Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Mustard-flavoured monkey mobiles, trombone-playing BT executives and the remarkable case of the chameleon journalist mark a week to remember...

Monday 8/5/2006

Last month, a story broke that not only has legs but a prehensile tail to boot. London Zoo has built a barrier-free enclosure for its spider monkeys, which lets us higher primates in to mingle with our cuter, less IT-obsessed cousins. Or so we thought, until the critters developed an addiction to mobile phones - one hint of a Nokia, and they'd descend in swarms, mugging the hapless Homo Sapiens and carrying off the precious prize with whoops of delight. Actually, there was no indication whether any particular brand was preferred, although the keepers thought that the flashier and noisier the mobile, the more desirable. There are some things that millions of years of divergent evolution can't mask.

The monkeys have been cured of their obsession, though - the keepers acquired a number of phones, smeared them with 'an unpleasant sticky substance' containing mustard and suckered the simians into swiping the bait. As spider monkeys are very clean animals with an acute sense of taste, Goodwins Minor informs me, this came as a nasty shock and they've learned to keep away. Perhaps we should try it with teenagers... but perhaps it only works with very clean animals with acute senses of taste.

"They missed a trick", commented friend Adrian when I told him the story. "They should encourage the monkeys, and hire them out to theatres, cinemas and train companies."

He's right, of course: it's not only a good idea, it's entirely in keeping with the times. We've seen recruitment problems with the police solved -- or at least offset -- by the appointment of swathes of Police Community Support Officers, who are trained and paid less than the true copper but have to deal with a lot of the same stuff. Now, one hears, there are shortfalls in PCSO recruitment and heads are being scratched about how to get more high visibility jackets on the street. A new force even more poorly skilled and badly rewarded is required.

At the same time, anti-social behaviour is being criminalised -- and there's little more anti-social than blabbermouths yabbering away amid a cacophony of ringtones. I propose squads of spider monkeys be given the power of confiscation and on-the-spot fines: they could literally be paid peanuts, and are highly unlikely to unionise.

There may even be roles for them in international peace-keeping, where their lack of nationality and religious affiliation may give them unique access. They could have diffused the near-riot that occurred this week in the Iraqi Parliament after a mobile phone played a Shia Muslim chant - one lightning swoop, and the problem disappears. And who better to deal with gorilla warfare?


Tuesday 9/5/2006

I'm at home late in the evening when the phone goes. It's Guy Kewney. He said he'd call, but I'm surprised by the misery in his voice.

You undoubtedly know of Guy Kewney, veteran IT journalist and quondam colleague of mine. He started in this business when it wasn't even a business, and has forgotten more than any five of the rest of us could hope to remember. His pale, professorially bearded visage has graced magazines and websites for thirty years: if there is a face of IT hackery, it is his. Remember this. It's important.

But tonight, he's remembered my phone number and is even now relating a tragic story in which, I slowly realise, I've played a most unfortunate part.

He was called in, he says, by BBC News 24 for a 10:30 am slot to talk about the Apple versus Apple case. As arranged, he turned up at Television Centre at 10:20 and reception said "They'll come down to meet you ". By around 10:45, he was still there.

There are two reception areas at the BBC - the runner had come down to the other reception, and asked the first bloke he'd seen lounging around 'Are you Guy Kewney'? Said bloke said "Yes", and was thus ushered into the studio.

The time comes round, the interviewer turns to the faux Kewney and says live on air "Guy. What does this result mean for Apple Computers?" The bloke starts blathering on about downloading music from Internet cafes: it's not quite clear what the relevance is, but then it isn't quite clear what he's actually saying. All that is beyond dispute was that he is large, black and Francophone. To his and the presenter's credit they gamely struggle on until they can go to a reporter standing in the rain outside the court, who rescues the item with damp aplomb.

Downstairs in reception, there are banks of monitors relaying the BBC's output to those who await Aunty's pleasure. Among these, of course, is Guy, who goes through his own colour changes faster than a chameleon at a disco.

