Rupert Goodwins' Diary

A bestiary of a week sees Rupert befuddled by worms, mice, bugs and noses. Can You believe it?
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 13/9/2004
I'm back from SF, and a combination of too many pomegranate margaritas in the city itself and eleven hours hopping timezones in the back of a Virgin has left me in a state of slightly hallucinogenic euphoria. I'm far too well-padded to move more than an inch in any direction when strapped into my seat, so technology was my only comfort on the journey. It failed: my iPod fell from the seatback, and despite trying to find it by sticking a camera between my knees and taking digital photographs of the floor it remained lost until Heathrow. You'd be amazed what's down there, though: I'm still not sure how the previous occupant of 51A had managed to leave a sneaker jammed behind the life jacket. They don't mention that in the safety briefing.

Back in the office, I'm at first inclined to blame my befuddlement when I read a report about a talking worm. Much coffee later the story remains: at least it's nothing to do with tequila. It's a logical development, I guess: why not roundly insult the victim in as many ways as possible while deleting their data?

This and other developments in the virus wars -- payloads now include pictures, source code and quite possibly instructions on mixing the perfect Martini -- lead to the sad conclusion that feature bloat has got to the digital vandals. When we're used to downloading 10MB Window patches, there's no reason that the virus writers should stint themselves. Expect to see multimedia presentations on the joys of living in Bulgaria -- or Brazil, seemingly the new epicenter for digital infection -- or perhaps a quick game of Galaxians to play while your data is expertly packaged up and dispatched to Paulo's Credit Card Laundry and Bank Account Boutique.

We should hit back with their own weapons. One of the things Intel talked about at IDF was PlanetLab, a testbed for new Internet tools that take a worldwide view of the infrastructure to help manage it. Malware is tracked by monitoring the way it spreads from site to site, with the information pooled and used to shut off the sources of infection -- it doesn't take much of a leap to see that those same sources could then be targeted with payloads of our own.

This is where we bring in the psychologists. Even hackers have heroes, albeit often cartoon figures with a propensity for peculiar sexual practices and big guns. We need to identify these and co-opt them for psychological warfare: only by persuading the creators of badness that they should abandon their ill-advised ways can we hope to stem the problem at source. Special manga animations should pop up while the worm creators are hard at work, distracting them and seeding doubt in their minds. Eventually, we can reprogram these social misfits and turn them into productive members of the online community -- database administrators, DRM salesmen, even Symantec marketing managers.

Harsh, but fair.

Tuesday 14/9/2004
It's not often that radio technology has a direct effect on national politics. Today is different. Yet more talks in Northern Ireland are due, and Sinn Fein decides to underline Albion's perfidy by showing off a bugging device found in one of their offices. Shocking stuff, says Gerry Adams, that the security service of the UK should so besmirch the political process.

I'm not au fait with the nuances of ethical behaviour in the province, so I'll leave the sense of outrage to those best practiced in the art. However, I do have a certain faculty with radio technology -- and the device being paraded is remarkable. About the size of a 1960s walkie-talkie, it comes complete with an imperial yard of batteries and two fat antennas on top. It would have been laughed off the set of a Bond movie thirty years ago: it does not look like anything a self-respecting spy would be caught using in 2004.

The two antennas are particularly interesting. They were standard accessories for Pye brand two-way radios in the 1970s, which either means the device is considerably ancient or that Q has a perverse fondness for classic wireless. They're different lengths, which indicates that the "bug" is really a repeater -- it picks up signals on one band and retransmits them on another, in this case probably receiving transmissions from local low-power microphones on UHF and sending them a greater distance on VHF.

But if you're going to do that, you don't have to put the repeater into the house that's under surveillance. You can slap it in a lamp-post nearby, where there's lots of power (so no huge chains of batteries) and nobody'll find it. And what was it with the batteries? Couldn't they tap into the mains?

The whole business is bizarre. If you're going to put an enormous radio transmitter into a place, you might as well plaster the area with posters advertising "Radio Sinn Fein -- 99.5 MHz. All Adams, All The Time". If you really want to bug someone these days, you use tiny little spread spectrum devices that are practically invisible to the eye and scanning receiver. Consider the cheapness, size and sophistication of the wireless data gear we can buy today for a few pounds: you'd better believe that MI5 (and its friends abroad) got there a long time ago.

