Communicating freely


Archive for July, 2006

Quantum encryption for real people

Tuesday, July 11th, 2006

I’m going to be attending a security round-table at Birmingham University this Thursday and I’ve been trying to create a short, simple introduction to quantum encryption for real people.  That’s more difficult than it sounds…

The work in progress is below…

Quantum encryption is a very young field.  The first public research into quantum encryption was conducted by Stephen Wiesner at Columbia University in New York during the early 1970s.  His paper ‘Conjugate Coding’ was published in 1983 in SIGACT News.  Wiesner’s paper had previously been rejected by IEEE Information Theory.  This is indicative of the unusual nature of the field; Einstein referred to quantum entanglement – a principle used in quantum encryption – as "spooky action at a distance."  The normal laws of physics do not apply in quantum relationships.

Quantum encryption is focused on finding a solution to the key distribution problem.  This is a problem with ensuring that two users who wish to communicate secretly will use a genuinely secret key for their communication.  In many communication situations it is impossible to do this in advance.  This means users have to agree a secret key at the time of communication.  A problem arises in trying to agree this key without revealing it to eavesdroppers.

At the moment secret keys are shared using systems like Diffie-Hellman key exchange.  Diffie-Hellman uses very large prime numbers to agree a secret key and assumes that analysis of the exchange is very difficult.  While this is true of today’s computers it may not be true of those deployed tomorrow.  It will certainly not be true when quantum computers enter production.  They will be able to factor large integers instantly.

Quantum encryption uses Quantum Key Distribution (QKD).  This is a method of generating a verifiable secret key that can be transmitted between two people but cannot be altered in transit without the alterations being detected.  Two different aspects of quantum physics can be employed to accomplish this; one is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the other is quantum entanglement.  Both methods are generally accomplished through the transmission of photons.

The uncertainty principle is applied to quantum encryption through the polarisation of photons.  In observing the state of a photon a secret key can be obtained.  An example is that vertical photon polarisation can constitute the binary "0" and horizontal polarisation the binary "1".   The strength of photon polarisation is that it is possible to observe photons in different ways: rectilinear, circular, and diagonal.  When you observe a photon in one way you alter the conjugates that could be obtained by observing it in another way.  Unless you know how you should be looking at the photon you cannot obtain useful information about it.  It is also impossible to intercept a polarised stream of  photons.  It is virtually impossible to read the stream without degrading it to a detectable extent.

Quantum entanglement is applied to quantum encryption through the entanglement of individual photons.  This is a genuinely “spooky action” that results in the two photons having a mutual relationship that does not rely on time or space.  If one photon is altered than the other will also change state.  The result of measurements of photon states are random but shared.  It is virtually impossible to either predict or intercept this form of communication.  There is some degree of discrepancy possible between Alice and Bob’s measurements of the changed states but an attempt at eavesdropping would noticeably degrade the data stream.

As those already familiar with encryption will have guessed both the uncertainty principle and quantum entanglement offer methods of exchanging secret keys that are highly resistant to man-in-the-middle attacks.  It is very difficult to intercept photon communication streams.  The Observer Effect is one of the primary reasons for this; the very act of observing the photons results in altering their states.  This will both reduce the coherency of the message being transmitted and ensure that both Alice and Bob will know their stream is being intercepted.  The difficulty of interception is compounded with quantum entanglement.  The only way to reliably intercept an entangled stream would be through introducing a third entangled photon.  However, this would weaken each photon to such a degree that it would be easily detectable.

There are two possible ways to intercept quantum encrypted communication streams.  One is where an attacker (Eve) manages to pretend to be Bob when talking to Alice and to pretend to be Alice when talking to Bob.  If Eve assumed these identities it would be possible to act as a silent observer of the data stream.  The second interception method would involve sending large pulses of light towards either Alice or Bob’s transmission equipment between the legitimate communication pulses.  The reflection of the massive light pulse could indicate the polarisation of Alice or Bob’s equipment.  This is potentially useful on encryption relying on the uncertainty principle.

