Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Dixons do good, Skype looks dodgy and that old hot metal shard trouser danger. The gay porn is on Wednesday, if you can't wait
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 22/11/2004
Hats off to Dixons, who pulls off this week's most stunning PR stunt. By the simple expedient of dropping VCRs from their shelves and telling news organisations about it on a Sunday evening, the company has got its name into every news bulletin in the UK for the rest of the day. There's comprehensive coverage abroad to boot.

Dixons is good at this trick -- earlier this year, it decided not to stock Manhunt, a controversial videogame, and got a lot of publicity by putting out a press release. Whatever the real reason behind the video recorder cull, and some have suggested that because they're now so cheap and reliable there's no income to be had from selling extended warranties, everyone's happy to take the company at its word.

I'm one of the beneficiaries of this -- if getting up at 5am on a Monday morning for thirty seconds of telly saying 'yeah, there's all this digital stuff these days' is a good thing. This is my first trip to the BBC studio in the new Stock Exchange. Both the studio and the building are disconcertingly strange, especially at that time in the AM: the studio has a projector wall behind the presenter which at first looks like a static picture of London from the Exchange roof. It isn't -- it's a looped video of the daytime, so the dark and empty streets I've just come through are shown as bustling in the sunshine.

The sense of being suspended in a virtual world gets stronger. I'm parked behind a glass desk while the presenter strides around running through all manner of details for the broadcast -- he's a forceful chap, locked in frank discussions with the voices in his ear. Without warning, indeed without any sort of noticeable transition, he segues into the transmission itself and what I thought was a rehearsal turns out to be live to a nation still coming to terms with Monday.

Guests are the lowest form of life in TV studios, especially with news programmes. They can't be entirely controlled, get in the way and add an extra chunk of randomness into what is already a complex and error-prone activity. Like house guests, they can also witness family troubles which you'd much rather keep private: in this case, a clip was run at the wrong time. Happiness was not forthcoming -- but at least this time someone offered me a cup of coffee and saw me out. There have been times when an entire studio has gone into an angry post-mortem huddle after some particular nasty, leaving me standing to one side wondering whether I should look at the ceiling or my toes. And, after a while, whether I should just wander off into the warren of corridors in Television Centre and run the risk of never seeing daylight again.

The moral of this story is: if you do find yourself being interviewed on telly, don't worry about doing everything right. They expect you to behave as a normal human being: it's what's going on with the rest of the team that's taking up most head space. There's almost nothing you can do that'll worry them half as much as what their colleagues are getting up to.

Tuesday 23/11/2004
Peer-to-peer file sharing software Kazaa announces that it's including peer-to-peer voice-over-IP software Skype with its next release. It's not the only one: Siemens is selling a USB dongle that links its handsets to the service, while various PDA and router makers have signed up to add Skypeage to their kit. The service itself is working well -- I use it to keep in touch with friends in far-flung places, and as soon as the parents get broadbanded I'll be using it there too.

But I can't shake the feeling that I shouldn't quite trust it. My misgivings are shared to some extent by one Dennis Bergström, who's done an analysis of the Windows version of the software from a corporate security viewpoint. His conclusion: too much is unknown for it to be considered trustworthy for business use. Skype keeps too many things secret, and it's not clear why -- details of how it sets up calls, does its encryption, finds other users and communicates with the rest of the network are not available. Moreover, it goes to some lengths to stop anyone peeking -- if you've got SoftICE on your computer, a famous debugging and software diagnostic package, Skype refuses to run. And then there's the odd business of the statistics it passed back to Skype HQ after each call.

Now, none of this is damning -- but it's all strange. Anyone who knows how to use SoftICE will be able to bypass Skype's rather simple-minded lock -- so why bother? Similarly, anyone who is really keen to find out how the stuff works will be able to do so over time, given enough resources and motivation, and it's a fair bet that if there are those who want to dig around in the system for competitive reasons will be so equipped. So Skype's stance won't stop them. And when it comes to security: if you're not prepared to detail how it works to a point at which cryptoanalysts can test it, then you're not secure. Skype could have employed some very fine programmers with talent and experience, but subtle errors can easily creep in at the design and implementation stages. Who'd know?

And I feel I have a right to know what statistics are being collected about my own usage. Skype won't tell me -- indeed, the EULA says that I mustn't attach a packet sniffer to my network, presumably to stop me finding out. It won't, of course: but they should tell me. And if you want a fun experience, try running Netstat (software that shows what's connected to your computer, non-hacky types) when Skype is up on your computer. The first time I did that, I nearly said a rude word -- twenty random connections to PCs scattered across the globe. Not normally a good sign, even if it did turn out to be Skype being Skype.

But, of course, the software is so convenient and works so well that I'm prepared to overlook my misgivings and use it anyway -- just not for anything where broken security, rapacious stats collection and a fundamentally untrustworthy system can cause me grief. Skype: come clean. There'll be trouble otherwise.

Wednesday 24/11/2004
Alarming news from Italy, where the Senate has been hit by -- oh, there's no polite way to say this -- hardcore homosexual pornography. You can hear those content filters clang shut from here, can't you? There's a suggestion that the attack is linked to the sacking of a gay member of staff which has already caused protests on the street outside.

