Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Helpful suggestions to crush terrorism, save lives aloft, understand enterprise storage and redefine your personal reality. But will you do your bit for London?

Monday 19/9/2005

A couple more planes got into trouble last week, but in general the skies remain a wonder of complex coordination. Yet it is disturbing to realise that while the whole affair is festooned with satellite guidance, precision radar, navigation computers and stupendous layers of safety systems, it relies in the end on the exact analogue of CB radio. If the chaps or gels in the pointy bit can't get through on the crackly, analogue, overloaded and interference-prone aviation frequencies to the chaps or gels on the ground, it all goes to pot.

This leads to fun and games. Any pilot of standing will have a quiver of anecdotes about what happened when a cabin announcement went to ATC instead, and vice versa. MP3s captured by scanner enthusiasts reputedly exist which contain stuff like:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Speaking, we are at 38,000 feet and the weather in Tenerife is fine and sunny. First Officer Fantastic is currently picking his nose — oh, well retrieved, Nigel — and if you look out of the windows you'll see lots of blue stuff and some white. And if anyone has an idea about 21 down in the Telegraph crossword today, could they make themselves known to the cabin crew? (etc)"

[pause]

"BA494, that's very good, now try telling it to your passengers".

It's much more dangerous when the transmit button gets stuck and the flight crew don't realise — although it can be entertaining to hear Speaking's every thought broadcast over the air, especially if it's about the private habits of the air traffic controllers who just made him late for dinner, it blocks out everyone else.

A report on pilot bulletin board Pprune today describes a situation like that over Manchester recently, and it soon became apparent from the subsequent discussion that there's no indication in the cockpit that you're transmitting. Most of the two-way radios I've seen have a little light that lights up red when you're on the air and doesn't when you're not, and its absence from plane radios is puzzling. I guess there are enough lights up there already, and the last thing you need while you're busy sorting out your landing is to have something twinkling away pretending to be an engine fire or stewardess overboard warning.

This means you want something that's unambiguous but unalarming, something that can almost be part of the background most of the time but lets you know when something's wrong by its atypical behaviour. Perhaps a little hourglass egg-timer that gently revolved while you were talking, and then reset itself when you'd finished — would be a useful reminder for when you had to check in again.

Or perhaps one of those electrical dancing sunflowers that jog about in their pot in time to the music. If that went off for thirty seconds when you thought you weren't transmitting, you'd be aware all right. And for all those old crusties who say that the modern cockpit is more like a Fisher-Price Activity Centre, that could be the last straw — which would improve morale among the younger pilots, many of whom are impatiently waiting for the codgers to retire so they can advance up the seniority ladder and become overpaid grumpy old men themselves.

As many incidents have shown, an imaginative approach to usability is often lacking in aviation, and ideas like those detailed above are well overdue for consideration.

Tuesday 20/9/2005

We're not supposed to write about the iPod, you know. We leave that to the jolly crew on cnet.co.uk, while concentrating more on important grown up stuff like ERP and CRM and storage and... you see my problem.

But here, you see, down in the basement where the Fun Police rarely check, I think we can get away with it. So put a towel along the base of the door and pass that MP3 stash, man.

I played with my first iPod Nano today, and if you haven't had the chance to fondle one you should as soon as you can. It's not that it's any better as an MP3 player than any of the previous models, nor that it's really that much more portable: I've been lugging around my third generation full-fat device for nearly two years now and size, as they say, has never been a problem. But divorced from function and considered merely as an object, it's clear that the Nano has hit some sweet spot — big enough for comfortable interaction, small enough to qualify as exquisite, sparkling and colourful and cool. It would be great whatever it did.

It's certainly chucked the iPod Mini out of the nest, which has had a surprisingly short period as cutest. This is all possible, of course, because Apple has ditched the hard disk in the Mini for flash memory in the Nano: not only is this smaller, it also uses much less power so the battery can be shrunk alongside without sacrificing uptime.

This illustrates an interesting point: here is the battle line where solid state storage is beating back magnetic. Consider the tiny hard disk in the Mini — it is a superb piece of high technology. By bagging most of the production, Apple kept a strict hold on the market: in any light, a hard disk that small and that capacious was a wonder. Yet it couldn't hold the line against flash, and had a very short time at the top of the tree. It's been the same with the IBM Microdrive, which looked like a winner when it first appeared, and yet which has never really been a stonking winner over flash of similar capacity.

