* Posts by Nile Heffernan

24 publicly visible posts • joined 22 Jun 2007

On the matter of shooting down Amazon delivery drones with shotguns

Nile Heffernan

" Rifle bullets remain effective over much longer distances, but hitting a small fast-moving faraway target with a single bullet isn't practical and nobody even tries."

When you have a little spare time, look up the origin of the word 'sniper': an 18th-century countryman with a single-shot long gun (not necessarily rifled, though this was standard by the 19th century) who could bring down snipe - a small fast-flying member of the duck family.

REVEALED: Hungry termites nibbling at Oracle's foundation

Nile Heffernan

Re: Postgres? No, thank you.

Yes, this, mostly:

I despise most of the NoSQL stuff because it seems that most of those solutions stem from hatred of SQL instead of rational thinking

Mostly. Some of it is that rational thinking about structured data is hard, and sometimes its very badly taught - and you do need good teaching on this, the learning curve has steep steps in understanding, not just in the assmilation of facts - and SQL will aways be hard and hateful if you don't have that understanding.

Meanwhile, there's Oracle. I happen to believe that it is a technically-superior product, with a poor interface and appalling documentation. Obviously, Oracle fanbois (or fan-beardy-blokes-with-sandals-and-beer-bellies) are going to splutter at that, but the published docs are only useful for looking up stuff you already know. Finding stuff and explaining concepts? Only despised noobz would want to do that, and the Oracle online community reflects that attitude through and through. 'Unhelpful to outsiders' does not begin to describe them.

You can only do Oracle well - or even acceptably badly - if you've spent a long, long time learning the *exact* jargon and the concepts *in the exact form of words* used by the priesthood before they will even deign to patronise you, let alone engage with your questions and reply with usable information - and every now and again they'll throw curveballs of utterly unfamilar concepts that you've never, ever heard of or had to think about in any other kind of software, even if you've been working on other databases for a decade - and asking for explanations puts you right back in the box marked 'stooopid Nooobz'.

Meanwhile, SQL Server has an upsizing wizard from MS-Access that can get a workable database going from the usual desktop toys and prototypes in about a day - don't laugh, most 'green fields' database projects start with data that's already been sort-of-tabulated in a spreadsheet, or outgrew desktop data tools like Access, and SQL Server will get you started faster than anyone or anything else. They might get you started badly, and sometimes 'easy' means 'too easy to make mistakes you'll regret', but a starts's a start - and their documentation explains as well as curates the necessary information.

Oh, and the product's got a better interface, with tools that do the familiar things - and the unfamiliar ones - in familiar and easy-to-figure-out ways.

Pity it's an inferior product under all the dressing-up, but at least you can get at it. And it's good enough that you can get it working and keep it working. Oracle make it really, really difficult for a medium-sized company to get the knowledge and the tools to implement the advantages that make it a better product that SQL Server - you can't even do Oracle badly unless you're a full-time Oracle incompetent, and they're just as expensive to rent or employ as as a full-time Oracle expert.

...So Oracle's expensive licensing is just the beginning of their cost disadvantage.

As for Postgres? It's a good database engine, but the interface and the tools available to developers show its age. So people are unwilling to work with it.

Sybase.. Can't really comment. Haven't used it for a decade; back then it was a better DBE than SQL-Server, but was falling behind because M$ threw a lot of money at all the other stuff that goes with building, owning and using databases.

MySQL. I'm not quite in the camp that says 'The stupid, it hurts' but it's primarily aimed at people who'd rather not do the hard thinking about structured data. Beyond that, I am skeptical about some of the performance benchmarks and comparative reports about the costs of scaling-up - they are not as independent as I'd like - so its probably best that I offer no comment on that.

Virgin Galactic tests laughing-gas powered rocket motor

Nile Heffernan

@TeeCee, and a tip of the hat to @Matthew...

TeeCee is superficially correct to say that: "A gen-u-ine suborbital, transcontinental spaceplane, certified for commercial use and viable financially for such"

Equally, one might say the same of the Blériot monoplane, or the early 'barnstormers' who provided joyriding trips to the wealthy (and somewhat foolhardy) in the days before commercial passenger transport began. They were, at best, an intermediate stage - and much of the engineering in them was misguided, and later discarded - but they weren't *quite* a dead end.

