Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Citizen-Consumer Goodwins celebrates Saddam and the 50p iPod while plumbing new depths of official naffness: a year that starts like this can only get stranger

Monday 5/1/2004
You had a good New Year, I hope. Mine? Helluva party in Edinburgh, since you ask: they might have cancelled the official Hogmanay, but we struggled through stuff that fizzed and stuff that didn't. I remember singing rude songs about our hosts at 5 a.m…

The morning after the night before wasn't so much fun -- not least for Goodwins Junior, who had his own party down in London. Even when the hangover cleared, things weren't quite right: by the 2nd, he was in so much pain that he got himself into the nearest A&E while I dashed -- as much as one can dash over public transport at this time of year -- back down.

The details of the lad's affliction need not detain us: a full recovery is on the cards and no permanent damage has been done. But the general misery and frustration of the affair was only heightened by the inability of the NHS to supply the right drugs -- a small supply from the 4 a.m. consultant had to be topped up from the hospital pharmacy. Which was closed for most of the weekend, and "sorry, we can't give you those," from the nurse.

Why not? "There may be side effects, and legally we can't dispense it unless the doctor or the pharmacy nurse has explained things to you." Thanks.

I have no objection to being properly informed about medication, of course, and preferably by someone whose had the full six years or however long it takes to get qualified. But seeing as we had correctly diagnosed the chap's condition (via NHS Direct and other online resources), had access to tons of information about the drug and could clearly demonstrate that we knew about potential side effects, contra-indications and dangerous combinations, why couldn't we get the stuff? It has no abuse potential, very few dangerous possibilities and has been in widespread use for decades.

I'm no doctor, nor will I ever be. But then I'll not have to diagnose or deal with 99 percent of the things that doctors encounter during their working life: I'll have the very small subset of problems that will affect me and my close family. Online systems can help me here -- telling me the right questions to ask, checking that understand what I've been told and so on -- so trusting me to cope with the medication can't be so unthinkable.

It took me three trips to the hospital before I managed to get the medicine the lad needed, each time taking me trudging past brightly lit convenience stores stuffed to the gunnels with paracetamol, cigarettes and booze -- all far more dangerous than the substance I was denied.

Pah.

Tuesday 6/1/2004
A geek is a geek is a geek. But a geek inspired can be a thing of wonder. Take Geoff Marshall, email admin for a big British broadcaster and a man whose true nature is not in doubt. He obsesses about London Underground, to the extent of taking part in attempts to beat the all-stations-visited record. He records fake adverts for Fox's biscuits. He knows all about bank holidays. In short, the man is a classic nerd.

Like all nerds - especially the fashionable ones who pretend they're too cool to wear propeller hats -- he has heard the call of the iPod, and he longs to answer. But like all sensible chaps, he finds Apple's asking price just that bit too high. He was complaining about this in the pub to a couple of friends, and said "If only I could get five hundred people to give me fifty pence each…." As one, they dipped into their pockets and handed over the aforementioned septagonal coinage. "There you go," they said. "Only 498 to go".

A challenge! Geoff needed people - and fast. Where does a geek find people? Online, of course, and with Paypal he could solicit donations with ease. And so his 50p In Da Pod Web site was born. Why would strangers send him 50p? Because he tells a lovely story, that's why -- and also because he'll put your photo up on his site and have a song of your choice dedicated to you installed permanently on his toy, when he reaches his target. At the time of writing, he's up to 186 -- and that'll be 187, 'cos I'm going to send him 50p and ask for Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed. Heh.

So, who on earth would send him money? Other geeks, obviously; people who want a bit of publicity for their own Web site, online service or general silliness, and lots of people who also want an iPod and who clearly think this is going to rub off in some mystic way. Lots from abroad, too: Canada, America, Norfolk… and Iraq.

Yep, Iraq. The best contribution by far comes from Lieutenant Colonel Rick Richardson of the US Army, who's out in Iraq doing that shooty thing. He's an iPod owner too, and wants to spread the love. Cooler still, he sends some pictures of himself posing in full fig and sporting his milspec iPod beside various world-famous Iraqi sights - the Hands of Victory monument, and most gobsmackingly impressive of all, The Famous Foxhole Itself. There it is, in its bricky glory, with L. Col. RR's own iPod perched pertly on the pointing. Just the sort of thing to keep you company while you're growing a beard.

Will Geoff make his target? I'd put money on it. Am I insanely jealous that I didn't think of it first? More than words can say. Will he ever get the world record for visiting all the London Underground tube stations? Now for that, we'll have to wait and see.

