Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Outgeeked, unAppled, caught in PR crossfire and rapidly going blind, Rupert contemplates a long run in the African bush

Monday 15/11/2004
No matter how geeky one is, there are always times when it's not quite geeky enough. I knew I was in trouble on this front when I was sent a pointer to a chess set that had been made entirely out of 50 ohm radio frequency connectors. We've all built sculptures out of BNC T-pieces back in the days when Ethernet ran over coaxial cables, but the chess set takes things many, many steps over edge of the abyss.

Of course, I want one. I may have to build one. Worryingly, I already have many of the parts to hand.

However, I was naturally curious about what sort of man -- and it would be a man -- who would make such a thing. Oh, who am I kidding: there had to be some sort of radio obsessive at the end of that thing. The only question is -- just how bad is it?

I was wrong. The guy -- whose name is Tom Van Baak, a software engineer in Seattle (ah-ha!) -- is not some two-bit amateur nut. He has a hobby so extreme, I don't think I've seen its like. He collects -- and builds and maintains -- atomic clocks. He has every precision time standard that HP ever made, and a few hundred other sundry items to boot. He thinks nothing of cobbling together a caesium atomic device in his kitchen. He has a Sigma Tau hydrogen maser -- the temperature of which, for good measure, he monitors to an accuracy of 0.001 Kelvin. And he got most of this stuff from boot sales, eBay, government surplus auctions and specialist second-hand dealers: "you can build up quite a collection very cheaply," he says. I did not want to know that.

It all started 10 years ago when he decided to build an LED clock that would know when to adjust itself for the occasional leap second that the timekeeping standard institutions introduce now and again to compensate for the fact that the Earth doesn't rotate an exact number of seconds in a day. From there, things got a little out of hand… but anyone who can say with a straight face and a clear conscience "my high-performance 5071A caesium standards show a slight hint of approaching a noise floor below 5x10 to the 15 after running 200 days" is clearly happy with his lot.

Go and check his Web site at www.leapsecond.com -- you'll never worry about your radio ham friends again.

Tuesday 16/11/2004
It's days like today that make you glad you're not a PR person. Actually, that's most days… but the worst sort of PR hell is caused by clients attempting to aggressively manage a story from a long way away. This time, it's all the fault of Scoop Wearden, who will insist on taking notes when people say things and subsequently writing them up.

In this case, it's iPass who came up with the story. The company is a Wi-Fi aggregator: buy an account with them and you can connect to hot spots from lots of different companies. At least, that's the way it works in America -- Scoop was having a conversation with a couple of iPassers and pointed out that European coverage was conspicuously lacking. "Why not Openzone?" pondered Wearden.

"Oh, we want to buy -- but they have to want to sell," said one of the guys. A little later, Graeme found himself in conversation with the CEO of BT Wireless Broadband who said: "We'll get round to them, but we're sorting out the big guys first." So far, so good -- it's BT dragging its feet, thought Wearden, and wrote it up.

Oh dear. BT gets shirty with iPass, who it thinks went whinging to the press in some sort of cack-handed attempt to hurry things along. iPass, which didn't mean it like that at all, is therefore furious with us, and the hapless PR company is thrown into the arena to try and get the story pulled. Graeme is sympathetic, but plays the 'If you tell us what we got wrong, we'll be happy to fix it' card. Apart from a tiny issue of how one of the parties was described there wasn't anything factually incorrect, so the story stood. Sorry, Annabel.

At which point, the head honcho in the US gets stuck in and emails Graeme. It is late at night in the UK, but our man is online and gets it. It is not in the nature of the Diary to pull its punches, but having seen the exchange of emails in question all I'm prepared to say is that young Scoop's assertiveness training has worked. Also, he really shouldn't send contentious emails after watching England play an atrocious game of football.

This morning, it's left to the PR to patch things up. Which she does with remarkable skill -- bridges are rebuilt, kind words exchanged and promises made of better communication in the future. The moral of the story is, American companies: if you hire a local PR, then listen to what they tell you.

Wednesday 17/11/2004
Scary stuff from Japan, where a study seems to suggest that computer use can cause blindness. I note that the researchers didn't say what it was that the subjects were looking at -- but it's clear that here's yet another way homo sapiens does not fit well into the world we've created for ourselves.

I've been worried about spending my life in front of a computer screen ever since I worked for a while at a location close to some mountains. The feeling of acceleration I got when I walked out the office after a day's squinting at a terminal and my eyes tried desperately to focus on those big things away in the distance was not, I felt, a good sign. As the latest anthropological research seems to show that we evolved as a species of long-distance runners, presumably to wear down and catch prey that wasn't up to Paula Radcliffe standards, we must start to rebuild our workplaces in our own image.

