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December 30, 2005

Firey new year

It's almost New Year's Eve now, and once again Holland is subjected to barrages of firepower in the form of fireworks. Officially, fireworks can be bought in the three days prior to the new year, and lit on December 31.

In reality, it's a bit different.

For a week or so leading up to the day, fireworks start to appear in the sky, somewhat against the rules. Kids who have been saving their crackers and rockets since last year start with a few 'trial runs', and the gentle thud of these earlybirds echo across the country, occasionally accompanied by a loud bang as a local kid 'tests' one in a garbage bin nearby. As the big night draws closer, the barrage increases in ferocity, with some daredevils trying out rockets and even mortars.

The real pyrotechnic connoisseurs make their annual pilgrimage to Belgium, stocking up their backyard armoury with significantly larger firepower which isn't limited by the Dutch rule of about 200grams of powder per device. These pilgrims risk confiscation of their stash, some are even arrested as they cross the border. The true fan will have stocked up in the months before when the borders are largely unmanned, returning with the piece of mind that their now-APC is safe from detection.

Tomorrow from early morning will see the fireworks get their real test. For the whole day, crackles, pops, bangs and whistles will sound all around Utrecht, usually from kids making the most of the day. Towards midnight the real party begins, when from the stroke of midnight thousands of tons of ordnance will be let off into the sky under the influence of a few too many glasses of bubbly.

Some people will get hurt, perhaps even a cafe will burn down, but for about half an hour after midnight, Holland will sound just like Baghdad did in March '03. And the vast majority of people will thoroughly enjoy it all, spending the next couple of weeks trampling over soggy red cracker residue.

Naturally, I'm part of this celebration too, having stocked up on my arsenal. The video camera will be at the ready, and I'll hopefully have a few video clips of the action to put here in the new year.

Happy new year ot all!

Posted by Ben at 10:59 PM | Comments (0)

December 29, 2005

Macro wallpaper

Over Christmas I had a bit of time on my hands. Whilst playing with my new camera, and at the same time looking to get rid of some old computer junk, I had the idea to make some interesting shots of old computer hardware. Some macro photos later, and a little bit of working with the GIMP, I ended up with what I think are some pretty cool wallpaper photos.

I released them all under a creative commons licence, making them largely free to use. I've got some more ideas for photos and will try to get a few more done of other hardware I've got lying around.

Posted by Ben at 02:06 PM | Comments (0)

December 26, 2005

Birthday beer

For my birthday today, I poured myself a Rochefort 10 with some chocolate on the side. Before drinking it, I took a photo for posterity, with much more preparation that my last beer photo (as promised!). Click on the thumbnail to see it a bit bigger.

Having this beer also inspired me to add lots of extra information to the Wikipedia page on Rochefort.

Posted by Ben at 11:32 PM | Comments (0)

December 25, 2005

Can a canon?

A couple of years ago in Singapore, I bought myself a little Sony DSC-U10 camera, one of the smallest digital cameras at the time (and probably still is the smallest 1+Mp camera). This was my "carry everywhere" camera, where I could be sure to never miss the action as it was small enough that not having it on me was no excuse.

It served me quite well, and it's great to have a pocket camera around the place when going out, and even had great use on the ski fields. My much larger Minolta is my high quality serious photography camera, but just too impractical for many locations.

Alas, at only 1 megapixel and with no zoom, the Sony fell short in many places, not being able to really get in the action and picture quality that was barely good enough for a small print.

So I decided that it was time to find myself a new pocket camera with more up to date features. I needed a reasonable zoom length, an effective flash, and more than 3 megapixels. I needed the zoom to be able to frame shots better and "fill the frame", the flash to light up a group of people indoors, and enough pixels to make photos worth printing.

A browse around a few review sites made my job very easy. In fact, there were only two contenders - a Casio Exilim, and the Canon IXUS 55 (Aka SD450). These had the features I wanted, in the form factor I needed. Photo samples showed the Canon to have a far superior image than the Casio, thanks to their "exclusive" high refraction glass, plus the Casio reportedly had poor flash performance and quite slow response. It was however the smallest camera I could find that could fit the bill, and I made a quick trip to the local electronics mega-mart. With about 100 cameras in their range, there was no shortage of choice. Less than 5 minutes later, I realised that the Canon was by far the smallest camera with my specs, but noted down a couple of other contenders for further review. I had my heart set on the Canon though, especially with the Ixus lineup being quite mature, going at least 5 years back.

My extra research came up with few alternatives and it ended up being no contest - the Canon IXUS 55 was mine, and I've not regretted the purchase at all. The size of a credit card, and no thicker than a deck of cards, it's an amazing feat of engineering inside this thing. My only gripe is that it's got a custom expensive battery, though it does last upwards of 200 shots per charge. An impressive 3cm macro mode is a great touch, as is being able to choose shutter speeds of up to 15 seconds - storms and night shots, here we come!

