Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Fish fingers, rampaging robots and Grateful Dead lyricists cheer Rupert up, but it's nothing Apple and Microsoft can't ruin

Monday 14/3/2005

Our crack reportage squad Dan Ilett and Ingrid Marson are back from Hannover and the sprawling mayhem of CeBIT. It's been a good 'un, but not without incident — especially for Dan. He has a haunted look in his eyes, the air of a man who has come into visceral contact with something from the William Burroughs school of unpalatable reality. I've seen this before in a friend who went to Beijing on business and made the mistake of ordering a dish in a local restaurant that turned out to be very recently deceased snake.

It was all down to accommodation. This is an unsolvable problem in Hannover, a city which tries to live up to its imperial past by being the capital city of European expositions. There aren't enough people there year-round to justify lots of hotels: when the holy pilgrimage of CeBIT happens, therefore, the place is hard pressed to sleep all those well-expensed bodies and you can end up out in the sticks bunking up with a local.

Dan thought he'd got this sorted. Russian antivirus company Kaspersky found out he was going, and offered the use of a friend-of-a-friend's flat in the town itself. Now, the last time the company had thrown a bash in Moscow it was a do of epic splendour — five star hotel, vodka flowing from bejewelled flasks, Faberge eggs in the goody bag, that sort of thing. Not unreasonably, Czar Dan was delighted to accept their kind offer.

He first began to suspect that something was up when the cab driver took him further and further away from the town centre, eventually depositing him in a grim landscape of tower blocks and overgrown allotments. Devotees of cold war Eastern Bloc animation would be right at home.

He found the flat deep within one of the brooding neo-brutalist monstrosities, and tentatively knocked on the door. A large Russian babushka answered: she was pleased to see him, he gathered, but as she spoke one word of English ("This!") and one of German ("Alles!"), communication was haphazard. After being shown around the flat, with much pointing at "This!" and gesturing to "Alles!", he tried to make plain his deep desire for post-journey refreshment. Beer? Food?

"Ah! Vood!" said Babushka, pointing to the freezer. "Errr..." said Dan, but it was too late. She was already at work, frying up ten fish fingers and an egg in a pan full of glutenous oil. She presented this with a flourish, the egg neatly balanced on top of the stack of breadcrumbed cod pieces, and stood back to watch her guest enjoy his meal.

Now, Dan is reasonably omniverous. She was not to know that of all the food in all the world, his most-hated comestible is the fish finger. Why this is, I cannot tell — he's uncomfortable discussing it, and we must assume some complicated childhood trauma — but it's a deep-seated and inviolate disgust. As you may know, he is also polite to a fault. Realising that anyone who'd lived through the Soviet economy would have a certain respect for food, he managed to tuck in and give the appearance of enjoyment. Delighted with that, she delivered the second course — a tin of sardines and a fork.

Things did get better after that — his hostess turned out to be very pleasant company, and the hour and a half trip to the show each day was just one of those CeBIT things. But as he bid his goodbyes, he couldn't help but hear the eerie chuckle of the ghost of Captain Birdseye drift on the cold winter breeze. From such demonic forces, there can be no final escape.

Tuesday 15/3/2005

And talking of William Burroughs, more evidence that his spirit too walks abroad — this time in China. Let me take you to the Institute of Precision Engineering and Intelligent Microsystem, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. This is a bustling, go-head kind of place, and it's recruiting. With a pitch like this; "As the sea accepts all rivers for its capacity, the university seeks every talent for her growth. With great sincerity, we are here inviting distinguished people to join us for joint future brilliance," it's not hard to be seduced by its bright-eyed charm.

Yet beware. There are things afoot at the Institute which are even more terrifying than the miniature black hole that may have been accidentally cooked up recently in Rhode Island. Intelligent microsystems might elicit ideas of tiny, friendly robots bustling around the place cleaning the floor and cooking fish fingers, but the work in Shanghai is of a more, ah, fundamental nature.

A paper in the Journal of Medical Engineering And Technology reveals all. Researchers Zuo J, Yan G, and Gao Z. have created a — oh, let's not be coy — monster. A very small monster, to be sure, just 12 cm long and 7.5mm across, but monstrous in all its tiny respects. Based on the principles of the earthworm, the robot can "move reliably in horizontal and certain declining tubes", driven by one of the micromechanical electric motors which are Shanghai Jiao Tong University's stock in trade. And the nature of these certain declining tubes? What Zuo, Yan and Gao have summoned is what they call a miniature endoscope for colonoscopy. The world will come to know and fear it as the Robot Arseworm.

I have been an avid consumer of science fiction for many years. I have inhabited cyber-dystopias under the cold, titanium thumb of imperial golems, and watched aghast as armies of mad mechanoids lay waste the worlds of their creators. There have been machines the size of planets bent on mankind's destruction, there have been awkward artificial dogs, the all-devouring grey goo of malfunctioning nanotech, even rebelliously sentient brown shoes.

But nothing from the fever dreams of Philip K Dick or Gene Roddenberry comes close to this Shanghai Surprise. It is science at its disinterested, impassive worst — creating for the nominal good a device of the most inhuman evil. What will happen when these things strike out on their own? When the goal of nanotechnology, self-duplication, is achieved? Powerful, autonomous, unstoppable, the creeping swarms will have but one thought in their shiny, snub-nosed artificial minds. To seek out their God-given destiny by any means necessary — and once there, to breed.

