Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The report that half-exists, the insect dance that wasn't, Amstrad’s open secrets and two tales of television mayhem? Another week to shame the X-Files

Monday 11/10/2004
ZigBee is starting to make waves -- which is just as well, as it's a wireless protocol. Designed to do very low power signaling, it promises to glue together all manner of appliances and do loads of useful control stuff. It could replace the light switch as we know it.

Yet when I first stumbled across the standard two years ago there were many unanswered questions. Most of them have now been answered -- although there's still the scent of a standards tussle in the air -- but there is one that deserves a special place in the Zigbee FAQ. Let me quote:

"What is the origin of the ZigBee name?
The domestic honeybee, a colonial insect, lives in a hive that contains a queen, a few male drones, and thousands of worker bees. The survival, success, and future of the colony is dependent upon continuous communication of vital information between every member of the colony. The technique that honey bees use to communicate new-found food sources to other members of the colony is referred to as the ZigBee Principle. Using this silent, but powerful communication system, whereby the bee dances in a zig-zag pattern, he is able to share information such as the location, distance, and direction of a newly discovered food source to its fellow colony members. Instinctively implementing the ZigBee Principle, bees around the world industriously sustain productive hives and foster future generations of colony members."

Awww, now, isn't that sweet? But perhaps honey isn't quite the right munchy metaphor -- I am forced, reluctantly, to speak instead of the indigestible pork pie.

As it happened, I asked the selfsame question two years ago of the chap in charge of the whole standard. "Ah," he said. "Yes. Well, we had a big list of names. The ones at the top were sensible wireless networky names, and the ones at the bottom were nonsense we'd just made up off the top of our heads. We went down the list until we found one that passed the trademark lawyer's tests. We got a long way down the list."

In other words, said the horse's mouth, ZigBee was a random name chosen at random.

This is backed up by Bob Metcalfe, who is part of the ZigBee conspiracy and whom we saw just the other day. Scoop Wearden asked him exactly this, and he confirmed the story I'd heard two years ago.

Ever the diligent researcher, I checked on a few apiary Web sites. I even emailed a Professor Of Bee Things at a big agricultural institute. Of the 'ZigBee Principle' there is no sign -- although I do note that pictures of bees were used to signal the aiming point in antique urinals. A very dry Victorian pun that: the Latin for bee is Apis.

We are therefore forced to conclude that the ZigBee Name FAQ has nothing to do with reality, but is merely a PR taking the bees. Let's hope the rest of the standard isn't just pith and wind.

Tuesday 12/10/2004
You are doubtless aware of our fab new site for developers, Builder UK, lovingly fed and groomed daily by editor ubergeekoid Jono Bennett. He's doing a smashing job meeting the needs of the UK developer community, and people seem to like it. Rah! He's a smart cookie, but the chap can lay sarcasm on pretty thick sometimes: woe betide the person who really, really deserves it -- for lo, they will get it.

Over to you, Jono…

"I got a voicemail from a TV researcher asking for some help with an unspecified subject. Thought the usual -- bloody mainstream media wanting us to do their job for them -- but was also curious enough to return the call. Said researcher not in last Friday, so left a message saying call back when you’re in again. The return call came on Monday. The researcher started into her spiel about looking for some help with their programme, and it turned out that the prog in question was a build-your-own-house-abroad type thing that's really popular right now. At this point, while she's still speaking I realise what's happened.

She gets to the end of her spiel and asks: 'Do I know any project managers who have been involved with that sort of thing?' At this point the demon on one shoulder gets my attention over the angel who's telling me to simply say 'No, I don't"' and politely ending it there.

Jono: Well, I don't think I do, but can I ask why you've called me about this?
Researcher: You're the editor of Builder UK, aren't you?
J: Yes. Have you read the site?
R: I've read some of it.
J: And you still decided to call me. Are you sure you read it?
R: Yeeees.....
J: You can't have read it very well then. It's about software development. It's got nothing to do with building houses, as you can tell if you read -- oh -the front page. Or any of the other pages.
R: Oh. Er. Right. Er, bye then.

