Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Rupert has issues with balance this week, with toppling Segways, unsettling billboards and a diet of Microsoft for breakfast and dinner

Monday 29/09/2003
Segway stumbles. A recall by the company for safety reasons -- exactly what it doesn't need -- reveals that they've only sold around 6,000 of their electric shopping trolleys. The golden era predicted by its fans when cities are designed around the idea seems further away than ever. The curse of the C5 still holds good.

By now, the Segway's farcical aspects are far more famous than anything positive about the device. We've all seen the videos of President Dubya trying and failing to stay upright on the thing, and the company's noted refusal to allow a Bond-style Segway chase sequence in Austin Powers must be the most short-sighted bit of brand management since a haircare company signed up Beckham just before he visited the barbers. People are having Segway races anyway, dressing the things up as chariots, building them out of Lego and generally treating the whole idea as a risible toy produced by a mad, misguided genius. See what I mean about the C5?

Perhaps the final word goes to Trevor Blackwell, a self-confessed Silicon Valley nerd, who has cobbled together a suspiciously functional clone www.tlb.org/scooter.html for a third the price and a tenth of the complexity. Controlled by a mere 200 lines of code and some off-the-shelf bits, this one man effort does nearly everything produced by the enormously expensive development behind the real thing.

Ah, says the true Segway fan, but can it climb kerbs? You may have seen the classic promotional video, where a Segway gingerly approaches the side of a road, sizes up the problem and then perkily pops over the barrier in a virtuoso show of computer controlled dynamic equilibrium. Blackwell is up to the challenge, as a video clip on his own site proves: he approaches a similar kerb, steps off, picks up his scooter, places it gently on the pavement, remounts the steed and whirrs away.  On balance, I think he's the winner.

Tuesday 30/09/2003
There are times when technology is not your friend. Imagine staggering through Soho after an evening's intensive alcohol therapy, weaving your way down to Piccadilly Circus and the welcoming tube home, only to come across the World's Widest Active Billboard. Coca-Cola has built this very thing, a paen to old-style advertising and an enormous mug's eyeful of glittering pixels. It's vast, it's colourful and it's in the service of selling sugar water.

So far, so good. But those evil marketeers at Coke aren't content to leave it at that. No, they've given the darn thing the ability to sense its environment. If it's raining, the thing weeps giant virtual raindrops; when the wind blows, the image ripples. For the sensorially challenged, whose legs have turned into virtual Segways, the sight of the side of a building blowing in the wind may not be entirely welcome.

It gets worse. Video sensors tucked away in the evil device, it will be able to spot people waving at it from the street below and react accordingly. Text messages sent to it will provoke a response. A more terrifying target for hackers is hard to envisage. "GOODWINS!" it will silently yell in letters the size of a London bus. "YES! YOU BOY! You're REVOLTINGLY drunk. And WHO is that with you? Does HER FATHER KNOW?"

It is, I fear, perhaps the best targeted force for moral good and the consumption of soft drinks yet invented. I doff my hat to the sucrose-fuelled minds behind it, and promise in future to catch the tube from Leicester Square instead.

Wednesday 1/10/2003
It's rare for a day to be as pleasingly balanced as this. In fact, it's rare for a day that starts before dawn to be pleasing at all. But I'm up with the lark -- more accurately, the inelegantly wasted urban fox I disturb on my way out past the bins at the back of the flat -- to do an interview on BBC Breakfast about Microsoft's Media Center. What do I think? I'm tempted to lapse into Fast Show mode: A thousand pounds? For a television? With Microsoft's reputation? I try and get across that the basic idea of a home server is fine, but making an XP-based PC do the task isn't that good a plan. I fear I might have been slightly negative. Oh dear.

Lunchtime sees me at the launch of the new Palm Tungstens, which is cunningly disguised as lunch. Before, after and between courses, we're treated to PowerPoints from Palm and three of its bestest friends. These don't aid digestion: the worst by a mile is Oracle's suit, who barely mentions Palm but just gives us the standard pitch about how clever Oracle is and how many people it's managed to sack by using its own software. The assembled hacks, who are being kept from their nosh by this unpalatable fare, are not impressed. It's a very well-attended occasion, although anyone turning up in the hope of lugging away actual hardware is doomed to more disappointment: it transpires that there are but four review units allocated for the whole of the UK. There are around forty journos there; given the average review cycle of two weeks at best, that means it'll take around half a year for them all to get fingers on stylus. Look out for the "We review the brand new Tungsten!" headlines in March. Not.

But the seal of the day is provided, once again, by Microsoft. For the official launch of Media Center, we are invited to a very posh club just off Regents Street -- almost opposite Hamley's toy shop, which you can see as ironic if you're that way inclined. Most of the office are told "You cannot come; it's full"; unheard of for an important launch -- in the event, of course, entire armies of magazine journos turned up on spec and got in. Not the rest of ZDNet UK, who very sensibly decided to take Microsoft at its word and go and have more fun elsewhere.

Inside the club, a huge square room with an impressive glass cupola is dotted around with PCs and video projectors, and scurrying uberhip waitpersons who don't let a chap take so much of a sip of Bill's fizz before topping up. A boat has been pushed out.