A limit to quantum encryption based on the uncertainty principle is deniability.  The act of intercepting a polarised photon stream will place some data in Eve’s hands.  If Alice and Bob detect the interception and switch keys during their conversation they will not have ensured they can deny that the conversation took place.  Eve will have partial data of the conversation.  If the the data Alice and Bob changed with the switch of their keys is already partially known to Eve, Eve has proof that the conversation took place.

One method of strengthening quantum encryption is privacy amplification.  Privacy amplification is where Alice and Bob use the initial strength of quantum encryption to establish a secret key.  This secret key is used to make further secret keys that Eve will have no information about.  Privacy amplification provides additional protection but does not reduce the probability of eavesdropping to zero.  It is important to bear in mind that there is no such thing as a ‘completely secret’ communication method.

Sources:

Quantum cryptography, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_key_distribution

Quantum Cryptography Tutorial, http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/~jford/crypto.html

Quantum Encryption progresses, http://tonytalkstech.com/2004/05/04/quantum-encryption-progresses/

Child labour

Sunday, July 9th, 2006

Ah, child labour.  That forgotten resource; small, easily intimidated and full of energy.  I’ve been doing my bit for European economic competitiveness, and I have enticed innocent children to become test subjects for a usability study.  The little mites have been deceptively handed a Ubuntu laptop and left alone.  The purpose of this study?  To find out if Dapper Drake can be used by real (small) people.

I am astounded by the results of my research.  They are better than my fan-boy GNU/Linux DNA dared to expect.  

I powered up a laptop for Test Subject #1 (TB#1 hereafter) and waited for his initial reaction.  Blankness.  He didn’t know when Ubuntu had finished loading and was ready for use due to the unfamiliar desktop.  I showed TB#1 the desktop menu and left him play.  After half an hour I returned and asked “how’s it going?”

TB#1 kept his chubby eyes glued to the screen.  “It’s OK.  I’m just finding it hard to beat the computer.” I was curious.  What was TB#1 trying to beat the computer at?  What had TB#1 done to my nice default install of Ubuntu?  I leaned over and looked at the screen.  TB#1 was playing four-in-a-row.

“The computer moves so fast.  Sometimes it moves too fast for me and I don’t have time to think,” said TB#1.  I nodded my head.  The test subject had discovered software of direct interest to his age-group.  His youthful mind was being trashed by the game but that’s the price you pay for science.

I left the room.  TB#1 was using my old laptop.  It was not a valuable resource so I confidently wandered away.  Three hours later I wandered back.  TB#1 was gone, the laptop was powered down and plugged out.  Hm.  I started it.  Clean mount.  No problems.  On the desktop was one new folder (default name) and one new file (default name).  TB#1 had obviously been experimenting with the abilities of the computer.  Excellent.

The next day TB#1 was back.  He hovered around until I innocently suggested he might like to play with the laptop.  He pretended to consider this suggestion and agreed.  Shortly thereafter TB#1 was sitting in a sofa doing whatever nine year old humans do.  I left him again for two hours.  When I returned TB#1 was gone and the laptop was again neatly powered off.

There are some variables to take into account with my testing.  TB#1 had a protector.  Some kind of mother figure.  However, the mother figure has no idea about computers.  The last time she was sighted with a computer she was waving a mouse in the air and saying it didn’t seem to be working.  Therefore her impact on the actual results of TB#1′s actions were minimal.

The second variable is that TB#1 has used an old computer.  He has a Windows 95 machine at home (I kid you not).  Therefore TB#1 has some awareness of the desktop paradigm.  

Conclusion?  Kids can use Ubuntu Dapper Drake.  TB#1 has no objection except that four-in-a-row is too difficult.  What a result.  Well done Mark Shuttleworth and associates.  