I sold the Sony just a couple of days later, and got a nice €60 for it. So overall it was a nice deal, and I shan't be missing the Sony at all.

Posted by Ben at 10:10 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 23, 2005

The perfect dessert

Today I had a spectacular yet very simple dessert, a little out of the ordinary as to what would be considered a dessert, but completely satisfying in every way.

I had beer with chocolate.

"Beer together with chocolate?? Eugh!", I hear you say. Normally I'd agree. Having something like a larger or any other common beer with chocolate just does not mix. Lager style beer's too bitter and cold to go down well with chocolate, and you ruin both by doing so. But not with the right beer.

My beer of choice today was Rochefort 8, a fantastic Belgian beer brewed by Trappist monks (really!) in their monastery. The beer has a wonderful dessert-sweetness to it (but not overwhelmingly) and is considered one of the world's finest beers and ranks in my top 3 favourite beers. Living only an hour away from Belgium, this is high praise.

The chocolate of choice was more of a chocolate of opportunity. One of the quaint Dutch trandtions at Christmas is for bosses to give their employees a chocolate shaped as a letter of the alphabet. I had this nice milk chocolate 'A' that was begging to be eaten, and it seemed like a fairly nice quality one.

Nibbling on this chocolate was wonderful just by itself, but when combined with sips of Rochefort, the combination was really out of this world. The mellow sweet of the beer with all of its complex flavours, combined with the heavy chocolate is a magical combination, and the light fizz of the beer helped to lift the chocolate off the tongue and bring more life to it. I'm not sure if the fizz of the Rochefort was too much - it's almost as much as a champagne, but it in no way detrimented from the enjoyment. Perhaps it even enhanced it by adding to the sensations.

Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable way to relax after dinner, and I'll be sure to try further with different types of chocolate. Fortunately the beer's widely available here at less than €2 per bottle, so I've got plenty more of this goodness to look forward to.

And next time, I'll make a much better photo.

Posted by Ben at 11:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 22, 2005

TV Guide gripes

One aspect of the Dutch that I've been noticing more and more is the tendency to have everything carefully controlled. Many more aspects of life are under rules and regulations, and the freedom to do something of your choosing is not always there.

One example which I found quite surprising is that supermarkets here can't just open up a store and sell whatever they can fit in the shop. Each store is classified into a scale, and the scale of the supermarket determines how many products can be stocked. There is an upper limit here, and even the largest supermarkets have a relatively limited range, and the government claims that this protects smaller businesses.

But the biggest control-freak aspect to me is digital...

On the geek end of things, I've been trying hard for a while to find a good, reliable TV guide source for my MythTV setup. This software is my VCR, and for it to be effective at recording all the TV shows, it needs a good source of TV guide data.

Unfortunately, there just isn't one available for Holland. For UK channels that I receive over satellite, Radio Times have kindly made computer readable 14-day TV guides available online, so my schedules are all up to date with lots of detail. But the the Dutch channels, there's nothing except an often-broken HTML screen scraping program. At first I just figured no one had gotten around to making one available. But it turned out to me more sinister than that.

At work, there are some major projects involving television, and part of one makes use of TV guide data. It turns out that we can't just get a copy of the data and use it in our application. There was a large contract to be signed that had ridiculous details in it regarding such things as how much we could offer John Q Public at once, encryption and protection of the data, and strict usage limitations. Even us getting the guide was controlled, with certain levels of encryption needed for our connection to retrieve the data from the source. FTP was a total no-no.

These are just the difficulties in getting data for use by a partner company. Now getting TV guide data for an end viewer who already pays through the nose to watch their TV in a useable format is just out of the question. Oh no, you pay for reception of it, but you can't find out what's on!

It turns out the Dutch broadcasting media are anal-retentive control freaks on every level. I cannot get a copy of the TV guide even though I pay to watch the TV. Also, you will always need to pay to watch the TV, even the public broadcasting services. Free over-the-air TV consists of three public channels (until they turn off analog) and digital TV has one free (unencrypted) channel. Every other channel is scrambled and needs you to pay someone to be able to sit through ads. How they actually expect someone to find something to watch is beyond me.

Even trials of IPTV (TV over ADSL) have everything heavily encrypted, apparently because the studio demands it. But that's a load of bollocks really. Just about every other country that has digital TV has most of the regular (non-premium) channels available unscrambled, and even the BBC and ITV beam unscrambled digital blockbuster movies across Europe. IPTV in most other countries is unscrambled and can be watched with any convenient mpeg2 viewer. But not here. You need a custom box, with heavy encryption applied. In fact, it turns out that 70 to 80% of time spent on this particular project revolves around encryption. The amount of money being spent on this pointless "feature" will far outweigh anything gained by it, and it's just the idiots in charge creaming themselves over the "DRM" buzzword.

Unfortunately I don't see it changing here any time soon. With over 80% of households having cable TV, the culture of paying for access to information is here to stay, and enough demand or openness isn't gonna happen for a while.

This post brought to you in unencrypted, openly available, standards compliant, CC form.

