Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Scandalous schools, tangled tales of quantum dottiness, BT's abrupt truthfulness, Symantec's bad habits and morose musings on mobile media

Monday 9/1/2005

I don't want to get unduly emotive about this, but how much of the country's education budget to you want to go to Microsoft? Put it another way, how much of the money we pay to teach our innocent children should go into the slime-laden coffers of the corporate personification of all evil?

There's an investigation going on into this, which has already pointed out that there are potential dangers in allowing a company to have an effective monopoly in education. Microsoft for its part has said that it already gives a 75 percent discount, and what could be fairer than that?

Well, let's see. As far as I can tell, running Microsoft software costs around £40 per student per year. There are three million secondary school children in the UK, which pans out to around £120m per annum. That could easily fund an organisation of five hundred people dedicated to developing and supporting open source software purely for the UK — software which would be entirely unencumbered by issues such as is it legal for kids to take a copy for home use, which document formats can be supported, and so on.

The software itself could have international applications, especially in the developing world, and would extend the useful life of schools' hardware. And as people left secondary school and moved into university, those going into computer science would have a much better understanding of how the stuff actually worked — it being open. That's one of the good things about kids: if you give them the chance, they can dig far deeper into something than you'd ever believe possible. Not always, of course, but if you don't give them the chance then you know they won't.

Of course, this won't happen. It's far too sensible and would annoy far too many powerful people. Educational IT suppliers are too deeply embedded with those who purchase the stuff to make a major transition cheap or easy, even if the political will and vision was there to make a start.

Still, a man can dream.

Tuesday 10/1/2006

One of my favourite treats is getting to write about weird science. As I've yet to make a good commercial case for a Weird Science Web site — the market in advertising for lab coats and protein depolarizing death rays being somewhat soft at the moment — I have to get what I can, where I can. So thanks indeed to Toshiba Research and Cambridge University for coming up with a semiconductor gallium, indium and arsenic quantum dot entangled photon generator. It comes no weirder than this — and I mean that most sincerely.

Not only are quantum dots by far the coolest thing you can make with a handful of atoms, as they give you the chance to control electrons in ways nature never intended, but the resultant light is high on the list of the strangest things in the universe. Entangled photons are like Shakespearian lovers, of one soul but separated by cruel fate (in this case, Toshiba researchers). Hurt one, and the other weeps. Create a pair of them and send them to the opposite ends of the universe: when you specify the state of one, the other is instantaneously affected.

This might seem to break the ultimate law, that nothing can be transmitted faster than the speed of light. Physicists — especially the supremely patient Dr Andrew Shields, who for the second time found himself on the phone to a rather puzzled Rupert — explain patiently that the information about what's happened to the second photon doesn't make sense until you know by ordinary means what you did to the first, so you can't actually use this to annoy Einstein.

Nevertheless, there is something exceptionally strange going on. What mechanism can allow a photon to know what's happening to its soulmate, even if they're forbidden to communicate by the structure of the universe? There are some wild theories, none of which I understand. But this leads to the second joy of weird science — it leads you to some exceptional people. In this case, if you find your curiosity tickled by entanglement, you should seek out John Bell.

Bell was a mild-mannered, bearded Belfast man who did more than anyone else to penetrate into the very strangest parts of quantum physics — and he did so with humour and genius. For example, he wrote a paper concerning a colleague of his, "Bertlmann's Socks and the Nature of Reality". Bertlemann was in the habit of wearing different coloured socks, and Bell pointed out that equipped with a knowledge of Bertlemann's nature and seeing that the sock closest to you was pink, you would instantly know that the other sock was not pink. Even if Bertlemann wore his socks a light year apart, this knowledge would be transmitted instantaneously.

And so it may be with entangled photons. We'd have a better chance of knowing more today if Bell hadn't died of a stroke in 1990 at the criminally early age of 62. For all the physicists talk of locally-reversible time, the version we live in seems unfairly stuck in one direction.

Wednesday 11/1/2006

It is with great pleasure that I hand over today's diary to Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden, who has reclaimed his middle name in order to go out and do some good old gumshoe journalism at the birth of BT's Openreach. Over to you, GW.

For once, I got to a BT official launch on time: 1100 sharp. However, while Openreach chief executive Steve Robertson was supposed to give his speech at 1130, he didn't actually get round to it until 1230. This left me and other hacks with little to do but drink beer and watch promotional BT videos. We did tap our watches occasionally and look impatient, but as one attendee pointed out, "If you've waited 20 years for BT to start playing fair, what's another hour?"

Things started to go all Twilight Zone when they ran a promotional video. A gruff but loveable BT engineer went about his daily duties, failing to fix faults properly and leaving customers without connectivity. It's not that he's a bad person, implied the video, just that in the old BT these things wouldn't get fixed. Especially if the customer affected had sinned and chosen a non-BT ISP. We knew that. You knew that. The shocker is not only that BT knew that, but that it's now 'fessing up on camera.

Having scarred our souls with its searing confession, the video promptly went into full-blown Daliesque surrealism. Our engineer is left a white duck in a will. Being a compassionate, caring, BT type, he promptly nipped down to the local pond to abandon said duck to the elements. But, as luck would have it, there was a lady painting by the pond, and she'd been without broadband for a week because Bad Old BT wouldn't fix a fault on her line. So, she grabbed her paint brush and brandished it at the engineer, insisting that because this was a council pond rather than a BT pond, it wasn't in the council's interests to give BT duck-releasing rights onto the pond, and he's have to go away and look for another pond where…

At this point, me and a bloke from IT Week wandered off, agreeing that as an analogy for the shortcomings of the UK telecoms sector went, this one went rather over our heads. Or, as the man from The Guardian  put it, "what a load of old cobblers".