Freedom is important (so is evolution)

Saturday, July 8th, 2006

I just read Paul Cooper’s blog post about the FSF and FSFE.  One line really struck me: “[FSF(E)] could become irrelevant because certain elements are living in the past confined by the way things were rather than the way things are.”

I don’t disagree but I don’t quite agree either.  It’s a very broad statement.  There is a lot of leeway for individual interpretations of what constitutes the ‘way things were’ and the ‘way things are now.’

What I think is true is that there is some tension between the traditional hacker community and the wider free software developer-base.  Free Software is no longer exclusively a hacker arena.  We are seeing Free Software deployed in very serious places and we’re seeing professional levels of support and development.  This includes the NSA with SELinux and Novell with SuSE.  It’s been happening for years but a certain critical mass is being reached.

The field is evolving.  The organisations that support it must evolve too.  

I think I was in London (speaking to GLLUG) when I started talking about how we’re seeing the rise of management layers in Free Software projects.  We’re seeing stuff like usability engineers, project managers and public relations people.  In short, we’re seeing the ‘businessification’ of Free Software projects that are regarded as mission critical.

There is a reason that we’re seeing this.  Programmers are programmers.  They are not managers or public relations people or usability engineers.  When you get to a certain size you really need to find experts.

Strap on a beard and wrinkled brow “but then you’re becoming the MAN…you’re like a company.”

Ah.  Herein lies the rub.  The traditional hacker culture was very much about being an independent person.  About hacking away and discovering stuff and playing with code because it was fun.  That’s fine.  That’s good.  It’s a noble aim.  However, when Free Software grew up and went into the real world it needed to fulfil the requirements of usability and reliability.  The Freedom bit of Free Software remains but the edgy technical hobby stuff falls away.  The government of Bhutan are not interested in cool new features; they want an empowering digital infrastructure for the future of their people.

Because Free Software is Free Software the guys who want to hack can do so.  But the big mainstream projects need to produce big mainstream products.  They need to be “the man.”  Well, the man without shareholders making technology to empower everyone.  A nice man.  The kind of man you would be happy to see your daughter marry.

I recently saw a flame-war appear on a mailing list because two people were having an argument about who was more free.  When there are five billion people in this world who lack basic infrastructure I find these arguments tiring and pointless.  

I think the four freedoms of software are important.  I think people should be able to use, modify, redistribute and improve their tools.  I think this is especially important in terms of getting this stuff out to developing nations.  It’s also important for me.  When I was fifteen I had no money for a new computer.  I got a DOS 3.3 computer from someone’s garage.  I wish I had known about GNU/Linux.  I wish I could have learned about the freedom of software at that juncture.

I think the FSFE is important.  It’s mission is to protect and promote the four freedoms of software in the European arena.  Patents and DRM challenge Free Software and the FSFE really engages on these issues.  It also educates people and has some great initiatives coming up to further strengthen Free Software in our area.

I think engagement with everyone is important.  I have nothing but admiration for the companies that are embracing openness and freedom (well done Sun and Novell).  I’m looking forward to the day that Microsoft start considering software freedom.  I’m looking forward to the day that Java is released under the GPL (hint hint).  I’m looking forward to the day that children learn OpenOffice.org at school.

I think that software freedom is relevant.  I think that promoting freedom is essential.  That’s why I’m out here talking to people, putting forward initiatives, and generally trying to do my little bit to provide digital infrastructure for everyone.

Useful freedom

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

"You’re not the REAL Farmer McShane!"

My friend (let’s call him Dave) was right.  I’m not.  I don’t even know who the real Farmer McShane is.  I mean, one minute we’re talking about computers and the next he comes out with this.  I suspect it’s a distraction technique.

Our conversations usually drift around Windows (which I use for web design), GNU/Linux (which is now my main desktop) and MacOS X (Dave’s baby).  More often than not I say something slightly negative about Macs, Dave denies it, and we end up bickering like two children.

I like the Mac.  I don’t agree with all of Apple’s aims but I do think the Mac looks and feels great to work with.  It’s certainly a sweeter deal than the clunky Windows machines.

