Rupert Goodwins' Diary

There is a corner of some western field that is forever piratical — no matter what Ofcom wants. Then there's religion, batteries and late night Linux

Monday 18/09/2006

Once upon a time, running a rural pirate radio transmitter was jolly good fun. You cobbled together the kit, frequently made up from various bits of hacked-about government surplus gear costing three shillings and thruppence, took it out to some featureless field just outside your target town, ran the aerial into the trees, plugged in an ancient Philips cassette recorder with your half-hour programme on it, pressed the buttons and retired to a safe distance.

After you'd done this for three or four Sundays in a row, the GPO sent out a bloke in a Bedford van with twiddly aerials on the top. You'd see him coming a mile off, stopping now and again to triangulate your position, and judge the precise moment at which to run back into the field, grab your bits, throw them into the back of your mate's Mini, and pootle off to the Plume of Feathers for a refresher. If you got the timing wrong one way, both your listeners would be deprived of their afternoon entertainment; the other, and your kit got nabbed. Only if you were spectacularly dozy or unlucky would you risk being brought into direct contact with the Buzbies — let alone the fuzz.

A sense of fair play pervaded the enterprise. You didn't say or do anything too outrageous, while matey in the van got paid overtime in exchange for getting out from under his missus' feet for the afternoon. It was far from unknown for the teams on both sides to meet in mutually neutral territory and gently rib each other.

Skip forward to today, and Ofcom — which has inherited the gig of looking after the airwaves — is intent on taking all the fun out of it. It's just published a report on its proposed automatic monitoring system. Ofcom's dream is of a country dotted with hundreds of robot listeners, all talking to each other while they scan the airwaves for hints of naughtiness. If something crops up, the nearest Robo-Marconis log everything about it while comparing notes to pinpoint the exact position of the offender.

The test boxes they cobbled together are reasonably smart. A GPS receiver provides accurate timing and the physical location of the box, while computerised radios march up and down the bands keeping an ear out for things. The whole lot connects to the Internet and thus to central control, which correlates what's picked up.

The report on how the trial went has some sad little asides. For example: the original plan was to connect the system together with 3G. However, "The limitations of the 3G data cards, particularly in the Malvern area due to poor network coverage and failures with the network, meant that an alternative solution had to be investigated and trialled." Aw. 3G not living up to its promise? If I were Ofcom, I'd have a word with whatever government agency set the rules for that service and farmed out the frequencies.

The rest of the report — more than 200 pages — makes fascinating reading if you're of a radio bent. And the conclusion? The network as envisioned would be very expensive, but worth it — and I'm sure that has nothing to do with the main companies behind the test system being the ones that'll benefit most from such copious spending.

Meanwhile, as anyone in London can attest, the pirate beat goes on. And on. Even I can find the transmitters — it's not a lack of technological capacity that's stopping them being nabbed, it's lack of political will. As a denizen of a muddy field far away in time, may I hope that such faffery may long continue.

 

Tuesday 19/09/2006

From time to time, we publish guest comments, usually from people in the industry who have an interesting point to make. We make sure it's clear where their commercial affiliation lies: we don't mind someone being positive about their own company, providing they have something worthwhile to impart.

Today, we get an "open editorial" from one Hugo Lueders, Director of Public Policy Europe, CompTIA. It's about the current dispute between Microsoft and the EC, and it says that CompTIA (the Computing Technology Industry Association) feels that Microsoft is being hard done by. I paraphrase his arguments, but they run along the lines that the EC is telling MS not to be naughty, but isn't specifying exactly how this is to be done. As Microsoft can't be expected to know how to behave unless it's spelled out, this is clearly unfair. Would we like to publish this as a guest comment?

We decline: the thing reads much more like a press statement than an editorial, and in our opinion — certainly mine — the differences between CompTIA's opinions and those of Microsoft's are thinner than a dollar bill. And any editorial that relies on putting words such as "anti-competitive" in quotes while leaving pro-consumer naked runs the risk of looking like so much "propaganda" written by a "lobbying" group. If Microsoft wants to tell us what it thinks, then it can tell us itself, not try to slip something in behind the thin gauze of an industry association. If you want to promote your own reality, at least have the balls to do so yourself.

This reminds me of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think tank that's been behind a lot of intelligent design promotion over the past few years. The motivation for this is cloaked in a veneer of science, of trying to rescue the world from a tremendous wrong turning it's taken and back towards a more accurate, more productive view of the world. But the real reasons — and it takes less time to rub away the veneer than it does to scrape the silver gunk off a scratch card to find you've won nothing — are that the Discovery bods are strongly religious people who have a fundamentalist aversion to evolution on the grounds it's incompatible with their view of the bible.

