Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Confessions of a teenage hacker, horsey mishaps on eBay, Merlin's troubles with Linux and a large helping of cheese make Rupert's week no weirder than usual
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 20/09/2004
A teenage German hacker, currently on trial for creating the Sasser worm and also believed to be behind Netsky, has been hired by a firewall company. As Jo Best's report says, the company may have to wait for a bit before the wunderkind gets his feet under the desk as there's a spot of porridge on the menu.

The news has stirred some controversy of the "should you hire a hacker?" sort, with various pundits weighing in on either side of the story. What's not being discussed is how many people piping up with their opinions were themselves hackers in a previous life: although it's not a common item on industry CVs, the "Never Got Caught" club is by no means a lonely one and its members can be found at the very highest levels.

And at some of the lowest: I'm a member myself. Worse than that, I was hired on the strength of being a teenage hacker. This was before hacking was illegal - two pals were arrested and had their case thrown out of court on appeal because there was no law that applied - so it's not quite the same as our Teutonic tamperer, but doubtless a case could have been made by various victims of my online shenanigans that I'd cost them time, money and embarrassment. I don't want you to think I'm proud of what I did (although, of course, I am. Shamelessly), which included installing pirate bulletin boards on market research computers, linking a major chain store's ordering system's exit page to its entry page ("Welcome!" it said. "Goodbye!" and threw you off. Took them a day to work that one out), causing conniptions by running naughty software on nuclear research computers, and so on and so forth. All using a ZX Spectrum and a VTX5000 Prestel modem.

These activities -- and others, which I'll keep quiet about for now if you don't mind -- got me on telly in silhouette on the Six O'Clock news. All very exciting for a "teenager from West London", which was the only way I'd let myself be identified. The evening after my appearance, limited though it was, I was at a dinner party which was also attended by a certain Sir Clive Sinclair. We got talking about computing and hacking, and he shot me a quizzical look. "Hold on. I recognise your voice. Weren't you on the telly last night?" he said.

Well, you don't say no to Uncle Clive (a common problem, I can tell you). I admitted my guilt and the evening proceeded in a very agreeable fashion.

The next day, I had a phone call. "It's Sir Clive's secretary here," said a very posh voice (he didn't stint on top totty). "Fancy a job?"

What would you have said? I ended up shortly afterwards in the London offices, sitting behind a desk with a OPD (One Per Desk, a computer with built-in modem and other hackerish treats) and wondering exactly what it was I was expected to do. I never did work that bit out - I often wonder if he expected me to sniff around competitors' computers, but nothing was said - as shortly afterwards I was exported to Cambridge in order to help out with some Z80 programming. And some brushes with the boss over my habit of snooping around the VAX system we used for R&D, but that's another story.

I survived, Sinclair Research seemed happy -- if occasionally bemused -- with its acquisition, and I became the well-rounded, law-abiding, conscientious worker bee you see before you today. Hiring hackers? I'm all for it.

Tuesday 21/09/2004
To the Royal Society of Art on the Strand, where I'm chairing a public round-table discussion on Telecoms Leadership. A selection of senior bods (and one bodesse) from companies like BT, Cable and Wireless and Motorola are paraded before the attendees, and I attempt to steer the discussion into areas that I hope the audience will find interesting. It's mostly about convergence, wireless, the future shape of the industry and so on, and pace a rather slow beginning it seems to run OK.

I'm always very nervous on these occasions: it's worse than telly or radio, where there's an interviewer there to steer things and which in any case feel far more intimate, and it's more nerve-wracking than just giving a talk. There you can rehearse and have a degree of control over events: getting four opinionated alpha types to talk interesting stuff while avoiding marketing blurb or anodyne bluster is a skill I've got a lot to learn about.

There are few such lapses this time, although the BT man is a new hire following 10 years at Microsoft and he lapses into a short spiel on "how Microsoft is doing so much to sort out spam in Outlook" before being brought back to reality by a ripple of laughter from the audience and a pointed quip from C&W.

Still, it's a relief when the allotted hour is up and we enter the quarter hour of Q&A. The trouble with this is that a number of people have been saving up not Qs but enormous great statements of their view of the world. A chap from Qualcomm takes issue with the panel's view of 3G (which is not, it has to be said, positive) and lectures us on how amazingly successful it's been in America, while the ripest piece of cheese is delivered by a chap who writes for another IT publisher. He gets up on his hind legs and lets rip with his vision of the future, replete with his own special acronyms, backed up with a scathing critique of the way he thinks the discussion has gone. He has an amazingly loud voice too, so there's no chance of fading him out: microphones not required. I thank him sarcastically -- you don't really expect hecklers -- and finally find someone with a question.

I must learn to spot the troublemakers and avoid them.

We mingle with the crowd afterwards, where nibbles and wine are served. "At least you didn't embarrass yourself!" says one punter cheerfully, but redeems himself by being charmingly indiscreet over famous acquaintances. It transpires that Paul Allen -- co-founder of Microsoft -- is fond of popping over to see Dave Stewart, him off the Eurythmics. Stewart has project-itis; he can't stop making things happen and is involved in many whizzo schemes and wheezes. Paul Allen just likes hanging out and playing guitar with one of his heros, but of course gets to meet various interesting pals at the most inconvenient times. It sounds like a sitcom, but then so many tales of Mr Stewart do...