However, lately I’ve been banging a Ubuntu drum.  I installed Dapper Drake and finally GNU/Linux was working like a proper grown-up operating system.  No more messing around with configuration files.  No more heartache.  Just click, click, click.  It’s beautiful.

Several Mac geeks have defected to the Ubuntu cause.  This annoys Dave.  He’s not happy.  Arguments centred around open formats, anti-DRM and the cult of the penguin tend to get him vibrating and cause steam to drift out of his ears.

I don’t blame Dave.  He’s got this beautiful computer with this lovely interface, and then some jerks come along and say its evil.  Worse than that, the jerks are waving a similar product that won’t play his music and are cheeky enough to say their way is the true path to enlightenment.

But…it’s true.

My iPod is dead.  Apple won’t fix it.  My music is in AAC format in the iTunes library.  I can’t listen to it on my Nokia phone (with MP3), and it won’t play in my Ubuntu install.  Bang.  All the shine, gloss and wonder is gone, and I’ll left with 600 songs I can’t listen to while I work or take my evening walk.

I used to have the same problems with my mailbox in Outlook Express.  I could not shift my mail to another program easily.  I used to have the same problem with Office documents.  Ditto for instant messenger profiles spread across different clients.  Closed, locked formats holding me into applications and working methods I either didn’t want or needed to escape.

Now my life is easier.  ODF means my documents just move, and when I need to give them to someone in Windows land I can send a PDF or (if they really want it) a DOC.  My mail and instant messenger profiles are in MBOX and XML formats.  I know that my data is safe.

Right now I am in control, not the guys who made my software.  I can change application or computer at will.  Isn’t that how it should be?

Whether or not I’m the real Farmer McShane (and I’m not), I do think openness and freedom is become very relevant.  It’s about allowing us to make our own choices about the tools we use and the data we own.  It’s sure as heck a lot better than losing 600 songs because the Apple iPod breaks one month out of warranty.

The next phase of Internet evolution

Monday, July 3rd, 2006

A friend of mine is working on a conference in Taiwan about Web 2.0 and I was asked to send in some thoughts.  After initially flinching at the use of the Web 2.0 term I found there was a lot I wanted to say.  Because I’m cruel and unprincipled I’ve decided to share my verbosity with everyone else as well.

From the top…

The Internet plays a crucial role in the development of information and knowledge societies.  This is a network that has reduced the transaction time of digital information to zero.  It has reduced the relevance of borders, eroded the meaning of time-zones, and facilitated a massive increase in the sharing of data.  Nations increasingly depend on the Internet as an empowerment tool for accomplishing a wide-range of communicative tasks.  

The Internet first entered most people’s minds in the late nineties.  A bunch of firms appeared with venture capital backing, promised the world and then failed to deliver.  Masses of money went into the Internet and was lost.    That was the first noticeable phase of the Internet for the general public.  Perhaps Tim O’Reilly would call it Web 1.0.  Most people used to call it the dot.com economy.  

We’re now in the second really noticeable public phase of the Internet.  New companies are rising up and old companies are reborn.  The post-dot.com market space is called Web 2.0, a signifier of the shift from information transmission on the Internet (static one-way communication) towards information interaction (web services that build a two-way communicative relationship).  The old Internet didn’t provide enough to deliver on the promise of communication nirvana.  Now the Internet companies have found a way to provide more.

As it stands Web 2.0 means services and products that interact with users and encourage the building of communities instead of customers.  Flickr, MySpace and Meebo are all Web 2.0 brands.  They all attempt to build a relationship with their users and to create an information repository that can be leveraged to generate revenue.  A cynic might suggest that Web 2.0 companies largely try to get a lot of people into one place and to generate data that can be resold to information mining services like Google.  Google, in turn, uses information to place targeted advertising.  

