Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Rupert discovers radioactivity at the RSA Conference, cowboys on Mars, gangsters in Utah and the silence of the cows. It's been that kind of week.

Monday 1/03/2004
Here's a handy household hint for those very important people who run very important computer security companies and go to very important conferences to do very important deals: technology may not always be your friend.

Today's mystery informant is most definitely the Diary's friend, however. They also attend very important security conferences -- most notably, the RSA Conference in San Francisco last week -- and, like the assembled CIOs, CHIEF EXECUTIVEs, CTOs and other C--men, stay in businesslike hotels close to the convention centre.

There's not much to choose between these hotels most of the time. They have adequate restaurants, passable bars, acceptable room service and the usual in-room telly, mini-bar, radio and phones. It's only on small points that the various chains and independents differentiate themselves: take the Argent, for example. It boasts -- and for once the word is apt -- that it has three phones in each room, one of which is cordless.

Such telephonic largess is enough to tempt many high-fliers of the computing security world, reports our contact from an adjacent hotel. "Really," I ask. "How can you tell?"

"I brought my amateur radio gear with me," said matey, "partially for the BBC World Service but mostly just to have a listen around. Those little phones in the Argent sure have a long range."

Surely, I said, they're digital. Encrypted?

"Nope," said the portable GCHQ. "Just channel after channel of people doing deals, talking to their girlfriends, phone banking, gossiping about other companies, having conference calls with the board, all as clear as a bell and broadcast to the world. You can buy a radio down the road for $100 that picks them up."

"These would be the people who spend all their time telling us to trust them, they've got this technological security thing down pat?"

"Oh yes," said Big Ears. "It was dead funny when I saw them at the conference later."

I then proceeded to educate Snoopy on how many laws they had broken, how unethical the whole thing was, how privacy must be respected and so on -- and I'm sure it struck home. Reprehensible business.

But, er, all you VIP IT security types? Use the phone with the cable coming out the back next time. You never know who's listening.

Tuesday 2/03/2004
Mars attracts! For a couple of days now, NASA has been trailing a very important press conference, due at 7 p.m. this evening UK time, when it promises to unveil some very exciting news from the Mars rovers. Being a space cadet of the first rank (even if I'm still waiting for a shiny tin-foil suit that fits), I find this very exciting -- but I've got an engagement this evening and can't be near telly or terminal.

Relief is at hand from the German press, where Der Spiegal has got the story early and splashed it all over its online edition like bits of Beagle 2 on the slopes of Olympus Mons. Not being au fait with the language of Goethe, it's time for me to wheel in the galactic aid of Babel Fish -- an exercise that, while it tells me much about Mars, is even more informative about German.

""I am baff, I am surprised", said Steve Squyres, scientific director/conductor of the Rover mission." And what set him up the baff? The "Tuxedo Gun" of irrefutable proof of past tides on Mars, says Der Spiegal (or The Mirror, as Babel Fish calls it).

Now, Tuxedo Gun is one of those phrases that is too good to be true. It had to be a 1960s Bond movie clone, or something SCO's Darl McBride would wear to a wedding (we learned this week from the LA Times that he often carries a gun and checks into hotels under assumed names because he thinks he has enemies who want to kill him. But I digress). Nope, no such thing exists. I check the original, where the phrase stands out like a lardy-white Brit on a beach full of tanned Continentals -- der "Smoking Gun".

Aha. And, of course, what we call a dinner jacket is what the Americans call a tuxedo and what the Germans call a smoking. Presumably from smoking jacket, although smoking jackets are nothing like tuxedos. And nothing like a small rock containing aqueously formed sulphates, which was the actual Tuxedo Gun of the article.

I am surprised, but I don't think I am baff. I am, however, now working on a screenplay for the first Martian Western. It was going to be called Cowpokes of the Canali, but now -- well, Tuxedo Gun cannot be bettered. Move 'em Rovers on, compadre. Head 'em up.

Wednesday 3/03/2004
Adding insult to injury ain't in it as the battle of the virus writers gets personal. Now, every variant of Bagle, Netsky and MyDoom that flits past on the network contains a coded message for the competition. Bagle.J had this little billet-doux hidden away:"Hey, NetSky, f--ck off you bitch, don't ruine our bussiness, wanna start a war?" (sorry for the censorship, but you might be reading this before the Diary's 9 p.m. watershed. Print it out and fill in the missing 'u' , if you promise not to read it until it's safe).

