Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Who's afraid of the Nordic ghost? It's nothing a shortwave radio can't handle. Just don't mention the killer masts...

Monday 22/07/02
It's the sixth day of my sojourn in Sweden -- camped on a Neolithic burial mound, on a farm near Katrineholm in Sörmland. The occasion is the 40th birthday party of pal Chris and his charming Swedish wife Nina: some while ago, they bought this farm and have since been reversing the ravages of a decade or so of neglect. However, the immediate past has seen a weekend of raucous partying, and it's now your correspondent who's feeling ravaged and in need of re-roofing, painting and making good. The music's still playing in the barn across the field, the rain is still pelting down on the tent in time to my hangover: and there I was thinking I'd missed Glastonbury this year. Although it's only about an hour's drive from Stockholm, the farm is deep in the rural, lake-strewn countryside and as far from the mod cons of my London life as can be. No, there's no Internet access. No, the mobile phone doesn't work. About my only high-tech items are my shortwave radios, an LED torch (Get one. They're fab) and a mosquito-proof GPS satellite navigation receiver -- taken with me on the grounds I might go yomping through the forests in search of elk and chanterelle mushrooms. Rain-induced lassitude saw that off, in short order. At least the shortwave radios work. Although I'm not normally perturbed by things that go bump in the night, at three this morning what sounded like a very large bird perched in the tree immediately above my tent and started an unearthly screeching. It stomped around a bit, the screeching increased in intensity and pitch, and then there was what sounded like another large Something crashing through the thicket behind me. The night was dark, wet and thoroughly disconcerting. I mentally cursed ever seeing the Blair Witch Project, and found myself at a dilemma. Should I exhibit the mental and spiritual strength to leave the monsters outside to their own devices and just try to sleep, or should I give way to my primordial fears and employ whatever weapons were at my disposal? What could a life in thrall to technology give me, here in this soaking, spooky and very isolated place? Seconds later, the World Service rent the air asunder. I think it was John Peel, but the combined might of Sony, Bush House and disgruntled guitar noise merchants soon saw my metaphysical fears -- together with the bird and whatever its friend was -- put firmly to flight. Comforted by this evidence that silicon saves the sodden soul, I drifted into a sound sleep. Tuesday 23/07/02
Meanwhile, back in the other world of farms, fantasies and loud music, Hollywood mainstay effects house Industrial Light And Magic -- still one of my favourite company names -- is throwing away its SGI Risc/Unix workstations in favour of Pentium 4 machines. It's also using a thousand AMD Athlon processors for its render farm, the network of dedicated computers that takes the limited quality working sketch for each frame of computerised animation and turns it into sumptuous eye candy. In terms of price and performance, the company says, you can't beat standard kit these days. It's not the first time that a large consumer market has created products that are objectively finer than any specialist option: the engineering in a £199 VCR has been a match for most laboratory gear for decades, and the radio circuitry in my £120 GPS receiver is miraculously good. But it's bad news for people who work in the small-volume, high-margin world of top of the range engineering. With computer graphics, the tide may turn again. Nvidia has said its Cg language will let companies move rendering away from farms and onto the desktop, as it'll couple dedicated graphics circuitry to standard workstation software. Intriguingly, that dedicated chippery will only be cost-effective if it also has a huge mass market -- if it's commonplace in home PCs, in other words. Combine that scenario with some of the grid computing software that lets you share time on your PC with large projects, and we may yet see the latest blockbuster movie being built in our own front rooms. No sneaky editing in naughty stuff, now! Wednesday 24/07/02
Wireless and health scares are the bane of my life. Every so often, some well-meaning but fuzzy thinking pressure group gets going to ban evil radio transmitters from near kiddywinks, because "we don't know whether cellphone base stations are safe, so we'd better be careful." Nothing is better calculated to make my blood boil, so to speak. You chumps! There are a million things in this world that WILL make your kids sick, and why aren't you out there stopping them? Cigarettes have helped see infinitely more people to an early grave than cellphones ever have. And now it turns out that hundreds of coppers are ringing in sick -- hopefully not with their mobiles -- because their new Airwave radio system is 'making them ill'. What a load of Tosh Lines! You may remember the media scare over laser pointers: several plod were off work for months, it was reported, because of 'bruised eyeballs'. It doesn't matter how long you scour the medical literature for that -- nobody makes photons that heavy. But there is one area where I counsel genuine caution. A friend reports a small advert in a Spanish electronics publication saying: "Increase the power of your 2.4GHz wireless laptop. Circuit to modify a microwave oven to act as an RF amplifier, range at least 2Km. Only 10 euros." Needless to say, he's going to send off for the details. Of course, this is going to happen. In the old days of CB, there was no shortage of people buying 'boots', amplifiers that took the respectable four watts of radio power from the CB transmitters and boosted it to hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of watts. The worst you could get then was a nasty RF burn (well, apart from a humongous fine if you got caught). But now we're going to see keen but clueless anoraks pull their £50 microwave ovens apart for the magnetrons, in order to get their wireless LANs to work over the road to their mate's place. 