Rupert Goodwins' Diary

In this issue: Online sage sage, MS gets relaxed then uptight again, the proper use of rudeness, buy this company and Skip, the E-Kangaroo.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Hola! Rupert to Earth, Rupert to Earth, come in Earth... Apologies for the hiatus in the diary, chaps, but sometimes a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. In this case, a combination of successive Fridays spent either out of the country or out of commission have left this particular field to lie fallow. But now I'm back, and the rotavator of relevance is grinding the tall poppies of indolence into the sod. Lots has happened, so instead of covering the last five days I'm just going to throw in a few snapshots of the previous month...

Click! Picture a field at Glastonbury Festival. A friend is poking around some of the stalls that line the paths, when he spots a herbal infusion for which great things are claimed. Being fond of his refreshments, he takes an interest -- but knows nothing of the plant on offer (Oh, I know what you're thinking. It's something naughty. Wasn't, as it happens -- the vegetation being vended was Salvia Divinorum, a member of the sage family and about as offensive to the Powers that Be as Paxo stuffing). He asks me about it, but my horticultural knowledge starts and ends with the green bits in a kebab.

So, off we trot to the Greenpeace area, where four computers -- solar powered, natch -- are ISDN'd to the outside world. I try AltaVista -- not much cop. "Oh, do Google," says my pal, and it comes up with the right answer in a twinkle. He learns about his 'erb, and I get my consciousness expanded by finding what appears to be the best search engine on the planet. And you thought Glasto was all about loud noise and the absence of plumbing...

Click! A Microsoft technical conference in Amsterdam, where the PRs scamper around and try and get journos together with Microsofties. Something about Amsterdam appears to have infused itself into the attitudes of said Microsofties, who seem detectably more relaxed and open than is perhaps corporately advisable. One such, when asked when CE was going to be integrated within the new XML/Active Directory framework. "Don't ask me," he said with a sigh. "CE's only just been integrated within the Microsoft framework..."

Click! Later that same day, I wander around the conference and find a huge room stuffed with HP Netvectra thin clients busy running NT4 Workstation and IE5. They're all open to the conference attendees for Web access, but have everything else disabled. No filing system is visible, no nifty file://c: malarky will do any good. As it's a Microsoft show, it's fair to assume that the security is as tight as can be -- but, hmmm.

Ten minutes later, as I wander happily through the file system, the network, the browser configuration documents and so on, a worried person in an MS T-shirt appears at my elbow and says "Can I ask you not to be here, please?". And it wasn't as if I'm an NT security expert, which I'm not, just that once you find a tiny chink in the armour you can knock the whole lot over in a flash.

Click! CNN.COM reports on Back Oriface 2000. Only they've found the title so rude that the actual name of the software appears nowhere in the article -- not even in its sanitised BO2K form. Will this be the next ruse of virus writers, to call their products by names so steamingly unrepeatable that Americans can't even bring themselves to type them in? Am reminded of this late one night when watching a gaggle of young women do a videogames review programme. I get to the bit where they tell the watching hoards how to type in cheats for extra lives, more power, or whatever. This required one of the presenters to deliver to camera, straightfaced, "Now type in LAPMYLUVPUMP, followed by MRFLOPPY". She coped admirably without so much as a flicker, but I had a sudden vision of a roomful of baseball-capped programmers watching the show and collapsing for hours at the sheer hilarity of their little ruse...

Click! Get into work yesterday to find that Ziff-Davis is up for sale. Again. Apparently, our current lord and master wants to work purely with Internet-only companies, and we've got all this paper-based content and other things that don't fit. Ah well. It's happened enough times in the eight years I've been here, but it's always faintly unsettling. And once again, the wires, bulletin boards and web sites are filling with top-notch predictions and analyses with one thing in common: they're going to be wrong. But the air is filled with gallows humour nonetheless... is it going to be Disney (I do hope not)? VNU (now that makes people twitch)? Procter and Gamble?

But anyway. If you've got, oh, five or so billion dollars and fancy a leading media company with strong brand presence and market-leading products, drop me a line. I'll pass you on to the right people for a mere fraction of a point finder's fee.

Click! A gem from the comp.risks digest. I've always been a big fan of the wilder shores of military technology. Helicopter simulations are great, because they try and get as realistic as possible -- for the Australian armed forces, for example, the programmers included kangaroos. Herds of scattering 'roos can give away a helicopter's position, apparently, although I suspect the presence of a large and very loud machine a few hundred feet above the ground might attract attention for other reasons.

Back in the sim, the programmers decided to do the decent thing and reuse code. They had a perfectly good infantry object which ran away from helicopters, so they remapped the graphics, changed some of the movements and upped the speed. Job done.

Then came the demonstration. Some American pilots, spotting the wildlife, decided to have a laugh and duly buzzed the wily marsupials for the joy of watching them scatter. Great fun -- until the kangaroos vanished behind a hill only to resurface and launch two dozen Stinger missiles at the unsuspecting copter. Oops. Even though the programmers later apologised for 'forgetting' to remove that part of the infantry code, it had the desired effect. Pilots trained on this simulator now steer very well clear of anything larger than a wombat.

Normal service returns next week...

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