At first, I was -- as all right--thinking people are -- horrified by this new vandalism. How dare they use our precious data as their personal playground, to hurl insults at each other in this way?

But think again: it's not the most efficient of communications channels, but it's cheaper than text messaging. It's also wonderfully anonymous. The virus writers could be rehabilitated and the whole business sanitised if they concentrated on this rather than the more destructive side of their hobby. A virus could pop up on your screen, deliver a random note and politely ask for your thoughts on the matter -- to be delivered to some other hapless punter further down the line. It'd be a bit like putting a message in a bottle and chucking it over the stern.

Then there's the viral marketing aspect. Big money available for this from the right people, especially those with nothing to lose -- like tobacco companies, or politicians.

I think the virus writers have stumbled upon something

Thursday 4/03/2004
Nothing dates as quickly as visions of the future. That's amusingly ironic in a 1950s promotional film for plastics, but a pain in the Tupperware if you have to live it.

Take Milton Keynes, the entirely artificial and far-sighted City Of The Future built in the late 60s. It was going to be the model for the way we worked and lived into the 21st century -- roundabouts, roads designed in a grid system, cable TV, fibre-optic links, new-fangled aluminium phone lines, and concrete cows.

And here we are in the 21st century, and what is the key to the way we work and live? Broadband. Just not in Milton Keynes. Those innovative fibre optics and aluminium local loops don't do ADSL, the cable TV system is so remarkably antiquated that none of the modern cable broadband systems work with it, and even if you can get a copper, ADSL-friendly phone line the path it has to take through the grid system of roads is so long and tortuous it's too far for the standard to cope with.

Even where the city has attempted to embrace the past it's been to broadband's detriment: the Grand Union Canal, symbol of the first great communications revolution in the UK, bisects the place and is a tricky barrier to those who'd lay cables.

Only the concrete cows are guiltless in this sad tale of digital deprivation.

In short, the former city of the future is the next rural village of the past. This is a source of some distress to NTL -- the unfortunate company which picked up the cable system from BT -- which is busy putting up a tower that will relay broadband to the masses within a 10 kilometre range. Will this lift the terrible curse of narrowband from the good burghers of MK? Or will we discover that those cows are capable of emitting widespread interference that blocks even this salvation?

Watch this space.

Friday 5/03/2004
Another week gone, another thundering great slab of grade-A entertainment from the boys at SCO -- a week in which they sued two huge American companies over minor contractual details and pretended it was all about Linux; in which a memo leaked that tied them firmly to Microsoft's purse strings but they pretended was all about something else; in which their claims that Computer Associates had bought a licence were firmly denied by Computer Associates; and their claims that Ev1Servers had done a deal 'worth seven figures' was roundly denied by Ev1Servers. And SCO thinks of itself as 'like the RIAA'.

And on, and on.

We also learned that not only does chief executive Darl McBride carry a gun to protect himself from 'enemies', but that he has a unique take on what exactly the company is selling with those Linux licenses of theirs. As reported in the Investor's Business Daily, someone asked whether, should the ongoing lawsuits reveal that SCO doesn't in fact have any claims on Linux IP, SCO would refund the licensing fees.

""McBride jumped in: "You don't call up your auto insurance company and say, 'Hey, I didn't get in a car wreck'.""

Which is an odd attitude: insurance companies don't go around threatening you with the destruction of your car if you don't pay them money. Tony Soprano does that. Packs heat too, if I remember correctly, and has a nice line in money laundering -- you know, that thing you do when you want to get lots of money but want to disguise its origin.


"Microsoft also indicated there was a lot more money out there and they would clearly rather use Baystar "like" entities to help us get signifigantly [sic] more money if we want to grow further or do acquisitions" -- consultant Mike Anderer to Chris Sontag, general manager of SCO Source, the IP arm of SCO.

It really is better than anything you get on telly. Can't wait for next week's instalments -- but given that it revolves around SCO's vision of the world, could it really be called reality TV?