2900, and the OS was XP tablet edition. After poking around a bit, I managed to find another couple of sites where it happened as well. The only thing these sites had in common was embedded Liveleak videos.

So far, I've found nothing on the web about this. It must be a very new thing because the silly site the hijacker flies the browser to was working last night, but now seems to have been brought down by all the traffic. What to do? I dunno. But I find it amusing that this brand new computer from the government -- stuffed with the latest expensive security software -- has been compromised on its first day on the internet, while I've surfed bareback with my regular computer for over a year have and haven't had so much as a sniffle.

January 12, 2007

Taking the 'retro' trend too far...

Or maybe not. The Holden Efijy displayed at the recent North American International Auto Show is really something else.

A resized photo really doesn't do this car any justice. You really have to see them full size: above photo, side, rear, interior.

December 31, 2006

Microsoft's 'suicide note(s)'

I've ranted about Microsoft before (and again) but they haven't managed to get the message: think of the customer first! And it's killing them.

First, you have the Zune. Heard of it? Last summer it was touted as Microsoft's answer to the popularity of the iPod. Apparently, it isn't very good (via Samizdata):

Yes, Microsoft's new Zune digital music player is just plain dreadful. I've spent a week setting this thing up and using it, and the overall experience is about as pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face.

"Avoid," is my general message. The Zune is a square wheel, a product that's so absurd and so obviously immune to success that it evokes something akin to a sense of pity.

The setup process stands among the very worst experiences I've ever had with digital music players. The installer app failed, and an hour into the ordeal, I found myself asking my office goldfish, "Has it really come to this? Am I really about to manually create and install a .dll file?"

But there it was, right on the Zune's tech support page. Is this really what parents want to be doing at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning?

But even beyond the typical Microsoft technical hassles, they manage to make the thing even more useless. Rather than think about customers that have music files that they might want to play on the thing, they've gone to the music companies and let them determine how it will work:
It [Microsoft] has already given the music industry the other thing the industry has been demanding from Apple: a kickback on every player sold.

"These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it," said Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music Group. "So it's time to get paid for it."

Well, Morris is just a big, clueless idiot, of course. Do you honestly want morons like him to have power over your music player?

Then go ahead and buy a Zune. You'll find that the Zune Planet orbits the music industry's Bizarro World, where users aren't allowed to do anything that isn't in the industry's direct interests.

Take the Zune's one unique and potentially ginchy feature: Wi-Fi. You see this printed on the box and you immediately think "Cool. So I can sync files from my desktop library without having to plug in a USB cable, right? Maybe even download new content directly to the device from the Internet?"

Typical, selfish user: How does your convenience help make money for Universal? No wonder Doug despises you.

No, the Zune's sole wireless feature is "squirting" -- I know, I know, it's Microsoft's term, not mine -- music and pictures to any other Zune device within direct Wi-Fi range. Even if the track is inherently free (like a podcast) the Zune wraps it in a DRM scheme that causes the track to self-destruct after three days or three plays, whichever comes first.

Can you believe these guys? But wait, you haven't even heard how their new operating system Vista -- which is supposed to fix all XP's stoopid problems -- will have you pulling out your hair (via Catprint by way of SDA):
Vista's content protection mechanism only allows protected content to be sent over interfaces that also have content-protection facilities built in. Currently the most common high-end audio output interface is S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format). Most newer audio cards, for example, feature TOSlink digital optical output for high-quality sound reproduction, and even the latest crop of motherboards with integrated audio provide at least coax (and often optical) digital output. Since S/PDIF doesn't provide any content protection, Vista requires that it be disabled when playing protected content. In other words if you've sunk a pile of money into a high-end audio setup fed from an S/PDIF digital output, you won't be able to use it with protected content.

Say you've just bought Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon", released as a Super Audio CD (SACD) in its 30th anniversary edition in 2003, and you want to play it under Vista. Since the S/PDIF link to your amplifier/speakers is regarded as insecure, Vista disables it, and you end up hearing a performance by Marcel Marceau instead of Pink Floyd.


As well as overt disabling of functionality, there's also covert disabling of functionality. For example PC voice communications rely on automatic echo cancellation (AEC) in order to work. AEC requires feeding back a sample of the audio mix into the echo cancellation subsystem, but with Vista's content protection this isn't permitted any more because this might allow access to premium content. What is permitted is a highly-degraded form of feedback that might possibly still sort-of be enough for some sort of minimal echo cancellation purposes.


