Open season on hard disks?

In the last month hard disks in three of the machines I use regularly have had hard disk failures — the SRCF, my lab machine and now my laptop. Whilst worrying from a data integrity point of view, it is interesting that all three machines are approximately 2.5 years old, and running pretty much 24 hours a day (even my laptop generally gets left on over night). An indication that hard drives with three year warranties are an excellent investment perhaps? It has also been a well-timed reminder of the importance of backups!

Round a about | Metafilter

A few days ago, MetaFilter carried a stroy about the incredibly bizarre “Magic Roundabout” in Swindon. Having driven around this a couple days a week a few summers ago (albeit, taking the first left exit each time!!) I can assure people it’s not nearly as bad as it looks!

A few of the comments on that story are about other slightly strange local-driving regulations. My own favourite was the roundabout just outside Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Google tells me its correct name is the Armdale Rotary.) The first problem is that the entrace to the roundabout is controlled by a traffic light which has both the red and green lights illuminated. Fortunately there are about a million signs telling you that this means, “yield and proceed”, although apparently making this clear came at the cost of having any navigational signs to tell the already confused driver which exit they want… Thankfully for me, there was already a car on the roundabout so I thought I would have at least a few seconds to solve this second puzzle, but no! I had failed to account for the incredible niceness of Canadians (and Haligonians in particular were incredibly friendly) and the car stopped to let me in.

I survived to tell the tale, but apparently this is quite usual behaviour for this bizarre traffic junction, as the Halifax Herald explains:

It’s not just the contradictory traffic signals – red light, green arrow – that will furrow your brow, but the driving habits of Haligonians. Motorists who are already on the traffic circle will actually stop to let you in. You don’t know if they are just being overly polite – further evidence of quaintness, perhaps? – or if they are ignorant of the rules of the road.

While on the subject of Swindon, I’ve recently been introduced to the excellent and very funny books by Jasper Fforde which are set in Swindon (well, sort-of… You’ll understand when you read them!).

New domain name —

It’s taken me quite a long time, but I have finally bitten the bullet and decided to part with some cash to secure myself a permanent home in cyberspace. So, from yesterday you can now access this site at: All the old links should continue to work — many thanks to Kyle for helping me to debug the transition.

You can also send me mail using nathan at this domain (drop the leading www), although all my existing e-mail addresses will also continue to work.


From join-the-dots:

One of the lesser-known facts about academia is that the summer is far more conducive to research than any other time of year.

Related to this seems to be the fact that there are an awful lot of conference paper submission deadlines around September time. In my field of interest, PerCom and TRECK are this week, and ICDCS, where I am hoping to submit a paper, is the end of the month. I’m not sure if this is cause or effect, but aiming for one of these conferences has certainly been good motivation for me to do lots of work in the last few months!

What’s really worrying me is that it is September already!! Like Hanna, my summer so far has been fairly productive, but I still haven’t achieved as much as I would have liked and with the new term, and my self-imposed “start writing-up” deadline, only a month away, it seems unlikely I will have time to explore all the areas I really want to. 🙁 Such is life though, I guess…

PS: Hanna — I’d love to hear more about your research in your blog, maybe it will even inspire me to get my own done a little bit faster! 🙂

Why DRM means everyone loses

This talk about DRM by Cory Doctorow does a really good job of breaking down the various arguments for DRM systems and explaining not only why attempts to use DRM to prevent piracy are doomed to fail, but also why DRM is a bad idea for all the major players, not just the pirates it is supposed to foil.

The talk also makes reference to the Darknet paper which also provides a fascinating insight into the future of content distribution. Ironically this is written by four Microsoft employees, which just goes to show that MS really does have some smart people working for them.

Spam, spam, spam…

No, this isn’t a rant about the vast amounts of unsolicited junk I receive on a daily basis, it’s about two research papers I have recently written on anti-spam tools.

Last week I learnt that a paper I had written based on the work of one of my part II project students had been accepted for publication in ACM Crossroads magazine. The topic was using a peer-to-peer network to distribute spam “fingerprints” to allow the detection of junk e-mail — like Vipul’s Razor but using a DHT for distributing the information, and a reputation system based on SECURE.

The editors made some very helpful comments that I think really helped to improve the final version which was good, and while producing the requested XHTML mark-up for submission was an absolute pain compared to LaTeX, it does mean I have a pretty good idea of how the online version will look. The next step is the dreaded copy-editing… It probably won’t be too bad as I know the quality of my writing isn’t great, but the last two articles I’ve been involved with have had quite subtle but serious changes made to them by copy-editors and you have to be very sharp to make sure they don’t change the meaning of something.

The second article I worked on last week was a collaboration with Jm from TCD on raising the level of trust in legacy plain-text e-mail addresses. The techniques we use are quite interesting, and I think fairly novel, although there is an awful lot of literature on spam out there at the moment so it’s hard to keep on top of it all. We submitted to the Privacy, Security and Trust conference in New Brunswick, Canada, so fingers crossed for that one.

