Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The morals of DRM hacking, the state of the health system, how to talk to pornographers and how a rock star ruined his day. Rupert makes it through another week.

Monday 14/11/2005

Legality. Morality. Country music. This is the trilogy of cultural imponderables that weighs upon me today. Sony BMG is in the process of being flayed alive in public for the sin of installing very nasty software indeed on its customers' PCs, and by the time you read this you’ll know all the ins and outs. None of this reflects well on Sony, which has only the smallest thread of decency left to clothe its nakedness — at least it hasn’t threatened to take the discoverer of the rootkit to court under the Thou Shalt Do No Such Thing clauses of the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Which it could.

Of course, it may not be doing that because the evidence is that its nasty DRM software itself contravenes software licensing, or that the real reason it installed the nasty software was to stop people putting their music onto iPods. So many reasons, so little excuse. Or it could be that it’s just mightily ashamed that all this blew up over a country and western — oops, my mistake, 'southern rock' — CD called Get Right With The Man. Other CDs affected include Neil Diamond, Celine Dion, Cyndi Lauper and Burt Bacharach: perhaps all we need to survive this corporate onslaught is a pair of working ears.

Yet the right thing to do here — find and kill the DRM — is technically illegal. The legal act — burden music with secret and miserable surprises — is immoral. What’s a man to do? Yeah, you’re ahead of me there.

I was faced with a similar dilemma at the weekend. A friend of mine, an Englishwoman born and bred, is on her travels with her laptop. She's also one of a number of pals on the BBC trials of iMP, which as I’ve mentioned is the Corporation's experimental broadband content distribution system. She loves it, and can’t wait for it to go mainstream. Part of the system is DRM, which is used to limit the time a programme is available for to a week; it’s also used to let people download content ahead of time but not see it until the broadcast happens, and finally it limits the iMP distribution to people in the UK.

All these are in place to let the BBC conform to its contractual obligations to its own content providers, talent and so on, and while there are good arguments why this isn’t a long term solution it’s a sensible compromise for a while.

But my pal found herself in a foreign land, laid up in a hotel bed with flu and with nothing to do. She wanted to see her BBC. Her BBC let her download the content, but refused to issue the key. “You’re not on the sceptr’d isle”, it said. “Go away.”

She skyped me at home, and while sneezing moistly out of my speakers — high fidelity telephone systems do have their downsides — went through some experimental procedures we could carry out to bypass this problem. None worked, until I found out that Windows XP has a VPN server built in. From the moment of realisation it was half an hour until she had his key: run the server configuration wizard, set up the firewall’s port forwarding for PPTP and IPsec, try a connection, solve a small IP address conflict, try again: boom. She was me, the DRM rolled over and asked for its tummy to be tickled, and she could sink into her foreign sickbed with a full roster of BBC entertainments. I left the server on for a few days and she had no further problems.

Now: did I do wrong? I certainly helped break a licence condition, so technically yes. Guilty. But she's a licence payer so she's already qualified for the content, the content can’t get any further, the technique isn't easily changed to a more widespread abuse of the system (at least, not undetectably) and is only really of interest to people who live in the UK and can run a server on a domestic broadband connection.

It certainly feels that what I did was a good thing.

I wonder how the head of Sony feels.

Tuesday 15/11/2005

Thanks to Peter Kirwan’s excellent Fullrunner email service, I catch up on Intel’s ongoing attempts to batter down the gates of the global health system. I’m going to repeat myself here until I go into full-blown VF: medicine worldwide needs to totally reform itself along the lines of the IT industry. We may not be ideal, but we know how to discover the right information and deliver it accurately and cheaply where it’s needed. That’s the core job of health, but it’s twenty years behind. It hasn’t got twenty years to catch up before the money runs out. It may not have ten.

Intel knows this, and like any moderately greedy corporate feeding machine is up for its slice of the action. Unlike most MGCFMs, though, it has the brains to know that it will do much better if it brings as many people along for the ride as it can. Which is why boss Otellini tells the Financial Times  that healthcare "is least penetrated by information technology of any major industry… I won't name the vendor, but I have seen the price tag on the printer cable for an MRI-machine that was $5,000. Printer cables at Dixons are probably $25. The difference is, the MRI machine has a proprietary pin-out. It is the exact same thing, but with a proprietary pin-out."

