September 2006 Archives

I have nothing much to say right now because I have my head stuck so far up the back end of a novel that I can see daylight past its' tonsils.

Hopefully there'll be a burst of blogging when I finish the first draft, in a week or two, but until then, feel free to talk among yourselves.

Meanwhile, your starter for three points: try to remember what life was like, oh, fifteen years ago, before you had the internet and a mobile phone and cable/satellite TV and bandwidth coming out of your ears. Remember how society was subtly different? Now project the same curve forward another fifteen years and tell me where we're going ...

I'm being a bit quiet around here right now because I'm busy trying to finish HALTING STATE before it all bloody comes true.

For example, according to The Register, IBM researchers have just moved into Linden Labs' Second Life in a big way, buying and moving in on a secret island headquarters ...

As with Second Life, participants create an online "avatar" to represent them. There is already a business psychology aspect emerging here, revolving around whether the avatar should be a close approximation of the individual's appearance (probably suitable for a "conservative" or "professional" business image) or some more adventurous expression of the participant's view of their personality (for the fart and flair brigade). Essentially, when a meeting is called, the participants' avatars appear in a Second Life, 25MByte, online container that appears on each of their PCs.

Communications can be by key-entry text or VoIP if that is appropriate. With text, all the contributions can be easily and fully minuted, and the probability is that speech-to-text systems will allow the same for speech-based interactions in the near future.

The IBM developers, led by Hursley-based Ian Hughes (who has the to-die-for job title of Metaverse Evangelist) are also making use of appropriate "gadgets" developed by other Second Life players. For example, one such gadget has been adapted to create a simple coffee table tool that creates a chair round it whenever a participant wishes to "sit down".

The team itself is contributing gadgets to Second Life, including a language translator system. This has been provided free to Second Life mentors and is available for sale on the system. It has also developed a portal to an external business system – in this case Amazon – which can then be used by all participants. This has already highlighted the need for one or more APIs that will be needed to allow customisable integration of the system with all relevant external business systems.

The advantage over phone or video conferencing systems is that participants feel they are much more "there" – for example, it is far easier to identify who is communicating what at any one time. It also adds the scope to move away from a formal meeting to relax or "play", or perhaps hold a breakout meeting, all of which can help creativity.

Meanwhile, I am left thinking the following thought-stream: IBM has a secret island headquarters hideaway inside a computer game. Truth stranger than fiction? Must write faster, the clowns are gaining ...

It's funny how the unspoken assumptions of a religion you don't follow mediated through the zeitgeist of a political culture you don't agree with can nevertheless determine your reaction to news.

In this case, I'm taking exception to the conventional wisdom that the devil makes work for idle hands, and that work — any work, dammit — is good for the soul. Some work quite obviously is not good for you. One of my friends is descended from a family of Scottish coal miners; it's an industry that doesn't exist any more. But, as he puts it, it isn't a job you'd wish on anyone you liked — dirty, hard, dangerous work that eventually kills many of the men who worked down a pit (usually from silicosis, emphysema, black lung, or similar nasty respiratory diseases). If a clean, safe alternative was available it would be infinitely preferable to do without that kind of employment.

And there are other jobs that aren't worth having. Not necessarily dangerous ones, but ones that shouldn't be necessary — jobs that exist solely because of an existing human-made cock-up, applying human energy to deal with a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place. Sure digging a hole in a field and filling it in is economic activity if you're paying the guy on the other end of the shovel to do it — but once you get beyond the basic incentive of earning a living and putting food on the table, what's the purpose of the enterprise? People are generally happier if what they are doing is appreciated, at some level, or if they feel they're achieving something. There is a category of jobs that are, strictly speaking, unnecessary — and I don't think adding to them is a good thing.

Of course, the usual analysis of employment trends we get in the press doesn't usually go as deep as to question the need for jobs (that jobs are virtuous is taken for granted) so it shouldn't be any surprise that ZDnet's report that Microsoft Windows Vista could create 50,000 jobs in the EU alone is framed in tones of breathless approval.

Stop and think about it. The PC market is pretty much saturated in the developed world; we are no longer buying our first PC, we're just upgrading regularly for the faster processor/new features. So what does this really mean?

Microsoft are predicting that this ravenous new operating system will demand the sacrifice of 50,000 extra human lifetimes to keep offices across the EU running. That fifty thousand people are going to be sucked into the thankless task of software support and system administration for no functional gain — not to bring the benefits of computing to new users, this is simply to keep the wheels turning. It's money for digging holes in a field and then filling them in again: pointless make-work that should be automated out of existence rather than lauded.