After the interview reaches its baffling confusion, realisation dawns in the studio. The producer descends, apologises profusely and asks "Seeing as we've put you through this, can you hang on for 11:30?" Guy, not wishing to waste the whole experience, agrees. 11:30 comes around, and so does some chap called Tony Blair who rudely decides to make some news even more important than Steve Jobs' record collection. Guy is rudely bumped again.

"Look, we're REALLY sorry" says the producer, who by now is contemplating a career in the New Zealand Community Sheep Shearing Channel "Can we record an interview now, and then we'll slot you in as soon as we can?"

Grumpily, Guy agrees, does this, goes home, turns on his telly, watches News24 all afternoon. Nothing. The final indignity. Or so he thought.

Later that evening, needing to let off steam, he IMs me.

GK: What a day! I've been to the BBC... Me: Really? What a coincidence! So have I - perhaps we passed each other like ships in the wotsit GK: Were you? I was there for News 24 Me: Amazing!! So was I! What about? GK: Apple versus Apple Me: NOOOO! So was I! This evening, 6:30. Went like a dream. Even got a joke in about Apple Corps needing to let it be. Why, what time were you there? GK: Hold on, I'll give you a call...

Ouch.

Wednesday 10/5/2006

There is a ghost of an acorn abroad today - Acorn Computers has been relaunched. But it is Acorn in name only. Thanks to the BBC Micro, the original Acorn is part of the DNA of every computer child of the 80s, and the Acorn Risc Machine processor design lives on in hundreds of millions of devices around the world. Like so many companies in the Cambridge Phenomenon, Acorn went through spectacular booms and busts: its truly brilliant ARM-based Archimedes computer still has a hard core of enthusiasts, unlike the network computer it built for Oracle.

But all that's left of the company itself now finds itself employed as a badge on a series of laptops imported by a Nottingham firm with, it has to be said, almost no interesting features. The only claim to innovation the company can provide is that the screens are particularly shiny thanks to "Acorn Vybrio Technology" which gives them "a glass like finish for vibrancy and brilliance." I hate shiny laptop screens, but it seems to be the limit of invention these days. Even HP has just launched a new notebook with one major new feature, the "HP Imprint finish, a ground-breaking hard-coated, high gloss surface" according to the press release. Not sure I want to break ground with my laptop, but it's nice to have the option.

In retrospect, the Cambridge computing scene was a microcosm of the whole industry. There were violently opposed camps -- sometimes literally so, with the heads of Acorn and Sinclair Research coming to blows at one infamous party -- with legions of devoted followers able and willing to argue the religions of 6502 versus Z80 long into the night and well past sanity. Technology after technology in varying states of readiness were pushed out to a wondering public in the hope that something might stick. Meanwhile, the dull and boring stuff was eating up the market of people who couldn't care less what chip was in the things as long as they could write and print a letter to the bank manager.

Even now, I can't quite understand what was in people's minds. Amstrad knew how to get it right with its best-selling PCW8256 word processor - built out of what anyone else would call obsolete components but which Sugar saw as extremely cost-effective and efficient.

The day that launched, the Sinclair engineers looked at the specifications and the price and said to themselves "That's brilliant, it's perfect.", which it was - it deserves to be in the Design Museum as an example of superbly produced innovation. Four chips - one custom, two RAM chips and the z80 processor - drive screen, disks, keyboard and the printer mechanism. Of course, the product is profoundly unsexy, cheap and utilitarian, so nobody cares that it's twice as clever in its own way than a Macintosh. The Sinclair engineers knew and appreciated that - and went straight back to doing peculiar gizmos that couldn't be built and nobody really wanted.

It's appropriate, if painful, that the Acorn logo should end up on boring stuff that people can use: the Cambridge Phenomenon might have spawned brilliance, but its the dullards that make the best use of it.

Thursday 11/5/2006

I'm on a conference call to BT where Steven Evans, the head of wireless broadband, is talking to us about their new enterprise product. It is - or will be, when launched -- a Wi-Fi/GSM phone that can switch between the wireless LAN in the office and GSM networks outside. Jolly good.

