Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The Tony Blair Mobile Phone Challenge, Microsoft in the land of Oz, failing email, robot seats and robot noses: these are some of Rupert's favourite things

Monday 9/06/2003
We hang out with some posh people, you know. Just the other day, a member of the team -- name withheld for reasons that will become apparent -- was having a quiet, gossipy pint with a senior bod from a large company with considerable interests in government IT and communications issues. Said bod had recently been invited to 10 Downing Street to talk to none other than Mr T about -- well, that would be telling. As you can imagine, security is pretty darn tight thereabouts. You certainly can't take your mobile phone in with you, because heaven only knows what sort of things might be hidden inside (*). Instead, the nice man at the front desk temporarily confiscates the phone, writes your name on a Post-It note he slaps on your mobile before adding it to the pile in front of him. Which means, as senior mystery chap says, you can see at a glance who's in the building, just by reading the Post-It notes. And if you can manage to swap some of the notes over, a task he thought would be trivial to do undetected, you can waltz off with the phone -- and stored numbers -- of the VIP of your choice. Yep, security's high at Downing Street these days. (*) Mobile phones make pretty good bugs. Switch a phone to silent mode, plug in a hands-free kit and then enable auto-answer. Stick the whole lot under the boardroom table with blu-tack. When the Big Boss goes in with his Big Boss Minions and shuts the door, ring the phone from your desk and listen away. Retrieve later, when safe. James Bond? Hah! Tuesday 10/06/2003
Remember when Microsoft introduced product activation with Windows XP? Remember all the squeals from people saying "But what if the activation system fails? What then?" Even if you don't, you can guess Microsoft's answer: "Couldn't happen. Don't worry. You won't even know that it's there." For Australian users last weekend, that was all too true -- it wasn't there. If you had to get a new version of Server 2003 going in a hurry on Saturday, forget it. All you got from Microsoft was a recorded message saying "Gone away. Come back later," leaving you to look at your very expensive CD and wonder whether it'd make a nice coaster. Perhaps that wasn't what you wanted when you bought a super-reliable, five-nines uptime operating system. Tough. Of course, Microsoft has responded superbly to the problem: the company said that it couldn't confirm that anything had gone wrong at all. Perhaps that wasn't what you wanted when you paid all that money to Microsoft in the expectation of support. Tough. If Microsoft remains hell-bent on keeping product activation, the least it could do would be to have a grace period of a couple of weeks on some form of emergency activation code to cover outages like this. Or perhaps the company enjoys giving Linux boosters yet more ammunition. Wednesday 11/06/2003
NTL? Now Try Letters? At least, that seems to be the consensus of our correspondents when we ran a story saying that the email system of the cable company is buckling under the strain. In return, we got more than 100 complaints from affected users, and an admission from NTL to one reader that the email servers had been designed for the intermittent attentions of dial-up customers, not the constant quizzing of always-on cable subscribers. It's badly broken, and needs to be fixed. Yet it's not just NTL. I stayed over at a Demon (Don't email me, oh no) household the other week, and the invective issuing from the frustrated subscriber about missing and delayed emails was identical in every respect to that we received from NTL's users. Then he switched over to an academic mail server he used as an alternative, and for a while all I could hear in the room was a boingy-boingy noise as his missives bounced from there as well. Oh, and swearing. It may be quicker to ask people which email services they're using that have been running well: there seems to be an epidemic of failure across the board. Underfunding and overspamming are the most likely culprits, which combine with the way that email has become essential to so many people's lives to make a frustrating mess. Whether the situation will clear up of its own accord, or whether we'll have to get used to paying a bit more for email services that actually work, is not something I'd care to guess. But I suspect that the days when email was just something you got alongside your connectivity are going away, and that somebody will come up with a decent premium email service with guarantees of service and a posh image. Heck, I'd invest. (Oh, and on our original story -- where we said "Have you got problems? Tell us now!" -- yes, we know that following it with a mailto: tag was just asking for sarcastic comments. Fortunately, most of those got swallowed by the subscribers' mail systems...) Thursday 12/06/2003
It doesn't happen often, but when it does it's enough to make you believe in the fundamental goodness of the universe. Whichever god it is that looks after journalists smiled upon us and delivered a story about smart seats on aircraft. Smart seats stuffed full of sensors that monitor every move and twitch of the lower torso and upper thighs. Smart seats that give us the opportunity for -- oh, thank you -- bottom jokes. It is the lot of the British journalist to be abjectly in thrall to bottom jokes. In fact, anything south of the navel that sticks out or dimples in is fair game. But it is notoriously difficult to indulge in this addiction, even when you're working on a publication with a broad remit: on an IT organ? Forget it. I mean, sure, the air of the office is regularly thick with single entendre puns and deadpan dirt, but nothing we can ever serve up to the reading millions. Fundamentally, we're stuffed. You have no idea how hard it can get... Until today. Thank you, Qinetiq, whose massive taxpayer subsidies -- ostensibly for defence research -- has led to this happy turn of events. Thank you, New Scientist (they like a good willy gag at NS), who put it in our face. A thousand worthy stories about chips and software may go through between each chance of Benny Hill meeting Bill Gates: that's our job, and we delight in bringing you the news, straight up. But give us a chance like this, and the world is new again. Friday 13/06/2003
And in the same, er, vein: from bottom detectors to whiffy chips. Another defence research lab, this time in the US, has announced the world's most sensitive scales. Capable of measuring amounts of stuff down to femptograms by wobbling nanotech rods around, they can also be made sensitive to particular compounds. Tiny scales may not sound very nasal, but that's exactly what noses do -- detect, isolate and measure minute amounts of airborne compounds. This might sound very twee, invoking images of robots skipping merrily along a rose-lined path, stopping from time to time to delicately inhale the heady scents of an English garden in full bloom. But for all their high-tech gee-wizardry, defence labs are there to do the work of governments. And governments want to sniff us to make sure we haven't been doing anything displeasing to them: explosives, drugs, DNA from the wrong place, that sort of thing. With automated noses this sensitive, you might think we'd be heading for an age where naughty powders and things that go bang will no longer be able to pass any sort of checkpoint. Experience suggests it won't work: there are plenty of tales of drug smugglers wandering down the aisle of the plane surreptitiously shedding small amounts of contraband either side so that everyone triggers the sniffer dogs. And then there are the playing cards that smell like explosives. All that will happen is that the powers of law and order will get into an expensive and futile arms race with the big boys, with plenty of collateral damage among the hapless and innocent. And this will happen: I'd put money on it. Ten dollars, in fact. That one there, the one I brought back from San Francisco which -- like most banknotes in the US -- probably has detectable amounts of cocaine on it. I'm going to use my own nanotechnology nose for a far more acceptable drug: this weekend is to be spent in Edinburgh and Glasgow, with a fair amount of sniffing, schooshing and swallowing some of Scotland's more famous product. Chin-chin! Click here to see more of Rupert's diaries.

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