Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Fragile data, missing cleverness and a bad date in Amsterdam? Just another weekend for most people, but a whole week for Rupert.

Monday 28/7/2004
How are we this morning? Fresh and full of vim, ready for the week ahead? A little fragile, perhaps, following a rather overexciting weekend.

You're probably not as fragile as the US Justice Department's foreign lobbyists' database. If you turn up in Washington to plead the case of an overseas organisation, government, church choir or whatever, this is the place you register. It's the only way that concerned Americans can find out who's responsible for persuading the administration that the People's Republic of Nastistan should be given foreign aid for painting its children green and making them bathe in pebbles, or some nasty medieval kingdom be supported by the CIA in return for oil.

Only the American People can't find this stuff out, despite having that spiffy legal right to freedom of information, because none of this information is available online and it can't be searched. You have to know what you want to look at, and pay the Department fifty cents a page for whatever turns up. So, er, can we see the whole database, asked the American People.

No, said the Justice Department. It's too fragile. Even an attempt to copy it could destroy it utterly. You what? said the American People. You heard me, said the Justice Department. If we so much as look at the file it could result in curtains. And I'm not going to say anything more about it.

Don't believe this? Have a look for yourself.

Further investigation revealed that the database is running on a Windows 95 computer with ancient laser printers that break down a lot. An upgrade of some sorts is in the works, but you know how it is with moving fragile data about the place -- you need to dim the lights, wrap the network cables in cotton wool, put on some Enya and get the feng shui right. Otherwise you get bits falling off and building up in an untidy pile on the carpet.

It'll be at least December 2004 before it's finished: well, what if someone sneezes? Hayfever season, that's what I'm saying. So all those questions about Saudi lobbyists and the Bush people will have to wait until after the election.

Well, you just can't go out and buy a new computer for a few hundred dollars, you know, then copy stuff around some network gubbins. Fantasy!

Tuesday 29/7/2004
News just in from the States, where a company called Peppercoin has announced version two of its product. Its business is micropayments, the tricky business of extracting small amounts of money from people in return for small services or goods. Easy if you're a newsagent and can hand over a penny gum in return for a penny coin: impossible if you're an online vendor and have to give the credit card company 20 pence for the same transaction.

The original Peppercoin was very clever, very useful and almost totally ignored. It worked by passing digitally signed tokens around the place only some of which got redeemed, thus reducing the number of authorised transactions. Statistically, everyone got what they expected, more or less. Peppercoin was the invention of Ron Rivest and Silvo Micali, MIT professors with a track record in cryptographic cleverness, Rivest being the R in RSA, and it relied on seeing micropayments as being a tiny part of a statistically well-defined very large transfer of funds. Which it is, if you're a statistician.

Alas, accountants care not for statistics and cryptographics: they want the sums to add up to the last boring pfennig. So when Peppercoin said that version 2.0 fixed this -- everyone got exactly what they expected -- and the other drawbacks to 1, special software and having to sign up for an account, I got interested. Not least because I couldn't see how the original scheme could be modified to work like that: the press releases were less than forthcoming and nobody else seemed to know.

So I phoned up Peppercoin, getting a very loquacious chap who had his spiel perfectly polished. But no, nothing juicy. "But how does it work?" I asked a couple of times -- and eventually got the answer. All the clever stuff had been ditched, at least from the sharp end where the money moves around. Instead, the Peppercoin servers take a note of your credit card number the first time you do a small transaction and then get authorisation from the credit card companies for a much larger amount. They then act as authorisation proxies for your next few micropayments, letting you buy stuff without troubling the credit card company computers until you run out of authorisation, when they repeat the exercise. Result: fewer transaction charges, and cheaper transactions.

Which is fine, but hardly what Peppercoin had been trading on as their unique selling point. In particular, it won't scale very well and it's very vulnerable to the credit card companies deciding to implement a similar scheme -- which they could do very quickly if Peppercoin shows signs of eating their 50-cent lunch. No magic MIT cryptostats.

This was almost a news story, but I wanted a response from the credit card companies themselves. I got a very good lesson in news management from their PRs: I was promised a response, then a response from the US, then -- at 5:30 on the dot -- a phone call said "ah, actually, we don't comment on this sort of thing."

Now, that's class.

Wednesday 30/7/2004
A small but talented team is out at the Microsoft Tech Ed Europe 2004 show in Amsterdam, with Editor Matt Loney and Intern Supreme Ingrid Marson following the plot. You might expect a huge event in Amsterdam, stuffed full of itinerant hacks and propeller-head coders, to generate a lot of naughtiness: I couldn't possibly comment, but I'm sure that Matt and Ingrid behaved impeccably throughout and never even thought of partaking in the Dam's dangerous distractions.

If you want more, you'll have to buy me.