The phrase you're looking for is 'Proof-of-concept'; and all such projects 'prove' to the sceptics that the concept is ridiculous n the absence of a fully-developed technology, which will (of course!) never develop in the absence of a demonstrated market.

Apple NDA kills Jesus Phone gospels

Nile Heffernan

History repeating itself

Is this a rerun of Why The Mac Came Second To The PC?

As the Mac fans would have it, Apple had a vastly superior product to the IBM PC and its clones, and it's oh-so-unfair that they never made it out of a small niche. As the Wintel users would have it, the all-too-obvious limitations of DOS, Windows and the PC - the interface and the hardware - were tolerated because the PC was - and is - a fairly open spec that anyone and everyone could build hardware for: it was always upgradeable and reconfigurable, both for users who wanted to trade up with bigger drives, expensive high-spec video cards and so on; and for those who wanted desktop computing on a budget from the low-cost manufacturers - a huge new industry that IBM licensed and permitted to build the 'PC-Clones' that dominate computing today.

As with hardware, so with software: Apple are repeating the same mistake, the same retreat into the proprietary laager that confined the Mac to an uneconomic niche. More outward-looking competitors, some of them with technically-inferior hardware, will reap the benefits of allowing third-party extension and development that will respond to user demand, find the 'killer apps' and address the shortfalls that the 'owner' of the hardware didn't catch or - perhaps - is culturally incapable of acknowledging and addressing.

Yes, the iPhone is quite good; but not so perfect as to be beyond improvement; and Apple's proprietary instincts will allow their competitors to improve far beyond anything that even the most euphoric Steve Jobs fanboys ever claimed or can imagine that a mobile computer can do.

Bury council carries can over spycam binmen

Nile Heffernan

So what's new?

Much as I am incline to post yet another jeremiad on the 'open prison' surveillance state, I have to say that the use of children is a non-story.

Local Authority trading standards officers have always done this: they get a report of a shopkeeper selling cigarettes and alcohol or porn to children, they go to court with surveillance records, statements from children picked up by the police with the offending material, and - to seal the case - they send in a child to buy the stuff.

Wiring the kid for sound and video is new. Using RIPA for it is new - although I have to say that RIPA isn't just an anti-terrorism act, it's intended to regulate ALL surveillance, including the unpleasant (but necessary) work of monitoring and detecting minor offences like benefit fraud, trading standards, and the use of local authority services by people who aren't entitled to them.

Things could've been done better, and RIPA isn't acting as an effective legal regulatory act for keeping surveillance proportionate and restricted to legitimate targets under reasonable suspicion. But that's another story: *this* 'news' article isn't news: it's an opinion-piece by someone with a political agenda.

Customs raids tech trade show

Nile Heffernan

Another power is gained by the Minister

If I were the organiser or promoter for for IFA and - especially - for CeBit, I'd be suing Sisvel and ZollAmt for every last penny. Because it would *be* my last penny: barring some serious high-profile apology and a statement of policy from the Chancellor's office, this latest raid on a major tech trade fair is probably the end of the line for CeBit.

At the very least, CeBit's no longer permitted to be a cutting-edge technology showcase with the movers and the shakers in attendance: I doubt that any such thing will ever be hosted in Germany again.

Trouble is, German law (and English law, for that matter) offers very little scope for compensation for losses, direct and indirect, incurred when your property is seized as part of a Police or Customs investigation. And they've only got to find one or two *arguable* patent violations in order to demonstrate that the search and seizure was 'reasonable'.

I could be wrong - it should be noted that I am not a lawyer and that you would be wise to seek advice from a qualified legal practitioner in your own jurisdiction - but it looks like trade shows and exhibitions cannot be protected against this kind of thing at all. Particularly in a federal nation-state: CeBit and IFA's organisers are locally influential, and would have an effective veto over such an action by local police, but *this* act of sabotage reflects political lobbying at the level of national policy, and the skilful cultivation of public officials at Federal level.

Or so a cynic might think. ZollAmt officials and the judicial office-holders who issued the warrants are, of course, dedicated and impartial professionals acting to uphold the law by their own best judgement. They gave - and will continue to give - the proper weight, no more and no less, to the advice of trustworthy experts in industry. I am certain, and I am sure that you will all take care to agree with me *explicitly* in your comments, that they did not give undue weight to the advice or information of any one particular company or special-interest group in this or any other case. I am equally certain that no individual or company influenced them unduly, that there is absolutely no question whatsoever that any individual or company sought to do so improperly, and I have every confidence that your published comments will be entirely in agreement with me on this particular point.

