Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Will Google become illegal? Will GPS satellites turn into shooting stars? Can Rupert ever get the hang of email? And what was that about trousers?

Monday 11/7/2005

There are rumours that Phrack is closing. Admittedly Phrack has said so itself, but that's never been an absolute guarantee. Phrack is — or was, or will be — one of the archetypal hacker magazines, starting back in the days of 1200bps dial-up bulletin boards when ASCII graphics were fabulously cool and line noise the last rearguard action of analogue. Hacking was not exactly legal but far from being the extraditable, 70 years in jail offence it has become, and people who plugged computers into the phone system were still seen as curious, wild-eyed nutters instead of the curious, wild-eyed visionaries we have subsequently been proved to be.

You can go back to 1985 in a click if you wish, as all 62 issues are available online. This is not your faux-revolutionary publication: no messing around with 'make these nerds rock stars' and glossy paeans to cyberpunk — you'll find details of how to crash computers at a distance, make various interesting compounds, tickle apart the information on a credit card, and get as much information on the internals of the American and international telephone system as you could want. Most of it is now as relevant as a Roman centurion's dress code, but at the time it was edgy stuff indeed. This is exactly the sort of thing that gave upstanding citizens conniptions and the rest of us a vicarious thrill. It's a bit like having your grandfather's service revolver hidden at the bottom of the airing cupboard: you know it's very naughty and you'll never use it, but it feels good to have the option if something somewhere goes terribly wrong.

Somehow we survived being young, foolish and equipped to make amphetamines from cut-up nasal inhalers or to disable a DEC-10 minicomputer. Over the years, Phrack has stayed true to its countercultural soul, interspersing quotes from Chomsky with detailed recipes for exploiting Windows buffer overflows — and if you've got the stomach for it, you can pull practically a complete history of phreaking and hacking up to the present day by reading through the archives. At every point, the publication accurately reflected not just the techniques but the spirit of the hacker, even if wiser heads went equipped with a pinch of salt alongside their hexadecimal dump utility.

So thanks, Phrackers, for a good couple of decades. Out of control isn't always a bad place to be.

Tuesday 12/7/2005

Could Googling become illegal? This is the rather sensationalist headline in the Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada today, but it illustrates the minefield legislators face when trying to hack away at the tropical jungle that intellectual property has become in the heat of the information age. I don't propose to get into the legal niceties — what I know of Canadian law would take less time to digest than a maple syrup pancake — but there's a bill up for consideration that seems as if it might make the search engines themselves liable for copyright infringement. It does this in a backwards way, by seeking to limit such liabilities, but you can't limit what isn't there.

It's long been known that strictly speaking, the Internet relies completely on copyright abuse in its very soul. When you access a document or picture over the Web, the original data is rudely pulled from its resting place on some remote disk, copied into memory, shoved into a local network, hustled through a string of routers (into and out of memory each time) and sucked into your local ISP. Finally the exhausted packets are horsewhipped along your connection, into your computer's own memory and finally slapped with no dignity whatsoever onto your screen. At each stage — and by my rough calculations, there could easily be fifty of these — the data is copied. The very act that copyright was designed to regulate.

There is a widely accepted argument that this is all fair use, and another that those who publish their data on the Internet are implicitly accepting the mechanics of the process. It would be horrendously impracticable to do it any other way.

But horrendous impracticability counts little to those who love using intellectual property as a pure cash cow. In the same way that companies exist which roundly abuse the patent system to extort cash from hapless inventors, it would only take one sharp lawyer with some well-heeled friends to find a way to turn the above situation to their advantage. Pay for our transmission licence, or we'll take you to court.

A few bits of badly-worded regulation, and such a scenario could become more than paranoid musings from a hack who's seen enough badly-worded regulation in the past five years to make him think fondly of revolution and peasants with blazing torches.

Wednesday 13/7/2005

The summer party season is muted this year, but as usual a drought of days is broken by three PR bashes at once. Two are traditional affairs thrown by big agencies — no sin that — but one is an enticingly labelled as a manifesto from "a NEW revolutionary social construct, the Autonomous PR Collective, for the furtherance of a redistribution of privately held vittles and sustenance to the oppressed members of the journalist class." Well, with a call to arms like that what else is a red-blooded anarcho-syndicalist hack to do?

The Collective — a rag-tag grouping of radicals drawn from the gutter class where the agencies don't even have any initials in their names — are holding their first soviet upstairs in a Soho pub Marx would be proud. Unavoidably detained by the shackles of diabolic capitalist oppression (OK, so I was behind on the deadlines), I turn up rather late and just miss meeting Comrade Guy Kewney. This is a shame, both because I was looking forward to congratulating him on forthcoming grandfatherhood and because he has reacted to this by dressing in ever more astonishing ways.

I was quicky updated. This evening's outfit was sandals, religion-revealing shorts and "some sort of colourful vest" that would give a migraine to a harlequin. The question is raised as to whether this is the sort of sartorial excess befitting a man of his immense stature and authority: a quick vote among the masses confirms that he should be encouraged in his ways, the better to confound the bourgeoisie.