Let's start with the monitors. While it's convenient to have everything presented as a flat page some two feet away from our eyes, doing this for many hours at a time can only be harmful. Better optics have to be designed so that every quarter of an hour or so the image appears to gently recede into the distance, leaving us staring gratefully at some glorious scenery, our work merely a distant speck in the deep blue yonder. Forget the desktop metaphor -- let's have the night sky, with objects presented as constellations of stars. Nobody remains unmoved -- or unhappy -- in a clear winter's night far from the city lights -- and it's a sterling way to exercise those peepers.

We can also take the African veldt as inspiration. Imagine that deadline as a graceful antelope, scampering off into the distance. With treadmills at our desks and VR glasses we could give chase, relieving tension and getting a blast of consciousness-enhancing endorphins as we track, chase and capture our target. Wouldn't that be better than prodding the mouse at an icon on a Gant chart?

With time, our whole lives can be returned to a state of prehistoric balance thanks to innovative technology. Although teleworking might be seen as a way to avoid commuting altogether, it can also be used to let us work in places neither home or office -- say, Hampstead Heath -- so we can recreate those great seasonal treks that some think were a feature of early life in the tribes. There's no reason why the hunter-gatherer lifestyle shouldn't coexist with being, say, a marketing executive or a financial consultant -- indeed, meetings with clients could be rather more exciting if one or both parties are clad in bearskins or other tribal items, such as phallocrypts.

Now that's what I call looking after your health.

Thursday 18/11/2004
Later this week, Apple's opening its first European Apple Store in Regents Street. We sent Jo and new boy Alex down to the press preview day and got some great snaps -- and yes, the chap with the Apple logo shaved into the back of his head is on staff. And although those black spherical seats look mighty uncomfortable, they're for the kiddywinks -- who presumably will be so entranced by the wonderful treats on screen they won't mind falling off a lot. Ah, Macintoddlers.

I'm surprised no other PC makers have followed suit. There used to be some Gateway shops around the place, but that was in the days when there used to be some Gateway. In fact, there really should be some Windows Shops -- where people can enjoy surrounds just as elegant and inspiring as the software itself and consult with people who, like the resident Apple Geniuses, are tuned into the creative and technical spirit of the product. It would be a churl who suggests that a prefab down in Peckham manned by Grunty McPherson of the South London Special Brew Society should do the trick. Those prefabs are really rather nice.

But it would be a good idea. I'm convinced that many of Microsoft's problems stem from the company's isolation from its end users -- the retailers, PC manufacturers and the rest of us poor bloody tech infantry have to soak up the misery that the software creates. You can't just take it back to the makers. It would be so nice to say to a sufferer "Look, I don't know why your laptop is demanding you increase the number of stack pages. Why don't you drop it round to the Windows Store on Oxford Street and demand that they fix what they so clearly have broken?" Forget about the queues outside the Apple Store -- if the word was that Bill Gates would be appearing behind the desk with a screwdriver and an apologetic expression, you'd have them backed out to Basildon.

Anyway, Microsoft is keen to be thought of as a cool consumer company these days -- if it's going to be taken seriously, it has to at least try and keep up with Apple. Perhaps it can go one stage beyond Windows Shopping, and start up some nightclubs -- although if it did, it could do well to remember this little snippet from The New York Times in 1999...

"That appears to be exactly what Microsoft is doing in announcing a new consumer operating system that may appear in the year 2000 or 2001. Ballmer said the new operating system would include advances in digital media handling, home networking, Internet technologies and improvements in the ease of installation and use. That product outline has evoked a sceptical response from competitors.

'At a risk of being called sexist, ageist and French,' said Jean Louis Gassee, chairman of Be, 'if you put multimedia, a leather skirt and lipstick on a grandmother and take her to a nightclub, she's still not going to get lucky.'"

Friday 19/11/2004
Sometimes it only takes the smallest thing to brighten up one's day. Take this apparently innocuous quote from the point man of the Sophos antivirus hit squad, Graham Cluley: "They [the emails] claim to come from a German 21 year-old go-go dancer with blonde hair. She is seeking employment as a model and she says she has attached some naked photos of herself. But of course the photos are the worm."

That's as we printed it. The original, however, was somewhat more detailed: "They claim to come from a German 21 year-old go-go dancer with blonde hair that goes right down to her bottom." Why stop there? Why not "that goes right down to her gorgeously sculpted buttocks, peeking pertly from beneath her silky locks"? If this is an example of the sort of social engineering that gets people to click on tainted mail, I'm all for it -- it's certainly worked for Mr Cluley, and also for Andrew Donoghue, who gets all misty-eyed at the prospect of receiving such exciting email. Later, he refers to getting the chance of 'stroking' Carly Fiorina at an upcoming HP press event -- for some, the weekend cannot come soon enough.

We think it's all Graham Cluley's fault. The man has form when it comes to digital pictures, after all. He is probably the only security consultant whose bitmap appear in a virus -- W32/Coconut A -- due to his walk-on part in an embedded game. Throw a coconut and hit Graham, and the virus will take mercy on some of your files.

So, virus writers -- think before you commit your sins of commission. It's all too easy to tweak the tail of the lion, but even if you don't get bitten the consequences may affect us all for years to come.

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