Alongside the all-or-nothing approach of disabling output, Vista requires that any interface that provides high-quality output degrade the signal quality that passes through it if premium content is present. This is done through a "constrictor" that downgrades the signal to a much lower-quality one, then up-scales it again back to the original spec, but with a significant loss in quality. So if you're using an expensive new LCD display fed from a high-quality DVI signal on your video card and there's protected content present, the picture you're going to see will be, as the spec puts it, "slightly fuzzy", a bit like a 10-year-old CRT monitor that you picked up for $2 at a yard sale [Note F]. In fact the specification specifically still allows for old VGA analog outputs, but even that's only because disallowing them would upset too many existing owners of analog monitors. In the future even analog VGA output will probably have to be disabled. The only thing that seems to be explicitly allowed is the extremely low-quality TV-out, provided that Macrovision is applied to it.

The same deliberate degrading of playback quality applies to audio, with the audio being downgraded to sound (from the spec) "fuzzy with less detail".

Amusingly, the Vista content protection docs say that it'll be left to graphics chip manufacturers to differentiate their product based on (deliberately degraded) video quality. This seems a bit like breaking the legs of Olympic athletes and then rating them based on how fast they can hobble on crutches.


Once a weakness is found in a particular driver or device, that driver will have its signature revoked by Microsoft, which means that it will cease to function (details on this are a bit vague here, presumably some minimum functionality like generic 640x480 VGA support will still be available in order for the system to boot). This means that a report of a compromise of a particular driver or device will cause all support for that device worldwide to be turned off until a fix can be found [Note I]. Again, details are sketchy, but if it's a device problem then presumably the device turns into a paperweight once it's revoked. If it's an older device for which the vendor isn't interested in rewriting their drivers (and in the fast-moving hardware market most devices enter "legacy" status within a year of two of their replacement models becoming available), all devices of that type worldwide become permanently unusable.

And so on. Read the whole thing because it's astonishing how little respect this company has for the people who buy its products. Basically, if you install Microsoft's Vista on your computer, you will also be installing the lawyers of every major film studio or music company to look over your shoulders as you work. AND you will be completely at the mercy of Microsoft as to which hardware you can use.

Microsoft has been a monopoly for so long it's forgotten than they can't just do any damn thing they want with their customer's property. People have options now. But they still see their operating systems not as something which offers functionality to their customers, but as a platform to shove junk down their throats.

Maybe Vista is a suicide note. Maybe Microsoft really wants to die. I think it's probably for the best.

December 21, 2005

Real treachery in a virtual world

One of my guilty pleasures is buying a computer games magazine once in a while. My interest in the games is fading, but I'm always interested in the business and how the games are evolving.

This month's issue of PC Gamer has a fascinating story about a massive and treacherous attack by one faction on another in a MMORPG game called EVE Online. Now, I play World of Warcraft, and it's MMORPG too. But it's more like a virtual playground than anything resembling reality. You can fight other players, but the most you can lose is a couple of minutes of your time. Which suits me fine -- I don't feel like playing a game where you have to watch your back all the time. But EVE Online seems to have been designed with an clear libertarian point of view. It's a space game where anything goes, and you're well advised to join a faction for your own protection.

This attack that I read about took 12 months to plan and involved placing moles in the targeted faction (called a corporation in the game) and gaining the leader's trust. Once everything was in place, a coordinated attack took out all the defences and seized the corporation's assets. Apparently, the real world market prices for the virtual goods stolen was over US$16,500.

As I said, it's a fascinating story, and you can read it all here.

EVE Online has a free 14-day trial available. I might have to try it out.

April 27, 2005

Not too big to fly...

The Airbus A380 has taken off on its maiden flight in Toulouse today. It's truly amazing that something that huge can actually fly. I'm looking forward to my first ride on it (though it's probably going to be a while.) Congratulations to the engineers that pulled it off, and good luck to the business managers that have to find a way to make it profitable...

April 06, 2005

Fuggin' Bell fuggin' Expressvu...

TV is dead to us now. We haven't watched anything in the past month other than the hyperthyroidic creatures on Dora the Explorer. The kids can live without it.

We were tempted back to the satellite service when they offered us two months of free service with all the options. It was fun to TV back for a while, but then I forgot all about it. The first bill finally came and -- Aaawk! -- it was almost $100! For a month! Can anyone really pay these ridiculous charges? (And no, the porn channels weren't part of 'all the options'.)

