Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Underground, overground, on the run from Interpol and later than the Jamaican Vista Developers Conference, Rupert flees to the country - a rude robot on his back

Monday 20/3/2006

When in Rome, it would be nice to pay as the Romans do. Instead, we get stiffed with international roaming charges on our mobile phones that would make Nero blush. The EU is looking into this, and the GSM Association is making vaguely encouraging noises — but the rumour today is that there is considerable disagreement among the operators over what should be done.

The split, as so often, seems to be north-south, with the northern European operators prepared to consider turning down the wick and the southern lot determined to hold on regardless. This isn't because roaming costs any more in the sunny parts of the world, but because roaming fees make up a much greater chunk of revenue for those in tourist areas with weak local economies. Indeed, there are places in the Caribbean where the local network operator barely bothers to charge subscribers, prospering instead on the people on the yachts making endless calls back home.

As a form of rough yet progressive taxation, this has a lot to recommend it. However, it won't survive. A basic rule of world commerce is that it's a lot cheaper to be rich than poor, and with the rich countries' operators having a lot more clout than the poor, you don't need a switchboard operator to tell you which way the call's going to be connected.

Roaming revenue works through termination charges, where operators accept calls from each other and charge each other a fee for so doing. These fees are rather peculiar beasts: they bear no relation to the actual cost of providing the service, they are very hard to tease out of the companies, and they are huge. If networks set each other sky-high termination charges, then each network can say "We'd love to cut the price, but that's what we're being charged by the other chap". And like any secret addiction, they're hell to sort out.

But they'll have to be. The world is no longer sympathetic to telcos charging what they like in secret: quite the opposite. The myth that long-distance communication is intrinsically expensive has been busted, and "Why does it cost me a quid a minute to call home from France on my mobile when I can talk to Australia all day for nothing on VoIP?" is unanswerable. If we can find a way to fix it without stiffing the people who usually end up being stiffed, that'd be something of a bonus.

Tuesday 21/3/2006

Interpol wants to make it easier to chase cybercriminals across borders. Fair enough: it's a romantic idea to rob a bank in California and be in Tijuana by teatime, but with half my spam coming from some Eastern European statelet it's time this international crime wave was staunched.

But who is Interpol anyway? Who regulates it? I've got enough problems trying to keep track of all the information the UK state apparatus wants to beg, borrow or steal from me and what if any rights I've got if I disagree. The only thing I know about Interpol is that it provides well turned out and unfeasibly efficient Europlod for Hollywood movies. A quick jaunt to the Web site isn't very forthcoming on this: the operation is the second biggest international organisation, it's run by a general assembly with delegates appointed by 184 countries, but then the trail runs dry. There's no delegate list, for example, nor contact details by country for whoever it is who does the appointing. The HQ is 'inviolable' and 'the organisation shall enjoy immunity from legal process' (except parking tickets), so I doubt you'd get very far by turning up on the doorstep and trying to use any of the UK or European laws that look after us.

In fact, as far as I can tell, individuals do not feature at all on the list of things Interpol knows or cares about — with the exception of those it's keen to get up before the beak. All liaison is through each country's own official organisations, and it's with these groups that all the various rules and regulations are concerned. I haven't tried marching into Islington nick and asking "Who do I talk to about Interpol?": somehow I doubt it's an experiment that'll be worth trying, Last time I tried to report a credit card theft they looked at me as if I was wearing a parrot costume and enquiring about cuttlefish.

So there's work to be done. I suggest that if Interpol wants to be given more power to scoop up this and that, it should work harder at letting us know who it is and how it impinges on our lives. Given that most people learn most about public services through TV drama, I suggest that Interpol liaison gets somebody into The Bill as soon as possible, and shows them tracking down some spotty phisher connected with the Sun Hill Russian mafia.

Wednesday 22/3/2006

I love underground technology, from schooldays when I stood in call boxes dialling the numbers in between the international dialling codes to see what happened to showing friends on a roof in Brooklyn how to make a water tower into an efficient stealth broadcast antenna.

But now there's some seriously legit underground tech on the boil. The universities of Leeds and Nottingham want to create a countrywide map of the pipes, cables and caverns below the surface of the United Kingdom. The idea is to ease the task of maintenance and renewal: the cost and inconvenience of having someone dig up your phone lines when they're trying to fix the gas is huge and growing. It might also save some serious embarrassment: not so long ago, the Norwegian air traffic control system went down because of a JCB through a fibre optic cable connecting control central to the radars and transmitters.

This should never happen: alongside one fibre belonging to one telco, the Norwegians had invested in a back-up parallel circuit rented from a different telco and travelling over quite a different route. Unfortunately one telco subsequently bought the other and as part of the programme of efficiency that always follows an acquisition spotted that it now had two identical circuits doing what looked like the same job. It promptly reprogrammed its network equipment to route both channels over one fibre and shut the other one down. A central database saying what everything is and why might just have helped.

There are security concerns: after all, huge amounts of national infrastructure are squirreled away beneath the highways and byways, and letting just anyone get hold of the map might lead to some unwanted ingenuity being deployed ten feet below. But you have to make the information available to be useful, and it's not generally possible or desirable to security check everyone in a hard hat. In the days of IRA activity that BT was concerned about keeping the details of its countrywide network secret from the terrorists. There was much fussing about what to do with the information, until someone pointed out that as the whole lot had been dug into the ground by a company called Murphy everyone might as well relax and worry about something else.

