Rupert Goodwins' Diary

No asbestos underwear for Rupert as he goes digging for gold, dodging the spooks and ducking the ball

Monday 14/8/2006

Sales of asbestos underpants soar as the Dell Exploding Laptop Experience starts to hit home. The unprecedented recall of 4.1 million batteries sets various new records and leaves various new questions in its wake — what actually is the fault? What other battery packs are affected? After all, Sony makes lithium-ion cells for just about everyone. And what exactly is going to happen to the faulty cells?

I've long held lithium-ion batteries in a mixture of gratitude, resentment, fear and awe. Awe, because they store so much power — it's not unusual to see 60 watt hour packs on the back of laptops these days. Fear, because if one of those goes short-circuit, you'll get many kilowatts of energy heating up a mixture of flammable liquid and metal within inches of your danglies. Resentment, because every last manufacturer makes their own unique battery packs for each different model, and lithium-ion begins to decay from the moment it leaves the factory. No matter how carefully you use — or don't use — a pack, it'll be dead in a couple of years. And gratitude, because lithium-ion makes all sorts of fabulous things possible that just can't happen otherwise.

I'm aware that having any emotions towards battery packs is not considered normal, let alone a complex mix of four contradictory vectors. That's why I've left out tenderness — those poor things are incredibly fragile, and need constant cosseting. If you overcharge, undercharge, overdischarge, overheat, freeze, bump or merely look at one with a cutting expression, they burst into tears and, shortly afterwards, into flames. There are considerable electronic smarts in laptops, chargers and the battery packs themselves designed to guard against all those misfortunes, and it's quite possible that some miscalculation in one of those designs is behind the time bombs in our briefcases.

This is also why you can't buy lithium-ion batteries off the shelf for general use — the carnage would be impressive — and we're left with the noble but considerably less capacious nickel metal hydride cells. It also explains why, although lithium-ion technology was invented at Oxford University in the 1970s, it took many years before they arrived in consumer products while the safety issues were ironed out. That was thanks to Sony, which has the most experience in the field, and if it can't get it quite right we really are in trouble.

So don't hold your breath waiting for much better batteries to arrive. So far, all the technologies that are lighter and more powerful are also more dangerous. Some incredibly so, like the one that uses molten sodium chloroaluminate at 250° Celsius. Cool that, you overclockers. The rest just aren't worth bothering with. And are you prepared to switch to a laptop that weighs more and has a third of the battery life? If not, then I'm afraid asbestos underpants are the only way forward. 

Tuesday 15/8/2006

IUBHE PKJAW CBAYT NJQZE — or, in other words, Phil Zimmermann is at it again. The inventor of Pretty Good Privacy or PGP, the first generally distributed public key encryption system, has long wanted to give similar security to voice over IP (VoIP) telephony. It's a very good idea: the Internet has no guarantees of security beyond those you put in there yourself, and that's how it should be. As we know from bitter experience, the same is true of the public telephone systems, fixed or mobile; it may be illegal to tap into other people's calls, and it may even be quite difficult, but in the words of a Throbbing Gristle sticker: ASSUME THIS PHONE IS TAPPED.

For the first time, it's possible, even easy, to have secure voice communications between you and your pals. Some systems you have to take on trust — Skype claims to implement strong cryptography on its voice calls and even says which ones it uses — but as it doesn't publish its code there's no way to be sure (and plenty of reasons to be suspicious). Earlier this year, Zimmermann produced a beta for an add-in encryption system called Zfone, which integrates with open standard VoIP, has its source code available for inspection and is intended to become an open standard itself. All it does is make sure that nobody can intercept a call you make to a friend who's also running Zfone. Now, he's trying to get it adopted by existing VoIP providers, so they can offer it as a standard feature in their services.

Coincidentally, today also saw moves towards the activation of the third part of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which would give the police the ability to demand your encryption keys with menace. Fail to comply, and it's the slammer for you. These powers are needed, says the plod, because terrorists and paedophiles are able to deny them evidence by leaving it sitting as so much random binary on hard disks.

This is a common theme in law enforcement, and has also led to numerous powers being taken that let the police, secret services and anyone else with the right job title gather data from ISPs, confiscate computers and generally make free with your data. This most certainly includes VoIP information, which since it isn't carried over the telephone system is much more lightly regulated than phone calls proper.

Zfone bypasses all this, and demonstrates the futility of legislating against secrecy. It doesn't matter if the spooks or the Milk Marketing Board record all your IP traffic; they won't be able to read it. It doesn't matter whether they demand the keys used to actually encrypt the data; you don't know them, because they're generated by the software, and they're destroyed immediately after the call anyway. Not that they'd work again. The only thing that could stop Zfone from doing its job would be if it was made illegal itself — and that sort of legislation is pointless, ineffective and actually dangerous.

But criminals might use Zfone, you cry. Yes, says Zimmermann, and they might tap your phone calls too. There might even be criminals in government, the police and the Milk Marketing Board. I know these places are populated exclusively by paragons of virtue, but one day, one might slip through the net.

There are two endpoints for encryption legislation. One is where all our data is visible to everyone, hung around our neck like an RFID-readable passport in a clear plastic bag. One is where we protect what we own to protect our privacy and prevent harm, and accept that other people will protect things that we might not like and may come to harm us. I know which mode makes me feel safer.

So does Phil Zimmermann: long may he give the people in the shadows sleepless nights.