We are in the End Times, my children. Make your peace with man and deity, and prepare for the unthinkable.

Wednesday 16/3/2005

Off to the October Gallery in Holborn for the launch of the Creative Commons UK licence. Apart from us and our friends at silicon, the only media organisation represented seems to be the antediluvian industry samizdat NTK, in the ebullient form of Dave Green. He moves around the gallery ceaselessly introducing people to each other, some more than once, while shamelessly clad in a real NTK-branded nylon anorak. Truly, a force of nature at work. It was a very jolly affair, with John Perry Barlow giving a rousing speech about free creativity being a duty, almost an essential attribute, of being human. It's always invigorating to hear one's own instincts articulated with force and precision: I was struck again that in the battles between those who wish to impose ever tighter controls on intellectual property and those who want to limit that control, only one side says what it actually thinks. You don't need to decode the motives behind Creative Commons.

Although both we and Silicon covered the story, there's very little sign of it elsewhere. Which is odd: Creative Commons in the US has been a practical and conceptual success: by letting people distribute their creations with some rights reserved, it's encouraged a lot of sharing of books, media and music — even the movie 'Outfoxed' — while keeping the option open to make some money at it.

This notion — seemingly obvious in retrospect, as good ideas so often are — coincides very closely with what the BBC is planning to do with its Creative Archive. That's going to be a groundbreaking story when it happens, and unique in the world: given the amount of excitement behind it and the BBC's connections with the CC UK people, it's especially bizarre that there's no mention of the launch on the BBC's Web site or news services.

One thing's certain. With more than ten million items released already under the American CC in just over a year, and online services such as the Flickr photo-sharing site already offering CC as a standard option for its contributors, the concept has got huge momentum and is not going away. It's not quite clear that as fast as people try to close down information it's being opened up in other ways, but the battle is closer than perhaps we may have dared to hope.

Thursday 17/3/2005

Back in the commercial world, however, there is little room for the creative remix. Earlier this week, Google unveiled a light-hearted new interface to its search engine modelled on one feature of Apple's OS X. It wasn't much — just a row of icons which increased in size when you hovered a mouse over a selection, much as the Dock does on a Macintosh. It came with a little billet doux bigging up OS X; the whole thing was trailed on Google's developer blog and clearly intended not as a major undertaking, more as a piece of fun that encouraged a bit of thought.

As of today, it's gone. Nobody's saying why, but it has all the signs of lawyer snottiness. Apple is after a patent for making things bigger, and is presumably being its usual hawkish self at batting away anything that might cause corporate distress.

It is possible to wring a few drops of speculation out of this minor example of disproportionate response. Is Apple planning its own search service, based on the OS X interface metaphors? Is it about to start selling other software, perhaps running under Windows or as some form of Web service, that will introduce these ideas to new platforms? Or is it about to get into bed with Google to launch something with bits or all of the above ideas?

Perhaps it's just being Apple. It's certainly shameless in staking out what it considers its intellectual property — the latest example being a concerted effort to wrest from the man who registered it four years ago. Many of the problems experienced by our poor beleaguered giant IT companies could be so easily solved if this sort of retrospective rights grab was ensconced in IP law — why should little people have control of valuable ideas just because they thought of them first? If a large company is prepared to invest heavily in legal procedures, surely it has the right to see a reasonable return on this.

But this is empty chatter. Surely, nobody could deliberately attempt to get complete control over long-established, legally impeccable areas of free commercial enterprise...

Friday 18/3/2005

...Oh, yes they can. Just when you think you've exhausted your stocks of ghast, Microsoft comes along and proves that no matter how badly it's behaved in the past it can still summon up the demonic energy to surpass all known records. It's been found guilty of withholding information unfairly from people who want to write software that works with their servers, and told to cough up. So it has — in the form of an expensive licence that dangles the threat of patent violations over those that choose not to sign up.

This is the equivalent of a vandal being given community service and then using that to redecorate the neighbourhood with spray cans — taking particular care to coat the judge's house. It's hard to know what's more offensive — a word I don't use lightly — the unveiling of Microsoft's agenda to get control over everything that touches its software, or the context of it taking place as a result of the company being declared at fault for this very activity by the highest legal authorities in Europe.

It's worse by far than previous examples of industries being hidebound by patents. One area of personal interest to me is the history of electronics, which largely evolved from the pre-war wireless industry. There, a number of basic patents covered such things as amplification, tuning, transmission and reception: in short order, these were quickly amalgamated by the major players in the industry and a licensing regime imposed that gave them great power over innovation and production. This had some very nasty effects — inventions were effectively stolen and the inventors driven to poverty, in some cases to suicide — but after a while the patents expired and the power bases dissipated, to the general benefit of the industry.

Software isn't like that. Here, patents cover abstract ideas which can be applied to the basic building blocks of software in many different ways; even as one patent expires, a variant can be prepared that just works at a slightly different abstraction. And twenty years in software, the period a patent covers, is vastly more important than the same period for a particular mechanical invention. It is quite plausible that a company or group which gets an edge in patents — and can afford to ruthlessly exploit it — will end up in effective indefinite control of the entire software industry. It is also quite plausible that this will be Microsoft, which you may remember has multiple convictions for abuse of power.

You may not want this to happen. Is anyone listening?


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