Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Bad days for Intel, BT, the CIA and Microsoft, but at least Rupert got to keep his shoes

Monday 10/5/2004
Not a good day for secrets.

A student in Dublin works out a way to extract the words that have been blanked out on those teasingly declassified documents issued by spooks and their friends. Seems that because word processors are so good at positioning text on the page with such precision, you can count the number of pixels in the missing word. You then identify the font and font size, and ask your friend the computer to find all the words that, if printed in that font at that size, would fill the space. You'll get a handful of words, and in the context of the passage it's child's play to pick the right one. She managed to work out that the South Koreans leaked some helicopter information to Iraq, for example, which probably makes her more successful by a factor of, oh, several million than most of the intelligence workers involved in the Mesopotamian adventure.

Then, an IBM research scientist reports today that by throwing the sound of someone typing into a neural network, he can detect which key is being pressed with around eighty percent accuracy. It has to be trained first, but that's not too hard, and it's good enough to work over a cellphone or other radio bugging device. In fact, he reckons that once it's trained for one keyboard, it'll work with others of the same make and model, and that with some more work he can reduce the training requirement considerably. It's all standard hardware and software, and you can probably do it for around 200 quid. The guy's name is peculiarly appropriate: Dmitri Asonov

Finally -- and this won't be a surprise to anyone who used to own a BBC Micro -- the tiny sounds computer components make when voltages change can be picked up and decoded to reveal a 'surprising amount' of information about what the computer is up to. This comes as something of a shock to the Israeli researchers who are trying this out, but anyone who has a Beeb in their nerdy past will be familiar with the soft, breathy crackling the machine used to make as it churned through its calculations. At the time, I just thought it was a charmingly eccentric side-effect of Acorn's peculiar design practices -- now I know it was part of the Global Conspiracy to report everything we did back to the secret powers that run the planet.

In my case, it involved writing software that played "The Teddy Bears Picnic" for a game that some friends were developing. It took quite a long time to get it right, during which period most of my family were driven to using ear-plugs, headphones and morphine to survive. I do hope the CIA didn't mind.

Tuesday 11/5/2004
BT has a cunning plan to encourage broadband take-up -- subscribe some time in the next forty days, and you'll get a free return flight to one of ten popular destinations in Europe and America, or even Philadelphia. This is a daring piece of promotion, given that Hoover tried it in the past and ended up having to sell the company to sort out the repercussions, but the sums obviously look tempting -- I had a similar offer yesterday from First Direct plugging its credit card.

Much as I approve in principle of something for nothing, it's a shame that BT chose this way to promote a technology with such potential benefits for the environment through removing the need to travel. The hedonism in a free jaunt to New York or Barcelona is attractive in a way that buying a couple of hundred quid's worth of carbon-chewing forestry is not, but there could be more appropriate freebies. A few tubs of organic ice-cream, a couple of crates of eco-friendly wine, perhaps even discounted car insurance. After all, if you're not going to drive it so far it won't cost so much.

But look on the bright side. If the cost of petrochemicals keeps going up, there's a small but enticing chance that BT will end up with so many liabilities it'll have to make real money out of broadband -- perhaps by cutting prices, offering a decent service and encouraging proper competition in the market.

Nah, those are 737s taking off to Prague, not Gloucester Old Spots.

Wednesday 12/5/2004
I have two rules in this IT journalism game. One: if a company won't tell you anything about an event to which it wants you to come, it's got nothing important to say. Rule two: Microsoft events are non-events.

Perhaps I should amplify number two. There are plenty of good reasons to go to a Microsoft event, but news is rarely one. If you can arrange an interview with a rare migratory executive, then good. If you fancy eating Bill's canapés, gassing with industry mates and teasing the help, you'll be happy. If you write for an audience who cares what the Deputy Vice President of Marketing (EMEA) for Enterprise Middleware and Reconstructed Gibbon Arousal says, then you'll get your quotes.

But Microsoft is paranoid about news management, doubly so at events, and you'll get what you're given -- which is what everyone else is given, and which is in the press packs and on the Web site. It is doing the event for its benefit, and if you get trampled underfoot then them's the breaks. Even that old launch standby, getting the industry partners squiffy on the vino and finding out what they really think of the sponsor, is no good. You don't anger the gods in their own temple.