I'm barely inside -- wearing a red Press badge around my neck, the significance of which becomes clear later -- when Microsoft's PRs descend. They've seen the breakfast show, and are keen to put me right on my terrible misconceptions. There's a basic law of consumer journalism: the nastier you are about a company in public, the nicer it tries to be to 'put you right'. To get the full force of this, it's best to be thoroughly off-message in as public a way as possible: BBC 1 fulfils that brief admirably.

So I get ushered to The Special Cinema Room, where "You'll see just how wonderful it is, Rupert, playing high-definition films you just can't see any other way. And if you like, we'll get you the kit to look at." My! In The Special Cinema Room is a huge plasma screen, millions of speakers scattered around and a pile of computer kit throbbing away. It's running Media Center, and playing clips from Terminator, cinema adverts and the like. As I enter, the screen's showing a massive Hollywood explosion, great orange broccolis of flame sprouting across the picture. The PR goes into his spiel, while I stare at Arnie.

"Scuse me," I say. "It just dropped a frame." The picture judders slightly and skips a beat.  "Ah," said the PR, "not really... but this is really so good, it's at the limits. When we get four- or five-gigahertz processors, it'll be fantastic." "There's another," I say, "but well, those special effects are difficult to compress. I guess." The image changes to a chunk of titles, scrolling slowly across the screen, plain white on black. It shudders again and gives that little hiccough so characteristic of a streaming video system not quite up to the job. "Um." I say. "You've got good eyesight!" says the PR, and steals silently away.

No plasma screen kit for Rupert today. But to be honest, when a £40 DVD player from Tesco's can do a better job than kit costing fifty times as much, I'll survive. I drink more of Microsoft's champagne, investigate the true high spot of the evening (the loos, shaped like giant eggs, which are all anyone can talk about), and catch a bus home.

Oh, the red tags? It turns out that various PRs and Microsoft partners at the launch are under strict instructions to "Pick a red tag at random and talk to them". Which is as farcical as you may imagine, heightened by the fact that the journos have all been given little silver USB drives with the MS press info on. These hang from the tags as well, but as none of the partners have been given any most of the conversations revolve around the partners and PRs desperately trying to blag the kit from the journos. A most agreeable sensation.

It was a good day.

Thursday 02/10/2003
To lunch with a couple of pals, one old, one new, from the world of mobile phones. There's a wide-ranging discussion over the pasta and salad nicoise, covering stuff like the Israeli hack of the GSM encryption standard, which has proved a durable headache. It'll take two years to get a hackproof version of GSM flushed through the system, and two years for other technology to advance to the point where the attack becomes a real problem. A bit of a race, and I get the feeling that a lot of people are taking it very seriously: it might, however, be just the thing to get 3G going -- that standard is a lot more secure.

There are other things going on in the exciting world of mobile phones. At one point, the battery pack of a Nokia is slipped off and a small, anonymous black sticker revealed in the battery compartment. "Know what that is?" the Nokia owner says. "It's an RFID tag." Nokia, it transpires have been tagging their phones for a while now - nothing suspicious, just supply chain management. But, naughtily, the tags aren't disabled when the phones are retailed to the customer. It's this sort of leakage that'll cause most problems when people find out about it: do you want Nokia to be able to tell whenever you walk past a scanner?

There's a certain irony -- that word again -- in a mobile phone getting tagged, of course, as the darn things are such good active location reporting devices anyway. If someone had told George Orwell that the citizens of the 21st century would be constantly scanned by a global electronic network that knew their position to a few metres and whom they'd been talking to, he'd have been shocked and impressed. But that this was not only a voluntary state of affairs but people spent considerable sums of their own money for the privilege? I think he'd have refused point blank to believe anything quite as obviously foolish.

Friday 3/10/2003
The true and shocking state of the BBC is revealed this morning, as Nick Hornby guests on Desert Island Discs. I'm no fan of the man, and find his brand of sensitive laddism irksome. My idea of hell is being forced to watch Arsenal play while listening to Bruce Springsteen with a emotionally illiterate bloke in the middle of a mid-life crisis: you can imagine how much I like the books.

However, Sue Lawley's brand of soppy ineptitude proves no match even for Hornby. I listen with half an ear to the show while tapping away at the diary: sometimes I think Radio 4's daytime schedule only exists as aural wallpaper for the middle classes to do something else to. No adverts, no music you might actually want to pay attention to, and just You and Yours to help you get a decent head of spleen up.

At the end, of course, it's time for the luxury item. Hornby chooses an iPod with seven thousand tunes on. This of course negates the whole idea of DID and is a stunning slap across the face for the format of one of the BBC's longest-running shows. Summoning up the full force of her years of inquisatorial experience, Sue Lawley strikes: "What's an iPod?"

Hornby explains. "It plays MP3s". The sound of enlightenment failing to dawn fills the nation's airwaves. Hornby explains further. Finally Lawley twigs, and works out that he's pulling a fast one.

"Oh, well... you can have it, but nobody else will be allowed."

Roy Plomley must be revolving at 78RPM in his grave. Gone are the days when a luxury would be closely examined for conformance to the rules of non-utility or any hint of cheating. In Plomley's day, Hornby would have been sent packing with a Subbuteo set or something equally suited.

How can we trust the BBC when it plays fast and loose with the very fabric of its most hallowed institutions? Questions must be asked in the House, and Sue Lawley sent on a intensive course of cultural and technological re-education. Nothing else will do if the nation is to survive.

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