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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

There's a glint in his eye but none in his laser as mortality, Microsoft and intellectual anarchy slide under Rupert's bow this week
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Monday 28/8/2006

Perhaps it's because it's the August Bank Holiday, that last desperate breath of summer holiday, and perhaps it's because I'm up in Edinburgh, city of Burke and Hare, but matters of mortality today weigh me down.

In particular, I wonder, what on earth are companies like East Midland Computing and Intelligent Software Limited doing alongside the Batesville Casket Company and the British Institute for Embalmers at the National Funeral Exhibition? (15-17 June, 2007, Stoneleigh Park Exhibition and Conference Centre Warwickshire. Put it in your diary now.)

I poke around — of course, it's the most horizontal of the vertical markets. Funeral directors need IT too, hence the East Midland Computing package EMCOM ("The best funeral arrangement software ON EARTH" — illustrated with a tasteful picture of a hand sprinkling said substance — but marketing here is always going to be problematical).

But this suggests further and as yet uncharted realms of technical services to the recently deceased, ones that my Presbyterian Scottish other half immediately seizes on. Although the dear departed has gone beyond the reach of even Microsoft's licensing conditions, the repercussions of their passing may not be so easily laid to rest. For example, there may well be a computer to be handed on to a relative — now, what's on that computer? Do you want to know? What if it reveals more about Uncle Henry than ever got aired at the funeral?

It is thus, with all due respect for the grave nature of the subject, that I announce the formation of the Goodwins Thaumaturgical Data Team — "Bury your IT worries". You can choose between various levels of service, ranging from the "Quiet of the Grave" option — we forensically clean the hard disk and any other storage, reinstalling all operating system and applications software, good as new — to "Resurrection Day", which provides a complete analysis and retrieval of all data on the computer, carefully catalogued and with professional legal opinion attached, where appropriate.

Of course, we treat client information in the strictest confidence: only fully ordained priests are allowed to conduct the work, thus letting it fall into the category of confession and avoiding those embarrassing laws about disclosure of discovered irregularities to the authorities. After all, if Uncle Henry had half a million stashed away in a Paypal account thanks to his eBay activities with the company silver — well, that's up to you to handle, isn't it?

Well, that's my fortune made, and not a hint of Web 2.0. Who needs a bubble when you've got a body?

Tuesday 29/8/2006

I am roused from deep sleep by my mobile.

"Hello?" I mumble.

"Spiral Frog," says the voice.

Perhaps I'm dreaming. Perhaps this is the key phrase inserted by my programmer during that lost summer of '88, which upon hearing turns me into a single-minded killer zombie. Perhaps it's mobile phone voice spam, the first of millions that will render our civilisation mute and paralysed.

"Pardon?" I say.

"Spiral Frog. What do you think of it?"

Um. I'm still (unexpectedly) in Edinburgh. I was up late last night. It is now early in the morning. I think of nothing.

"Um," I say.

"Oh, sorry, it's early. It's Joanne at BBC News 24, there's a new music download service called Spiral Frog, it's free to the user and supported by advertising. Backed by Universal. Is that something you could talk about?"

I promise to come up with something sensible just as soon as I'm able to pass the Turing Test — estimated time to consciousness: three cups of coffee and half an hour. I consider whether it might be an idea to build a portable Turing Test machine, to be carried by the Net police and deployed during flame wars when one or more of the correspondents is being particularly stupid. "Excuse me, sir, have you been thinking? Please type into this window... that's right, take a long sentence... oh dear, your rhetoric levels are far too high for the supporting logic. I'm afraid I'm going to have to confiscate your keyboard."

Some digging later, and the Spiral Frog lies dissected in front of me. It is indeed Universal, which will give you free music provided you endure 90 seconds of advert per tune — and keep coming back for more, 'cos if you don't log on for your fix, your music will go away. It is, of course, Microsoft DRM'd, meaning it won't play on iPods — hey, let's exclude 80 percent of the market! — and you can't burn CDs with the music. This is tempting to the punters because? Let's look at the press release.

