Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Rupert comes back from Edinburgh the hard way to find high radio weirdness in a holiday home.

Monday 26/08/02
Bank Holiday. Still in Edinburgh. It's a lovely city. Best bit was probably hanging out of a window at the top of the Royal Mile at midnight while the tattoo went by three floors underneath. Yes, a couple of hundred massed pipers followed by a handful of mobile artillery is frightening, even if one's glass is being simultaneously replenished by a very indulgent publisher. Said publisher was bemoaning, somewhat woozily, the absence of Arthur Smith, comedian, who in the past has organised ad-hoc 2am tours of the area including a stint walking past underneath said publisher's flat. Said publisher and wife took to shouting out "Gardez-loo!" at this point, and emptying a pan or two of water over the heads of drunken tour. This behaviour ended up, I am shocked to report, with Mr Smith and pals holding impromptu parties in said flat and much massive misbehaving. Following a much-publicised medical scare earlier this year, Mr Smith is publicly dry (in all senses) and the parties are over. Why do I always find these things out too late? Also had a few nice natters with various academics. Did you know that 56% of the US -- that's fifty-six percent -- believe Revelation will come true? Or that a quarter of the American public believe the Bible predicted the 11th September attacks? I must have been ill the day they covered that in Sunday school... Tuesday 27/08/02
Fly back to London. You don't want to hear my tales of cheap airline anguish, as it seems from the papers that every journalist from Prestwick to Plymouth has been turning their four-hour delays on EasyGoBabyBuzz into column inches, but it was all pretty grotty. The experience isn't helped by the way that cellphones are considered second only to nailfiles as items likely to endanger the lives of millions aloft. It is true that operating transmitters -- for such is your phone -- in aircraft is potentially dangerous, as there is a chance that the signals from your Moto will creep into the wiring on the aircraft's control computers and send you into a downward spiral faster than a call from the bank manager. Or a stray radio wave from the phone will land on the navigation frequencies, and you'll end up in Mexico instead of Manchester (hm, could sell that idea for real money). But. The aircraft systems are designed to resist such signals, and your cellphone is designed to not send them out in the first place. The chance is very small, and could be minimised by the simple inclusion of a small base station on the aircraft itself. The proximity of this would cause the cellphones to wind down their transmitters to fleapower, and the airline could make tons of money from relaying calls via satellite. That would be too sensible. Instead, more and more stringent restrictions are being put in place. This time, we were told not to use our cellphones until we were inside the terminal -- rendering them useless even as we sat on the tarmac for the requisite hour or so -- 'because of refuelling'. What balderdash, one might be forgiven for thinking, as one peers out of one's porthole at an apron covered in people shouting into walkie-talkies. Not to mention the plane's transmitters themselves, which put out more power than every cellphone on board put together. Oh, and that business of the power going down if you're near a cell base station? If I'm not mistaken, that means a cellphone mast near a school or residential area will result in the little kiddies receiving considerably less radiation from their mobiles than they would ever get from the transmitter itself. By forcing them to use base stations further away, the parents are irradiating their beloved offspring more than ever. Ironic, ain't it? Wednesday 28/08/02
I have a call from a friend in Torquay, who's worried about the behaviour of one of their neighbours. The house in question has started to sprout hand-written notices saying things like "I'm too rich to shop. Do it for me", pictures of psychotic clowns and other evidence of industrial-grade eccentricity. Which isn't unknown in Devon, m'dears: in fact, it's one reason I intend to retire down there when I've finished the best-selling novel and no longer have to rein in my more alarming tendencies. "It's sad", says my friend, "but they've even covered up the blue plaque to some famous bloke who used to live there. I think he was a radio inventor, you've probably heard of him. Heaviwood? Something like that." "Oliver Heaviside?" I ask. "That's him. I knew you'd know him. You anorak." And indeed, it's a name familiar to any seriously over-enthusiastic radio type. I knew him because he famously predicted the existence of the ionosphere -- once known as the Heaviside layer -- twenty years before it was discovered. I looked him up, and he did a lot more than that. He produced the workable forms of Maxwell's equations, the basic building blocks of electromagnetic