The reason for this weird non-news piece is buried some way down the article: "In recent years, Microsoft has funded a number of studies highlighting the positive side of its near-monopoly in the market for desktop operating systems (it faces significant competition on servers, notably from Linux). The studies have appeared as Microsoft has faced antitrust actions in the US, the EU and elsewhere, with regulator attention most recently beginning to focus on Windows Vista ahead of its scheduled January launch."

One of the dirty little secrets of the computing industry is that staffing ratios are supported by Microsoft. It takes roughly one support person per forty desktops in Windows environments (one person-hour per working week wasted on coaxing balky software into doing its job, is a more accurate way of describing this), while large-scale UNIX desktop installations have staffing ratios between 1:200 and 1:1000. But bureaucratic politics is such that in any organization, an inefficient department with forty employees has far more clout, prestige, and (ultimately) money assigned to it than an efficient department of four ... because most managers are woefully inequipped to judge the relative merit of computing proposals and interpret human activity as productivity, rather than as evidence of inefficiency. We have therefore fallen into a situation where less efficient solutions competing in the marketplace are preferentially selected.

So much for the cult of employment ...

The Strategic Defense Initiative (aka "Star Wars" program) has, since Ronald Reagan announced it more than 20 years ago, cost the US government more than US $100Bn. (That's a lot of M&Ms.)

To be fair, they've got some bang for their hundred thousand Big Ones — the Missile Defense Agency now operates a Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System whereby they can (in bright light, with a tail-wind, and on days with a "T" in their name) shoot down a crude incoming ballistic missile. There are about ten interceptor missiles available, and the current goal of the project is to pop a cap in the ass of any rogue state that tries to destroy the United States by launching a single 1950s-vintage ICBM with a single warhead and no countermeasure capability. (Presumably before the response turns the attacker's country into a glowing hole in the map.) There's also a slightly more advanced naval system that can track and intercept intermediate and theatre ballistic missiles (assuming the rogue state in question is shooting across a sea patrolled by the US Navy).

However, there is one leetle weakness in the BMD program. To hit a missile with a missle requires fairly accurate radar — it entails accurately tracking a target the size of a dustbin at a range of several thousand kilometres — and so they've also developed an appropriate radar system. The sea-based X-band radar system (pictured above) is a thing of technological beauty that looks as if it sailed in out of a Bond movie: a $900M fifty thousand tonne offshore platform with a 1800 ton radar installation on top of it, it's designed to sit in the ocean near the Aleutian islands and spot incoming sub-orbital trash cans and guide the rocket interceptors into the target.

Unfortunately, there's a problem with it. And the problem isn't just the fact that it doesn't have a lifeboat and can't be evacuated in event of a storm.

No, the problem is quite simple: any budding Doctor Evil can ensure the success of his orbital mind control lasers or terrorist ICBMs by the simple expedient of sending something like a 1950s vintage Whisky class diesel-electric submarine to poke a pointy stick through the eyes of the ballistic missile defense system. Which is, you will notice, not exactly mounted on a vessel that's capable of fighting off a bunch of Malacca Straits pirates in a speed-boat, never mind a third world navy.

I don't know about you, but I'm coming to the conclusion that the Pentagon subcontracted this job to the same guys that James Bond's enemies always hired to design their headquarters — you know, the one with the prominently labelled SELF DESTRUCT button. (That would be Halliburton and Brown & Root, right?) I mean, what other explanation is there for spending $100Bn on a mind-numbingly sophisticated ballistic missile defense system ... only to leave it vulnerable to a single good old-fashioned torpedo?

Seven members of Tony Blair's government resigned today in protest at the prime minister's reluctance to publicly name a departure date. (Guardian.) Blair faces wave of resignations (BBC).

A backbench revolt is one thing, but when it's led by junior ministers it tends to suggest that they expect to be richly rewarded for their early loyalty by the successor regime. Is the end nigh for Teflon Tony?

We hates it. And we got more of it overnight than in the preceeding month.


(a) All comments have the NOFOLLOW attribute enabled. If you're a spammer, and you successfully spam here, you won't get any joy from Google or the other search engines. You're wasting your time.

(b) I'm adding a three-minute timeout between postings.

(c) I'm automatically filtering postings with too many URLs.

It's a nuisance, but I don't run this blog for the benefit of spammers.

In more serious spam-related news, my email inbox is now receiving between 400 and 500 spams per day. I have software to filter the crap out before I have to read it, but the sheer volume of spam prevents me from effectively over-seeing the filters to ensure they don't accidentally junk mail from real humans who want to talk to me. (I used to skim the headers looking for signs that SpamAssassin was being over-enthusiastic, but if I'm away from the keyboard for just 24 hours it builds up to the point of no return.)