So when Microsoft UK phones up and invites us to a Server 2003 'birthday party' today which will be 'really good' and 'really useful' in a very unspecific way, we demur. It's an afternoon bash at the Tate Modern, and while little is more attractive than milling around in a great place with loads of chums whiling away a few hours over some fizz, we're all a bit busy. So thanks for thinking of us, but if you could just send us the press releases…

Microsoft UK goes away. Then it comes back. "No, you really do want to come. We're going to have a very special embargoed extra briefing with some very special stuff, and we really want to have you along. The embargo will just be until Friday, when we'll have had the chance to tell people in the US."

Applying Rule One and Rule Two to this, and our original decision still seems good. But an element of doubt creeps in, and after some debate I agree to slope over to the Tate and chance my arm.

The briefing is… well, it's OK. It's Server 2003 road map stuff, looking forward about four years into the still-mythical Days of Longhorn. There's nothing terribly surprising, but it's good to have chapter and verse, and with only a handful of hacks present we'll all get a news story out of it. Why a four-year plan with only the vaguest of details is so sensitive to a day's timing is beyond me, but nonetheless we sign bits of paper promising not to whisper a word until 12:01 a.m. on Friday.

Perhaps my rules are wrong. Perhaps giving up half an afternoon was worth it, after all. By now it's 5:30 -- if we could publish the story now I'd probably bash something out quickly, but with a day's grace it doesn't seem worth it.

About midnight, I'm just checking our sister site at News.com before turning in. There in explicit detail is everything we were told about, and a little more besides. I check some other sites in the US, and they've all got the same story -- which we can't write. We have been, to use one of a selection of words that come to mind, royally screwed.

Next morning, there is a short exchange of emails with Microsoft's PR, who informs us that "The non-disclosure agreement has been withdrawn." By now, of course, we've run our US stories on the UK site -- but the assortment of freelances who also took the afternoon to attend the MS briefing had no such option. They've made the investment of their time in going to Microsoft, and the fact that the promised news was nothing of the sort just means they'll have a harder time getting a return on that investment.

It looks as if the embargo was designed to protect the US from the embarrassment of having its announcements foreshadowed by Europe -- but, of course, Europe still wanted the coverage it gets from getting journalists' bums on seats. It was important to pretend otherwise. It's unfortunate that, what with the time difference and all, the Americans would get the news while we were in bed, but hey, them's the breaks.

Thursday 13/5/2004
You probably won't remember this, but we are now almost exactly halfway through the Year of the Itanium. This was announced by Paul Otellini, Intel's president and chief operating officer, at the Fall 2003 Developer Forum, when he promised the company would ship a hundred thousand of the chips over the next twelve months. As the prodigal prodigy was shifting in the region of, ooooh, around three thousand a quarter when the Pauline Prophecy was uttered, this sounded like unrivalled optimism. Some of us were woken from our keynote stupor long enough to take notes.

So, here we are approaching the half-way mark. How are the shipments holding up, Intel? Intel? Hello? Ah, here's a reply from the company: "Our objective is that Itanium volume will double in 2004." Now, I'm not quite sure I can square that with the Otellini Utterance, even if I use 64-bit integer mathematics backed up with very long word instruction sets. Two times twelve thousand equals a hundred thousand. Hm.

Perhaps I should ask Mike Fister, who as head of Intel's server processor group has been one of the staunchest and most public -- not to say -- of Team Itanium's boosters for as long as memory serves. Over to you, Mike. Mike? Hello?

Mike's not there.

It seems as if the Year of the Itanium is in fact Six Months of Mike Fister. He's only gone and buggered off to Cadence Design Systems, a company who make the bits that let other companies make chips. They've hired the lad as CEO, which is a nice step up, and perhaps a sensible career move to make following some seventeen years at the old place, but it's a rum thing to do right in the middle of your Most Important Product's Most Important Year.

Never mind. At least he seems to have shaved off that moustache.

Friday 14/5/2004
As I write this, it's lunchtime. I have already had an entire month's worth of angst in a mere four hours, I have to get the diary done in a frantic rush before an office reorganisation happens around my head, and I've just had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. Against the odds, however, I am wearing my own shoes.

Let me explain. Some Fridays I do the diary at home, sometimes in the office. Today is an office day. I have a meeting at 10:30, so at 9:30 I'm up, dressed, reasonably able to frame and answer simple questions, and poised to depart. All is well -- so well, I decide just to check the office email before setting course for the Piccadilly Line.

