Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Mobile phones can break your heart, writing about storage can damage your health and making jokes can land you in hot water. Where? Rupert Goodwins' week, that's where

Monday 31/03/2003
This story appeared... well, online somewhere. It is a sad warning of how high technology can betray you: the victim asked, piteously, that no journalist republish it and for good reason. But it's too good to pass up. So I'll change all the details except the central one and give absolutely no attribution: having breached most codes of journo ethics, here's the beef. It gets a bit Simon Bates' Our Tune now, so if you can just imagine the music... ta. Our friend, whom we'll call Sarah, was the very happy new owner of two desirable items: a husband and a Sony Ericsson P800. She was out and about one day recently, enjoying the sunshine of a charming rural town and the company of an old friend. As P800 owners do, she felt the urge to demonstrate her toy: so out it came and Web browsing took place. They were sitting on a park bench, poking away at the phone and talking, and the conversation drifted onto what it's like being married. As the friend was a close one, talk was frank and covered aspects of life together that perhaps would require greater tact with the person under discussion within earshot. Or, more likely, would never come up at all. You can guess what happened next. After five minutes, our pal noticed the 'call in progress' icon flashing in the corner of the screen. Uh-oh. She cleared it, and checked -- the phone had called home. A frantic second call established that hubby hadn't actually called her, but had heard everything. Mortified doesn't begin to cover it. Ooops. Turns out the voice-activated calling system on the P800 is very sensitive. It had heard her mention her husband's name in conversation, and made the call. As she was browsing the Web at the time, it didn't show this, except by the discreet icon on screen. He answered the phone, heard himself under discussion, and stayed on the line to hear more. Well, you would. Sarah is still trying to patch things up with him indoors, and divers have yet to retrieve the P800 from the bottom of the local river. For the rest of us, it's a salutory lesson that sometimes in their eagerness to please our machines can betray us in new and terrible ways -- and that anything with a computer, a microphone and a radio transmitter is capable of badness. Tuesday 1/04/2003
I spend the first half of the day on a train travelling between Edinburgh and London, and am thus safe from April tomfoolery. I normally campaign for something silly to appear on the site -- very dodgy for a news organisation, so has to be done with great care and no subtlety whatsoever. This year, though, the war and the general gloom conspire against such japes, and I don't have the spirit to come up with anything. And besides, I'm on a train. Which is just as well. In a small town called Sturgis, somewhere in the vast middle of the USA, seven young men called Kirk, Kyle, Carl, Dustin et al, were at work. They printed up a load of posters saying "All Your Base Are Belong To Us And You Have No Chance To Survive, Make Your Time" and stuck them around the place -- banks, the post office, stuff like that. The local plod notice this -- you have to get up pretty early in the morning to pull the wool over Sturgis' finest -- and decide that terrorists are at work. The FBI are alerted, and in a daring swoop the local plod nabbed the gang. Nobody in the force, needless to say, has ever heard of the video game from which the lines famously come, or came across the phenomenon when it was all over the shop in the press, television and radio. "This is no joking matter," said Sturgis police chief Eugene Alli, reported in the Sturgis Journal. "During a time of war and with the present concern for homeland security, terrorist acts will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." The lads are out on bail, and despite Chief Euge's warnings are unlikely to spend much time in Guantanamo Bay. You can insert your own joke about war crimes here, if you like. Me, I'm starting to work on April 1st, 2004: these chaps have set the standard and I won't be happy unless I spend the night of the 1st in gaol somewhere. Wednesday 2/04/2003
A long time ago, I mentioned to the editor of the magazine for which I worked that I had some experience of uninterruptable power supplies. His eyes lit up with their own special uninterruptable power. "Oh good," he said. "You can write an article on that." "OK!" I said, naively. What I didn't know then -- but was shortly to find out -- is that nobody writes about UPSs because they are universally regarded as dull as ditchwater. However, there's a large market in these devices, which means lots of companies selling them and employing lots of press relations people to try and drum up interest. PRs justify their billing by column inches -- so as soon as some misguided hack actually writes about them, it's like a buffalo falling over dead on the African veldt. As soon as the stench goes up, the vultures gather from hundreds of miles around. And I, dear reader, was that buffalo. I was fending off the phone calls for months. Something similar is happening now with me and storage virtualisation. I should know better, but as you may have read in last week's Diary, IBM