Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The future's not so bright if you're a lawyer with a wireless network and a fondness for roast chestnuts.

Monday 18/11/2002
Ah, wireless. It's so nice when one's personal obsession segues so well with one's work -- as Dr Shipman doubtless often murmured to himself. Today alone has seen news on the spread of Wi-Fi across the English landscape, with public access points sprouting up like so much giant hogweed, while a report from the US says wireless chipmaker Agere has demonstrated a 162Mbps system. I'm getting details of 'new, improved, best ever' wireless networking standards about once a week at the moment, and it shows no signs of slowing down. I say, chaps. It's a genuine boom. But with the good side of massive excitement and investment come the same old sins. Incompatibility, hyperbole and more than a sniff of snake oil are all readily discernable, with people keener to get their bright idea out there than to make sure it plays well with others. Wireless isn't like any other computing technology: it has the potential to mess up other people over quite a wide area, computer users or not, and as more and more gadgets and other devices crowd onto the airwaves there will be some head-on clashes. In the old days, this was avoided by the governments of the world keeping a very tight rein on things. You couldn't transmit anywhere unless you stuck to the rules, and the rules were set in stone. Break the rules, and grim men turned up at your door equipped with a scowl and a copy of the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1949. These days, tuning around the FM band in London makes it sound like you can't get arrested for anything short of transmitting Photoshopped pictures of the Queen dancing naked round a flagpole over the top of the News at Ten. The day will come, and it won't be long, when little Johnny's illicit downloads on his home wireless network get into the computer of the charming old lady next door. It'll be tabloid heaven -- but meanwhile, you'd best check the security on your own 802.11b wireless broadband gateway. Tuesday 19/11/2002
Of course, if you really do want to be arrested for illegal broadcasting from your home network, the best way to go about it is to move some MP3s around. I'm surprised that nobody's suggested that FAST build a few detector vans and start to skulk around a few dark alleyways, sniffing the air and looking for the signature of unauthorised software to waft past on the waves. As from tomorrow, the rules change -- if you have any unlicensed software on your PC at work, the police can seize everything technical in the entire company and take it away. That'll go down well -- and if you think they're going to restrict their activities to companies, well, why should they? Although it's hard not to get a certain warm glow from the rumour that next year, FAST is going to concentrate on what is apparently the biggest hotbed of non-compliance in the commercial world -- and no, it's not dodgy retailers, journalists or estate agents. Lawyers and accountants are in the cross-hairs, apparently, for their cobbler's children approach to sticking to the letter of the law. Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch, and it has the added bonus that the best way to get an unjust law changed is to apply it to the lawyers. Expect some high profile lawsuits fought all the way to Europe, as disgruntled legal eagles object to having their nests denuded of everything from the wires in the wall to the fax machine in the postroom. Wednesday 20/11/2002
You know Microsoft is getting nervous about something when it feels the need to talk to people -- and not just to those browsing its internal FTP servers. Not to journalists either, of course: we get talked at a lot, but that's not quite the same. Today, however, in a hotel room in Central London, Microsoft has assembled some of its biggest cheeses and invited a handful of various software and Web-hosting partners to come for a real heart-to-heart. The fromage le plus grande is Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of MS Europe, and there's a fair smattering of the more mature cheddars and stiltons of the UK company. And somewhere behind the curtains, drawn by the heady scent of ripe fumes from the cheeseboard, your very own fly on the wall. It turns out that Microsoft is worried about, well, all sorts of things. Why people were so keen on Unix, what they thought of Microsoft itself, what was going wrong in the great march forward, Should we provide a whole bunch of Linux-like command line utilities, was one question posed to the assembled hewers of code and sellers of Web services. Why do so many people leave university with such a dread dislike of Windows, was another: Microsoft may have last have woken up to the symptoms of its big problems, but it wasn't clear it was prepared to make the full diagnosis. And guess what the peasants from the codeface actually wanted to talk about: support, licensing, product registration, maintainability... the sort of things that everyone's been bashing on about at tedious length forever and a day. People piped up and said they had better support from open-source vendors, and