"The enterprise can decide to give the phone either a fixed or mobile number," he says. "With the fixed number, the call comes into our presence server which works out whether the phone's on a LAN or not, and if not the call is routed via the GSM network. That can save money, because people normally divert their desk phones to their mobiles when they're out of the office. The system saves tromboning."

Tromboning, gentle reader, is the rather descriptive term for when a call is routed through to a number only to find that it has to go somewhere else -- it happens a lot in roaming. So the call has to go sliding out again to its real destination. It's not a good thing to happen, because there are two legs in the call that don't contribute anything except expense.

"I see," I said. "So if someone calls in on a fixed number, they'll still pay the fixed line tariff even though the call is being routed on the mobile network."

"Yes"

"So who pays for the mobile leg?"

"The company pays for that"

I'm getting confused now - it looks as if BT gets two slugs of dough, one on the incoming call and one on the mobile leg. Who's saving the money? And then if the phone is given a mobile number but is really in the office on the LAN, the caller pays full mobile tariff with the company paying for the infrastructure to deliver the wireless bit. No wonder BT thinks this is a great idea. But perhaps I'm missing something: it is easy to get confused when you've got three interconnecting networks of landline, mobile and IP, and multiple choices of delivery mechanism.

"Hmm," I say. "Have you got any documents you can send me about this which set out how this works?" A decent diagram is worth a thousand words, even when they're uttered by the Head Of Wireless Broadband on a conference call.

"Er, we can perhaps pull something together. But we're used to talking to journalists who understand these things"

Oww. That's telling me. For enlightenment, I turn to a broadsheet report on the same launch (no names, no pack drill, honour amongst thieves, etc) which clearly does "understand these things". BT to replace the desktop phone, it says. Will save companies thousands. Defeat spiralling call costs. New technology, first in the world. Dawn of hope and joy to the world.

Just goes to show, even after twenty years covering telecommunications there's still lots to learn. Like don't ask awkward questions if you don't want to be treated like an idiot.

At least I get to share my idiocy -- and the wisdom of BT -- with you lot.

Friday 12/5/2006

The law is another area where I lack understanding - which, unfortunately, is no excuse. Take the sorry case of UK hacker Gary McKinnon, whose exploits on US computers have made that country's judiciary determined to make him into another Kevin Mitnik. He hasn't denied breaking into the American systems, but points out that he did little or no damage, the security was inept and his motivation, while bizarre, was far from criminal.

None of this cut any ice with the judge, who determined that since the crime was committed in the US - despite McKinnon being resident in the UK at the time - he should be tried in the US. If the laws of both countries were perfectly in sync, then there may be some logic to this -- but in the UK, even severe cases of hacking can't attract the 70 year maximum sentence the vengeful Americans could ladle out if they felt like it.

I'm now worried. It's not, as far as I know, illegal to leave a message on a UK bulletin board saying "Tony Blair? That toerag should be hung, drawn and quartered", but if I were an American expressing similar sentiments about President George W Bush it's liable to be interpreted as a threat to the man's life. So if I left that message on a US board, would I be looking at an FBI deportation writ? How about expressing my opinion about the liberation of Tibet on a Chinese blog? One-way ticket to Beijing? There are lots of crimes one can commit online in foreign parts from the comfort of one's own front room.

Alternatively, if I use Google Writerly - a hosted word processing service - to produce an article that I then sell to an American publication, can I explain to the Inland Revenue that because I did the work on an overseas computer, I was effectively non-resident and the work's non taxable? We can guess the answer to that one, can't we.

It is more serious than those somewhat flippant examples indicate. Over in the US, there is a movement -- mostly fuelled by anti-pornography activists -- to impose local standards on online services. The argument goes that if a website or similar does something that breaks a local law, then no matter where that website actually is the people involved are guilty of the infraction. Combine that with a willingness to seek extradition and a compliant UK judiciary, and the possibility arises that we could end up in trouble for stuff we do on our very own blogs.

There is one cunning plan to counter this, promoted by one of our readers in Talkback - when they do break your door down and haul you off to the airport, be sure to leave your passport at home. There's bound to be a jobsworth at US Immigration who'll deport you back again, on the spot.

No diary now for a couple of weeks - see you in June...

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