Exit one researcher. Haven't heard back."

They breed 'em tough in production companies, but I bet she's still smarting. And it's a shame that Jono didn't play her along -- next time, I'll get him to give them my number and I'll see how far I can get before being twigged. I might even commission my own camera crew to document the process. How many layers deep can we push this (sur)reality programme nonsense anyway?

Derrida may be dead but his spirit is deferred…

Wednesday 13/10/2004
It's time for our quarterly company get-together, when all the divisions of our mighty outfit tell each other how well they've been doing. This is scheduled for half past four, followed by a swift departure at half past five to the pub where the boss' card is behind the bar.

However, we suspect someone has been leaking company secrets. As we prepare to down keyboards and traipse out to the foyer, Stuart Okin -- Microsoft's UK security honcho -- chose that exact time to announce his resignation to his colleagues. But we know how to fight fire with fire. Here's the blow-by-blow account…

16:23 Okin sends resignation email to all at MS UK. It is short and to the point.

16:25 Existence and contents of email become known to ZDNet UK newsdesk.

16:26 'Scoop' Wearden phones MS PR. We suspect they are reading the selfsame email at roughly the time we call…. "Errr. We don't know if that's confirmable. We'll call back."

16:30 Crack team of ZDNet UK journos -- Scoop and new spod Dan 'Secure' Illet -- detach themselves from the Q3 event and get scribing.

16:35 MS PR phone back. There is a momentary shilly, which threatens to turn into a shally, but Scoop provides graphic proof of the goodness of our information.

16.37 Nick McGrath -- who will now be covering Okin's beat -- is on the phone, confirming the story and spinning it as fantastic news for everyone. We idly wonder how he'll fit security into his schedule, given he's already battling Linux and spending so much time on the phone to hacks.

17:00 Production supremo Laura Stobart is reluctantly dragged from PowerPoint talk of EBITDA, Q4 targets and inter-territorial inventory strategies to streamline the story through the publishing system.

17:15 Story goes live to the world. If only we had a quote from the horse's mouth, though.

17:20 Dan 'Secure' Illet gets hold of Okin on his mobile, and corners the deserter in his lair - er, car. A small spluttering later, the urbane Okin delivers some tidy quotes and the story not only has legs but it stands up. In fact, it flys.

You've got to love electronic publishing -- scarcely were the pixels dry on the Okin ave atque vade than the world knew of Microsoft's loss. It's also great fun to phone up PRs when you're breaking a story they don't know about: a pleasure we also had this week with Skype and -- oh -- Microsoft again.

We of course wish Okin all the best in his new job, and look forward eagerly to forwarding McGrath’s more interesting emails as and when we get them.

Thursday 14/10/2004
Memo to self: do not stay out drinking until midnight with the hard-livered contingent of the company when one has agreed to do a 5:50 a.m. TV interview. It's what is euphemistically called 'live': I'm not sure that the apparition that graced the screens of CNBC Europe to talk about Apple's results would be recognised except by specialists as being among the living, but I did enjoy the traditional mobile phone call at 5:45 a.m.

Me: "Hello?"
Floor manager: "Ah, Rupert! Just checking that you're in the cab on the way to the studio"
Me (evilly): "No, I'm not."
FM: "Augh! Blow! Bother! Etc!"
Me: "I'm in the green room."
FM: "You… are. Good. I'll be there in a second."

The rest of the day passes as painfully as you might expect, given I'm by now far too old to subsist on three and a bit hours of booze-befuddled sleep each day.

However, I do make some progress on a story I'm chasing -- the curious case of the open videophone. Amstrad's new E3 videophone E-m@iler runs MontaVista Linux, and so the company has an obligation under the GPL to supply the source code. It could, like most companies, put the stuff up on a Web site and be done with it. However, it doesn't have to make it easy -- it can restrict the code to people who've bought the item, and it can charge a 'reasonable' administration fee. We're dealing with Amstrad here, the surly offspring of Alan Sugar: which option do you think it'll take?