I like arguing with fundies, almost as much as I dislike having to deal with fundies hiding their lights under a painted face of science. I've worked out why I like arguing with religious fundamentalists so much — it's because companies are set up the same way, so my skills are transferrable. There is one unarguable truth — in religion, it's the Perfect Holy Book, in companies, the Corporate Strategy — and all else is framed in that context. Past mistakes are silently elided, questions of dogma are not to be allowed, and actual reality comes a poor second to the manufactured sort.

It's a game. We try and spot the paradoxes and contradictions, and use those to highlight what's actually happening: they try and concoct ways to disguise or obfuscate the same. There are plenty of honourable exceptions to this, but nowhere near enough, although provided you remember what the game's about you can engage without rancour.

It's when the companies don't even want to play the game but send patsies into bat for them that it gets beyond a joke. Honesty in deception, that's what I want.

 

Wednesday 20/09/2006

I look at the clock. It's 4am. I'm savagely reminded of Microsoft's run in with the Europeans, which has a direct bearing on my lack of sleep.

Let's go back to the end of last week, when Intel sent me an SS4000-E. As this is a four-disk terabyte network attached storage device, this was jolly decent of them, and I immediately hooked it into my home system of three PCs. They run a mixture of Windows and Linux on various multiboot and VMWare ways, and having a proper standalone storage server is a very welcome addition. I've been using a Linux laptop as my media server, so if I can just mount the SS4000-E instead of its media directory, everything should carry on as if nothing had happened — except the 60GB hard disk had grown by 15 times.

In theory, you can do this with a single command in Linux — or a single line in a configuration file. Neither are the simplest of single lines, because they have to contain a lot of information: what the server's called, the name of the area on the server you want to use, the user and password with which to log in to the server, and the sort of network protocol it speaks. It's also fair to say that the way Linux handles storage is a bit alien to a Windows spod, so I wasn't too surprised when my first couple of attempts to hook things together didn't work.

Never mind, I thought, I'll set aside an evening and just get stuck in. Shouldn't take more than 10 minutes to find out what I'm doing wrong. Tonight at 8pm, I set to work.

By 4am, I have learned a great deal. I have learned that the SS4000-E has some curious limitations that don't matter to Windows users but matter quite a lot if you want a mixed network. I have learned that there are ways to get around these limitations, but you need to make your Linux computers use the Microsoft SMB networking protocols. I have learned that there are two network filing systems you can use for this, smbfs and cifs.

I started off with the smbfs, because it's older and much more tested. That worked — for a bit. After half an hour learning how to set it up, I had my terabyte directory sitting on the laptop, but when I tried to copy across my existing media files the share froze after a while. Sometimes it was 10 gigabytes, sometimes 20, but it never made it any further.

It proved — after two hours and a VoIP call to my Linux guru in Sweden — to be an obscure unfixed bug in smbfs. Furthermore, the developer for said code had vanished, so the team looking after the complete package had resorted to saying "Don't use smbfs, it's out of date. Use cifs instead, it does the same job but is being actively developed".

Which was good advice, mostly, were it not for me failing completely to make the darn thing work. The share appeared on the Linux desktop, but was untouchable — "Permission denied" said the computer when I tried to read or write anything on it.

Two hours later, it proved to be an obscure bug in the Linux code on the SS4000-E. This one had been fixed — last month, as it happens — but the version on the NAS box was older than that. There was a helpful note in a support forum: "If this affects you, use smbfs instead. It's older, but does the same job".

Thanks for that. I briefly wept, then fixed the problem through the unoriginal sin of running as root on the Linux box (and if you don't know what that means or why it matters, I envy you).

And Microsoft's role in this? The SMB protocol at the heart of all this is the one it refuses to share in its entirety with the rest of the world, and the one that the Europeans have decided gives the company an unfair competitive advantage. It certainly does: by ensuring that it is far harder to interoperate reliably with Windows boxes, Microsoft is keeping Linux on the defensive — and ruining my sleep.

Go, Europe.

Thursday 21/09/2006

Now, here's the silliest idea I've seen all year. OK, perhaps not quite as silly as Zune's DRM, but still silly enough to feed a family of four for a week on prime stupid with enough ridiculousness left over to repaper the spare room. USB batteries.