Web 2.0 has largely been about single-service provision to customers based around the idea of information-sharing.  This is the concept of providing simple powerful tools to share and access a certain type of data.  Successful Web 2.0 brands also include those that provide information convergence (bringing two or more data source together).  An example of a data-convergence brand is Flock, a version of the Mozilla web browser that links into blogging and tagging portals.

Web 3.0 (the newest buzzword on the block) is about the coherent utilization of data to provide increased productivity.  Where Web 2.0 has been about community building, Web 3.0 is about increasing productivity.  The next ‘hot’ brands on the Internet are likely to be on-demand applications and tools.  Google is already entering this field with its Writely and Google Calender beta products.  The third generation services will be centered around communication and productivity empowerment, the breakthrough of web services rather than installed software, and what Simon Phipps referred to as substitutability.1

Substitutability might actually be the key determiner of Web 3.0.  It’s about the freedom to enter and leave a product or service.  It is the embrace of open standards to ensure that customer data is completely portable.  In short, it’s the opposite of lock-in, and it is the missing link in the current computer paradigm.  It ensures that users ‘own’ their data and that any product or service can access the data.  No more import and export filters to try and get Microsoft Word documents into OpenOffice.org.  No more different profiles and conversation standards for Yahoo! Messenger and Google Talk.  Substitutability will mark the point in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) evolution when the vendors no longer have the power to use information containment and transmission formats as a product in themselves.

Substitutability also allows for consumer confidence in the trial and adoption of new products and services.  People can use a service or product until they grow out of it and then to transition to another tool.  That sounds like a terrifying concept for companies.  It means that if people don’t like a product or service they will leave.  They might even leave on a whim, just to try out something new.

Beyond the bluster of ‘unique’ service discourse and ‘killer apps’ the ultimate emerging paradigm of ICT is that of commodity tools.  When we move beyond the gloss and excitement of humanity’s discovery of digital communication we see people wishing to use ICT to accomplish real tasks.  That means talking to people, buying things, selling things and keeping track of information.  The real killer apps will be those that allow the user to accomplish these goals with the minimum of fuss.

In other words, a real Web 3.0 application will probably be something you don’t even notice.  You’ll use it every day, it’ll get stuff done for you, but you won’t pay attention to it.  It won’t be based around the thrill of discovery like Flickr.  It won’t build a ‘community’ of disparate and ultimately shallow connections between people like MySpace.  A Web 3.0 application will deliver tangibles.  It will be when the Internet grows up.

Now, this is where I’m going to break with the marketing discourse.  I don’t particularly like the terms Web 2.0 or Web 3.0.  I think they create artificial categories that don’t necessarily reflect the true nature of the ICT evolution that we are experiencing.  It’s not like there really was a Web 1.0 that failed, that a ‘new’ Web 2.0 was truly released, or that we’ll see a Web 3.0 actually appear.  The web was not ‘released.’  It’s not a product.  The Internet evolves.  Hundreds of millions of people use it.  Tens of thousands of companies develop for it.

The changes, the alterations, everything we have seen are part of the process of developing the Internet.  People use stuff, they give feedback (either in discourse or in moving on to new services), and Internet companies reply by generating new tools, products and services.  Web communities existed in 1998 (Geocities is a prime example) and they just became more sophisticated over time.  Right now we have My Space.  In five years we’ll have a better service, one more integrated into people’s real lives.

We should not talk about the changes occurring right now as if they were exclusively part of the Web.  This is a far bigger paradigm shift than that.  ICT technology is entering the very heart of people’s lives.  It’s becoming the key determiner in our communication transactions.  To understand this we need to look at the entire digital sphere.  We need to look at the Internet, we need to look at the machines on people’s desks, the boxes in people’s living rooms and the phones in their hands.  All this stuff is converging to create a unified information gateway.

In the end the Internet will cease to be something we notice.  Existing information streams will converge and collapse to form a unified information sphere.  ICT will provide a coherent information framework that will form the backbone of knowledge societies.  This is not Web 3.0.  It’s about rethinking how humanity speaks.

