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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

SCO slides towards defeat, evil clowns enforce Wi-Fi security, the Hoff explains broadband and the attack of the ring-necked parakeets — another week on the periphery of the IT machine

Monday 26/06/2006

The picnic on Hampstead Heath went beautifully. Thanks for asking. Weather perfect, company agreeable, flocks of ring-necked parakeets unexpected but welcome. Those latter guests are helping to build the flock of 100,000 that ornithologists reckon will adorn London by the end of the decade. Things are getting wilder in the City.

These picnics have been going on for 10 years now, off and on, and I've always tried to use the latest technology to solve the major problem. How do you guide city people to a small spot in a big, bumpy, tree-strewn wild space?

At first, I would email out a gif file with a hand-drawn map and complicated instructions, including a phone number for an analogue mobile that had barely enough battery life to see out the afternoon. This didn't help at all, as none of my pals had mobile phones — I'd only managed to blag one by a very creative use of my job title. Then I progressed to a Web site with the same map and a GSM phone, but this didn't help much: "Hey, Rupert, where are you?" "At the picnic site. Where are you?" "I don't know. I can see a tree...".

Then GPS came along, and I was able to define the precise location of the picnic site to within around 30 metres. This also didn't help much as only one of my friends also had a GPS — and he was a Hampstead native who knows the place like the back of a bottle of Claret. At the same time, online services such as Streetmap let me add top-notch graphics with big red arrows to the Web site. There was no excuse. But people got lost anyway.

And this year? Google Maps. I merely had to distribute a link to a satellite photo zoomed into a tree with the intelligence: "Meet here at 3pm, Saturday". All anyone had to do was zoom out, turn on the map, print out the area of the Heath that covered the path from whatever public transport they were using to Ground Zero, and they had every form of visual and spatial cue they could desire short of a VR flythrough (coming soon, no doubt).

What could go wrong?

Ring ring. ""Hey, Rupert, where are you?" "At the picnic site. Where are you?" "I don't know. I can see a tree..." "So, what does the map say?" "I didn't print it out..."

She never did make it — but she spent so long trying that she was too late to get back to the music festival she was supposed to be seeing later that evening.

There are some things technology cannot help...

 

Tuesday 27/06/2006

In the same way that the brightness and colour of a star shows how old it is, the speed and percentage of locked-down wireless access points can show how advanced a particular area is in adopting new technology.

Take Indiana, where a study in correlating the percentage of secure domestic access points to other factors showed no link whatsoever. "We cannot say with any certainty that income, population density, or education level have any effect on the expected level of wireless security."

Yet something does: monitoring of London, Edinburgh and San Francisco over several years has shown the following pattern — a few 802.11b access points with no security blossom into a large number of mixed 802.11b and g access points with around 30 percent security. Then there are a couple of big scares in the news, and overnight the nets close down — followed by a creeping increase in the percentage of open networks as new users buy their first routers without having been scared beforehand.

On this scale, the Indiana neighbourhoods — "mixed demographic areas of a small college town" — as described is around 18 months behind London and San Francisco and about 12 behind Edinburgh.

Not everyone's convinced that wireless security's necessary anyway, Bruce Scheier telling us that he's got an open network because it's polite, he's got his computers secure anyway, and frankly my dear...

That's fine for people who know how to lock down their computers. The big problem with open access points is that the radio side of things is on the LAN side of the firewall — so no matter how well the access point's own firewall is configured, it won't lock out attacks from the wireless. That's down to firewalls on the individual computers, and even the XP firewall is happy to open up the ports for sharing if you want to move files or print stuff across the network. And why have a network if you can't, well, network?

In those cases, you'd better darn well have your wireless secure. Although the Indiana study concluded that there was no point in trying to educate users because they never listened, a friend reports success in getting his neighbours to use proper security. He logged onto their computers, found their holiday snaps, and left a few extra evil, scary clowns in My Pictures.

Four hours later — lock-down. Repeat after me — mwahahahah!

 

Wednesday 28/06/2006

Hard work and no play — a most unusual set of circumstances, best avoided — prevent me from attending the "Pipex Beach Party" that's being thrown this evening on the roof terrace of a hotel in Soho.

Accounts come back of extreme cheese. There were "Baywatch-style babes", which I think means young women in danger of hypothermia even on a summer's day, meeting people. The Cuban Brothers were laying down the dope beats — you may have forgotten them, in which case you won't thank me for reminding you that they were responsible for the Hamster Dance. And the star of the evening — well, one hour out of the three the party ran — was David Hasselhoff, who is now the Face of Pipex.

