Why I (don't) blog

It seems to be quite a few months since I wrote anything. Laziness, is the main reason. Also, Facebook. Now that facebook makes it easy to post an idle comment about anything that's on my mind, it makes the need to write here seem less urgent.

However, Facebook isn't everything. It also encourages more short form comments, so there's less scope to witter on at length about trivia. And, since it's done under my own name, and visible to everyone who's ever met me, there's a lot more incentive to self-censor and tone down. So I should probably make more effort to be more longwinded, obnoxious and tedious in this forum. Let's see if I can manage more of that in 2010.


More more misdirected mail

More exciting mail plops into my inbox evidently intended for someone else. First, a text from a Florida (813) blurts out "Hi missing u". Which is all very well and good, but what am I supposed to do about that?

And then a receipt from a site offering white water rafting excursions in Canada:
Online payment Submitted on 2009-06-23

ARRIVAL DATE (yyyy-mm-dd): 2009-06-24
CITY: Newmarket
CC TYPE: vis
CC NUMBER: xxxxxxxxxxxx9908
COMMENTS: Fxxx you Holly

Not quite sure what the obscenity (uncensored in the original email) in the COMMENTS field is all about -- who's Holly?


Travel Arrangements

A usually haphazard journey. Plane arrives half an hour late into LHR. Sitting near the front, I manage to get out quickly with all my luggage from the overheads, and pace quickly so that I'm second to passport control. Waltz in with no trouble at all, and with only a minor diversion around the back of a baggage carousel to avoid a troublemaker being pinned down by two police, am cleared through customs with the usual indifference into the UK proper in less than 15 minutes from deplaning. Check that, American border security.

Zoom to Heathrow express (or HEX to its friends), pick up a ticket, and get on the last train that fits my schedule with a minute to spare. End up at Lon Pad, collect my 10 quid single for Brstl Tmpl Mds, and even have time to pick up a sandwich from Boots, though chagrined that my selection does not somehow qualify for the meal deal. Relax, and try to ignore the pitiful whines of the old biddy who does not realize she is on the wrong train until the ticket collector informs her that this is the 12.00 to Bristol, not the 12.06 to Penzance. Wonder how someone can not only ignore all the platform signs, but also the repeated announcements over the intercom. Observe that she isn't even carrying the phone number of the person she is supposed to be meeting there, and decide that she clearly can't travel much if she was expecting no delays or reroutings.

Arrive BTM only 5 minutes late, see that the weather is more pleasant than I remember, and so decide to take bus instead of taxi. Debus about three stops sooner than I ought, but walk the rest of the way anyway. Arrive at hotel to discover that there was a bus stop right out front. Get to room, find it to be possibly the smallest hotel room I have ever stayed in, though am expectant that tomorrow's will beat it further. Slump, sleep. It's surprisingly good to be in England in June.


Wget this

I think I've mentioned before my netflix obsession: I want to be able to receive a disk from my selected set of movies without knowing what's on it till I start to watch it.

Well, this system works fine, but occasionally I do at least want to know how long this weeks movie is, and maybe even what genre it's in. This is trick, because there's no easy way to do this on the netflix site without learning the identity of the movie. So I decided to hack together a system to do this.

I could have tried to figure out how to use the netflix API to do this, but all that authentication stuff seems complicated. So instead, I decided to hack together something via feedflix: this is a third part site that shows you statistics about your usage. After logging in, it shows you a link to your current movie. So if I could just get a bot to simulate logging in and clicking on the movie, then I could scrape out the relevant details. Well, of course, it was much more complicated than I had thought. As well as dealing with cookies and session keys and the like, there was one particularly nasty bit: the site would return an authentication code which you had to post back with the log in form. Mostly this form is randomly chosen letters and numbers. But sometimes it would return a string with other characters like + in, which seemed to cause a problem when I would post them back. So I had to borrow someone else's trick, and run perl on the string to URL encode it. As a result, I think that this is quite possibly the nastiest little shell script that I have ever concocted. I'll paste it in, mainly to offend people who have any clue that it means:

EMAIL={my email address}
PWD={my feedflix password}
WOPTS="--cookies=on --load-cookies cookies.txt --keep-session-cookies --save-cookies cookies.txt -olog"

rm cookies.txt
AUTH1=$(grep authenticity $TMPFILE | cut -d\" -f12)
AUTH=$(perl -MURI::Escape -e "print uri_escape('$AUTH1');")
echo $AUTH
wget $BASEURL$LOGIN $WOPTS --post-data=authenticity_token=$AUTH\&email=$EMAIL\&password=$PWD\&commit=Login -O$TMPFILE
MOVIE=$(grep "href=/movie" $TMPFILE | head -n1 | cut '-d=' -f2 | cut '-d>' -f1 )
grep Duration movie -A 1 | tail -n1
grep Genre movie -A 1 | grep -v div

Vile, huh? And it'll probably break on the next movie that comes through, so I'll have to figure a way to patch it up then.