Marketing shrewdly

Sunday, July 2nd, 2006

I’ve been thinking about marketing a lot lately.  I’m involved in the Irish Free Software market at the moment and there is a real need to get increased publicity in the field.  Most people in Ireland have little awareness of Free Software, and the penetration of the technology into business is miserable.  My mind has been filled with questions like “how do we engage our audiences?” and “how do we raise our profile in this market?”

I was downloading my email one day and a message appeared with the subject "I am Ling  Chinese Human Female UK Car Expert."  I assumed it was spam until I noticed that underneath the lunacy there was a serious business ticking.  It seems that Ling helps businesses and individuals lease cars.  She’s also the only Chinese person doing this in the UK.

I have to admit that I was curious.  Ling’s marketing approach was quite unusual.  She embraced stereotypes applied to the Chinese and turned them into a wry marketing tool.  To call her approach over-the-top might be an understatement.  She certainly has the ability to cause controversy.

I decided to investigate further.  It was time to contact Ling and find out more about her business, her philosophy, and the nuclear missile truck she parked on the A1.

Q: Ling, who are you and why did you email me?

A: That WAS a kind of spam email! Just directed at UK businesses. You must be a successful business to be on my list! I am Ling, as in “clever”, in Chinese. I am a (the only?) UK new-car sales female Chinese whirlwind expert. I live in Gateshead, I run www.LINGsCARS.com and I contract-hire or long-term rent new cars online. I sold over £10m of cars in 2005, but this year is running at an 80% growth so far. You want new car? You talk to me online. You have got to pass finance, so no cockle-pickers, please.

Q: You studied in Finland in 1997, got married and came to England. How on Earth did you end up running a business?

A: Well, hehe, Helsinki University was free, and it was an escape route from the trap of China. Chinese ARE good at running businesses. It’s a shame that most are bloody terrible take-aways. I often ask my customers if they want boiled or fried rice with their car… they always laugh. If they moan at me, I send them Chinese Heinz baby food. I learnt from two people, my husband Jon (who I met online in 1997) and a guy called Mike Porritt who runs CarShock. Both are white, middle-aged EBIs (English Born Idiots).

Q: I confess that the slight insanity of your email encouraged me to visit your website. Once there I discovered a series of videos you have made with your ‘red guard’ friend to compete with the Top Gear TV show. You guys test a bunch of cars and give your opinions. How did this come about?

A: Only slight insanity? That’s my sister Shan in the movies! She really WAS a red guard back in the early 1970’s – kicking teachers, stoning doctors, denouncing capitalist-roaders and ruining innocent peoples’ lives, that sort of fun stuff. She’s in the UK at the moment on holiday from Chengdu, so I roped her in. She brought a Chinese PLA uniform and her red-guard armband from 1970. I think she does a fantastic job of imitating Jeremy Clarkson in my ChopGear series. In one, she even sees how many Chinese takeaways you can load into a BMW 7-series! There’s more to come. Good job she has grown out of kicking people to death, huh?

Q: Do people ever suggest that you are playing to British stereotypes of the Chinese? I mean, do you ever run into problems with the BBC (British Born Chinese) regarding your light-hearted and rather self-depreciating approach to your culture and country?

A: I generally find that Chinese do this stereotype thing to themselves, very well. It is as if they are “owned” by a Chinese-ness and they subjugate themselves to it. In my view, the UK Chinese community is very backward, quiet and timid even. They cluster in communities, almost ghettos. A bit like the Amish, or the Orthodox Jews. Is there inbreeding? Why not assimilate? I prefer KFC (Kentucky Fried Chinese) to BBC. It’s still yellow, but tastier. What is all this BBC rubbish, anyway? Do we have British Born French? Or British Born South Africans? What a bloody chip (or prawn cracker) on the Chinese communities shoulder to think they need to classify themselves. Why not break free of this shit. I am just human, born in China with slanty eyes and a shit Government. Bollocks to what others think. Many Chinese send me stupid “loss of face” emails when I pull a Chinese-piss-take stunt. All I can say to them is… bollocks. Crawl out of your Chinatown ghetto and face the UK on equal terms!

