Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Magic cloaks and silly ships are no help if you're trapped in Digital Home Hell with your Oyster in the washing machine. Then comes the email from beyond the grave...

Monday 14/06/2004
Everyone's playing How Not To Be Seen today. Japanese inventor Susumu Tachi has unveiled -- well, de-cloaked -- his amazing Retro-Reflectum coat of invisibility, which projects an image forwards of whatever's behind the wearer. The most important thing for this trick, besides sounding like a spell from Harry Potter, is to make it work no matter what angle the viewer is looking from -- the still pictures of the coat don't show you this.

This needs a huge matrix of sensors, processors and display segments. The second most important thing is to be able to match the brightness of the scene around you: easy enough in the dark, but harder if you walk in front of a kilowatt halogen spotlight. So you need a lot of power.

In other words, to make it all work you need the equivalent of the Hubble telescope mixed with Piccadilly Circus and a small power station stashed somewhere unobtrusive. But these are all technical details: I'm sure Susumu has them well in hand.

Meanwhile, navies are getting the hang of the stealth warship -- the Swedes have their Windows--NT powered Visby corvette (no jokes about the shipyard name, Kockums, please), while the US Navy is hard at work building the DD (X) destroyer. Northrop Grumman Ship Systems has been given the task of making this hugely automated, low radar profile black ship -- let's hope they've read Ben Rich's account of his attempts to build a stealth ship when he was in charge of Lockheed's Skunk Works in the 80s -- when an entirely successful trial of a ship that slipped through radar and took about four men to run led to the termination of the contract, because the US Navy wanted big ships full of beefy men more than anything else in the world. Certainly more than they wanted, say, an effective defence force. "Starve before you do business with the Navy", he said.

I have a perfectly serviceable method of how not to be seen that needs neither politics nor pocket nukes. Be somewhere else.

Tuesday 15/06/2004
Intel is positively seething with new products, so it's off bright and early for their latest exciting offering. I'm told it's the new Grantsdale chipset, and that it's at an address somewhere in Acton. Acton?

It turns out to be in a very large shed -- apparently, part of a film studio's stage -- in the middle of Nowhere, W3. The sky is a stark, clear blue as I climb out of the tube station: the route to the venue involves walking along the great congested artery of the A40, past endless car show-rooms, low-rise malls and bleak 1930s industrial units. There are plains of rough grassland, there are seas of glass and brick: there are no people. As I trudge through the June heat, anonymous cars sighing along to the left of me and the thistles swaying to the right, weird electronic music on the iPod, it feels exactly as if I'm in a J G Ballard novel.

Later, a tall, blue-shirted figure appears through the heat haze. He is sweating but smiling and holding a piece of paper labelled Intel. "This way!" he says in an indeterminate northern European accent, pointing down another long, dusty road that cuts straight through huge, anonymous buildings. Clearly, some hacks have already been this way and got lost: Intel, nervous that its self-delivering prey might yet slip free, has deployed its outriders.

I arrive at the Intel launch, a little late but still under the near-hallucinogenic spell of the journey. Outside, Intel-brand flags flap unattended in the warm breeze: inside the huge soundstage doors, all is pitch black. As the PR ticks my name off and pins my badge on, my eyes adjust: there, in the distance, is a man expounding. I find a seat and settle down to watch.

The first susurrations of doubt began to finger my good intentions. Our man was giving forth on, dear Lord, the Digital Home. You will know all about the Digital Home because it has been a constant theme of nearly every consumer electronics maker for the past ten years. Active devices, big TVs, Internet access, everything linked, new era of blah blah blah. I thought I was coming to talk about chips: instead, I was getting pictures of dolphins in gliders. No, sorry, there were two video streams: one of dolphins, one of gliders. The man said they were coming from the same computer: no way of checking, of course, but what was clear was that… yes, there it went. The images were jumping every so often. Not very much, but noticeably.

And then it was time for the Big One. The Future Of Home Entertainment. The room went dark, a huge screen lit up, 7.1 channels of surround sound surrounded us, and Master and Commander thudded onto my retinas. Two things struck me immediately: it was very, very loud (standard hi-fi selling trick: louder sounds better) and what had been mild hiccoughing with the dolphins was a great spasm on screen. There was Russell Crowe on the big screen, jerking like crazy: I know that there are plenty of women who would pay good money for this, but as an advert for Intel's fabbo chips it was less than impressive.

The smoke cleared, and the house lights came up. I flicked through the press pack: marketing bumph on "A Manifesto for the Digital Home" -- 20 pages. Technical details on Grantsdale: two sides of A4. With no technical details.

I looked up. Man on stage was announcing an hour-long round table about, yes, the Digital Home. As the first invitee started talking about "e-tailing silver goods" I made my excuses and left, slipping gratefully back into the Ballardian hyper-reality of the Acton industrial landscape. Invisibility was never so necessary.

Wednesday 16/06/04
Last year, I wrote about London Transport's Oyster card -- an RFID ticketing system that lets us Londoners skip nimbly around the capital from tube to bus to train without relying on little bits of paper. Only, as I pointed out at the time, it does rely on little bits of paper. The danger was that there was more to lose than before, so the chances of something going wrong were therefore multiplied. Oh boy. If only I'd known.

On Monday, y'see, I put my Oyster through the washing machine. You might think that anything named after a marine bivalve should be able to cope with a little water, but not my Oyster. It came out looking pale: tests showed it was completely inoperative. And, of course, I had my little proof-of-purchase card and my picture ID card in the same wallet: these had deliquesced completely.

No problem, I thought. I'll just shimmy on down to the nearest tube station. Their mighty computer will know all about me and my card. They'll issue a replacement lickety-spit.

You're ahead of me, aren't you? You know, as I knew, that this was not going to happen. But I persuaded myself that it might.

