" /> net.wars: September 2009 Archives

« August 2009 | Main | October 2009 »

September 25, 2009

Dead technology

The longevity of today's digital media is a common concern. Less than 20 years after the creation of a digital Domesday Book, a batch of researchers had to work to make it readable again, whereas the 900-year-old paper-based original is still readable. Anyone maintaining an archive of digital content knows that all that material has to be kept up to date and transferred to new formats as machines and players change.

On friend of mine, a professional sound engineer, begged me to keep my magnetic media when I told him I was transferring it to digital formats. You can, he argued, always physically examine a magnetic tape and come up with some kind of reader for it; with digital media, you're completely stuck if you don't know how the data was organized.

Where was he in 1984, when I bought my sewing machine, a Singer Futura 2000? That machine was, as it turns out, one of the earliest electronic models on the market. I had no idea of that at the time; the particular feature I was looking for (the ability to lock the machine in reverse, so I could have both hands free when reverse-stitching) was available on very few models. This was the best of those few. No one said to me, "And it's electronic!" They said stuff like, "It has all these stitches!" Most of which, to be sure, hardly anyone is likely ever to use other than the one-step buttonhole and a zigzag stitch or two.

Cut to 2009, when one day I turn the machine on and discover the motor works but the machine won't select a stitch or drive that motor. "Probably the circuit board," says the first repair person I talk to. Words of doom.

The problem with circuit boards is - as everyone knows who's had a modern electronic machine fail - that a) they're expensive to replace; b) they're hard to find; c) they're even harder to get repaired. Still, people don't buy sewing machines to use for a year or five; they buy them for a lifetime. In fact, before cars and computers, washing machines and refrigerators, sewing machines were the first domestic machines, they were an expensive purchase, and they were expected to last.

You can repair - and buy parts for - a 150-year-old treadle Singer sewing machine. People still use them, particularly for heavy sewing jobs like leather, many-layered denim, or neoprene. You can also repair the US Singer machine my parents gave me as a present in the mid 1970s. That machine is what they now call "mechanical", by which they mean electric but not electronic. What you can't do is repair a machine from the 1980s: Singer stopped making the circuit boards. If you're very, very lucky, you might be able to find someone who can repair one.

But even that is difficult. One such skilled repairman told me that even though Singer itself had recommended him to me he was unable to get the company to give him the circuit diagrams so he could use his skill for the benefit of both his own customers (and therefore himself) and Singer itself. The concept of open-sourcing has not landed in the sewing machine market; sewing machines are as closed as modern cars with what seems like much less justification. (At least with a car you can argue that a ham-fisted circuit board repairman could cost you your life; hard to make that argument about a sewing machine.)

Of course, from Singer's point of view things are far worse than irreplaceable circuit boards that send a few resentful customers into the gathering feet of Husqvarna Viking or Bernina. Singer's problem is that the market for sewing machines has declined dramatically. In 1902, the owner of Eastleigh Sewing Centre told me, Singer was producing 5 million machines a year. Now, the entire industry of many more manufacturers sells about 500,000. Today's 30- and 40-year-olds never learned to use a sewing machine in school, nor were they taught by their mothers. If they now learn to use one, they're more likely to use a computerized machine (a level up from just "electronic"). What they learn is graphics: the fanciest modern machines can take a GIF or JPG and embroider it on a section of fabric held taut by a hoop.

You can't blame them. Store-bought, mass-market clothing, even when it's made out of former "luxury" fabrics like silk, is actually cheaper than anything you can make at home these days. Only a few things make sense for anyone but the most obsessive to sew at home any more: 1) textile-based craft items like stuffed dolls and quilts, (and embroidered images); 2) items that would be prohibitively expensive to buy or impossible to find, like stage and re-enactment costumes; 3) items you want to be one-of-a-kind and personal such as, perhaps a wedding dress; 4) items that are straightforward to sew but expensive to buy, like curtains and other soft furnishings. The range of machines available now reflects that, so that you're stuck with either buying a beginner's machine or one intended for experts; the middle ground (like my Futura) has vanished. No one has the time to sew garments any more; no one, seemingly, even repairs torn clothing any more.

