Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Is Apple being rotten to the Corps? Is Dr Strangelove alive in Holland? Do signals from the universe's edge hold the key to perfect encryption? Is AMD building an Itanium? The answer to all these questions (no, by the way) lies within...

Monday 27/3/2006

For the next week, you've still got time to get your bids in for a possibly genuine Enigma machine — which at the time of writing was looking a bargain at €25,000. If that's too rich for you, £120 buys you a working electronic model from Bletchley Park itself.

Or you could build one yourself from scratch. Tatjana van Vark has — which is perhaps not what you might expect from a 62 year old Dutch woman. But this enigmatic artist has the true geek gene: I mean, sure, everyone's heard of Enigma. Plenty of people who wouldn't know a Caesar from a Playfair would like to have one to decorate their pads. But an NBS?

NBS is no better known as the Navigation and Bombing System, and you won't have heard of it. You may have heard of the V-bombers — the Victor, Vulcan and Valiant – which for a while were the chosen delivery systems for the British nuclear deterrent, before the Royal Navy got the gig with American missiles we're not allowed to fire anyway. The NBS is the analogue computer that made sure the planes got to where they were supposed to and ladled out their buckets of sunshine when they got there.

The thing is monstrous. It has gears, motors, cathode ray tubes, gimballing platforms, and all other required appurtenances of a mad professor's underground laboratory, spread apparently randomly across at least forty square feet of black metal racking. Seeing as much the same job can be done by a pocket GPS these days, it's a truly awe-inspiring example of how powerful modern digital electronics actually is. And how dangerous: the NBS was the result of a powerful, technically savvy nation which had been developing navigation systems and conducting thousands of bombing raids for six years. Few other countries at the time could have done it. Now, you can order a Garmin GPS over the Internet for a hundred dollars — even from Tehran.

With such thoughts comes from the realisation that for quite some time, this implausible machine was at the forefront of preventing nuclear war — and if that failed, of delivering it. There are a handful of videos on that site which show bits of the NBS in action: try watching the automated bomb drop sequence without having the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. And then, imagine being in the back of a Vulcan — the noisiest, darkest, scariest workplace on earth — operating this Frankensteinian contraption to the point where you have to see those lights go on for real.

That's if the NBS ever actually worked: rumours are that it was every bit as reliable as it looks. I'm glad that TvV is keeping one going, though: a good reminder that just because something is of enormous importance, that doesn't mean it can't be as weirdly baroque as a Dalian nightmare.

Tuesday 28/3/2006

If you were somewhere in North London this afternoon, you may have heard a loud cry, the sound of a window breaking and shortly afterwards the distinctive crunch of a wireless hitting tarmac. As usual when working from home, I had the radio on — it's normally tuned to Radio 4, but between 1200 and 1300 (You And Yours) and 1403 to 1415 (The Bucolic Torture Of Mind And Soul That Is The Archers) I flick over to Radio 5. It was in one of these windows of opportunity that I heard a spokesperson from the GSM Association trying to justify its strong opposition to the European Union's proposal to eviscerate roaming charges.

The red mist obscures my memory of his exact words, but he was doing better than the presenter. She'd obviously been talking to someone who knew the score because she asked the right questions, but he deflected them easily and she didn't follow any of them up. His arguments were that it did cost more to route calls internationally (which it does — just not anywhere near a detectable amount and mostly because the billing systems cost a fortune to run since they're so unutterably Heath Robinson) and anyway they'd all been cutting their prices lately so the EU could go and shove its head in a pig.

One particularly good argument was that because the market was changing so rapidly, the EU should undertake a careful analysis of the situation — at the end of which, one presumes, exactly the same argument can be made again ad infinitum.

But I don't think the GSMA's got a hope in hell. Brits made more than seventy million trips abroad last year. We own somewhere in the region of seventy million phones. It will have occurred to the least insightful of these itinerants that there is something very wrong when half an hour of phoning home from the destination costs more than the ticket to get there and back. "But there are lots of operators to choose from" smarmed the GSMA man on the radio when this point was brought up — yes there are. And which one offers a roaming service that costs less than fifty times the actual price of the call to the operators? That's right, none of them. We know this. We all know this. We pay the price — and there's no better way to get someone's attention.

"Unforeseen consequences" will follow, warns the GSMA, if the EU goes ahead and regulates roaming. No, sir, those consequences are not unforeseen. The mobile phone companies will get less money and will have to work out ways to extract cash from the punters that does not involve operating a global cartel. Deal with it.

Wednesday 29/3/2006

The industry's most enduring fruit-and-nut case is back for the third time of asking: Apple versus Apple. Apple Corps, home of such rock music aristocracy as Doris Troy, Grapefruit and The Beatles, has long been mildly irked at Apple Computer's use of a similar logo to the Corps' famously green Granny Smith. The first time they went to court at the beginning of the 80s, Apple Computer paid a small fine and agreed not to use the logo for anything to do with music.

Then came the 1990s, multimedia, MIDI and sample files on the Mac called Sosumi. Court case number two. Apple Computer had to cough up $26.5m, in exchange for which it was allowed to do musical computers but not actually sell music in physical form, or use the Apple logo for what legal experts call 'that sort of thing'. Is the combination of an iPod and iTunes Music Shop a physical form of music? Is having the Apple Computer logo on a Coldplay video too similar to having the Apple Corps logo on a record label?