And finally, thankfully, Roberson delivered his speech, in a room in which BT had installed a chocolate fountain and a stall offering pies and sausages but, thankfully, no duck.

He spent a lot of it denying that BT had been forced into delivering a level playing field, claiming it was all thanks to convergence and people like BSkyB starting to sell movies over broadband. Is this proof that Rupert Murdoch has done some good in the UK?

As Robertson built to a climax, BT press supreme Mike Bartlett took a well-earned break and grabbed a pie. Plunging his fork into the crispy base, he was distracted by Roberson declaring "we're not here today because of management bullshit". Results? Pie all over the table. "Hmmm", muttered an anonymous BT insider brushing the shortcrust pastry from his tie. "Robertson clearly thinks this is an internal meeting."

Thursday 12/1/2005

Andy Grove's got a lot to answer for. OK, so he steered Intel from a tiny start-up to one of the monsters of modern technology, but didn't he realise the responsibilities that this entails? Responsibilities that mean people are going to take you seriously if you write a book called Only The Paranoid Survive — and the level of paranoia in the industry in 2006 seems to be growing week by week. We'll be at Cuban Missile Crisis levels by May.

Take the accusations today that Symantec is shipping a rootkit . I don't like Symantec's products or marketing very much. I've had to sort out too many friends who've been bemused by Norton AV demanding money for protection, when they didn't even know it was installed on their new computer. The software's big, messy and intrusive. It's still not fair to say that it's using rootkit ideas just because it hides a directory. In any case, there's no need to go over the top. Symantec's had plenty of genuine vulnerabilities in the past.

And that's one of the big problems with all these extra layers of security — it's just more stuff to go wrong. I used to run a UPS in line with the mains to my computer: it went wrong more often than the London Electricity Board, so after a while it went.

This is going to help poison DRM, which is even worse: it's designed so that if it does go wrong, it fails closed. It removes the flexibility needed which lets people of common purpose get around problems. It's the bureaucrat who'll never cut you an inch of slack, will never listen to your case and is perfectly capable of popping off for three hours for their lunch at the most inconvenient time.

These are not desirable attributes in the retail channel, a point that one hopes may be getting through to the people at the top. Spielberg's already likely to miss out on his chance at the Baftas because someone shipped "Munich" on the wrong sort of encrypted DVDs to the judges. Why go to all that trouble? If you want to show people trade secrets, which is what a film is before it opens, then put them under NDA and ship them watermarked copies. At that sort of level of distribution, you can edit in the watermarks by hand and burn individual discs: if someone does break the rules, you've got evidence of who it was and the legal wherewithal to make it matter.

Or you try and work out the actual cost to you of a leak, versus the cost of going all out to stop it and messing up, and pitch your countermeasures somewhere appropriate. You know, proper risk analysis. If any of the DRM proponents have actually done this, I'll eat a Mariah Carey CD.

Anything but listen to it.

Friday 13/1/2006

So the world seems more interested in fluorescent pigs than entangled photons. I told those photons to get a better agent and sort out their image, but would they listen? "Look," I said. "Pigs have got it made. Pinky and Perky. Cute little tails, Cheeky grins, They're comedy gold — and they taste terrific. What have you got? An oscillating electromagnetic field with components at 90 degrees to each other, a probabilistic envelope and relativistic mass. It might work for the brainiacs, but it won't get you on reality TV." They did point out that without their sort of reality there wouldn't be any TV, but that's just the sort of smart-arse particle fundamentalism that goes down at a pitch meeting like a teaspoon of dandruff.

In other sad news: world not interested in mobile TV after all, despite BT, O2, Orange, 3, Sky, Apple, Google and every other purveyor of digital content is desperate need to sell it to us. I'm confused by this: every time I speak to a handset supplier or network operator, they assure me in tones of barely-concealed excitement how much more people actually love mobile TV than anyone dared to dream. "We understand your reservations," they say, "and to be honest, we've shared them ourselves. But actually get a service out there on trial and the punters can't get enough!"

But talk to real people — and ask about real research — and the reality is less thrilling. Nice to have, if you can get all the content you want and it doesn't cost very much. A fiver a month is the upper limit. There are one helluva lot of subscription services out there vying for that fiver, and for that we really do want the works. How does that tie in with the model suggested by Google Video, where £1.50 buys you an old episode of Desperate Housewives?

That's something else I've noticed on the trial of the BBC's over-the-Net TV delivery system, iMP. The range of programmes is limited, because it would cost too much to clear the rights for the good stuff just for a trial. This means that while iMP initially provokes a splurge of watching telly — the ability to tuck yourself up in bed with the laptop and catch up on The Thick Of It after a hard evening in the pub is fantastic — you soon run out of things you actually want to watch. And then you get bored, then you turn against the technology for letting you down, and soon you're back reading novels.

Which means that of all the new digital media business models, I guess 90 percent will fail due to content restrictions of one kind or another. The bold and the generous will win, and will be repaid many times over. Not a bad slogan for the new age.