Goodwins' Hot Dates: The Diary top ten for 2002

Remember the text-messaging seals? The Swedish monsters? The worm-ridden Bishop of Ely? Neither does Rupert Goodwins, but he wrote them all down in his diary...

Monday 11/02/2002
Now and again, the faintest hint of pity for BT bubbles to the surface like a toddler's bathtime fart. Sometimes, especially with the new management, it comes with the subtlest whiff that the company may yet reform and show it knows what's going on in the world. When this happens, all one has to do to restore sanity is read today's news -- that BT is about to launch itself into court to prove itself the patent holder for hyperlinks. It announced that it was taking US ISP Prodigy to court a while back: BT said that a patent it holds that covers sending routing information along with text, thus hyperlinks, and that it was looking for licensing payments from everyone who served hyperlink information in the US. As I've said before, this is a ludicrous claim. It only covers terminals connected via phone lines: is a PC running a browser a 'terminal'? There are any number of people ready to testify that they were doing much the same sort of thing well before BT got its patent granted, and in any case the idea that BT's Prestel system -- wherein BT's ideas were used -- had any effect on the development of the Internet is profoundly daft. But mostly, it makes BT look stupid, greedy, uncaring and completely out of tune with what makes the Internet work. What would have happened if Tim Berners-Lee had tried to restrict access to HTTP and HTML? No Web, that's what. BT may well have reason to look like a blustering bully to the global community through some sort of maximising shareholder value machismo, or may reckon that if it wins it couldn't care less. But is this the sort of company you'd want to deal with? Monday 13/05/2002
Disaster has struck our noble news mogul, Matt Loney. Not only is he in charge of our news output, but he's also one of those chaps wot takes a keen interest in the welfare of the developing world. So much so, he spent a couple of years out in Papua New Guinea -- or PNG as it's known to anyone who's been near the place -- running a newspaper as a VSO volunteer. There are a couple of corollaries to this. First, as anyone familiar with PNG will know, it is not somewhere that bothers with boring old normality -- if you manage to come back, you will end up with hundreds of tall tales of derring-do and near death. Second, Matt is a journalist and thus has always wanted to write a book. Aha! However, Matt is unlike many journalists in that he actually sat down and wrote the thing -- Mercenaries, Missionaries and Misfits. There then followed the normal round of publishers' rejection letters, but he managed to pin one down, extracted a cheque and settled down to polish the prose. It got finished -- told you he wasn't as other men -- and proof-read by our princess of production, Laura. Happy in his achievement, and days before the deadline for handing in the work, our hero stops off in an Islington pub after work to refresh himself and a friend. His laptop, on which the masterpiece resided, was safe in his rucksack, sitting right by him on the bench in the pub. Suddenly, it wasn't. The manner of the snatch would gladden the heart of any Bill scriptwriter. Mr Loney felt a strange sense of emptiness to one side, and looked down to see his bag disappear in the company of -- in his words -- a chap "in a black T-shirt, black hat and black jeans. And a black heart. I wish him the black death." Being as resourceful as any PNG survivor, Matt gave chase across the pub and into the street. He was pounding after the miscreant when a battered old car sped past them both and pulled up. It was backup for the blagger. The door flew open, matey leaped in, and the car started to make good its escape. Matt was just making a note of the numberplate when another car barrelled around the corner and blocked the view, quite deliberately. Take that numberplate instead? If only. No sooner had this second vehicle taken its place in the procession of thievery than three mopeds appeared and began weaving across the road in an impressive display of visual confusion. At which point, Matt admitted defeat and called the local plod. They arrived in force, clearly as fond of a good tale as anyone, and investigations continue. "So what about the backup?" I asked Matt on Monday. "The backup on the floppy in the bag, you mean?" he said. Ah. Fortunately, Matt has not forgotten the one golden rule of writing -- when you're stuck in a very deep hole, tell production. They work miracles. In this case, Laura had kept a copy of the edited file and was able to email it back to the forlorn Loney and restore his place in the pantheon of authors. It would be far too cynical for me to say that this is the sort of thing authors find happen when a new book's on its way and in dire need of publicity: but just in case, I'm not going to tell you -- you can find details of it, and much else beside, on Matt's Web site for all things sustainable and developmental, Wednesday 05/06/2002
And staying north of the Border, news from St Andrews of text-messaging seals. Not a circus act, more marine biology: researchers have long been tracking the doings of our marine brethren by strapping satellite transponders to their backs and squirting position, depth and time data back to base when they loiter at the surface. But a lot of these species spend a lot of time close to shore -- so instead of using expensive and rather awkward satcomms, the scientists have built a mobile phone into their underwater snooping devices. The box sticks to the fur of the hapless mammals and sends data by text messages when it finds itself within range of a cellular base station. When the seal moults at the end of the season, the box is shed and all is happy. What format the text messages have, I know not. HV 8N NICE FSH 4 T, GN SWMNG. But this is undoubtedly only the start -- the seals will no doubt work out how to text each other, then how to download new ring tones and finally demand only the newest, most streamlined phones in return for letting their lives be broadcast on this bathyspheric Big Brother, Extend it to the rest of the animal kingdom with 3G and video streaming -- after all, natural history programmes are big box office -- and we could have the salvation of the mobile phone industry right here. Friday 05/07/2002
Our Internet Fridge is settling in, and has become a firm friend of all. We particularly enjoy its speakers and Webcam, as distant workers can connect to these over instant messaging and chat to colleagues. The fact that many of us are now spending a good deal of time listening to voices from a fridge and replying would normally be referred to competent medical authorities, but I think we can get away with it for a while yet. Here are ten fridge facts:
  1. 1. The noted Balkan band 3 Mustaphas 3 escaped from their home town of Szegerely by being smuggled out in fridges, and regularly made use of a fridge in their live shows and songs. To many a Mustapha fan, the cry of "Take it to the fridge!" is a signal for particularly energetic dancing. It is normal.
