Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Microsoft slapped down, email worms sorted out and global airways protected. All in a week's work for Rupert Goodwins, but what's all this about a Zip Goat?

Monday 19/08/2003
You may remember that last Friday's entry was brief indeed, as I wasn't actually there to write anything. Instead, I was in Amsterdam with two other journalists, a keen and eager PR bod and a scattering of Compuware people. We got in to that fair city on the Thursday night: for some reason, the early start on the Friday morning was a mite more challenging than perhaps it should have been. I blame jetlag.

It doesn't take many cups of coffee to revive, however, and soon I find myself in a large meeting room paying rapt attention to a variety of eager suits talking about application programming. I'll spare you the details (if you're interested, I wrote about them earlier this week), but for some reason I began to have some difficulties decoding the Dutch accent.

I hold no nation in as much respect, and with as much fondness, as the Dutch. I find their pragmatism, tolerance and bloody-minded refusal to suffer fools entirely to my taste, just as much as I find their tongue as easy to decode as the chest sounds of a bronchial one-lunged horse. Fortunately, the Dutch are as proficient at languages as the Brits are hopeless, and the speaker talking about Compuware's software had excellent English. But something in my deep linguistic cortex had gone on strike.

Our friend was talking about patron-based testing. I fiddled with my mental tuning, but he was definitely saying patron. Hm. New one on me. But in an industry that's happy talking about clients, servers, masters and slaves why shouldn't there be patronage? Perhaps a test patron is one who sponsors a cricket match -- the Dutch play the noble game, after all.

There's more to this patron than meets the ear, though.  I try to concentrate on the important details of middleware and model architectures, but the mental images become increasingly bizarre. The plucking patron is testing the goat? And where are they driving the rule-based Indian?

Then another PowerPoint slide hits the projector. The magic software was generating an input screen with fields for "Name, address and zip goat". Zip goat? Ah. Zip code.

When you're listening to an unfamiliar accent, there can be an epiphany where the wax falls from your ears. With me, it was the zip goat that did it: Suddenly, the plucking patron became a plug-in pattern. Chief Legal Eagle, the rule-based Indian who was inhabiting my inner landscape in a rather fetching judge's wig-cum-feathery head dress, turned into a much duller but probably more useful rule-based engine. The sort that generates goat - er, code.

From that point on, the day made much more sense. Shame.

Tuesday 20/08/2003
For the past four or five years, the promise of broadband over power lines (BPL in the US, PLC over here) has been bubbling away. Various technical tests have proved that it's feasible, but the commercial side is less clear. Now, a paid-for trial is underway in the ancient city of Winchester -- and if it works, then there'll be another broadband delivery mechanism. That has to be good, right?

Er, no. PLC works by squirting lots of radio frequencies carrying data down the power lines, so in that sense it's much the same as ADSL and cable. But whereas the latter two are relatively low power, well characterised and usually underground, the power line signals have to be much beefier. They have to contend with an electrical environment with tons of powerful noise floating around, and one where the bits were never designed to carry data. So, you end up pushing quite a lot of radio-frequency power through lines suspended in the air. Hold on, isn't that how you broadcast radio signals?

Er, yes. PLC has the potential to -- and has been demonstrated to - blot out huge ranges of shortwave frequencies, over quite some distance. Now, you may not care tuppence about this: you probably don't sit there of an evening listening to Radio Pyongyang fading in and out of the ionosphere. Those who do, are very worried --- and licensed radio hams, who stand to lose the use of huge amounts of their legally allocated spectrum, are bordering on furious.

Hey, who cares about radio hams? Outdated hobby. Tony Hancock. Strange old men with a peculiar fondness for black rubber helical aerials. Well, ask most of the eastern US, where last weekend the hams turned out nearly instantly to pass thousands of emergency messages as mobile phone base stations, police repeaters and other bits of official infrastructure gave up and fell over.

On the other side of the bat, radio hams are also very capable of transmitting huge amounts of power, which will do PLC's bandwidth no good whatsoever. If the frequencies are so jammed that nothing less than hundreds of watts will get through, then that's exactly what the amateurs will be forced to do.

This could get very messy.

Wednesday 21/08/2003
And talking of messy -- RE: Your details. That film! The email you sent could not be delivered. The Augean stables of my various email accounts are full to overflowing with worms producing -- rather than composting -- digital excreta. As Professor Dan Farber -- maintainer of the Interesting People mailing list on which I try very hard not to depend -- says, "Find the person who did this, and jail them." I suspect he and most other people would be just as happy for the culprit to be hung, drawn and quartered, were this not against sound liberal morality.

