Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Paris Hilton, Hunter S Thompson, the Swiss and the Undead Language - does IT get any better than this?
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 21/2/2005

I'm not Paris Hilton. Following the court case, I'm not even allowed in the same city. But I do have some sympathy for the woman, following today's startling revelations that her Sidekick has been hacked and its contents dispersed to the cyberwolves. The natural response is: 'Oh yeah?' When you're famous for being famous, shocking revelations of a personal nature aren't so much accidents as designed by committee. But as the story wore on, it seemed to check out. Whether it was naff security on the lady's gizmo or the recent well-publicised hacks on T-Mobile's servers, there's no doubt it could have happened.

A compromised mobile may just be the most embarrassing faux pas of the modern age. If you lose your wallet or get your cards nicked, then there's the tedium of contacting the plod, cancelling the cards and bumming drinks off pals until the replacement plastic appears. Tiresome, but acceptable. If you're famous and get your phone opened, you've got to call all your pals in time to warn them that they're about to get more crank calls than the Jerry Springer Opera Company. Expect those conversations to be frosty.

But that's not why I'm prepared to take a stand for Ms Hilton. She has survived a little social awkwardness before now. No, the real reason is Andrew Orlowski, 'im off The Register. He was among the happy gang of UK journos at 3GSM last week -- an event that coincided with his birthday. There was talk of celebration: a time and place were cobbled together and texted around.

I, another journo and a PR flack duly turned up at the when and where. No Orlowski (no surprise either, this is a man who has made a career out of being so hard to find even his editors aren't always sure what planet he's on). We wait for a while, but the patented Orlowski Gangle is nowhere to be seen. So, I try to call him -- voicemail. "He's probably with John Lettice," I say, more in faith than hope, and I try the Letticeline. Aha -- a recent sighting, and a recommendation for further inquiries. A few calls around the disreputable company of Brit Hack, and the man himself is tracked down.

As I'm putting the phone away, I catch the PR eyeing it up, like a small boy calculating the chance of hoofing it out of the newsagent with the sherbet fountain before the shopkeeper can get over the counter. "Do you know what I could get for that list of numbers?" he said. I'd never considered datamining my address book before, let alone leasing it out as a subscription list, but this is probably why I'll die in a cardboard box somewhere while my friends consider the tax advantages of a second yacht. Mobile security suddenly became a lot more interesting, as did the possibility of encoding an Enigma emulator on my little Sendo.

But there's also the chance of ready cash. Just in case, I'm already writing the auction blurb for eBay -- and the side effects may be worth it on their own. There are some numbers on that phone for people who have dropped out of my life, as much to flash up their names if they try and call me as for any other reason, and the thought of some of them getting non-stop spam from companies trying to pitch a storage story is rather palatable.

I'd best delete Paris' number first, though. Poor woman's been through enough.

Tuesday 22/2/2005

Trying to keep track of the slurry of outrage, double-dealing and antagonism over software patents is turning into a full time job. So far this week, there's been more confusion in Europe and a shock patent attack on stock market systems -- and it's only Tuesday. Compared to this high drama, the quiet and ongoing unhappiness over just one of Microsoft's dafter applications seems almost invisible. But there's no surprise in the offending idea -- a new BASIC operator called IsNot that says whether two variables live at the same address, roughly the equivalent of "ring up two of your friends and ask whether they're living together". What's amazing is that people still care about BASIC.

In particular, Geoff Perlman (arf!) cares. He's the CEO of Real Software, a company that makes a cross-platform BASIC programming system called Realbasic. He's behind this story, making inflammatory comments about the patent being obvious, having enormous amounts of prior art and failing just about every other test of allowability. Of course, if granted, the IsNot patent would prevent anyone writing a BASIC that would be compatible with any that Microsoft produces - leastwise, not unless they sign up for the standard 'anyone but open source' licence. It must be something to do with promoting innovation, I guess.

But who are these BASIC madmen? Once upon a time, the language made sense -- the B is for Beginners, and the computers of way back when were simple enough that you could get useful stuff cooked up in a few lines of readily understandable code. These days, the sheer amount of complexity you need to shovel into your head before fun happens makes any programming language a large and hairy beast, so why not concentrate on Java or C++, or the more pragmatic grunge of Perl?

Yet there may be a glimmer of sense in the distance. All these new and exciting multicore chips depend for speed on running very clean code out of local cache, and there's never a lot of that. So really efficient performance software will have to be written to the model of small, neat, well-designed modules optimised for speed and low memory usage. In other words, just as it was in the beginning, before enormous applications and flabby operating systems turned your average PC into Lardarse Lounge.

I predict a rapid revival of the old school. With BASIC as our fast prototyping tool and a solid knowledge of machine code, the next revolution will not be GUIized. No wonder Microsoft wants to patent the bleeding obvious.

Wednesday 23/2/2005

To Piccadilly, to see a little-known yet intriguing company called Ciphire. A Swiss/German concern, it is busy finishing off its first product -- an eponymous mail add-on that automatically handles encryption and signing. Ciphire Mail is in late beta -- you can download a copy from ciphire.com -- and from a few days playing with it, it looks to me as if the company has brought a great deal of sanity and good thinking to the problem.