""Offering young consumers an easy-to-use alternative to pirated music sites will be compelling," said Robin Kent, SpiralFrog's chief exec. "SpiralFrog will offer those consumers a better experience and environment than they can get from any pirate site." Kent highlighted some key factors — legal digital files with no viruses or spyware in a controlled client-server architecture, quick downloading, and quality songs and music videos by great artists as among the primary benefits users will gain."

Works for me. I know all the young people of today are worried by viruses and spyware in their MP3s — it's such a problem — and constantly sigh after controlled client-server architecture. They're all more than willing to watch adverts time and time again, in exchange for music they can't play in the car.

Spiralfrog also goes on about releasing users from "piracy shame", which is where I fear it really has left the planet. There is no such thing. People think the same about downloading files from peer-to-peer services as their parents did about taping songs from the radio — who loses? Oddly, the RIAA suing schoolchildren and grandmothers hasn't really shaken that belief.

So it's yet another example of the music industry not getting it. I don't know how many times that's been said, but they're not listening. Suitably caffeinated, I leap into a cab and hit the BBC studios in Edinburgh.

Someone who is listening as I pontificate on News 24 is Chris Long of Click Online. He looks up from his desk in London to see me blethering on, and phones me "just to check that you've got your mobile off". Evil man. Still, the BBC has the last laugh: before I'm allowed out of the studio, they get me to repeat the business for Radio Scotland's drivetime programme going out later that day. Sometime during the afternoon, a researcher phones the office to ask: "How should we describe your chap, er, Rudolph Goodwins?"

"Very shiny," came the response.

Wednesday 30/8/2006

By no coincidence whatsoever, "very shiny" is exactly how not to describe 70 percent of the blue laser diodes currently made by the Japanese. Blue laser diodes were invented late last century by Shuji Nakamura at Nichia Chemical Industries, who single-handedly engineered at least two revolutions in solid state light emitting devices. All those superbright blue LEDs around the place? They're his. Now, Nakamura's story is fascinating enough in its own right — he left Nichia amid complaints that he was still only getting a researcher's salary despite bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in sales — but that hasn't stopped the blue laser diode getting refined and ready for production.

Unfortunately, the latest rumours, courtesy of Digitimes, are that the manufacturers of the lasers are only getting 30 percent yield from their factories, meaning most of the diodes they make aren't usable. With both HD-DVD and Blu-ray desperately gearing up to lock horns this Christmas — and the Sony PS3 completely dependent on the device — this is leaving a lot of people with looks of fear, doubt and apprehension. There aren't enough to go around, nor will there be until the first quarter of 2007.

I'm not sure how they can predict this. Yield goes up when it goes up — and you don't know that you've fixed the problems until that happens. When a semiconductor factory starts having problems, they can cascade into all sorts of interleaved issues: it can take a long time and a lot of money to iterate through all the various solutions you think you've found until you're back in the game.

Since none of the factories are doing very well, and they're all using the same licensed technologies, the problem would seem to be intrinsic with the process rather than local contamination or poor material control. Blue laser diodes are esoteric devices, using exotic materials treated in complex and non-standard ways; it's not just another run of a memory chip. I wouldn't put any money on things magically improving on schedule.

This is bad news for the HD-DVD and Blu-ray camps, but at least they're both in the same boat. Not so Sony, which is in the unenviable position of being severely limited in the production of PS3s while its rival is free to make hay while the gallium nitride doesn't shine.

Thursday 31/8/2006

This is more like it. In response to the US patent system's cries for help as it descends into madness and beyond, people are doing it for themselves. And they're doing it with a wiki.

The idea's simple. Put each patent into the wiki and attach useful extras such as a layman's translation of what it means, what a reasonable licence might cost and a star rating for how good the patent actually is. There's also a chance to point out prior art or other issues that may affect the patent's validity — the sort of things that frequently crop up with some of the more adventurous attempts to fence off bits of software.

