Rupert Goodwins' Diary

No mobile coverage in Scotland, no peace on the train and no shortage of SCO controversy: Rupert's coming home

Monday 16/8/2004
Coming to the end of a long sojourn in Scotland -- mostly Wester Ross and Edinburgh, with a little Perthshire and Fife thrown in -- I realise just how far technology has come, and how far it has to go. At one point I'm in Applecross, a picturesque village on the west coast that's shielded from the rest of the known universe by enormous lumps of rock.

There is no mobile phone service in Applecross. In fact, I suspect that radio waves in general are as rare here as English tourists. Even stalwart Radio 4 on the long wave band -- a signal so reliable nuclear submarines at sea are reputed to use it to assure themselves that civilisation continues -- is beset by wails and crackles like a bagpipe on a bonfire.

However, I must check in with Number One Son, who is back in London awaiting his A level results with nerves of hardened Chivers. I seek out a phone box (30p a call? When did that happen?) and ring home.

"Hi, son," I say. "Sorry I didn't call earlier, but I've been out of mobile range for a couple of days. Not a sniff of network."

"Oh, right!" he says, cheerfully.

There is a pause. I feel bewilderment forming at the end of the line like a cloud of midges sniffing a plump journalist.

"But… if you're out of range, how are you calling me?"

"Call box." I said. "Ooooh!" he said, much in the vein of Tony Robinson unearthing an Iron Age pot with a picture of an auroch on the side.

We must get used to this, fellow travellers. A photographer took his 35mm gear along to a friend's kid's birthday party to shoot the crazed antics of the cake-fuelled prepubescents. He hunkered down, pointed the business end of his very expensive, very superb camera at the broiling melee and let fly with the flash. The result was similar to the aforementioned plump journalist appearing out of doors in the Highland dusk: every one of the noisy, tiny beings in the vicinity stopped what they were doing and headed towards him at Mach 2 with proboscides drooling. The children's disappointment at not being able to see themselves immediately on a small screen at the back of the camera turned into surprise and misery at the discovery that no, not every camera in the world had such a screen.

I know that the Highlands are the home of many fine antiquities, but I never expected to be one myself. Not so soon.

Tuesday 17/8/2004
Edinburgh is ponderously puffing itself up like a bullfrog into full-on Festival mode. An unequalled choice of art, comedy, film, literature and theatrical events parades itself before me: time to get the hell out.

Once again, technology promises so much yet is nearly self-defeating. More proof of my senility is at hand as I settle myself into my reserved seat on carriage G of the GNER Mallard service back to London. Moments later, a rather crumpled bloke appears, checks his ticket, looks at me and says "You're in my seat".

I look at my ticket too. "No, this is 59A." I say, waving my ticket as proof. He counters with his ticket, also saying 59A. But his thumb is covering the date. "Aha!" I say. "But my ticket says the 16th."

"That was yesterday" he said. "It's the 17th today."

An unarguable point. I blame the timeless aura of the distant North, but am forced to relinquish my seat to find an unreserved berth. The train is crammed. Not good. I eventually find the last free spot in the middle of the accursed Coach D -- also called the Silent. Tech is not welcome here -- there are signs with walkmans crossed out by a large red line, and constant announcements on the PA urge us to conduct any mobile phone conversations in the vestibule. Ahead of me, two women agree loudly and at length that it's a relief not to have to listen to other people's conversations.

I have some sympathy for the idea, but the practice is badly flawed by one small omission in the list of illegal noise generators: kids. And Coach D is stuffed full of the critters, from the smallest mewling babe in arms to clusters of the sullen and the bored. At least the latter are quiet: the rest, however, are not. In particular, there are two golden-haired, blue-eyed poster children nearby of the "Why is…" age. "Daddy, why is the train moving?" "Mummy, why is the ticket man wearing a cap?" "Daddy, why is that nasty man glaring at me?" and so on.

My bourgeois upbringing keeps me observant of the 'no gadgets' sign until Berwick, when the constant uproar from the questing four year olds, implacable milk vampires and people pushing past me to make phone calls in the vestibule forces me into public rebellion. I whip out the iPod, stick the in-ear phones into the ears (silent from outside, y'honour) and press Play. A wall of utterly unlovely electronic racket cascades through, being something particularly painful by a Japanese nutter with a degree in synthesiser torture off the latest The Wire subscriber CD.

Gorgeous.

Wednesday 18/8/2004
Back in the office, the normal August lacunae is absent. The place is positively buzzing, none more so than Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden who appears to be close to hysterics. He's looking at the Web site of another UK tech news operation, whose name I shall not as yet disclose. "What's the matter?" I ask inquiringly.

