Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Secret transmitters, Iraqi mobile phones and the connection between mad dogs and cable modems are just some of the flak that flew this week. Rupert Goodwins digs in
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 7/7/2003
Today is a recovery day. I spent Sunday scrambling through holly thickets, sinking calf-deep into odoriferous bogs and trying to scale chalk mountains and giant ravines near Salisbury. The cause of this unusual activity was Top Band DFing, a cross between orienteering and amateur radio: two transmitting stations hide out somewhere within the area of a standard Ordnance Survey map, and 20 oddballs armed with special radios try and track them down. It is, by any measure of human behaviour, a rum business indeed. It is impressively hard to stay hidden. Everyone found both stations within a couple of hours or so, despite the considerable physical and electronic efforts made by the transmitters to throw people off the scent. It increases the respect one has for those people who signal from behind enemy lines during wartime, but if it's that easy for amateurs using home-made gear and decades-old techniques how good is the state of the art? A few minutes poking around online reveals the answer: terrifyingly good. Professional radio direction finding is mostly covert business by covert people, so you won't find GCHQ's equipment neatly documented on the Web. But there's enough information out there from manufacturers and the odd throw-away line in official reports to work out that this is reasonably big business. It looks as if there are tens if not hundreds of automated DFing stations in the UK alone, capable of pinpointing transmissions almost anywhere on almost any frequency within, I'd guess, a hundred milliseconds or so. The old memories of vans cruising through darkened streets with loops twisting away on top should be replaced with the idea of a large network of computerised scanners peppered across the countryside, instantly swapping signal strengths and bearings the moment something anomalous pops up. So in some ways, the current worry about privacy and location based mobile phone services is a bit of a red herring. If every wireless device you own is capable of divulging your location the moment it pipes up, you can be tracked even if you take every precaution to control what the mobile phone network knows about you. It also underlines the fact that all those London pirate radio stations blatting away on top of Radio 4 are there because nobody can be bothered -- or afford -- to sort them out. This is the reality of Big Brother: They know where you are. They know what you're saying. They just don't care.
Tuesday 8/7/2003
One of the great benefits of online journalism to writers with big egos (*) is the ability to say "Told you so!" and provide a link, thus proving it. Today, the British Library Sound Archive has announced a deal with mobile phone ringtone providers to fill the public spaces of the country with animal noises: told you so. Now, gratifying as it is to have one's instincts verified, it's important to stay ahead of the game. Thus I predict the next big breakthrough in audio annunciation will be automatically updating ring tones. At first, these will be themed -- so you work your way through Beatles themes, great wartime movie music, the birdsong of the New Forest, and so on. The small disadvantage of not being sure whether it's your phone ringing or not will be as nothing compared to the spiritual and aesthetic pleasure of having a soundtrack to your life that isn't a stuck record. There's more. The army of ring tone writers will soon cotton on to the advantages of the new medium, and compose longer, more involved and more satisfying works. Over time, the phones will synchronise with each other -- one will start off with a theme, another will supply the counterpoint, and yet another a harmony that develops the original melody. In time, it will come to be regarded as a true art form: when you buy a train ticket, as well as the choice of smoking or non-smoking, family carriage, normal carriage or quiet carriage, you'll be given the chance to join in as audience and performer in the symphonic carriage. On current form, expect this prediction to come true in time for Christmas. Which may just save us from the awful prospect, now we have polyphonic phones aplenty, of a festive season marred by endless tinny renditions of Silent Night and Jingle Bells. We can but pray. (*) there is no other sort
Wednesday 9/7/2003
Ah, the lazy, hazy days of summer. Even the staunchest, most sclerotic Englishman born and raised under slate-grey skies relaxes and fluffs out out like a hen in a dustbath. The sun is high, the sky is blue, and the curious Mediterranean habit of the siesta becomes quite tempting. It's only a shame my cable modem has similar ideas: like Coward's crazy canines it goes out in the mid-day sun. No sooner does the temperature outside go above twenty-five degrees than the connection drops and the poor little thing sits there spinning its virtual wheels and flashing its lights. The bits only come back when they can float in on the cooling breeze of evening. Hm. As the interior chez Goodwins has a fairly constant climate, I diagnose a thermal problem in the cabinet on the street outside, perhaps a dodgy connection between me and it. All those black cables ensure maximum cookage, and the cabinets themselves run much hotter than seems sensible. Telewest is surprisingly responsive, and following a quick bout of inconclusive diagnostics over the phone at the weekend ("Yes, of course it's working. The sun's gone in.") an engineer turns up today. The connection is, of course, behaving itself perfectly and my suggestion that he hangs around to catch some rays is not taken seriously. In fact, nothing I say is deemed worthy of consideration, or even registers. He mutters something about low gain, rearranges the cabling in the front room, removes the attenuator that the last cable guy swore was absolutely necessary, tweaks the maintenance page of the modem's configuration utility, and exits stage left. This may prove to work, either because the extra gain masks whatever's drifting away outside or because we get no more serious heatwaves this year, but something tells me that he'll be back before long. Complaining seems churlish, given the extreme difficulties people normally have in getting any action whatsoever from so many customer service lines, but nobody likes to be ignored. Some sympathy is needed, though. When I was fixing televisions as a holiday job in Plymouth, one of the first skills I learned was how to deal with punters who knew exactly what was wrong with their sets, and weren't having any nonsense about it. "Nothing much up with it," they'd say as they handed over a box whose only response to mains was a loud thrumming noise and a faint reek of tortured Bakelite, "just needs a new valve." You'd invariably find that they'd swapped the insides for half a stale pork pie and a copy of the People's Friend from 1954.
