Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Sex, space and Japanese economics lock horns with tiny tellies in batchelor pads and yer actual gold-plated scoop

Monday 25/7/2005

My grasp of international finance is not quite up to Treasury standards, and you’ll have to wait a while if you’re expecting me to concoct a cogent explanation of how unpegging the yuan from the dollar will affect the bond market. I don’t even know how a huge national debt can be a bad thing one year and good the next. At least I'm in good company there — the Japanese Ministry of Finance is stuck with the old-fashioned notion that it’s not that hot an idea. Which is a bit tough, given that the country owes somewhere of the order of 600 terayen (that’s around 30 teraquid).

The trouble with national debts — like the personal sort — is that they only go away if you spend money on them that you’d prefer to spend on something nicer, i.e. almost anything. Governments have the additional problem in that they don’t actually have any money of their own, they have to extract it with menaces from the populace. Who then go and vote for someone else, the ingrates.

So the Ministry has had a bright idea. It’s put up an online game on its Web site called Zaimudaijin Ninatte Yosan o Tsukurou! Yosan Sakusei Game, or the 'Let's Be The Minister Of Finance And Work On The Budget' Game. In it, you get to be the Japanese Gordon Brown and get to set various spending targets on things like defence, building, health and so on. The game then chomps away on these in its own model of the national economy and lets you know what the effects will be of your decisions. Unsurprisingly, it’s blooming difficult to do anything that keeps everyone happy and wipes out the deficit — and so, as games site Insert Credit so ruefully notes, it’s a lot less sexy saving Japan these days than when Godzilla stalked the earth.

Nevertheless, the game has been very popular. I’d love to see something similar on our own Treasury Web site — especially with those notorious five tests for the Euro and some of Gordon’s golden rules plugged in. In fact, the same idea would work well for managing the NHS or public transport, areas where the man on the Clapham omnibus has strong views not necessarily based on an in-depth informed analysis of the situation.

Now, all I need to do is find one that handles the international bond market and I’ll be right back to you with that piece on yuan revaluation… next stop, publishing the Economist in Playstation Portable format.

Tuesday 26/7/2005

Oh, blimey, Rockstar. What have you done? A full Senate investigation into the way you hid some raunchy scenes in 'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas', and American politicians foaming at the mouth over filth being peddled to children.

For those who haven’t been following the story, it’s pretty tame stuff. Rockstar Games have a very lucrative franchise with a very violent game series called Grand Theft Auto, in which you get to be a thug shooting, stealing and beating your way across some lawless American city. A gamer found a way to modify the current product so that you can make characters shag each other and perform other ‘sexually explicit acts’, the details of which I’ll leave to your fertile imagination. This caused no problems in Europe, where people on the whole see blowing someone’s head off with a shotgun as more objectionable than blowing… well, you get the picture. But in the US, a country so inexplicably prudish about sex that a momentary flash of nipple on TV created a week-long crisis, the so-called 'Hot Coffee' mod has provoked even shriller outraged cries for still more prudishness.

This is, of course, highly ridiculous. Not that this ever stopped a politician, especially when there’s a chance to roll around in the cowpats of high moral righteousness and throw a bit of dung at those horrible video game people who are corrupting our youth and destroying the fabric of society (etc.). No matter that everyone who owns a copy of GTA has got access to the Internet, where gigabytes of highly detailed pornography are but a URL away. No matter that anyone who types in the mod details will be, at worst, amused by the pixellated antics. Something Must Be Done.

Now, whether this is a joke gone wrong, a calculated bit of post-launch publicity or merely an oversight by Rockstar Games, the effects are not going to be good for the games industry. Nobody in that business wants more government interference, regulation or tighter classifications: they waste a lot of time and effort without any proof that they do much good. People who want to be responsible in what they let their kids watch and play will form their own view on content irrespective of the labelling; people who don’t care, don’t care. But if Something Must Be Done, then Done it will be.

It just goes to show. Even virtual sex has its consequences.

Wednesday 27/7/2005

And talking of sex in the media, this evening sees myself and a small gaggle of compadres descend on a large apartment on the South Bank of the Thames. The party is being thrown by MobiTV, an American outfit who as their name suggests specialise in putting TV onto mobile phones. Over in the US they carry entertainment, news, documentary and other channels (including our own parent company’s video output); over here, they’ve teamed with people like ITN and Orange.

It’s hard to know what’s stranger, being in a small venue with high-powered TV executives or the venue itself. The execs are networking like well-oiled machines, swapping cards in moves as practiced and stylised as Noh theatre, scanning the room for people higher up the social scale than the ones they’re talking to, communicating in short, coded bursts as they establish who their correspondent is, who they might know in common and whether there’s a chance of exchanging corporate DNA.