It's not just an issue for consumer electronics. 4GB isn't going to make much of a dent in servers, but there are applications where 40GB might have its uses — and elsewhere inside servers there are plenty of moves towards lower power and smaller size without sacrificing performance. Is there a market for a blade server where each blade is silent and the size of a packet of cigarettes? I can think of applications in mobile, health, domestic and environmentally sensitive areas. Doubtless you can, too.

Flash versus magnetic will bear discussion for a while yet, but if you want to know how the fight's progressing you could do worse than watch the consumer market.

You see. I said we had to talk about storage round these parts.

Wednesday 21/9/2005

More aviation fun — this time from BMI, which has said it will install mobile phone access technology so people can use their mobiles in flight. It's traditional at this point to complain about the miserable idea of getting stuck for five hours next to someone with radioactive logorrhea, but to be frank it's not going to make the misery of economy travel any worse. Stick on the headphones, knock back the sleeping draft and just ignore the idiots.

But there are other implications. Today saw something unique happen, a genuine first: a JetBlue plane with landing gear problems had to land (as they all do, one way or the other) at Los Angeles after spending a few hours circling to burn off excess fuel. Nothing too unusual in that, nor in the fleet of news crews on the ground and in the air that assembled to watch it make it in. With nine news helicopters in the air over the city most of the time, you can't get so much as a blocked lavatory on approach and hope to avoid the nightly news.

What made this different was that the in-flight entertainment on the plane included live TV from the DirecTV satellite service. As the story broke and unfolded, the passengers in the plane could watch the reports — they were simultaneously passive observers and active participants. And even when the crew turned off the TV before the landing attempt, passengers in other JetBlue flights coming into LAX could see the whole thing. It's as if the inhabitants of the Big Brother house could spend their evenings watching Big Brother, or everyone in Ambridge discovered the Archers, only with considerably more potential for an horrific climax.

This is the sort of thing that makes cultural theorists explode in delight and fans of Philip K Dick nod sagely and mutter that we told you so. It's certainly impossible to imagine whether watching your own potential tragedy unfold on TV in real time makes it feel even more immediate, or whether it provides some insulation from having to contemplate it all directly. Expect long articles in serious newspapers on this point: don't expect any answers.

But it's going to get worse. Imagine something happening on a mobile phone enabled plane. You won't need live TV on the seat back system, you'll be able to stream it in over the Net — and the bloke next to you will be able to send pictures out by the same route. The media is already keenly aware that people with camera phones can generate footage from anywhere — it knows where to look.

Reality is becoming self-documenting, and the maps are being the places they describe. I'd stock up on the Philip K Dick, if I were you.

Thursday 22/9/2005

As well as the elasticity of reality, another favourite PKD theme is the dangerous paradox of authority: to do you good, we must do you harm — and no, you can't reply in kind. Plenty of proof of that at the moment — and although I was sworn to secrecy on the following story, it's out now.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard that old pal David Mery had been dragged from a Tube station under suspicion of being a terrorist, arrested, held overnight, had his flat searched and his effects confiscated. David is certainly guilty of serial journalism and repeated acts of geekery — the man once edited .Exe Magazine — but until now I didn't consider such things as evidence of criminal behaviour.

He was released, of course. But it took him some time to get his stuff back, and the police are keeping details of everything they found on file. "You've got to go to the papers with this," I said to the mutual friend who was telling me the story. "That's what I say," he replied, "but David's solicitor is against it. Says there may be repercussions." Apparently, he'd been tipped off that MI5 could make David's life hell — vanishing bank accounts, untraceble mistakes in official databases, that sort of thing. Whether this is true or just a tale told by the police to defence briefs to keep their clients quiet, I guess we'll find out — put it this way, it doesn't make me think any more favourably about ID cards. Fortunately, bravely, David reconsidered — and you can read the full story on the front page of Thursday's Guardian.

The best you can say about the business is that at least he didn't get shot seven times in the head. The behaviour the police identified as suspicious isn't distinguishable in the slightest degree from what I, you and most of the city get up to. Obviously this has to change — and here's my guide to not getting arrested in London, based on the factors the police told David identified him as a threat to the free world.

He didn't look at the police at the entrance to the station. The plod wasn't detailed about how much looking is required to allay their suspicion — the more the merrier, I guess. I recommend carrying a pair of binoculars on a tripod: there may be no police at your station, and you might have to sweep the area. Once you've found a policeman, stick an "I've Been Seen!" badge on their lapel.

