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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Spain is on the horizon, but Verizon is on the loopy juice, O2 on the Irish road to sanity and Vodafone Greece on the casting list of the next Bond movie. Meanwhile, Rupert's still typing naughty words into search engines

Monday 6/2/2006

Yet more perplexing news from Greece, that country rich in history and intrigue yet poor in planespotters and videogame enthusiasts. The latest technoscandal is that person or persons unknown infiltrated Vodafone's mobile network in Athens and silently linked important peoples' mobiles to a bank of monitors. Calls to and from around a hundred people were sent to 14 pay as you go handsets – these people included the prime minister, the top level of the defence and public order ministries, some foreign ministry phones, one former minister now in opposition, antiwar and civil rights activists, Arabs, and even a US Embassy official.

Voda pointed the finger at Ericsson, whose monitoring software did the deed. That software had been installed by Voda but not properly activated – it was intended to be used for official investigations backed by court warrant, but the appropriate law had yet to be passed. Instead, says the operator, 'spyware' within the software opened a back door and kicked off the intercept. Ericsson hasn't said anything yet, as far as I can tell, and in the circumstances neither would I.

Meanwhile, there's been a hint from certain quarters that the Americans were involved, as the embassy was within range of the mobile phone cells used. The US has said pish and tush to that, as has the Greek government; as the Americans are habitually blamed for most things, we can probably discount this.

It hasn't helped that Voda Greece's top technical bod hung himself a couple of days after the scandal broke last year, in circumstances involving a mysterious note adorned with swastikas and a reference to the "Blood Donor". Nor has the task of investigation been made any easier by Voda's action in tearing out all the monitoring systems as soon as they were discovered rather than leaving them running and tracking down the perpetrators – and other evidence points to an inside job possibly involving the company and elements within the government. The prime minister's phone wasn't registered in his name, for starters, and only a handful of people knew the fake identity.

This is all top-notch spy movie fare, of a sort scandalously denied us since the Cold War. It shows that any illusion of security we may have concerning our mobile phones is a flimsy fantasy: mine now says "ASSUME THIS PHONE IS TAPPED" as its welcome message when I power it up. It also shows just how easy it is to bypass what look like legally and technically impervious safeguards, which is how car thieves in LA can continue to steal top of the line Lexuses with sophisticated cryptographically secure engine immobilisers (they rip open the bonnet and replace the immobiliser with a doctored unit) and why nobody with any sense thinks DRM will help the music industry, or a nationwide database for ID cards will make us more, rather than less, secure.

Tuesday 7/2/2006

Astonishing news from America today, where Google stands accused of stealing lunches and drinking 'spiked Kool-Aid'. (Editorial note: this phrase comes from either the Merry Pranksters hippy commune's habit of testing would-be joiners by parties involving LSD in orange juice, or the Jonestown mass ritual suicide by cyanide in the same refreshing medium. Either way, it is uncomplimentary). Top US network company Verizon is unhappy that the search engine is freeloading – by which, Verizon means, using its broadband network. If Google wants its packets on the Verizon fibre, it better stump up money for the privilege.

This is a mysterious and most perplexing claim. Verizon appears to be unaware of something called the Internet, where individuals and companies at the edge pay good money to service providers who then route packets through each other to other individuals and companies elsewhere at the edge. Everyone gets paid, everyone gets connectivity. It's cheap, it works, and that's why we sign up. If Verizon doesn't like it, it is perfectly at liberty to produce its own network disconnected from the Internet, attract its own users and services and show us all how it should be done.

Oh, I forgot. That's how telcos tried to do it last time: closed, private networks with limited numbers of users paying high prices. You can count on the fingers of an earthworm how many of those services survived the introduction of the Internet. There was no shame in doing that – even Ziff Davis, the now-divorced parent of ZDNet, was going to have something like it called Interchange. ZD managed to work out which jug of Kool-Aid had the poison, though, and late in the beta of the product sold it for the development costs plus a little idiot tax to – yes – a telco. Hee hee.

You don't do it that way and then try to get all the advantages of the Internet as well. That is the Everest of dumb, the Jupiter of silly and the blue whale of idiot. I had hoped, after all these years and so much earth changing success, that people like Verizon had got it. Now, I fear, they stand revealed as lacking that gene and furthermore incapable of useful mutation.

Google is giving such nonsense a robust defence. There are rumours — there are always rumours — that the search engine giant is preparing to roll out its own bandwidth around the world. Verizon and its blind caveworm pals have just disqualified themselves from taking part in the future, and we need alternative systems a that aren't chained at the hip to evolutionary dead ends.

Wednesday 8/2/2006

Search company Blinkx is happy that it has landed a deal with ITN to automate the process of making video clips. It's happy because it's a nice high profile deal to have in a nice high profile part of the market – mobile and IP TV – but also because this is the first time the company's sold anything. Until now, it's been trying to get people interested by giving away a desktop search tool and talking about contextual analysis of the Web, but to be honest there are lots of people doing both those things and my first experience of the Blinkx desktop and Internet search tools was unimpressive enough to be my last.

