Friday, 28 July 2006

Dispatches from Ladakh – a religious festival with guns

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Leh viewed from the mountains to the north

I’m writing from Leh, the largest city in the Ladakh region of the Indian Himalaya. Today is the occasion of a Presidential visit and public gathering to celebrate the (heavily debated) 2550th anniversary of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama – India’s most famous historical figure and religious leader - The Buddha.

Ladakh is among the most Buddhist regions of India. Culturally, genetically, religiously and geographically this region has more in common with Tibet than with Delhi. The Dalai Llama is treated as the supreme spiritual leader here, and his official residence is a few hundred kilometers down the road in McCleod Ganj. It therefore makes good sense for this to be chosen for Dr Abdul Kalam’s public celebration.

President Dr Abdul Kalam - "India's missile man"

This piece is intended to discuss the military presence that this visit has led to. Leh is the largest secure city near to two major border disputes. To the north there is the border with China, the result of the ‘62 war, which led to a several hundred square kilometer region of India being annexed to Chinese administration. This occupation remains internationally unrecognised. To the west there is Kashmir, the bleeding sore that has caused India endless trouble since Partition in ’47. For these reasons, Leh has been home to a significant military presence for the last half century.

Take into account the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and the fact that Dr Abdul Kalam is most famous for his role as a scientist in developing the Indian Military's missile and nuclear weapons programs, and it is pretty understandable that the government would pull out the stops for this visit.

I have seen civil wars that resulted in fewer troops on the ground than this - the 8th of July in London last year was nothing by comparison. Yesterday there was a “public military festival” at an army base approximately 50 km from the city, a blatant display of sheer military might involving air shows, cannon fire that could be heard echoing off the mountains for vast distances, and a demonstration of formation tank movements that would have pleased the Soviet Kremlin. Today, all major roads into and out of the city centre are filtered by large numbers of armed soldiers and regular movements of troop carriers. I managed to hitchhike to this terminal with a bunch of cheerful Ladakhi teenagers singing along to The Best Of The Backstreet Boys, I have no idea how they managed to get past the troop filters.

I suppose this is all understandable from the Indian Government perspective – it is only when you come here that you realize how large a role the military plays in Indian society. As is always the case with social/military interactions, these displays are fascinating to watch - here we see a mixture of Russian equipment and armaments, mixed with a hangover of British Raj style uniforms and rituals. It is not unusual to see troops in this country square marching, gun in hand, lifting their knees up to waist height. Today will in all likelihood go off without hitch – If I were Pakistani militants or the Chinese military this would certainly scare the hell out of me, but it is worth remembering that the emerging state everyone is hoping will counterbalance China may be every bit as militaristic as its northern neighbour.

Little Man What Now wishes to celebrate the life of history’s most eminent pacifist thinker, and honours the Indian government for taking his birthday seriously.

Monday, 17 July 2006

London Weirdness 1

by Charles Pooter

Ted Hoffman joined me in London this Sunday and, before enjoying some Samuel Smith lager at the John Snow in Soho, I dragged him along on my mission to photograph the dragon's testicles of Ye Olde London Towne.

Along the section of the Victoria Embankment that runs between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge along the North bank of the Thames, there is much to interest the student of weirdness. There is Cleopatra's needle, the ancient obelisk dragged from Alexandria at a cost of a few minor disasters and six lives. There is the Temple Church, built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century at the site of the English headquarters of that order. The church is still now a Royal Peculiar, falling under the direct jurisdiction of the Queen of England rather than the local bishop. Then there is perhaps the strangest anomaly: the City of London itself. The square mile is an independent entity run by the Corporation of London, where billions exchange hands every day. Bustling with hundreds of thousands of workers on any given weekday, it is an eerie ghost-town on a Sunday afternoon.

At various positions around the boundaries to the square mile are statues of red dragons—the heraldic creature that are the supporters to the City of London's shield:

The most prominent examples of these dragons are on either side of the Victoria Embankment road near Temple Station:

Click photos to enlarge

If you look closely at the dragons, you will notice that they have something to be proud of:

Yes, that's right, the craftsman has seen fit to give the beastie a good size pair of testicles and, as far as I could tell, that is also a substantial phallus pressed upwards against the creature's stomach. This particular dragon must be a cock-atrice.

Hoffman was in agreement that this was a strange detail to put on a statue of a dragon. However, when I mentioned this detail to another friend of mine, they just shrugged and said it was there to make the creature "more realistic". A dragon. More realistic. Well, I suppose it could be an anatomically correct model of Prince Philip—when in lizard form.