Organisers of similar events in the USA would be well advised to take note: there are lobbyists in Washington and legal advisors with a presence in all the competent courts in the individual states, who will maintain a watching brief for this kind of thing: but they are expensive, far beyond the reach of all but the largest companies. You have, at least, the consolation of knowing that the TSA and Homeland Security have shown themselves to be commercially-impartial in their overbearing offensive and occasionally- thuggish assaults on commerce, technology and the free exchange of ideas. Patent trolls backed up by federal marshals might be another matter. And yes, it *is* a federal matter if the infringement crosses state lines, or the trolls get a ruling that one or more of the (alleged) infringements involves a 'dual-use' technology with armaments and aerospace applications.

Who else will take note?

Far Eastern companies will view this whole affair with alarm: for some, it will have a familiar ring, a sense that the Minister, the Party Secretary and Chief of Police should be consulted advised and assisted in the usual way... They will also see our talk of 'impartial' and 'incorruptible' public administration as the sham it has clearly (in their eyes) been shown to be. And, as they haven't established a reliable way of getting people un-arrested over here, they will only ever send expendable junior employees out to exhibitions and trade fairs in Europe. Worse, there is absolutely nothing, bar common sense, to stop them 'advising' their own officials that *our* stands on trade fairs in Taiwan, Japan, Korea and - especially - China are now fair game.

You might want to take note of this, too: try telling a customs official or a district court that the economically-dominant Work Unit, Chaebol or Zaibatsu that owns everything and everyone in the host city isn't the victim of a patent infringement. Or that they shouldn't lock you up forever, declare all forty containers of your products contraband and extinguish your copyrights and patents - locally, at least - unless you pay the fines in full right now.

Closer to home, it would be nice to think that the proprietors of Kensington Olympia, the NEC and EdExcel would take note, too: hosting CeBit in the UK would be a major commercial coup. Trouble is, we've got patent trolls in the UK, too: technology fairs are now subject to an effective veto-by-decree as no-one will commit the money without an explicit and *public* ministerial guarantee that the show will be permitted to open and operate without being raided.

At least they don't take bribes here... But ministers and senior civil servants can be briefed, and frequently are, by people whose interests do do not correspond at all closely with the common good, and their ignorance of the consequences of their actions occasionally frightens me. And, as I've hinted in the title, we've taken the second big step in Rule by Fiat: not only does the minister have the power to forbid an assembly, he must now be petitioned in advance for an assurance that his minions won't shut it down after all the money's been committed.

So far, this is hypothetical: raids on trade shows are only happening in Germany... Aren't they?

'Child protection' database slammed as plod data mine

Nile Heffernan

Is there any point in having the word 'Confidential' in the dictionary?

Linking-up personal data is almost always a bad idea: the inefficiency of needing to make 'phone calls and get authorisation to perform a task for one individual, when half-a-second's worth of cross-database SQL could do it for thousands, is actually a valuable safeguard. Because sometimes it's better not to join up the dots; to let it lie undisturbed.

Now for some specifics, and a hypothetical... Just about *all* children with problems serious enough to need Social Services intervention and an entry on the 'At Risk' register get into trouble with the law at some point in their teenage years. I could wish that this wasn't the case, but it is.

What we've created is a monster, like an overbearing Chief Constable who decides to raid the needle exchange schemes and seize the records at addiction clinics: it's class 'A' drugs, they're all criminals, and we've got to uphold the law, haven't we? Identify them, arrest them, prosecute them and give them all a criminal record. Yes, it happens: there are Daily Mail readers in the Police, too, and plenty of them on the Police Committee. Democratic accountability has a downside, and even the best policemen are sometimes forced to do stupid and damaging things.

Now why would I call up such a shocking 'worst case' example of the misuse of power? Seeking help from Social Services - or, in the case of children on this new database, having help imposed on you - now carries a similar risk: nothing as overt as an immediate arrest, but if you ever were helped by the Social, you're an easy lookup on an all-too-convenient list of suspects and the Police can use the file to come knocking on your door every time they're short of the target for clear-up rates. And the courts will use it in evidence against you; your employers - prospective and present - will get hold of it; the press will get hold of it (Petition organiser has secret shame!!! Everyone who campaigns against our advertisers is a filthy pervert who was arrested at age 14!!!); blackmailers will get hold of it. Your wife's divorce lawyer will get hold of it. And all the time, you will have to declare it and answer intrusive questions, every time you interact with officialdom, justifying yourself over and over again.

The core principle of our youth justice system is a belief - admittedly, somewhat naive - that the young are malleable, that young offenders can make a fresh start: what you did when you were legally a child will be dealt with *at the time* and that will be the end of the matter. Whatever it was, if it happened when you were legally a child, you are not deemed to be culpable to the same degree as an adult would be, and you will not be held to account throughout your adult life for your actions. Which is to say: the record is *closed* and the follies of your youth are a confidential matter between you and your guardians, and the law will leave it be.

That freedom is now gone. We've just torn up an essential right to grow up, be declared an adult, and be free of a bad childhood. Three hundred and thirty thousand people will have all the access that they want, to everything you did before you were 18. That is to say: everyone who matters, everyone who has power over your life and work.

Why not save all the consultancy fees and go back to branding them on the cheek?

No, wait... Our barbaric forefathers didn't do that to children.

Note, also, that although criminal offences are the point-of-access for this invasion, those three hundred thousand people will have access to everything you did. Criminal or not. Dealt with by the school, or the care home, or by referral to the Local Authority's educational psychology unit: everything.

The word 'confidential' may as well be deleted from the dictionary. What a terrible price for being helped by the Social Services.

As some readers have pointed out, you and I have nothing to fear. I sincerely hope that this was irony.

Now for an ugly hypothetical: Social Workers are called-in, in all cases of incest and underage sex. This is probably he most sensitive work that anyone does, anywhere, and it, too, is surely on the database: this is, after all, a criminal matter. Take the worst case: school-age girls (and, in all probability, boys) working as prostitutes out of the care homes in a city in the Midlands. Yes, they got picked up by the Police. Repeatedly. Now what? Can the courts refer to them, years later, as 'A common Prostitute' if they are picked up by the Police, walking home alone in a dodgy area? Can the defence in a rape trial use this data?

What will the less-scrupulous individuals on that third-of-a-million people with access to the 'confidential' data make of it?

Apple faces lawsuit over wobbly 3G claims

Nile Heffernan
Black Helicopters

Oh dear...

Oh dear... There seems to be some disagreement.

Central London has the world's best 3g coverage and I frequently get no signal or a downgraded 'edge' connection on my iPhone. 02's network really doesn't cope well with multiple users, but some of it is squarely Apple's fault: the chipset is immature and there are known problems with the 3g protocol stack.

That's not all: if the handset fails to find a signal, that's it. End of story. Go visit a web cafe if you needed that email today. Maybe you'll be lucky but the commonest outcome is that the 'Cannot connect to the 3g Network' error messages will be the whole of your mobile internet experience until you reset and revert to the factory settings... Losing all your WiFi network passwords in the process.

Yes, that's exactly what the O2 iPhone helpline will tell you to do. Eventually. And their 'on hold' music system is *horrible*.

What else? Safari.

This is a truly execrable piece of software, written by unsupervised interns who'd had the Internet explained to them, but had never actually used it for themselves. What genius decided that moving off and onto a page - to change your network settings, perhaps - would result in a mandatory refresh, losing the existing page? On a mobile device, where intermittent coverage is a forseeable problem?

It's full of nasty little surprises and laughably bad design decisions... Can I block images or go 'cached-images-only' ? No. And why would anyone want to do that on a mobile device when the network's slow? Can I browse offline when I go underground? Who on Earth would want to do that in London? Or Paris, Tokyo, New York, Madrid, Frankfurt or Stockholm? Can I open a link in another window? Surely not: everyone who reads BoingBoing *wants* to lose the 'portal' page when they follow a link, because the network will always be there for the mobile user when we click the 'back' key. Can I ditch the Style sheet if it isn't small-screen friendly or switch off Flash? No, no, oh dear me no: our clean interface is more important than your imaginary need to bypass dirty web design.

Then there's the big surprise: Safari crashes. Frequently. Locks up, then closes down and vanishes, taking whatever you were reading. Or typing. And I think it's a memory leak in the touch-screen software: the more you scroll, the sooner it crashes.