This is the nightmare parallel world we in IT would be living in if it wasn’t for the Internet, IBM leaving the PC specification open, twenty years of not worrying about software patents and the general sharing of information that meant no one company — no, not even Microsoft — could hive off private fiefdoms where nobody else could play. You can still find little reminders around the place — ever tried to buy a network interface for a printer with a proprietary expansion system? — but by and large we pay a fair price for good equipment that does a decent job.

Yet we'll have to enter that nightmare parallel world every time we get sick. That's where our tax money's going, our health insurance premiums, the money that should be building hospitals and hiring more hospital doctors so the ones we have can get some sleep. A world where proprietary concerns set the rules. A world where, if Otellini is to be believed, printer cables cost the same as a decent second hand car.

Perhaps you can help me here: I've tried to track down the $5000 printer cable, but have drawn a blank. I don't care if it's $500 or $50 or the sterling equivalent, but if it's out there I want to find it. And, of course, anything else of similar bent. I don't know exactly how to start pricking the beast of proprietary health machinery, but getting some evidence together would be a darn good start. So if you know what's going on and can email me some pointers, some specifics, I'll take it from there.

Wednesday 16/11/2005

The law of unintended consequences applies nowhere more starkly than in the attempts by the developed world to help the developing. This is the marshiest of quagmires, where motive, situation, capability and applicability are rarely what they seem. Does the road to freedom lie through a $100 laptop, as Negroponte claims? Is the history of post-war food aid really one of disruption and collapse among indigenous farmers? And was the legacy of Live Aid the continuation of dangerously outmoded ideas of powerless victims fit only for the role of grateful recipients?

If a quagmire can have deep waters, then these are the quicksands over which the thin ice lies. And I have no intention of addressing them, except to say this: Geldof, you eejit. Haven’t you learned by now?

His Bobness decided, for reasons us mortals can only weakly grasp, to shoot his mouth off at a random target today. That target: emails. He’s not in favour. They pile up in his inbox, ruining his plans for the morning. They make him feel bad. He can’t cope. For god’s sake, don’t send me the fekking emails. And with that, he grumbled off.

I read the story and at once felt ely brush my soul. I knew what was going to happen.

Microseconds later, Outlook stirred in its fetid pit and chimed its little bell. Then it it did it again. And again. Like the first heavy raindrops at the edge of a torrential downpour, the noises built through an accelerando of apprehension to a crushing chorus of doom.

And then it stopped.

I didn’t have to look at the final message – I knew it had to be Exchange telling me my mailbox was full, and for once I was glad of Microsoft’s inability to write software that knew something of the recent history of disk capacity.

There really wasn’t much need to look at the pullulating pile of binary that spilled out of the edges of my filing system. I did anyway. Each and every one was from a PR, and each and every PR represented a firm that in some way did email management. I had no idea there were so many – I suppose the universities spew forth computer science graduates who cast hungrily about for the one good idea that’ll get them through the classic development cycle of inspiration, work, grow the company, get a name, get bought out by Bill, buy silly car. But because email management is so grotesquely dull, nobody ever talks about it and every compsci graduate thinks they’re the first one to come up with the idea.

Whatever the mechanism, they’re out there in their thousands. And they have PRs who battle daily with that dullness problem: Geldof exercising his stubbly jaw must have seemed like a message from God himself (no, you fools, that would be Bono). And as with one finger, they tapped out a press release and sent it to me.

So, thanks Bob. Your diatribe against emails has led to me receiving enough of the darn things in an hour to… to… there’s not even anything you can do with a dead email press release. In the old days you could at least have bought a hamster and a shredder and turned the A4 into bedding. Now you have to feed the hamster itself into the shredder. In some cultures that’s considered unethical.

Please. Next time you get the urge, oh massed army, think twice. If the story’s about emails being bad, send a gorillagram. Skywrite it. Pick it out in pink icing on a Dundee cake. Say it with flowers. Do an interpretive dance in a leopardskin leotard outside my window (even – especially – the PRs with beards). Record a cover of "(Tell Me Why) I Don’t Like Emails". Anything. But. Send. Me. An. Email.

