UFOs in Utrecht

We’re just back from a few days in NL. Didn’t take many photos, but we did manage to catch a UFO parked on the side of a building in the middle of Utrecht. After discussing the matter with Alex this evening, we concluded that the aliens had simply run out of petrol, and didn’t realise that on this planet you’re supposed to park on the ground, in designated parking areas. Nothing to worry about.

UFO in Utrecht

I suck at poker…

…but that’s okay. The idea is that over time I will suck less, and that eventually I will start to blow. (Hang on…)

a starting hand Anyway, this evening I played in my first live (non-internet) game that didn’t involve just me and some friends sitting around a table. The Swordfish and I went along to a £10 Hold’em tournament at the Maybury casino, one of Scotland’s biggest regular poker venues. This was, incidentally, the first time I have ever set foot in any casino, ever.

I expected to be nervous, and I was. I knew it was a pot-limit game, which is not what I usually play, so I expected to be unsteady in my reading of the hands, and I was. What I hadn’t been prepared for, though, and what blew me out of the water completely, was that it was a rebuy tournament.

We started off with £500 in tournament chips, and the blinds started at £25 and £50, which gives each player a mere 10 big bets in their stack. This gave me pause, as it’s not much to go on, and I was surprised to see two guys go all-in on the first hand…until the loser called for a rebuy…and suddenly it all made horrible sense.

There’s no excuse for me not sniffing out the format of the game beforehand, but the realisation that I hadn’t budgeted for rebuys, and was therefore immediately short-stacked against everyone who had, gave me the heebiedabajeebies. After seeing another two rebuys in the next three hands, I played like a total monkey for the following three, and found myself out in 39th place…of 39. I could have called for a rebuy, but my whole plan for the evening hinged on the fact that £10 was what I was willing to play with, and I don’t gamble with more than I am willing to lose.

Don’t ask about the hands. The memory is still…too painful.

Speed up your laptop with a new hard disk

If you’re feeling dissatisfied with the speed of your laptop, there are a couple of quick and relatively low-cost ways to give it a bit of extra zing. The first option is to add more RAM. Most modern laptops make their memory slots easily accessibly by means of small panel that you can open up with nothing more than a screwdriver. Check with somewhere like Crucial to find out what memory modules you need, slap ’em in, and watch it go.

The second option is less known, but it is definitely the connoisseur’s choice: upgrade the hard disk. The ease with which this can be done varies greatly between manufacturers. With some, there’s a simple panel you unscrew; with others, you might have to consult Google to find a guide to fully opening up the case. And the reason a new hard disk can give you a speed boost is that most present-day laptops are fitted with a 4200 rpm disk, which is slow, slow, slow. The faster a hard disk spins, the faster it can provide your processor with data, and the faster your machine will load programs, read and save files, and even boot and shutdown. In fact, the whole machine will just feel snappier.

As a rough illustration, have a look at these (informal) timings from a WinXP laptop (Dell Inspiron 5150) I just upgraded:

Operation 4200rpm drive 7200rpm drive
From power up to Windows logon screen 46s 29s
Start up Outlook 2003 (cold start) 9s 5s
Start up Firefox (cold start) 13s 7s

Faster disks are more expensive than slower ones, but you can get a sweet little 80GB Hitachi 7K100 Travelstar drive (7200rpm) for around £100. If you’re thinking about buying a new laptop because your own one has lost its zing, you might consider upgrading its disk rather than splashing out many times that price for a new machine.

One thing that always puts me off upgrading my main hard disk is the hassle of reinstalling Windows, applying patches, and configuring the system–and that’s all before I get round to installing all the applications I need for my everyday life. But…there is a BETTER WAY! Oh boy, is it better. Basically, you clone your disk (and its whole Windows installation) using open-source (free) tools.

The key requirements for this solution are a network connection, and access to an FTP server with LOTS OF SPACE (enough to hold your old hard disk). Ideally, this FTP server should be on your local network, because if it’s out on the internet, data transfers are going to take ages.