Whatever the cause, the effect is startling: screens all around the building show quantities of spectacular anatomy deployed in interesting and distracting arrangements. While one can dig back in history and find plenty of senatorial precedents -- the fearlessly curious should look up the emperor Elagabalus who could show even The Spectator's editorial team a thing or two -- yer modern Roman is woven from stiffer moral fibre. Work ground to a halt, giving new meaning to the term 'hung parliament', while teams of highly-trained IT specialists tried not to look as they detumesced the hard drives.

One would be misguided if one were to condone this form of obscene vandalism. It may be true that as protests go, it is a remarkably effective approach. It can't be denied that despite the massive inconvenience nobody was actually hurt and no data was lost, nor that there's a possibility that some viewers of the tide of filth actually found it educational -- perhaps even enjoyable. It is a shocking affront to the dignity of a noble institution. I do hope that other organisations, misguidedly perceived as in some way homophobic, don't suffer similarly: I would be saddened and horrified were some of the more muscular adherents to the Levitical and Pauline traditions of Christianity to feel the diabolic force of studly pixels on their desktops.

I'm also unhappy to report that some people may have taken the opportunity to find the whole business an excuse for smutty double entendres. How else is one to take the following report from Sophos' website?

"The worm allowed hackers to display hardcore homosexual pornography on monitors around the organisation. First noticed on Monday night, computers in the senate chamber, and every senator's office, were said to have been affected by Tuesday morning."

"The Rbot family of worms includes backdoor functionality..."

There really is no need to stand for this sort of thing.

Thursday 25/11/2004
Exciting times in miniature await, as I write up a story from Georgia Tech where they've made a chip/coil/magnet combo that generates a watt from a device roughly the size of a pound coin. The only drawback is that the magnet has to whizz around at 100,000 rpm -- possibly many times that if you want laptop-sized wattage. But that's OK, because lots of people are building engines of similar size and capability. They'll probably run on gas or petrol, which raises an interesting vision of tiny Esso filling stations with itsy-bitsy pumps set up to refill the road warrior's gizmos. Wonder if they'll sell sandwiches the size of postage stamps.

Despite a century of work, hydrocarbons remain the most efficient and easy way to carry large amounts of energy about -- which is why there's no prospect of electric 747s in the near future. Yet portable electric generators have been too bulky and inconvenient to compete for low power use: anything less thirsty than a light bulb and you might as well use batteries. The micro-engines may change this -- but I have my doubts.

For a start, anything that involves spinning something heavy around at very high speeds is going to be noisy. The Georgia Tech prototype was powered by the same sort of compressed air turbine as dental drills use, and those whine louder than Watford fans. Then there's the small issue of safety: you have an explosive mixture millimetres away from a flywheel that contains a huge amount of energy. If it jams, it will explode and send supersonic red-hot shards of metal over a very wide radius -- not normally a hot sales proposition in pocket equipment. Oh, and have you tried moving a gyroscope twisting at 15,000 times a second?

Finally, there's the small matter of the exhaust. This will be hot. You thought cooling a Pentium 4 was hard? Wait until you've got a steady stream of combustion products desperately seeking release -- again, something normally thought incompatible with personal technology nestling close to the skin.

All these things can be fixed, of course. Good shielding, heat exchangers, proper audio isolation and safety mechanisms are all theoretically possible. You'll end up with something as portable as a car battery, mind: fuel cells, which have far fewer intrinsic design problems, are still years away from commercial acceptance in portable gear.

So let's enjoy the exciting world of microtechnology and whizzo devices -– after all, any story that gives me the excuse to publish the word 'Wankel' is to be cherished -- but don't sell those shares in nickel metal hydride battery companies just yet.

Friday 26/11/2004
While researching the microengine story I typed "Inventor of the dynamo" into Google, just to refresh my schoolboy memory of what Michael Faraday actually did and when he did it. That was unproductive: the first ten hits had seven different names -- and all from different countries. Every nation has a claim, every country an electromagnetic hero. And what names! Zenobe Gramme, the Belgian. Antonio Pacinotti, the Italian. The best by far is the exotic Hippolyte Pixii, a Parisian who also built the dangerous-sounding dilatation pyrometer.

Some more research dug up interesting correlations for most of the great inventions of the modern era. Flight, television, radio and telephone -- every one has many creation myths tied to many nations. (You can usually find someone claiming bragging rights for Nikola Tesla, too, no matter what's involved, but that's another story). I can remember the running joke back in the days of the Cold War, that the Russians always had an inventor for everything -- presumably we looked the other way when our friends did the same, as they did for us. The last echo of that was in the Star Trek joke that Shakespeare was best in the original Klingon: these days we're all pally, so we allow each other these little foibles while secretly knowing that our guy was really the first.

This is a good corollary to the law that every nation thinks every other nation strange, and they're all correct in this. Full marks to Google for effortlessly demonstrating the fact. It'll take a long time, if ever, for this to percolate into the way we're taught how to think about history -- if we're ever taught such a thing at all. Nowadays, of course, every new idea is born into a digital world where its genesis and growth is automatically and comprehensively documented. There'll still be arguments, but the power of the file date stamp will change the way we think of ourselves and the things we get up to. Intellectual-property lawmakers should take note.

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