But it's a wiki — anyone can edit it, anyone can add new stuff or delete it. Anarchy — or peer review? Wikipedia has demonstrated most effectively the good and bad sides to this approach: yes, information can be dubious, subjectivity can be hard to winkle out and some contributors behave like Siamese fighting fish in a hall of mirrors. But the quality of the information can be surprisingly high, especially when it can be anchored in something unarguable. The patent wiki will have the backbone of the patents themselves, which may be of debatable utility but undoubtedly exist, and it will act as a natural repository for ancillary information about law, how to decode patents, what are valid and invalid assumptions, and so on.

I'm looking forward to this. Something similar has happened in Groklaw, which has been a superb education in US company law, and has in no small part taken the sting out of the endless SCO nonsense. (It's quite fun at the moment, as SCO is having to explain the "mountains of evidence" and "millions of lines of code" that were discovered by MIT mathematicians as taken from Unix and put into Linux. The code, the evidence and the mathematicians have all mysteriously vanished in the time between SCO spouting off about them and the case finally getting through the early stages at court. Of course, Groklaw has exhaustively documented the whole business, putting each new SCO statement into immediate, harsh release).

If the WikiPatents community — and the other similar endeavours at various states of readiness — prove to have one tenth that amount of reality-inducing power, my job as a reporter of intellectual property issues will be a hundred times easier. Those who rely on the fog of law and the chilling effect of doubt, asymmetric resources and expensive lawyers, may find their job concomitantly harder.

Good.

Friday 1/9/2006

Friday rant? Here's one. Dialogue boxes that appear when you least need them. The worst offender by far is Windows XP: for reasons that thoroughly escape me, I can no longer shut down my laptop or my server without going through an entire morass of little clickies. Processes I've never heard of are apparently not responding, and do I want to wait for them to recover or do I, y'know, actually want to turn the computer off? Then Windows is "saving my settings" — even though I've changed no settings, nor are there enough settings on the entire machine to justify 30 seconds of frantic disk activity. At least the thing switches off afterwards. It's deadly to think you've shut down your computer and dash away before making sure, only to come back hours later to find it beeping on the last gasp of its flat battery while still waiting for you to confirm you wanted to close down Adobe Acrobat Reader.

There is one product that's worse than XP — and it's not Ubuntu, which does have its faults. Ubuntu is famed for its addiction to sudo, which is its attempt to get around the privileges paradox. This says that for safety's sake, you can't give yourself enough power to change too much of the computer's configuration, at least not for daily use. That way, if you get hacked or download some dodgy software, it can only do as much damage as you can — ie, not very much.

But you do need enough power to install new software and make some changes, otherwise the computer's not really useable. Sudo is an override that gives you those powers for one command only, meaning that when it's done you revert to being an ordinary user. Hardened Unix and Linux users, who are habituated to logging in with ultimate power, hate having to type sudo before doing whatever it is they want to do, but it's become second nature to me.

No, the real stinker is Vista, a recent beta of which has made its way into my life. Now, Windows has always dealt with the privileges paradox by ignoring it. It's simply impossible to run Windows as anything other than administrator level, unless you're locked into some particularly joyless set of do-nothing applications, so it's always defaulted to giving the user the keys to the kingdom. That's one of the reasons that Windows has been such fertile ground for malware, of course, and one of the things that Vista intends to fix.

It fixes this by adding more dialogue boxes than you find in the complete works of Shakespeare. Every damn time you try to do something a little bit interesting, up pops another warning. Are you sure? Were you the person who asked me to do this? Please confirm it is your intention. Within about five minutes of this, you know not nor care whether it's you, Ivan Tuhackualotski, the Nigerian National Lotto Board or the King of Siam behind the boxes — you're clicking on OK like a laboratory pigeon pecking the button for the electrode pleasure surge. Anything. Just make them go away. Please.

Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong wrong. For security to work, it has to be usable.

Never mind. Perhaps they'll fix it by the time it comes out, or maybe enough people will have died by then for the Goodwins Thaumaturgical Data Team to have funded my retirement on some far-away beach.

Either outcome is acceptable.

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