On the face of it, it's not such a bad idea. Pop the top off an AA cell, there's a USB plug, shove it in a nearby socket and let the thing recharge. The USB standard is enjoying an unexpected secondary life as a universal low voltage power supply, and it's generally a good thing if your mobile phone, camera or PDA can recharge itself from a nearby computer. Who wants to have to loft around an extra charger?

The trouble is in the details. First, the extra space needed in the batteries for the connector and the individual charging circuit takes up so much room there's not much left for, well, the battery bit. Each battery has around half the capacity of the best standard AA rechargeable, meaning you'll have to charge it twice as often. If your AA-powered device can run for a day between charges on the full-fat batteries, as most can these days, then you're gaining nothing but inconvenience.

Then there's the small matter of them being quite fat. Most multiple USB sockets I know are close together, designed to let you stack those thin USB leads without wasting space. That means there may be two sockets, but only room for one battery — and even that's blocking the other port so you can't plug anything else in either. And how on earth are you expected to charge four at once, which is by no means an unusual requirement? A hub, perhaps, but then it would need to be powered — which rather takes away the point.

Also, they don't charge very quickly. The most you can get out of a USB socket is 500milliamps, which means they won't get to full charge in under three hours. A decent fast charger these days can wallop much more capacious cells into shape in half that time, and there are various superfast variants that get their fill in 10 minutes.

Finally, the cost. At 13 quid for two, you're paying four times the price per milliamp hour as you get from buying top-capacity standard batteries. In other words, for the same price you can spend four times as long away from the charger. I'd consider not having to charge them up much more convenient than being able to stuff the things into a nearby computer.

There will be some people for whom this is a godsend. But I can't think who they might be, and I can't imagine there'll be many of them. However, there will be many more who think "What a bright idea", dash out, buy a set, use them twice and then let them decay in a desk drawer somewhere thereafter. I know this, because every other gadget blog and reviewer I've read has had to call for new underwear after extolling the sheer genius of the concept.

They're all wrong. I alone am right. Just you wait and see.

Friday 22/09/2006

Tomorrow, I experience the joy of modern air travel as I waft Intel Developer Forum-wards in the back of Dell-defying Virgin Atlantic flight VS19. I've lost count of how many I've been to, but I brood on the one where I got stuck for half an hour in the lift of a new hotel in San José while the communication system played non-stop adverts for the hotel chain at us.

Lifts seem to stick in the mind. I recall one in Monaco that was lined with the hide of three Friesian cows and tastefully lit by tiny purple LEDs, and any number of external glass devices that hurtled the Goodwins mortal remains skywards while revealing far too good a vista of the cities below.

As I'm crawling towards the fifth floor of CNET Towers in London today, I'm mildly annoyed by the exceptionally dull wooden panelling that successfully imparts the impression of travelling in a tea-chest. Then it strikes me: this is the perfect environment for immersive virtual reality courtesy of a few flat-screen displays.

Imagine it: floor to ceiling high resolution LCDs, playing back images linked to the actual motion of the lift. You could ascend magisterially into the Amazonian rain forest canopy, or sink gracefully into the fish-bejewelled depths of a tropical reef. Or you could ascend the outside of a Saturn V rocket as it waits for launch,or be with Buzz and Neil as they blast off from the lunar surface. Glittering minerals in a geological seam, the mast of a first-rate ship of the line in Nelson's navy, the Vegas Strip at night — and that's before you start creating purely imaginary microflights.

What a joy it would be. I mention this to freelance Peter Judge, who's with us this week to fill in for missing news team members. His eyes light up. "How fantastic!" he says. "Endoscopies!"

He is, of course, utterly correct. Even if you dismiss the idea of a Fantastic Voyage style trip through ventricle and cortex, the idea of a hospital throwing its visitors through the glistening pink folds of a duodenum or the dark, rich mysteries of the colon is beyond reproach. The only question is: whose should be chosen for this singular honour?

Again, the answer is obvious: the chief administrator should be awarded this as a badge of office. Not only does it allow one lucky medico the pleasure of conducting the procedure — as a lottery prize, that alone could reduce the NHS benefit by millions per hospital — but there would be one spectacularly satisfying side effect. Because the lifts will be so heavily plastered in electronics, they'll be shielded from mobile phone signals — thus leading to the following occurrence, devoutly to be wished. When the lift arrives at the ground floor to pick up the chief admin, he'll have to say to whoever he's talking to on his mobile:

"I'm sorry, we're going to be cut off. I'm about to go up my own arse."

Going up...