But damn, I hate throwing stuff out that's mostly functional.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on , or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

September 18, 2009


"Everyone has a computer," says the cab driver. We are driving from Hersonisos to Heraklion airport, a 40-minute jaunt. Half an hour later, the disposable-gloved guard checking me through the security scan tells me the same thing. "And two or three mobile phones." This is Crete in 2009.

Here is Crete in 1998: "I can't imagine that any of my neighbors will ever use a computer," my friend John said; he was living in a small mountain village near Hersonisos. The computer he'd brought with him didn't like the dust, and of everyone he knew only a couple of travel agents had one. He recanted a minute later: one neighbor had a computer. "It's what he calls the remote control for his TV set."

I am here for a conference on computer security and privacy run by the European Network and Information Security Agency, and that in itself is a reflection of how fast things changed. ENISA, whose headquarters are at the Foundation for Research and Technology's shiny, white building on the edge of Heraklion, is an advice broker: its job is to figure study information security and recommend how to apply it. This week's effort was a summer school organized by associate researcher Sotiris Ioannidis.

Three talks particularly strike me: Ronald Leenes, Ari Juels, and Richard Bartle, probably because they're the three with the closest to a hands-on approach.

Leenes, who was new to me, has been working on privacy in social networks; he demonstrated a Firefox plug-in that allows a user to drag and drop contacts to groups that might represent family, (real) friends, work mates, and so on, applying different privacy settings to each. Segregating audiences, he reasons, is important; today's social networks are binary - "friend" or non-friend. Separately, he's working on a platform where the data is all encrypted and is transparently decrypted only for those people who have the permission to view it. These are good ideas, and I'd like to see them adopted; but more than a decade of watching people come up with good but slightly complicated, privacy-enhancing ideas have left me unconvinced about their appeal to the mass market. Would Facebook to adopt either interface design?

I already knew some of Juels's work at both his day job and his after-hours recreation. Here, he had an elegant answer for the problem often raised by privacy advocates concerned about the potential for detailed, intimate tracking once RFID is ubiquitous in consumer goods. The idea is to implement cryptography by sharing a secret key a group of items. While they're together, they can be tracked; sell them individually and the key vanishes. This idea is, he said, easier to manage than a kill tag, which requires more complex key management.

Juels mentions something else. I knew that RFID tags don't work well in or around water; I didn't realize what he says now, that because of that they don't work particularly well next to human bodies, which are mostly water. In other words, if there were nothing else silly about Katherine Albrecht's frequently repeated scenario of the creepy man RFID-scanning the underwear of nearby women, technically it doesn't work. "If you're concerned about tags on your garments, wear them," he says. To be fair to Albrecht, though, the industry is working on solving the water adjacency problem so tags can be used for tracking surgical instruments. It might be just a matter of time.

Bartle has talked elsewhere about the today's virtual worlds. Of course a server administrator can follow in detail everything any player does (but "terabytes of data," Bartle says). A virtual world is in fact the closest thing to an implementation of the complete surveillance state. What was notable, therefore, is how much malfeasance there really is and how much it costs. Sony, when it tried to act as a middle-man for transactions involving real money and in-game loot found itself in the hole for a $1 million every six months - in fines for having too many credit card charge backs when thieves took consumers' money but failed to deliver the virtual goods.

The bridge that needs to be built is the one between policy and active technology. Many good things were said about good practice and securing the infrastructure, and they were said to the right sort of interested policy makers. The best suggestion for building that bridge came from Ian Brown: alter the liability regime so that the burden doesn't fall entirely on users.

That night, I have dinner with some of my friend John's friends, and the conversation shifts to computers - Crete in 2009! "I think the Internet needs to be regulated," one of them says. He is, he says, sick of: spam, viruses, idiots hacking into things. But the Internet was never built to be a secure system; we are trying to retrofit security onto it and it isn't clear that's ever going to really work completely. And even it it were: Bartle has shown the limitations of regulation and surveillance.