Gah.

(*) Ely. The first, tiniest inkling you get that something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong. From The Meaning of Liff, D.Adams and J. Lloyd, which you haven’t read for ten years and will really enjoy leafing through one more time.

Thursday 17/11/2005

Google. Is there any better contender for the most advanced computer company on the planet? It effortlessly swallows Internets, maps the world, dances lightly around Microsoft like a pink elephant around a binge drinker, and hints darkly about feeding some enormous AI hiding in its basement like a Giant Evil Brain from 50s Hollywood. Actually, they have fed the entire proceedings of the UN to a language robot, in an attempt to create an expert system that translates like a human instead of a fictional fish, so they’re certainly doing something of the sort for certain values of AI.

But all is not as it seems. Yesterday, the company imported flocks of schoolchildren to its UK GooglePlex (that’s ‘offices’ to you and me) – no, not to start the creation of a implant-driven slave race underground which will one day rise up and overrun the 'Unlinked, as they will call us unaugmented humans. Instead, the company decided to run a competition to design a ‘Doodle for Google’ along the lines of the Vision On gallery, with the winning kid seeing their picture on the Google UK front page for a day.

And why not. We don’t get to run many stories that make you go ‘Aaaahh’ – that’s a nice Aaaah, not an AAAARGH – and since the logo was due to go live at 1700, it could just about fit into the end of play.

Our reporter on the spot radioed in that all had gone well, that the logo was unveiled and that he was nipping off sharpish. "But it’s still the old logo here" said Graeme 'Stickler' Wearden. "Oh, don’t be so obsessive," was the last heard from the reporter as he Doppler-shifted towards the pub.

Five fifteen came and went, and five thirty after it. Still no doodle. By six, we were seriously concerned. Had something happened to our cache? Was the entire story some well-documented group hallucination? Would we have to — shock, horror — check our facts.

Yep. So we phoned the PR — there are no lengths to which we will not go, when it matters. “Sorry!” she said. “Technical hitch. It’ll be up later.”

Ah, good. So that’s what we wrote. But… technical hitch? In getting the logo onto the site? An 8K JPG, which appears to be served as a static image? The single simplest task a web server can be asked to do?

Google, is there something you’re not telling us?

Friday 18/11/2005

Now it can be told. You may have noticed that we're running a feature about IT in the porn industry. There are many reasons for this — it's an under-covered area, it has driven a great deal of development through its immense popularity, and we're no prudes here at ZDNet UK. And it lets us use things like bondage.com as a sub-head, make jokes about wipe-clean keyboard covers and generally act somewhat beneath our age [Because you don't do that normally? — Ed ].

The fact that we know that any story involving porn does top traffic is neither here nor there – in fact, open source, Bill Gates, robots and porn are all up there as potent hit magnets. I'm still working on the sponsorship deals for "Gates' Sex Android Linux Shame", the story I'm going to write shortly after I work out how to make enough from it to afford the lawyers.

But like any story, our pornography feature needed research. You can't just pump it out. This raised some worries on the edit team that browsing the obvious web sites would trigger all manner of repercussions, as alarms are raised by stern robots checking for porn usage when we should be reading about open source (that's another 1000 hits right there). Reassured by a promise that things Not Safe For Work were Safe For This Sort Of Work, people got the task in hand and pressed on.

There's only so much you can do online, even when writing about online. People have to be contacted. Phone calls have to be made. And these people are not used to having those sort of phone calls. There is room for, shall we way, misunderstanding.

Take this conversation between a ZDNet UK researcher — we'll call her IM, to preserve Ingrid Marson's anonymity — and a male member of staff — let's call him MM — on one of the adult content providers.

IM:"So, tell me, I'm curious. How does your partner feel about you working in this industry?"

MM:"I'm sorry?"

IM:"You know. Your wife or girlfriend or… whoever"

MM:"My girlfriend?"

IM:"Do you have a girlfriend?"

Pause

MM:"Are you asking me for a date?"

Ah, dear. Pixels can only get you so far.

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