Sunday, 16 December 2007

Laptop bling

2 posts in a week! I must be sick or something.

In Spring a friend showed me his new laptop, running a new window manager - something called Beryl - OMG! It rocked. I was as impressed as the first time I saw a Windows/Mouse interface, or a Web Browser. Computers should be fun to use and this showed how! At that time though I didn't have the time to play around with such hardware (which surely required the very latest bitchin' graphics card).

Fast-forward to December. I've recently completed redecorating my daughter's bedroom, and thought I'd let her have my laptop (semi-) permanently installed in there. Despite being a computer geek, the hardware I own is usually cobbled together from spare parts picked up at jumble sales or bought off eBay. Laptop in question is a 1GHz Celeron with 384Mb memory (only recently upgraded from 128) and a slow 10Gb HD (where I need to keep a copy of XP which is used about 4GB left for everything else). Its a very basic workhorse and was bottom of the range even when new.

I thought I'd do a reinstall for her. Previously it had a series of Suse installs, currently at 9.3. Everything worked, but I felt it was rather bloatware, and her main interest would be in playing games - Suse do not provide a good portfolio of installable games. I had a look at the top 10 on Distrowatch, and decided to try out PC Linux OS. This can run as a Live CD before installing which is a very handy way to check if it supports your hardware (another area where Linux is now actually leading the other OS vendors!). After bottong it up and liking it, installation was painless and quick handling the Linksys PCMCIA WiFi card, sound and everything else.

After setting it all up, I noticed there was an option to run a "3D Window Manager" so I turned it on not expecting very much. WOW.

OK, so not all the effects work (its the most basic video chipset on this thing) I don't get Windows going up in flames or appearing from sparkles - but the wobble, expand, and I can rotate the Desktop cube - indeed the only falut is that it all happens so quickly/smoothly, if you blink you'll miss it.

Meanwhile everything else works really well - the single CD it installs from had an impressive amount of software on it - and more is easily added from the internet. The only thing which doesn't seem to work is SuperKaramba where the theme browser only list the most popular/highest rated and newest (you can't brows the main catalog from the application) also, liquid weather refused to work (IMHO the only reason for having SK) and SK loses its settings each time you log out. But I was really only playing around with it for extra eye-candy (I still can't believe I'm trying to demo-up that old banger of a laptop!)

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Off work, sick

For the first time in my life I've been off-work due to illness for a week.

I thought I'd go see the quack. It's been a long time since I've seen a doctor, so long in fact that the previous doctor has since retired and been replaced. This happened 2 years ago to my dentist - but I used to see him a very 6 months. I'm beginning to suspect a conspiracy.....

But meanwhile, back at the the doctor's surgery - I'm perhaps not fully compus mentus due to the virus and in-approprately large doses of the children's cough medicine (the instructions only went up to age 8 - so I'm about 5 times older than that, and a grown up, and they always leave a bit of safety margin so say 7 times the dosage?) so I'm expecting a bit of banter, maybe a bit patronizing, but we both know its just posturing at this stage to fulfill both our contractual obligations....something like....

dr: What can I for you today Mr M?
me: Why, heal me, physician!

I then proceed to provide a colourful tale of my man-flu. It is of course crystal clear to both parties that this is a virus and therefore medicines are far from appropriate (you do know that there are lots of anti-virals out there, just like antibiotics....but this could turn into a physiology back to the main text) And in addition to demonstrating the value of the states investment in terms of training and salary by verifying my symptoms are in fact due to the virus and not, say, due to being impaled with tyre iron, the good doctor will give me the usual 5 point oil and water change while I'm in there. Checking my blood pressure and such....

dr: well you're not dead yet
me: that's good but I just need a short-range forecast for my sicknote
dr: that is a short-range forecast; you're over-weight, and don't get enough exercise; the fact your blood pressure is so low despite this is indicative of even further health failings.

But how quickly I have forgotten what (most) doctors are like - I say most, because there is a very small number (1, OK, which is, technically, the smallest number) of doctors I have met who actually impressed me as being very clever, imaginitive and being funny. The rest seem to the product of a selection system valuing only the ability to memorize lots of information and look very sincere. The former talent will of course be of some benefit to anybody taking a tertiary course of education but has often been my own downfall. The second skill is altogether more different. A total failure to look for secondary or un-intended meaning in a statement seems to be route by which the candidates acheive their hippocratic serenity. Who knew that this humour bypass, this Asperger's syndrome with eye-contact should be a pre-requisite for entry?

I certainly did not. As a youngster, I considered bearing the staff of Asceplius a noble career, my chance to give something back to the world, not to mention that since my GP drove an E-Type Jag and lived in a big house, a bloody nice salary with a """free health-plan""" .

But for whatever reason, it was not to be. So I found myself on a parallel course of study on the good ship Cell Biology. Somewhat unexpectedly, this led to me actually teaching physiology to medical students! And this provided me a rare opportunity to observe the phenogenesis of the medical mind.

Medicine, and maybe Law, seem to unique in that they allow no dilution by other disciplines. And the way in which they operate (hah!) has not changed for hundreds of years. Oh, change - sure, they moan about it, but at the end of the day, NPFIT, the largest ever overhaul of Patient Records in the NHS boils to changing a green form for a pink one (and of course a £20bn feeding frenzy for an approved list of suppliers). Doctors decide what is wrong with people, nurses ensure doctors instructions are carried out. And with one Health Service, providing centralised super-hospitals for in-patients, call-centers for end-users, locums for out-of-hours work the identity of the doctor becomes irrelevant and thus the ability for the user to discriminate between good and bad is diminished.

