Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Reality and the baseness thereof

One of the more amusing results of the Bush re-election has to be the sight of Democrats trying once again to come to terms with the continuing refusal of the American electorate to see things their way. Last time the narrowness of the result allowed them to fume that they "wuz robbed", with some even denying that Dubya was in fact elected President.

This time, unfortunately for them, there is no such easy way out. With George W Bush the decisive winner of both the collegiate and the popular vote, it would seem that even the most hardened Democrat would have to accept reality. However, despite adopting the modest mantle of the "reality-based elite" it looks like adjusting to reality is as hard as ever. I feel that a Web metaphor might help.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

An encounter with the Dark Side

I have been using my PowerBook for nearly a year now; it is pretty much the only computer I use when I am not at my place of employment (where I must perforce use a Dell desktop running Windows XP). My first computer, back in the mists of time (well, about 1978, anyway) was an Apple ][, the first real consumer personal computer. So getting the PowerBook was more of a homecoming than a Switch. Still, although I have been casually extolling the virtues of Apple and OS X to all and sundry this past year, it hadn't really hit home just how great the differences for the home user are, until Wednesday evening last week.

You see, while I, like everyone else, experience unexplained errors and Exchange server crashes while working on my work PC, I simply log a helpdesk ticket to have it resolved, and it is handled reasonably efficiently, without my having to do anything. At home I never have to do anything with my PowerBook: it simply works. My flatmate experiences intermittent problems getting his Dell laptop to connect to our wireless network, and I poke around at it and usually get it working again without really knowing quite how or why. So obvious minor differences, but nothing too exciting, right?

Last Wednesday evening a friend brings round his brand-new IBM ThinkPad, a really lovely machine. Unfortunately it isn't behaving in a very lovely way, and he is seeking my help. He shows me that whatever he sets as his homepage, the browser launches with what appears to be a search engine as the start page. This page also contains hundreds of links, some of them not very savoury. Straightforward browser hijack, right? That's what I thought. I confidently downloaded Ad-Aware SE and let it do its thing. It promptly found an instance of CoolWebSearch, and deleted it. Great!

Well, not so, really. On reboot, IE launches with the same unwanted start page! Scanning with Ad-Aware reveals the same instance of CoolWebSearch, which AA cheerfully deletes once again. Reboot, same thing. It becomes apparent that something is reinstating the malware, and Ad-Aware can do nothing to prevent it.

A little googling reveals that others have experienced similar problems, and a program called Spybot Search and Destroy is recommended. Download, run. Finds CoolWebSearch (CWS). Deletes same. Reboot. Same behaviour. Run SS&D. Finds CWS. Deletes. Reboot. Rinse. Repeat. Hmmm.

Back to Google. A little more digging reveals that the absolute last word on CWS removal is something called CWS Shredder. Download. Run. Finds CWS. Deletes same. Reboot. CWS back again. Start to tear hair out.

I start to run each program one after the other, in safe mode, turning the computer off for thirty seconds between each round. No dice. I do a Windows update. No change.

By this time my friend has had enough. Leaving the laptop with me, he goes off home. I continue to search, obsessed by this fiendish obscenity of coding. Further web research suggests that the malware itself is contained in a DLL in the Registry, and is easily found, but there is another DLL, a "shield" DLL, that watches the first DLL, and recreates it if it is deleted. The shield DLL is created with such unusual permissions and ownerships that almost no registry editor can even display it, much less delete it. I go to bed, annoyed.

On Thursday evening after work, I do some more searching. I find a page of arcane instructions, and attempt to follow them. I download the only registry editor that can display the shield DLL, but it doesn't seem to work. Either I have a different variant to the one in the instructions, or my shield DLL is too fiendish for even the super-registry editor. I start thinking about how much work reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling XP will be...

Fortunately I stumble across a fantastic site, Spyware Warrior. It's basically a forum, where the knowledgeable volunteers generously help out the truly "last hope" cases. You need to have tried everything else first, and you need to create an account and post your query to the forum; email exchanges are not supported. But this was literally my last resort, so I thought, what the heck. I created my account, downloaded a program called HiJack This, ran it, and posted the log on the forum, together with a plea for help. I had a tutorial to attend at this point, so off I went, not expecting a reply until the weekend.

On returning from class I was pleasantly surprised to find that a forum denizen named Blender had already processed my log and posted detailed instructions for removing the pest. I followed the instructions, rebooted the computer, ran IE and...