Juels's talk reminds me, though, that with RFID we still have time to build a secure, privacy-enhancing infrastructure - if we do it now, at the beginning. These things get away from us so fast.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

September 11, 2009

Public broadcasting

It's not so long ago - 2004, 2005 - that the BBC seemed set to be the shining champion of the Free World of Content, functioning in opposition to *AA (MPAA, RIAA) and general entertainment industry desire for total content lockdown. It proposed the Creative Archive; it set up BBC Backstage; and it released free recordings of the classics for download.

But the Creative Archive released some stuff and then ended the pilot in 2006, apparently because much of the BBC's content doesn't really belong to it. And then came the iPlayer. The embedded DRM, along with its initial Windows-only specification (though the latter has since changed), made the BBC look like less of a Free Culture hero.

Now, via the consultative offices of Ofcom we learn that the BBC wants to pacify third-party content owners by configuring its high-definition digital terrestrial services - known to consumers as Freeview HD - to implement copy protection. This request is, of course, part of the digital switchover taking place across the country over the next four years.

The thing is, the conditions under which the BBC was granted the relevant broadcasting licenses require that content be broadcast free-to-air. That is, unencrypted, which of course means no copy protection. So the BBC's request is to be allowed instead to make the stream unusable to outsiders by compressing the service information data using in-house-developed lookup tables. Under the proposal, the BBC will make those tables available free of charge to manufacturers who agree to its terms. Or, pretty clearly, the third party rights holders' terms.

This is the kind of hair-splitting the American humorist Jean Kerr used to write about when she detailed conversations with her children. She didn't think, for example, to include in the long list of things they weren't supposed to do when they got up first on a Sunday morning, the instruction not to make flour paste and glue together all the pages of the Sunday New York Times. "Now, of course, I tell them."

When the BBC does it, it's not so funny. Nor is it encouraging in the light of the broader trend toward claiming intellectual property protection in metadata when the data itself is difficult to restrict. Take, for example, the MTA's Metro-North Railroad, which runs commuter trains (on which Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro so often met in the 1984 movie Falling in Love) from New York City up both sides of the Hudson River to Connecticut. MTA has been issuing cease-and-desist orders to the owner of StationStops a Web site and iPhone schedule app dedicated to the Metro-North trains, claiming that it owns the intellectual property rights in its scheduling data. If it were in the UK, the Guardian's Free Our Data campaign would be all over it.

In both cases - and many others - it's hard to understand the originating organisation's complaint. Metro-North is in the business of selling train tickets; the BBC is supposed to measure its success in 1) the number of people who consumer its output; 2) the educational value of its output to the license fee-paying public. Promulgating schedule data can only help Metro-North, which is not a commercial company but a public benefit corporation owned by the State of New York. It's not going to make much from selling data licenses.

The BBC's stated intention is to prevent perfect, high-definition copies of broadcast material from escaping into the hands of (evil) file-sharers. The alternative, it says, would be to amend its multiplex license to allow it to encrypt the data streams. Which, they hasten to add, would require manufacturers to amend their equipment, which they certainly would not be able to do in time for the World Cup next June. Oh, the horror!

Fair enough, the consumer revolt if people couldn't watch the World Cup in HD because their equipment didn't support the new encryption standard would indeed be quite frightening to behold. But the BBC has a third alternative: tell rights holders that the BBC is a public service broadcaster, not a policeman for hire.

Manufacturers will still have to modify equipment under the more "modest" system information compression scheme: they will have to have a license. And it seems remarkably unlikely that licenses would be granted to the developers of open source drivers or home-brew devices such as Myth TV, and of course it couldn't be implemented retroactively in equipment that's already on the market. How many televisions and other devices will it break in your home?

Up until now, in contrast to the US situation, the UK's digital switchover has been pretty gentle and painless for a lot of people. If you get cable or satellite, at some point you got a new set-top box (mine keep self-destructing anyway); if you receive all your TV and radio over the air you attached a Freeview box. But this is the broadcast flag and the content management agenda all over again.

We know why rights holders want this. But why should the BBC adopt their agenda? The BBC is the best-placed broadcasting and content provider organisation in the world to create a parallel, alternative universe to the strictly controlled one the commercial entertainment industry wants. It is the broadcaster that commissioned a computer to educate the British public. It is the broadcaster that belongs to the people. Reclaim your heritage, guys.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

September 4, 2009

Nothing ventured, nothing lost

What does a venture capitalist do in a recession?

