Rupert Goodwins' Diary

This week: VR that works, our alien nations, toying with activism, how to be Ford Prefect and what happens after ADSL

Monday 13/12/1999

Napster global database size: 1.14 terabytes

If you're a prophet of doom, you're spoiled for choice at the moment. In the old days, you could just strap on a THE END IS NIGH! placard and go for a stroll -- now you have to set up a web site with several megabytes of storage just to cover the options. Global warming, nuclear accidents, GM mishaps, cellphone brainburn, ozone depletion, Russian atomic gangsters, antibiotic-immune superbugs, Y2K, stock market meltdown, air traffic control overload... I've probably missed a few, but you get the picture.

None of this should blind us to the comfortable fact that, for a planet of six billion souls with its fair and unfair shares of misery, things are genuinely better than ever before, and we're getting better at catching up with our mistakes. My son had a run-in with a leg infection recently: fifty years ago, he'd probably have lost the limb or his life. There are be superbugs out there that'd do more damage, but there may be new approaches underway that'll zap those -- bacteriophage viruses are worth watching.

And now NASA, bless it, is doing its bit for air traffic control (ATC). It's announcing a virtual control tower -- like a flight simulator, but for ATC -- run by a million dollar SGI Reality Monster driving twelve projection screens to produce a completely immersive environment that looks the real deal. The tower, called FutureFlight Central, isn't there for training but for research: we need new systems and new procedures to stop the skies filling up with homeless aircraft, and there's nothing like testing them in realistic conditions. The problem was, until now there was nothing except testing them in reality -- and if you ever wanted to see true mission-critical beta testing, this was it.

It turns out that it's a lot more exciting than that. NASA, bravely ignoring the chance of industrial-grade sarcasm, demonstrated FutureFlight Central by throwing up a simulation of the surface of Mars -- the assembled, hype-hardened audience apparently 'gasped in awe' at the effect. We all know the power of visualisation in helping our minds grasp abstract, dynamic systems. Imagine the use of such viewing environments when designing new drugs from the cell's point of view, examining weather and pollution interactions, all the sort of virtual reality ideas that never took off because the technology just wasn't up to it.

Now it is, and it isn't that expensive. Oh, I'm sure that a million dollars for the computer and probably ten times that for the rest of the bits isn't the sort of dosh that's lost behind the sofa, but as a revenue generator there are just two words that'll make it fiscally fly: deathmatch Quake.

Tuesday 14/12/1999

Napster global database size: 1.25 terabytes

And talking of space, have you looked at SETI@home lately? Over a million users from 224 countries are now taking part, and despite a fairly regular rumble of hiccups the project has scaled magnificently. No aliens yet, though. Despite being a huge fan of the project and a confirmed believer in a galaxy pullulating with life, I doubt they'll find anything. As always, we've designed it to look for people like ourselves: yet in fifty years' time, I'd be surprised if us humans were radiating anything powerful enough to be detectable over a distance. Radio technology rapidly develops away from the big transmitter idea, so the window in which a distant culture may be radio-active on a cosmically interesting way is always going to be tiny.

Be that as it may, as usual for these things SETI@home tells us far more about the state of play with homo sapiens than about the bug-eyed monsters. I've managed to process more data than the last three countries on the list put together, and if I were a country I'd be doing better than the bottom thirty. And at the other end of the list, the big names in IT are duking it out for alpha male status -- Sun, Intel, SGI, Compaq all have teams locked in deadly conflict. The top dog, Sun, has spent some two centuries of CPU time mashing through the interstellar signals, putting entire countries such as Spain, Taiwan and Ireland to shame. If Sun was a country -- which it'd love -- it'd be more powerful than all but 20 of the sovereign states of Earth.

Meanwhile, Mali fields a lonesome duo. But they and many other struggling countries are in there, an active part of one of the most inclusive, exciting and futuristic science projects on the planet: if the aliens do turn up on a screen in Somalia, we can be unreservedly proud of the way it happened.

Wednesday 15/12/1999

Napster global database size: 1.294 terabytes

If you want a taste of how politics in the real world is going to change in the next few years, cast an eye over the etoy wars. In case you've missed it, here's the story so far. One of the aggressive new breed of online retailers, eToys, has taken a group of Swiss artists to court over their use of the domain name -- which has been on the Web for two years before got going. The site has won awards for extreme artiness, and is generally well thought of: the trademark issues under which eToys is fighting the case are, well, not clear. The consensus of opinion on the Net is that this is a classic case of a large, well-funded company using the law to squish someone with impeccable moral rights but impecunious resources.

As a result, there is widespread anger and threats of hackerish action against etoys. You may have seen something similar in Seattle, where well-organised and committed activists took to the streets and effectively wiped out the WTO talks.

As one of the etoy artists said of the web site dispute in Wired: "Now a lot of people turn into terrorists if this goes on. They don't see any chance of our getting our rights. That's when riots start, when people feel powerless and nobody listens to arguments, only money matters."

In our Western democracies, where voting figures continue to fall and our lives are increasingly controlled by rules and rulers from whom we feel alienated and who we are powerless to control, this sort of thinking will catch fire. The rioters may be crusties with half-bricks in their hands, or they may be nerds with a browser in one window and a telnet client in the other: the way things are going, they may even be you and me.

Thursday 16/12/1999

Napster global database size: 1.31 terabytes

If you're a British male in your thirties or forties, chances are you'll know exactly what I mean if I complain of a pain in all the diodes down my left-hand side. You'll know where your towel is, and how to use it if you inadvertently consume one too many -- i.e., one -- Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters.

Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy sank into the public subconscious from the moment it hit the wireless in 1978 (my gaaaahd! Twenty-two years ago!). And now, in the spirit of all truly inspired science-fiction nonsense, it's in the process of auto-incarnation. We've seen Star Trek communicators spirit themselves into existence in the shape of flip-activated cellphones, NASA's busy building tricorders for the International Space Station, and now the Guide itself -- complete with Don't Panic button -- is heading for reality faster than a Magrathean missile. has been going since April, being a collaborative venture between anyone who wants to sign up as a researcher and a team of editors. The idea is to recreate the Guide but with real data entered by real people.

Now, Adams and co have said that the project will be available through WAP, the wireless application protocol that links cellphones to the Web. It won't be long before someone writes a PDA program that uses this to completely replicate the original Guide -- now, all we need is a subether signalling system to attract the attention of the Vogons, and all our problems will be over...

Friday 17/12/1999

Napster global database size: 1.335 terabytes

DSL? Cable? Don't be so tiresome, sonny. Those ancient, low-bandwidth technologies are already obsolete. News filters through of an Internet 2 demonstration between the University of Washington and Stanford (think, oh, Aberdeen to Exeter) of a 200 megabits/second video transmission over IP. I wasn't there (then again, the point is that I shouldn't have to be), but reports say that the extreme resolution and high frame rate of the pictures were 'mindblowing'. Just like being there, apparently, and so much better than your average broadcast TV as to leave no doubt that if it can happen, demand insists that it will.

But if we're going to need 200 megs to the home, there's nothing that can currently do it short of optical fibre. No wireless system is up to it -- at least, nothing due in the next five years -- and while there may just be a way to get those speeds down copper cables they have to be very short copper cables.

There is another way to encourage the development of the technology while we're waiting for cheap fibre. Remember that NASA control tower mentioned on Monday? Imagine a string of those across the country, linked by Internet 2 fibre and hooked up to a central server distributing ultra-high quality immersive cinema or gaming. Makes sense to me, and as of today we have the technology.

Oh, this is going to be an exciting few years!