However, with Microsoft in control there was little need to hit the whacky baccy. Take Jonathan Murray. VP CTO EMEA, OBE, GCMG and bar. He appeared like a mighty vision on stage to give the keynote -- accompanied not by pole-dancing girls, as one might have hoped, but by endless PowerPoint slides. Mesmerising, even to those not still a little giddy from the previous night -- until one came up with a road map with Longhorn scheduled for 2008.

Amazing. Longhorn -- known inside Microsoft as Longerhorn -- had slipped another year, and this just weeks after the last huge Microsoft briefing. And we were being told in the most public way possible.

"No, no, no!" explained the PR afterwards, perma-grin looking a little more pasted on than usual. "It was a mistake! He meant to type 2007. Really. Longhorn in 2007! Yes? Yes!"

Ok. We'll believe you. It's a little like Santa Claus getting December and March mixed up, or Nasa temporarily forgetting that Cassini was heading for Saturn and putting up a picture of Bognor instead, but these are the sorts of mistakes that are easy to make when you're chief technical officer of a company and are talking about the biggest event of the next three years.

I'll give the final word to Diary pal Peter Ibbotson, who was so excited at the Tech Ed voice over IP phone system that he called me on it, Just because he could.

"Hey, Rupert?"

"Yes?"

"It's me, Peter. I'm at Tech Ed. They've got this really cool phone sys…"

bleeeeeeeeeeeeeep

And that was that.

Thursday 1/7/2004
Another week, another series of fun SCO disclosures. The latest intriguing, innovative and lawyer-frightening claim is that ex-SCO customer DaimlerChrysler is in breach of a licence for software DC stopped using seven years ago. Why is this? Because one of the conditions of the licence was that on request, a SCO customer has to divulge the list of 'authorised CPUs' on which the software runs. DaimlerChrysler, having not run the software for the best part of a decade, quite reasonably replied with "There are nil CPUs".

"Aha!" said SCO. "Nil is not a list. You owe us a list. We'll see you in court."

Yes, really.

You may remember, if you can bear to think about it, that SCO's main gripe was that Linux contained stolen Unix code -- and by extension, all open-source software was suspect, because you just never knew. As IBM pointed out this week, after more than a year of litigation SCO has failed to show a single line of this abducted code -- and if you were going to nick code, the stupidest place to put it would be in open source software where everyone could see.

You can get away with it, however, in proprietary, closed-source software. Whether this is what's happened with Google's beta-y community service, Orkut, isn't clear -- but another company, Affinity Engines, claims so. It'll doubtless go to court, but so far there's no doubt of some of the facts: Affinity Engines was started in order to develop community software and employed Orkut Buyukkokten -- the eponymous inventor. Orkut subsequently went to Google. Affinity says it has spotted many points of similarity to its development system, including nine bugs: Google says no, and that Affinity has refused the services of a neutral arbitrator. Off to the judge we go, tra-la.

It's positively refreshing to see a case like this develop, with the promise of proper facts, clear reasoning and a black and white decision to be made. But much more of this sort of thing will definitely take the shine off Google, whether the company wins or not: the real world is catching up.

Friday 2/7/2004
We should have guessed that there were more things to do with spurting liquids than cheap printers. The organic semiconductor mob get all excited about spraypainting complete integrated circuits, while the plastic LED people talk about building displays that cover walls. Hackers have modified the tech to squirt messages onto pavements from the backs of bikes, while perfume designers have pots of ideas about custom-mixed scents.

However, the inkjet's finest hour has come: ImagiNail ™. ImagiNail looks like a rather plump laser printer, but with a half-moon slot where the paper output should be. You put your hand in the slot, slip your fingers through the guide rings and psssht, you have a brand-new set of intricate nail paint designs. As well as abstract art and various textures, you can download your own bitmaps and slap 'em on.

This is the perfect mix of high technology and body modification, the breakthrough solution for the neo-pagan noughties. This is just the beginning: dot-matrix tech could be used for permanent tattoos, while a combination of this process and the semiconductor inks could embed our own custom circuits directly into our skin. Imagine getting that warm tingle when your augmented skin swaps biochemical details with a nearby person of the opposite gender, and decides compatibility is assured -- or a warning stab of pain when you pick up a burger that your epidermis recognises as Salmonella City.

That's the good side. The bad side… well, think stag party. Think drunken japes with a body printer, a digital camera and a comatose groom. Imagine being given skin that crawls with pain when you touch a car, after a court decides that taking your licence away isn't quite enough. I say stop this cybergrooming now, before we go too far!

Oh, brave new world that has such nail parlours in it.

Today's star gadget: Galactika! It's clear. It lights up. It's wireless. It's… oh, go and look for yourself. Those whacky Teutons!

And today's unstellar gripe: Web pages that intercept your right-click menu and primly inform you that "You are not authorized to right click on this site". Look, I'll right-click where I like, matey -- and if you're snotty, I've got Control-C to back me up.

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