Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Another dot-com shows off the wacky world of financial accounting, and wireless networkers get chalking

Monday 24/06/2002

Back from visiting my friends Julian and Tony in Belgium, where gin and culture walk unsteadily hand in glove. To my delight, the weekend marked their 8th anniversary of itemhood. Given Julian's previous rep as a wild child of the first order, you'd have got better odds for Henman to score the winning goal in the World Cup final, but there he is, plump, content and spoiled rotten by his partner (quote of the weekend: "Oh Tony, not quails' eggs and asparagus AGAIN!").

On the downside, the general state of the IT industry means he's at work not designing suites of splendid software as befits his talents, but hand-converting old code to fit a new database system. We'll know when things have really taken a turn for the better not when the various indices start twitching upwards for more than three Financial Times editorials in a row, but when people like Jools have the confidence to kick off some of their good ideas with the expectation that they'll still be kept in quails' eggs. And anyway, it's a better taste index of confidence than the Economist's famous Big Mac-based economic indicator.

Tuesday 25/06/2002

Oh, dear oh dear oh dear. The Today programme goes to town on the evil of radio scanners. One of their journalists presumably found the ScanpromaUK discussion group on Yahoo!, spotted that thousands of frequencies detailed there contained some used by the security services, and persuaded Paul Hey, the guy behind the group, to come in ostensibly to help on a feature about radio. They recorded him doing his radio thing, and then turned it into a shock horror news story. "These scanners should be banned," said unidentified security sources. "Terrorists might use the information to help them commit their evil crimes."

Well, balderdash. It's already illegal to listen to anything in this country except licensed broadcasters and radio hams -- you're breaking the law if you listen to aircraft, pirate radio or the weather stations on shortwave -- and if the might of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 (as amended) isn't enough to stop the terrorists then I doubt making the scanners illegal would make a ha'pporth of difference. Likewise, the information on the Web site has been available in books, newsletters and on bulletin boards for at least the 20 years I've been a radio ham -- and, incidentally, using scanners to make sure I don't transmit in places I shouldn't, as required by my licence. And even if scanners were banned, you can make radios that tune into any frequency you like in a couple of hours from any other radios, if you know what you're doing.

It's all sensationalist, badly researched and utterly out-of-context reporting. I emailed the programme -- I've been a contributor a few times, so I did hope that might count for something -- but nobody there seems interested in any of the above.

Gah. Bloody journalists.

Wednesday 26/06/2002

Here's a good one for your list of hip jargon terms: warchalking. As Matt Loney -- news mogul of ZDNet UK and proud new father (congrats!) -- reports, those who drive around our cities sniffing out open wireless networks are no longer content to keep the news to themselves. And how do they report this information to their comrades in air? Encrypted peer-to-peer high-speed satellite communication?

Nah. They draw a squiggle on the pavement. With chalk. A curvy X means an open network, an O means closed and a W in an O means WEP in use. Tramps do this to mark houses with generous occupants (and once you know those signs, you can see them around the place), and something of the sort's probably been going on since Stone Age times.

It would take a churl of the lowest kidney not to be thrilled by this evidence of some of the oldest form of public, anonymous communication being used in the service of some of the newest. Perhaps consultants could adapt and extend this idea, to mark out which companies are worth working for and which to avoid like the plague; accountants could similarly show what level of high-powered creativity a particular client requires -- from total probity to five-to-ten in the hole -- and journalists could let each other know how many large malts it takes to loosen the tongue of the chief technical officer.

Forget blogging -- scrawling is the new Web.

Thursday 27/06/2002

Up at Networks Telecom, the trade show for the professional who knows his structured cabling from his waveguide, where I'm chairing a panel about computer security and the small business. It goes surprisingly well: we have a copper from the high-tech crime unit, a consultant from Logica and a legal eagle from a big law firm, together with someone from IntellectUK -- the industry group for high tech companies.

The crowd listen dutifully through the handy three-minute guide to working out your security needs, the promotion of Intellect's published guidelines -- -- and tales of legal responsibility, but really perk up when Tony Neate the e-Plod gets stuck into some stories of badness from beyond the firewall. Everyone agrees that the biggest thing to get right in corporate security is to make everyone aware of what it is, why it matters, and their part in its success. From the chief executive to the tea lady, is the cry -- although how many small and medium-sized enterprises have tea ladies isn't discussed.

Given the reaction of the crowd, I think that what computer security really needs is an Inspector Morse of the modems: it's a bit tricky to see how to make a Web site hacking seem as interesting as a good, juicy murder, but in the hands of a sympathetic, talented writer I bet it could be done. Ten tales of computer crime, each with a pearl of wisdom surrounded by the oyster of misdeed -- it'd do more for awareness of the problems than any number of well-intentioned panel discussions. Not to say it wasn't worth doing -- it was -- but if you weren't at Networks, it did you no good.

Time to sharpen the pencils...

Friday 28/06/2002

Spotting an embarrassing hole looming in the imperial purse, I phoned up the bank and said, "Can I register my salary for the next six months as an asset, even though it hasn't been paid yet?" "You a client of Arthur Andersen?" they said, somewhat wearily -- I took that as a no, and made other plans. (For hire: 16-year-old youth. Can fit up large chimneys, if greased thoroughly.)

This week has shown more than adequately what happens when you stop believing in the basic law of fiscal physics -- which isn't, much as it would grieve my late grandmother, 'never a borrower nor a lender be', but 'tell people when you rewrite the rule book'. It doesn't look like the rebound from the bubble that's going to do the real long-term damage, but the uncovering of the manifold sins that went into creating enough hot air in the first place. But I bet that every step of the way, the people who made those illegal decisions thought they had to do it for company survival in an overheated and frankly bonkers market.

I've worked for privately owned companies that could and did make multi-year investments, keeping on investing when figures didn't match early expectations because they knew that some things take time. I've worked for companies that lived and died by the 90-day cycle and 'shareholder value', and that one way of working really doesn't fit every model.

One of the arguments advanced when a company went from private to public was that the higher standards of accounting would encourage investors and better corporate governance. It's a shame irony isn't taught as an essential component of an MBA, really.