So if you send me email that you expect me to answer and don't hear from me, try using the comment form (see sidebar on this page).

When I get some free time I'll look into extra stuff like configuring greylisting on the mail server — but remember: time spent fighting spam is still time wasted by spammers.

Off with their heads!

British Telecom, who still — despite two decades of privatisation and de-monopolisation — own somewhere north of 80% of the British fixed land-line telephone market, is to unroll the first stage of its IP-dialtone project in Cardiff, real soon now. Note for American readers: Cardiff, in Wales, is routinely menaced by Dr Who's enemies. Nobody quite knows why. Now it's being menaced by British Telecom, and where's the Doctor when you need him?

BT's 21s Century Network program sounds like a good idea, on the face of it. It replaces the entire digital trunked infrastructure with a packet-switched one, in which the entire phone network runs over TCP/IP — the same internet protocols you're getting this web session over. Presumably this allows BT to tie into Voice over IP networks directly, and the business of giving you an audible dialtone and a voice when you lift your telephone receiver is down to a small box of tricks at the end of the local loop. The local loop is that bit of copper wire that links you to the phone exchange down the road — the last half mile.

However. In an effort to hasten the demise of the old state monopoly, some years ago the British government mandated a process called "local loop unbundling". What this means is, basically, other telcos are allowed to stick bits of equipment in BTs exchange in order to hook into your local loop. That way, BTs prior monopoly on the local loop — which locked out any competitor who couldn't spend the necessary billions to dig up every road in the UK and install a new, parallel, local loop — vanished.

It occurs to me that the combination of local loop unbundling and IP-dialtone means that anyone who can pony up the readies to apply for a telco license (and that means just about any small-to-middling internet service provider — those 0845 flat-rate modem dialup numbers that feed cash to the ISPs via the interconnect service fee work because they're legally telcos and pay a lot less than the flat fee for access to your local loop) can stick an IP router into the telephone exchange and, er, sniff packets.

Running a business or large enterprise that uses the public telephone service? Worried about the confidentiality of your phone calls? Some other organization with a telco license could well be promiscuously logging all your traffic to a hard disk somewhere. Better still, there are fun things you can do with a corrupt DNS server on the local network that just don't bear thinking about (although I am thinking about them, starting with "man in the middle attack" — it doesn't matter how secure the crypto on your voice stream or house VPN is, if it's not going where you think it's going and the computer at the other end isn't the computer you think it is).

What 21CN means for the citizens of Cardiff is that large-scale bugging at the exchange level suddenly becomes practical for organizations other than the spooks at GCHQ and NSA. Hell, I wonder if Cardiff County Council realize they could be being bugged? More to the point, I wonder if the good burghers of Cardiff realize that all their telephone banking calls are about to be 0wn3d?

Paging the Doctor ...

Oh dear Cthulhu ...

A large chunk of the plot of my next SF novel, "Halting State", centred on a crime caper involving the robbery of a bank inside a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game.

It turns out that there's been a major bank robbery in Eve Online — only the bank itself was a Ponzi scheme.

Which just goes to show why nobody in their right mind is going to trust a bank in an MMORPG that isn't backed by a real financial institution, or at least the MMORPG company itself with a fat deposit in an account somewhere ... only to say more would be a spoiler for the novel. Which I'd set twelve years hence. Except bits of it seem to be coming true right now.

Time to refactor that plot before the science fictional elements of the novel are overrun by the onrushing juggernaut of progress.

Meanwhile, Samsung have been demoing the technology for the next generation of 4G mobile phone networks. Is 1gbps fast enough for you, sir? Yes, their 4G demo topped out at 1gbps while walking around, and delivered a respectable 100mb/sec to a terminal in a van travelling at 60 km/h. To put it in perspective, that latter figure is twice as fast as your typical new, high-speed 802.11a WiFi network — and this is a prototype.

3G phones are here today, albeit as power hungry bricks, and the cellcos are still trying to figure out how to get the customers to pay for the service. (Clue: treat it like wired broadband — all you can eat bandwidth, for a fixed infrastructure cost.) 4G is going to be vanilla by the time "Halting State" is set, and we're talking gigabit ethernet speeds over mobile phone sized cellular ranges; I'm not even going to try and guess about what the short-range UWB stuff will be up to by then.

So I just had a big reality check on that "near future SF" novel I'm writing. No, it isn't "near future SF" — it's lab prototype stage already, and if I still want it to be SF I've got to crank the weirdness up a bit higher.



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