Wednesday 16/8/2006

Much fun in Massachusetts, where AOL is once again in the news over its search methods. This time, it's physical — the company wants to dig up a garden. Yes, with spades and shovels and elbow grease. The occasion of this impromptu al fresco dirtfest is the disappearance of one Davis Wolfgang Hawke, spammer. He was fined $12.8m for his spammish activities, but was unaccountably absent from proceedings. So were the millions of dollars he'd made and converted into gold and platinum bars — these were due to be handed over to AOL, but since neither they nor Hawke were available for comment, the company is still empty handed.

For reasons I don't fully understand, AOL has convinced itself that the loot is stashed in the garden behind Hawke's parents' house. Hence the digging. You've got one last chance to come clean, the company told his mother, or suffer the embarrassment of having us turn over the petunias.

What would you say in the circumstances? Oh, please don't dig up my garden, Mr AOL? Here, take the buried treasure — I'd willingly hand over millions just to be spared? Peggy Greenbaum, the lady in question, is somewhat more resolute. She's in agreement that somebody's going to look darn foolish over this affair, but differs on the point of exactly who. The money and her son are miles away and she knows not where, she says, but if it makes you happy then dig yourself up a party.

Taking the logic of RIPA, of course, she should be compelled to reveal the location of the money and banged up if she can't prove she doesn't know. This whole business is also clearly the result of the annoying anonymity of money: once Hawke had got his gold, there was no way to prevent him disappearing into the hills and living the life of Riley. Government logic dictates that money should be banned and everyone issued with a government-traceable electronic fund transfer card through which all personal financial transactions should be conducted.

That'd stop spam, and it would save Peggy Greenbaum's garden. Someone tell John Reid.

Thursday 17/8/2006

What a day. For reasons too immensely dull to go into, the afternoon is taken up with a mammoth four-hour editorial meeting. I try to play nice, but towards the end I'm wishing for sweet death to drop from the grey and graceful skies above the Thames, which rolls past the office window in serene indifference.

This is followed by organised sports, an activity which I regard with baleful malevolence. For virtuous reasons, ZDNet's own Andrew Donoghue and silicon.com's Will Sturgeon have organised a hacks vs flacks rounders competition in Hyde Park. The two young bucks, who are among the more competitive testosterone jockeys in the company, don't quite understand those who aren't keen to engage in the joys of throwing balls at each other while running around in circles, but promise beer to all who arrive in the role of cheerleaders.

Of course, the PR companies are keen. PR companies are always keen. And so two teams from ZDNet and silicon (bulked up by ringers from Gamespot and CNET.co.uk) are joined by Cohn & Wolfe, Hotwire, Lewis, Inferno PR, Berkeley PR and Brands2Life. In exchange for handing over £200, they get to throw balls at each other and run around in circles — and also get the chance to mingle with the cheerleaders.

It is as gruesome as you might imagine or as much joyful fun as you could wish, depending on your point of view. That may depend on whether you spent your adolescence experiencing sport as a weekly ritual of institutionalised humiliation, or whether you quite enjoyed it at the time. Or even still do — Lewis PR wore identical T-shirts and were so inexcusably young they resembled a school outing.

Brands2Life won, mostly by dint of accurately propelling the ball into low earth orbit. This tended to be in one of two directions — one of which saw Graeme "Scoop" Wearden scurrying off into the distance on a regular basis, and one of which was directly towards my head. After the second such incident, when I was saved purely by a lithe young chap from Inferno barreling into me at speed, I made my excuses and left.

Fortunately, Edelman — another PR company, m'lud — had set up shop in town for its regular Third Thursday pub meeting, and I soon soothed away the cares of the day with a spot of competitive drinking. Far more agreeable, especially when I learned that the company had indeed taken on maverick Floridian wireless communications company XG and was able to reveal some background of which they'd previously been unaware ("The CEO has his own merchant bank, you know..."). The evening ended in a Soho tapas bar to recitations of Blackadder scripts and ineffective protestations of early mornings to come.

Now, that's more like it.

Friday 18/8/2006

With few exceptions, smart clothing may be the single stupidest IT idea I've ever heard. I've no objections to functional clothing that contains computing: spacesuits, diving gear and possibly even sporting apparel can all absorb environmental and personal functionality to good effect. But in general, the concepts of adding a dual-core blade server to one's trousers or some sort of video player to a string vest are clearly risible. I ris, sir. I ris.

But that doesn't stop people blathering on about it. The latest daftness comes from South Korea, where the Government has solemnly declared that because "smart clothing" ideas involve risks too great to be born by commercial enterprise alone, it will invest the people's money.

What tosh! It seems to be based on the logic that since everyone wears clothes and everyone uses computers, the market for computerised togs is — everyone. Silly. What is the point of building a mobile phone into my jacket if it means I have to wear that jacket every time I want to use the phone? What if I want to upgrade my phone but not my jacket?

There is a reason mobile phones are designed to fit into pockets, which is the reason there are pockets in the first place. There is a reason that most people have a range of clothing from which to choose depending on mood, task and weather. The whole business works perfectly well, thank you very much.

It's not as if people are going around sobbing into their sadly dumb handkerchiefs over the sheer misery of life without chip-laden posing pouches. "I wish my shoes could play mp3s," they do not wail. What's more, the people who have experimented with wearable computing in the past have all been severely deranged dolts who clearly don't mind looking like escapees from some hideous Japanese animated cartoon. You are not more attractive with half a kilo of robot vomit dangling from your hat. Stop it. Stop it at once.

They won't. There is a class of people, who think just because something can be done, it should be done, and what's more it should be done with other people's money. The best that can be said is that such people add to the gaiety of nations, much like monkeys in tutus.

The highest form of computing is to find, access and use the most powerful systems on the planet entirely naked, as I am now in fact doing. This costs you nothing, while affording me great pleasure.

On that thought, I bid you a good weekend.

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