A Tale of WWWoe

  on August 16th, 2006

Some people have noticed that the Staggering Stories Forum has been rather, er, absent for the past few days. Why is it absent, I hear you ask. No, nothing I’ve done (for once). It is my long time host for the Staggering Stories site, PlusNet. They’ve accidentally deleted the forum. Again.

This will actually be the second time I’ve had to recreate the forum after they’ve wiped my data. Last year, on the 14th of April, they had some kind of disk failure and lost all their customers’ CGI sites. It was supposed to be routine maintenance. Before it was due to happen they stated they would back up all the data as a precautionary measure. Apparently it was during this backup that they suffered ‘multiple disk failures’. No, they didn’t have earlier backups to fall back on. It was all gone. They referred us all to their terms and conditions and washed their hands of it. Your data, you rebuild it. For a company that hosts other peoples data for them that was a pretty shoddy response. I didn’t have a backup of the forum, foolishly thinking I could trust them with my data, and spent a frantic weekend recreating it from scratch. The only mercy was that their MySQL database server, where all the forum posts were stored, wasn’t affected. I just had to recreate the program and theme…

I am probably missing an incident or two that didn’t affect me but the next I became aware of was in late November 2005. A script designed to check their CGI platform accidentally saw ‘a small number of sites removed in error’. Fortunately that time I wasn’t hit. Again they washed their hands of it and left the poor souls to rebuild again. They did, however, promise to address the issue to ensure this didn’t happen again.

Then rolls around the 9th of July 2006 and PlusNet famously loses over 700GB (yes Gigabytes!) of their customer’s emails. It transpires that one of their engineers accidentally reformatted a live disk array rather than the backup pack, ending up with two clean and shiny disk array packs! This cock-up was major headline news for technology news sites and it even made the BBC. Thanks to the publicity they at least tried to recover the data this time by sending the drives off to a professional data recovery firm but, alas, it was doomed.

After such a high profile loss of data you’d think they’d learn their lesson, wouldn’t you? Sadly not. On the 11th of August 2006, sometime between 07:54 and 12:20, they did it again. That pesky CGI maintenance script turned on PlusNet’s customers once more! It started deleting everyone’s CGI directories. Their engineers noticed pretty quickly this time and killed it but not before it had eaten its way through a good number of sites starting with A and B (mine being ajpurcell, sadly). So, there goes the Staggering Stories Forum, again. They claim that this time they did have backups. Unfortunately they had an error in that backup script too and some of those backups had failed, mine seemingly included. I say ‘seemingly’ because they haven’t actually told me yet. In fact my Customer Service Ticket has gone completely unanswered for four and a half days, not so much as a note saying ‘we’re investigating’. Nothing. They claim that only about 10 customer’s sites have failed to be restored. Not too many for them to inform us personally, is it?

I’m now in the process of moving both the Staggering Stories and my Adam Purcell domains to a new host – Bytemark. They offer more storage (4GB over 250MB!) and even a full Virtual Machine where I control everything. I install and configure the OS, the web server, the database, everything. They provide backup space on another machine but it is my responsibility to use it. They keep the machine physically up and running and with an Internet connection and leave me to manage the rest. No more relying on PlusNet clowns with their squirty flowers and hilarious scripts.

That being the case you may notice a bit of downtime with those domains as they are transferred across to Bytemark. There’s nothing much to be done about that. For now the restored Staggering Stories Forum is temporarily hosted at It will shortly move to but I’ll sing that from the rooftops when it happens!

On an unrelated and lighter note I just have to mention, with great pleasure, that Skepticality has returned! It’s a podcast and they describe themselves as ‘ Our podcast is here to bring you relevant, under reported current events, as well as in-depth discussions from a scientific, critical, skeptical, and humorous point of view. In our travels we will tackle the beasts of pseudoscience; the paranormal, supernatural, ufo / alien encounters, mis-understood history, astronomy, space, and overwrought legends – urban or otherwise. Welcome to Skepticality, truth in podcasting.’

Edit (17 Aug 2006): I see that The Register now has a news story on PlusNet’s latest problems, particularly the CGI deletions.



Plots and conspiracies

  on August 14th, 2006

“The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.” – Edmund Burke

This morning the UK government is saying the ‘Threat Level’ can be downgraded from critical to severe. In other words they don’t expect an attack imminently but one is expected at some nebulous time in the future. There is also talk of allowing some hand luggage back onto aeroplanes although it isn’t fully clear just yet exactly what restrictions there will be on that.