Meanwhile, back at the surgery, it actually went more like this:

dr: Hello Mr M, You've not been well.
(this has caught me on the backstep. Not falling into the trap of asking why I was here. But instead opening a conversation with a statement. Was the trap spotted and pre-empted or is the savante merely failing to engage fully in the social interaction).

I pre-emptively scrub "man-flu" from my lexicon for the day.

The diagnosis goes pretty much as I expect. One mistake was saying I worked in IT when she asks what I do far a living. It's true, but this one is still young and keen and now has reason to give me the full, un-abridged, BMA approved story of why I'm not getting a prescription for penicillin in words of less than 3 syllables. Beam me up Scottie,
The reported findings are a bit different from my earlier expectations:

dr (ticks the box marked overweight, but makes no mention): your blood pressure is very good. Do you exercise?
me: no, I know I should, there doesn't seem enough hours in the day.
dr: mhm
dr: OK, thanks for coming in

I like the ancient Chinese system where you pay your doctor to keep you healthy not to treat you when you're ill.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

PHP double plus good?

I've just read this article about how PHP was better for one user than Ruby on Rails. It's given me a lot of food for thought about where I go with PfP Studio (but I'm not short of ideas - just time to code!). James Gosling's comments that PHP is only really suitable for web-based applications seemed a bit unfair, but thinking about it, they really demonstrate one of the main areas where Java fails as a web programming language.
Sure in PHP there are bindings for GTK, ncurses and rumours of Qt/KDE bindings, but the Garbage Collection problem remains - AFAIK PHP handles Garbage Collection by way of reference counting, but there are scenarios where an object can have a reference but still be garbage (actually I can only think of one, with variations, where two objects reference each other, but aren't referenced by anything else). Java can cater for such a scenario - but this comes at a cost. In Java GC is always a trade off between throughput and pause times. For PHP running in a Web application, its simple - at the end of executing the script, delete everything! However this model doesn't really work for long running PHP programs.

I suppose if PHP wants to be taken seriously for non-web applications it will need a tracing (reachability) based Garbage Collector. If it does come, I hope I can still switch it off for my web applications!

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Buggy WYSIWYG Editor

This WYSIWYG HTML editor on sucks.

Encrypting Files in MS Windows (2)


Using the context menu, I first tried to encrypt a copy of a directory - this seemed to be doing something - but I'd no idea where it put the encrypted file!

I then tried encrypting in place - the program seemed to stop at shredding the first file.

Eventually it dawned that the program does not created archives - it was encrypting each file in the directory.

In use, it does what its suppoed to. As with 7zip it uses a temporary directory to store the unencrypted file. In some circumstances it seems to have problems deleting the file when the application is finished with it - but it does promise to delete it the next time the computer is started up. This seems to be related to an existing process opening the file (start up MS Excel, open another doc, then open a axx doc).

Saving a modified file caused errors, but subsequently reopening the file from axcrypt it kept the changes.

Its ugly, but fairly fool proof.

CryptonIt uses asymmetric encryption - and we have no PKI infrastructure. But looks like a worthy successor to the delisted WinCrypt freeware (still available from other sources on the internet).

LockDisk looks interesting but the developers are very vague about the licence and the algorithm.

BladeBox creates a virtual drive (no temp files?) the site claims AES encrpytion but licence terms are not published. Variously listed as shareware and freeware.

is another virtual drive - nice gui but no dynamic sizing of the drive.

I should point out that I was just joking about the CamelCase thing in my previous post - it seems to be coincidence that all the products which seem to come close to matching my brief
have CamelCase names.

Encrypting files in MS Windows

I'm currently looking for a product for encrypting files within MS-Windows.

The contents of the file are to be available only to a select number of individuals. The obvious approach was one based on symmetric encryption or quorum type encryption. Although it would be possible to have a system publishing versions encrypted using the individuals public keys this seems overkill.

XP Encryption
Based on previous experience in disaster recovery scenarios my initial thought was to look at facilities built in to the operating system. However even before digging in to the details of the implementation (based on their implementation of pptp and Office password protection, I thought it best to check) I came across a major stumbling block - users in the domain with admin privileges can access the encrypted files. It's not that I'm trying to subvert our security model - quite the opposite; not everyone in the admin group should have access.

7zip Encryption
We are already using 7zip widely but until I started doing some digging on the topic, I was not aware that it also supported encryption. Despite the weaknesses in the implementation (described here for WinZip, most of which applies equally to 7zip) it seemed ideal for our purposes. However when I tried it out, I found that the ergonomics were so bad that it would be unusable for our needs.
  • Although not a show stopper, it uses a temp directory on the local machines physical hard disk to store the unencrypted file. It does clean this up after the application using the file is closed, but could provide a new avenue for accessing the encrypted document.
  • Under normal operations, when a file within an archive is edited, 7zip automatically puts it back into the archive when the application is exited. It just gives an error when you try this using an encrypted file.
  • The password for encryption is set when the archive is created. If you try to add additional files later, these are added unencrypted with no warning.

I was a bit surprised at this as, for compression purposes I had found the user interface to be very well designed.

Because of the Byzantine procurement process here it is a painful experience to actually buy software - and my experience is that it is always better to try before you buy - hence FOSS software is particularly attractive.

So I'm off to have a look at:

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Joining the blogging generation

Sooner or later I knew I'd end up getting a blog somewhere. Previously I'd published a journal on my NTL homepage - but with only HTML available it was a pain to maintain it (even with PushSite). Since everyone is entitled to my opinion I thought I'd get me a proper blog account somewhere which handles all those cool things like trackbacks and RSS and other such gobbledygook.

Don't expect regular postings or wisdom or much in the way of entertainment - but plenty of ranting and general complaining.