Other colourful characters are gossiped about behind their backs. We decide that we're all missing Borland creator Philippe Kahn, who seems to have made enough money flogging companies not to need to dally with the IT world any more, and discuss the (honourably few) US executives who had decided to cancel trips to London this week. Kahn's claims to have invented the cameraphone in a top-secret cancelled project with Motorola had provoked a few raised eyebrows, but there's now evidence on the Web from the year 2000, thanks to the fine information gathering skills of certain Russians. Revolutionary!

And so the evening progresses. Some particularly fervent party members decide to spread the revolt into the streets and thence into the very bowels of Soho late-night drinking dens, and state security demands that details of subsequent altercations with authority be withheld although the commissariat have authorised me to reveal that the trouser damage is probably not permanent.

Thursday 14/7/2005

A couple of weeks ago, the European Commission and the European Space Agency signed a massive deal with a combination of companies — including the British Inmarsat group — to build and run the Galileo navigation satellite network. This is going to be the world's first civilian global positioning service, and is designed to run alongside the US military's GPS system. It'll be free to use at a basic level, with increasing levels of accuracy available to those willing to pay.

So far, so good. But in researching how it'll all work when it goes live in 2008, some worrying reports surface. I already knew that the Americans are not happy at all about the idea, and have tried quite hard to get it canned on the grounds that it could be used to help its enemies. More worrying yet, with people like India, Israel and China being eager to sign up and fund part of the development it could also give the US' nominal friends independence from reliance on America's good will. Israel in particular is in Washington's bad books — not just for the obvious stuff, but for allegedly flogging American technology to China — and is feverishly building its own launchers, spy satellites and other delightful gizmos in the expectation that the auld alliance may grow ever cooler.

None of this is going down well. The Pentagon, which has an avowed intent to unilaterally control space (none of this namby-pamby 'for all mankind' nonsense these days, mate), has let it be known that it's perfectly prepared to blow the Galileo satellites out of the sky if it doesn't like what's going on. It's also played war games, carefully leaked to the Europeans, where Galileo satellites are blown up as they leave the launch pad. I thought these guys were our friends?

All this is great if you're a scriptwriter who fancies the possibility that Europe and America might end up going to war in space. The trouble with space, though, is that the physics is no respecter of which square-jawed, gung-ho general actually ordered the shots fired. The Galileo and GPS satellites are close neighbours — Galileo will orbit at around 23,222 km, while GPS is just downstairs at 20,200km. Both weigh in at over 500kg per satellite, and whiz around at around 7,000mph. Unlike the movies, when you blow up a satellite it doesn't just disappear in a cloud of incandescent plasma — all the bits depart in a variety of directions in a variety of very high speeds carrying a great deal of energy. If they hit another satellite, then it's likely to be curtains for that as well.

While there's a lot of space up in the mid-earth orbital planes they use, the 60-odd satellites of Galileo and GPS are in orbits designed to sweep through most of it in order to cover the Earth below as well as they can. If anyone starts aggressively modifying stuff up there, the chances are good that both networks will end up shot to bits in the resultant hailstorm. It'll look spectacular — but everyone on Earth will end up without the navigation and timing signals that increasingly large sectors of industry rely on. Geocaching might have a few problems as well, and what it'll do to the special relationship between the UK and the US is anyone's guess.

I can't see this ending well, unless the Pentagon gets considerably more internationalist in its outlook.

Yeah. Quite.

Friday 15/7/2005

Microsoft hates me, and wants me to fail. Today, we are planning for a company summer event and as part of a teaser campaign to get everyone in the spirit myself and Alex Coby, ZDNet UK's Prince of Production, are putting together an email with attached crossword. Alex has produced the crossword as a very nifty PDF, and it all looks top-notch.

There is one problem. It is very bad form to send large files to mailing lists, because email in general and Exchange in particular is mired in a past where messages were kept short due to slow links, feeble processors and limited disk space. Networks, chips and storage have progressed with admirable dispatch, but you wouldn't know it from the way chunky attachments are duplicated when they need not be and chew up quotas where quotas should not be.

After some thought, the PDF is deposited on a shared directory and a link to it provided as an attachment. Even the link is 3k long, which seems curiously full for half a line of text, but that's still better than the three megs of the original file.

The email goes out to the entire company. And the entire company gets it — minus the link, which has been primly excised by our antivirus filter for the sin of being a link. Why, you might ask, did the email system not do this check on the outgoing message and bounce it back for fixing? Why was there no way to ask it to confirm the email was acceptable before sending? Why did it not complain when the link was being emailed back and forth during checking? And why didn't it complain when we found an alternative method of embedding the link in a subsequent email, when the payload was exactly the same?

The reasons are doubtless to be found in the way email is an accretion of features, reactive patches and hangovers from twenty years of reactive evolution and market-led competitive design races. It's as much a nightmare to effectively manage these systems as it is to try and use them for anything remotely interesting, so it's not really a question of applying ever more tweaks to cope with cases like this. There's a good case for radical redesign, creating email systems built from the bottom up for the realities of 2005. We've learned a lot about distributed databases in the past few years, and should be well beyond the idea of an analogue of a paper-based system (:cc and :bcc — I ask you!).

Still, all is now well. We'll know better next time — unless, of course, the system gets invisibly tweaked once more and I am once again goaded beyond endurance.