Wolf! Wolf! The problem is that the government’s credibility feels a little stretched. Was there really a threat? Perhaps. Maybe even probably. Not certainly, however. Not in my mind anyway. These are the people that claimed we were at threat, within 45 minutes, of being attacked by Iraq and their weapons of mass destruction. The weapons that we can probably now confidently say didn’t exist. I didn’t believe it back then and in that case it appears I was right not too. It was clear that the US had already made its mind up about invading Iraq and that the British government would obediently follow. Then there was the blatant deployment of tanks at Heathrow airport a few days before the big Iraq anti-war march in London. Funny how we aren’t seeing tanks out this time?

July the 7th 2005 proved one thing, real threats do exist. Of course the security services completely failed to detect this particular attack before it happened. They missed one, perhaps they’ve stopped several others. The lack of court trials doesn’t really lead us to believe that is the case, though. Who can tell? Openness is lacking, at best.

Now we can’t even take a book onto a plane, unless we put in in the hold. We can’t let terrorists read anything but the in-flight magazine? I heard of an incident where someone with a new and unusual MP3 player wasn’t allowed to even stow it in their hold baggage as the security guard didn’t recognise it and feared it could be a bomb! The owner had the choice of either posting back to their home or not getting on the plane. On Friday I was told that even pilots were being put under such restrictions and couldn’t take on their Electronic Flight Bag. If we can’t trust the pilots then we really are in trouble – there they are enclosed behind a big metal door to stop the flight deck being stormed by terrorists with full control of where that aircraft goes. All bets are off in that case.

So, no terrorist incident this time but certainly a huge amount of disruption and an increased sense of fear. It’s strange to think that such an objective may be just as desirable to the government as it might be to any terrorist plotters.



They drink it in the Congo (well, More4 does)

  on August 10th, 2006

Last night the British TV channel More4 ran a short piece on Ubuntu and its mastermind, Mark Shuttleworth. They also have a news blog entry on it.

This is, of course, excellent. The biggest thing holding back Linux now is not technical issues but instead ignorance and apathy. Most computer users have never heard of Linux or even really understand what an Operating System is. Those that do generally accept the Microsoft tax, insecurity and vendor lock in with a ‘it does everything I need’ attitude. Of course it doesn’t do everything they need – a plain Windows install doesn’t come with office applications, such as a word processor, you generally have to mess about with a dozen different drivers from either a manufacturer cd or, worse, somewhere out on the Internet. Install a Linux machine and you get all this, for free, from the moment you first login (and a lot more decent software besides).

To solve these problems we need to get the word out there. Linux is open for business (in every sense) so give it a go. Now the news report in question doesn’t actually mention Linux at all. I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not. Obviously we want people to know that Ubuntu is Linux but do they actually care, especially at first introduction? Probably not. We don’t want to confuse people with Ubuntu is a distribution of Linux, not until they are ready.

As for Shuttleworth, he appears to be rapidly becoming a figurehead of the Linux movement. Having met him twice now, at both the LUGRadio Live events, it is very clear that he isn’t looking to create an Ubuntu monopoly in the Linux world. He is very community driven and a very savvy businessman – you don’t get £400million in your pocket without some business acumen. There have been a few Linux distros in the past that have attempted to package up a nice user friendly OS in a similar way to Ubuntu that have made the mistake of making their innovations proprietary. They have all failed to gain community and customer acceptance. One or two are still around and now trying to change their ways and release more liberal versions of their software but it is too late for them. Shuttleworth realised that first you need the buy in of the established Linux community and to do that you have to work with their terms – without Linux, Ubuntu is nothing but without Ubuntu, Linux will continue. Shuttleworth comes across as one of us, he’s a very approachable and knowledgeable man and can talk technical like the best of us. Perhaps deep down he really is one of us or maybe it is just a carefully calculated image. I don’t think it matters. What Linux needs is someone like him – the public face of Linux. Others have tried, or been hailed, as that figure but none have worked – RMS appears to be a frothing at the mouth extremist and even Linus Torvalds himself lacks the charm to really represent the community he helped build. Shuttleworth offers great promise for us, I think.

