Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Grey goo, dolphins, tablet PCs and hot air hand driers have one thing in common: this week's diary

Monday 3/08/2003
Grey goo: it scares Prince Charles but makes professors chuckle. At least, it makes Professor Gabriel Aeppli -- head of the London Centre for Nanotechnology -- giggle quietly, which breaks the ice. Not that there’s much of that: he and I are facing the cameras for the BBC in a scorching courtyard outside the National Army Museum in Chelsea, and our own nanomachinery is desperately trying to maintain its operating temperature by evaporating salines.

We’re busy recording a discussion about all things nanotech, or at least we’re trying to. The old fashioned macrotech keeps getting in the way: microphone batteries dying (“We’ve got a fix for that” says the Prof, tantalisingly), lights going phzzzzt and the occasional army truck making a noise like unto mighty thunder. To give the BBC team their due, they steer well clear of the grey goo cliché – that one day nanotech will go wrong and a self-replicating nanobot will convert the entire world into one big puddle of the stuff – but it comes up in conversation anyway.

There may not be much chance it happening, but another self-replicating side-effect of nanotechnology is well on its way to taking over the world. According to this story, the nano-prefix itself is rapidly becoming the hip new buzzphrase that people automatically stick on the front of anything that needs to appear high-tech and cutting edge, whether it’s got anything to do with ten to the power of minus nine or not. Nanopants, nano-nappies and Nano Coffee Shops are all here.

Us ancient fogies can remember when micro – ten to the power of minus six – had exactly the same status, at the beginning of the 80s. My first journalism job was working for Micronet, writing about microprocessors and how to make friends with your micro, while sustaining myself with a saveloy bought from the Micro Chip Bar down the road.

On the basis that Moore’s Law applies to catchphrases just as much as to the circuits themselves, we’ll have just ten years until Pico – 10 to the minus 12 – kicks in. Register those domains now: Picopants has quite a ring to it (don’t worry, the nanobots will eat it clean). Then five years later, Femto’s time will come – that already sounds like a fizzy drink. Thirty months later, it’ll be Atto when,  at 10 to the minus 18, we run out.  Just time to convene an emergency committee: perhaps I’ll ask the Prof to contribute.

Tuesday 4/08/2003
A friend phones up in some distress: she’s left her very expensive jacket on a train going down to the West Country. It’s late, she’s tired and she wants to call Plymouth Station before the train gets there so they can check. But none of the numbers she has seem to work any more.

I say I’ll see what I can do, and set about phoning around. National Rail enquiries isn’t answering, and Great Western is permanently engaged.

A perfect excuse to use all these new directory service enquiries, starting with the twin running moustaches, 118 118. They give me the National Rail Enquiries number. That’s not what I want, I say. That’s all you’re getting, they say.

Two more directory enquiries do the same, with only BT offering any sort of explanation. “Security”, says the rather exasperated voice. “They withdrew all the station telephone numbers because of security.”

I know there are some terrible people out there prepared to blow things up, but there’s only so much you can do to a railway station over the phone. Shout very loudly, perhaps? It must be witches, putting curses on the national railway infrastructure: “We’re sorry to announce the late arrival of the 19:03 from Paddington: this is due to a plague of newts in the buffet car and the driver being turned into an elderly okapi.” Mind you, it could explain the tendency of solid steel rails to buckle like liquorish whenever the sun comes out.

So if anyone can tell me what the security threat to railway stations is that means they no longer want to talk to their customers, I’d be pleased to hear it. And if it can be adapted to turn spammers into elderly okapis, the rest of the world will be delighted.

Wednesday 5/08/2003
Sometimes, I’m just plain wrong. I know this is a shocking revelation, especially coming from a journalist, but it does happen once or twice per geological eon. Take the Tablet PC – we looked at some of these mutated laptops-cum-gigantic PDAs, and thought “Bit flash, very expensive, not much point.” Perhaps a few early adopters will buy it, I opined, but if you’re not a total gadget freak with a big wallet, forget it. Indeed, reports of warehouses bulging at the seams with unsold units would seem to justify such a stance.

But no. The Tablet PC has found favour with none other than my sainted mother, who normally regards all things computeresque with enough suspicion to convict a pope. It’s my fault: I bought the parents a Freeview box for Christmas, and they discovered QVC. Now QVC has discovered that you can market unwanted Tablet PCs to people who hate keyboards: the beloved matriarch of the Goodwins clan being one such. She’s also writing a book. So they got one in on 30 days' approval, and it seems like they approve: the handwriting recognition works well with her old-school script, learned when they taught things like neat handwriting at school.

So there’s a new market for Bill, and a small slice of humble pie for me. It gets worse, of course: with the printer and Internet access on the PC in the study and my mother permanently installed in the living room, the inevitable question has already been asked. “This wireless networking, Rupert. It sounds like just the thing.” Here we go again…

Thursday 6/08/2003
Readers may remember last year I wrote about seals -- the marine mammals, not rubber rings or American special forces -- being given text-messaging telephones by scientists. Presumably buoyed up by the success of this scheme, biologists in Ireland are now busy plugging dolphins into the phone system. An array of underwater microphones is planned, feeding a dial-up service where you can tune into the merry creatures when you’re in need of some new-age relaxation. Vodafone and dolphin sanctuary scientists are sorting out minor problems – such as dolphins not making noise people can hear while the sea makes far too much of the stuff – but it’s an excellent idea.

 Later that evening, I catch a TV programme where a parrot called Alex is being taught how to browse the Internet through a modified bit of software – to my disappointment, not called Petscape. Clearly, this is a trend: if we can’t stop ourselves wiping out zillions of species, we can at least give the survivors something to do online. It’s a great growth area: there may be six billion humans out there, but there are around 14 million other species to work on once we’ve all got connected. While not everything is capable or interested in using the Internet or the telephone, we can have fun trying. Gibbon-centric Google, anyone, or Dial-A-Platypus?

Friday 7/08/2003
The feel-good spirit of the dolphins hasn’t percolated as far as Vodafone’s billing departments, that’s for sure. You know the three biggest myths of telecommunications: the further the distance the call, the more expensive it is; text messages really do cost telcos more than tuppence ha’penny a thousand; and Oftel has more teeth than an octogenarian squid. Vodafone neatly demonstrated the last of these by using the first two to justify doubling the cost of text messages abroad from 12p to 24p.  This despite a near constant refrain from the chorus of UK and European regulators saying that international mobile comms are hideously overcharged. 

Mind you,  I’m sensitive to this – my mobile phone bill from two weeks in Sweden was more expensive than the plane ticket. For six calls. Meanwhile, in the US, I hear that T-Mobile (my operator) is busy selling Wi-Fi access at hot spots for a mere dollar a minute. Assuming $30 a month for DSL access, and $100 for the wireless access point, that means the installation pays for itself in two hours of use and half an hour a month thereafter. Everything else is sheer profit. That must look spectacular on someone’s business plan, no matter what numbers you plug in for actual users – until that number tends to zero.

We’re currently running our first awards here – see www.cnet.co.uk/awards --- and your nominations are welcome. Me, I’m lobbying for The Most Arrogant Pricing Plan That Shafts Users -- Just Because We Can award for telcos. But I suspect there’ll be some stiff competition.

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Bad Joke department: when shown an Internet-enabled hand dryer, our intrepid reporter asked “Does it use SOAP?”. “No,” said the non-plussed PR, “You use it after you’ve washed your hands.”

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