First of all, go to http://www.feyrer.de/g4u/ and download the g4u ISO image. Burn this image to a blank CD, and then use it for booting up the machine whose hard disk you’re upgrading (with the old hard disk still inside it). By following the instructions on the g4u web site, you can use the uploaddisk tool to upload a bit-for-bit copy of your main hard disk to an FTP server of your choice. (It will upload as a single, gzip-compressed file to save space.) Depending on the speed of the machine and the network, this may take some time (i.e. several hours), but it’s hands-off time. Set it going overnight, and come back the next morning.

Next, replace the old hard disk with the new one. Don’t bother with formatting. (YAY.)

Boot up with the g4u disk again, and now use the slurpdisk tool to download the old hard disk onto the new one. Again, this may take some time, but it will probably be faster than the upload.

Remove the g4u disk, and restart the machine. Assuming it was Windows you were running before, then your machine should boot up as normal without any further changes.

If your new disk is the same size as the old one, you’re done. If the new disk is bigger than the old one, though, (not an unreasonable assumption) there is one further step to take. If you go into the Disk Management tool, you’ll see that your new hard disk has a partition on it of the same size as the old disk, and a bunch of unallocated space. If you’re happy with adding a new drive letter to your machine, you can create a new logical drive in the unallocated space. However, if you want your system drive to make use of the whole disk’s space, you’ll need additional tools, because Windows doesn’t have built-in ability to resize your system partition.

Enter Knoppix. Go to the Knoppix web site and download the iso image for version 4.0.2 (or later), and burn this to a CD. Boot up from this CD into Linux, and use the QTParted tool (already present on the Knoppix disk) to resize your system partition. (Further instructions are available at the ntfsresize page.)

End result: a faster, bigger hard disk, containing an identical clone of your previous system installation. Although the elapsed time may be longer than the time for a complete Windows reinstall, you don’t have to worry about configuration or post-installation tasks. In my book, that’s a BIG win.

Happy stalking! (part 2)

Imogen Heap - Speak For YourselfWhile I’m on the subject of stalking, I wanted to mention a couple of beautiful songs. When it comes to music, I’m not actually much of a lyrics person. I’ll often listen to a song for weeks, sub-vocally singing along with the chorus, without having a clue what the song is actually saying. So it sometimes comes as a surprise to me when I discover that a light and happy, positively bouncy pop song turns out to be…potentially darker. Take, for example, Imogen Heap’s song Goodnight and Go, from her album Speak For Yourself (soon to be a new single):

Follow you home
You’ve got your headphones on
And your dancing
Got lucky, beautiful shot
You’re taking everything off

Watch the curtains, wide open
And you fall in the same routine
Flicking through the TV
Relaxed and reclining
And you think you’re alone…

It’s a wonderful, catchy song, but definitely treading the fine line between sexy and psycho.

Bleu - RedheadAnother hauntingly sweet and beautiful stalker song comes from the album Redhead by Bleu, one of my favourite CDs from 2003. (Apparently he has another album in the works–I’m looking forward to that very much.) From Watching You Sleep:

I confess I looked up your work address
It wasn’t fate that bumped into you that day
But it’s still me who holds your hand when your asleep
Cause you don’t know what to do about your life

So I’m watching you sleep – right outside your window
Inches away from sleeping with you
You don’t even know it
Watching you sleep all night.

Mmmm. Warm and fuzzy and slightly crazy.

Happy stalking! (part 1)

After a year of writing for the Movie Blog, my good buddy Richard has started up a film-related web site of his own: Filmstalker.co.uk. (Films talker, geddit?)


He’ll be bringing you film news and reviews, and maybe even the odd podcast here and there. Although the site will cover all types of film, Richard has a particular interest in modern horror and eastern cinema, so he’ll probably be bringing you lots of goods from those directions.

