Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Fast, tiny, long, fat and gnomish: lots of radio fun this week. Plus, the curious case of the amorous tailor

Monday 1/8/2005

Yow! Much radio fun to start the week. The world long distance record for unamplified Wi-Fi connections has been ground into dust by a team at the DefCon Wi-Fi Shootout: using unmodified cards, they managed to get a strong signal over 125 miles between Utah and Nevada. Admittedly, this was with the help of 12 and 10 foot diameter satellite dishes – so it's not exactly laptop compatible – and along that most RF-friendly of geographies, a river valley, but still stonking stuff. They're going to try it with Bluetooth next. Should make things more fun for naughty people who are keen to leach other people's bandwidth but don't fancy getting arrested: you could stand in Bristol and nick a signal from Bromley.

And then there's Zigbee. The first stand-alone radios have just appeared. This promises to make all that tacky yet tempting home automation happen, letting you control your lights, fires and other domestic gizmos from your computer. Or someone else's computer – possibly even a hacker in Bristol with a modified Sky dish. Can't wait.

There's even something quite excitingly new. I'd heard about xG Technology a few weeks ago, a Florida-based company making remarkable claims about an invention. This, xG said, is a new kind of radio data link capable of much greater distances and much faster speeds than before, all at lower power. The web site didn't say much about how this was supposed to work, and I was suspicious – we've had plenty of examples of 'too good to be true' inventions before that fell apart under a hard glare, such as Silkroad's whacky fibre-optics transmission system that relied on incomprehensible quantum effects on photon polarisation.

Now, however, I get the CEO on the blower and have a long natter. He's still not saying exactly what's going on, but he does let a few more cats' whiskers out of the bag. The main magic lives in the receiver, which he claims has the ability to reject nearly all interference and man-made radio noise. If his claimed figures are right, then this means signals many thousand times weaker than normal can be used to carry information – and stronger signals will appear correspondingly more powerful. There's a lot more which I'll leave for a longer article on Monday, but I came away from the phone call much more convinced that xG has something worth watching. If it all works as claimed, we'll be able to have phone networks carrying very fast data with many fewer base stations than before – and much better battery life.

Genuine innovation. I'd almost forgotten what that tasted like. Tuesday 2/8/2005

The computer mouse has evolved dramatically since its invention by Douglas Englebart in 1970. The original one had two metal wheels – nowadays, you can find them with balls, lights, fingerprint readers, lasers, heaters, haptic feedback, fans and radios. Except at Apple, where until now you had the choice of any number of buttons you like as long as it's one.

The original Macintosh mouse had one button for philosophical reasons. Keen to encourage software writers to make full use of the computer's novel interface, Jobs insisted the Mac lack a number of features that even back in the early 80s were standard everywhere else. There were no cursor or function keys, so programs were forced to use the mouse and menus, and no standard sockets on the back. If it wasn't Mac-specific, it wasn't given the time of day.

To some extent, this forcible re-education worked. But fundamentalism only gets you so far: when Microsoft responded with a two-button mouse it soon became clear that yes, this was a useful addition. (Cursor keys also made a rapid reappearance: it may be philosophically appealing to use a mouse for all editing movements but it's hellishly slow). Scroll wheels appeared a decade later, and are also good. Yet Apple was having none of it.

It’s still not quite sure. Its new Mighty Mouse – released today -- has all the functionality of a two-button scroll wheel mouse but disguises them all under an essentially featureless plastic shell with one little bobble in the middle. Frankly, it looks like an over-designed posh marital aid; even despite that similarity, it is thoroughly unappealing.

It's a shame. The original Mac had so many excellent design points – the case was made smoother around the mains switch at the back, so you could easily find it without looking but it was very hard to hit accidentally, while the integrated carrying handle had hidden ribs to increase finger grip. The tilt of the top of the case made the whole thing seem smaller while giving a strong visual cue about orientation; even the case colour was selected so that it wouldn’t change over many years of use.

While there has obviously been a lot of thought expended on the Mighty Mouse, it is hard to believe it has been spent on ergonomics. It is just a mouse, and no amount of hype from Apple – does the company really believe what it says? – will change that.

Now, where's our iPod phone? Wednesday 3/8/2005

Hey, man! Look over there! It's Rupert and the Sky Gnomes! My namesake Mr Murdoch is feeling the pressure from Freeview and digital cable, and as a result he's reported to be pondering giving away his Sky+ personal video recorder boxes. He's also developing some other new toys such as high definition broadcasts – and today sees the oddest move of all. Welcome the Sky Gnome.