The court has to decide. It sounds like quite a fun case, with the judge being a self-confessed iPod owner and the prosecution downloading Le Freak to the frank admiration of everyone within earshot. Isn't that a public performance, though, as explicitly forbidden by our moral masters? I'm only asking. Apple Computer is, by some accounts, preparing for the worst – with a cash stash of $8bn, it can afford any fine but it may have to get its logo and name off iTunes. Or maybe it can buy Apple Corps and get Pixar to do a remake of Yellow Submarine — the Hunt For Yellow October, perhaps, with Sean Connery as a Blue Meanie.

All this means that one of my long-held fantasies is unlikely to come true, that of Jobs and Woz starting up a Beatles' tribute band. There's no shortage of potential cross-over ideas — "Got To Get You Into iLife", "Father Mackensie", writing his blogs in the night when there's nobody there. Nobody cares.", "Hey Jobs, take an iPod, and make it whiiiiter", "PowerBook Writer" and so on. Doubtless, you can do better.

As could Apple Corps: it's hardly likely that anyone's confused enough to think they're behind the iPod. There's a chance that the company is still miffed that its own attempts at producing gizmos — Apple Electronics — foundered because of the small problem that it was based entirely on the acid-fried imaginings of one Magic Alex. Some people wander into a field, stare at the cosmos and come back with the idea of a solar-powered electric guitar; others come up with the personal computer.

What's that you say, Apple? You say it's your birthday? Lawyers! Quick!

Thursday 30/3/2006

Despite Intel's best efforts to exorcise it with large wodges of cash, the Curse of Itanium still stalks the land. The latest "that can't be good" news is that eight Itanium engineers have jumped ship and doggy-paddled to the good vessel AMD. Chief among the deserters is Intel fellow Samuel Naffziger, director of Itanium circuits and technology. He joined Intel in 2005 when the company hired Itanium designers from HP, where Naffziger had led the Itanium design team for eight years.

At the Intel Developer Forum, swashbuckler-in-chief Pat Gelsinger made frank with his explanations of how Itanium had gone wrong, namely having two separate design teams at HP and Intel doing things two different ways with two different sets of tools. That realisation was behind the merging of the teams under the Intel roof: there's more to mergers than geography, though. The HP culture isn't the Intel culture — whether it was that or more significant disagreements over where the design was going and how, nobody will say. Or it could just be a straight poach — eight years on Itanium will probably make designing a five transistor medium wave radio seem attractive.

One thing AMD is not doing is building a new Itanium: if only it were, then Intel would feel a lot more confident that it might one day see a sniff of profit from the beast. AMD is most certainly working on a new server architecture, which is most likely what the Naffziger Gang has been recruited for, but as Intel itself has proved with its own Core Architecture there's still a lot of performance to be squeezed from the old school x86 instruction set. Which is good for AMD, because that means it can get on building silicon while relying on other people producing the tools to program the stuff.

The big challenges for increased server performance in the future are how to write software that runs efficiently across as many threads as possible, how to get data in and out without stalling, how to switch more transistors without melting, and how to make the best use of existing technology without being locked into a Vista-like compatibility prison. None of these require a breakaway instruction set: they need experience, brains and good ideas.

AMD's just scored a large collection of exactly that. More fun to come!

Friday 31/3/2006

As a rule of thumb, if you can't understand a news report there's a good chance that the reporter wasn't quite on top of the story themselves. I've committed some corkers myself: a queasy feeling that what I've written doesn't quite make sense clashes with a desperate need to get it over and done with. It usually comes back and bites me on my dangly bits.

There was a danger of that today, when we looked at a story on the wires and couldn't make it make sense no matter what we did. A set of Japanese researchers at the Tokyo's National Institute of Information and Communications Technology have proposed that radio waves from distant quasars be used to generate encryption keys: the cosmic pulses are effectively random, they say, but as long as two sites know which quasar to listen to and at what time to listen, they can share the key. Or, if the sites can't both see the quasar at the same time, the signals can be sent at high speed over the Internet.

So far, so good — that would work, certainly. It would just be terribly insecure. The researchers appear to be saying that the security comes from interceptors not knowing the exact details of the signal used for the key. There's nothing to stop a sufficiently determined adversary from continually recording signals from multiple quasars and then repeatedly trying different bits of the recording until it finds one that fits. And the idea of sending the signals across the Internet immediately runs into the most basic of encryption problems — key distribution. How do you encode the key itself to prevent interception?

There are plenty of other problems, not least of which is an enemy spoofing a signal at the quasar monitoring site. The best demonstration I've seen of that was with a very expensive random noise generator which used the basic laws of quantum physics to generate keys which couldn't be predicted or usefully replicated during the lifetime of the universe.

A savvy friend who was with me nodded as the sales pitch went down, and agreed wholeheartedly as the purity of the output was demonstrated on a spectrum analyser. "Look," said the salesman, "Absolutely no periodicity whatsoever — nothing that can be analysed or predicted". "And this is unpoisonable?" asked my friend. "Totally!" said the salesman. My pal pulled his phone out of his pocket, dialled his voicemail and plonked the handset on top of the device. Those lovely regular bursts of GSM radio duly appeared on the output, turning the unguessable into the unmissable.

So the whole story seems implausible. It could be that all these problems have been solved, and that the rather uncertain reports we've read are due to the sort of misunderstandings that could easily arise when dealing with Japanese encryption research. We'll see if we can get to the bottom of it all, but meanwhile: to be taken with a large pinch of wasabi.