Rupert Goodwins' Diary

This week: Cix finds a UFO, why Melissa loves Bill, how 22 hairy men can save you from music on hold, the perfect crime in cyberspace and ooooh, those wacky French!
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 5/4/1999

Bank Holiday? Easter eggs. Meeting friends in pubs during the afternoon. Playing with toys. Especially playing with toys, and most especially one I got a friend for her birthday. You may have seen the toy in question if you watch too much telly -- it stars in an advert for Maltesers, and looks like a spinning top with lights around the edges. It also makes things hover above it -- in the TV ad, a Malteser -- and is very, very noisy. Friend saw the ad, said "Oooh. It's my birthday soon. I want one of those".

Out with the deerstalker and onto the net. First, I found out the agency who'd made the advert (not easy: Maltesers are made by Mars, which doesn't even have a UK web site) and emailed the appropriate person asking "Does this thing actually exist, or is it some creative's fever dream?" No reply. And it's hard to fly AltaVista when you don't know anything at all about that which you seek.

In the end, Cix came up trumps. Cix is the smoking submarine vent of the online world, an unWebbed, text-only conferencing system inhabited by the people that time forgot. It's also a thriving community, kept lively by the fact that people actually pay to belong and thus behave with a degree of ownership.

In particular, it has a conference called Noticeboard. The rules are simple: you ask a question in public, and all replies have to be by email. This prevents long, rambling discussions building up and once someone has sufficient replies to have found the right answer, it's good form to post the result back on Noticeboard for the enlightenment of all.

I asked "Where can I get a Malteser Hovering Machine?" It took a few days, but one was tracked down to a curiosity shop in Birmingham, obtained by a friend and delivered to me three days before the birthday in question. I defy anyone to come up with another online resource that can do this.

There was one disappointment. It turns out that the machine (a Blow Action UFO Mk II) hasn't got enough puff to levitate a sweetie: all it will manage is a polystyrene ball supplied with the toy. TV lied to me, kids: it may well lie to you too. It's best to be aware of these things.

Tuesday 6/4/1999

OK. You're sick of Melissa. Fair enough. But one thing irks: no matter what the media says, the real reason for the nasty's incredible powers of duplication and infiltration has nothing to do with the evil genius of whoever concocted it. It is, as you'll have noticed if you've looked at the code of the beast, a simple-minded thing. Not quite as straightforward as the '10 PRINT "THOMPSON SMELLS OF POO" 20 GOTO 10' programs we all typed into the ZX81s on display in WH Smiths, but no optimising C++ compiler either. The darn thing thrives because of the simple-minded approach Windows has to security.

Now, in the US if you make a gun that kills someone you can be sued for making guns. If you sell cigarettes that kill people, you can be sued for making cigarettes. So why is nobody bashing down the doors at Schloss Gates saying "You sold us a pile of cack that couldn't even keep a half-baked macro from bringing down our corporate mail system"?

It's a mystery.

Wednesday 7/4/1999

I had occasion to call Orange today. I ran out of talk time on my pay-as-you-go mobile while sitting in a pub, so slipped outside to do the biz. Normally, this involves growing tumours for a quarter of an hour while listening to music on hold (which, via GSM, has a certain post-modern charm), then practising Sufi meditation exercises while waiting for the customer call operative to persuade the computers to surface from their own deep coma.

This time, I got through in a single ring. I nearly dropped the phone.

The bloke took my details and said "Right. That's all OK."

There was a clatter as the phone bounced off the Camden pavements.

I retrieved it with shaking hands. "How... how have you done it so quickly?" I asked, expecting an interesting lecture about new hardware, better software, enormous investment in staff...

"Easy," he said, "You've called in the middle of the Manchester United match".

Another tip for successfully negotiating our modern world...

Thursday 8/4/1999

AOL is a strange beast. It breeds its own peculiar kind of online scam: one that's been particularly prevalent of late is the fake official AOL email saying "You've won a major prize -- click here to collect!" (or "Use our new secure email system" or "Enroll in our e-commerce promotion for cash", or whatever). This then directs you to a web site which looks pukka but asks you for your screen name and password (and, sometimes, your credit card details).

Irked by no fewer than ten of these arriving in my AOL inbasket today, I decided to don that deerstalker again and see what was going on. It turns out that it takes ten minutes -- I timed myself -- to generate an untraceable free email account, create a free web site with all of the above that mails its harvest to the free email account, test it and set it live. Ten minutes. If I was feeling creative, I could pop down to my local cybercafe and set up and publicise five of the bleeders in a morning, then pop onto the Web from somewhere else the next day and be off with the ill-gotten. I don't believe there would be any way whatsoever to trace me.

The mystery here isn't that it's happening, it's that it's not exploding.

Friday 9/4/1999

From the NY Times today:

"That appears to be exactly what Microsoft is doing in announcing a new consumer operating system that may appear in the year 2000 or 2001. Ballmer said the new operating system would include advances in digital media handling, home networking, Internet technologies and improvements in the ease of installation and use. That product outline has evoked a skeptical response from competitors.

"At a risk of being called sexist, ageist and French," said Jean Louis Gassee, chairman of Be, "if you put multimedia, a leather skirt and lipstick on a grandmother and take her to a nightclub, she's still not going to get lucky." "

A bientot, mes amies!

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