If this were a documentary on UK History, the tweedy prof would pause, clasp his hands together and give a histrionic sigh. "King Rupert's army was at its peak of manpower and readiness. Europe lay defenceless before him; his enemies in disarray. Yet it was at this very point, when total victory seemed ordained by God, that his carefully constructed plans began to unravel…"

There were, as it happens, no emails of import, but the instant messaging client woke up as I logged in. "You are going to that interview with the head of HP's R&D Labs, aren't you?" it said.

Ah. I know better than to fire back "What flaming interview?" Instead I kick off Office calendar. It knows as little as I do: "I've got nothing in my diary," I type. A frisson runs across the Internet - presumably using frisson transfer protocol -- followed by a short yet pertinent exchange designed to find out who didn't tell who what and when it didn't happen. Clearly, a meeting has been arranged. Clearly, I'm in the frame. The PRs are ringing the office "just to make sure we'll be there".

Time is short, and so is my temper. I sit down at my desk, extract the PR details via IM and phone up. Nobody at the PR company knows -- well, somebody knows but he's "working at home" today. I'm given his mobile number, which goes through to voicemail.

My options are limited. If I get on the tube to work, I'll probably be underground when they call back and I may miss the meeting. If I stay at home, I'll miss my 10:30. I try and phone my 10:30 -- a chap who operates in the stratosphere of the mobile phone biz -- only to hit his voicemail. I leave an apologetic message, and decide to wait.

It is at this point that a strange, shambling apparition makes its way into the front room. It is my charming teenage son, who 'doesn't have school' on a Friday morning and thus 'revises for his A-levels' through the mystical practice of absorbing the information from his textbooks while he sleeps. A modern miracle -- but what has gone wrong? Why is he, for want of a better word, 'awake'? He clears his throat. He is, I surmise, about to speak and therefore, I further surmise, he wants something of my portable property.

"Dad…" I admire how he makes three syllables of it, dropping the middle one by a fourth. "Can I have the shoes today?"

Now, it may seem odd that a household such as ours has but one pair of shoes. Trust me, it's complicated. Nevertheless, my reply is simple yet forceful, and unambiguously negative. "But I'll lose my job!" he whines.

He has, after a mere eighteen months of nagging, actually got himself a part-time job, which involves weekend and after-hours stuff. Sometimes, he has to be smart and that, his employers state, requires shoes. Not sandals. Not trainers. Shoes. He has never quite got around to buying any, and as we're the same size (13, extra-wide)… well, you see his thinking.

My job has no explicit dress code, but sometimes I feel it sensible to be shod properly. One time might be, for the sake of argument, when I'm off to see the bloke in charge of one of the world's more prestigious research and development labs.

"But if he works in R&D, he'll be fine with sandals!" is my son's counterargument.

There then follows a short yet spirited debate. I manage to hold onto my shoes throughout. Son is reluctantly thrown in the maelstrom of having to think for himself, working out that he can make it out to the nearest shoe shop for mutants and back in time, and is bodily hurled into the warm spring morning air.

We are now well into diary-writing time. Some IMs have been blinking on my screen for a while. "The PR keeps phoning here, wanting to know what's going on!" says one. "Which PR? What's the number?" I IM back. A different number. I call. It's voicemail. "It's voicemail!" I type. "She was on the phone again! Oh, someone's turned up to see you…"

It is my pal, who has been without his mobile all morning for reasons I cannot begin to understand. I can't say where I'll be today, as I don't know when or where I'm meeting HP -- it could even be in Bristol, where the labs are. He is Not Impressed.

I try the PR again, and get through! Hurrah! Apparently, I've been arranged for a midday meeting… in Soho, just half an hour away. Phew.

The rest is almost anticlimactic. I make the meeting, have a very productive interview -- including some interesting stuff about that ol' Itanium, so watch this space -- and on the way back get a call from the lad saying that he managed to sort out the shoe madness without losing his job.

And here I am.

Oh, the hardest decision of my life. Walking out post-interview into Soho Square in bright spring sunlight, on a Friday lunchtime, surrounded by zillions of beautiful people clearly having a fantastic time in the restaurants, bars and cafes of one of the liveliest parts of one of the liveliest cities on the planet, and choosing voluntarily to get on the tube, go back to my desk and write this thing with only a BLT for company.

Never say I don't love you.