Q: On your website it says you bring a free lunch to people. Can you tell me more about that? What’s this choice I see with the dessert?

A: Yes! I thought I would take the piss out of Chinese takeaway stereotypes (they deserve it), so I send out fast noodles, chopsticks, dessert and (real Chinese branded) Nescafe. I supply dried plum dessert for constipated British people. I specially chose FUKU brand noodles (geddit?), and I tell the people who apply for them that the MSG and Chinese “C” numbers will poison them. Probably true, eh? It is a very cheap and unique marketing stunt. Customers seem to like to be tortured. Not one person has ever complained (except some Chinese).

Q: Do you really send polo mints to people who ask you for a quote?

A: Chinese Polo mints, and Cola flavoured Polos too. My sis buys them in China and posts them over. My customers just LOVE these individually wrapped Polos, as they think they are a British sweet. People pass them around, in their Chinese wrappings. I also send out RMB notes, everyone adores them, as they are not available here. They have a picture of Mao with the big spot on his chin. Not many current banknotes have an image of a killer in the league of Stalin, Hitler, Idi Amin or (lately) Saddam or Mugabe. Very popular!

Q: In your email to me there is a picture of you with what appears to be a mobile missile launching truck. Can you tell me a little bit more about this rather bizarre image?

A: Ah, yes. I own a Chinese Peoples Liberation Army nuclear missile truck, complete with missile. It is always pointed west, towards America! It does not have the range to reach Taiwan, you see (like most other Chinese missiles, hehe). I painted my website and face on it. For fun, I parked it next to the A1 in Tony Blair’s constituency of Sedgefield. Bloody 2-shags Prescott made me move it in the end, after 1-year of wrangling. I made the truck from a real 1970 nuclear decontamination truck. It has been in lots of newspapers including the Financial Times and Daily Telegraph, and on the BBC. It is fantastic. My baby. I also have a 1966 London bus and a 1976 Beijing Jeep. Oh, and a Land Rover and a BMW RT bike.

Q: You’re clearly a driven person (no pun intended) and you have goals. Where do you want to be in five years?

A: Oh, retired on a beach! My business is cumulative – most people come back after 2 years for another car, so my growth is fantastic. Everyone else selling brand new cars in the UK is so boring and conventional. I fight them like mad. Mazda banned me from selling their cars, but they gave in, in the end! No one, especially not a trumped-up employee Managing Director of a Japanese company dictates my actions. Like I said at first, I am Ling! And frankly, if the Chinese “community” don’t like me, or if some traditional old Chinese crow moans at me, I don’t care! I’ll sell my cheap new cars to some other race.

She’s a little bit like a tornado, don’t you think?  But she does get her message across, she does make money, and she does a lot of repeat business.  In short, Ling is an excellent marketeer.  She’s engaging her audience with enough controversy to garner attention and enough likeability to have a growing customer-base.  That strikes me as very shrewd.  

What Ling does is not an accident.  She’s fostering a very well-constructed brand.  This brand is built on a careful analysis of her market and a careful analysis of her own abilities, aims and aspirations.  It sounds like she also has fun along the way.

Perhaps Free Software advocates can learn from Ling.

Sometimes we may be too busy thinking about what we want instead of what is actually happening.  Sometimes we may be preaching when we should be marketing.  Perhaps we need to look at our brand in a more objective way, and to construct our own marketing techniques based on an analysis of our market and of ourselves.  We have this fantastic technology and this fantastic method of ensuring that everyone can always access it.  I believe we should ‘sell’ it more.

On a final note, I want to make it very clear that I’m not suggesting that Free Software advocates should start investing in nuclear missile trucks.  I don’t think we have the budget for that and I’m not sure that it would be the right move politically.