The venue is so 1970s bachelor pad it’s beyond cliché. Huge monochromatic pictures of stylised nudes hang from the stairway to the bedroom, there are chairs shaped like naked women and a hot tub decked out in green leather. Enormous picture windows look out over the Thames to the Houses of Parliament, prompting thoughts that the place could perhaps be hired out as a knocking shop for MPs, but this is apparently not the case — someone really does live there, but is away for much of the time and hires it out for parties like this. There is a gin rack — like a wine rack, but filled with Bombay Sapphire — and a fridge called the Pussy Deluxe.

As the evening wears on, the well-oiled machines become slightly too well-oiled. Once everyone’s been networked, relaxation takes over and conversations become more fun. Despite myself, I even swap a few cards and might yet be guilty of instigating some sort of deal. It’s terribly addictive. I also have a very interesting conversation with an American from Real Networks who lives in London: there’s something seductive about swapping tales of cities we have known and loved while knocking back the G&Ts and staring out over the London night. I mention that Real has got a bit of an image problem because of the overbearing nature of its software; yes, he says, that’s true and it’s being addressed. Meanwhile, they’re very pleased with Rhapsody, their online music store, although it isn’t open in the UK yet. Would I like to see it? Well, yes please.

He subsequently sends me access details: I download the Rhapsody player, and the first thing it tells me to do is "disable any Internet firewall". This is also the last thing it tells me to do, as I’ve no intention of doing any such thing. That overbearing nature is a bit difficult to shake, eh?

Thursday 28/7/2005

IT news rarely makes the mainstream media, and when it does it tends to be for reasons we wouldn’t generally cover. This time, it's different — our latest editorial acquisition, Colin "Not A Cloggie" Barker, got a tip-off last week and has been tenaciously nipping at Time Computer's heels over rumours that things ain’t right. Nonsense, says Time. Just a disgruntled employee causing problems.

Ah, but no. The administrators are in, there is ‘absolutely no money’ in the place and 1,500 employees are really very disgruntled indeed as they are out on their ears with no pay and no redundo. I’ve been in that situation myself, and it’s very low on the list of fun things to happen: the pain that’s being poured out on various online forums is all too familiar.

One of the rather dismal aspects of journalism is that a good story provokes joy, and a good story that you break provokes great joy — and stories that involve a lot of misery tend to be very good. So it’s with mixed emotions that we watch the story spread out across online news and thence into the papers and the broadcast media. Those emotions are doubly mixed when certain broadcasters choose to interview journos from other publishing houses over the affair. That’s our fifteen minutes of fame, dammit!

The other mixed-up bit of IT journalism is that being first with the story isn’t the advantage you think it might be. Online searches order by time and date, so readers tend to find the latest rather than the earliest version: hang around a day or so when something kicks off, and you’ll probably get a much larger number of hits over the following three or four days than the hard-working hack who put in the spadework. That’s easily fixable by updating your story — which kicks off another round of updates from everyone else — or by writing subsidiary pieces about background or reaction. The motivation to do this is high if you feel you own a story by rights of discovery, and if you take a look at our news site over the past three or four days you’ll spot a lot of this going on.

And something tells me that this isn’t going to be the last we hear about Time or its various associated companies. There are plenty of rumours to be picked up and a lot of good questions to be asked — and we intend to be at the asking end of many of them.

Friday 29/7/2005

"If I were 30 again, I’d be working on interplanetary stuff" — so quotes Vint Cerf, one of the godfathers of the Internet as reported on our sister site silicon.com. As it happens, he’s 62 — and working on interplanetary stuff.

I know exactly what he means. NASA is doing a great job of sending robots out to the four corners of the solar system and they return enormous and growing amounts of data. Transferring and managing that data is a huge and expensive task, and the creation of a proper set of open standards would help here as much as it has done for, say, banking. Only banking's nowhere near as exciting as real space science — and wouldn’t it be great if NASA could spend more on that than the business of flying rickety lumps of metal with people in.

At a conference recently, I met someone from Cisco who was indeed 'working on interplanetary stuff' — well, was running an experimental router in orbit. That’s very different from talking to Mars, of course, as the round-trip light speed delay to orbit is of the order of a few hundred milliseconds at worst. That’s the sort of latency that TCP/IP can deal with without breaking into a sweat: it’s very different if you’ve got communications over light minutes or longer.

"So," I asked him, "What’s special about running a router on a satellite?" I know that you have to make radiation-hardened circuitry that can cope with much greater variations in temperature and air pressure, and the software may have to expect a greater error rate due to cosmic rays and other nasties smashing through electronic devices, and it’s not easy to get up there and re-seat a dodgy connection, but apart from that I couldn’t see why conditions in space would make much of a difference.

"Um," he said. "Well. Not much. It was exciting for a while, but then you realise it’s just a router." I detected a certain world-weary — or otherworld-weary — ennui, and a wish to be getting on with establishing links to trans-Plutonian probes busy sniffing away at the heliopause.

Couldn’t agree more. Best of luck to the Shuttle crew up there reviewing their videos, and it sure looks fun bumbling around the space station, but nothing stirs my blood more than the thought of the Voyagers hurtling through interstellar night. Make a change from the foul summer weather in London, anyhow.

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