Anyway, after all this, I’m quite bored of spam now! Alas, there’s a project deliverable deadline coming up and since the consortium have chosen spam as one of our key applications, I guess my respite will be short lived… 🙁

Another reason to switch to Firefox

From the ucam-webmasters mailing list — yet another reason to switch to Firefox:

After application of SP2 to Windows XP there seems to be an interaction that we haven’t yet managed to isolate, which causes html files sent from IE to the validator at (by either method) to be given the mime type of text. This causes validation to fail. To get round this difficulty, we suggest that you use another browser, such as Mozilla/Firefox or Opera. If you are producing web pages, the web developers toolbar for Mozilla/Firefox allows you to validate directly, as well as all sorts of other useful functionality.

The e-mail goes on to say that Mozilla is now available on the Cambridge Public Workstation Facility (PWF) — although my housemate said he couldn’t find it when he looked last week! No mention of firefox though, but they do have Opera which I have heard many people rave about.

12:15pm: Another e-mail on the same list. Apparently the problem only effects file-uploads — submitting the URI into the webform works fine.

Recent Cinema Trips: The Stepford Wives and King Arthur

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the Stepford Wives and was very pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be very good. The humour is sharp and satirical and it’s very nicely filmed although as usual with a Hollywood film a fair amount of suspension of disbelief is required. The only major disappointment is the very final scene which is just so ghastly in its twee-ness that you leave the cinema feeling ever so slightly let down, the irony being that the ending is as fantastical as the town of Stepford itself….

King Arthur is quite a different film — very traditional Hollywood swash-buckling action. Good fun, but as with other “historical” Hollywood films you get the feeling that they found some average action-film script and then the Marketing people decided to change the names and location to match the “Arthur” legends to make people a bit more inclined to go and see it. I certainly agree with Stephen though, Guinevere is worth the ticket price alone.

What is the JCN?

Someone should rewrite the About JCN page to be:

“I was at the JCN BBQ. Incredible experience… I think they must be the only set of people who would have a barbeque with three computers, a webcam, a network connection and hub, and no means of lighting the barbeque… 🙂 So they all clustered round the computer trying to persuade it to install OS2 Warp (don’t ask), whilst one eminently practical person went off to Odbins to buy matches.” — rpc25

Distributed Systems Online

Earlier this week I attended the Editorial Board meeting of the IEEE’s first online-only magazine, DS Online.

This is the third year I have attended this annual meeting of editors and volunteers and as ever they were a fun and interesting group of people who are very committed to making this bleeding edge project a success for the IEEE Computer Society. As in my first two years, one of the most fascinating aspects is delving into the inner-workings of the IEEE and the IEEE-CS. Unfortunately as with any large organisation, achieving change, particularly technical change, seems to be something like a black art and it seems odd that something like an online-only magazine so bleeding edge for a computer society. Of course the part of the project that is really bleeding edge is the business model, not the technology, and as a result the technology that runs the site now seems a bit dated compared to the facilities offered by content management systems, and even blogging tools such as wordpress.

Overall, the editorial board were very enthusiastic about my ideas for the site, which included creating some RSS feeds for some of the content and allowing registered users to personalise their view of the site. The plan for discussion boards and allowing slashdot-style comments on stories seems to have disappeared though — people were much more worried about the need for moderating inappropriate (i.e. political) comments than I remember from previous meetings. I’ve never been convinced of the demand for these sorts of services from the IEEE anyway — the sort of content it publishes just doesn’t endear the same sort of debate as the typical slashdot story!

Anyway, how successful I can be at driving major technical change at an organisation as monolithic and remote as the IEEE-CS remains to be seen, but wish me luck!!

Rhythmbox and Debian… Finally!

After what seems like months of waiting, a usable version of rhythmbox is finally in Debian sarge. 🙂

Rhythmbox screenshot

One problem I did have with it is that it uses gstreamer0.8 which at present can only be configured via gconf-editor — confusingly the gstreamer-properties command would only configure version 0.6 as I now appear to have two versions of gstreamer installed on my system. Anyway, I fired up gconf-editor, went to system / gstreamer / 0.8 / default, changed the value for audiosink to esdsink and all now works nicely.

Bad Borg Jokes

So while I was reviewing my old website content I (re)discovered this collection of very bad borg jokes. Some of them are still quite funny so I thought I would post them again. Note: I take no credit (or perhaps, blame!) for these as they were all collected from the web many, many moons ago.

  • Yoda of Borg are we: Futile is resistance. Assimilate you, we will.
  • I am Rachel of BORG, I will drive you away to be assimiliated by some other borg’ette and make you feel like it was YOUR fault.
  • We are Pentium of Borg: Division is fultile. You will be approximated.
  • We are Homer of Borg. Resistance is futile. You will be assimmm… Mmmmmm Donuts.
  • New Starfleet – tough on assimilation, tough on the causes of assimilation.
  • We are Blue Peter of Borg. Here’s one we assimilated earlier.
  • Marvin the Robot: “Everything is futile, blah! Universe sucks”.
  • We are Scully of Borg. We are sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for your resistance…..
  • I am Blair of Borg. I’ll just check with Peter Mandelson to see our current policy regarding assimilation.
  • I am Obi Wan of Borg. Killing me is futile.
  • We are Billie of Borg. You will be assimilated because we want to, because we want to.
  • I am Emacs of Borg. You will be assimilated. :q is futile.