Thursday, 13 July 2006

Ian McShane

by Charles Pooter

While channel hopping though the effluence that passes for British TV, I stopped on Sky 3, which was showing HBO's Deadwood. It was excellent. A well plotted Western TV series with swearing and everything! I was very surprised to see that the character Al Swearengen, proprietor of the Gem Saloon, is played by Ian McShane. Yes, Lovejoy himself:

Lovejoy (centre)

...apparently he has even won a Grammy. This makes me wonder if any other British TV antique dealers will go on to star in HBO dramas. Will we see Eric Knowles getting whacked by Vito Spatafore or will David Dickinson end up in Oz, buying drugs from Adebisi?:

A Brilliant Little Puzzle

by Charles Pooter

I warn you: don't click it unless you have time to waste...

I'm stuck at 25 at the moment. Request help or taunt me in the comments.

Wednesday, 12 July 2006

Hairy Chinese Kid

by Charles Pooter

A disproportionate number of hits for this blog land on this post, as a result of a google image search for the phrase "hairy Chinese kid". As a service to these scholarly researchers, here's the picture they are looking for:

Hairy Chinese Kid

The boy in question is one of the subjects that Karl Pilkington finds "a bit weird". Karl was under the illusion that "there's this hairy Chinese kid" counted as well-known phrase when he launched his ill-conceived music quiz Songs of Phrase, on the Ricky Gervais Show, on XFM.

Monday, 10 July 2006

Setting up a PC for your mum and dad

by Charles Pooter

What do you do if your mum and dad ask you to set up a PC for them? Your mum insists on using Windows because it's "what she's used to". "I'm not interested in Umbongo Linux" says your dad. This guide presents some tips I've learnt from setting up and fixing PCs for friends and relatives.

  1. Resign yourself to having to help out again in the future
    If you're setting up a Windows PC for a close relative like your mum or dad, it's probably going to be a long-term commitment. That's OK though, you do actually like these people, right?

  2. Make a restore CD
    Make a CD or DVD that installs Windows with their favourite apps and your settings automatically. When (not if) they screw up their PC, they can just pop in the bootable CD and reinstall.

  3. Consider setting up restricted accounts
    Install all the software they need and set them up with restricted accounts. That way they are unlikely to screw up your lovely installation. If they insist on installing junk themselves, set up a separate admin account so they aren't routinely surfing the web as an administrator. Tell your parents to not give out the admin password to younger siblings.

  4. Enable Microsoft Update
    'nuff said.

  5. Setup remote access
    As I said in point 1, like it or not, you will be helping out in the future. Setup remote access so that you can troubleshoot problems from the comfort of your own home. First, sign up to a dynamic DNS service. Next enable remote desktop and remote assistance in Windows. Finally, make the requisite holes in the Windows firewall and your mum's router firewall (if she has one). You might also consider VNC, though there have been some recent security issues with this. Of course, if you visit in person, you might get fed or even have your laundry done for you.

  6. Useful Software
    If you install all of the software they are likely to need when you set up their computer, they won't need to abuse the administrator account and are less likely to install junk.

    My recommendations:

    • AVG Anti-Virus Free - Free anti-virus software.
    • Windows Defender - Microsoft's anti-spyware software.
    • Firefox - Set this as the default browser.
    • Firefox extensions - Don't forget your favourite extensions.
    • GMail - If they don't have established email accounts, set them up with Gmail accounts and avoid the need for an email program.
    • OpenOffice - 90% of the functionality of MS Office, 0% of the cost.
    • VLC Media Player - The best thing to come out of France ever. Plays just about any media file without hassle. Also plays DVDs.
    • QuickTime Alternative - QuickTime is annoying, this bundles the codecs with a slimeline player.
    • Real Alternative - Ditto.
    • 7-Zip or Filzip - Windows XP has zip functionality built-in, but they'll need something for other archive formats. These programs are completely free.
    • Adobe Reader
    • PrimoPDF - I reviewed free PDF creation tools for Windows and this came out on top.
    • Picasa - For organising and basic editing of digital photos.
    • The GIMP - Stupid name, great software. For advanced image editing.

