Rupert Goodwins' Diary

This week: Chinese space mail, cellphone rage -- the solution, Sinclair's electric avenue to power, good news on DSL, and something useful for Blair to do

Monday 22/11/1999

A first! I get email from the People's Republic of China -- not spam (a little unlikely, I grant you) or other impersonal stuff, but from a real live bloke. It's in response to something I posted at the weekend on , a nice low-volume high-sanity newsgroup where we idly chat about which astronaut first fell over on the Moon, where various bits of obscure space hardware got to, and so on. It's a harmless hobby, even if it scores disturbingly high on the anorakometer (especially when you start to download wav files of 1960s Soviet satellite data transmissions, but I'd never do anything like that. Well, perhaps a little. Doesn't Cosmos 2349 sound like a woodpecker being run over by an industrial floor polisher?)

Ahem. Anyway. I'd left a message about the recent Chinese unmanned test flight of their new manned spacecraft. A picture of the control panel of the craft had appeared with Chinese characters displayed on one of the computers, and I was wondering what they meant. The answer came next day in my mailbox from Chiew Lee Yih, politely informing me that the spacecraft was proclaiming "Enthusiastically welcome the return of Macau". I was hoping for something more along the lines of "The AE35 unit will fail in 72 hours"...

Regardless of the details, it's nice that the Internet is still, and increasingly, capable of bringing together strangers across very significant political and geographic boundaries. It's easy to forget this as we sink into a sea of e-commerce, encryption posturing and giant businesses trying to capture our eyeballs.

That one email has cheered me up enormously. There's hope yet.

Tuesday 23/11/1999

Not much hope chez Goodwins as the winter's plague strikes at my mucous membranes. I turn in and listen to the wireless, and later listlessly scan ZDnet UK for the daily round-up I write for our exciting, brand-new Anchordesk UK service. I think my favourite story of the day, albeit far from the most important, is that London Underground is thinking about making cellphones work on Tube platforms. Predictably, this raises howls of protest from people who say that the Underground is the last public refuge from prats talking loudly to themselves -- odd, since there's never been any shortage of these on the Northern Line.

Now, I know exactly what they mean. It is very, very annoying to have to listen to such things, and one's ire increases exponentially with each successive, pointless call made by the bloke in the next seat. This month's Fortean Times even reports that a chap was bludgeoned to death in Germany for refusing to stop using his phone. But I don't know why this should be. It's immense fun -- if disturbingly voyeristic and very illegal, so don't do it -- to listen-in to cellphone calls on a scanner. It's also acceptable for two people to have a conversation in public: you hardly notice it. My conclusion is that it's only hearing one side of the talking that makes things unbearable. Thus to alleviate our misery, we should pass a law making all cellphones speakerphones, or make it legal to use a scanner to pick up the other side of any conversation happening within earshot. Much more fun, and it'd make all those drongos think twice about making quite such a pain of themselves.

Wednesday 24/11/1999

Ah, Archer. What are you like, eh? But I discover in passing that another famous name is standing for the Mayoral position -- one Clive Sinclair, late of Cambridge and unwitting uncle to much of the computer talent currently keeping our fair isle in with a hope of economic success. I like the man, but I'd have a little difficulty with seeing him run a major metropolis based on his managerial track record at Sinclair Research.

However, the reason he's quoted as giving for his candidature is priceless: "None of the other candidates understand about transport". Oh, he might be even be right: I once drove a C5 in London Friday night rush-hour traffic from Kensington to Chiswick. After that experience, my understanding of traffic had deepened immeasurably... and, to be slightly less flippant, I hear that Camden is thinking of making parts of Hampstead's road system closed to all except gas and electric vehicles. Hmmm.

Thursday 25/11/1999

Ugh. News flows past, making little impact on my grotty brain. A friend suggests I should make these diary entries more like Dorothy Parker reviews, going on at length about my hangover, state of mind, incidents that happened on the way into work and only tackling the real meat in the final paragraph with a razor-sharp unanswerable slice of wit. At the moment, I can barely manage a slice of bread.

So if anything happened today, I'm afraid I knew not nor cared. But by the evening, things are somewhat better and I pop over to see a friend. He's doing some development work which necessitates a small network of PCs in his front room, and he's discovered that these make a very fine engine for Deathmatch Quake. We spend far too long discussing networks: the best news is that in the latest missive from BT, not only is it allowed for DSL subscribers to run multiple PCs off the one connection but there are instructions provided on how to set everything up. No technical support, but that hardly matters: for once, and delightedly, I can award BT a pat on the corporate backbone. Well done, chaps.

Friday 26/11/1999

I'm in the middle of trying to buy a flat, and the solicitors are hard at work making it as difficult as possible. You would've thought that things would be better these days, but no -- the whole process remains slow, painful and totally incomprehensible. My intended purchase -- a little two-bedroom flat in Holloway -- is a darned leasehold, and the lease might as well be in Sanskrit. Out of exasperation, I translate two paragraphs, each a single sentence half a page long with no punctuation, into real English. It takes some time, but it can be done -- and the results are very simple, very short and unambiguous. In the process, I find spelling mistakes and other obviously haphazard phrasing: next time a lawyer says that lawyerese is there for accuracy, laugh sardonically.

My solicitor finds more wrong with the lease, to the point that it's been basically wrong for the twenty years it's been running so far. This causes conniptions with the vendor's solicitor and the solictor from the sale the time before that -- and while it's being sorted out (again, glacially slowly), nothing can happen. Today, I sit in my solicitor's office (I had to turn up with a passport, just to prove I existed) and stare in horror at the inch-thick manilla folder that's the paperwork generated to date.

I know there are conveyancing reforms in the pipeline, but I bet they're nowhere near enough. It would be a great and glorious thing if the Government rebuilt the entire legal side of the property market from the ground up, using all this wonderful new technology we have and making the whole thing for the benefit of the consumers -- us. The voters. Funding would be copiously available from the private sector, we have some very good software designers in the country and it would take a very great deal of unpleasantness, frustration and misery out of the lives of all of us. And if that isn't what Tony and co are there for, I've obviously got things terribly wrong.

(Footnote One: This week's must-buy album is Beck's 'Midnite Vultures'. You may have caught him strutting his stuff on Jooles Holland's show on BBC 2 last week. It's a very fine album, entirely suitable for playing loudly at millennium parties and stuffed full of wit, intelligence, weirdness and plain-down-dirty libido. Think Prince/Kraftwerk/Armenian weddings/James Brown/Moog Cookbook... oh, whatever you like. It's in there somewhere. And like Talking Heads at their best, you just can't go wrong with saying you like Beck. Nobody will disagree, and everyone will think you're dead smart and cool, like. It's a bit like the audio equivalent of Richard Hamilton's "Just What Is It That Makes Today's Home So Different, So Appealing?" or Dali without the cynical nutrasweet aftertaste.

You can, and should, find bits of Beck at his web site . And you can see that Hamilton picture, famous for having kicked off Pop Art, on the Korean art library where it lives.

(Footnote Two: There won't be a Diary next week, but normal service will be resumed for that final, frantic run-up to the M thing. I'll try and cook something good up for the very last one...)