  2. 2. The fridge magnet was invented in 1971 by a Canadian called Jaron Summers, who made a tiny magnetic pig with "Remember Your Diet" on it. Thanks, Jaron.
  3. 3. The refrigerator is normally the biggest consumer of electricity in the household, although modern fridges are much better. One made in 1990 uses as much energy in a year as a hairdryer would if left on for a month.
  4. 4. Magnetic fridge poetry was invented by Dave Kapell, a songwriter with hayfever. To cure his writer's block, he wrote a load of words down on paper and cut them out. To prevent his sneezes from scattering the verses he made with the words, he glued the paper bits to magnets. Then he went to the fridge for a snack while juggling some words, and left them there. His friends couldn't leave them alone, and the rest is history.
  5. 5. Albert Einstein and fellow physicist Leo Szilard patented numerous refrigeration technologies in the mid 1920s. Electrolux bought the rights to use some of these patents for $750.
  6. 6. The first known artificial refrigeration was demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in 1748.
  7. 7. The word 'refrigerator' was coined in 1800 by Thomas Moore, an engineer from Maryland in the US. He invented a butter transporter -- a metal container surrounded by a rabbit-fur insulated cedar tub filled with ice.
  8. 8. Early refrigerators used ammonia, sulphur dioxide or methyl chloride for refrigerants, which were very toxic, very combustible or both. Horrific accidents were not uncommon. Freon was invented in the 1920s to replace these -- it was inert, non-toxic and cheap. It also destroys ozone, a problem not discovered for another 50 years.
  9. 9. Many basic advances in refrigeration technology were made in the US in the late 19th century, after increasing pollution had contaminated the lakes and ponds that supplied natural ice and a series of warm winters had reduced the amount available.
  10. 10. The refrigerator is the commonest household appliance, being found in more than 99.5 percent of homes in the developed world.
Monday 22/07/2002
It's the sixth day of my sojourn in Sweden -- camped on a Neolithic burial mound, on a farm near Katrineholm in Sörmland. The occasion is the 40th birthday party of pal Chris and his charming Swedish wife Nina: some while ago, they bought this farm and have since been reversing the ravages of a decade or so of neglect. However, the immediate past has seen a weekend of raucous partying, and it's now your correspondent who's feeling ravaged and in need of re-roofing, painting and making good. The music's still playing in the barn across the field, the rain is still pelting down on the tent in time to my hangover: and there I was thinking I'd missed Glastonbury this year. Although it's only about an hour's drive from Stockholm, the farm is deep in the rural, lake-strewn countryside and as far from the mod cons of my London life as can be. No, there's no Internet access. No, the mobile phone doesn't work. About my only high-tech items are my shortwave radios, an LED torch (Get one. They're fab) and a mosquito-proof GPS satellite navigation receiver -- taken with me on the grounds I might go yomping through the forests in search of elk and chanterelle mushrooms. Rain-induced lassitude saw that off, in short order. At least the shortwave radios work. Although I'm not normally perturbed by things that go bump in the night, at three this morning what sounded like a very large bird perched in the tree immediately above my tent and started an unearthly screeching. It stomped around a bit, the screeching increased in intensity and pitch, and then there was what sounded like another large Something crashing through the thicket behind me. The night was dark, wet and thoroughly disconcerting. I mentally cursed ever seeing the Blair Witch Project, and found myself at a dilemma. Should I exhibit the mental and spiritual strength to leave the monsters outside to their own devices and just try to sleep, or should I give way to my primordial fears and employ whatever weapons were at my disposal? What could a life in thrall to technology give me, here in this soaking, spooky and very isolated place? Seconds later, the World Service rent the air asunder. I think it was John Peel, but the combined might of Sony, Bush House and disgruntled guitar noise merchants soon saw my metaphysical fears -- together with the bird and whatever its friend was -- put firmly to flight. Comforted by this evidence that silicon saves the sodden soul, I drifted into a sound sleep. Wednesday 31/07/2002
Mondays come and Mondays go. In the case of PricewaterhouseCooper Consulting, renamed to Monday less than a couple of months ago, the corporate rebranding has lasted just long enough to get the business cards back from the printers. IBM has come along and bought the lot, pausing for nary a microsecond before relegating Monday back to a mere day of the week. Sensible IBM. It also paid a very reasonable $3.5bn -- down just a squeak from the $18bn HP almost ponied up two years ago. That makes the PwC staff worth around a hundred grand a head (curiously, almost twice the market value placed on the head of yer average ZDNet employee. Perhaps if we rebranded? Days of the week are out, so perhaps we could be January. Or Rainy Autumn Afternoon. Or Half Past Two In The Morning Waiting For The Nightbus Outside A Dodgy Nightclub In Camden). But it's not a good time to be a consultant. IBM's consulting arm's felt the pinch, and has been casting around for other ways to extract money from its clients. Outsourcing's been particularly good, but it's not clear how the 30,000 PwC'ers will fit into this model. Doubtless they'll get the consultants in to come up with an ongoing strategy. I wonder how you become a consultant. Some of my friends are consultants, but you can't tell. They don't like to talk about it -- one particularly smart woman pal is positively apologetic if you find her out. Others, journalists to the bone, became consultants for a while and it's absolutely true, their salaries doubled. But it wasn't enough: they're all back now and they seem happier. I think it's the feeling deep within the soul of every true-born hack that information wants to be free -- or at the most, available for £3.95 a month from WHSmith. Putting together a 64-page report of the blindingly obvious and then charging zillions of quid for it seems wrong, somehow Wednesday 28/08/2002
I have a call from a friend in Torquay, who's worried about the behaviour of one of their neighbours. The house in question has started to sprout hand-written notices saying things like "I'm too rich to shop. Do it for me", pictures of psychotic clowns and other evidence of industrial-grade eccentricity. Which isn't unknown in Devon, m'dears: in fact, it's one reason I intend to retire down there when I've finished the best-selling novel and no longer have to rein in my more alarming tendencies. "It's sad", says my friend, "but they've even covered up the blue plaque to some famous bloke who used to live there. I think he was a radio inventor, you've probably heard of him. Heaviwood? Something like that." "Oliver Heaviside?" I ask. "That's him. I knew you'd know him. You anorak." And indeed, it's a name familiar to any seriously over-enthusiastic radio type. I knew him because he famously predicted the existence of the ionosphere -- once known as the Heaviside layer -- twenty years before it was discovered. I looked him up, and he did a lot more than that. He produced the workable forms of Maxwell's equations, the basic building blocks of electromagnetic theory, and the German discoverer of radio waves, Hertz, said that he owed it all to Heaviside. Just think, we could be talking megaheavis and kiloheavis instead of megahertz and kilohertz. Ollie did lots more beside in many fields and almost always got overlooked or stymied by his many enemies: yet an assessment of the time said he was one of the most important mathematicians of the late 19th century. I doubt one person in a thousand knows his name today. And all this despite being nearly deaf since early childhood and leaving school at sixteen. Unsurprisingly, he ended up not so much bitter and twisted but completely off his dipole. After he'd moved into his Torquay house, a report says he replaced all his furniture with "granite blocks which stood about in the bare rooms like the furnishings of some Neolithic giant. Through those fantastic rooms he wandered, growing dirtier and dirtier, and more and more unkempt -- with one exception. His nails were always exquisitely manicured, and painted a glistening cherry pink." I relayed this to my friend, who is suitably gratified that they are indeed living near some leyline of latter-day lunacy. Wednesday 02/10/2002
Picture the scene of domestic tranquillity chez moi this evening. Goodwins senior (that's me) sitting quietly on the sofa, battling with network settings on his laptop and occasionally unleashing an oath fit to singe a monkey. Goodwins junior (that's him) sits quietly alongside, battling with monsters on his laptop and occasionally making a strangled sound. Swearing, like spitting at the cat and blowing one's nose on the curtains, is reserved for the alpha male of the organisation (that's me again). But sometimes, Goodwins junior can't help himself. "Oh golly!" he said, simultaneously bracing himself for a well-earned cuff around the ears with a rolled-up copy of ZDNetWeek. But I'm nothing if not a benevolent and loving parent so decide capriciously to give him a chance to justify himself. "Foul-mouthed cur! Why do you besmirch the family name so?" "But father, I was surprised by this strange email from Grandad. It contains an attachment purporting to be a document, but really with a .EXE file extension." Reluctantly, I stay my hand -- although who knows what disgusting liberalism such laxity will instil in the lad? -- and look at his screen. There indeed is an incomprehensible email from my father, complete with worrying attachment. Despite the best efforts of the parochial church council, my priestly dad has yet to succumb to senility so I conclude he's not really the source. We set to work, and soon ascertain that the Reverend Goodwins has been infected by this week's star worm, Bugbear. It's late, but not too late to alert the afflicted cleric. We