Quite how this is supposed to help Pipex — which currently leads the pack of second-tier ISPs with around 300k subscribers — isn't clear. The company isn't revealing the Hoffcost, but as the man is worth around an astounding $100 million we can assume he'll have held out for more than two packets of Rolos and an old ISDN terminal adaptor. The economics of tier 2 ISPs preclude massive spends on both marketing and engineering — are more people likely to subscribe because of that nice Mr Hasselhoff's smile than would sign up because Pipex had a better reputation for reliability and value than it does now?

True, David Hasselhoff is a popular figure among the youth. Pipex says that among 16-24-year-olds, he's the "most revered celebrity entertainer on the Internet" and thus the perfect choice for its new campaign. I'm not sure how many 16-24-year-olds pay for their own broadband: will Pipex include membership of the Hoffclub, or give new subscribers the chance to win an evening out with the man himself?

I'd rather have a few more megabits per second. But then, I never did understand marketing — and I'm no longer 16-24.

Or 16+24. Ah well.

 

Thursday 29/06/2006

Annoyed Mac users are switching to Ubuntu, says Boing Boing, following up the story with a link to a useful collection of tasty things a new Ubuntoid might want to load. Although, to be accurate, the BB article says that one annoyed Mac user is switching and another is considering it. Not sure that qualifies as a bone fide trend, even in the blogosphere. But assuming there's a grain of truth in it, what's the reason? Apple's fondness for locking stuff away in proprietary formats. And once the switchers decide to make the break, they might consider getting Mac hardware — but as it's all Intel anyway, you get a much better bang per buck by buying a PC and throwing XP away.

Back at the work desktop — some nondescript HP machine, which is a sad reminder of the HP9000 series workstation that I used in my first job — Ubuntu has been running for a few weeks, 14 days of which have been since the last reboot. I've not missed Windows more than a tiny bit, so much so that I'm going to delete the Windows partition, move Ubuntu into a much bigger house and just have XP around as a VMWare virtual machine. I'm not sure that I'm strictly allowed to do that under the Windows EULA, which doesn't mention my rights or responsibilities for virtual environments, nor what it'll do when I have to confirm my Windows Geunine Advantage Super Friends Club. If I'm forced to do without it altogether then, darn it, who am I to disagree?

Not that Microsoft says people should worry about licences. It's all going to be so much simpler soon, according to the company's UK licensing manager Ram Dhaliwal, when the company introduces a new set of tools.

"There is a Nirvana but basically it is just a mindset change," he said. "The bottom line is that you have got to do the review, find out what you have got, find out the licenses [costs]. But once you get past that, all it is is incremental changes."

That makes no sense to me. People are complaining that the licences cost too much and are too difficult to understand, so the answer is to run the software and pay up? That reference to Nirvana is enlightening: in Buddhism, a step towards this is achieved when you learn to cease desire. Stop wanting to save money and get good value, and you will not suffer?

Never mind.

 

Friday 30/06/2006

At last! That sound, like unto a mighty rushing wind, is the world's largest pigeon coming home to roost in its Utah dovecot. For the judge currently riding the glacially slow SCO vs IBM court case — yes, it's still going on — has finally had it with SCO's consistent refusal to say exactly what it was that IBM was supposed to have done.

"Certainly if an individual was stopped and accused of shoplifting after walking out of Neiman Marcus, they would expect to be eventually told what they allegedly stole. It would be absurd for an officer to tell the accused that 'you know what you stole, I'm not telling.' Or, to simply hand the accused individual a catalogue of Neiman Marcus' entire inventory and say 'it's in there somewhere, you figure it out.'" — these are the words of a seriously annoyed judge. There's more, lots more, but in the end it boils down to SCO having 183 of its 294 claims being thrown out after IBM objected to 193 of them — and the remaining 10 objected claims are marked as pretty feeble.

It's not the end, but it makes pretty good reading — I recommend you skip over to Groklaw where the incredibly patient PJ remains locked onto the case until it finally ends, like the Voyager space probe hurtling towards Neptune. If I ever get the chance to buy her a Martini, it's hers.

Until that day, keep checking Groklaw. In recent weeks, it's unearthed all manner of interesting bygone evidence — like the way SCO made versions of its own Unix open source, way before it claimed that people were stealing things from it, and books detailing the very trade secrets that the company seems to be claiming were taken. More and more, Darl says less and less... and the final denouement can't be in doubt.

That's a nice thought to take to the weekend.