Rupert Goodwins' Diary

We've annoyed Oxford intellectuals, got it in for some innocent fish and got Microsoft bang to digital rights. And it’s a certain chip's first birthday. What a week.

Monday 8/03/2004
The trouble with the Web is that it's full of filth. And filth cannot be allowed: it's particularly dangerous in the US, where a flash of a woman's chest has traumatised a nation previously so inured to the gratuitously corrupting that it allowed "Police Academy Six: City Under Siege" to be produced and distributed.

It takes more than the underside of Janet Jackson's boob to worry us Old World sophisticates, of course, which is why David Blunkett is teaming up with US deputy attorney general Jim Comey to clamp down on the most dangerous, pervasive and evil aspect of the Net, Which would be, er, necrophilia. 

Um. Now, there is no doubt that as disturbing and unpleasant perversions go, necrophilia probably counts as one of the worst. I don't know for sure: despite many happy years spent poking my nose into however many of the Net's dodgy corners as I've cared to visit, I've never found the urge to go looking for that sort of jolly. Neither have I stumbled across it by accident, been pointed to it by mischief making friends or had any sort of contact whatsoever with Stiffnet or whatever the webring for such sights is called. I don't even know what the nickname for the activity is -- and I have a certain perverse pride in keeping up to date with sexual slang.

I have only the sketchiest notion of what it's all about, and that's fine by me.

So why concentrate on this, Home Secretary Dave? Well, it turns out that one mad sex killer was subsequently shown to have visited such a site: ban the sites and mad sex killers will go away, is the logic. You may be able to see some flaws here: it's the same old censorship story all over again. I thought we'd finished with that one?

It couldn't be that our wise leaders are just itching to get the power to ban stuff in general, and they've chosen a starting point so obscure and so unarguably nasty that nobody can or will complain? After all, no warning story has ever started "First, they came for the necrophiliacs, and I said nothing…"

It might be an idea to concentrate on stuff that is genuinely disturbing people who really don't want it, like pornographic spam: not only does it upsetms of people, it is hindering net access for many of those who could most benefit from the Web.

When drastic cures are proposed for problems that don't really exist, it's always a good idea to ask why.

Tuesday 9/03/2004
Let nobody say that our greatest and most ancient universities are set in their ways. Today, top news terrier Graeme Wearden fearlessly penetrates the Oxford Internet Institute -- under the patronage of Oxford U itself -- to dig out hot poop on information warfare. He got his story, but against the odds. For although the OII seeks to become -- take a deep breath -- "the world's leading multi-disciplinary academic centre focused on furthering understanding of the economic, political, institutional, scientific, legal and other social factors shaping the Internet and its implications for society," it's not entirely comfortable in the brave new world which it so wishes to understand.

For example, it's been set up since 2001 and has already divined that the Net is "a phenomenon that goes far beyond its basic technical capabilities and layers of diverse and increasingly powerful services and applications to encompass all the people, services, information, and technologies that are intertwined in this 'network of networks'." -- not bad going for three years of intensive intellectual analysis. But it hasn't quite twigged that people might want to access "this 'network of networks'" as part of their job, which is why the seminar Wearden attended ran in a room with no mobile phone coverage and not a sniff of Wi-Fi.

Undeterred, our sterling sleuth pulled out his laptop and proceeded to document the goings-on with the intention of filing later in the day. Oh dear. So intense is the cerebration, so focused the intellect at these things that the sound of someone typing provoked a sea of outraged glares. "It was like letting rip an enormous fart in the British Library Reading Room," the uncomfortable hack would have said afterwards were he as rude as I am, "only slightly less smelly".

However, he wasn't entirely blameless for the next outrage he perpetrated on the mighty minds of the OII. The day was wearing on and the discussions were wearing thin, and the quiet murmurings of the speaker merged seamlessly with the whisper of the air conditioning and his daydreams of sundrenched beaches… and feeling his attention wander, he elected to take what NASA call a Power Nap: a few minutes of sleep that refresh and reinvigorate. Spacemen do it, pilots do it, even captains at sea: but they take a precautionary measure that our hero neglected -- they remove their hands from the controls. As his hands slumped across the keyboard, the autorepeat kicked in and the keyboard buffer steadily filled -- until the computer decided enough was enough and started to bleep, loudly and repeatedly.

He woke up shortly afterwards: the speaker hadn't actually thrown a chalk eraser at his head but that was probably due to the podium being to heavy to act as a projectile.

Wearden's campaign for an honorary degree from the Uni, we hear, has some way to go.

Wednesday 10/03/2004
A number of my otherwise cultured, smart and perceptive pals have a curious and inexplicable fondness for harming innocent fish. They -- the pals, not the fish -- willingly travel around the world in search of spots of incredible natural beauty, only to pull on long rubber boots, wade into the middle of some otherwise perfectly gorgeous river and proceed to harass the local aquatic wildlife with sharp hooks embedded in fake food, dangled on the end of very expensive lengths of high-tech carbon fibre.

Whenever I express incomprehension at this, they look at me sadly and say "But Rupert, how can you not understand? The marvellous scenery? The solitude? The joy of pitting one's wits against the wily trout?" The marvellous scenery I'll grant them: oddly enough I don't find the vision of protean splendour that is a silver river threading through the primeval greens of a distant valley much improved if you stick a middle-aged journalist in silly clothes and waving a big stick around slap bang in the middle. Sit on the bank and look inconspicuous, man. As for solitude, how this is improved by being up to your family jewels in a mixture of cold water and mud is a mystery. And the wily trout? It's a fish. We left that particular strand of evolution behind in the Late Devonian, and frankly I'm glad.