Wednesday 22/09/2004
News reaches the Diary of some rum happenings not far from the IT pages of a noted national newspaper. A hackette from that department had need of a horsebox, and decided to try out this new-fangled eBay thing where she found plenty on offer, from tiny trailers best suited to Shetland ponies to enormous Mercedes capable of carting around half the Aga Khan's stable. Our heroine fancied a larger model and after a spot of spirited bidding -- including, we're informed, one point where she managed to bid against herself, although we can't work out exactly how -- she won an auction.

Unfortunately, it wasn't quite as she imagined. She had indeed won a seven-ton horsebox -- accompanied by two others in separate auctions. "I didn't really know what I was doing, I just clicked on everything," she reportedly told our source. The sellers eagerly awaited their (not inconsiderable) dosh, but news that it had all been a horrible mistake was not taken too well. "Exactly how blonde are you?" was one person's rather ill-tempered response, while another spurned box vendor showed an even greater sense of humour failure with threats of a duffing up. Blimey!

There was hell to pay. She contacted eBay's customer services, who said "You do know that those are all valid contracts, don't you? You have agreed to the terms and conditions..." "Ah," she said. "I clicked on those but didn't actually read them."

Our intrepid eBaying equestrian ended up out of pocket, banned from the Web site after only one go, and with her home computer locked down tight with parental controls by her irate partner. Me, I'd just have bought a few more horses --- you know how highly paid they are on the nationals, but this wasn't an option.

We'd like to report that she got sympathy and support from her colleagues, but alas! The ill-tempered brutes just keep telling her to "Keep on trucking!" and have proved quite incapable of keeping their mouths shut outside the office. Now, is that fair? Neigh!

Thursday 23/09/2004
Linguistics is a funny business. Once upon a time, our sceptred isle was stuffed full of Celts all nattering away in Celtic. Reasonable enough, you'd think, but our mustachio'd forefathers weren't content to leave it at that. Awkward lot, the Celts.

The details are unclear -- presumably things went wrong at a party -- but at some point the language diverged into two kinds, P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. The P-Celtic was spoken by the Welsh, the Cornish and a sprinkling of others - after an order was enacted to expel a large number of vowels from those lands -- while Q-Celtic turned into Gaelic and gave us such useful words as whisky, more whisky, and my god, Hamish, I've got a hangover the size of the Isle of Skye (*).

Now, a spot of linguistic diversity is all very well but this one was particularly poorly thought-out. P-Celtic is so called because it has a P but no Q, and vice-versa. However, during the Great Letter Expulsion, the P-Celts also discarded K. This, alas, is proof that whatever the local mages, seers and priests were good at, prophesy and foresight were not in their core competencies. Forget ideas of Merlin peering keen-eyed into the future: neither he nor any of his compatriots spotted the eventual rise of Linux. And even if they did -- a complete lack of evidence rarely being a hindrance in Celtic studies -- they utterly missed the creation of that popular desktop environment, KDE, and the host of applications that use it, many of which have names beginning with K.

None of this would have mattered had Welsh gone the way of most things Celtic and disappeared quietly into history. But no, it hung on in there. Fast forward a couple of thousand years, and not only is the language alive but it's prospering under the influence of that post-colonial guilt trip about minor languages. And Welsh speakers, not unreasonably, would like to freely compute.

Fortunately, a compromise has been struck. An online translation project called Gyfieithu, which itself means to translate, has gracefully elided G with K, thus rendering itself Kyfieithu and letting everyone get on with the business of Welsholising KDE. Whether this will bring K back into general use west of the border remains to be seen: we can only be thankful that the Sinclair QL was no great success and the cunning linguists of Cymru were spared that particular challenge.

(*) Gratuitous bit: Skye is near the home of Gavin Maxwell, writer of the greatest work of otter-related literature, Ring of Bright Water. The island continues to enjoy a healthy otter population, some of which may be seen at a special centre which lives at the end of one of the area's many long, twisty, narrow roads. I was driving along this a few weeks back when it occurred to me that it should be christened the Otterbahn. And why should you be spared the pain?

Friday 24/09/2004
Sony has finally noticed that nobody likes their digital music model. Until now, just about all of Sony's audio digital players -- minidisk, flash and hard disk -- have only worked with its own ATRAC compression format. It's a very good, mature and useful compression format, but it's got no chance of becoming an industry standard. Yet Sony insists that you convert all your music from MP3 or whatever to ATRAC, and helpfully bundles a truly horrible DRM-laden file manager to help you waste tons of time and disk space. It's great fun: you get to check your music in and out while it carefully makes sure you don't do anything you might enjoy. Or you can buy an iPod and just listen to your music.

Now, Sony says it will start to introduce MP3. Hurrah. It'll only be on a few devices at first, and nobody's saying when, but I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. It's sad that a company with such a track record for innovation and a great deal of persistence, one moreover that created portable music as we know it and was one of the parents of digital consumer media, has such a bad case of Not Invented Here. It has almost boundless loyalty from the most prized segment of consumerism, the rich technophiles, and a proven ability, when it cares, to make parts of the technology world its own.

But it's a cut-throat world these days, and you can't assume you can mold a market to your whim just because you've got a good brand. Apple is the king of portable digital music, but nobody would have bothered with the iPod if it couldn't play MP3s. But it's won: to go against that, you need to move quickly, be extremely sensitive to what the people want and not faff about telling them what to do.

So unless Sony's got something really rather special up its sleeve, it's doomed to be a bit player (sorry) selling virtually nothing and mattering somewhat less. As a Sony devotee myself and owner of many a walkman, Minidisc recorder, shortwave radio and camcorder from the company, it gives me no pleasure to say the company's on a hiding to nothing.

Must try harder, faster and better.

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