I went to the tube station. "Not us, guv. You need to phone the Oyster helpline." I phone the Oyster helpline. "We're closed until tomorrow." I wait until tomorrow. I phone the Oyster helpline. "You need to get a form from the tube station."

It's started.

Return to station. Station closed. Walk to next station. Bloke is about to clock off at end of shift: is not impressed with what he sees. Moreover, he's never had to do one of these forms before. He pushes it at me -- it requires everything but my inside leg measurement. "Can't you just get my information from your computer?" I ask, helpfully. "We don't have access to your personal information, Sir," he said loudly, in tones implying nincompoop status. You had it when I bought the card in the first place from you, I think. Silently.

Our conversations were hindered by the thick glass plate London Underground employ for this very purpose: there are what look like speakers either side, but I think they just waft Aggravating Gas at the punter.

I look at the form. "What's this Security Code it wants?" I ask, not unreasonably. There's a space for it, but no explanation. Clocking-Off Bloke sighs. "I'll just phone the helpline", he says. He mutters into a phone, then he mutters at me.

"Pardon?" I say.

"I SAID, WHAT'S YOUR DATE OF BIRTH?"

"24TH OF JUNE SIXTY-FIVE!" I yell back. (hackers note: it's not)

"WHAT'S YOUR MOTHER'S MAIDEN NAME?"

"SMITH!" (hackers: see above)

"HOW DO YOU SPELL THAT?"

And so on and so forth, while realisation spirals in. The Oyster system is indeed not part of the London Transport system -- although the London Transport system is used to get the data. So, to get the information the ticket office needs, I have to fill in the form. Most of that information, however, is not known to me -- issue date? Expiry date? They were on the ticket. And on Oyster's computer. So if I can't fill in the form, Clocking-Off Bloke has to get it from Oyster using the security checks I gave London Underground when I first got the ticket. Which I have to yell at him in a crowded ticket hall.

No matter. I'll get my mother to change her maiden name later.

This happy dance continues for about quarter of an hour, after which we have jointly managed to siphon off enough data from the Oyster system to let it accept that I am who I am (why, after all this, I need to produce two bits of ID, I cannot tell. But I do. There is much here I cannot tell.). We then send this information back to Oyster, which then lets London Transport issue me with a replacement card.

In short; it was as bad as I could have expected, when it should have been as good as I could have hoped. It took about an hour in all, when a two-minute phone call should have done.

Can't wait for National ID cards.

Thursday 17/06/04
An interesting little flurry of emails floats in from Dave Faber's Interesting People mailing list. One of his correspondents notes rather wistfully that he just got an email from Jon Postel. For a long time, this would have been a matter of joy: Postel was one of the fathers of the Internet, inventing the domain system and playing a big and very connected part in its maturation and growth. Alas, he died in 1998 -- the first of the founding fathers so to do -- so this email was just a piece of mechanically generated spam, which harvested his email address from some Web site or an unweeded address book.

Spookily, it then turns out that Postel's email address is still active. It's quoted in many Internet documents as the place to get more information, so it's maintained and incoming requests honoured. There may never be a point at which it's judged a good idea to turn it off. So it used to be that one's good works lived after you: now it seems as if immortality is more closely bound to the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol.

(Aside: "We have reorganised our instant-messaging business to optimise our ability to leverage the Yahoo network, whether our customers are at work or at home," Lisa Pollock Mann, senior director of Yahoo Messenger, said in a statement. We've tried, GCHQ has tried, we've even communicated with Madame Blatavksy from beyond the grave via Postel's ectoplasmic gateway: nobody has a clue what Lisa Pollock Mann meant. In honour of her achievement, however, I shall be instituting the Load of Pollocks Award for most incomprehensible, downright risible or straightforwardly wrong PR statement. Donations welcome -- but please mark them Pollocks, or Graeme might write them up as a news story)

(Aside x 2: while Microsoft is being coy on its future 3G phone plans, we can perhaps get some idea of what it sees as a major revenue stream from this Web site.)

(Aside x 3: my charming and extraordinarily tasteful fiancée wishes it to be known that when I mentioned being in her "florid dressing-gown" last week, she in fact owns no such garment. I can confirm this, and unreservedly apologise to her for any embarrassment caused. Whether I was wearing her extremely fashionable, demimonde-flirting neo--fetishistic dressing gown, some shapeless garment of my own or in fact nothing at all, I cannot or will not say. But sorry.)

Friday 18/06/04
Our forceful, thrusting News Editor, Michael Parsons, thrustingly forces his way to a PR conference where clients, PR types and journos get together to quest for vision. He enjoys himself, and even gives a little speech about the future of tech journalism

But one of the companies there really got his interest with their particularly cute take on PR. They don't use it like most companies use it, to get news about their activities into the press and to build some sort of fuzzy public image: no, they use it to generate sales leads. Moreover, they can demonstrate this with graphs. And charts. And Powerpoint. Look, here's a visit from the US CEO. Here are the press mentions. And here's the spike in sales leads that follow. Parsons is intrigued, and feeds this back to me.

I'm not entirely comfortable with this idea. Are all our efforts really there just to be milked by some all-seeing data-mining computer, carefully judging how and when to seed information in places that will yield only the heaviest harvest of cash? Is the careful sifting of information, our constant hunt for the unvarnished truth, all to be subsumed in the crass maw of commercial interests? As far as I can tell, the only way to subvert this frightening idea is not to mention the names of any company involved.

Works for me. How about you, Company X?

Hello?

Still, if it really worked that a mention in the press resulted in automatic interest, then yer regular journalists would be snowed under by emails, offers of work, daughters, jewels and dukedoms in small yet wealthy states. I've just checked my inbox, and you lot ain't sent me nothing. Again.

I don't know why I bother.

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