Rupert Goodwins' Diary

'You are all bad people and have helped music sales go up 21 percent, so stop it at once.' If only that had been the most insane part of the week...

Monday 15/8/2005

I am mystified by economics. Take eBay, which may be boosting the UK economy by a hidden £5 billion. The reason is that it has sent us into our attics to liberate £3k per household of otherwise forgotten assets and is thus the mechanism of a new wave of prosperity.

Colour me naïve, but how does this help? If the £3k so raised was then ploughed into buying goods and services from normal retail channels, then there might be an argument - but it's not. Anyone who sells on eBay buys on eBay: we won't actually contribute to the UK economy, but we'll all have enormous sets of china dogs or the complete works of Barbara Cartland. What if we all promptly take the things we've bought on eBay and stick them back up for auction? Does the economy grow even faster?

While buying second-hand stuff is great environmentally it does take up money that could otherwise be used for all those value-added goods and services that are supposedly at the heart of making the money world go around. It's not as if there's vast amounts of extra tax being raised by all this money sloshing around either - which is what governments usually mean when they talk with love-struck eyes about economy growth.

However, while auctions may not be that good at directly generating value, they are notoriously good at setting it. This is where Gordon Brown should be looking most closely at the eBay phenomenon: deciding whether or not public services are value for money is shaping up to be the biggest point of contention just as soon as the Conservatives feel better. What better way to ensure efficiency than to replace all that complex, hidden, unaccountable and incomprehensible civil service spending on contracts and resource shuffling with eBay.gov?

Health? Put those hip operations up there - wld suit lady, 65-70, w/gammy leg. Education? Teachers and classes can vie for each other. Defence? "L@@K! ORIGINAL REGIMENT! Some wear, works well. Buyer to take responsibility for shipping from Iraq". Or perhaps in reverse: "4 Sale - income tax from £35k salary. Looking for car-friendly transport policy, abolition of student loans and free kittens".

You still looking for a big idea, oh Liberal Democrats? Get Charlie to send me a crate of Laphroaig, and it's all yours.

Tuesday 16/8/2005

Wish they'd make their minds up. Remember Home Taping is Illegal, And It's Killing Music? Music pulled through. Then Napster was going to marmalise the industry: six years on, and it's still possible to get just about any song you like when you like through file sharing networks - and the gutters have yet to be piled high with the starving bodies of the talented.

So, what now? How about burning CDs? Yeah, that'll do. According to the NY Times, Mitch Bainwol, chief executive for the Recording Industry Association of America, believes ''CD burning is a problem that is really undermining sales,'' with 'Burned' CDs accounting for 29 percent of all recorded music obtained by fans in 2004, compared to 16 percent attributed to downloads from online file-sharing networks. Copy protection technology ''is an answer to the problem that clearly the marketplace is going to see more of."

Copy protection's the answer, Mitch. That's right. Now, what sort of copy protection lets the CD play perfectly well in all legitimate circumstances and locks out the piratical hordes? There ain't no such beast. There was no such beast for tapes, either, with the sad result that the young Goodwins and his friends had draws full of illicit C90s with each others' record collections on. We simply couldn't afford to buy everything we liked, let alone everything we only sorta liked (imagine the life of shame if I'd paid for Kajagoogoo), because we'd spent all our money on music we loved.

You cannot stop people sharing music. It's basic human nature. The party tapes we make -- illegal. The records we lend each other -- illegal. The MP3s captured off the radio and emailed to our friends abroad ("Heard this? It's really good. I think you'll love it") -- illegal. But is any of it wrong? More to the point, for people who equate right and wrong with profit and loss, does it really hurt sales?

People will feel it's wrong when they buy a CD and it won't play on their PC. Or they can't move a track from a CD to their iPod. Of course, it won't matter: two minutes on the Internet and they'll have learned how to bypass whatever clumsy system has been put in place. You don't get people to change their basic morality by hectoring them: you can educate them, but only when you have logic and evidence on your side. When that same NY Times story says that music sales overall are up 21 percent year on year, logic and evidence aren't your friends.

All those C90s have gone (including, I alone am sorry to say, my early Devonian experiments in multitracked synthesiser and looping ZX Spectrum BEEP commands from well before the Aphex Twin got his act together over the Tamar). I've replaced most of them with full-price CDs, as have most of the rest of us children of the 80s. Damn that home taping. Wednesday 17/8/2005

Zotob? Doesn't that cure herpes simplex? No, it's a good old fashioned worm, flashing across the Internet through port 445 and burrowing through a vulnerability in Windows 2000. Yes, Windows 2000 - the operating system that Microsoft has stopped issuing anything other than critical software patches for, and the OS that around half of all businesses are still using.