It's beyond a joke. Despite every attempt to layer on more security, patch more holes, educate more people not to open attachments and so on, the world of email gets more cumbersome and unreliable by the day.

I think it's time to start again. That's one of the joys of the Internet -- you can do this overnight if you get enough people to agree. Recast email in a more sensible way: no encoding of any sort, no message over 5,000 characters, no attachments, not more than five recipients, no more than one message per ten seconds. Clients and relays to enforce these limits without exception.  Rigid blacklisting set by clients, with a distributed control system working to agreed rules that spots and auto-blocks any spam.

If you want to break any of these rules, then you go and use the old email -- nobody's saying that the existing infrastructure has to be turned off.  There are plenty of alternative ways to distribute newsletters, move files around, even advertise. But let's not pollute the single most important and useful feature of the Internet -- personal emails. We could easily have a new syntax to mark which emails are to be sent by the new system, something like rupert.goodwins|@|, and we could have it up and running in months -- at least on a trial basis.

Thursday 22/08/2003
Which segues nicely onto another form of alternative communication, the Diskfax. The what? The Diskfax, dear heart. A fine and courageous attempt by a noble and exciting young UK company called Alfa Systems to create a whole new market about 15 years ago. About the size of three shoeboxes stacked up, it had a keypad and LCD display on top and a selection of disk drives on the front panel. You put your floppy in, dialled another Diskfax and the thing carefully duplicated the disk across the phone system. An exact analogy of a fax machine, but for disks.

Anyway, despite being fine, courageous, etc, the Diskfax didn't take over the world. It saw a lot of action -- armies, governments and other big and important groups liked it a lot -- and there was even a special cryptographic version, but it never got to critical mass. As a result of its commercial flaccidity, Alfa Systems had to lay off its noblest, most exciting, etc, programmers, one of whom was forced to become -- ugh -- a journalist. But that's another story.

However. Time passes, and it turns out that the Diskfax has been used in some really interesting official -- not to say shhhh -- capacities. So much so that Bletchley Park Museum, concerned as it is with official cryptography and its uses, has expressed an interest in acquiring a pair to show off. Which is terribly exciting for ex-Alfa Systems types -- if only they could lay their hands on some.

Investigations are ongoing, but if you know or have a suspicion about the location of such devices, do drop me a line. Myself and generations yet unborn will thank you wholeheartedly.

Friday 23/08/2003
We're supposed to be objective, us journalists, at least some of the time. It's hard to be that with Microsoft, especially when you've just spent five hours fixing various Windows problems on a friend's laptop. It gets harder, when you can't do your work or talk to your friends because security problems in Microsoft products have brought the Internet and attached hardware to a state of shuddering paralysis. But these are both in some way the natural result of a monopoly company devoted to market share above all else: blaming Microsoft for these is a bit like blaming a termite colony for eating your house -- it's true, but that's what these creatures are programmed to do.  You're not much of an entomologist if you make moral judgements about your subjects, and to some extent the same is true of those whose interest in bugs leads them to Microsoft.

Where it becomes almost inhumanly difficult to gag back cries of frustration and anger is when Microsoft chooses to say things grossly at odds with reality, when it can make no possible difference to anyone. Take today's story about the Thai government's cheap PC scheme . The Thais decided to make and distribute PCs as a welfare scheme, with the price pegged at $250. There's no way you can do that and include Windows and Office, the combined cost of which is around $600, and Microsoft said as much. Fair enough. So the Thais put Linux on the computers, hit the price point and shifted boxes in huge numbers.

At which point, Gartners reports, Microsoft realised a couple of things. First, there was an up-and-coming Asian economy where Linux, not Windows, was going to be the de-facto standard; and second, even if these people wanted to use Windows they were going to use pirated copies --- the full version costing the equivalent of a months' wages. (So much for product activation!) Result: Office and Windows combined now costs $40 on this scheme.

My goodness. Looks like competition works, eh, readers? Microsoft is able and willing to respond, just like any other company. But no -- this isn't what happened, according to Microsoft. The official line is that Gartners analysis was wrong and Microsoft was purely acting because it "was a great opportunity" that "matched our vision". And much more, by the yard.

Why? Why is it so hard to say "We didn't want to change our pricing policy, but now we realise that the market is different and we're responding accordingly"? Why produce this saccharine guff, when not one person in six billion is gullible enough to inhale it and smile? Is Microsoft intent on turning every possible opportunity for image rehabilitation into an exercise in patronising arrogance? Is it that frightened of officially admitting reality?

Gah. GAH. GAH!!!!!