Proudly bearing the trippiest product name evah – and sparking rumours that The Sun is to rename itself The Rainbow Fairyland Express – the Sky Gnome is a small yet brightly-coloured pyramid with rechargeable batteries, buttons and a backlit LCD. It wirelessly communicates with its host Sky box, and acts as a combination remote control and audio relay. The idea is that you cart it about the house and it acts like a radio, picking its programming off the main box.

So far, there's no technical detail of how it works. If it's analogue, it'll use the same UHF band as cordless headphones, and will probably suffer from the same interference and crackling at the edge of its range. Digital would be more fun, and Wi-Fi would be the most fun of all. In fact, you could do that yourself with a wireless-enabled PDA and audio streaming software: you’d need to get IP audio out of the set-top box and have some way of controlling it over the Web. That’s unlikely to happen given Sky’s paranoia about controlling content, which is a shame now that devices such as Torian’s InFusion (warning – very annoying Flash site) are on their way.

InFusion is a portable Wi-Fi radio which isn't named after a garden ornament and doesn't look like something you'd want to hide under a knitted tea-cosy. In fact, it looks like something you'd be proud to show off in the hippest of places, assuming that they had a hotspot and you'd got past the problem of how you connect to a public access point without having a web browser. Then you could dial up Radio Vatican, WFMU or any of the many thousands of other streamed audio services and look extremely smug: something that gnome ownership will never bestow. Sorry, Rupert.

Thursday 4/8/2005

I may have to get back into gaming. Things are happening. A friend tells me about Shadow Hearts:Covenant, in which you have to collect stuff and trade it for other stuff. That's nothing new – except some of the collectable stuff is gay porn, which once amassed will persuade an in-game character who's a queer tailor to make tiny yet disturbingly erotic dresses for a puppeteer's doll called Cornelia. Who sticks her bum in the air when she wins a fight. Right.

And there's an outbreak of duping on the MMORPGs (that's massive multiplayer online role playing game – you'll have to ask the woofty couturier how to pronounce it), where bugs in the software let players create duplicates of valuable items and flog them for real money. One person managed to make enough to take his family on holiday before the system caught up with him – he set up quite a chain of accomplices to shift the illicit goods in a way that didn't draw attention to himself, and found some high-profile fences that were happy to buy in-game currency for dollars without asking questions. When he did get caught he got banned from the game, but as it was so similar to many other games he didn't feel too bad about that.

It's not easy to work out how to punish people in virtual worlds. All the real world issues are there – detecting anti-social actions and proving guilt – as well as the commercial downsides of annoying or banning your paying customers. One particularly clever group of virtual crims managed to dupe in-game money and hand it out to members of their gang, while also giving some away to random players. When the game masters found out they banned everyone who touched the illicit dosh, which provoked howls of outrage from the innocent and sparked on-line demonstrations that slowed the whole world down. So the masters decided on a rather more oblique punishment – they teleported everyone concerned to a random position in the game. I think they reinvented deportation.

It's all very science fiction: we can't seem to get off-planet without blowing up, so we're colonising a home-made version while importing all the crime, economics, sex and deception that so occupies us out here. It must be worth a visit.

Friday 5/8/2005

Picture this – if you can. You've bought a very expensive monitor: very flat, very high resolution, very gorgeous. You've also bought a very expensive DVD player with high definition, digital output and every last bell and whistle that can be struck or blown. You might be forgiven for wanting to plug one into the other, so you can experience all that compelling eye-candy.

But no. The DVD player refuses to do anything but display an incomprehensible error message. You've just fallen foul of High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection or HDCP. This is hardware DRM, where a monitor authenticates itself as a device that's not going to do anything naughty with the information it is sent. Invented by Intel, HDCP is quite a complex cryptographic system that to date hasn't been incorporated in any monitors, although it has found its way into televisions. Without it, many digital video devices won't play – or will play a deliberately downgraded version of their content. Exciting, huh? Just why you spent all that money. You'd better get used to the idea, though, as it will be built into Windows Vista. Just another compelling reason to upgrade: who'd begrudge spending a few hundred extra quid on a new monitor you don't actually need in order to help big companies maintain their business models

I'm also sure that they’ll have solved all the problems with the system by the time it gets truly mainstream. Having tried to explain to a friend why his DVD player wouldn't touch the copy he'd made of his digital home movies ("You see, you’re stealing money from the copyright holder." "But that's me." "Aren't you glad you're being protected from yourself?"), I really wouldn't like to predict what will happen to the market if the rumour got out that we'd all be far better off keeping what we have.

Oh, before I go: this week's best new word is chimping. It is a mildly derisory term that describes the excited noises made by a digital photographer when reviewing a particularly striking picture taken moments before. It's not big and it's not grown-up, so remember:

No chimping!


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