Chip Chop

Getting back to my office with some sesame chicken and rice, I noticed that the pair of chopsticks I had picked up was deficient to the tune of one. I didn't really feel like going back to the canteen to get another one, so scouted around my desk for an alternative. I found a plastic knife, which I used with my one chopstick to make an ad hoc pair of chopsticks. Result? It's actually easier to eat rice with one chopstick and a plastic knife than it is with a pair of chopsticks. Good to know.


Stamp Duty

I thought that I had already posted a lengthy and tedious whinge about the cost of stamps which I could link to, but it looks like I didn't so I'll have to recreate it on the fly.

A while ago, I found a letter that I had sent returned to me with a little "returned for postage" sticker placed on it. "Returned for postage"? What on earth does that mean? It had a first class stamp on it, which had been franked. I shrugged, put the letter in a new envelope with a fresh stamp, and stuck it back in the mail.

Of course, exactly the same thing happened. And so I went to my local post office, and asked them to explain what this meant. The clerk helpfully explained that the price of a first class stamp had gone up from 41c to 42c. "So what?" I asked "This stamp just says "First class", so it should be good for a first class letter. Apparently not. The stamp I had, which looked like:

is apparently only worth 41c, though there's nothing on it to indicate this.

I then paid the extra 1c of postage, which apparently was enough (and got a receipt for it), and my letter was taken away to be delivered. But now I had a big roll of what I thought were first class stamps but which turned out to be merely 41c stamps in a 42c world. So I bought 100 1c stamps, and proceeded to stick them on every letter that I send (the clerk eyed me when I asked for 100 1c stamps, as if to say "are you sure?" -- well, it's only a dollar for me).

This was just a few months back, but on the news today I heard some earthshattering news... the price of a first class stamp has now gone up to 44c. Oh, great. Now I need to stick 1 41c stamp and THREE 1c stamps to get my letters delivered. Damn you, USPS! Damn you! I was fooled into believing that you had sold me some mystical "forever" stamps, but it turns out you got me good and proper. Well, the jokes on you, since these 1c stamps must cost way more than 1c each to produce and process.

Puzzled by all this confusing stamp price palava? Then maybe this website is for you.



Another day, another 8000 airmiles and 14 hours in the sky. Putting aside the toll that this places on the sky, I tend to focus more closely on the personal toll that it takes, what with 12 hour time differences and the resultant crippling jetlag. So as usual, I distract myself with the provided in flight entertainment. This time is was Continental's AVOD system again. In the configuration I saw, it finally had a decent selection--about 300 movies and 150 short titles--compared to the 20 odd movies last time I encountered a version. It might even be getting more stable -- it only had to be rebooted once on the way out, and not at all on the way back. (That said, I had a row of 3 seats to myself on the way back; one screen was locked up through the whole trip, and a second hung after I had been prodding it for an hour or so. Fortunately, the middle screen survived to the end). The selections are still a bit idiosyncratic, especially on the "short program" front: most titles (TV shows) have only a couple of seemingly randomly chosen episodes with no apparent logic. Although, if you are a fan of the CSI franchises you can see just about every episode ever. UI is still flaky: only one fastforward/rewind speed, and rather unresponsive/laggy, so when you see something on screen and tap to resume, it's usually a couple of minutes away from where you want to be. And still no fast way to jump back to where you got to before the last crash/reboot.

The music side of the AVOD system still needs more attention. It had a rather clunky user interface, where you navigate by genre, then by CD. When you play a track from a CD, the track plays out, and then nothing happens. That is, there's no way to select an album and just listen to the whole thing through. A new feature is the "jukebox", which lets you add up to 50 tracks, and will do a track advance at the end of each song. So you can find an album you want to hear, click on each track in turn to add it to the jukebox, and then listen to the album. An "add all" feature would help here, although the whole metaphor is pretty broken, and is probably anathema to the iPod generation. I also miss the "radio channels" from the pre-On Demand days, which would have a 2.5 hour selection of music, which could be good to just stick on and not bother about choosing what to listen to: sometimes, you don't really want to be so Demanding.