That stuff's still going on, but barring some whacky deal I doubt it's going anywhere. I said as much to Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden as he packed himself off to a meeting with the company, but the video stuff turned out to be fun enough.

On his return to the office, labouring under what might fairly be called mild enthusiasm, I went to have a look. I tried a few search terms, and it worked surprisingly well. But we all know what new search engines are best tested with – one's own name (not for nothing is Google an anagram of Ego Log) and naughtiness. I elected to try marijuana.

The first few hits were the usual small crime reports and off-beat "Hey, they smoke pot in Amsterdam!" reports. But then some cat called Mourinho appeared, who is apparently in charge of some association soccer outfit. I watched the clip: there was no mention of the evil weed. I asked Graeme; he phoned Blinkx — and now we know.

It's very difficult to search video, because computers are hopeless at recognising what they're looking at — and by hopeless, I mean at the level of telling the finest algorithms in the world that "There is a chair, an apple and a man with a beard in this picture, and nothing else. Where are they?" in order to get a result. So, you have to cheat, either by having thousands of bored students watching video clips and typing in what they see — which doesn't work — or by listening to the sound track.

Which is what Blinkx does. It breaks down the sound track into a string of phonemes, which it then matches to words with similar sequences of sounds. Hence amusing Mourinho/Marijuana mixup. And when you think about it, it is perfectly possible to make a large number of rude words from non-rude sounds — the hilarious Norfolk Enchants county slogan, for example.

But they'd better be careful: if a backing musician who went on a folk tour with a famous female singer was careless enough to say "Yes, I was KD's fiddler", they stand a chance of being pulled up by those looking for kiddyfiddler stories — and that sort of thing sometimes occasions a sense of humour failure and slander by association writs.

It's a fun site, though. Give it a go — and do pass on any particularly fun phoneme phumbles.

Thursday 9/2/2006

Time to make the meanest, most grudging, absolutely the snidest moue of congratulation and shove it with the worst grace possible at O2. The congratulations are due because the company has abolished an international roaming charge and there is no way such an act should go unmarked: all the rest of my bad-tempered huffing and puffing is because it's a wee runt of a tariff: contract customers of O2 Ireland won't pay for calls received in Northern Ireland.

Nothing illustrates the greedy absurdity of international roaming costs than what happens on national borders. Radio waves don't know anything about borders, especially those, like that between Northern Ireland and the South, which don't follow physical features. As a result, customers who live near or on the border can randomly find themselves electronically catapulted into some shadowy radio counterpart of the other side.

And when you get a whopping international charge for a phone call received from a pal 500m away while you're sitting on your own sofa in your own home — well, that's just taking the, er, well. It's positively rude.

O2 does find itself in a bit of a pickle, though. By abolishing this tariff it is acknowledging its unfairness — but it can't then claim it's fair for the Northern Irish to be stuck in the old situation. Nor can it really carry on charging a tariff — however reduced — for its pay as you go customers. The other operators should expect a ratcheting-up of consumer complaints about this iniquitous practice. Until they fix it.

And until then, it's everyone's duty to use voice over IP over WiFi hot spots, wherever they can. I'll be trying to do that as much as possible during my stay in Spain for 3GSM next week. That'll show 'em.

Friday 10/2/2006

And talking of roaming… Just a couple of days to go now before I and my pals scoot off to 3GSM. For those that care, my total email count of GSM-related PR requests is now standing at around 250, possibly 300. Lots of those are multiples, though, due to the common PR assumption that if you haven't replied to the last email you must clearly be in need of another chance to see it, and if that doesn't work you must be sitting around waiting for a phone call saying "Did you get my last two emails?".

There has been some fun, though.

From: Tim XXX [mailto:tim@xxx.com]

Sent: Fri 10/02/2006 12:12

Subject: Craig David Sets The Flava For 3GSM World Congress
Craig David is to perform at 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona next week; details below. Let me know if you would like an image of Craig.

Many thanks

Tim

From: Rupert Goodwins

Sent: Fri 10/02/2006 13:04

Subject: Craig David

Hi, Tim

I'd love an image of Craig. Can you supply it on one of the following media?

* Dartboard

* New Orleans voodoo doll

* Andrex 2-ply, soft, strong and very, very long

Thanks!

Rupert

(and no, he couldn't help)

Then there was the unfortunate who spelled the name of his client as Blogco Mutlimedia. (name changed because I'm feeling kind) That wouldn't be so bad — except they were the first two words in the 24pt headline, and the title of the email itself. I like the idea of Mutlimedia — with Professor Pat Pending in R&D and Dick Dastardly in marketing.

And so it's off to sunny Spain, where the days are long, the nights are longer and still those editors want copy. And the PRs can wait in ambush to physically escort you to the desperate clients. Tune in next week for the exciting finale…