Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Honeymonkeys, beards and sandals, search machines and scorching scandals, Microsoft has got it wrong - as eerily presaged in song

Monday 8/8/2005

Hand-held cameras are on their way. Hand-held cameras are here to stay. So sang 80s cult band Kissing The Pink on one of their many forgotten masterpieces of synth kitsch, eerily presaging the digital picture revolution. No revolution is without its victims, though; in this case, of course, it's film.

Dixons, heartened by the heavy press coverage of their previous announcement that the VCR was dead, told the world today that it will no longer be stocking 35mm film cameras across its stores. There's more to this than a cold-hearted bid for publicity: Dixons started seventy years ago as a photography studio that moved over to selling the cameras themselves — no jokes about telephoto lenses being set up above the door so they could see the customers coming, please. This is a real break from the past, a bit like deciding that you're not going to go to Midnight Mass any more despite giving up on the whole God business many years before.

The chain says that 93 percent of its customers can't tell the difference between film and digital — well, no, but then most people can't tell the difference between vinyl and CD — and as with the CD, convenience has won over quality issues that only matter to a small minority of enthusiasts. "35mm will be with us for ages yet", said one commentator, "but it'll be a beards-and-sandals job".

"Beards and sandals". The quintessential description of the eccentric, enthusiastic male. Curiously, Google only records about five hundred occurrences of the term, which feels like it's been around forever and is instantly decodable. "It all started to go wrong for the Santa Cruz Operation when the beards and sandals gave way to the suits". "Beard and sandals" gets a few more hits, but not nearly as many as I — once fully qualified for the description but am now a mere half-blood — would expect.

There is no feminine equivalent of the phrase, which can't be because there are no eccentric, enthusiastic females. I know many; indeed, I will be marrying one. But footwear in general and sandals in particular have a completely different semiotic with that gender, to say nothing of the beard. There is a certain uniformity of handbag (large, stretched to capacity by books, frequently harlequinesque), so perhaps we can work on that.

And you'll never find one working at Dixons. Bit like a stereo, really.

Tuesday 9/8/2005

This monkey's gone to heaven. Thus sang the Pixies, so beloved of the aggressively fey the world over, eerily presaging the news today that millions of virtual monkeys have indeed gone to heaven over the past few months. Fortunately for animal rights activists, no primate real or synthesised was hurt — the silicon simians in question are honeymonkeys. This is shorthand for a cross between a Webcrawling robot — the monkey — and a system designed to be attractive to attackers, the honeypot.

The idea is that you send the honeymonkeys out to visit Web sites by the simple expedient of pointing a browser at the sites and seeing what happens. If the Web site contains scurrilous code, it will latch onto the monkey and infect it — but another process running on the honeymonkey's computer will spot the infection, take notes and vape the honeymonkey before spawning another pristine outside and in to take its place. All this works via virtual computers, which as you well know is the ability of one piece of hardware to pretend to be lots of different sorts of computer at once.

Now, using this technique researchers have discovered hundreds of unexpected exploits being enthusiastically deployed under the noses of the anti-malware mob. Because the honeymonkeys are virtual, the infection within them has no way of telling that it's running in an artificial environment and can put up no defence against being probed. One automated machine can probe thousands upon thousands of sites in a day, with absolutely no risk of infection.

But, er, chaps? Virtualisation is being added to just about every processor chip under the sun, so what's to stop this sort of technique becoming part of the basic immune system of every operating system? It's not a panacea — it does nothing for the problem of identifying legitimate updates about which the user may know nothing — but for a wide variety of attacks, it will be a pretty good prophylactic.

Wednesday 10/8/2005

The search for perfection is all very well, as Sting sang so plaintively, but to look for heaven is to live here in hell. And don't you wish he hadn't? Nonetheless, he eerily presaged a hellish search for perfection led by American consumer advocates.

Mr Andy Martin of the US Committee to Fight Microsoft (CTFM) said yesterday that he wants Microsoft to offer a warranty to customers that Vista does not include "bad code". He's fed up of MS foisting buggy code on its customers and us all acting as guinea pigs while the problems are ironed out. The company should fix the problems first, he said, and guarantee that the finished product really is finished.

Um. Well, yes, I see where he's coming from. But it's not the real world. Not only can you not write perfect software, you can't even define it. You certainly can't prove it, for some very good mathematical reasons. Even if Microsoft was staffed by superhuman geniuses who thought in hexadecimal and talked in data structures, they could never define exactly what their software would be used for and in what sort of environment.

Which is not to say you can't do better than Microsoft; any operating system that can be attacked and compromised within minutes of connecting to the Internet may not be fit for use. Microsoft has problems in design, project management and QA that are reflected in the final code, and anyone who hangs out on the MS employee blogs may be able to take a shrewd guess at what these might be. The company spends billions on technology R&D and more again on patenting the silliest things; it would get far better returns for much lower investments if it funded a few anthropologists to hang around its management structure for six months.

