Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Cisco's unfortunate leak, monkeying about on the Internet, the shame of the IT journalist and the death of an underappreciated tech art form - one week behind the silicon scenes

Monday 17/5/2004
All software ends up as open source, if only because you can't keep a secret forever. And software, like all engineering, is fundamentally visible: anything that people can make, people can understand. Thus, when some piece of code is described as the 'crown jewels' of a particular company the analogy is flawed - the real Crown Jewels currently reside a few hundred yards to my left, in the Tower of London, and there they'll stay until Judgement Day if the security's good enough. Not so code, which can be disassembled and understood by anyone with the time, knowledge and patience to analyse it.

But that's boring. Much better to just waltz in over the Net and steal the source code. It's quick, efficient and terminally embarrassing if the code you steal just happens to belong to a company that makes its living out of network security. So stand up Cisco, who suffered just such an event. Today we learn that a large chunk of its router operating system, IOS, has been extracted somehow and released into the wild.

This is worrying. Cisco is a fully paid-up member of the 'Security by Obscurity' fan club, which has as its motto "If you can't see it, you can't hack it" and which persists in the crown jewel model of software. IOS runs on most of the routers that run the Internet, and the idea that their innermost souls have been laid bare to passing hackers is not comforting. Neither is the idea that if Cisco can't keep their own systems secure, how on earth are we supposed to manage?

But soft! Comforting words issue from the Cisco kids. The software was not leaked through a security hole. Nor was it stolen by an employee or a contractor. Which leaves, um… Pixies! Yes, the Code Pixies took it! But that still leaves the small problem of what terrible secrets have been laid bare. No, no need to worry there. It was only the code for the IPV6 protocol, and nobody uses that anyway.

Ah. This would be the IPV6 stuff that Cisco has spent ages telling us was the thrilling wave of the future, then. Don't worry about the blagger stealing the crown jewels - they were just cubic zirconium after all. Amazing what you learn when stuff goes open, eh?

Tuesday 18/5/2004
There are some places where technology should have only an incidental presence. Take the smallest room, where a radio can help pass the time pleasantly enough but one would draw the line at, say, a Van de Graff generator producing hundreds of kilovolts. The Japanese are famously keen to stuff every nook and cranny of daily life with automatic helpmeets, and have produced some rather disconcerting devices to help you on your way with strategically deployed jets of water and air -- I can see how that might be a good thing, although I'd appreciate a little warning.

However, the latest gadget to come out of Germany falls squarely on the side of Not Wanted On Voyage. The WC Ghost, brainchild of one Alex Benkhardt, is apparently designed to spare women the misery of misdirected male micturition -- undoubtedly based on the IP protocols. It is an undeniable fact that men prefer to stand up for themselves in the process of relief, and that this can sometimes result in a slightly wider dispersal pattern than one would wish, but I prefer to see this as just one of our gender's manifold idiosyncratic charms.

Not so Mr Benkhardt. The WC Ghost hides under the rim of the seat, and has a tilt sensor. If the seat is lifted, your spiritual advisor activates and chides the man in 'a stern female tone' -- "Hello, what are you up to then? Put the seat back down right away, you are definitely not to pee standing up ... you will make a right mess..." It is claimed that this device has sold in the region of 1.6 million units in Germany, and negotiations are underway for versions for other markets, including the English speaking world.

But does it actually work? I'd think not. Firstly, there is a sizeable contingent of men who would rather enjoy being scolded by an authoritarian frau in such circumstances, and they could well be buying the device with no intent of modifying their behaviour. Second, the rest of the male clan will probably just shrug their shoulders and let fly anyway, perhaps taking a sly aim at the offending device just to see what happens. And finally, those which are disturbed by the ghostly telling-off will just leave the seat down -- with unfortunate hygienic consequences.

Now if they could only find a device that scolded teenagers for taking the last drop of milk from the fridge…

Wednesday 19/5/2004
To continue in the theme of gadgets you'd expect to see in the Christmas edition of Private Eye (" Say goodbye to cold soap misery with HottiDish! Electrical elements carefully warm your soap without charring, to make winter bathtime soap shivers a thing of the past! Plays theme tune from Have I Got News For You, £1999.95") , we now turn to Pollyvision. This is a DVD containing eighty minutes of parrot-themed content, with our colourful avian pals disporting themselves through jungle and sky. The idea is to cheer up those parrots and budgies who pine away while their owners are out at work: social animals to a fault, they really don't appreciate silence and loneliness.