Because it seems simple, people don't give email much thought. You rarely hear of email servers being hacked into and vast amounts of virtual post being siphoned off, although that must happen: the most important single service on the Internet is simultaneously the least secure and the least regarded.

While we could all run PGP, we don't -- it's too complicated. I fall into the 'Tried it, gave up' camp, and given the lack of PGP keys in footer files these days I'm not alone in this. I did ask Ciphire how many people used PGP, as I've never seen a reliable figure: neither have they, and they've looked pretty hard.

Ciphire Mail bends over backwards to be nice to you. It intercepts all ingoing and outgoing mail, works out whether to encrypt or decrypt what it finds, and adds a cryptographic fingerprint to everything you send whether it's going to another Ciphire user or not. Ciphired recipients get their goodies encrypted automatically. I'll do a full review of the system when it comes out of beta, but so far I'm very impressed by how easy it is to install and use. It'll always be free for individuals: corporates please apply for details.

The company impresses in other ways. They're very open in every sense: there's a lot of documentation on the site about what they do and how, they've commissioned proper independent analyses by people like Bruce Schneier, and they promise to show all the code by the end of the year. Compare that with Skype, which makes big noise about its VoIP and messaging encryption but gives nowhere near enough detail for trust.

With a few niggles, I can't think of anything they could be doing better -- we'll have to see how things pan out. But I'm still not sure it'll be quite enough. The company is talking to ISPs in order to make the system part of the package offered to broadband subscribers: they quote antivirus and anti-spam products as a precedent. But these give direct benefits to the ISPs by cutting down support calls and volume of traffic -- encrypted email does not, and given the shocking lack of public demand for it, why would an ISP bother?

What Ciphire needs -- what we all need, as easy encrypted email is a good thing -- is for this to become a standard component with email systems as shipped. They haven't got a hope with Microsoft, of course, but getting the software into, say, Apple would be a splendid deal all round.

One to watch.

Thursday 24/2/2005

It's the ISPAs! Each year, the Internet Service Providers' Association throws away its M&S suit, discards its anorak and pops down to Moss Bros to make like a penguin. We dispatched a three-strong team of editorial hard guys to keep an eye on events and possibly on each other (I'm in no way reminded of the old Bulgarian joke: why do policemen go around in threes? One who can read, one who can write, and one to keep an eye on the other two intellectuals).

The evening does not disappoint. For a start, there appears to be some strange animosity towards BT from the rest of the industry. We can't explain this. Nevertheless, each time BT was announced as a nominee for a prize there was scattered yet persistent booing from around the hall. BT was having none of this, and soon started to cheer themselves. Alas, the gang got so into this that they gave a rousing screech of approval for their nomination for Internet Villain Of The Year -- an award subsequently won by the European Union.

There was more dark muttering at the tables as a curious coincidence unfurled. Axiom Systems: sponsored one award, was nominated for one award, got one award. BlueYonder: one sponsorship, one nomination, one award. Wanadoo: one sponsorship, five nominations, three gongs. The table at which our spy sat: no sponsorships, four nominations, no prizes. "That's OK," said one of their number. "We're sponsoring one next year." Of course, the whole thing breaks down when you notice that Demon was a sponsor yet walked away with nothing for the silverware cabinet

Can the Oscars compare?

Friday 25/2/2005

It wouldn't be possible to finish the week without a moment's respect for the passing of Hunter S Thompson. An inspiration to many and a shocking warning to thousands more, he burned enough blim holes in the stultifying corporate authoritarian blanket that beds down ever more snugly over our culture to let in some light amid a great cloud of smoke.

Unfortunately, he inspired more than just respect and awe in some IT journalists. At a previous American-owned company for whom I worked, we were used to the occasional secondment turning up from the US: one chap in particular wasn't just here for the Tower of London and the postcards home. A senior figure, he was smart, energetic and approachable and appeared utterly unfazed by the curious collection of journalists he'd been bequeathed. However, our contacts back at World HQ let slip a few intriguing glimpses into his past.

It soon transpired here was the equivalent of a talented, rabble-rousing and troublesome son from one of the great Colonial families who ran the British Empire. After various disgraces involving many of the activities you can explore for yourself in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he'd been sent to run a minor colony on the far side of the world where temptations were few and the opportunity to knuckle down was very apparent. He certainly led an abstemious life in our company, but the fire was far from out: he'd ask everyone at lunch what their favourite drugs were and why, which could occasionally stymie those wearing the more expensive ties.

I'm glad to say that the chap in question served his term with distinction and was rewarded by a recall to set up a brand new magazine back in the digital homeland. Not that we'd have minded some real fireworks and a spectacular psychedelic explosion or two, but there's only room for one Hunter S Thompson on the planet, and the job had already been taken. The job's vacant now, though...

I would close with a quotation from HST himself on the subject of journalism - the one that starts "The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for f..." but the rest is unprintable in a family journal such as this. Just follow this link and search for 'chimp' on that page.

Next week, it's Fear and Loathing in San Francisco as your correspondent hares off to the Intel Developer Forum. Altogether now: "We were somewhere around Haight, on the edge of the Mission, when the PowerPoint began to take hold..."

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