Posted by Ben at 12:04 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 16, 2005

Europe's unworkable privacy killer

Earlier this week, the European Parliament passed a proposal effectively requiring all ISPs and Telcos to retain details of all internet communications. Within 15 months, every country must have laws in place that implement this.

This law is a nightmare from privacy, legal and technical perspectives. Every time you visit a web page, every time you send and receive email, and every time your computers sends or receives any data over the internet, the details of that communication must be stored and made available to law inforcement on request. Even if you play a game online, they have to log when, with whom and what you played, keeping it for up to 6 months.

Member States shall adopt measures to ensure that data which are generated or processed by providers of publicly available electronic communications services or of a public communications network within their jurisdiction in the process of supplying communication services are retained in accordance with the provisions of this Directive.

Anyone who's used a filesharing program to download something can be tracked up to 6 months later, which will be of particular interest to record companies doing witch hunts. If they suspect you of downloading music, they'll subpoena these logs, and see exactly which IP addresses sent you the traffic, also giving them the ability to go after those people, ad nauseum until they've spidered out to everyone and sued them all. Never mind that you didn't actually copy their songs, the fact that they can use this to prove that you've used the filesharing program is enough to get you into an expensive legal battle.

Next there is the ridiculous technical side of the directive. Even a quick browse through the text shows that whoever wrote it has no idea about how the internet works, and no idea about the impact that this regulation will have on ISPs.

A quick rundown of what's needed to do this. At the moment, there is a network technology called Netflow, which enables routers to log details of traffic flowing through them. This includes source, destination, protocol and duration, most of what you'd require to be able to log the data intended by the directive. Netflow is currently used by ISPs for anonymous statistical purposes and it used to be used for billing also. So there does exist a type of protocol that can log this.

Unfortunately, Netflow was designed for a short retention period, and with small volumes of data. Where I work, we had 5 Gigs of data flow, and our top end routers could only sample 0.1% of all traffic. Any more and they'd melt. With this 0.1% of data, after a week an 18Gig disk would be full of netflow data. This is fine for statistical analysis of traffic, given the low rate that traffic could be sampled.

With this new directive, our routers would have to be able to log traffic at 1000 times what they were capable of, and given the traffic levels have increased 5 times, we're looking at 5000 times the capacity that our high end Juniper routers can handle. The very fastest router might be able to handle 5 or even 10 times the rate that we were doing, but 5000? Absolutely no way.

It's not just the 1000 fold increase in router abilities required that makes the technical requirements ridiculous. The amount of data required is tremendous. At work, sampling 0.1% of traffic and logging it fills an 18Gb disk with this data in a mere 5 days.

Expanding this to 100% of traffic increases this to 18 Terabytes per 5 days.

Increasing this from 5 days to 6 months makes the total storage requirement a staggering 648Terabytes, something that only an operation the size of Google could possibly deal with.

That's not all. These figures are based on 5Gbps of traffic. With current traffic growth, and the requirement to have this in law in just over a year, we see a total storage capacity of 10,000 Terabytes which adds up to a total of 80 thousand x 120G disks. And that's just one ISP.

Anyone can clearly see that this is nothing short of ridiculous. No one has this scale of storage, and even if the disks were to be acquired, they'd need 1 million Watts of power, which is a fair chunk of power station, not to mention cooling and space.

Next there are the details required to be logged. From the text:

Types of data to be retained under the categories identified in Article 4 of this Directive:

a) Data necessary to trace and identify the source of a communication:

[....]

(d) Name and address of the subscriber or registered user to whom the IP address, Connection Label or User ID was allocated at the time of the communication.

[....]

b) Data necessary to trace and identify the destination of a communication:

[....]

(3) Concerning Internet Access , Internet e-mail and Internet telephony:

[....]

(b) Name(s) and address(es) of the subscriber(s) or registered user(s) who are the intended recipient(s) of the communication.

Right...so an ISP in Holland is required to know the full name and address of someone who you have sent an email to, regardless of their location in the world. Or if you fire up an anonymous online gaming session with someone in Asia, your ISP is required to know the name and address of who you played against.

There's more:

c) Data necessary to identify the date, time and duration of a communication:

[...]

(2) Concerning Internet Access, Internet e-mail and Internet telephony:

(a) The date and time of the log-in and log-off of the Internet sessions based on a certain time zone.

So, if you're like me and leave your computer on for weeks at a time, and you have a 5 minute chat with some random person, the ISP has to log that you were talking to someone for several weeks.

I just cannot see how this legislation is workable, and if it doesn't get pulled before the coutry's implement it, the only solution I can see is to shutdown the internet. Router requirements, disk requirements, and data requirements are wholly unworkable and ridiculous, not to mention the privacy abbhoration.

To top it off, this section of the text is probably my favourite part of all, of which I can give no commentary:

Collection and use of expertise

  There was no need for external expertise.

Uuunbelievable.

Posted by Ben at 10:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack