Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Decoding BT's CEO, unusual encounters with other Web sites and new mechanisms for mind control don't prevent Rupert from quietly shaking his head at Nokia's latest mobile daftness

Monday 4/4/2005

Much fun at BT, where Graeme "News Editor, that's me" Wearden makes an infrequent escape from the office and sits down at a round table discussion with CEO Ben Verwaayen to mark the five million user broadband milestone. BV is keen to use the opportunity to portray BT as the UK's leading and most enlightened exponent of the wonders of broadband, and to chive the rest of the industry for not sharing its vision and forward thinking. Hmm. Can this be the same BT we spent the latter years of the last decade furiously berating for dragging its feet over providing affordable broadband and its immense reluctance to take part in things like ISDN, flat-rate billing and local-loop unbundling?

There is some suspicion that the two companies might just be connected. That suspicion is shared by Ofcom. It's got a strategic review of telecommunications on the go, which has been described as "telling BT to mend its ways, or else". "Are you concerned by this?", says Wearden to Verwaayen

Not at all. "We've made a wonderful offer. It gives Ofcom the chance to create forward-looking telecoms regulation for the first time," said Verwaayen. "It's a wonderful opportunity for the industry to get on with life." Wearden duly scribbles this down. "So, do you think they'll accept your offer?" he asked, in the manner of a star-struck junior scribbler from Smash Hits asking Madonna whether the latest album is her greatest ever.

Yikes! Snarl! Good Ben has left the building: annoyed Ben is in da house. "I'm not answering such a ridiculous question! You'll have to ask them."

Blimey. That's a 'no' then, Ben.

Ben?

The odd thing is, this isn't the first time a carefully framed, respectful question from the Weardenista has provoked Mr Verwaayen into a testy reply. Back in 2003 — at yet another round table, as it happens — our two protagonists locked horns over trigger levels to install broadband in local exchanges. This time, Graeme asked whether as the trigger levels were a bit high, it might not make sense to cut them — especially in places with a population of 1,100 and a trigger level of 700. Gnash! Growl! "We've got shareholders. We have to be commercially viable. We can't go round just cutting trigger levels if it isn't economic. Which it isn't."

Blimey. So that's a 'yes' then, Ben. Ben?

Yes. Shortly afterwards, the economics of the business were apparently reassessed and the trigger levels cut. Including those fulsome targets requiring all of the village, half the ducks on the pond and three-quarters of the skeletons in the churchyard.

We look forward to Ofcom's answer to our ridiculous question and, of course, our next round table with Ben.

Tuesday 5/4/2005

At last, I thought. Technology solves one of man's (and it is man's) oldest problems: "Researchers use laser light to remote control flies", runs the report. I have a laser. I am occasionally undone. Provided the invention doesn't draw attention to the problem before solving it — illuminating one's genital area with bright splashes of sapphire light may be misinterpreted — this could be a breakthrough of epic proportions. Could prevent one, anyhow. And we'll pass over the possibilities of hackers wreaking mischief in public places — there is a limit to open systems, after all.

But I am wrong. The research is on fruit flies at the Yale University School of Medicine, and is far more intriguing than a bit of dishabille avoidance. The scientists introduced a chemical trigger that would activate in the presence of ultraviolet laser light, and tied it into the higher levels of the fly's brain that initiate part of the insect's behaviour for fight preparation. That done, they trapped the hapless drosophila in a 'glass domed arena' — no mention of crowds of cheering onlookers — and zapped it with UV pulses. The fly duly stretched its wings, tensed its legs, jumped and flapped on command.

This will be of immense interest to the tin-foil hat brigade, who already believe we are being controlled from afar by the Evil Conspiracy. They're already in a state of high alert this week following Sony's patent for ultrasonic direct injection of video game signals to the human brain: the stage is set for a remake of The Fly, this time involving a Playstation II, a fruit fly trapped in an inverted bowl and a green laser pointer.

Meanwhile, my favourite inventors at Shanghai Jiaotong University — who are contributing their own fundamental research towards the great technocritter dystopia I now so clearly foresee — have proved their mettle once again, this time by winning the 29th ACM International Programming Contest. Not only are these people possessed of great imagination and drive, but they've got the intellectual chops to make it happen.

In the words of Michael Howard: Fear. Fear fear fear fear fear.

Wednesday 6/4/2005

To the Coach and Horses in Poland Street for silicon scandal sheet The Inquirer's fourth birthday bash. Mad Mike Magee runs things in his inimitable style, holding court downstairs while leaving the upstairs room packed solid with hacks, PRs, thirsty chip company execs and various people of indeterminate status. Previous years have seen the odd tussle break out and occasional handbags, but the mood this time is light-hearted. Buoyed up by a sense that life in online technology reporting is getting better — ad revenues are up, jobs are reappearing and new projects are getting off the ground — everyone settles in for a long gossip. The bonhomie is so extensive that once the tab runs out at the bar, journalists are spotted dipping into their own pockets to buy drinks for PRs — and not just because they want to get them into bed. Truly, a bright new world of decency and hope is dawning.