There's a lot that could be done with a nationwide database of underground conduits. My favourite idea is to combine the water and sewerage distribution systems with a form of physical packet switching: take a waterproof container with the goods in, program the address into an RFID tag built into it, and flush it down the loo. Within the sewers, scanners spot the RFID, scoops remove it automatically and a series of intelligent valves route it through the pipes to its destination. The thing ends up bobbing in the destination cistern: clearly there are a few small practical details to consider, but the theory's sound.

Only one thing counts against the planned mapping project — its name. Vista…

Thursday 23/3/2006

… and indeed, Vista is in the news this week, for reasons Microsoft cannot enjoy. The company says that it's delaying for good reasons of testing and security assurance, and it is true that the worst possible thing it could do would be to ship the product in a broken, unreliable and hack-tastic form.

The second worst thing would be to drag the project out for three years over the original plan, dropping promised feature after promised feature in a doomed attempt to catch up, while showing a drip-feed of demos and betas that compare badly to the stuff the competition has mysteriously been able to ship in the meantime.

For me, the most effective satire of the whole Vista farrago was the sound track of Bill Gates doing an on-stage demo of the product, cut to video footage of Apple's OS X doing exactly the same thing. Like everyone, I've been asking "What's Vista's big idea?": having seen and played with a few of the more recent beta releases, admittedly not for any great length of time, it still eludes me.

As it does others. "It's not Longhorn, it's XP Service Pack 4", says one developer. Hell, you ought to check out the thread on Mini-Microsoft where internal and external developers chip in with a catalogue of woe. Testing outsourced? Client application compatibility running at 40 percent? General misery? Check.

Now, Office 2007 is being "rescheduled" — "there's no slip in schedule, just a change in delivery" — to match Vista's late launch. I like that phrase, and plan to use it next time I hit deadline woes. It's not late, there's just a change in delivery. Curiously, that change in delivery is nominally to help retailers but the next beta of Office — due this month — is now not expected until May. I'm sure the retailers will be relieved.

I suppose it would be in bad taste to ask how Windows Vienna is doing — the operating system formerly known as Blackcomb and the anointed successor to Vista. By now, it's impossible to work out what features from Vista will end up in Vienna, which ones will appear in service packs and mid-life upgrades, or even if there is anything that passes for a roadmap in MS' operating system division.

The best thing for Microsoft to do would be to open source the lot and let the community sort it out. It really couldn't do any worse.

Friday 24/3/2006

Fifty years since the term was first coined, we're still not noticeably closer to making artificial intelligence. What we are good at, though — so good, in fact, it seems impossible to avoid — is artificial mischievousness.

My Outlook client tells me primly that my inbox is full, and I'd better do something with the 6MB attachment that I've just received from a hapless PR (the attachment, of course, was silently generated by another piece of Microsoft software: the PR just thought she was sending me a copy of a few PowerPoint slides that contain about five hundred characters in total). That's OK, I'll just move the email to another account. Oh no, forwarding is not allowed, says Outlook. Didn't I just tell you your inbox was full? And so it goes.

This weekend, I'm going to visit my parents for Mothering Sunday, because I am a dutiful son (ho!) but mostly because of Netgear. The parental wireless router decided to lose all its settings last week, resulting in a "Google seems to have stopped working" call from the retired country parson. Now, I have set up all sorts of VNC support for the family computers as well as access to the router itself: none of this helps when the thing wakes up one morning and thinks it's a small pot of jam.

After some joyous telephone support from me (and some rather more effective help from the praiseworthy Zen Internet), the router was resurrected and my father's PC reconnected. My mother's tablet PC, however, was not: that needed another call from me to reset the WEP security. But still it refused to work. Yet more telephonic diagnosis revealed that the tablet PC's wireless adaptor had yellow-plinged in the system applet with an Error 10. Error 10 means "Something bad has happened. Good luck". Hence the visit.

And so this morning saw frantic pre-work packing. Laptop, thumbdrive full of Sysinternals magic (I love these people more than my own kidneys), radio, spare socks, toothbrush — all the essentials to survive a weekend in the Fens. I also threw in a small purple gizmo, a 20 Questions game that I got for Christmas and that I thought might amuse the folks.

This game is a clever little thing and surprisingly effective. It asks questions on a small red display and works out the animal, vegetable or mineral you were thinking of with quite uncanny skill. Magic or a pocket Bayesian inference engine? You decide. It also makes a truly annoying selection of bleepish noises while doing this: you can turn this off. I have.

Somewhere between the flat and the bus stop, the gizmo unmutes. I'm standing at the bus stop, listening to Boom Bip on the iPod and generally zoned out, when a small and wrinkled black lady taps me on the shoulder.

"Excuse me," she says. "Your phone is ringing"

"Uh?" I pop out the cans and check the Nokia. Nothing has disturbed its slumber, and anyway I have it on vibrate.

Then I hear it too, coming from the depths of my bag. It sounds like a robot taunting a small child. Neeer-NEEER-bleep-bleep-NEEER.

I open the bag. Silence. I dig around: there are limits to how far you can excavate a weekend bag at a bus stop in Holloway, and I reach them without discovering the culprit. It's gone to earth. I zip up. Still silence. Ah well.

The bus comes, and I hoist the bag onto my back. "Neeer-NEEER-bleep-bleep NEEER". The lady looks at me with a mixture of pity and disdain.

For the rest of the journey, we play our merry game of hide and seek, of silence and tease. It's in there still, due to my unwillingness to pull out my smalls in front of my colleagues, and doubtless will entertain and appal everyone on the 19:45 to King's Lynn.

AI, we can't do. AM, we cannot avoid.