Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Rupert takes to the skies this week - it's farewell to Concorde, but hello to anyone with Bluetooth on the tube!

Monday 20/10/2003
Our intrepid telco ranger, Graeme Wearden, is off again. This time, it's to the holy grounds of BT to meet Dave Hughes, CEO of Wireless Broadband. BT's got a big push on for mobile office magic, where you can "free your workers from their desks and make them effective and contactable anywhere," and Hughes is the driving force.

Now, BT isn't one of those companies that says one thing and does another, oh no. In that lovely marketing image, it eats its own dog food. When Wearden arrives at Buzby HQ it is at once apparent that Dave Hughes has indeed been freed from his desk. Doubtless, he's being extremely effective somewhere. It's just the contactable bit that proves a problem – hey, two out of three ain't bad.

For forty-five minutes, the PR plies our man with coffee and digestives in the canteen while despatching ever more frantic messages to all points within the mighty BT machine. Every so often, she leaps up, points at a surprised passer-bt and goes "Ah! Here he is!" only to find that here he isn't. "There are a lot of balding men in suits in BT," she sighs, and the increasingly caffeinated hack can only agree.

Eventually, all is well. Hughes shows up – he's been with a customer and had his mobile on silent – and Scoop gets his story.

And I get mine. Now that's what I call a productive use of mobile technology.

Tuesday 21/10/2003
A domestic crisis keeps me at home this evening, and so I have to miss the launch of Microsoft Office 2003. Which proves to be a mistake: reports filter back that strange forces have been at work behind the scenes.

The format of the affair is anything but strange – this is standard info-lite entertainment for suits, with fake interviews, happy partners and pallid marketing spiel proclaimed from the stage. Most of the assembled hacks are there to get the software and meet their pals, having long since learned that this is not the sort of event from which you get anything resembling a story. Attendance is done in the world-weary spirit of seeing a school play, and more than one journalist is sinking into presentation catatonia when their more alert companions surprise them with stifled laughter.

A couple of examples. We know that Office is great for supply chain management, office automation, running a company, blah-di-blah-di-yada. And Microsoft is well within its normal range of behaviour in concocting a fake supermarket chain to make sure that even the dullest scribbler gets the point. But why name the company after the nation's favourite ex-drug dealer and dope smoker, Howard Marks?

It is true that the man got where he is today – not to mention Term Haute Penitentiary, Indiana – by innovative supply chain management, and that when Microsoft said it helped deliver Howard Marks' biscuits it could easily be talking about the arrival of sufficient chocolate Hob-Nobs to fend off the man's munchies. As for provisioning Howard Marks' raw materials, it's good to know that Office is sufficiently flexible to cope with even the most non-standard of enterprises.

And was it really a good idea to have some hapless woman stand up on stage and say that she hates waking up in the morning to find her box stuffed with spam?

Wednesday 22/10/2003
It's time for the Loebner Prize, the contest to see if artificial intelligence is up to passing the Turning Test. Can a computer masquerade as a human in an online chat? Turing proposed this as a way to spot real machine intelligence more than fifty years ago, and you'd hope that some progress has been made. The winner is a German program called Jabberwock – for some reason, Alice in Wonderland style nonsense prose is a popular reference among AI workers – and it is conveniently online for us all to play with. I for one cannot wait for this technology to work: it'll make getting interviews and writing columns so much easier, as it'll never be away from its desk when the call comes in.

So I give it a go.

You:...Let's talk about SCO's Linux strategy
Bot:....Hey, great idea! Go for it!
You:...Is it a morally correct move to protect legitimate IP rights, or a cynical land grab driven by commerical desperation?
Bot:....Tough! Too bad you aren't equipped to give that question some more thought, Rupert.

That's telling me. Darn thing must be running SCO Unix. Let's try something a bit more down to earth.

You:...Should I buy a Mac or a Windows PC?
Bot:....Are you more comfortable with computers or people?
You:...Depends on the people. And the computers. Which should I buy?
Bot:....Computers are not the only things worth talking about.

Ok, ok. One final effort to demonstrate intelligence (on either side):

You:...Fancy a beer?
Bot:....This is getting repetitive. What did you say?

Clang! Game over. We'll know for sure when we've got true AI when the computer says "Yes!" to the beer, goes out in the evening, wakes up in the morning with the hangover from hell, says "Never again" and then goes out the next evening to repeat the experience.

Thursday 23/10/2003
I have temporary possession of the new Palm Tungsten T3 PDA, and very nice it is too. It certainly livens up tube journeys, not so much because of the games and MP3 capabilities but through its integrated Bluetooth. Set it up for device discovery, and over the course of a half-hour trip you can get a good sampling of what all those early adopters are actually carrying. Most Bluetooth devices default to the product name and most people don't change this – so I can tell that Nokias are by far the most popular choice with 6310 at the top of the list followed by 7650s. A couple of T610s and a solitary P900 (ooh!) show up too.

It's more fun when people do personalise the device name. The temptation to stand up in a crowded tube and shout "Richard Jones? Richard Jones! We have the results! From the clinic!" when his name pops up on the screen is almost irresistable. Of course, you can't help but wonder who's scanning your pocket: I predict a big surge in network monitoring and diagnostic software.

It also can't be long before some smart games software company includes the ability for PDA and phone owners to advertise their willingness to play over the air. That hour-long commute will go a lot faster if you switch on your Palm and find that somewhere on the train, Igor the Bloodstained is up for a quick deathmatch. Or that Bombshell is up for a swifty after work. In fact, what we need is a standard XML schema for advertising all the things one might want to communicate to passers-by,  together with a selection of actions the passer-by might wish to take if sufficiently intrigued.

It'll get really interesting with the next generation of wireless personal networks and the promised LAN of hundreds of megabits. "I have the latest Distillers CD. I want Burt Bacharach." The RIAA will have to buy detector vans...

Friday 24/10/2003
Today is a good day to watch the skies. Not only are the last three Concorde flights due in quick succession at London Heathrow, but even bigger forces are gathering overhead. The Sun has grown a couple of the largest, most active sunspots seen for a  long time, and they're spewing huge amounts of energetic crud in mighty dollops of cosmic plasma. These coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can cause all manner of interesting effects if they hit Earth -- a big one yesterday may just strike a glancing blow, but another one from the day before is heading straight for us. It's due to hit tonight.

The Earth's magnetic field deflects nearly all the nasty stuff, but the side effects can be spectacular. Radio conditions have been terrible all week, and there's a fair chance of some really good aurora this evening -- possibly visible from most of the UK. In extreme cases -- and these CMEs may measure up --  huge induced voltage surges can knock out power lines, satellites can be disabled and navigation systems may go wonky. There's also increased radiation on airline flights -- and the higher you go, the more there is.

None goes higher than Concorde. There's something apt in the plane's last flights happening on a day when its natural environment at 57,000 feet is the most hostile it's been for years. With its radio knocked out by the crippled ionosphere, the thin air around it swarming with radiation and  its navigation in the lap of the Sun God, the old lady is getting quite a send-off from the sea in which she swam.

Happy landings.

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