Two other men entered the station at the same time. Who these men were remains a mystery: nobody else was arrested, so we don't know whether it was two men in particular or just a random brace of blokes. For safety's sake, we must assume the latter. Therefore, I have designed a small pack which scans the area with Doppler-sensing radar and computes the trajectories of everyone in the vicinity. If it detects two or more bodies converging on the entrance towards which you head, it emits a loud warning tone. Hold back. Wait for clearance. Move at once when advised. There is a small practical problem with this device, which we'll get to later.

David was wearing a jacket 'too warm for the season'. As David points out, the day before had been the coldest July day for 25 years. What with global warming, we can no longer rely on the seasons complying with Metropolitan Police acceptable comfort guidelines. As conditions can change rapidly, it is essential to have with you a full wardrobe of clothes of various weights, together with a small changing area to facilitate rapid donning of appropriate garments. I have designed a small trolley that incorporates both of these features, which can be dragged behind you at all times. It's not much bigger than a hot-dog stand, so eminently practicable for a London traveller.

David was wearing a 'bulky rucksack', which he kept with him at all times. I am frankly confused by this: no mention is made of acceptable bulk, and leaving one's baggage alone is generally thought to be a cardinal sin on public transport. The problem is compounded by my portable bloke detector, which in itself is roughly rucksack sized. After some thought, it occurs to me that the problem isn't the bag, it's the concealment. Therefore, I have incorporated a conveyor-belt attachment which hoiks out whatever's in the bag and rotates it under strong lights on the top of the unit. Think of the cuddly toy/teasmade sequence in the Generation Game and you won't be far wrong.

He looked at other people on the platform. Already, it's difficult keeping up with this etiquette. You must look at the policeman: you must not look at the people on the platform. What about policemen on the platform? It's certainly something only a computer can cope with, so I propose context-sensitive blinkers that swing open when the police are to be admired, then slam firmly shut afterwards.

He played with his phone and took a paper out of his jacket. Well, there go two of the only ways to stay sane underground. A flip-down screen linked to the Internet and your mobile phone by Bluetooth should do it. And finally, just in case, I have built a hat with a neon sign above that alternates DON'T SHOOT with I'M NOT A TERRORIST.

So equipped, you can be sure of a safe journey across London.

Friday 23/9/2005

I've had second thoughts about the Don't Get Shot In London kit I described yesterday, following a trip home last night on the midnight Piccadilly Line. I wore the hat, which appeared to work, but as encouraged by my betters I kept my eyes open at all times and closely scrutinised my fellow travellers and the general surroundings. Although there were any number of people exhibiting inappropriate jacketry, openly reading papers and even fiddling with their phones, I felt curiously certain that they weren't suicide bombers. I could know this because of one factor: they were steaming drunk. Yes, that Blairite bogey monster of the Binge Drinker strode among us — well, staggered, slumped and simpered. Oddly absent from the picture was violence or other gross misbehaviour, but then it was a good North London middle class mix. Couldn't be that binge drinking is shorthand for scary working class youth, could it?

Anyway, without seeking to perpetrate stereotypes it is clearly the case that the sort of people who decide to blow themselves up on public transport are not the kind who like their pint — or if they do, not the sort to give in to that temptation. While it can certainly be argued that there were many among the IRA who did enjoy the odd jar, they tended to consider it a good idea not to be strapped to the bomb when it went off — a far saner and more sporting idea. They certainly didn't get tanked up before going on a job: effective terrorism requires discipline. And suicide bombers absolutely cannot risk the loss of coordination or the chance of drunken changes of heart.

And so I have the answer. We don't need bomb scanners and intrusive policing to protect us on the Underground: we merely need to make sure that everyone who travels is pig-whimperingly plastered at all times. Breathalysers connected to the automatic gates should ensure this, together with platform-level whisky dispensers for those who find themselves coming out of the safety zone. Those who seem to act with sobriety will be given the choice of knocking back three treble vodkas and sent on their way, or being hauled off for a quick David.

This will of course mean sacrifice, not least on a Monday morning at 7am when we prepare for our morning commute. It's surprisingly hard work to get properly pished in ten minutes over breakfast. It may be easier for all London to be totally drunk at all times — not for the first time in our history, fellow citizens, and not for the last: in fact, we live in curiously abstemious times, no matter what the politicians say.

It may be a very great thing to ask of ourselves.

But what price freedom?

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