As far as I'm concerned, if you want to best a cold-blooded animal without the wit to tell the difference between a mayfly and a feather you might as well toss a stick of dynamite in, pour yourself a stiff Oban and wait for the bodies to float to the surface. They've had their chance: we worked out nitrogen chemistry while they were busy spurting their milt over gravel. It's payback time.

But even I can see the fun in the Fishing-CAM. Designed by Koreans -- a nation with a long history of fondness for our finny friends -- it is a wireless Webcam that sits on the end of your line and relays scenes of subaquatic carnage to a pole-mounted monitor. With it, you can watch in delight as the dinosaurs of the deep bumble around and impale themselves on your barbs. Giggle in happiness as their cold, flat eyes alight on the unfortunate worm proffered for their pleasure. Get that keen thrill of anticipation as you see their gaping mouths clamp over cold steel nemesis, seconds before the line starts to tug.

But it's not enough for me to abandon my country walks for the pleasures of befuddling some zero-IQ critter. I want proper hi-tech: I want full 3D sonar linked to an auto-guided harpoon, with target grading and prioritisation. I want these ancient failures to fully realise quite how feeble their eat-or-flee hardwired reflexes are against mankind at the height of his creative technological powers.

I don't just want them beaten, even if they're displayed in full 25 frames per second colour as it happens. I want them roundly humiliated. Then, and only then, will I consider fishing a suitable pastime for a grown man.

Thursday 11/03/2004
A long day at Microsoft's London HQ, and it's our own fault. MS has realised that one of the problems it has with digital rights management is bad press -- to be precise, we don't understand what it is, what it's for, how it works or why anyone would want it. But we do think it's probably a bit suss.

Microsoft has also realised that wheeling out marketing people to persuade us hard-bitten hacks is rarely a recipe for success. So -- somewhat unusually -- we have two fresh-faced young programmer types from the project itself to talk to a select group of the UK's most cynical tech scribblers, plus a handful of other MS employees along to watch the entertainment.

There are more than six hours of briefing scheduled, which seems excessive to start off with but soon proves inadequate. Presented with people who know what they're talking about, our crack team of inquisitors dig in with glee: not a slide goes past on the projector without a discursive question or five. To their credit, Team MS starts off with a proper bit of expectation adjustment: what the Rights Management Services does isn't hack proof, it isn't all-inclusive and it isn't the greatest thing since bakeries acquired the slicer. In fact, at one point it seems that the marketing slogan should be "RMS: It's Better Than Nothing". Remarkable frankness from the chaps at the codeface, and it's welcome.

But some things don't change. Slide after slide emphasise the open standards on which RMS is built -- as swarms of keys and certificates flood the diagrams and document flowcharts, it's easy to overlook the little thing in the middle that mediates the whole business. The Lockbox is a chunk of code that actually does the decryption and key management on a client: it's been carefully safeguarded so as not to run under a debugger or a virtual machine, is resistant to any analysis or fiddling, and it runs under pure Windows only. As unopen as you get: "but you can always write one for another operating system", Without Microsoft's consent? "Er, no. You'll need a business relationship with us."

Oh well. Never mind. Trusted computing still means trusting Microsoft to run the shop --and this from a company that has just released a security patch which ruins spam filters in Outlook, effectively giving users the choice between exposure to dangerous code or exposure to spammy pop-up message overload.

Friday 12/03/2004
It is, says Intel's happy press release, Centrino's first birthday! Congratulations, and isn't it growing up so quickly? The precocious mobile technology has been spotted everywhere, from petrol stations in Norway to the crater of Mount Etna -- although it's not clear whether it can cope with everything Scandinavian truckers or spouts of red-hot Italian lava can throw at it. And who can deny Intel's parental pleasure as the company reports that "The trend of consumer adoption is reflected in the creation of exclusive laptop bag designs for Intel, by international fashion designer Julien Macdonald, to celebrate the growing role that technology plays in women’s lives." Not quite sure how Centrino has added to this fashion statement -- perhaps the bags have special heart-shaped cut-outs through which one can gaze lovingly at the logo -- but it's still pleasing that wireless networking, once the uttermost height of geek, is now a suitable bedfellow for the most stylish.

I wouldn't want to spoil the birthday party by being churlish, but as Intel isn't actually having a party I'm on safe ground. The Pentium M may be a charming child, but where oh where is its promised younger sibling, the even more talented Dothan? And we just love those cute little mini-PCI cards with the wireless networking bits on: we'd love them even more if they had dual-band capabilities; what better birthday card could a young processor have? And as for Intel's press release claim that: " Now, with further technology innovations, Intel plans to build on the revolution that's taking place to create a world without wires," how about getting on board with your pals on IEEE 802.15.3a and agreeing some interoperability standards for ultrawideband?

Oh, sorry, that's all a bit harsh for a first-year-old's birthday party. Its lower lip is quivering and the eyes are welling up. So let's forget all that and just say well done, Centrino. Not a bad first twelve months on earth, not bad at all.


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