And, dear me... The buffering for video: iplayer content, embedded quicktime movies and mpegs, and - especially - YouTube video clips. Seriously, I have never watched streamed content on the iPhone anywhere, ever, in a WiFi network or standing directly under a 3g base station, without the whole thing grinding to repeated halts, manual restarts, and an eventual crash. And it doesn't cache or save it: move the slider back to the stuff you stuttered through a minute ago, and all you'll do is relive the experience. Seriously, why did they even bother? This was coded without a spec by people who cannot program and who never test their work in field conditions.

I tolerate it all because the iPhone's far, far better than all the rest. Yes, the others really are that bad; both as hardware and - especially and appallingly - as a user interface. Nevertheless, the Apple image of creativity and talent and clean design producing attractive machines that 'just work' is now seriously tarnished.

If I wanted to be a beta tester I'd stick to Microsoft. But this is my *phone*, dammit: it's a utility, not an accessory.

Bill Gates has gone, what's his legacy?

Nile Heffernan

Perfection is the enemy of good-enough

A reasonable piece: Gates is much damned by faint praise as by well-earned criticism of his company's failiures and misbehaviour.

Microsoft succeeded and came to dominate by recognising and avoiding some of the failures of their rivals - some, but not all; getting some features to work better than other companies' first attempts - some, but not all; and by getting most of what they did to work, first or maybe second or third time around - most, but not all.

All of their competitors made at least one crippling strategic blunder; up until Vista, Gates and Allen had not. It is tempting to say that this is the flipside of a lack of vision: no overarching ambitions, no abysmal failure. But they are, after all, the people who said 'A computer on every desk and in every home', at a time when such a thing was unimaginable.

Dutch boffins clone Oyster card

Nile Heffernan

What's it worth?

Oyster is an example of cash-on-a-card. In theory, you could make it a debit card, contacting a central database - your bank account - for every single transaction. In practice this is simply too slow for a system designed for millions of frequent small payments, especially if those payments have to be made very quickly - which, for a mass transit system, is vital.

The process that you're missing is the overnight reconciliation, which matches up the daily payments on the card to the purchases and top-ups. Faking a top-up involves subverting the central server; a much tougher proposition than fiddling with a card. This places an upper bound on the amount that can be stolen, as there is a time limit on the card's usability.

Ticket collectors (we still use the term!) have Oyster card readers that check the card's self-contained cash balance and/or validity for particular services. They don't validate the card against the overnight run - not at present - but I am certain that this will now change. So a fiddled card will soon be at risk from spot checks, too.

The next point to note is that we're talking small sums of money; it isn't - or shouldn't - be worth man-days of a software engineer's time to get a day's free travel. However, Londoners spend several thousand pounds a year on transport, and there are a lot of very bright teenagers out there who would do it for free.

Elsewhere, other cities are looking at Oyster cards issued by their Mass Transit Authority for small purchases - the typical commuter's newspaper and coffee from the kiosk on the station. I think this latest security lapse may be a setback.

The question is now a matter of cost vs risk and benefit: if the hack goes mass-market, will it be worth doing on a large scale? And is the system flexible enough for *regularl* revisions and upgrades to the security schema?

Finally, I have to point out that it isn't just the money or teenage wannabe-hacker kudos. Oyster is a significant surveillance resource, and the ability to temporariy clone someone else's ID is an effective way of deflecting unwelcome attention from your movements. If it becomes impossible to purchase a one-day oystercard without being photographed, even the most law-abiding citizen might, from time to time, look upon the ability to travel anonymously as being worth far more than the price of the train fare and a coffee.

MPs urge action as spooky caller ID-faking services hit UK

Nile Heffernan

Who profits?

The big users will be telephone marketers and they will have bulk rates a lot cheaper than the 50p per minute quoted in the article.

That's merely unpleasant and annoying. Moving down the list, we get pranksters, malicious callers and stalkers, malicious journalists - seriously, the tabloids are becoming a kind of privatised Stasi and it's only their relatively small numbers that prevent them being a bigger threat to the liberty of the individual than an overbearing Surveillance State - and, finally, fraudsters.

The 'protecting children' pretext for legislation is appealing but implausible. I don't think that children use caller ID to verify who's on the phone; further, telephones aren't an avenue of attack for paedophiles.