So we have a choice: Either MI5 is grossly incompetent; or Sinn Fein has just found something that was left there from years ago; or it got found years ago and has just been wheeled out at an appropriate time; or it's an innocuous gizmo that got picked up at a ham radio car boot sale and is enjoying a new life in propaganda.

I wouldn't care to guess. But if anyone from the organisations involved would like an analytical eye cast over the "bug" internals, my questing screwdriver is at your disposal.

Wednesday 15/9/2004
My old boss Alan Sugar is at it again. The third generation of Amstrad E-m@iler telephones is launched, with the traditional razzmatazz and uneven product demonstrations. This one adds a colour screen and videophone features, so alongside the email, Web access and online shopping of the earlier versions you can now call up gran and wave, somewhat fuzzily, at the old dear. Of course, she has to have an Amstrad phone as well -- although the device works over Thus' internet infrastructure, it won't make calls to PC-based video conferencing systems or 3G videophones. You can however send and receive emails with pictures attached or MMS messages, so there is some fun to be had even if your pals haven't shelled out for Sugar's latest sweetie.

And shelling out is the name of the game. The gizmo itself costs under a hundred quid with a further discount if you buy two -- thus avoiding Ghostbuster Syndrome (*) -- which is not a lot of money for a box stuffed with the usual Amstradian mug's eyeful of knobs, lights, buttons and twiddly bits. Like mobile phones, however, the box earns its keep by selling the punter expensive services. It costs 17p a day just sitting there by dialling up to check for email, and that's just for starters. MMS cost a quid apiece, text messages are 50p. Video calls are also 50p, plus the phone charges; emails with pictures 25p. It does faxes at a pound a pop, and if you want to download a polyphonic ring tone that'll set you back around four quid. That's before the high priced games and other dial-up cash guzzlers kick in.

If that's not enough, you also get to enjoy "at NO COST" a wide selection of adverts sent to your emailer overnight. The old emailers did that, but as the new one supports colour and video there's no doubt that the adverts will take full advantage of these new features. It remains to be seen for how long this will tie up your phone line -- but make no mistake, Amstrad is going to remain thoroughly connected to your home. You don't have to be a Northern Ireland politician to wonder about the advisability of installing a video camera connected to the phone line and under the direct control of some distant computer -- especially when the kerning on the vividly coloured brochure renders the product's tagline as "Look Who' Stalking". (The brochure also proudly advertises a number of dial-up services available over the emailer, including "Live Physic Readings". I'm not sure whether this involves medieval medical practices involving cupping and leeches or audiobook versions of Stephen Hawking's work on quantum cosmology. Either way, a pleasant prospect.)

That aside, as someone who supports a number of friends and family's PCs I'm delighted with the idea that network appliances such as the E-m@iler exist. Amstrad made a lot of money out of selling word processors to the masses that avoided most of the hassles of running a computer: flogging email, Web and interactive video services that won't get infected by viruses or crash with strange error messages is a worthy enterprise.

If only it weren't set up to be so rapacious. When Sugar's response to the query "what's the business model behind this?" is "That's a very prying question," you know that the even the notably robust boss is mildly embarrassed about that fact.

(*) Ghostbuster Syndrome -- a term first coined in the days of ISDN, when buying a digital phone line was useless unless you knew someone who'd already got one -- thus nobody would be the first. A quandary neatly encapsulated by the movie tag-line, "Who ya gonna call?"

Thursday 16/9/2004
The searchlight of IT innovation ceaselessly seeks out new areas for development. Today's lucky recipient of misplaced ingenuity is the nose -- as yet completely unexploited. No longer. For starters, New Scientist reports the invention of the "nouse", the nose mouse.

A nose mouse -- no relative of the Armenian Nose Vole popularised by Dr Graeme Garden in the Goodies -- is a piece of image recognition software. Point a camera at your face, and the nouse will identify the tip of your nose. It tracks head movements and relays them to the pointer on screen -- blinking your right or left eye twice will trigger the appropriate click.

