Apologies (sort of)

I’d just like to apologise briefly for lots of boring, faintly rant-like original-content-free political posts recently. I’ve got some new projects in the pipeline that might be a bit more interesting. Plus, I’m going to try and write something more intelligent about ID Cards soon, based upon a conversation I had last weekend with some old friends. But don’t hold your breath.

Government + IT = Farce

The BBC headline says it all: “Benefits computer failure chaos”. Do we trust these people to manage the proposed National Identity Register (PDF)? I mean, this isn’t the first time there’s been a complete and utter collapse of a government IT project – in the last week or so the Child Support Agency has also been in the news for similar reasons, and that’s just one example of many. Even if you’re not concerned about the civil liberties implications of the register and card, there are serious questions to ask about the competence of the government to run a scheme like this.

Update: I’ve just read that the catastrophe happened due to a screw-up during a trial upgrade of some of their computers from Windows 2000 to XP. Oh, the joys of Microsoft.

No software patents!

The proposed European software patent legislation could have some pretty serious effects, not least on the ability of smaller players to compete with software giants like Microsoft. Today three European open source luminaries – Linus Torvalds, Michael Widenius and Rasmus Lerdorf – lent their support to the anti-patents campaign. Let’s hope this helps, and that this short-sighted and foolish legislation is kept out of our legal system. (Via Simon Willison.)

Inserting full paths in Excel footers

It turns out that older versions of Excel can’t do this without some assistance. Here’s a macro that will accomplish it:

Sub InsertPathInFooter()
  ActiveSheet.PageSetup.LeftFooter = Application.ActiveWorkbook.FullName
End Sub

Damn long-winded syntax.

Handling mailto links in Firefox

On my setup – Firefox 1.0, KDE 3.2, Thunderbird 0.9, Slackware 10 – clicking on a mailto: link in Firefox does nothing; I wanted this to open a new message in Thunderbird, email address pasted in and ready to go. Thanks to Google, I found the answer pretty quickly – add this line to your user.js:

user_pref("network.protocol-handler.app.mailto","/usr/bin/thunderbird");

Just remember to change /usr/bin/thunderbird to the appropriate path for your installation.

Magnatune: Internet Music Without the Guilt

Magnatune are a record label; they offer their catalogue for download on their website. They also stream the entire catalogue so that you really can try before you buy. Then, if you like what you hear, you can buy the albums for pretty much what you think they’re worth (minimum price $5). You can choose between downloading a copy in a format of your choice or buying a CD. The music is licensed under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license which enables you to share the music with your firends or to make non-commercial derivative works. The artists get 50% of the cash, and they get to retain copyright.

They’ve got a comprehensive information page, so if you’re a producer or an artist or just a music lover, take a look. I’ve only been looking around the site for the last hour or so and I’ve already found some good music, stuff that I’d be happy spending a few quid on. I’ll listen a bit more and then I might just do that.

(Via jclark.org)

Martian methane

That methane has been detected in the Martian atmosphere seems to be irrefutable. The next puzzle is to determine its source: although Terrestrial methane is produced primarily by living organisms, it appears that the quantities detected on Mars could have come from other processes.

I’m always happy to see potential evidence for extra-terrestrial life (especially intelligent life), however unlikely it may be. I’ve got a deep-seated hope that we’re not alone in the universe and I suppose that I’m always on the lookout for something to confirm this. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find anything that doesn’t fall foul of either Occam’s Razor or my built-in bullshit detector. The jury’s still out on this one.

If we do find life on Mars, the next question will be whether or not it’s a long lost cousin, or an unrelated family. Mars and Earth have exchanged matter in the past, so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that someone small once hitched a ride. The discovery of ambiguous structures inside a meteorite from Mars some years back fuelled speculation that micro-organisms may have made the crossing, but the evidence was controversial.

Without wanting to reduce the importance of discovering (comparatively) close relatives elsewhere in the solar system, I’d hope that any life discovered on Mars proved to have evolved independently. Although we’d not be greeting our alien peers, this would imply that life is fairly common and would provide support for the more optimistic values assigned to variables in the Drake equation (ne and fl in particular), which in turn would make the Fermi Paradox more mysterious. And I’m a fan of mysteries as well as aliens, so that’s no bad thing in itself.