Rupert Goodwins' Diary

A week in which Team Refusnik got out of sports day with a note from mum, a BT engineer revealed the true complexity of his job and details emerge of the plucky Brit taking on Intel

Monday 19/7/2004
We may not be the only species with opposable thumbs, but we've certainly made the most of them. From 'thumbs aloft' specialist Paul McCartney to the mighty Tubbin tradition of the Civil Service (thumbs up bums, brains in neutral), these funky phalanges are an essential part of our culture and capabilities.

Which makes it odd that the world of computers has largely ignored them. Why is this most powerful and dependable of digits demoted to bashing a space bar, or dully grasping a mouse? Enter the Jackito -- a new PDA from our Continental cousins in Gaul. Tscha, I can hear them tutting already: it's not a PDA, it's a TDA, a Tactile Digital Assistant. Designed to be held like a games controller -- landscape, rather than portrait -- and to be controlled by thumbs alone. Not a bad idea, at that, although the claim on the Web site that the touch-sensitive technology cost 'tens of millions of dollars to develop' seems a tad rich.

Ah yes, the Web site. Reading it is like being wafted back in time 20 years, to a world where hardware was king. Applications software? Ah, write it yourself! Our French thumbmeisters are keen to tell us that the Jackito has seven processors! Seven! Actually, it's two microcontrollers and a programmable chip that can pretend to be five, but seven! How many processors has your Pocket PC got, eh? Not enough, you fool.

As for the software - oh, it's so Gallic it can probably brood in five languages. Forget about point-and-click, that's just too Anglo-Saxon for words. Mais non: docteur, demonstration s'il vous plait. "The grammar for Jackito’s Tactile-language consists of only one Golden Rule for building Tactile-sentences: Subject + Verb + Complement (optional). Each verb is always preceded by its Subject (i.e. a Tactile-Object). The Verbs for each Object allow you to manipulate that Object with your fingertips. As soon as you touch a Tactile-Object, it displays its Verbs. So, the selections you make with your fingertips are always guided by the semantic content of the images on the screen." Anything else? "Finger-Input is user-friendlier." Well, I've always thought so.

It has a BASIC interpreter. It has thousands of optional extras, few of which are available yet. It has 100 pages of Web site that somehow fail to talk much about what you'd actually do with it. It costs too much, and it'll be delivered in 90 days. Ah, the 80s are so very, very back.

Do read the site itself for the full effect. C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas une bonne idée. ..

Tuesday 20/7/2004
We're in the middle of reconfiguring our network connectivity here at ZDNet Towers, switching to a fab 100Mbps fibre that will propel our thoughts and words onto the Internet faster than we can type them (we type at roughly 50 bits a second, so we could employ two million journalists before the link gets sweaty).

Of course, it's not as simple as just phoning up Megabitz'R'Us and getting a bloke to pop over. Lots of things have to be co-ordinated both technically and commercially, and there is inevitably a fair amount of sitting around waiting for company A to do something so that company B can proceed.

This week, it's been waiting for the BT Man. We have the termination equipment in, we have the fibre all ready, the patch leads are patched… but the BT Man is needed to check the link, check the router configuration and -- most importantly for the quality of service part of the contract -- make sure that when something goes wrong with the router, it reports back to base automatically. The rest of the checks they say must be done seem commonplace --- we'd be more than able to comply. But not the router failure test. We're looking forward to his arrival: what arcane device, what special skills will he deploy to check?

At last, his hour is nigh. At last, the white short-sleeved shirt and fully-loaded tool bag of our man is sighted above the horizon. With respectful gestures and dutiful motion, we beckon him on: come, come into the comms room and practice your art!

He sizes up the situation with an approving nod, a test meter and aplomb. He calls up his minions, crouched deep in the bowels of whatever chamber of mysteries is at the other end. All is well -- time to do that final, mysterious check.

We press round as he reaches into the packaging the router came in and pulls out a sliver of discarded plastic. With the air of a matador pressing in for the kill, he thrusts it firmly into the fan at the back of the router: there's a momentary silence, then a muffled bleep.

"Get that?" he said into his mobile. "Yep. Fan failure. Good."

"There we go," he said to the spectators. "You're done."

"Was that it?" said a seriously miffed IT guy. "We could have done that days ago!"

"And ruin your guarantee?" said the BT man. "Hardly. Bye, now!"

Truly, there are things about this business I will never fully understand.

Wednesday 21/7/2004
It's time for our quarterly company day out. It's actually half a day out: we have an hour-long meeting to discuss the progress this quarter and then, if we've made any money, we go out and try and get rid of it as soon as possible. By a fearsome combination of people off on their hols and others in their sickbeds, it falls to me to present the stuff about ZDNet UK edit and sales: I find myself for the first time stuck in front of a PowerPoint presentation talking about finances, which is a bit like asking a voodoo priest to officiate at Landover Baptist --about the only thing worse would be to forced to relive a school sports day.