That might seem very silly, because it is. But at least you can see a use for those who cannot or will not use their hands, and we should be thankful that it doesn't involve a small light or specially coloured tracking gizmo to be fitted to one's proboscis.

Elsewhere in mondo conko, researchers from Siemens have built a chip that smells -- and not of vinegar, neither. By mixing a smattering of interesting chemicals into some clever silicon design, their nano-nose can detect a wide variety of airborne compounds: this isn't the first time this has been achieved, but Siemens is saying that this version is cheap, flexible and needs very little power. Suggested applications include breathalysers, smoke detectors, ozone warning devices and other handy ways to identify hazardous environments. It's a sort of electronic canary, I guess.

However, savvy marketeers will at once spot the potential to sell the gizmo on personal insecurities. Imagine an underarm deodorant that warns you when you need to top up, or a mobile phone which bleeps a halitosis alert when you're arranging that hot date. And as for working out exactly who in the office is emitting those horrendous guffs which waft aloft from time to time -- no company in the world could resist buying a load of networked seat implants.

Friday 17/9/2004
One of the many paradoxes of corporate life is that a company can have a public image completely at odds to the culture of the people who work there. SCO is a good example -- if you meet the technical people who create the products, they're often old-school Unix types who love technology and the good that it can do. Microsoft is another: it has scads of bright, creative people who are greedy for new ideas and enthusiastic about innovation and openness. Are these attributes you think of when Microsoft itself comes to mind?

As a result of this ambiguity, I've been watching the explosion of Microsoft employee blogs with great interest. I don't think it's possible for the company's steely-eyed monolithic robo-corporatism to survive once the gates are open and the blogs are letting in the fresh air of direct comment. Blogs are bi-directional, an aspect that's sometimes overlooked, and I predict they'll be sources of profound cultural change in many places.

However, I wasn't expecting the news today that the sheer bandwidth consumed by the blogs is causing Microsoft some problems. All those RSS feeds are draining dry the company's connectivity, and nobody's quite sure what to do about it. It's already sparked an internal revolt on the Redmond campus -- who'd have thought such a thing was possible, let alone that it would be public? -- when Microsoft tried to cut down on the amount of data flowing out, but everyone's agreed that this is a general problem that will only get worse.

There are other problems to RSS feeds. Yes, it's very convenient to have all your favourite places deliver their updates directly to one place, so you can flick through everything without hopping from site to site. That's also the trouble -- adding another RSS feed to your viewer is so easy that it's no problem to accumulate an avalanche of news, far more than you can read. You don't mind, because you can scan down a list of headlines in no time and you're not paying for the bandwidth.

It doesn't look like that from the other end. If you're a site providing the RSS feed, you're sending out a whole load of expensive information with no idea whether it's being read or not. That might be annoying and expensive, but when you're a site that depends on selling online advertising -- the stuff that helps pays my wages, so I'm motivated here -- you're doubly stumped. No advertising on earth will do any good if the stuff doesn't get read, and there hasn't been much public discussion of business models that can cope with widespread RSS, let alone those that capitalise on it.

It's not as bleak as you might think: the days when sites sold advertising on raw clicks are fading. Advertisers are savvy to the new media, and know to check the real effectiveness of their spending. If an RSS feed carries a link that brings someone onto the site who then checks out the adverts, then it's doing a fine job. The question is: what if it doesn't?

In the online world, history relates that the users drive the technology. RSS isn't going away, and no amount of hand-wringing can change the fact that people like it. It's both exciting and comforting that the Net is still capable of doing its own thing despite all that corporate pressure to make it conform, but lordy -- you can't relax for a minute, can you?

Just time to relate today's finest industry name. Over at Oracle, the chief financial officer is one Harry You. This gives stories about the man a curiously personal touch: "We expect growth for this year," You told analysts. It's not hard to see other situations where his name might introduce a surreal note -- "Is that you, dear?". "Yes but don't call me dear"; "When it came to usability, You's ability was unmatched"; and "The corneal transplant surgeon only has eyes for You." You'd better believe it.

Editorial standards