Wednesday 7/1/2004
The world might have taken a fortnight off, but that hasn't diminished the intensity of last year's chewiest story -- Linux Versus The Rest Of  The World. SCO continues to issue bizarre challenges to Linux' legitimacy while presenting not one piece of recognisable evidence -- latest fun question: as SCO knew its copyright was being disputed by Novell, how come it didn't mention this in the various financial filings it's had to make?

But Microsoft is champing at the bit to become Open Source Enemy Number One. It's kicked off the year with a major campaign seeking to prove that free software is actually more expensive than its own paid-for stuff.  You can, and doubtless have, read both Microsoft's pitch and the manifold ripostes that are even now clogging the Webwaves, but there's one simple question that I'd like answered. If, as Microsoft says, the actual cost of software licences is as nothing compared to the business of running and supporting it (the fabled Total Cost of Ownership figure), then how come Microsoft makes such enormous amounts of money by selling software licences?

I think the healthiest attitude to all this nonsense comes from the Alameda County Computer Resource Center, slogan "Obsolescence is just a lack of imagination." These people recycle old IT stuff, handing out old computers to people who need them. As you can't easily move software licences around, they often slap SuSE Linux on computers before passing them on. The executive director, one James Burgett, has worked out that on SCO's terms, the Center now owes SCO more than five million bucks.

His conclusion? Come and get us. Sue us. Please. "As you represent no threat and can only bring us press, I humbly request that you use us in your act of corporate self-destruction… Thanks for promoting our message on your dime."

Thursday 8/1/2004
"Hail, Citizen-Consumer!"

Er, what? This chilling phrase -- more redolent of an Orwellian dystopia than anything previously issuing from Nu-Lab Central -- now meets those who go looking for information on radio regulatory issues. Previously the gamut of those jolly chaps and gung-ho lasses in the Radiocommunications Agency, their function has been assumed by uber-regulator Ofcom -- and correspondingly, their Web site has been eaten whole by the big purple amoeba that is www.ofcom.org.uk  It sits there, frozen in time, in the Legacy Regulators museum, mute testament to a universe that halted on the 19th December 2003.

So if you want to read up on the latest goings-on in wireless, you just click on the radio regulatory part of the new Web site, right? Er, no. There is no such part. There is a list of recent press releases -- but as Ofcom is mostly about regulating broadcasters and telephone companies and newspaper proprietors, that's what most of the press releases are about.  How about finding the radio division? It's not clear that one exists -- there are various organelles hidden away in the regulatory protoplasm, but they are called things like Strategy Development and Market Research. Trying to find out what these do is an exercise in wading through the fluffiest consultant speak in Christendom: whatever it is that Ofcom actually does, enriching consultants must be very high on the list.

And so, this particular Citizen-Consumer has to sadly report that his job has got a lot harder. No longer is it possible to take in all recent developments in the UK's radio regulatory firmament with just one click of the mouse. It's ironic that Ofcom has regurgitated this horrible blancmange of a Web site at much the same time that the older Government Web sites are coming under fire for lack of usability and general dreadfulness -- and not for the first time.

Friday 9/1/2004
More proof that Citizen-Consumer will soon be the only occupation permitted by law, as Cisco unveils its first DVD player. Oh, OK, it's Linksys -- now Cisco -- and the DVD player bit is backed up by lots of wireless networking designed to get your DVDs scooped into your network for advanced digital consumption, but the very thought of anything to do with Cisco being designed to entertain your granny is still enough to clash my mental gears.

Not only that, but HP is getting into bed (as they used to say in the last century) with Apple on some weird rebadging scheme to sell the iPod and iTunes under an HP banner. This is really confusing: HP certainly has the engineering nous to make one of those for itself, and the best thing about the iPod is its Apple-flavoured image. You can -- and should -- buy far better equipped MP3 hard disk players that cost less and do more. But no, nobody wants those because they're not Apple iPods. And an HP iPod won't be an Apple iPod either; it'll just be an overly expensive hard disk with a battery at one end and a headphone socket at t'other. Still, it's a measure of how keen everyone is to stake out the consumer space -- as is Intel's $200 million venture capital fund designed to get more chips disguised as essential gizmos into the home.

Me, I'm giving up consumption for 2004. I shall browse on nuts and berries, and only listen to radio programmes I can pick up on a home-made crystal set. Not a penny shall I spend on gadgets and gizmos… but then, with a teenager and London mortgage to support, no change there. I'll be banned from the Ofcom Web site before you can say fostering plurality in the digital age for an inclusively diverse ongoing experience.

Thank goodness.

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