tempted me out by promising me tours of research labs, fine dinners and -- quite shockingly -- a genuinely interesting story. Within seconds of the story going live, the first emails had arrived from other vendors saying "Rupert! Just read your excellent piece... you may be interested in our client's fantastic box of sand" and, more scarily: "Our marketing manager for EMEA (*) is in town next week, and would love to talk to you. How does 8:30 a.m. in a hotel in Heathrow sound?" I'll tell you how it sounds, chaps: get me a real story with actual technology, and get it to me after lunch. But these are hard times, and I find myself irresitably drawn into a world with more acronymns than Alphabet Soup night at NASA. SANs, NASs, SMIS, SNIA, the list is endless... and, what's this, Microsoft has got virtual storage in Server 2K3? Oh no -- straight into the belly of the snake! I'm too young to be this dry... (*) If you're not in marketing, you won't know that EMEA stands for Europe, Middle East and Africa. Why these three are grouped together, I have no idea. It's an American thing. Would we have CUSALA for Canada, USA and Latin America? MAA, for Mongolia, Afghanistan and Antarctica? Thursday 3/04/2003
Last week a friend far saner and more far-sighted than I sent me an email from Fiji, where she'd gone to live. Among the usual happy tales -- in which she pointed out the weather, the standard of living, the people, the distance of Fiji from anything likely to nuke, infect or poison me... OK, Christine, I get the message, I'm coming over -- she asks whether I'd heard the rumour that Bill Gates was dead. Shot, she said, during a charity event. The gunman had been killed subsequently. She'd read it online, but couldn't find the news report and had to rush away to do some serious partying. But as I was a journalist, perhaps I could help her out? Quite clearly, nobody had shot Bill Gates. Why would she think they had (well, unless she'd recently had to patch Windows, in which case it's a fair assumption)? I mention this to superscooper Graeme Wearden, who immediately reminds me that this was the plot of an independent movie. Indeed it was, as a quick check on www.billgatesisdead.com proves. I send this site back to Fiji and think no more of it. But the rumour is stronger than that. South Korean TV picks it up this week, and broadcasts it. Other outlets follow, the Korean market slumps by 1.5 percent, panic sets in and there is much wailing and gnashing of tech stocks until a comprehensive "He's not dead yet!" message is issued by Microsoft. It's as if someone came across an old tape of Orson Welles' "War Of The Worlds" and decided it was a current news report. When you think what else is lying around on the Web for future repurposing, it's enough to make you want to run away. Shame even Fiji isn't safe... Friday 4/04/2003
Fancy a weekend project? In a rare moment of unforced sanity, the Radiocommunications Agency -- the bods who fearlessly guard the UK airwaves on behalf of us all -- have decided that it's legal to connect those tiddly little PMR446 walkie-talkies to the Internet. This means you can wander into your local Dixons, pick up a pair of radios for thirty quid or so, hook one up to your computer and use the other as a sort of cordless phone. You need to run some voice-over-the-Net software on your computer and to have someone elsewhere in the world to talk to, but all this is easily arranged. Doubtless, you might even be able to think of something useful to do with the technology. The real fun, if you're so inclined, is to arrange a link with someone who's also got a radio connected to their computer. Then, anyone within range of their PC can talk to anyone within range of yours -- and those little radios can manage about a mile in good conditions. If you've both got broadband or unmetered dial-up access -- this is a low bandwidth business -- then you've got the bare bones of a basic global two-way radio system with no time charges. It all came about because of those darned radio amateurs, who have long been the first to develop interesting, non-commercial wireless fun. There are already networks of ham repeaters hooked up to the Internet, so you can send a low-power local signal in London and it appears on the airwaves simultaneously in Sweden, Argentina, Las Vegas and Nottingham. I tried last night -- I'm G6HVY, but don't tell anyone -- and it works a treat. A bunch of non-licensed walkie-talkie owners thought "that's fun, we can do that", and promptly did. This provoked a very snotty complaint from one of the hams to the RA, saying "we have to get all sorts of authorisation for this, why should they just get away with it?" (you get a lot of this sort of thing with radio hams: then they complain that nobody wants to talk to them. Go figure.). The RA sent back a world-weary reply to the effect that "there's nothing wrong with this", and local access points have started to appear ever since. You can find out more on www.446user.co.uk, but be warned: the site's not very cogently set out, it says things like "you need to register with us for a callsign" when you need to do no such thing, and it's rather obtuse on some details. Nonetheless, it's a good starting point, there's a discussion forum, and it has the makings of a decent resource. Click here to see more of Rupert's diaries.

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