Monthly Archives: July, 2008

Friends in low places

Any idea what this is?

It’s a punt pole, with my camera attached to the end using a Gorillapod. Look, here’s a close-up:

And why, you might ask, would you want to do this?

Well, when my pal Bill Thompson organised this year’s geek punting picnic, PuntCon, I felt I needed to find a suitably geeky way to take a photo of the gathering. So I put my camera on a timer and raised the pole. It’s a bit tricky to aim, but here is at least a part of the group:

Many thanks to Bill (and everyone else) for a most enjoyable afternoon.

Blog beginnings

My friend and colleague Ray Gordon has a new blog. Ray is a very good electronic engineer and a very successful businessman; if he takes to this new medium it should be interesting.

Anyway, in his very first post, he released some of his software into the public domain. It allows a Microchip PIC to emulate a USB Mass-storage device. Esoteric stuff, but trust me, there are people out there who will be most grateful for this – it’s a great start!

A little

You probably know TinyURL, which takes nasty long URLs like this:,+derbyshire&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=44.25371,60.46875&ie=UTF8&ll=53.360285,-1.816006&spn=0.065462,0.118103&t=h&z=13&iwloc=addr

and gives you a nice shorthand version like this:

which does the same thing, and is much easier to put in emails, or read over the phone.

Well, a new service has just launched called (no doubt starting a new craze in Libyan domain names) which does much the same kind of thing, and a whole lot more. links look much the same:

but for more information about why it’s different, see this post. It looks good.

But TinyURL has been around for ever and has proved very reliable; it’ll be interesting to see if this new pretender can usurp it…

Made mit ein Mac

Axel Springer, the German publishing group, has announced that it is switching all of its 10,000 employees to Macs over the next five years.

More rejoicing in the Apple marketing department, one imagines…

Pooter posts

Oh, and talking of trying old classics in new media… Kevan Davis has made George Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody available as a blog at Nicely done.

I wonder if Pooter would have approved.

Click and clack

Mmm. A classic American public radio show – Car Talk – is making its way onto television, in a new series using animated versions of its hosts, the Magliozzi brothers. I’m quite a fan, though only an occasional listener, but I really wonder about its viability in that medium.

Still, I wish them all the best… after thirty years of making people laugh, they deserve all the success they can get.

CNN has the story. Those of us in other parts of the world can hear the radio show on the Car Talk site.


OK – apologies for the rant… Is it just me, or have light bulbs really gone downhill in recent years? It seems as if scarcely a week goes by without me having to replace one.

I’m sure it wasn’t like that in my childhood. I don’t think we have more in our house than my parents had in theirs, or that we use them more. Perhaps we have a higher proportion of ‘strange’ ones – spotlights, candles, globes… and these varieties haven’t evolved to the same degree as the common-or-garden species?

The worst ones seem to be Philips, but most of the places we shop don’t seem to sell anybody else’s any more. The Philips spotlight bulb I’ve just replaced after a couple of months claimed to have a one year lifetime (based on 3 hours’ use per day). Even if it had managed that, it doesn’t seem like a great achievement, in this day and age.

The low-energy ones often do rather better, as they should, given their cost, but I’m too fond of dimmer switches to be able to change to those in any wholehearted way, and I’m still rather dubious about whether the true environmental benefits over their lifetime, if any, justify the cost and inconvenience…

So tell me, am I just becoming old and cranky, or does somebody still make a good old 60-watter the way they used to when I were a lad?

Seeking the bubble reputation

Adrian van den Heever tells me he has been wondering what to do with all those bottles of champagne he opens but doesn’t finish in one evening; it seems a pity to let the fizz go to waste. The obvious solution – inviting me around to help polish them off – doesn’t work quite so well now he’s in Palo Alto.

So he sought out local expertise and found that some research on the subject had been done at Stanford – almost within walking distance, which is probably just as well.

This is what they found out.

Internet independence

I was visiting the London office of a large internet company today and was planning to demonstrate CODA to them, so was a little distressed when I arrived to discover that their corporate internet connection was down, and they had no connectivity!

It all worked out well, though, because somebody in the group had recently bought a Netgear MBM621 – a 3G-to-ethernet router.

We plugged the CODA kit and my laptop into this, and It Just Worked ™. What’s more, the performance was remarkably good. It would be interesting to see whether it worked well outside the confines of central London, but in this situation, it was a real godsend.

This type of device could be a game-changer; exhibition centres often charge exhibitors phenomenal amounts for internet connections at their stands, for example. That little scam may not be viable for much longer.

Netgear call this little box a ‘modem’, but it’s more of a router; it does DHCP and NAT, and the only downside I could see was that it only has one ethernet port, so you need a switch if you’re plugging in more than one device.

Well worth investigating if you need to set up an impromptu network somewhere.

Agile Programmer

Michael took a nice picture of me on Monday.

Here are mine of him on Tuesday:

SSH ProxyCommand

Here’s an exceedingly useful feature of SSH which I only discovered recently.

Imagine that you have a single ‘gateway’ machine on your network which you can connect to from outside using SSH; I do this all the time. You can then use that machine to connect to other machines inside your network in a variety of ways: using the port-forwarding abilities of SSH (the -L and -R options), for example, or simply by running another SSH command from the gateway machine once you’ve connected to it.

But there’s a much tidier way to do it, using the ProxyCommand option.

To connect to, just add something like the following to your ~/.ssh/config:

     ProxyCommand ssh exec nc %h %p

then you can ssh directly to from outside. SSH will connect to the gateway machine and run ‘nc’ to forward the SSH session to the internal machine.

And, of course, you can use it for things layered over SSH, like checkouts from Git or Subversion repositories. Very tidy! I also sometimes add -C to the ssh command so that any access done this way is automatically compressed, even in situations where it was hard to specify that explicitly.

If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself stuck behind a web proxy with no other outgoing access, one very nice-looking use of ProxyCommand is the Corkscrew utility by Pat Padgett.

Hope this is helpful to someone!

Update: there are a few useful extra tips in the comments.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser