Ya doity mouse! Ya doity mouse! A little bird tells me - in a remarkably good Sean Connery - that the next big thing in text-to-speech generation is the Celebrity Voice. I've seen this idea before but it's never quite worked: the idea is that instead of the neutral, slightly robotic tone that most computers adopt when reading out loud you can choose James Cagney or Jean-Luc Picard, Jeremy Irons or Joanna Lumley. You can even give it your own voice, by reading prepared texts to it and letting it analyse your vocals.
This is a lovely idea, although it could lead to trouble. Think of the lawsuits involving the porn sites who get the great and the good moaning along to the script of Hot Vixens In Porridge III. Think of the problems when you get a phone call from someone who's really a computer - but you recognise them anyway. The worlds envisaged by Philip K Dick and Derrida, where simulacra so pollute the concept of `real' that it ceases to mean much, grow closer every day.
I mention my fears to my computer, but it's otherwise engaged. "Look at me, Ma! Top of the world!" it says, shortly before it explodes in a gout of fire.
I find out what EPOC means. EPOC, you may recall, is the operating system that Psion invented and is now marketed by Symbian as the best thing since sliced time for the cellphone industry.
EPOC. Go on, guess. Enhanced Psion Operating Code? No. Electronic Portable Organiser for Communication? Nope.
It is, and I quote a Psion insider, Electric Piece Of Cheese. "The original programmer had a fetish for milk products", says the insider, "and decided to immortalise that in the name of the system. I don't think Ericsson and Nokia ever thought to ask, before they bought in..."
Glad to see that whimsical isn't entirely excluded from this fast-moving, no-nonsense world of ours.
Vint Cerf, generally acclaimed as the Father of the Internet (but does it remember his birthday?), has been discussing the technology's next giant leap. He wants to equip future space probes with Web servers, and make them accessible via the WWW. NASA agrees, and there's now discussion about domain names -- should there be .earth and .mars domains, for example? What would Bill Gates make of the inevitable .sun? Presumably declare Microsoft a new planet.
More seriously, Cerf suggests that it would make good sense to have a postbox on the probes. "I'd love to receive email from Mars", he says, and I agree completely. The latest Mars machine, the Surveyor, has an experiment on board to check whether amateur radio types could receive signals from a small transmitter onboard without the need for the whole Deep Space Network giant dish schmeer. They could - and it would be perfectly possible to install independent systems onboard and communicate with them from small, homebuilt Earth stations.
So expect this to happen, and get ready to boldy go...
My computer at home has given up the ghost. Rather, the second hard disk - a gigabyte IBM, from the days when a gigabyte was really quite something - has closed its last file and corrupted its last directory. A sort of Cluster's Last Stand (joke for disk nerds). I poke around with some diagnostics, but they all glumly concur - the disk light is on, but no-one's at home.
Of course, I have no backup. That disk didn't contain anything of commercial importance - but it has the email logs of my last five love affairs, three uncompleted novels and goodness knows how many research notes, nifty utilities and downloads from http://www.hotvixensinporridge.com. In short, the dusty attic of my online life is there - and online has been one of the major parts of my life for about fifteen years.
I could go and get the thing fixed. It might even be trivial - the symptoms indicate some electrical failure rather than mechanical, which is a good sign - but somehow I don't think I shall. One gets a sense of the way things are, just at the moment: one leaves the marital home and moves into a tiny flat, from which whatever possessions one took are nicked. And then the insubstantial baggage vanishes, too - it's a bit rich to see the death of a disk drive as a mystical portent, but really it's good to be rid of a gig of nonsense (a gig! How many bytes did Shakespeare generate in his life?). The novels were cack, anyhow, and as for the love letters...
Eesh. Thanks, oh fallible silicon.
Even though my old computer can still be used - just - to get online, I decide that something better is required. I retire the ancient Apricot Pentium 60 (won at gambling, no less, and thus precious to me beyond gold), and proceed to install The Laptop, a rather dusty Taiwanese jobby that nonetheless manages to be four times faster, have twice as much memory and three times the disk space (pre-Fall). It also has USB ports, into which I plug a Kodak videocamera: ten minutes later, I've attached the old monitor (next for replacement), my old clattery IBM keyboard (never, ever to be replaced) and a V.90 modem I'm testing.
The whole business takes half an hour, after which I'm back in the game. Terrific! Most impressive? Getting the videoconferencing going - and establishing a two-way link with someone in Australia, who I pick from the list purely because I can - takes quarter of an hour. That's with Netmeeting, one of Microsoft's best client products; as we chat and peer at each other, we swap notes and files in the background.
My worst experience is getting Notes going. There must be two sorts of Lotus Notes, a kind of Jeckyll and Hyde transformation that takes place. The first - Jeckyll - is the one that Notes developers know. For them, it is a wondrous product that can replicate, sort, produce applications and support thousands of users. It can do no evil. The Mr Hyde face is the one that I see, as do many users: client software that's fussy, doesn't understand Windows, works in mysterious and unproductive ways, and has all the characteristics of an atavistic ape with a bad case of crotch rot.
The list of sins committed by Notes on The Laptop is large. It doesn't understand my modem, because it's not on its list. Everyone else uses Windows' built-in modem support, and doesn't care. It doesn't understand drag and drop. It produces NOTES.RIP files and incomprehensible error messages like a turd produces flies.
Please, someone, write a decent Notes client. You'll make an old man (fifteen years online? It can't be true) very happy...