that the new licensing scheme sucked wet farts from dead pigeons. As for Microsoft's popular image as the Borg -- it runs deep, even among the people whose businesses depend most intimately on working with Microsoft at a technical level. "We're amazed to see you here," said one partner. "We expected to find five telephones on a desk, with buttons to press if we wanted to talk to you and a lot of music on hold." Lots of notes were taken: whether this will go any further than various other Microsoft attempts to elicit criticism, we shall see. The cheeses made their excuses and left at this point, leaving the panel with an open tab in the hotel bar, a fancy fleece apiece (much better than they ever give journalists, chiz chiz) and the promise of an Xbox with a couple of games, to be delivered in time for Christmas. But watch out for those command line utilities. Thursday 21/11/2002
It's taken a while, but the London Transport smartcard scheme is going public. The last stage of testing before it goes properly live starts today, with 80,000 members of staff in the London Transport system being issued with Oyster cards. That's a lot of people -- no wonder the fares keep going up. Of course, the benefits to the passenger are being touted heavily -- convenience, security and the possibilities of using the cards to get discounts on other services. It also merges nicely with the overt Big Brother attitude of Transport for London: now they don't only have you on camera, they can tell who you are from the machines that let you on the bus or tube in the first place. All very well, provided only that this information stays on the network and no bad people find a way in: it'll be a field day for stalkers and others if they can type in the name of their prey into Google and find out that they're currently on the 73 to Stoke Newington. This also raises the potential for Uncle Ken's traffic congestion scheme -- where all drivers in Central London will incur a £5/day charge -- to be extended to pedestrians. Will readers be placed on all the entrances to the West End during the Christmas shopping rush? Never mind the human rights issues: if this rids the place of plump secretaries blocking the pavements with yard-wide bags of retail booty, entire herds of Northerners ambling slack-jawed at 0.05 miles an hour past HMV while a giant tide of annoyed humanity builds up behind them, and anyone who's ever sold or bought a roast chestnut in their lives, then I'm all for it. Friday 22/11/2002
After a week where big companies did daft things and the economy showed no real signs of doing anything other than twitching on the carpet in a puddle of its own drool, a man can get a bit morose about high technology. So top marks -- as always -- to Need To Know, that splendid proof of life despatched weekly from deep within the rainforest of geek culture. Today, they highlight the doings of one Dan Kaminsky, an American old-skool hacker who bores through network stacks like a death-watch beetle presented with a particularly tasty oak-panelled church. He lives at www.doxpara.com, although it's no place for people who think a MAC is a kind of Apple. Anyone who's ever done some serious low-level network programming will know that TCP/IP is a lot more baroque than it may appear from a distance. You know how the Internet works -- find an address by looking up a domain name in a database, bung that address on the front of a chunk of data, and send the whole thing to your ISP. Routers happily read the address and send the data on: it hits the destination and that's that. Simple, eh? That's a bit like saying playing the guitar is a matter of pressing down the right strings and hitting them with a plectrum. Kaminsky takes a more Hendrixian approach, finding the parts of the IP spec that everyone else ignores and making the Internet do things that you'd swear were impossible by the laws of physics. He can piggyback traces on otherwise impeccable datastreams, scan thousands of ports seemingly simultaneously without having to keep track of what he's done, even create a virtual router that just appears somewhere but is totally divorced from whatever hardware is running it. That's particularly mind-bending: it can make a whole set of computers share a single Internet address and all the packets sent to it. Think what that means for peer-to-peer, and giggle. All this is gloriously creative, and fully revives my faith in the deeply twisted. The prettiest and most evocative product of the Kaminsky mind is called phentropy, some software that gathers apparently arbitrary sets of data and plots them into a three-dimensional scattergraph. Relationships within those sets then become apparent as structures within that graph, and shapes condense out of the starfield. When adopted to Internet routing tables and other interesting working data, the results can be almost infinitely fascinating. I've long had the notion that as we build our global mesh of data, we'll sooner or later need to build the telescopes to see what's actually going on in there. Or is it out there? This could be the Galilean archetype we need. To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.

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