After the meeting, we pile onto a bus to go off to the festivities. Which is -- oh, joy -- School Sports Day! Just like last time! This time, however, I am prepared. Having identified the mystery member of the all-powerful Ents Committee in charge of selecting teams, I have sent in a note from my mum saying I'm allergic to exercise. I've also gathered around me Team Refusenik -- motto, Non Captivant Sunt, Quiviscumque In Laboratore Cleptant (Whomsoever hides themselves in the chemistry labs is not caught) -- and have thus dug out three of my fellows who for reasons of health, good taste or rancid laziness will also have none of the promised three-legged, egg-and-spoon and sack races.

The sports ground was a good hour away across town by coach, which means we had to make our own entertainment for a while. As an irrepressible member of sales promptly started off a game of Rude Charades, Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden flipped through some emails on his 3G-equipped laptop. An interesting press release about the Hi-Tech Crime Unit nabbing some online Russian mobsters got his attention. "Hey, guys, let's have the show right here!" he cried as he dialed up the press officer.

One interview later -- conducted on one ear with the other being lambasted with pornographic film titles -- and the story was in. During the interview, Andy of our sister site silicon.com had been writing a few paragraphs of background: the laptop got passed to production princess Amanda who turned it into two stories, one for silicon.com and one for us, and dispatched via 3G back to the publishing system.

By the time we got off the bus at Perivale, the story was live. Team Refusenik identified and infiltrated the bar, while our more energetic colleagues got down to some serious mud-knee interfacing: everyone happy. Except, we imagine, the Russians.

Thursday 22/7/2004
Long-term followers of the great Internet child-porn debate will be unsurprised that some confusion has followed BT's announcement that it has blocked hundreds of thousands of attempted accesses to naughty sites. Much about the Cleanfeed Web filtering system seems unclear -- BT says that it actively decided not to record who fell foul of the blocker, but as it is legally required to pass information on all Web accesses to the authorities under RIPA, this decision may make no difference whatsoever. In any case, you can be sure that the authorities will have demanded this information -- or may be scanning logs to find it out in any case. Also, it would be remarkable from a technical point of view if the people within BT who implement Cleanfeed don't keep logs to see how it's working, where the chokepoints are, and what the patterns of usage are telling them about how to enhance or fine-tune the service.

And then there's the question of what an access actually is. One click on a link can result in many access requests to a server -- even if the page that you're trying to look at isn't on that server. The wild world of online porn is particularly bad at this, with many sites embedding adverts and images on each other's pages. And most of the trade in the nasty stuff is taking place elsewhere on the Internet anyway -- IRC, FTP and P2P being nicely decentralised, uncontrolled systems that don't lend themselves to monitoring or blocking.

So from BT's announcements, we know almost nothing except that certain sites were blocked and some traffic stopped. Who created that traffic -- groups of dedicated pornhounds, hapless surfers clicking on spam at random, even people trying to mess up BT's statistics -- we cannot tell. What impact is it having on the amount of child porn circulating? Your guess is as good as mine: mine is not very much.

So when a gaggle of MPs get together to say things like BT's efforts are "an important deterrent to those accessing child pornography material on the Internet", the only sane response is "Maybe." If it's doing no good, then the effort and publicity should go towards something that does work: if it's working well, then BT deserve support. But we have to know which of the two it is -- headline figures and flagwaving do nobody any service.

Friday 23/7/2004
A word can have more than one meaning. Take Intel, which of course is the name of our very favourite chip company in the world ever. Short for 'Intelligent Electronics', it's stood the test of time admirably: even the logo has a timeless quality about it. Intel, however, has an older meaning as shorthand among the security and intelligence services for, well, intelligence -- hard-won information about those in whom you have an interest.

It is in this capacity that the private investigation company 7Intel uses the word in its name. Does Intel (the chip company) like this? It does not - and has written to 7Intel saying that the gumshoes are 'passing-off' their company as Intel and unless… you know the rest. Hand over the Web site and change your name, or Suffer The Wrath.

7Intel is run by ex-military investigator Gary Stapleton -- in fact, looking at the Web site, one suspects that 7Intel is Mr Stapleton -- who doesn't sound like the sort of chap to take this sort of thing sitting down. He says that nobody reading his Web site would be at all confused, and that this sort of thing is just not on. "I'm more than capable of taking care of myself and so am not intimidated by some American organisation that thinks it can just march in and take over someone else's country & natural resources (oops, oh dear, sorry, we meant collateral & trading name) without any legal basis, he chortles in a press release. "It's like Coca-Cola trying to trademark 'Cola'."

More ominously, he says: " On behalf of all the ‘little people’ Gary would like to advise Mr Gary Kershaw of Intel UK and Mr Andrew Grove Chief Exec of Intel Corporation that he will "see them in court", -- and would also like to take the opportunity to remind them that they may not want him (or his fellow professionals) looking too deeply into their affairs." And by way of a free gift, the press release includes a long list of links to places where Intel (the chip company) is currently under investigation -- as well as some to quick primers on the British law regarding passing-off.

Scary stuff, even coming from a company based on the Doncaster Great North Road (just between Cemetery Road and Green Lane), and we look forward to catching the denoument. Meanwhile - and we wish to phrase this question with the utmost good will -- if there's any chance you could send us just one copy of your press releases at a time, Mr Stapleton? Hm. Perhaps there's a hidden message in number two…

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