The system as a whole is coming along, and it helps to pass the 14 hours (although not as much as simply stretching out and entering an altered state of semi-consciousness). I wonder what the policy is for rotating off the larger library of TV shows and movies: a few more flights, and I could exhaust the things I actually want to see.


Send in the clowns

It's at times like this that I'm reminded of the story about the depressed man who went to see a psychiatrist. Times were hard, with many people out of work and hungry. The man told the doctor of how miserable, depressed, alienated and lonely he felt. The doctor listened patiently, and at the end he said "I know just the cure for you. Tonight, the great clown Pagliacci is in town. Go, see his show and you will be filled once again with the joys of life."

At this, the man slumped further in his chair, and said, "But doctor... what the hell kind of prescription is that? I've just told you that I'm on the verge of suicide, and your advice is to go and watch some stupid clown show? How will that solve my problems? What crackpot medical school did you go to so that you come up with pointless fatuous suggestions like that? At least offer me prozac or something, you worthless piece of crap."


Nasty Search Queries

It's been a while since I posted any search queries that have brought people here, but it's long overdue. Most egregious from the recent batch was a query for "yes minister appleby/hacker slash", although I have to shoulder some responsibility for that since I briefly mentioned the topic back in 2003. Worryingly, after inventing the concept as a ridiculous dummy five years ago, it seems to have genuinely come to pass, at least judging from the search results. I'm not about to actually click on any of them.


QAM, QAM, lovely QAM

I've been happily surviving without any source of live television for a few years ago. It's a combination of pretty awful local over-the-air reception (which is only compounded by the impending switch to digital), and obscenely expensive cable fees for even basic programming. It hasn't bothered me much, but it would be nice to have some access to live information in the event of a major event, political happening, or large emerging news story. For the presidential debates, I was able to pick up some webstreams, though these were a bit shaky, and for the oscars, I just drove over to Princeton for an hour to see them.

Well, I recently switched my internet service from 3Meg DSL (which barely counts as broadband these days) to 15Meg Cable. I casually wondered whether this would let me pick up any TV off the coaxial cable. Nothing via "analog" or plugging in to an over-the-air ATSC decoder box, as you might expect (the installation work order even indicated that I had been given a "video block" for free). But, after some fiddling, I discovered that I could pick up the local channels via QAM: Quadrature Amplitude Modulation. The kind cable company was fulfilling its FCC obligation to provide customers with unencrypted QAM versions of the channels. So now I can pick these up, albeit via a computer with an appropriate decoder card, which isn't that satisfying. Maybe when I upgrade a television, I'll get one with an integrated QAM tuner and use that.

Also while switching to Cable internet, I made the mistake of hooking up a machine which is usually shielded behind a router. I left it alone for an hour or two, and returned to find that it had been hijacked: I'd left a VNC server running without a password (I normally access the machine only on the internal network), and some crim had abused the hospitality. I was tipped off by the fact that the antivirus software had been uninstalled, the software firewall disabled, and other general nastiness. I wondered if I would need to scrub the machine and start over. Actually, delousing the machine was not too hard. I identified all the files that had changed in the intervening time, which led me to a couple of new directories, in windows/system/programas [hint: I don't usually label my directories in spanish] and thereabouts. A couple of new processes were running, as well as a couple of familiar named processes which were running as a user rather than as kernel (ie they were pretending to be something they were not). A new service, cunningly named ms-java was also installed. I killed and deleted the processes and files, and removed the unwanted service. Unless there was some additional nasty rootkit business going on, I think I got it all (subsequent virus scans and spyware scans didn't turn up anything).

What was interesting is what all this badware was doing: I didn't spend too much time trying to disentangle it, but I got the general idea. There was an IRC client installed, presumably to allow the machine to be controlled from afar; there was also an FTP server set up. Probing into it, I was rather galled to find that the server was serving up some of *my* files. Fortunately, these were only some music and video files that I'd downloaded. These had been copied into the programas directory, and were being served from there. I got rid of all of that, but was still curious to know how automated this was: had the whole attack been done via standard scripts, or had some kid pwned my machine, and manually been probing through my files? Fortunately, there wasn't anything too important on the machine, but it's still rather worrying to see how easily---and how quickly---some kid can get in. Sure, I left a door wide open, but it's always a surprise to be reminded how cavalier people can be. Anyway, I managed to get the whole thing cleaned up within a couple of hours of infection, so no lasting damage done.