While this is a good idea, it's only the beginning. What we need as a matter of urgency is an Internet for the animal kingdom: Polly may tire of the same 80 minutes of pseudo-psittacines, but a decent video link and some sort of beak-centric input device and they can connect up to their friends worldwide and entertain themselves endlessly. With a little more work and a satellite link, terminals can be dropped into jungles around the world and the captive birds enjoy a virtual freedom. Who can say -- perhaps this may become the preferred method of existence for the birds: all the social interaction and stimulation of the wild state, and a nice, well-supplied comfy place to sleep in well away from predators.

It shouldn't stop at parrots. Any social species may benefit from online interaction -- after all, why should it just be humans who get off with online dating, chatrooms and all that other good primate stuff? There should be a crash programme in developing ways of transferring information over IP that hasn't previously seemed important -- odours, for example, and the tactile business of pulling lice out of fur. And I don't really want to dwell on what might be needed to get bonobos interested, except to note that it could outstrip any Attenborough BBC nature programme in the ratings.

This could be the brand new market the world is looking for -- and at last a way to exploit the animal kingdom in a morally defendable fashion.

Thursday 20/5/2004
The invite said "Drinks with IBM Personal Computing Division" -- and that's good enough for me and Charles McLellan, reviews supremo. We hare off to a rather nice little bar just off Regents Street, where we find a seething cluster of the usual suspects: hacks, PRs, marketing directors in ties and attentive waitresses hithering and thithering with satisfactory quantities of cold beer. The conversation is pleasant and includes just enough technology and marketing discussion to make the whole business justifiably work-related.

The gender mix is typical: the hacks and marketeers are exclusively male -- well, we're not quite sure about the one from PC Advisor -- while the PRs are exclusively female. It's thus rather fun when the room next to ours suddenly fills up with a hen party, populated by chicks from some sector of the music retail business. The gels are clearly up for a good time, and from time to time extend invitations to the hacks to 'come over here and join us'. All the ingredients are there for a memorably good time.

So, how does the cream of the UK tech journalist corps react when faced with such an opportunity? They hunkered down in a little knot at the far end of the room, and talked even harder about IO ports, processor speeds and battery life. A shameful business, and one that doesn't bode well for the continuation of the species.

I apologise for my fellow journalists, and do what I can to make up for their sad lack of initiative. It's a tough job single-handedly defending the honour of such lacklustre lads, but it must, I feel, be attempted.

Friday 21/5/2004
A note from friend PeterI says "It's the end of 10BASE2 Ethernet!" For our younger listeners who may be unaware that networking once involved wires at all, I should point out that in the beginning, PC networking came in two flavours -- thick and thin. Thick Ethernet had great fat cables, usually yellow, linking the card to a special socket on the wall; thin Ethernet, aka 10BASE2, used ordinary coax cable to string cards together in a daisy chain. It worked - slowly, the best you could get was 10 megabits a second - until there was a break in the chain somewhere. Then everything stopped working and there was a lot of scrabbling about beneath the desks -- well, any excuse.

10BASET put paid to that, using cheaper telephone-style cables that weren't daisy-chained and had the potential to go a lot faster. In the manner of such things, the old coax cards continued to be made -- in ever decreasing quantities -- until now.

This is sad, for a few reasons. First, I worked on a 10BASE2 product way back when the world was young, and this is evidence that neither it nor I can be so described these days. Second, the coax and connectors used are the same as found as standard in ham radio equipment, so I was assured of a constant supply of handy test leads and adaptors. But most importantly, the end of the thin Ethernet card means the end of a much underappreciated art form -- the T Piece Sculpture.

Because each card had to be part of a daisy chain, it came with a coax adaptor that let you plug two cables into its solitary socket. These could easily be daisy-chained themselves into small geometric clusters of metal, and with application and a reasonably free office equipment budget these could be grown until they covered quite a large area of desk. And then upwards and outwards: some of the creations could easily qualify for the spare plinth in Trafalgar Square.

You just can't do that with 10BASET connectors, and there are serious philosophical problems involved with 802.11 connector art. A small piece of art history slides into oblivion: at least it won't die completely unrecorded.