Between tears of unseemly joy, the story unfolds. A week or so ago, SCO -- bless 'em -- decided that it had had enough of suing people and was mildly put out that nobody seemed to take them seriously as a software company no more, no more. So, it let it be known that there were going to be no new lawsuits for the foreseeable: a creditable decision, you'd think.

But mischievous Scoop wouldn't let it lie. The next time he was on the phone to a SCO spokesman, he asked "if you're not going to sue anyone, who's going to buy a SCOSource licence?" "Ah," said the spokesman. "We're looking at that programme. All I can say is that people who buy soon may end up paying less than ones who don't."

Which was duly written up as "SCO ponders hike in 'Linux IP' licence fee", a reasonable reading, given that's what matey said.

So our hero was somewhat surprised to receive a steaming email shortly afterwards, "journalist to journalist", from a contributor to that UK tech news operation, accusing him at length of many sins: "That piece on SCO raising licence fees to prompt people into buying licences is irresponsible. You are either ignorant, paid off or just plain stupid. Of the three, the best one seems to be ignorant, and that is a sad statement." And so on and so forth, for many hundreds of intemperate words -- which, just for good measure, were cc'd to Pamela Jones on Groklaw and others.

We won't dwell on consequent correspondence, but Wearden stuck to his guns over the idea that if SCO said it was thinking of doing something it was worth reporting and nobody (apart from our ranty correspondent) disagreed.

So what caused Mr Wearden's incipient mirth today? He'd just been checking back and found out that two days after the J'Accuse email, The Inquirer took his story and ran it dead straight.

Thursday 19/8/2004
It's the dreaded A-level results day. It's also my first go at writing a daily leader for the site -- where we express ZDNet UK's opinion about something fun in the time-honoured anonymous tradition of newspapers. But now I've told you I wrote that one, it's not anonymous… hm.

So I stay at home in the morning, take part in the leader discussion via IM and hunker down to write while Number One Son takes his nervous self off to college to get the results. The timing is less than perfect -- I'm just reading through the first draft to a background chatter of "How's the leader going?" from the office when the phone kicks off. It's the son. He's got the grades! A barrage of calls is made and received to relatives, friends and other interested parties, while editors are pacified and a degree of multitasking indulged in.

The lad is off to Abertay Dundee to do a course in video game design. Never had that sort of nonsense in my youth -- a tripos in natural and moral philosophy and the Greats was the best on offer. But these are stirring times: why, over in the US Duke University is giving iPods to all its first year students as an experiment in audio coursework. I wonder what Abertay has to offer its bright-eyed charges. Oh no -- no Internet access in halls! I'm sure a chap of ingenuity and resource can do something clever with Wi-Fi, mind.

But what's this? "We supply a new duvet and pillow at the start of the first term and include in each flat the following: cooking pots, kettle, microwave, toaster, deep fat fryer, iron and ironing board."

Deep fat fryer. Welcome to Dundee, laddie.

Friday 20/8/2004
Microsoft's new-found interest in China may be leading to a spot of Maoist self-criticism. Tom Edwards, a geographer in charge of the company's Department Of Stuff Beyond Even Wyoming, spilled various beans at a conference. When it comes to treading on cultural toes, Microsoft has demonstrated many of the subtleties and appreciation of important differences that have characterised the American way throughout the century. It might seem somewhat shocking that the company (not lacking in staff from the subcontinent) had managed to mark Kashmir as not being part of India -- but then, the USA didn't notice that Pakistan and India were busy building nukes until they let off a couple of tests.

Then there's the Islamic prayer chanting used as the background for a videogame -- ooops, but then didn't Brian Eno and David Byrne, two impeccably culturally aware geezers, run foul of the same problem when they made My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts back in 1981? Not to mention the footwear company whose sole design just happened to resemble the Arabic for Allah. And let's not revisit the story of the maker of inflatable educational globes who tried to import their goods to the Middle East during a time of particular animosity between certain states. The censors at the border got out their scissors, and when the recipients of the globes tried to inflate them all the air leaked out through Israel.

The truth is that there is endless potential for incomprehension and unwilling insult when you're dealing across cultures, as various TV advertising campaigns have highlighted. I suspect that there's a good correlation with a culture's willingness to take insult and the level of freedom it grants its citizens -- after all, if your own people are free to be scurrilous and off-centre then you're not going to get that wound up if a bunch of Johnny Foreigners does the same. Which is why you can pop over to Washington and burn a US flag (don't try this in Alabama, mind), but the same exercise in the People's Republic Of Kalamitistan will result in board and lodging being supplied by the government for some years (unless you really do burn a US flag, in which case you'll probably get a free clip of ammo for your AK-47).

It's almost an index of enlightenment, and I congratulate Microsoft for bringing more examples to our attention. Attaboy!

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