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September 2004

Beechlog
 
The on-line magazine of the Burnham Beeches Radio Club.

Welcome to the September 2004 edition of BeechLog.

The usual excuses apply, but writing this on September 20th means that with any luck this copy should appear on time, well, just about.

The summer has gone, and the rain has dried up for the moment. Not that I really noticed summer, but there you go, what right do I have to decent warm, dry weather? I am particularly broke, so the thought of a holiday was furthest from my mind. Oh well, maybe next year, although the financial outlook will probably be worse. I have to sell this house when the solicitors and courts have finished messing about, so then there is the joy of finding somewhere to live with my three boys. What I really need is an astronomic rise in the value of my house, so that I actually have a little to tide me over. This is unlikely because the Bank of England deems that interest rates must go up until the value drops to such a level that I get nothing back from 20 years of mortgage payments. I have my health, and should be grateful, so I am told.

Anyway, there's a bit of radio in this issue of BeechLog. The rest is PC stuff and the meanderings of my mind. Hope it's all right.

Roger GØHZK, Editor

Contents

21st Century Packet Radio
Music players, piracy and so on
The joy of a virus
BeechLog web site hacked!
Fred Delius and the Taleban

21st Century Packet Radio

Not that many years ago we had a thriving packet radio system. OK, it was a bit slow, but amateurs had manged to built a country-wide infrastructure that did the job quite well. There were a few problems - the difficulty of picking up mail when not at home, the prescence of bloody-minded node & BBS operators, and the insistence of some amateurs to send contentious messages. Since the system all but died out with the expansion of domestic internet, technology has moved on. What sort of packet radio could we have today, if we started from scratch?

The availability of wireless networking has opened up new possibilities. At the moment there are difficulties with licensing, 802.11x does not have a means of inserting id fields in accordance with BR68. And other network users might not take kindly to competition from higher powered longer range amateurs on the same bands.

But I think that a hybrid solution is possible, although many amateurs would take exception to such a thing. It should be perfectly possible to arrange a virtual private network to carry amateur traffic over the net. Then all that is needed is a simple link by a radio node to amateur users. This could be on any UHF or SHF band. Connection could be using TCP/IP via a simple radio modem at dial-up internet speeds, or faster using a more elaborate modem. Even direct connection via the net would be easy.

The function of a BBS would be taken over by any computer connected to this VPN - it would not need any other radio links. Message transfer would be very fast, and any internet protocol could be used. Users would connect via radio using their callsign and a password - this could be a system like that used by banks - a central verification server (or servers - there could be backups) would hold a long pass phrase, and ask the user for the characters in certain positions. This would make it difficult for anyone to 'steal' passwords. This system could be completely automatic, and a million character pass phrase would enable the server to request different characters each connect, with little chance of theft.

The current legal linking of voice over the net suggests that licensing would be possible.

Of course, there is probably no need for such a system, although it might regain a community aspect of amateur radio that disappeared with packet.

Music players, piracy and so on

It is not so long ago that I wrote about the problems of piracy in the music industry. I find this an absolutely fascinating subject, where the long established players are burying their heads in the sand whilst trying to preserve their near monopy of distribution.

In recent months licensing difficulties have been sorted to a sufficient degree that we now have several legal download services. The industry feels it has made a good start and now expects to reap rewards from its belated efforts. But will it?

Figures published recently show an unexpected twist to the situation. What has happened is that CD sales have increased, and so has the number of illegal downloads. It is predicted that legal downloads will account for only 8% of the market in 2009. Precisely the opposite was expected by the industry, so why has this happened?

I don't think that I can really answer that one, and besides, these are early days. But as I have written before, there are great differences between songs downloaded from, say, iTunes, than the same songs obtained via peer-to-peer software. And there are great differences between iTunes downloads and Napster downloads.