Thursday 10/7/2003
Forget the weapons of mass destruction -- how fervently must our beloved leaders hope we will -- and never mind Saddam, the real hunt in Baghdad is for a useable mobile phone signal. A report today says that although a temporary military GSM system is currently in place all bets are still off as to which standard will eventually be used. The US has yet to decide: and as one of the country's most enduring attributes is to pick wireless standards as if the rest of the world didn't exist, it's too early to tell whether it'll be sensible or barking. Those of you with any reserves of foreboding left, prepare to bode them now. Not that it may make much difference. I have lunch with an executive from a company that specialises in putting cellular networks in far-flung places. As usual, he is full of pleasing war stories from ex-Soviet republics, family-run African states and other locations where the lights go off even more frequently than the guns. After a brief discussion about the miserable business in Cote D'Ivoire -- conclusion: WAWA, or West Africa Wins Again -- we turn to Iraq. Yes, they'd been approached and asked to pitch for the job. No, they weren't interested. "But you were the mob who parachuted the GSM system into Ishmaelia, a place where even the scorpions expect baksheesh before crawling into your boots", I said. "And then there was the business with Izbrokistan, where getting payment out of the state bank meant having bigger guns than the chief cashier. It's not like you to turn business down." "Too dangerous," he said. "Everyone learnt their lesson in the Balkans, and Afghanistan hasn't helped. You won't find anyone prepared to send engineers out there, not for a good long time." And that's the truth about life over in Mesopotamia at the moment: it's untouchably risky, with no sign that things will clear up in the foreseeable. Bear that in mind next time Ari spins his happy pictures. If you get the chance, creep up behind Bush or Blair and whisper 'quagmire'. Let me know how high they jump.
Friday 11/7/2003
According to Jim Gray, head of Microsoft's Bay Area Research Centre, the best way of transferring lots of data is to put it on a hard disk, stuff it in bubble wrap and post it off. Storage has always led data communications in bang per buck, and this has always been true -- in fact, we may be about to take a step backwards in transmission speeds when it will no longer be possible to fill Concorde with DVDs. The ever-improving cheap hard disk has caused changes elsewhere. It used to be true that the fastest, cheapest and least fussy way to back up a large system was to plug in a larger tape drive. Not that it was actually cheap, unfussy or fast, but it beat the alternatives. Nowadays, the smart cookie just plugs in a spare disk, copies everything across and leaves the duplicate on a shelf somewhere. So why is this still so hard? Where are the well-designed front-panel mounted removable hard disk systems? They used to be everywhere, and if you look back at the preferred PC specifications issued by Intel, Microsoft et al in the late 90s there was even a specification for such things. Backups continue to be the most important, least observed ways to protect your system, and we've finally got a cost-effective, simple and efficient way of making them -- so where's the industry support? It's not as if there's any engineering to do, as serial ATA is hot-pluggable, and it can only improve the sales of hard disks, so its continued absence as a standard part of everyday computing is beyond mysterious. As for costs: Gray goes further. For maximum convenience, he doesn't just send the hard disk, he sends a complete computer. Even that's cheaper than the alternatives, and at the far end the recipient just has to plug in gigabit ethernet and hoover off the data in short order. Gray also points out that with drives reaching towards the terabyte we will have to treat them as tape drives, not random access devices: taking a typical database model where you read stuff off chunks of a few kilobytes at a time, he points out, the slow speed of the disk seek means a terabyte disk will take a year to read completely. That's nothing. I started Finnegan's Wake in 1994 and I'm still not halfway through. Click here to see more of Rupert's diaries.
Editorial standards