"Panic." Hermann Hauser says, then laughs. It is, in fact, hard to imagine him panicking if you've heard the stories he tells about his days as co-founder of Acorn Computers. He's quickly on to his real, more measured, view.

"It's just the bottom of the cycle, and people my age have been through this a number of times before. Though many people are panicking, I know that normally we come out the other end. If you just look at the deals I'm seeing at the moment, they're better than any deals I've seen in my entire life." The really positive thing, he says, is that, "The speed and quality of innovation are speeding up and not slowing down. If you believe that quality of innovation is the key to a successful business, as I do, then this is a good era. We have got to go after the high end of innovation - advanced manufacturing and the knowledge-based economy. I think we are quite well placed to do that." Fortunately, Amadeus had just raised a fund when the recession began, so it still has money to invest; life is, he admits, less fun for "the poor buggers who have to raise funds."

Among the companies he is excited about is Plastic Logic, which is due to release its first product next year, a competitor to the Kindle that will have a much larger screen, be much lighter, and will also be a computing platform with 3g, Bluetooth, and Wi-fi all built in, all built on plastic transistors that will be green to produce, more responsive than silicon - and sealed against being dropped in the bath water. "We have the world beat," he says. "It's just the most fantastic thing."

Probably if you ask any British geek above the age of 39, an Acorn BBC Micro figured prominently in their earliest experiences with computing. Hauser was and is not primarily a technical guy - although his idea of exhilarating vacation reading is Thermal Physics, by Charles Kittel and Herbert Kroemer - but picking the right guys to keep supplied with tea and financing is a rare skill, too.

"As I go around the country, people still congratulate me on the BBC Micro and tell me how wonderful it was. Some are now professors in computer science and what they complain about is that as people switched over to PCs - on the BBC Micro everybody knew how to program. The main interface was a programming interface, and it was so easy to program in BASIC everybody did it. Kids have no clue what programming is about - they just surf the Net. Nobody really understands any more what a computer does from the transistor up. It's a dying breed of people who actually know that all this is built on CMOS gates and can build it up from there."

Hauser went on to found an early effort in pen computing - "the technology wasn't good enough" and "the basic premise that I believed in, that pen computing would be important because everybody knew how to wield a pen just wasn't true" - and then the venture capital fund Amadeus, through which he helped fund, among others, leading Bluetooth chip supplier CSR. Britain, he says, is a much more hospitable environment now than it was when he was trying to make his Cambridge bank manager understand Acorn's need for a £1 million overdraft. Although, he admits now, "I certainly wouldn't have invested in myself." And would have missed Acorn's success.

"I think I'm the only European who's done four billion-dollar companies," he says. "Of course I've failed a lot. I assume that more of my initiatives that I've founded finally failed than finally succeeded."

But times have changed since consultants studied Acorn's books and told them to stop trading immediately because they didn't understand how technology companies worked. "All the building blocks you need to have to have a successful technology cluster are now finally in place," he says. "We always that the technology, but we always lacked management, and we've grown our own entrepreneurs now in Britain." He calls Stan Boland, CEO of 3g USB stock manufacturer Icera and Acorn's last managing director a "rock star" and "one of the best CEOs I have come across in Europe or the US." In addition, he says, "There is also a chance of attracting the top US talent, for the first time." However, "The only thing I fear and that we have to be careful about is that the relative decline doesn't turn into an absolute decline."

One element of Britain's changing climate with respect to technology investment that Hauser is particularly proud of is helping create tax credits and taper relief for capital gains through his work on Leon Mandelson's advisory panel on new industry and new jobs. "The reason I have done it is that I don't believe in the post-industrial society. We have to have all parts of industry in our country."

Hauser's latest excitement is stem cells; he's become the fourth person in the world to have his entire genome mapped. "It's the beginning of personal medicine."

The one thing that really bemuses him is being given lifetime achievement awards. "I have lived in the future all my life, and I still do. It's difficult to accept that I've already created a past. I haven't done yet the things I want to do!"

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.