Good luck, Richard!

Real life phishing

Charlie Stross has just written about an attempt to steal his bank security details not via email, but over the phone:

Some bastard just tried to steal my bank account. I have no idea how they decided to target me, but from the sound on the line they’re running a call centre, and from the accent, they may not be based in the UK at all. If I had taken it on trust that my caller was from my bank and answered their questions, I would be in a world of hurt right now. I’m pretty sure they don’t have my bank details (I don’t leave statements lying around) but there’s one due real soon now that hasn’t arrived yet … and you can never be sure what’s happened to the mail that you haven’t received. Barclays aren’t a major high street presence in Scotland (they’ve got three branches in the whole country) and my phone number has the Edinburgh dialing code, so to be targeted that way implies that they knew beforehand that I am a Barclays customer and were just looking to fill in the gaps they need. Which is worrying. It implies they know more about me than they’d get by just sticking a pin in the phone book.

Something similar happened to us last year, but I’m not sure if it was an actual con, or just clueless behaviour on the part of Ikea. We had just bought our new kitchen, and paid for a large chunk of it with a new Ikea store credit card (to get the 15% discount). The following week, someone called us one evening claiming to be from a company representing Ikea, and wanting to gather some extra information to complete our “customer profile”. Sure. The conversation went something like this:

Them: So, to start with, could I take your Mother’s maiden name?

Me: No.

Them: Uh…we need that information to verify your identity.

Me: But you’re calling me. Surely you know who I am. Or are you just calling people at random?

Them: I understand, but we’re dealing with your personal information here, and the data protection laws won’t allow me to proceed unless I can confirm who I’m speaking to.

Me: Okay…so how do I know who I’m speaking to? You could be anyone.

Them I’ve already explained that we’re a company working on behalf of Ikea to help them complete their store card customer information records.

Me: And…?

Them: (Getting frustrated) Look, if you don’t believe me, I can put you through to my supervisor, and you can take it up with him.

Me: So what on earth is that going to prove? He could just be some bloke you’ve pulled in off the street. If I have no idea who you are, how am I supposed to know who he is?

Them: How about I give you our phone number then, so you can call us back.

Me: And that phone number could just be pulled out of a hat, too. I’d prefer to just call Ikea’s head office and ask them to put me through to you.

Them: But we’re not part of Ikea–we’re an external company acting on their behalf.

Me: We’re not going to get any further here are we? You have no way of proving who you are, and until you do I’m not going to give you any personal details. In fact, I’m going to hang up now.

There was something fishy about the call right from the start, and I tend to be pretty belligerent about companies calling us in the evening anyway. It might have been for real. We had just got an Ikea store card, and it’s plausible that Ikea (or an agent of theirs) would to do a follow-up call to pad out their customer database. But:

  • …even if it was legitimate, I had nothing to gain by handing over information to them for free. Companies pay good money for targeted marketing details. (You can even use an on-line calculator to figure out exactly how much.) What was I getting in return? An interrupted dinner.
  • …even if by chance I had missed the small print in the store card’s contract that said I was obliged by law to fill out a dozen marketing questionnaires, and that I would be in deep trouble if I failed to oblige, I’m sure they would have found some other way to contact me afterwards.
  • …even if they had been able to reel off details like the store card number, its credit limit, and how much my current balance was, this is information they could have acquired from a single intercepted statement. How many bank and credit card statements would a single stolen post bag yield? Lots, probably. How many people would notice if they didn’t get their statement one month? Not so lots.
  • …even if the whole thing was legitimate, Ikea deserve a good smack for not having a clue about this whole “authentication” thing. They want me to prove who I am, but I have to take their identity on trust? Aye, shining.

The best advice for a situation like this is what Charlie says at the end of his article: never disclose secret information — like your banking details or passwords — through a communications channel which you did not initiate for yourself.

The bad guys really are out there, and it pays to be on your guard when it comes to your money and identity at all times.