Well, no more. The ridiculous bill was my fault, but they're not getting any more of our money. Time to cancel.

So now I'm on hold. I've been on hold for quite a while. I started by shifting through the menus to get to the queue to talk to a human. After an excessive wait, I finally get to speak to a someone. They tell me that to cancel, I have to talk to someone else, and I'm back on hold again. This time the hold is much less pleasant because it's accompanied by an annoying woman telling me annoying things. Apparently I can watch Fahrenheit 911 on Expressvu! "It's Michael Moore's latest commentary!" (Exact words.) I loop through this grating crap at least ten times.

And finally through. The guy on the end is trying to talk me out of it, like I'm perched on a ledge of a tall building, threatening to jump. No. My mind is made up, I ... *klic* ... ummmmmmmmmmmmmm...

Cut off! Bastard! I call back -- and in a mere twenty minutes I'm talking to a guy three cubes down from the first guy. I'm pissed, but it's not his fault. But he can't help me. If I want to cancel I have to talk to the cancellation guys -- and get back on hold. So. On hold again. The fourth time. Same annoying patter. Grrr.

Twenty-five minutes. I cannot believe this. Finally I'm through and... the cancellation department closed a half hour ago! I'm talking to tech support. No, he can't take my information and give it to the proper people. No, he can't get someone to phone me back. No, he can't ram his head into his desk a few times to make me feel better.

Evil bastards. They won this battle, but they won't win the war.

UPDATE: Did it. And it only took ten minutes this time. But they can't shut me off until May 7 and can't even reduce my package. Swine.

March 21, 2005

Swirling down the drain

Canada must be one of the most politically correct countries in the world. Our schools spend a quarter of their class time praising diversity and advocating the importance of tolerance while our government spreads incredible amounts of money promoting multicultural events and subsidizing ethnic organizations. But that isn't enough, because apparently something called 'racism' still exists. The Liberal government claims it can be countered with yet more money:

"Canada is a world leader in the development of policies and laws to fight racism, but many Canadians still experience racism and discrimination in their daily lives," said the Honourable Raymond Chan, Minister of State (Multiculturalism).

"The Government of Canada has for some time recognized that our fight against racism requires a horizontal, forward-looking approach. And we recognize that we have to collaborate more effectively with all sectors of society for these efforts to be successful. This is what we will achieve with this Action Plan," added Minister of State Chan.

The objectives of the Action Plan are to strengthen social cohesion, further Canada's human rights framework, and demonstrate federal leadership in the fight against racism and hate-motivated crime.

"The underlying message of this first ever Action Plan Against Racism is clear: we seek a Canada in which there will be no sanctuary for hate and no refuge for racism," said Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler.

Building on Canada's existing legal framework, and on the policies and programs currently in place, the Action Plan establishes a horizontal approach across federal departments and agencies, and outlines a significant number of new and continuing commitments to combat racism.

Yadda, yadda, yadda. The bottom line? $56 million for this 'plan'. Look, I know it's dangerous to come out against something that's labelled 'anti-racist' (obviously, I must be a racist!), but this is such a stoopid waste of money. The government cannot socially engineer a change in attitudes through TV commercials and even more indoctrination on 'tolerence' in our schools. People who advocate racist views do so now because they know it's the shortest route to attracting the attention they crave. The days are long gone when these attitudes were widely held, and were a polite topic for dinner conversation. Some people are assholes -- deal with it. Federal money isn't going to make them go away or change their natures. In fact, I think this money can only inflame racism -- not a lot, but a bit nonetheless. The incessant pandering to visible minorities gives racists leverage with a frustrated few.

The Gomery Inquiry is uncovering all kinds of evidence about how the Liberal Party uses these types of special programs for sleaze. This 'Action Plan Against Racism' has slush fund written all over it -- a big pot of money dedicated to a vague goal that no one dares speak against. And just as with the Sponsorship program, they'll probably get away with it too.

February 21, 2005

Is there a more annoying company than Microsoft?

Right now a message is continually popping up in the lower right corner of my screen. It's from Microsoft, telling me that a new version of MS Messenger is available. It pops up and disappears, pops up and disappears, every five seconds. I long ago got rid of Messenger because of the endless 'updates' -- which were in reality just changes to screw over third-party software makers; but evidently there remains some residue of it still on my system that recieved the word from Redmond about this exciting new update.