  7. Education
    My final tip is to gently attempt to educate your parents about using their computer safely. If you've followed the tips so far, there's not too much that can go wrong, but some extra advice can't hurt. Tell them about the dangers of phishing and about installing rubbish that will slow down their PC. Tell them that they can email you if they need a tool for a particluar task and you'll let them know a good piece of software for the job. Your parents have lectured you enough times, I'm sure they can can listen to your advice for once!

Sunday, 9 July 2006

John Prescott: A Career in Photos

by Charles Pooter

With John's Prescott's imminent disappearance from the front benches , I thought this would be a good time to remind ourselves of the good times.

Proving that topical humour is never very funny, we apologise for presenting:

John Prescott: A Career in (copyright infringing) Photos

On the campaign trail: "She's just crossing out the 'New' in New Labour."

Victory: "Take that you Tory bastards!"

Environment: "Who's stupid fookin' idea was this?"

Transport: "Right, I've dun the photo, now bring the Jag round."

The Regions: "Well, I say to you, 'hear', and very much pertaining to, 'ye'!"

Canvassing voters: "I prefer my fookin' eggs fried!"

Defending British interests: "Mr Secretary General, if I may just say that, in so far as, this sustainability policy, if I can get a word in edgeways, is not, as far as can be ascertained, in so far as, the Prime Minister is in full agreement with committee's recommendation last July."

Paying his respects: "After this bollocks has finished I'll show you my ministerial briefs luv."

Saturday, 8 July 2006

Review of free PDF creation software

by Charles Pooter

This article can be considered a belated sequel to this and this.

Other operating systems such as Linux and OS X come with tools to create PDF files. This article will review some of the various free PDF creation tools available for Microsoft Windows and make recommendations as to which one you should install.

Before I start the review, some important information about PDF files. The PDF (Portable Document Format) is an open standard for the distribution of documents in electronic form. It is extremely popular and is useful in many situations, especially for distribution of documents that are to be printed. However, it is over-used as a format and should not be used in the following situations:

  • Putting information on a website, except when you intend for people to print-out the information. Use HTML instead.
  • Sending a document that you want someone to edit. PDF should be considered a read-only format in most situations. If you want someone to edit a document, send the document in a writable format such as a Microsoft Word file (doc) , a Rich Text File (rtf) or an OpenDocument file (when it becomes more popular). If formatting isn't important, send the document as plain text.
That said, if you need to create a PDF file in Windows, there are now free, downloadable tools for doing so. These tools can only create PDF files. Those needing advanced functionality, such as the ability to change text in existing PDF files, should purchase Adobe Acrobat. As far as I know there are no free tools for accomplishing this task.

The tools
CutePDF (download printer driver, download converter program)
Go2PDF (download)
pdf995 (download printer driver, download converter program)
PDFCreator (download)
PDF Online
PrimoPDF (download)

Home page
Download printer driver
Download converter program

Version reviewed: 2.6
Publisher: Acro Software
Licence: Freeware

The CutePDF installation requires installation of two components: the CutePDF Writer printer driver and a converter program (in reality a "lite" version of GPL Ghostscript). The driver installation was simple enough, except for the following ambiguous warning...

...which I foolishly thought (for a second) meant that it would only work on the 64 bit version of XP. The install also claims it needs a reboot, which seems a little over the top. The program installs a PDF printer driver and creates a program group with a link to a readme file and the uninstaller. The converter program installer basically unzips some GPL Ghostscript files into a separate folder inside the program files directory. In conclusion, the need for two installers and the use of GPL Ghostscript in a separate folder (which may interfere with an existing Ghostscript installation) is a bit messy.

Like most of these tools, to create a PDF from an application such as Microsoft Word, with CutePDF, you just print using the installed PDF printer. When you do this CutePDF presents you with a file dialogue to choose the folder and filename to save the resulting PDF. It does not present you with any other options. After choosing a file name and location, the program creates a PDF and that's it. This is a no-nonsense approach, but I like the option of having Adobe Reader open after creation of the PDF.

Document quality:
The images and text produced were sharp and well-defined. I could see no noticeable difference between the output produced by CutePDF and that produced by Adobe Acrobat. Word bookmarks were not transferred to the PDF. The file size of the PDF was twice that of Acrobat with default settings.

The uninstallation generally went without a hitch, but strangely the uninstaller also removed the GPL Ghostscript installation, even though this was a separate install. The CutePDF program group was also left on the start menu.

Not a bad download, with good quality output, but the installer could be better and more options could be provided when creating the PDF.

Download (but don't bother)
Version reviewed: 1.01
Publisher: Wondersoft
Licence: Freeware (but actually cripple-ware)

The installer for Go2PDF is simple and effective. It seems to make it clear before and after the installation exactly what it is installing and how to use the printer driver:

Like CutePDF, Go2PDF merely presents a file dialogue and then produces the PDF file without fanfare.

Document quality:
Here's where Go2PDF falls down. It turns out that every page of every PDF produced by Go2PDF contains an advert for their pay product:

This would be fine if it was made clear before installation but it isn't mentioned, in any obvious way, on their website nor is it mentioned by the installation. If that wasn't bad enough the PDF file was nothing like the original Word document, as most of the paragraph formatting was lost. This product is free, but essentially useless.

There was no reference to Go2PDF in "Add/Remove Programs" so I had to delete the printer manually.

Don't bother as there are much better free downloads available that don't feature unannounced adverts.

Download printer driver
Download converter program
Version reviewed: 7.9s
Publisher: Software995
Licence: Freeware (adware)

Like CutePDF, pdf995 uses two installers: one for the printer driver and one for the converter program. After installing the printer driver you are prompted to download and install the converter program. When you run the converter installer, you are given the following message:

The free converter is a version of Ghostscript hidden away neatly in the pdf995 folder. Like with CutePDF, I feel it would be easier if there was one installer.

pdf995 is adware. This is made clear on the webpage. After printing your document with the PDF printer driver and, as usual, selecting the file and folder, ads are displayed for 30 seconds or so in browser windows and an upgrade message is displayed:

After the PDF is created, Acrobat Reader opens automatically. This is a useful feature as you will always want to inspect PDF files to check they reflect the content and presentation of the source file. The PDF file produced is advert-free.

Document quality:
The images and text produced were sharp and well-defined. As with CutePDF, I could see no noticeable difference between the output produced by pdf995 and that produced by Adobe Acrobat. Word bookmarks were not transferred to the PDF. The file size of the PDF was over twice that of Acrobat.

Uninstallation basically went without a hitch, removing the driver and converter, but a link to the website was left on the start menu.

p95995 is perfectly functional and produces high quality PDFs. The company makes it clear that that the program is adware, which is fair enough. A single installer would be better. If you want an ad-free program, read on.

Home page
Version reviewed: 0.9.2 (AFPL version)
Publisher: pdfforge
Licence: GPL/AFPL

PDFCreator is quite a large download at over 12MB. The installer looks very professional...

... and after showing the licence agreement, gives the option of a "standard" or "server" installation. The server installation allows installation of a PDF printer driver that can be shared on a network. This could be a very useful feature in an enterprise environment, as it would allow the software to be used without installation on every PC. The installer allows you to choose if you would like to install a browser toolbar, which allows you to generate PDFs from your browser, but is also a revenue generator for the publishers. In any case it is an optional component and a link to the privacy policy is shown in the installer.

A previous version of PDFCreator used Microsoft Installer (MSI) technology for the installation. This was useful in the enterprise environment, as it allowed the program to be easily distributed to PCs with Microsoft SMS or Active Directory group policies. The current installer no longer seems to contain an MSI file, which is a pity.

PDFCreator works like all the other tools in that you print your document using the PDF printer driver. However, before asking for a file name and folder, PDFCreator allows you the opportunity to enter metadata for the document:

This is extremely useful, as if the document is intended for upload to the web, this extra information will be indexed by search engines such as Google. It will also be used in document storage systems in the enterprise environment. The screen also gives the option (or not) to have Adobe Reader open the PDF file after it is created. Whilst producing the PDF, PDFCreator shows a small animation. All of this adds to the appearance of professionalism that we saw in the installer.

Document quality:
PDFCreator creates documents of a very high quality. Text and images are sharp and the file size is about twice that of Adobe Acrobat. As with the other programs, bookmarks did not seem to transfer.

Uninstallation worked without any issues.

PDFCreator is an excellent free tool for producing professional PDF files. My only (very minor) gripe is that they seem to have abandoned the MSI based installer. Apart from that I recommend it.

PDF Online
Conversion page
Publisher: BCL Technologies

PDF Online is not a tool you install on your PC, but an online conversion service.

PDF Online allows you to upload your document using an html form. Your PDF is then emailed to an address of your choice. No registration is required. The service seems very fast and effective, although it will take a while to upload large documents even with a broadband connection.