Toay I can buy a CD made by any record company and play it on any of my CD players. I have four drives in my PC, all of which play any standard CD. Then there is my car CD changer, my ancient Technics portable player (one set of AA cells per CD), and my modern Sony CD/MP3/ATRAC portable player. And my mains-powered player.

But you can't play an iTunes download on a Zen portable, or any other kind of portable, or mains-powered player. And you can't play a Napster download on your iPod or iRiver, etc. So all the versatility of traditional media has been lost. You can burn the downloaded songs to a CD (with some limitations and/or price differentials), but this rather defeats the point.

This stupid situation has come about because the companies concerned did not think before providing their new services. Instead of getting together and agreeing on a common standard, they all chose different solutions that were incompatible. Maybe this was deliberate - do they want us to pay for the same music more than once? I think that the overpriced, underperforming iPod, the not-so-cheap legal download services, the incompatible digital rights mechanisms, etc., have actually woken up the public; they have seen the solution to this problem, and that solution is the illegal downloads that the record companies are trying to destroy.

It's curious that CD sales have increased (apart from CD singles which are overpriced dead ducks). There are a number of possible reasons. Publicity from Napster, iTunes etc. may have rubbed off on recorded music sales generally. CDs are also better quality. Download services offer songs which are produced at a bitrate that compromises sound quality in order to speed up file transfers. This compromise works well on the Underground or while walking, where external noise and poor headphones masks the difference, but shows up on the living room stereo.

By buying a CD you do not lose your music when your hard disk crashes, and you can record your MP3s at 192kbit/s or greater which presents much improved reproduction.

I reckon that you will still be able to buy a machine that will play your current CDs in ten years time. And current CD players may still work in the next decade. But if Napster goes bust, will you be able to play their tracks on future machines? Will there be something that plays iTunes in 2014? The copy protection built into these systems may actually prevent you copying the songs onto future media. If Apple and Napster are gone, who will maintain the rights systems and provide replacements in 2014 (or even 2007)? No such problems with CDs.

My portable music has been supplied by Minidisc equipment for a few years. These have even more restrictions than mp3 players, but have the advantage that they can be used quite independently of computers and mains supplies. I now have the latest varient, a Hi-MD machine. These allow the format all discs to use the FAT filing system, which almost doubles their capacity. The encoding system has also changed. The standard bit rate has been reduced from 292kbit/s to 256kbit/s, using an 'improved' compression method. You can also record at 64 or even 48kbit/s. The quality at 64kbit/s is not bad, much better than mp3 at the same rate. I don't think most people will notice any difference from standard rate, especially when using the machine whilst travelling.

The 'song' capacity has been improved as a result. An 80 minute disc will hold 140 minutes at standard rate, and over 10 or 13 hours at 64 or 48kbit/s. There is a new 1 Gigabyte disk which plays for 8 hours (256kbit/s) , 34 (64kbit/s) or 45 hours (48kbit/s). There is also an option to record using uncompressed PCM at CD rate. The Minidisc also appears as a disc drive when connected to a Windows PC, so you can use it to store any PC data. These new machines also run off standard (and NiMH) AA cells, with quoted playing times of around 24 hours on an LR6 cell. If the battery goes flat, pop in another. No waiting hours for it to recharge. Mine runs happily off the Energiser 2100mAh NiMH cells I bought from Tesco - £1.79 for two cells plus a charger!

Portable players with hard disks are obviously a great attraction. It is quite feasible to carry around a collection of hundreds of CDs, but I think that the battery problem needs solving. Most, if not all, machines have a built-in rechargeable, which means they are out of service when it discharges. This might not be a problem for commuters, who can recharge at home or at work every day, if they remember. But many travellers don't find a UK mains socket so often, and the fabulous new iPod Mini barely lasts a transatlantic flight.

The answer is either new battery technology or super low power hard disks - or cheaper flash memory. A 20 gig flash player that works off a single AA cell is an attractive proposition, but at the moment is likely to cost a four figure sum. 20 gig mini hard disks aren't available yet, let alone ones that can run off a single battery cell. Yet all this may be possible in the near future.

There have already been announcements of new battery technologies. The methanol fuel cell is being miniaturised for use in portable equipment. And there is a great rush to produce higher capacity miniature hard disks and cheaper, higher capacity flash devices with greater lives.

Compare these advances with the lethargy of the recording industry, who are using law courts to try to control their customers. It really baffles me. A couple of years ago I commented on the dismal marketing policy adopted by shops that sell music recordings. Today I visited Virgin and HMV and nothing has changed. Everything they sell is cheaper elsewhere - I bought two CDs, one in Tesco, another in Smiths. I bet the increase in CD sales comes from the supermarkets. I bet that the supermarkets will have the first high street download machines. Supermarkets are geared to providing what the customers want, under one roof. The recording industry is geared to providing what the recording industy wants.

The joy of a virus

In the last issue I mentioned a visit to repair the PC belonging to a friend of my wife. This PC had failed a week earlier, when I had restored the operating system from the recovery disc. In seven days of use, the machine had a fine collection of viruses, spyware and a premium rate dialler. I still have no idea how this happened. Presumably one of the users spent the time browsing dodgy web sites and installing suspect software! I must say that in my long experience of using PCs I have never managed such a thing - and plenty of people I know have used unprotected machines for years with no problems.

In my own case, I have managed to avoid such problems for over ten years. I don't know why - I suppose I only look at boring web sites, and use firewalls, virus protection, and have never used Microsoft email products. And I rarely install software unless it has a pedigree of some sort. But nevertheless it does seem that you can pick up all sorts of nasties in no time at all. How can this be avoided?

I suppose I've mentioned some of the ways, although I think that the real answer is to use commonsense. I get all manner of spam email (now thankfully filtered out by the mail service I use) and numerous examples contain hyperlinks and embedded code. If you click on a hyperlink you are asking for it. Do people actually do this?

Embedded code can be rendered harmless by avoiding the Microsoft email clients that are supplied with their operating systems. I've used Ameol for years - this deals with plain text only, and cannot automatically decode or run anything. But since it cannot display mime or html mail properly, I have recently moved to The Bat! which does display such coded messages but does not load online images (often disguised executables), or execute anything. I also avoid using Internet Explorer. There have been so many 'back doors' opened by this application that I don't risk it any more. I use Mozilla Firefox, which is free, and sometimes Opera running in 'free mode'. Alas some web sites will only work with IE, which includes some major retailers, and the Blackberry online mail interface.

I've used Grisoft AVG antivirus software, which has caught perhaps one or two intruders over the past few years. This is free software too, cheapskate that I am. This needs updating regularly - the friend I mentioned earlier had never updated her AV program. AVG updates are just a click away - if you click every day, you are always up to date.

My firewall is a hardware router that costs just under £30, and I have seen them in the bargain basement for half that price. Since it presents no open ports to the outside world, nothing can (fingers crossed) connect to it. I suppose the next step is to avoid Windows altogether. You can run MacOS if you have an Apple machine, or numerous Unix-like systems on PC hardware. Then there's RiscOS and various other small systems. These are a much smaller target than MS systems, although not entirely foolproof. I have received more Atari ST viruses than PC ones.

Incidentally since writing this I have upgraded my anti-virus to AVG version 7. This is a paid-for version, and upgrades and runs a full check in the background every day, with a suprisingly light load. It also includes a plug-in for my email client. This found a couple of viruses in my email database (luckily they were stored in a form that prevents them causing any harm).

BeechLog web site hacked!

The other day I received an email from the company that supplies the IP address for bbrc.info. One of their servers had gone belly up, so there had been a short break in service while they replaced some hardware. So I checked to see if service had been restored correctly, lo and behold I discovered the bbrc.info home page had been changed to something less than helpful. Since bbrc.info simply redirects to another site on the server that holds the Beechlog website, I feared the worst. All three of the websites on that machine had the same home page.

The damage had been done by a group of Brazillian hackers. Searching the net, I discovered quite a few sites with the same "home page", a few tens of thousands. The group had been doing this sort of thing for at least five years. And to counter all the folk who like to brag about Linux security - yes, the sites were hosted on Linux.

Anyway the hosting company took the machine off-line for a few hours for investigation and restoration. All good fun, eh!

Fred Delius and the Taleban

Music

Seventy years ago Frederick Delius died. Born the son of a wealthy wool merchant in Bradford, he did not fit into the family business, and left England for Florida in 1884. In Florida he ran an orange plantation, but almost immediately decided to write music. Initially he took lessons from a local organist, but in 1884 joined Leipzig Conservatoire for formal training for 18 months.

He then lived in France and Norway and regarded England with disdain, although it was good enough to retreat to during the First World War. Most of his better known music was written after 1900. It's perhaps difficult to describe the music, but the pastoral titles give a clue, although he wrote a variety of work which became very popular in England until fashion dictated otherwise, a fate inflicted on much good music until snobbishness was itself became outmoded.

Although there are some fine modern recordings around, the finest interpretations are reckoned to be those made by Sir Thomas Beecham between the wars. Many of these have now been reissued on CD by EMI, Sony & Naxos and are well worth listening to.

Probably the most well known are On hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring, Summer Night on the River, Brigg Fair which I bought many decades ago. But there are larger scale works, such as the Violin Concerto, and the Mass of Life. The rather sad Sea Drift and Songs of Sunset are also available in various excellent reworkings of 78rpm discs, and post war vinyl recordings by Mackerras and Grove.

The recordings from the 1920's still possess the magic that later versions could not quite capture. I find many such reissues very satisfying, I soon forget the imperfections of these old 78's and get fully immersed in the music.

And now Films

A couple of nights ago I watched Easy Rider. I had seen odd snippets over the years, but never the complete film. It was made when I was a lad, well I was 23. It's a bit messy, but at least it's not Hollywood. That sudden violent ending wouldn't do for a start. I liked the contrasts of two generations, close in years but eons apart. The scene in the diner (or whatever Americans call them), with the three riders, three admiring young girls, and the bigoted older generation who couldn't accept the new era. And the scenery. I saw a little of this myself when I did the company "Grand Tour" of the US about 1996. I'm going back there one day - the USA has some absolutely fabulous scenery - California, Nevada, Colorado, Texas, Arizona... Hollywood shows us only LA and NY inner cities, boring. The Green Tortoise Bus is calling me...

Easy Rider has been cleaned up for DVD recently, but the VHS version is a quarter the price.

I have found some more new-to-DVD issues to buy when I get some cash. Été meurtrier, L' (One Deadly Summer), a thriller from 1983; I can put up with the French soundtrack and see-through dresses Isabelle Adjani wears. Jaques Tati's Playtime (1967) was filmed on 70mm and is a visual treat. Once again I've seen only snippets, definitely not Hollywood but a film that needs to be watched many times.

On to more conventional stuff, the Marx Brothers films made by MGM are now available as a set of six DVDs, A Day at the Races, A Night at the Opera, and four lesser known films. The Paramount films Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, and Monkey business are also now available on DVD.

I'm still intending to get the Boulting Brothers I'm Alright Jack, Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, Dennis Price, Ian Carmichael. Also Privates Progress , and The Small Back Room.

I'm getting quite a liking for French films. This is probably due to the fact that I repair Air France video players, many of which come with films stuck inside. I fished out Tais Tois a couple of months ago, this has become a "test tape". It's amusing, quite simple really, in French and Spanish, and no effects. Some of the latest Hollywood stuff comes through as well, also in French.

Finally At Five in the Afternoon, made by the Iranian House of Makhmalbaf, is about the opression of women in post-Taleban Afghanistan. Not an instantly appealing subject, but an encouraging sign from people from repressed cultures.