A pair of nickers

Fans of bank robbery will be delighted to learn that there was another bank robbery last week after I posted about one last Tuesday. The same bank was hit on Thursday (after I walked past it on Wednesday). In fact, it was the same bloke what dunnit, and the police have someone helping them with their inquiries. So that's all right then.


Is that a sandwich in your pocket?

Gawker rather downplays the latest edition of Masterpiece Security Theatre, in which an innocent german teenager is harassed for possession of a sandwich. He had packed the sandwich in his bag, forgotten about it, and ticked the "nothing to declare" box on his form. The punishment for this mighty crime? A fine of $300. "He lied on an official document!" the snide voiceover snarls. Well, the US customs form is a little misleading on this matter. The relevant question reads

"Are you bringing with you:
a. fruits, plants, food, or insects?
b. meats, animals, or animal/wildlife products?
c. disease agents, cell cultures, or snails?
d. soil or have you visited a farm/ranch/pasture outside the United States?"

"Fruits, plants, food or insects" -- well, "food" is a pretty catch all term to be buried away in this list. But put next to fruits, plants and insects, makes it confusing. Are they referring to some special kinds of food? Why not just say "food" if that's what they mean? Given that I've brought in packaged snacks (quite often, ones that I bought in the US to begin with), and just been waved through without further question, what does this really mean?

Maybe just to be safe, I'll tick all these boxes. I mean, there's bound to be a few microns of soil stuck to the bottom of my shoes. And which of us isn't carrying billions of "disease agents" without realising it? I know I am.

"The Bin Bag Murders are Back On!"

Well, not quite. But excitement! Before the great snowstorm which dropped a grand total of, er, about two inches of snow, there was apparently a bank robbery about ten minutes from where I dwell. And look--he's wearing a hat! Could it be another copy-cat hat burglar?



"Homeland Security USA" is disturbingly compelling. It revels in showing drug busts, illegal aliens, and other dodgy business. This clip shows everything that's wrong with TSA's "security theater". Can you guess what's in the bag? Isn't it inevitable?



Another reason why people with silly names should not be allowed in government.

"I did right thing over Baby P" -- Balls!



This weekend, I indulged in the popular pastime of "formatting the hard disk and reinstalling the operating system". The machine in question had been accruing cruft for about 6 years, so it was probably about time, although the act was finally prompted by some particularly inadvisable malware tinkering.

As I went through the usual setting of options, installation of important software, and disabling of the usual irritants (if I have a "recycle bin", then I really don't need a confirmation dialogue every time I delete something), my mind returned to the question of exactly how much time it takes to turn a fresh install into something usable. Even just installing all the service packs and 'critical updates' takes several hours and half a dozen reboots.

Which in turn made me think of the new US President. As far as I can tell from the news reports, he has been reconfiguring his country. Enabling the FOIA that was disabled by the previous user; removing the Guantanamo extension, and so on. Wonder how long all that will take.

More misplaced messages

Please claim these if they are yours:


Great speaking with you today again, and I look forward to reviewing your resume and speaking with you more in depth on Friday. Have a great week.

and also

DR. Cody:

No I didn't -- and don't call me cody.


Academic Spammer

More spam continues to pour in from professional Spammer Nikos Mastorakis. You can always tell real serious spam from the casual mailing list junk, because it addresses you by name, and makes weaselly suggestions, like "We would like to add you as an invited speaker". These people are the sleaziest, lowest of the low. I wish they would all get lost. I have tried to unsubscribe, as usual, and will see if it has any effect whatsoever.

More misdirected mail

Further dispatches from my Inbox:

"Hello Ms.Cyndy ,

I am a new graduate student in the department of Electrical Engineering. I have been advised to meet Dr.Tamal Bose by Cynthia Hopkins. I would like to discuss about my courses and research prospects. So in this regard i would like to have an appointment with him. Any time on thursday and friday would be fine with me.

Thank you

And also:

Re: I have sent you an e-card
> To view the card please click the following link:
> http://www.ecards.co.uk/display_Ecard.php?ecard=2_KmZcb3E56Kw7

Thanks for my card lovey. I have sent a picture of Clare and Eva.

Hi love hope you are having a good day. mads has gone to her swimming lesson with your Mum. She is good at swimming, especially jumping in. She likes to try and get the teacher wet who is standing on the side!

see you tomorrow Cxx

And also:

Hi Gra
Hope all ok with you and that you are having a good week.