But "no bad code" is like asking for a sinless teenager. Won't happen. It'll be a bit messy. It won't matter in the end. In fact, in asking for it you're liable to come across as a rather shrill populist who hasn't quite thought things through.

Which has nothing to do with Sting's career, of course, about which the best that can be said is that at least it stopped him being a teacher. Wittering on about carbon 14 being deadly for twelve thousand years and hoping his leg won't break on the moon; the man could have undone a hundred years of education reform.

Thursday 11/8/2005

"Private eyes are watching you, they see your every move." So sang Hall and Oates in their saccharine MOR swinger named after the noted satirical magazine, eerily presaging the most exciting event within ZDNet UK this week.

You may have noticed that the great gods of Google have fallen out with the mortals over at CNET Networks US, all because a journo with an eye for a hook annoyed Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Said journo used Google to dig up various public (or at least published) aspects of Schmidt's personal life, and used them to illustrate a wider story about privacy concerns. In return, Schmidt issued an edict that Google was not to talk to CNET for a year.

This is a complex story. Was it good journalism to concatenate details of a private individual's life and print them — wouldn't it have been better for the journalist to do the same to herself? Why pick on Google? Was Google's response useful or harmful to anyone?

On the first point, and having given the matter some thought, I think it was good journalism. There is a very good story to be written by probing your own online persona (plenty of dirt on Goodwins, for those so minded, but you can find it yourselves, shirkers), but this wasn't it. Schmidt has traded some of his privacy by being the CEO of a very important, very high profile company; by way of recompense, he has extraordinary resources to protect himself and his family — far greater than any of us do.

Also, whether it likes it or not, Google is lead dog for these issues, and it hasn't really been behaving appropriately. It's all very well saying "Do no evil", but this can be hard to square with a company which seems reluctant to acknowledge its responsibilities. The CNET article highlighted those, and the debate is much the stronger for it. We need to have that debate, and urgently: whatever your stand on this particular little contretemps, greater awareness of the wider issues is a good thing.

As for Google's response: from CNET's point of view, it produced acres of publicity which was generally favourable to CNET and generally hostile to Google — at one point, the story was second from top on the tech stream of Google News itself. And talking to the press certainly helps the press — but they're hardly likely to pull a story because one of the parties won't talk. Why Google HQ would want to gag itself is something of a mystery; there has been talk of a PR disaster, and I wouldn't demur.

But the timing was good. Over here, we wrote a particularly pungent leader on the whole business, reflecting our opinion that Google US had not showered itself with glory. The previous week, I'd recorded an interview with the Today programme about Google Earth and been sycophantic in my adoration. The producers decided to hold that over for a while until, yep, the day after the leader went up. Some readers caught both within the space of an hour and got a bit confused. It's easy. Yes, Google has genius. Yes, it's capable of acting like a blithering idiot. Let's see which one wins.

Friday 12/8/2005

California waiting, sang the Kings of Leon in the eponymous rocker. Everything's gotta be just right. I'd tell you the news but nothing's changed. Is this eerily presaging events that will kick off in San Francisco on the 23rd of August?

Yes, it's that time of the year again when Intel drums up the interest for Fall IDF, the developer forum most likely to come up with some interesting snippets. Poor old Intel has a problem; it can't tell us all what's going to be there, or we'll write about it too soon. But it can't keep entirely quiet, or it'll fail to milk the run-up. So today we have hints about new chip architectures that are energy efficient, multi-core and high performance — but sooth, we can say no more. Will this mighty new processor be based on the Pentium M? Almost certainly. The Pentium M that doesn't do the hyperthreading that's been so important to Intel for all these years? Could this be because the M has a much better design than the Pentium 4's Netburst , and doesn't need the Tetris-like code juggling that goes on under the hood to get a semblance of efficiency from the heavily-pipelined monstrosity?

Which would be good, of course — better basic design is to be praised over a crufty bodge — except that it raises the interesting question of how you spin the marketing message. I only really care about the technology, but marketing has a much higher power-to-weight ratio when it comes to generating interesting questions for the hapless execs at IDF. And then there's Apple, which I'm sure they're dying to talk about, and the antitrust lawsuits, which I'm sure they're not.

There'll also be a whole slew of codewords to commit to memory: Merom, Conroe, Woodcrest. Without these, you are nothing, a mere spectator. IDF can seem like a role-playing game: learn the magic spell, collect the best freebies from the exhibition floor, track down the PR and battle them with mighty thrusts until you get the interview you want. But that's only one stage in many; get to the interview and you're battling with an even more fearsome foe, a highly-trained executive fully aware that what he says can bite him on the bum much harder than he's allowed to bite yours.

In the words of Elvis Costello, ably covered by Robert Wyatt, is it worth it? Hell, yeah.

Watch this space.