800 watts of 2.4GHz -- generated by a huge voltage transformed from the mains -- is going to cause a lot of havoc to their bodily bits and, more worryingly, to those of others nearby. Oh well. Another hazard of the modern world. On no account should you type "Microwave oven experiments" into Google: there's far too much engaging yet dangerous nonsense out there already. Grape racing sounds fun, mind. Thursday 25/07/02
A draft bill before Congress will give Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley the right to hack your computer in order to stop you copying music files. You bad person, you. And if they damage your PC? You'll have to get special permission to sue them: otherwise, they're exempt from normal laws. This is so far beyond the pale that it's hard to know where to start. What if the principles involved -- if you can grace such vigilante piracy with such a high falutin' term as 'principle' in the first place -- get adopted elsewhere? If I suspect someone of committing a crime that disadvantages me, do I get the right to bash in their front door and rampage through their house? Of course not; I'm not a big business with friends in power It's not the only terrifying development going on in the US right now. Take a look at, the latest, greatest idea in the War Against Terrorism. Click on Operation TIPS. Yes, the US Government is commissioning millions of American workers as spies to report on 'unusual or suspicious activity', confidentially and with no chance of comeback. I've already seen 'patriots' in AOL chat rooms loudly passing on the email addresses of anyone who expresses a pro-Arab or pro-Palestinian opinion to 'their friends in the FBI'. Let's not forget: despite the constitutional safeguards, an American citizen, Abdullah al Muhajir, is currently in detention indefinitely and with none of his normal legal rights after being declared an "enemy combatant" by the US Government. The fact he was arrested in the US and hadn't combated anyone is apparently irrelevant. When the safety of the state is so important that the rule of law can be suspended, and when the crime of copying music -- copying music, for heaven's sake! -- is so heinous that my normal rights are discarded, there are bad times ahead. I recommend the study of recent history. Friday 26/07/02
Hotmail is rapidly becoming a synonym for frustration. Users have been getting steadily more annoyed with the service of late, as a superabundance of spam and strict limits on storage combine to make many mailboxes unusable without constant attention. This week's little bundle of joy was Microsoft's unilateral and unannounced decision to delete all sent mail older than 30 days from the system, because the company reckoned it was "probably safe" to delete stuff that ancient. Needless to say, many people disagree. That's tough, says Microsoft, adding snidely that people shouldn't expect too much from a free service in a tough economy, oh and by the way would you like to sign up for the paid version? Hey, the company adds, lots of free services have just folded. Count your blessings. There are various issues here. It makes sense to limit a free service, in order to attract people over to a paid alternative, both to limit the costs of provision and to build a sensible revenue model. It makes sense to say that old messages are one of the things that won't be supported indefinitely. But behaving like a complete dolt and angering your customers, then refusing to help them out thereafter, is an act of raw stupidity. If Microsoft had announced the move 30 days in advance; if it had provided the simplest of utilities to archive old messages onto the users' PCs; if it had treated its millions of users with something approaching respect instead of telling them off in a most condescending way, then no doubt more would feel minded to cough up a few bucks and sign up for the better service. As it is, the knowledge that the paid-for Hotmail is run by the same people who just vaporised your emails and shrugged their shoulders will probably keep most people looking elsewhere. Postscript: I relay Monday's story of tent-bound ghosties to m'lady, the Scots historian. Of course, she is intimately informed of the Scandinavian legends concerning burial mounds. "They don't come with the wispy, walk-through-walls type of ghost, you know," she tells me, warming to her task. "Not at all. No, these have 18' tall warrior types with huge battleaxes. They're quite capable of taking off the roof of your farmhouse with one blow, before ferociously disposing of the inhabitants." So a tent wouldn't stop them? "They might pause to rip it to shreds with their teeth." Y'know, if I wasn't absolutely sure of her pure heart and shining intentions, I'd swear she enjoys making people go white. To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.