Creative threatens developer over home-brewed Vista drivers

Nile Heffernan

If only...

If only there was some organisation devoted to the new frontier of electronic freeedom, or someone advocating free software and backing up their beliefs with legal muscle... Nah, it'll never happen: none of these cases will ever go to court. Nobody serious about computing would do anything like that.

Still, it's a shame, because seeing that one go to court would make fools of Creative Labs. The document discovery required in such a case might also reveal that Creative are forced to act this way in order to retain their Microsoft certification: their board live under the threat that every single Creative Labs device will one day be 'decertified' and prevented from running protected media under Windows.

I wonder how that would play in the press... If there still is a free press: much of the mass news media is owned by people who have an important financial interest in the in the next-case-but-one, where we establish a legal precedent that states whether the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a license to ignore the antitrust laws. Do Microsoft, or the content owners who now seem to be Bill's paymaster, have the legal right to selectively 'freeze out' hardware manufacturers who don't toe the line?

It occurs to me that Creative Labs might actually gain more than they lose from taking this case to court. Unless, of course, their legal team are as badly-managed as their developers: given the clumsy way that they have behaved so far, this seems all too likely.

And what do Creative Labs have to lose? We already know they're fools and their hardware drivers don't work particularly well anyway.

Of course, a court case might also permanently blacklist and burn our promising young programmer's career - at least, in the world of large corporations in partnership agreements with Microsoft. But there are worse things than starting out in a department which ships bad code, learning to accept working that way, ending up managing the process and forcing it on a new generation of recruits, and eventually directing legal operations against the the sort of promising young programmer that you used to be.

Israel won't buy US laser cannons to defend borders

Nile Heffernan

A perfect example of asymmetric warfare

There's probably no hi-tech answer to the problem of homemade rockets coming in over the Wall. The ratio of cost-of-manufacture to cost-of-countermeasures is probably tens of millions to one... In financial terms, anyway.

And imposing human costs on Hamas doesn't work; the other asymmetry is that they will tolerate loss of life (and loss of liberty, normality in daily life, etc) from any conceivable Israeli reprisal that far, far exceeds the human costs to Israel.

It's worth pointing out that the strikes, the reprisals, and the costs can get worse, and probably will. The natural response to this kind of situation is to do more of the same: try harder, pay more, and fail harder - and this kind of response can continue, and worsen, for years or even decades until a complete collapse of the economy and society.

It's been time for a different approach for years. And it gets harder to do every year; and more necessary, because the consequences of continuing failure get harder every year, too.

I guess the next stage is a step up in intelligence operations and 'direct action' (a polite term for assassination); a proven programme of Darwinian selection that eliminates the moderates and the careless, and leaves you with smart, meticulous and paranoid enemies with no regard for human life. Worse, it creates a loosely-distributed organisation that can cope with losses - at the cost of tolerating psychotics and lacking the hierarchical structure to discipline them, and without the top-of-the-pyramid authority that can credibly negotiate wth an external government. Assuming this approach hasn't reached the limits of what can be 'achieved' already - and the intel may well be drying up - we'll end up looking at the current Hamas leadership as 'the moderates' and I can't imagine what their successors will think of as a tactic worse than rockets, home-made mortars and suicide bombing. But I am certain they will think of something.

The whole idea of negotiation is, of course, unthinkable. And maybe I should buy shares in companies doing medium-cost optical tracking systems for anti-aircraft guns.

Cops hunt charred power cable thief

Nile Heffernan

Lagos awaits

Welcome to the Third World. Specifically, Nigeria. There are lots of things they don't have: some because they can't afford them, and some because they are are not a stable society under rule of law.

That is to say, they cannot have many of the things we take for granted because someone will steal them - pipes, cables, roadsigns; or because someone will rob you if you try to use them - mobile phones, large sums of cash, sidewalks; or because the institutions of society are corrupt - the banks, the hospitals, the courts and the whole structure of enforceable contracts, trustworthy trademarks (are these pharamaceuticals genuine?), quality standards in food and so on.

Is it that bad here? Not yet. But we have the poverty to drive endemic crime - life is so cheap it's worth stripping live power cables - an economic underclass who are uneducated and will never have a stake in society, and weak public institutions; the courts, for example, lack the resolve and the power to either reform or oppress the criminals and seem increasingly to be a plaything of the rich.