It's been a while since a worm did as much high-profile damage as Zotob has, although once again it hasn't lived up to the hype. So, who's to blame? Microsoft, in a passive attempt to boost people switching over to XP or the Mythical Vista? Hardly: the company had previously issued a patch for the Zotob vulnerability and warned people about it. Lazy sysadmins who hadn't bothered to install the patches? Hardly: MS patches have a history of causing problems for previously well-behaved systems, so it's hardly responsible to just slap them in.

With the Zotob patch coming out just over a week ago, anybody with other things on their plate -- like running a big installation -- might be excused for not having given the patches a proper testing yet. A combination of factors means that there's no one easy fix, no real change in behaviour that can reasonably be expected to solve the problem.

So how can you stop it happening again? Well, assuming that you're running Windows 2000 on your systems because those systems are a bit long in the tooth, then your choices are limited. You can buy brand-new hardware and Windows XP, and carry on playing Patch Or Perish. You can wait with bated breath for the Mythical Vista. Or you could go over to the dark side and install Linux. It's not without its problems, but offhand I can only think of four actual worms (Ramen, Slapper, Mighty and Scalper) that have caused any problems in the past five years.

That's a lot more slack for testing patches, checking your system for ports that shouldn't be open, deleting old accounts, closing down services that nobody's using and all that other good stuff. You remember: what sysadmins used to do before they became firefighters without the cool uniforms and big hoses. Thursday 18/8/2005

Last night, I was supposed to be out cheering on a group of CNet bods as they participated in some arcane Dockland sport called Dragonboat racing and tonight I was due to be meeting old CNet pals. Neither happened, due to a nasty bout of summer cold that turned my brain to cabbage -- and you don't want to know what it did to my cabbage.

Which was a shame. The Dragonboat racing sounded fun to watch, even if a certain member of the sales staff was so committed to over-delivering that whenever the cox told the team to take ten strokes, she took eleven. I believe she was rapidly educated in the finer points of team communication, with special reference to the proximity of a large body of cold water. By some fluke, the team got through to the next stage, so there may be further reports.

But I was alternately shivering and sweating under the duvet of dismay, locked in a fever dream. How else to explain the visions I had of people stampeding to get to a sale of four year old Apple laptops, some even wetting themselves rather than leaving the queue? I know Apple kit is powerful juju, but so little of it can't possibly lead people into so much degradation. Or the linked hallucination that scientists in Singapore had created a battery powered by pee, to make self-energising electronics-based medical test devices. I tell you, that beats cranking away at a clockwork dynamo when the lights go out. Has anyone told Trevor Bayliss?

And then I heard a far-off voice telling me that Microsoft was going to charge four hundred quid for its next games box, researchers had proved that porn makes you go blind (for about 300 milliseconds) and that President Bush was going to take over the Internet and unilaterally reverse all ICANN's decisions.

What madness. Thank goodness it'll all be over when I get better. Friday 19/8/2005

Much better, thank you. As will be our display devices of the future, says the Video Electronics Standards Association as it unveils DisplayPort, the next generation of connection to go between devices and displays. It's more a mini data transfer standard than a set of wires coupling red, green and blue: interactive at ten gigabits a second, it lets audio and high resolution video share the same cabling while reducing the number of wires required.

I'm not sure it has a chance. That old analogue dog VGA is holding on tremendously well, despite being introduced nearly twenty years ago: it was supposed to be gently shouldered aside by DVI which appeared in 1999, but look at the back of a video card and you'll see them happily coexisting. Monitors have got very good at reconstructing the ragged old analogue signal that comes out at their end of the cable, far better than anyone expected all those years ago -- so why do we need a better cable? And who has speakers in their monitors these days?

In any case, soon - please let it be soon - we'll have proper wireless alternatives with UWB, if you want to have a difference that makes a difference. There could be some visible improvement with HDTV if you use DisplayPort, but who knows when that'll be important?

I'll ask Intel when I see them next week, at the same time as I ask them how they're getting on with their display technologies. I still can't get over it dropping the liquid-crystal on silicon (LCOS) chips, which demonstrated the best potential for high quality display output I've ever seen. Perhaps displays, like so much of computing, are good enough now - in which case, DisplayPort will quietly fade away.

As, coughing and spluttering, must I. Until next week's West Coast special, adieu. And pass the hanky, there's a dear.