Ubuntu has also taught a lot of us what it really means to be accessible for the average user. For too long Linux has been a plaything for geeks. It has been ‘almost ready’ for prime time for probably half a decade or so. All it lacked was the impetuous to take it that last few percent of the way. The average end user shouldn’t need to go into a command line for anything, not ever. It will always be there for those of us who understand the power of command line shells, scripting languages, editing configuration files directly, etc. Your average Windows XP user will never have used the Command Prompt program, nor should they in Linux. That’s where Ubuntu and all those feeding work into Ubuntu are taking us (and there are a lot of people not directly involved in Ubuntu who are helping to bring about this new age of Linux). It will be an interesting few years.



Babylon 5: The Lost Tales

  on August 7th, 2006

This is something I’ve heard whispers of for a couple of months but in the past couple of weeks it has been confirmed by JMS himself: Babylon 5 is back (and not in pog form).

In a newsgroup posting JMS says “we’re looking at 3 half-hour episodes/stories for the first DVD, with additional features and the like in the other half hour. Each story will be worked around a given established character, the specifics of which are still TBD contingent upon availabilities and other issues.”

Yes, it is direct to DVD. This is certainly a brave move by Warner Brothers and very interesting that they should choose B5 for this experiment. It makes sense – B5 has made a fortune in DVD sales, even all these years after the series ended. There is undoubtedly still a market for it, the fans are still there. A general viewing audience? Probably not enough to sustain a new TV series but a targeted DVD release? I think so, I hope so. So do they. B5 was a revolutionary series in a number of ways, obviously it’s use of CGI effects, it’s story arc (and lack of reset button), it’s being filmed in 16:9. It also came in under budget each and every season, despite it’s minuscule budget compared to Trek (for example) – this alone is all but unheard of. That last fact, I am sure, had as much to do with the decision to try this with B5 than anything else. JMS was a safe pair of hands producer with a flair for story. There is only one other series I can see this working with right now. Somebody bung Whedon some money too!

My biggest hope with this is that JMS has full reign again. I rather liked Crusade. In fact I can’t help but look back at the first half of B5 season one and compare it with Crusade. Crusade was, for me, better. It hadn’t quite found it’s feet but it was more consistent and showed more promise than was immediately evident with B5 episodes 1-13. Of course we all know how B5 improved in leaps and bounds, particularly into seasons 2 and 3. That being the case, what goodness did we have in store for us in Crusade? It makes me sad to even think about it. I blame the Apocalypse Box… Crusade wasn’t perfect by any means and it certainly suffered (fatally, in the end) from studio interference. That was nothing compared to the mess that was Legend of the Rangers. Not all the Sci-Fi channel’s fault but I, at least, put most of the blame for Legend of the Rangers with them. Leave JMS to do his thing, WB!



Another weekend over

  on August 7th, 2006

Not a completely unproductive weekend but not earth shattering either.

Last night, Sunday, I was messing around with MAME. It would really be nice to get some proper arcade style joysticks and that flat panel TV I’ve been promising myself for a couple of years. A decent Linux clone of Gauntlet wouldn’t go amiss either (running at 1920 × 1080 would be fantastic!) I was never much into Arcade Games, with the possible exception of the original Star Wars when on holiday, I was always far too tight to waste my limited pocket money on them – especially given I could play on my Atari as much as I wanted. Still, it is now possible to play real arcade games for free on a PC (there are a few made freely available by the copyright holders) and I was very impressed with the home built Arcade Cabinet I saw at LUGRadio Live 2006… This is ties in with my plans for the TV room becoming a real home cinema room – big flat screen (preferably Hi-Def) TV, a couple of rows of chairs, the second row raised up somehow. Now perhaps also a podium that can be slid in front of the TV that contains either 2 or 4 arcade joysticks. It could work! It will certainly be expensive and something that won’t happen this year!

Talking of expensive… On Saturday afternoon I met up with Keith and Tony and we had a drink at their favourite Coffee Shop and then wandered around a few shops. I was on the look out for the DVD for the First Series of Extras, hoping to find it on special offer somewhere – it has been out for a good few months now. I only found it in one place, HMV, and it was full RRP – £21.99! I don’t think so! A quick look at Froogle when I got home found it online for £8.95. That’s rather more like it. Less than half the price for the same thing. The only downside is that I will have to wait a few days for it to arrive. That’s a price I’m willing to pay! This all rather reminds me of someone, who shall remain nameless, who just bought the DVD Box Set of the 2005 Doctor Who (just the Eccleston episodes, not the Christmas Invasion) for full retail of £70! It’s hard to believe anyone paid full RRP for that set, everyone else I know bought it for more like £40-£45. That’s quite a difference. It didn’t even occur to him that he might get it cheaper elsewhere. The moral of the story, think before you pay.