If I click on the pop-up, it gives me the option to download the new version, or ignore -- for one week. It does NOT give me the option to tell it to go away and never bug me again.

They've got quite the racket. You pay up to 1/5 the price of your new computer (all other costs for computing have declined dramatically) to licence their buggy, sluggish operating system, then they use your computer as a marketing tool for their grand scheme to control the media channels of the future.

I've had enough. I've been trying to clean up my laptop for the past couple of weeks and it's done no good. I've anti-virused it, de-spywared it, defragged it switched from Outlook and Explorer to Thunderbird and Firefox -- and still it stutters and grinds and hangs and crashes. It's only a Pentium III, but it shouldn't be this painful to just surf the web and send mail.

New project -- I'm converting the laptop to Linux. It's going to be kind of messy, I'm sure, but then having my computer owned by Microsoft has been no picnic either. I start tonight.

January 19, 2005

Bill Gates. Nerd stud.

This was apparently taken from a Teen Beat spread in 1983. He was quite the hottie. But since then he's broken my heart.

January 14, 2005

News for nerds

There's a demo out for Half-life 2. (Only 750 Mbytes! Start downloading now!) For those of you who aren't nerds, this is Christmas's big blockbuster game for PCs. If you were to look for a comparison to it in the movie industry, it would be like a new Indiana Jones movie in its impact.

The demo consists of two parts. In the first, you get to play a powerless drone in a nightmarish alien-controlled totalitarian city. You wander around, get abused and humiliated by human collaborators, and listen to cheery propaganda in a dreary eastern European town. It's very atmospheric, but you don't get to kill anything.

The second part has you in a decrepit factory town trying not to get killed by zillions of zombies and head crabs (think of the face-huggers from the Aliens movies). It's extremely intense and creepy. And quite long -- it took me a few days to get through it.

The graphics are spectacular. These games are getting better and better at imitating reality. When a head crab flies through the air at you and you shoot it with your .45, it can fly backward, strike one wall and leave a green splat mark, bounce to another wall, stick, and slide down it trailing slime. (Not that you're going to see anything like that in reality.) I've got more of a low-end PC now, and it still looks great, which surprised me.

But I don't know if I'm going to buy the full game. I love playing it, but unfortunately it makes me nauseous. Fifteen or twenty minutes is all I can take before I've got that queasy feeling. This never happened when I was younger; I could play these games for hours. What a drag it is getting old.

January 06, 2005


Bill Gates shows off what his operating system is really like at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Welcome to my world, Bill.

(via Wizbang)

December 15, 2004

Technical difficulties

I'm an electrical engineer. In my career, I've been involved in the design and debug of complex digital computer systems. I'm also a pretty bright guy, and am able to usually solve technical problems in products I know nothing about with just some documentation and a little bit of time.

But Wintel computers consistently manage to baffle me.

Something's always going wrong. Usually they're little things that I manage to work around. A program that usually launches on start-up doesn't. The computer almost grinds to a halt because MS Explorer has for some reason sucked up all the memory and processor time. Blue screens of death. Random freezes.

But sometimes the problems are more serious. The other day the DVD drive on my desktop computer just stopped recognizing any disks. I'd normally think something like this was a hardware problem, but the icon for the drive changed too, so I'm guessing this is just another of those Windows XP surprises that are destined to drive me mad. I still haven't managed to fix it.

But today, when I woke my laptop from its evening slumber and I found that the network connection had disappeared, I nearly lost it. I need my network connection. I need the internet. It was fine yesterday, but wasn't working today -- nothing had happened to the machine! I hadn't even shut it down! Time to debug. I rebooted the modem, router and computer: no change. I uninstalled and reinstalled the network card adapter: nothing. I removed the card from the machine, removed all software traces that it had ever even existed on my computer, and reinstalled everything from scratch (finding the disk after only fifteeen minutes of digging through the disaster zone know as my 'office'): nope. Finally, sitting there in a daze and cursing the thought of buying a new wireless network card, I had the illogical idea to change the slot of the network card to slot 1. Bingo. I came upon this idea only because I remembered pulling my hair out in frustration installing the card the first time, because it absolutely refused to work in slot 1.

Do these things only happen to me? Have only I been cursed with these invisible computer gremlins that mess up my computers when my back is turned? Or is there hidden code in device drivers and the XP operating system that causes random, annoying gliches to keep us dependent on tech support and drive a demand for replacement equipment? I'm serious. I'm really starting to think this...