Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Gods, apples, and ready-salted chips all clatter around behind the scenes in this week's hidden world of IT

Monday 3/5/2004
There is a strong masochistic streak to Microsoft these days, one curiously familiar to followers of British culture. How else do you explain Janus, the company's choice of name for their new digital rights management package? Opponents to corporate DRM are roused to ire not because protecting intellectual property is wrong, but because of the duplicitous nature of those who try to extend their control beyond the norm while claiming it's all for the good of the consumer. Choosing a two-faced god as your DRM mascot in these times is like letting an unpatched Windows PC onto the Internet without a firewall.

It could be that Microsoft chose Janus because he was the god of gatekeeping and a symbol of beginnings -- January's named for him, after all -- but he was also a bi-featured bloke who protected the powerful. One of the myths of the foundation of Rome has Romulus and some rather rough pals starting up their city-state only to be a bit frustrated by a general lack of women -- well, a chap who's been brought up by wolves probably has some issues with interpersonal skills, let alone personal hygiene.

They decided to throw a party and invite the neighbours, the Sabines, for a bit of a bash -- doubtless saying how a few ales and goat en croute would benefit the consumer by offering more choice and convenience over dull old fish and olives. Grateful for the generosity, the Sabines turned up in their party gear and the celebrations commenced.

However, Romulus promptly abducted all the Sabine women and carried them back to the city. Unsurprisingly, the Sabine blokes were a bit put out by this and promptly stormed Rome. They were within a pilum's length of success when Janus came to the rescue -- as the aggrieved party clattered up the hill to rescue their daughters, the god unleashed a hot spring that washed them all away. Now, that's what I call effective streaming media Daughter Rights Management.

It would be unfair, obvious and cheap to compare Bill Gates to Romulus and the rights of the consumer to the Sabine virgins: if Microsoft wants to mess around with pagan gods then that's between its marketing department and the 60-odd percent of American consumers whose evangelical Christianity equates such things with hellfire and damnation. But clearly, Microsoft doesn't care about annoying people. In fact, they might be positively inviting it.

This sort of confrontational stance is increasingly popular. You give your supporters something to whoop about, while your opponents -- who were never going to agree anyway -- get so angry at your chutzpah that they can't see straight to land a punch. George W Bush is an expert at this, David Blunkett, our ID-card loving, judge-baiting, liberal-taunting home secretary, has been taking lessons. Microsoft may well have concluded that since it can't win people's hearts and minds over DRM, it might as well distract us with a symbol that has not one but two bare faces.

There is one further possible explanation: Janus is also the name of a specialist London publication for adherents to what we may primly call the English perversion -- and not so primly call corporal punishment for sexual pleasure.

Whether Microsoft's masochism runs quite that deep, I cannot tell.

Tuesday 4/5/2004
Some headlines come close to perfection: "Apple patented by Microsoft" is one. The story deserves it too -- a West Coast horticulturist found a new breed of apple tree, and promptly patented it. However, he used the same agents as Microsoft and they mistakenly attributed his patent to the boys from Redmond. You can see how that might happen, given Microsoft's recent fondness for IP: this may have been the one in a hundred that didn't come from the software giant.

Result, one apple tree, genome him belong Bill.

Of course, it's all being sorted out now and nobody's going to sue anybody over anything. But it's a timely reminder that patents have less and less to do with inventions: prior art in an organism can go back to the Garden of Eden and you can still get ownership of the DNA as intellectual property if you're the first to 'discover' it. And what if it's not really a mistake? What if Microsoft is getting into genetic engineering? What would the world look like if human DNA was treated like so much operating system software, with open source hackers pitted against the closed monopolists? I know, half the world's supply of cyberpunk science fiction books revolved around this idea, but you can't help but wonder just how symbolic that patented apple tree was.

To date, my experiments with genetic engineering have been unlicensed, largely unskilled and only intermittently successful -- which has to be for the good of myself, the planet and history in general. But if you had ninety days after fertilisation to register the foetus, an annual licence fee to pay, compulsory upgrades every three years, product recalls and even more susceptibility to passing viruses than yer average snotty schoolkid, it could all prove a more effective contraceptive than anything the London Rubber Company has yet devised.