theory, and the German discoverer of radio waves, Hertz, said that he owed it all to Heaviside. Just think, we could be talking megaheavis and kiloheavis instead of megahertz and kilohertz. Ollie did lots more beside in many fields and almost always got overlooked or stymied by his many enemies: yet an assessment of the time said he was one of the most important mathematicians of the late 19th century. I doubt one person in a thousand knows his name today. And all this despite being nearly deaf since early childhood and leaving school at sixteen. Unsurprisingly, he ended up not so much bitter and twisted but completely off his dipole. After he'd moved into his Torquay house, a report says he replaced all his furniture with "granite blocks which stood about in the bare rooms like the furnishings of some Neolithic giant. Through those fantastic rooms he wandered, growing dirtier and dirtier, and more and more unkempt -- with one exception. His nails were always exquisitely manicured, and painted a glistening cherry pink." I relayed this to my friend, who is suitably gratified that they are indeed living near some leyline of latter-day lunacy. Thursday 29/08/02
Naughty Moby Monkey! But what a scam -- bulk send a load of SMSs saying that you've won a valuable prize, channel the replies through a £1.50 a minute premium number, and bingo. I've seen the sums: you can net many tens of thousands of pounds pure profit in a week through this sort of thing, and I'd be surprised if the £50,000 fine levied by the watchdog is ever paid. In a way, it's no worse than the flimsy scratch-and-win game cards that fall out of magazines by the million. I don't know whether the prizes on offer ever come close to justifying the money spent by people phoning up to claim, but there must be enough people regularly going in for them to keep the printing presses going. And that isn't any worse than the quid-up-front scratchcard lottery games: I can't quite see the point, but then I get my cheap and pointless thrills in other ways. Presumably Moby Monkey -- and hasn't it been fun hearing the newsreaders on Radio 4 trying to say that company name without giggling -- would have got away with it if it had been slightly less parsimonious with the prizes, which were nowhere near as nice as described. If only they'd waited a little until picture messaging phones were commonplace. Then they could just have offered high quality porn as a prize, thus combining two illicit thrills with the well-known safeguard that no consumer of naughty pictures ever feels quite confident enough to complain to the authorities when they get ripped off. But I fear that where Moby Monkey has blazed a path, others will follow. If I had a bit of seed capital to spend, I'd be looking at a premium rate combined ISP and mobile phone service that guaranteed no spam on either route. It would cost however much it cost to actually provide such a service, but in two or three years' time people will be desperate to pay whatever they have to pay. Friday 30/08/02
There are three things that will never go away: death, taxes and arguments over benchmarks. This time, it's AMD claiming that the Sysmark software from BAPCo has been revised to make AMD look bad and Intel look good. Not by deliberately changing the code to run secret Pentium 4 instructions, but by changing the mix of applications run to favour those that the Pentium 4 just happens to run better. Well, perhaps so. Perhaps not. Does it matter? Benchmarks that run different mixes of application software in an attempt to synthesise a realistic working environment are always on a hiding to nothing anyway -- an accurate simulation would just have the processor wasting a few million instructions every second between keystrokes. If you're genuinely running some mega processing-intensive piece of software where every ounce of efficiency counts, then you're going to go and do the tests yourself. And if you can't be bothered, then it doesn't matter that much. Truth is, benchmarks don't matter, any more than the top speed of your car matters. When was the last time you bought a television based on the maximum brightness of the picture tube, or the sensitivity or signal-to-noise ratio of the front end RF amplifier? Put it another way, I bet that if you took the top executives and engineers from both AMD and Intel, and sat them down at a PC where care had been taken to hide the name and speed of the processor running within, none of them would be able to work out whose chip it was or whether it was 1GHz or 3 GHz. The Pepsi Taste Challenge would be a piece of coke, er, cake by comparison. But the chip companies, locked in a vicious struggle for sales, can't possibly say that. So they'll continue to synthesise outrage together with test results, and we'll continue to report on it all, and everyone will pretend that it's very important. Just do your part and agree, won't you? To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.


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