There are certain niceties to attend to. Some of the younger PRs, better judgement overwhelmed by the target-rich environment, are too eager to pitch and won't take no for an answer. The worst offenders are fed beer until they start to wobble, then pressed for their true opinions on clients. This provides a generous harvest of blackmail material with which to put our future relationship on a productive footing: you wouldn't be surprised at some of the names that come up as being particularly bastardly, but you might raise an eyebrow at the unhappiness this engenders in the hearts of their frontline troops. Memo to companies: put your PRs in impossible positions too often, and the cracks will show. On a lighter note, some companies are praised for being particularly good to their flacks — Intel is mentioned more than once, not just by people connected with the outfit, as managing that trick.

One subject that does come up is the demise of Spin Bunny, the anonymous PR blog which has been so good at relaying scurrilous tales. A brief note on the site says that an unnamed UK PR company slapped a bad case of judicial myxomatosis on the Bun last week and demanded sources for a particularly annoying story. Since no out of court resolution was possible, the blog has gone "to protect the anonymity of its contributors and its sources".

Odd stuff, and as Peter Kirwan points out on science hack Charles Arthur's blog, it doesn't quite make sense — what the Bun has done doesn't help protect any such thing. And the real identities of both blogger and aggrieved PR company will come out soon enough, if not in any public arena overseen by the mighty machinery of British justice then somewhere in the colonies. Meanwhile, if you plan to communicate salacious information to a mischievous publisher, take care to cover your tracks well — preferably by sending your messages through some medium abroad. And bloggers — you don't have to host your goodies on this side of world. They have rabbits in Australia, I believe.

Thursday 7/4/2005

Not content with annoying BT, our crusading news editor Graeme "The Daddy Now" Wearden cruises into town to speak to Paoga about its cunning new plan to provide a central data repository for individuals. All good clean fun (even if Paoga demonstrate the risks of uncontrolled data sharing rather too vividly by including a mysterious picture of our MD, Tom Bureau, in the random faces it plonks on the top of its home page).

Towards the end of the briefing, after a good lunch and lots of Sancerre, Graeme settles into a long discussion about privacy and security with Drew Cullen of the Reg. Mr C takes a keen interest in such matters, and gets increasingly excited as they explore the issue of people losing laptops with lashings of private data on. You can compromise the privacy of hundreds of thousands of people in one careless move that way, such is the power of modern portable computing. "It's atrocious!" says Drew. "Why is this information on the laptop anyway? They just want to fiddle with their Excel spreadsheets. It's database masturbation, that's what it is".

Wearden takes careful note of this truly seminal insight. "Bet you can't get that phrase onto your Web site", says Drew. "How much?" asks Graeme. "Fifty quid, payable to Privacy International", says Drew. "But no blogs. That's cheating."

Alas, Mr Cullen, the Diary is no blog. It's been going for nearly ten years, for starters. But seeing as we're decent human beings, if you pony up the dosh we'll match it — and give you a phrase of your very own to insert into the sacred text of Vulture Central.

Friday 8/4/2005

Nokia has finally lost it. It's launched a new mobile phone, the 8800, which looks like... well, a mobile phone. But it isn't. It's an iconic object. Frank Nuovo, Nokia's chief designer, explains: "We believe the Nokia 8800 belongs in the pantheon of iconic products — a sophisticated mobile communication device that quietly earns a nod of appreciation and admiration from other connoisseurs of fine taste." It can't be that quiet, or we'll never hear it ring.

Which is a shame, as incoming calls on this baby won't just generate alert tones — heavens, no. They'll create an aural aura of shimmering melodic layers that transform the very air through which they travel into a cosseting blanket of aesthetic delight. To quote from the press release: "The aural accompaniment of the Nokia 8800 is equally inspired. Award-winning composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto was commissioned to compose the ringtones and alerts. Throughout his distinguished career, Sakamoto has crossed musical and technological boundaries, experimenting with different musical styles and making a name for himself in popular, orchestral and film music."

In other words, the bloke who did that thing with fey New Romantic David Sylvian about his love wearing forbidden colours (plink plink twang). I guess it'll be better than a farting frog. And what drove Sakamoto to these heights of multiphonic meditation? "Inspired by its modern lines and organic curves, Sakamoto has produced a musical accompaniment for the Nokia 8800 that captures an essence and emotion that touches both heart and mind." So, not inspired by huge wodges of cash that capture the essence and emotion that touch both wallet and bank account then. "His creation draws on his vision of the Nokia 8800 user — a world citizen constantly on the move, making an impression in a grayscale world and through great cities such as New York, Paris, Sydney and Shanghai." And don't expect the phone to work in Luton.

This sort of thing is all very well if you back up the frobbly words with some dazzling example of design. And I'm sure that the 8800 is superbly engineered. It's just that it looks like, well, a perfectly ordinary mobile phone. In my world, icons are beautiful, alien objects encased in gold and encrusted with jewels that speak silently of spirituality: they don't squeak with the sound of synthesised kotos. But then, I don't move through the grayscale worlds of Sydney and Shanghai.

I'll stick to my Sendo.

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