phone Cambridgeshire. "Oh yes," he says. "I got it from the Bishop of Ely." And your antivirus software, father? Ah. Trust in the Lord. I remind him that even the Pope has bullet-proof glass in his Popemobile, and set about concocting a solution. My father, despite his many fine attributes and great fondness for technology, is not entirely at ease with computing. I do my best to wrap up one of the anti-Bugbear programs with some guidance in an email, but some time later it's clear that it hasn't worked and we're wandering deep into that forest of mutual frustration, the Father-Son Tech Support Phone Call. I send Richard out into the night, ostensibly to purchase some moonshine from the dodgy late night grocers next to the crack cocaine dealer in the Holloway back streets, but in truth because what I have to say to my father is not for sensitive young ears. Alas, despite my manifold imprecations and summonings of the Dark Lord Williamensis Gatesii, we're not getting very far. And it's midnight. In the end, I'm forced into an action I've long resisted. I send the Reverend Father a copy of remote control software VNC, which by dint of being exceptionally well written, easy to use and free soon gives me access to his desktop over the Internet. It then takes me a couple of moments to delouse his computer and bid the man goodnight. Next stop: the Bishop of Ely. Not being bound by family ties, I feel free to act as I wish in this case. When Richard returns, I shall get him to refuel the Scud I keep in the spare room: meanwhile, it's time to program its navigation system with the co-ordinates of a certain cathedral. Monday 14/10/2002
We're all for diversity here on ZDNet UK, and roundly applaud high tech companies that branch out into new areas. However, IBM's attempt to patent the art of going to the lavatory was perhaps one step too far -- and their voluntary relinquishing of the patent awarded is a welcome return to core values. Let me explain. Two years ago, Big Blue patented a method of queuing for the smallest room in places where demand exceeded supply, such as aircraft, concert halls, railway stations and so on. A computer would assign you a place in the queue and advise you of the likely length of wait, presumably using the Q4AP protocol. Why IBM thought this was an innovation, when we've actually been rather good at using sanitation for a few thousand years, is a mystery -- as is the patent office's decision to grant it. Prior art would seem a problem, and the one area where actual innovation may have taken place -- in deciding how long the person before you was going to take -- is distressingly not covered in the filing. Other questions are also left hanging in the air: would the computer keep a log? Would the original binary system of zeros and ones be replaced by numbers one and two? How many toilet jokes can one man cram into a paragraph? But now the penny has dropped and IBM, flushed with embarrassment, has abandoned its attempts at operating cistern design. And a good job too. Thursday 31/10/2002
To the Oxford Arms, Camden, to discuss the state of the IT contract market (dire) with the woefully underemployed Adrian. He's just got a contract doing technical documentation at a fraction of last year's rate, but counts himself lucky. On the way from Camden Road station, my attention is grabbed by a poster on the bus stop. A colourful concoction in Soviet Collectivist style with just a hint of Futurism, it shows a stylised bus trundling over a bridge, lit by the golden rays of late evening. Overhead, four giant eyes hang in the sky like an invading fleet of UFOs, their pupils filled with the London Transport roundel. "SECURE beneath the WATCHFUL EYES" reads the slogan, and an explanatory sentence says "CCTV and Metropolitan Police on buses are just two ways we're making your journey more secure." The whole astonishing affair is signed MAYOR OF LONDON. It's a piece of art beyond anything up for the Turner, whose references to totalitarian propaganda go beyond irony. Is it possible that the designer didn't realise the effect it would have on a nation brought up on 1984? Hardly: I'd like to think that this is a deliberate attempt by whoever produced it to show their own horror and distrust at the underlying implications. Whatever, the poster has provoked equally strong reactions in everyone I've shown it to: a natural for creative reworking. So I say to you, children of the revolution, take up thy digital cameras, thy Photoshop of righteousness and thy mouse of burning gold, and get post-modern on Ken's posterior. If there aren't five decent rip-offs flyposted around the capital by Christmas, we deserve to be called double-ungood. Back in Camden, shaken but resolute, I continue on my journey as four Watchful Eyes of the Met zoom past in a police car. I'm not sure what they were Watching, exactly, but it wasn't the junction ahead: they ploughed straight into a moped, whose rider went skidding across the road. As he came to rest under a CCTV pole, I'm sure he felt very Secure. Very Secure indeed. For 2003, make your New Year's resolution to catch Rupert Goodwins' unique take on the tech week first hand here.