Document quality:
Text was clear and sharp, but images had obviously had their resolution lowered.
This is explained here. The file size of the PDF was very small. Bookmarks were not transferred.

PDF Online is a great free online service, especially if you need to produce a PDF quickly and haven't got access to a program on the PC you are using. However, if you are able to install a program like PDFCreator locally, you will be able to produce results of a higher quality.

Version reviewed: 2.0
Publisher: activePDF
Licence: AFPL

The PrimoPDF installer was another relatively large file at over 10MB. The installer was a professional, simple and effective affair, which also gave the option of opening the manual (a PDF file, unsurprisingly) at the end of the install.

As with all the other downloadable tools, PrimoPDF uses a PDF printer driver. After selecting the PrimoPDF printer, the program presents you with an option screen:

One minor gripe at this point, is that the My Documents folder would be a better choice for a default saving location. However it obvious that PrimoPDF offers more options than any of the other free programs. The first extra option that you notice is the ability to change the output quality of the PDF. Changing this setting would affect the compression of images within the document and in turn affect the file size. Pressing the "Security " button, opens the following window...

..which allows you to set various PDF security settings. None of the other free programs seem to have this functionality. Pressing the "Document Properties" button opens a window that, just like PDFCreator, allows you to enter metadata for the document. After selecting your options and pressing "OK", the PDF is produced and Adobe Reader opens it for viewing.

Document quality:
Document quality was top-notch and indistinguishable from PDFCreator. Bookmarks were not transferred from Microsoft Word. The file size, with print quality settings, was twice that of Acrobat with default settings.

Uninstallation of PrimoPDF worked without any problems.

PrimoPDF is an excellent free tool. It produces high quality PDFs and is the most fully-featured of the free tools I have reviewed. I recommend it.

Overall conclusions
For the home user, PrimoPDF seems to be the clear winner. It is fully featured and produces high-quality PDFs without any problems. PDFCreator is also a fine choice for the home user. For the enterprise user or administrator, PDFCreator may be the better choice, as it allows installation of the tool on a server. Hopefully they will go back to using an MSI installer, as this would allow easy distribution of the tool to desktops within an organisation. If you are stuck on a PC without a PDF creation tool and cannot install one, PDF Online could be a life-saver, but if you have a choice, install PrimoPDF or PDFCreator, as they produce higher quality PDF files.

Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Species of apes leave their atmosphere using private enterprise!

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Offering free advertising to a multi-million dollar private company isn’t something we at LMWN would usually engage in. But Virgin Galactic is not a normal private company.

The X-Prize was a wet dream for technologist libertarians, and there is more than one LMWN contributor who fits into that bracket – reading too much Larry Niven and Robert Heinlein in your youth can be bad for your sanity – but since the X-Prize was won by Scaled Composites there has been disturbingly little coverage in the media. No movie of Burt Rutan’s life story? No authorised biography on the shelves of every Waterstones? This story has blockbuster written all over it. I lay the blame firmly at NASA for this, I suspect a man at Time Warner had this proposal cross his desk and suggested “This isn’t all a bit 1972 is it? Hasn’t this all been done?” Yes, that great Pork Barrel organisation was there before, and they built the Winnebago of the skies to follow up, the glorious shuttle - 115 flights in total, 2 catastrophic failures, a wonder of American Engineering.

But struggling onwards with the project we have Richard Branson, the anti-Tony Blair. Yes, he’s privileged. Yes, He is a snob. But he’s investing a serious pile of money in organising the first viable space tourism industry! I'd prefer that legacy to injecting competition into the monolithic NHS, Tony. According to the Wiki article, It looks like the insurance issue, which has always been my biggest concern, is not yet resolved - if one of these fell out of the sky it could be devastating. Lloyds of London brokers have been approached to cover this potentiality, but early tourists will be going at their own risk. This is the way it should be, and I for one would take that chance.

In design terms the VG website is very sexy. Spaceshipone is a beautiful vehicle, very light and airy, so they have slapped pictures of it all over the page. The blue iris is also pretty good logo, and the Ring of Saturn/grey scale design is all very professional. Doesn't look like they update these pages very often, but I hope that means their work is being done elsewhere.

So – To Richard and Burt – I hope they build statues for you in Washington and London... LMWN offers you its support.

Sunday, 2 July 2006

Blogroll Trimmed

by Charles Pooter

I've just trimmed down the blogroll to only include sites I actually read every now and again. I'm sure the other contributors will add sites they read in due course. As if anyone cares.