One plucky fellow tried to find out, and also tried to point out some peculiarities in the way Amstrad was approaching its obligations. In return for his troubles, he got -- inter alia -- this lovely note from the company's Brentwood HQ;

"Any customer who buys one of our videophones will see that our obligations under the GPL are met and clearly explained to them. If you were to become a customer it would be clear to you. In the meantime we have no obligation to explain to non-customers our policy.

Brian Eaton
E-Business Director
Amstrad Plc"

So there! Buy our phone or bog off -- you can almost hear the words tumble from Sir Alan's lips.

Meanwhile, Amstrad's PR is slightly more helpful:" I understand that the source code is only given out to people who have bought the phone, at an administration charge of £25, with proof of purchase"

Much as I love Amstrad, and much as I'm eager to see the source -- that phone is so eminently hackable for hardware fun -- I'm not quite ready to pony up a ton plus twenty-five for the privilege. So, if anyone reading this has actually bought one and wishes to conspire to get the code, drop me a line. I'm sure we can come to a mutually profitable agreement. Friday 15/10/2004
There is always a good deal of give and take behind the scenes in journalism. Take Intel, for example, who gave another site a story yesterday that we might have liked for ourselves. A hurt email from yours truly promptly buzzed over the wires to the PR concerned, who replied "Ah, have I got news for you! Stand by your phone at 1 p.m. on Friday!"

We stood by. The phone stayed schtum.

More emails. "I'll get back to you," said the PR. And indeed he did, with a curious little press release that said "Ofcom commissions UWB report on commercial implications to 2020". Aha! Sounds our thing.

We call Ofcom (actually, we call Ofcom, get voice mail, send email, call again, get random Ofcommer who doesn't know, send more email, call Ofcom again, phone rings for ever. And finally, we call Ofcom and the right chap answers). "Er, no. No such report." We call the writers of the report. "Don't know. You'll have to call so-and-so" - and so-and-so is in meetings, between phones, at briefings. She's certainly not answering her phone. We call back Intel.

"Can you send us this report?" we ask.

"Ah. Don't actually have a copy of it ourselves. If you do find it, I'd be keen to see it," said the PR.

Then we get a second copy of the original press release, this time from another part of the Intel PR empire. It finishes "If you want to know more about this, please call me." Oh boy. We call the press release's author. "Ah." She says. "Don't actually have a copy of the report. Haven't seen it, to tell you the truth. If you do find it..." "Yes, we know." we say.

But as this press release has gone out to loads of hacks, we assume it's been cleared with Ofcom and the mystery of the missing report has been finally laid to rest. So we call Ofcom again. Our contact is very patient with us. He explains that he knows nothing of any such report, that it certainly hasn't been published today and that as far as Ofcom is concerned it does not exist.

We ask him if he has any on-the-record comment to make about Intel's PR. He does not.

Intel remains adamant that the report exists. Like those Midwestern farmers whose mothers-in-law are abducted by huge shiny saucers filled with hyperintelligent aliens, any actual proof -- the report itself, say -- is hard to come by.

We, caught in the middle of all this, feel like we're at the interface of some alternate universe where the report -- and everyone who knows about it -- is flicking in and out of existence. I ask the original PR whether he's checked to see whether he's still in those old school class photos, or in his wedding snaps.

His reply is curiously thin. Almost… transparent.

More as we get it -- and if there's nothing of ZDNet UK when you check back on Monday, you'll know what's happened.

And finally, Cyril… The sad story of a fax mishap which cost the EU a €100m court case against some banks -- puts me in mind of one of my favourite legal anecdotes.

A judge has heard a long and complex commercial case, and retires to his country cottage to write up his verdict - which is suitably long and complex itself. He returns to London to deliver it. However, as the court convenes he realises with horror that he's left the verdict on the table back in the rural retreat.

"I'm terribly sorry," he says to the courtroom. "I'm unable to continue as I've not brought the verdict back with me. It's stuck down in Dorset, and I'll have to recess until I can retrieve it."

One of the solicitors has an idea. "Fax it up, m'lord?" he says, helpfully.

"Yes, I'm afraid it does rather." says the judge, sadly.

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