All was well! It worked like a charm. I posted a follow-up log, and Blender confirmed that the machine looked clean. He also gave me some software suggestions to keep the ThinkPad that way, including IE Spyad, a little script that adds several thousand noxious sites to IE's restricted zone, ensuring that the computer is on high alert should you stumble across them; SpywareBlaster, which prevents IE from installing ActiveX-based spyware, hijackers, diallers, etc; SpywareGuard, which alerts you if any changes are made to IE settings, an anti-spyware and adware hosts file, and of course the excellent Zone Alarm personal firewall, a lot better than XP's builtin job, and still free!

So a very positive ending to a rather unpleasant experience, thanks to the good people at Spyware Warrior. (Just an aside: DON'T use Hijack This without their advice unless you really know what you are doing; it's an immensely powerful program that could render your machine unbootable with a mouseclick. Please go to the forum and read the instructions or ask for advice).

And thank goodness for my Mac!

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Dutch police erase "inflammatory" mural

I can't quite believe this: a Dutch artist decided to memorialise filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist, with a mural on the wall outside his studio, depicting an angel and the words "Thou shalt not kill". It seems that someone connected with a nearby mosque deemed the work "inflammatory" and called the police.

The police erased the mural!

Words just fail me.

More details here

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Getting the best out of your iPod

Gary Marshall just gave me a heart attack with his post on the poor quality of the tracks available on the iTunes Music Store. Not poor as in "no indy music", poor as in "don't sound good". This is just great news for me: I've become slightly addicted to iTMS since it opened in the UK, and have already downloaded 154 songs (including the freebies). According to Gary, the 128Kbps encoding rate of the music on iTMS, while undoubtedly superior to 128Kbps MP3s due to the superiority of Apple's AAC encoding format, is still pretty crap.

Is he right? Why didn't I notice this myself, you cry? Well, I have only used the Apple earbuds that came with my iPod to listen to music downloaded from iTMS (apart from a decidedly non-audiophile Cambridge Soundworks speaker rig connected to my Powerbook) and it's becoming increasingly clear that to get audiophile-quality sound from your iPod you need better earphones. The best are apparently made by Etymotic, but can cost as much as the iPod itself; there are also more reasonable alternatives, that are also inserted into the ear canal like the Etymotics. All apparently give much better sound quality than the buds. So it's entirely possible that with better earphones I too would hear the crapness of iTMS.

Still, I've done a bit of googling on the issue, and there is certainly evidence to support what Gary says. Take this chap in Holland, for example: after an extensive investigation of the issues, his recommendation is to rip your CDs into iTunes using the 224kbps setting, for acceptable quality. Clearly he isn't going to approve of iTMS.

Among the interesting information to be gleaned from Marc's page is the fact that iTunes uses Quicktime's AAC encoder when it rips CDs. Now it seems that if you give in to Apple's nagging and shell out the money for the Quicktime Pro upgrade, you get to use Quicktime to do your audio extraction duties. Why bother, if iTunes uses Quicktime anyway? Well, Quicktime Pro lets you set the quality of the extraction. Some believe that this gives better quality than using iTunes alone, although Marc disagrees, and apparently has Apple's head AAC techie on his side.

What does all this mean? Although I obviously intend to make my own tests when I upgrade my earphones, in the interim I'm calling a halt on iTMS purchases, and in fact picked up a few CDs at Morrisons during my lunchbreak (The Verve, Blondie, The Stones). I'll probably rip them at 224Kbps just to be on the safe side.

The obvious question is why Apple doesn't offer a choice of encoding bitrates for downloading. Presumably they want to keep the files small for easy downloading, but for those of us who would be prepared to suffer longer download times to secure better quality, offering the option would seem to make sense.

Two problems immediately spring to mind. Firstly, it would increase the complexity of iTMS: another step after clicking the Buy Now button, or perhaps more than one button. Apple are justly proud of the simple and intuitive iTMS interface, so messing with it is not to be undertaken lightly.

Secondly, explaining the differences between bitrates to the less technically sophisticated could become difficult. Using words like "lower quality" would be almost certain to cause some people to download the larger file even if they would, objectively speaking, be quite happy with the standard one. If everyone suddenly started downloading the "audiophile" files, Apple's bandwidth costs would skyrocket.

It's obviously a complex issue. I hope Apple find a way to resolve it. In the meantime, I am listening to my last iTMS purchase as I type this: Leftism by Leftfield. I really like it: kind of a more ethnic/reggae/dub version of William Orbit's Strange Cargo series (if that isn't too crude). I only hope it's still listenable on my Really Serious Earphones...