Lagos awaits. And no, most Nigerians don't like it any more than we would. The difference between them and us is that their country appears to be improving.

US Navy to test fire electric hypercannon

Nile Heffernan

How does this compare with TNT?

A ton of TNT releases 4.184 megajoules.

So a 32-MJ launch is nominally 7.65 tons of TNT and it's all 'warhead' if the projectile breaks up on impact and imparts all the energy to the target instead of leaving a neat hole through it.

The technical challenges of manufacturing a railgun are formiddable, but it's well worth remembering that all weapons technologies - including aircraft and cannon - begin with cranky and unreliable devices that stretch the existing materials technology just a little *too* far before gradual improvements make them reliable and effective.

Squaddies warned off Facebook

Nile Heffernan

No, they are pefectly civil about it

Admittedly, there are some dim squaddies, but this is the usual bureaucratese for "We're frightened of blogs and online communities because you'll be terribly rude about us". This isn't so very different to any major civilian corporation.

But, being the military, they can invoke security concerns: sometimes they are convincing, sometimes not. And you can bet that some web-savvy Para with a load of gripes about equipment - but no identifying data in his profile - will be found and disciplined a lot faster than a genuine security risk who lists his name, his unit, their dependents' addresses and his movements for the last six months.

BlackBerry boss blows raspberries at iPhone

Nile Heffernan

A walk on the Wilde side

Yes, I think that this is a regurgitated press release, not a researched article with authoritative (or at least, amusing) comment.

Stephen Fry's Blog (See Spot, Google. Find it for yourselves) has a very thorough comparison of the current crop of 'Smartphones', iPhones and BlackBerries included. I disagree with some of his conclusions but the article maintains an exemplarary separation between the descriptive text and factual information, and the expressed opinions of the author.

It is, of course, withering in its criticisms; if it wasn't so wordy, it would almost be El Reg at his best - but where would you look for such a thing nowadays?

Singapore Airlines bans A380 rumpy-pumpy

Nile Heffernan

Health & Safety strikes again

Actually, the cabin crew have a legal duty to look in on their passengers at intervals throughout the flight. So the cabins have an observation window.

Arsonists target Cornish housing developments

Nile Heffernan

Haven't we been here before?

Once again, American citizens are funding a terrorist insurgency on British soil. I wonder if their judiciary will shield fugitives from justuce this time 'round..

Are we really allies in the 'war on terror'?

RIAA: Pay as we say, not as we do

Nile Heffernan

Winding Up and Down

Everyone else has mentioned winding-up orders, so I'll offer a few personal opinions*.

Once a court of law has ordered you to pay, that's it: you pay. They may allow you to defer payment, pending an appeal, but that's it.

When I say 'pay' I don't mean 'You might pay', or 'You will consider paying': You will pay: the money is no longer yours. Further, it's not me (or the plaintiff) asking, and maybe having to go to court to plead for it: the Crown is demanding the money.

Applying for a winding-up order because the company is trading insolvently is just a tactic - a good one, because it closes down the company - but it's far from the only thing that happens. The court can and will send in bailiffs. They can freeze accounts, sequester assets, arrest people.

Oh, and they charge the offending company all costs for doing so. They'll charge 'em your costs, too. English law is like that: you can't use it to harass people by saddling them with legal bills every time a corporate attorney feels like it because the court will order them to pay the defendants' costs if the case fails.

And then there's contempt of court - a near-unlimited power to enforce obedience to the decisions of the Court: imprisonment, daily fines, sequestration of assets - until the Court is satisfied that the offender has 'purged' his contempt.

Reading about the RIAA, it seems like obeying the law and the decisions of the courts in some overseas jurisdiction is, well, optional. That, or the courts offer no protection to the citizen from the powerful.

*These opinions are not in any sense to be considered legal advice, as I am entirely unqualified to any. Should you find yourself in the position described above, contact a practising Solicitor or Barrister; the Law Society will be only too happy to put you in touch with a local solicitor specialising in the relevant area of the law.

MySpace erases 29,000 sex offenders

Nile Heffernan

It's a start

Yeah, they took the easy target - convicted sex-offenders stupid enough to use their own names. But you've got to start somewhere. And do you think that's all they're doing?