We are all trying hard to keep warm - had to scrape the car this afternoon - and it ws only 3.30 - shows how flippin freezing it is!!!!!
Haven't got any gossip - Emily is pondering what to do for her birthday - so far we've only had about 12 million conversations about it!!!!
Take care
Love Julia XXXX

Also on the subject of the weather:

Dear Graham,

I'm just getting ready to come and visit you. It's very cold and grey here, hope it's sunnier in Harrow.

I went shopping with Susan yesterday in Bury St. Edmund's, but managed NOT to buy anything. I was too cold to look.

Looking forward to seeing you soon.
Lots of Love
Mum and Dad,

All fascinating, eh?


Narked Video

I mentioned the new VOD system on Continental 757s before I left, and I got another chance to have a go on it on the return trip. It was an even more surreal experience second time around. This time it only crashed once (requiring about ten minutes for a reboot), and when it did crash I was only a few minutes into the start of a film, so could recover fairly easily. But this time the choice of movies was even more odd and arbitrary. So odd that I took the effort to write them down. The 19 (what, 19? Surely that is too many for any human to contemplate?) film choices were:
  1. Bachelor Mother (1939)
  2. Bottle Shock (2008)
  3. Fred Claus (2007)
  4. Ghost Town (2008)
  5. Happy Feet (2006)
  6. Ocean's Eleven (1960)
  7. The House Bunny (2008)
  8. The Mummy 3: Dragon Emperor (2008)
  9. Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2 (2008)
  10. The Women (2008)
  11. Austin Powers 3 (2002)
  12. Bullitt (1968)
  13. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
  14. It's a wonderful life (1946)
  15. Philadelphia (1993)
  16. Rebel without a cause (1955)
  17. Spiderman (2002)
  18. Spiderman 2 (2004)
  19. Walk the line (2005)
It's hard to put a finger on, but there's something truly odd about this list. It's a balance of recent dreck, mediocre movies and some older movies. But whose idea was it to put "Rebel without a cause" on the list? Why begin the list with a nearly 70 year old rom-com that no-one's ever heard of? I found the whole experience quite odd and baffling.

Obligatory End of Year Wrap Up Post

In 2008, I wasn't organized enough to keep a list of which books I read as I did in 2007, but it was probably rather less than 50. But, thanks to Netflix, I am able to easily recover a list of which films made it through my rather idiosyncratic random selection system again. So here they are, along with my sardonic short reviews:

  1. Man on Wire: not to be confused with Man on Fire.
  2. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer: Completely unmemorable
  3. Porco Rosso: You'll believe a pig can fly!
  4. The Yes Men: Pranksters take down the WTO
  5. Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder: Disc 1: Diminishing returns
  6. Man on Fire: not to be confused with Man on Wire
  7. Wishful Thinking: irredeemable weak rom-com
  8. A Few Good Men: the truth hurts
  9. Helvetica: You'll believe a font can love!
  10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: can't get you out of my head
  11. The Cat's Meow: the truth Hearst
  12. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End: and don't come back
  13. Collateral: Damaged thriller
  14. Adaptation: A proper Charlie
  15. Chasing Amy: If you seek Amy?
  16. Quadrophenia: Where do the Who live?
  17. The Sting: Call the police!
  18. Blade: Good clean Vampire fun
  19. The Cheap Detective: The Falk Guy
  20. Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic: Same jokes, different order
  21. Steamboy: Steam punk
  22. The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer: Eat my shorts!
  23. Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man: You'll believe a man can lose an election
  24. Howl's Moving Castle: More Miyazaki Madness
  25. King Kong: Gorilla goes Ape
  26. D.E.B.S.: Oddly positioned lesbian love story
  27. The Godfather: not the head you want to be given
  28. Sketches of Frank Gehry: mind the sharp edges
  29. All the President's Men: the truth brings down the pres
  30. Street Fight: dirty politics in Newark
  31. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: best fillibuster in movie history
  32. North by Northwest: crop-duster
  33. Lost in Translation: Come again?
  34. Ocean's Twelve: A sequel too far
  35. Van Helsing: Mindless action
  36. Maxed Out: apparently we're borrowing too much
  37. Why We Fight: to feed the military-industrial complex
  38. Silent Running: psychopath murders crew in space
  39. Starter for Ten: UBris hubris


It took me a couple of listens before I noticed the rather staggeringly puerile single entendre in Britney's "If You Seek Amy". I must be getting older. I suppose it's destined to remain an album track, unless someone decides to edit it into something else ("If see ukulele", maybe?). You can listen to it care of YouTube, and enjoy the almost witless user comments. Bet Kevin Smith is wishing he'd called his film "Seeking Amy" instead, though.