Wednesday 5/5/2004
Become a computer journalist, and travel the world! But it can go so wrong, as two of our number found out when they jetted over to Munich for a big announcement from a big American company who was doing something with a big British telco. The trouble started when they got to the hotel at lunchtime, checked in and asked the PR: "Right, where do we go for the action?"

"Um, don't know. Nobody's given us a schedule yet," said the PR. Three hours of limbo later, the company worked out where they wanted the hacks, and off they went -- only to find the doors to the conference room locked. "It's started. You can't go in" said the bouncer. "But you can go into the next one". The next one started an hour later. "Can't go in" said the new bouncer. "Analysts only."

By now, the freelancers also invited had actually found out two pieces of information. First, the announcement they came over for had been made in the US three hours earlier. This led to their second discovery: lots of other people sitting at home had already written it up, so there was no chance to sell the story. You can imagine the shouts of glee.

Finally, one of our number had promised to do some one-on-ones, interviews where it's just you, the executive in question and a PR minder or two. These are useful, because if you're good you can usually get something that nobody else has, but you have to do your homework. This is, of course, impossible if you're not told who you'll be seeing or what it's going to be about -- and guess what happened here.

As for wireless network access -- or even decent cellphone coverage -- forget it. Not on the menu. "It was like being held in an isolation cell" said one very angry hack, whose temper had not been improved by the 7:30 a.m. flight the following morning.

Total disaster all round.

Thursday 6/5/2004
What is news? [if you don't know by now, sunshine... Ed.] Something that happened recently? We got a tip-off that spammers were bypassing the 'are you a human?' tests -- you know, the ones with wonky letters and graphics -- which some free email services use by embedding them in "free porn" websites and getting randy users to type in the answers. That's clever, we thought, and interesting. Sounds like news.

The first problem was that none of us knew what those tests were called. Some inspired Google search terms later, and we had the answer -- Captchas -- as well as more unwelcome information. The porn hack had been documented at the beginning of the year on the erudite BoingBoing blog - how can something that old be news?

Time to hit the phones. It soon turned out that not only had we not heard about it at the time, but neither had anyone else. At least, nobody who ran Captcha-protected services had heard about it and thus couldn't tell us what countermeasures they'd take. Now, that's news.

"Better put in fulsome attribution to BoingBoing," we decided. Not that we wouldn't in any case, but unless we made it bloody obvious we'd get an infinite number of nit-picking readers posting sarky comments saying "how can this be news? It's months old! I read about it already, You sluggards!"

So we made it bloody obvious. Didn't make any difference, of course, we still got the sarky talkback. It seems there are still some top-notch pedants out there on the Net, and they're not shy about letting us know. Now that's definitely not news…

Friday 7/5/2004
Last year, I was talking to an Intel bod about Banias -- now Pentium M -- and the fact that it was really rather good.

"So it goes as fast as a Pentium 4?" I said.

"Yes," he said, patiently.

"And it's just the first of a family with a roadmap stretching off years into the future?" I said.

"Yes," he said, resignedly.

"And it takes much less power?" I said.

"Oh yes," he said, with a sigh. "So, why would anyone want a Pentium 4?" I said.

"Because," and here you could tell he was wistfully thinking of rolling his eyes in exasperation, "because it's a desktop chip with hyper-threading, and Banias is a mobile chip with power management. Of course."

"Of course," I said. "I see." I didn't, although the chap did go on to say that Intel liked having multiple teams working on similar products as it ensured a good flow of ideas. But then, with the pace of processor innovation slowing, why insist that the Pentium 4 gets hyper-threading and the Pentium M gets a power-managed stack? Why not combine all the goodness onto a single chip?

And now it looks as if this may be happening. With Dothan -- the new, smaller, faster Pentium-M -- reportedly due for launch next week with, our American cousins tell us, a top speed of 2GHz, the chances are good that the benchmarks will be even more embarrassing to the Pentium 4 bog-standard edition. More rumours say that Intel is jacking in its existing Xeon roadmap, reallocating the design teams and going M all the way. I phone my friendly Intel contact: "Oh, Rupert, there are lots of rumours flying around and you know we don't talk about speculation. If I were you, I'd take some of them with a pinch of salt". He neglected to say which chips deserved the salt.

By the time you read this, we may all know where to dispense the NaCl -- and we may all have several fewer code names to remember. Result!