I would like to think that MySpace are using heuristic algorithms to identify suspicious behaviour patterns - a process that *can* be run without invading privacy or slandering the innocent - and asking people who show up 'on the radar' for additional verification of their identity. It's easy, non-stigmatising, and anonymous.

My fear is that this will be done in a heavy-handed and intrusive way that assaults and stigmatises the innocent. Murdoch - Myspace's owner - is a media baron who tramples over peoples' rights in pursuit of sensational stories about sex offenders - and, indeed, in pursuit of profitably titillating stories about anyone he pleases - without regard to the damage that is done to people when their private lives are splashed all over the media. This is not an organisation that I would trust to protect either my privacy, or my children.

I have some doubts about the existing process: at least MySpace acted on serious legal evidence rather than hearsay, but the criminal justice system is far from perfect.

Still, it's the best we've got. and, while some of these 'sex offenders' are probably fifteen-year-old-boys caught in bed with a girl a day younger and registered for life (some states *do* press a case and convict, although most jurisdictions apply a degree of tolerance based on age difference and individual circumstances), some of them will indeed be dangerous predators with a lifetime of repeat offending.

An opinion? It'll probably do more good than harm, and it beats hell out of doing nothing.

Stealth bombers to get bunker-nobbling weapons

Nile Heffernan

Yeah, and the filler is Hush-a-boom

Right... They are putting a pair of 15-ton bombs with massive steel penetrator casings on a stealth bomber.

It's not a 'stealth' bomber any more: you'll get a radar return off the bomb load.

Reshape the casings, and they won't penetrate. Replace them with carbon fibre, ditto. You can go some way to absorb, deflect, or scatter a direct radar return from large hard components - the turbine discs in the engines being a prime example - but it isn't magic. Mostly, the radar beam is deflected, and everbody with a high-value strategic target knows that: they have a line of radar dishes picking up the side-lobes of the reflected signal, not just a single station working in isolation, and those thirty-ton steel tubes are going to light up like a Christmas Tree.

It remains to be seen whether detectability translates to the technically-challenging task of getting missiles to lock on. But the USAF won't risk a billion-dollar aeroplane and classified technologies finding out the hard way. So the B-2 isn't going in without a massive radar-suppression operation - cruise missiles, HARM missions, ECM... This is not a simple single-mission 'drop' that will appeal to politicians as the quick-and-simple technological fix: it's a campaign, a war in its own right.

And it might still fail.

Vista aligned with good IT practice

Nile Heffernan

CYA is best practice

Well, well... Here we have a survey that says the most heavily-bureaucratised IT departments are Microsoft's early adopters.

Maybe their formal processes are working well - and I hope so, because the need for performance-monitoring IT is all-too-obvious in our corporations and our government - but I have my doubts about this survey: it records the presence of particular documentation flows, not the effectiveness of the organisation's IT administration.

All too often, box-ticking 'processes' that certify our service reliability are revealed as a chaotic sham when the lights go out and someone has to restart the servers. Could it be that organisations with a thick sheaf of operational studies, proving that they can back out the change, are living in a fool's paradise? Are the studies demonstrating operational savings from Vista's enterprise management an object lesson in objective auditing - or a demonstration that the masters of a sophisticated bureaucracy can find the figures to justify any decision they want?

Could it be that favoured customers - large bureaucratic organisations dominated by 'process' - are statistically-likely to be offered substantial discounts as early adopters by Redmond? I bet the words 'Partner' and 'Strategic' are measurably correlated with a 2007 Vista rollout.

And I'm prepared to bet that you can find surveys in the 1970's, proving that America's most forward-looking and progressive corporations could be identified by their purchases of IBM machinery. There's a famous aphorism that nobody ever got fired for that - but have you ever heard that 'Nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft'..?

Here's a final prediction: every single sheet of paper saying that 'X' corporation, department or division should be implementing Vista will be outnumbered three-to-one by cleverly-equivocal memoranda distancing the managers responsible from the consequences. And that's as good an explanation as any from Redmond as to why bureaucracy is correlated with an early Vista rollout.

Intel chip boffins in litho brainstorm

Nile Heffernan

Reflections on Diffraction

I'd like to see tha patent filing for that: as far as I understand the relevant physics, the smaller the aperture the greater the diffraction. So the gains available are very limited.