Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Rupert's still waiting for his plastic lights, but in the meantime Big Brother has a spot of bother in Camden...

Monday 28/10/2002
Some technologies seem to get to within a year or two of being serious, and staying a year or two away forever. I remember a stretch of the 1980s where five successive years were "The Year Ethernet Will Finally Take Off", and I must have written the story about "fuel cells powering mobile phones next year" four or five times in the past decade. And now we have plastic light-emitting diodes: lumps of organic material that you can mix up like any other plastic, but that glow when you put a voltage across them just like the ordinary LEDs that have to be made in huge expensive semiconductor fabrication plants. The advantages are obvious: cheap, flexible and easy to make, organic LEDs (OLEDs) are going to be big. Everyone knows that. But when? OLEDs have been burning away merrily in the labs for a few years now. Cambridge Display Technology, one of the inventors of the basic technology, has just bought Oxford rival Opsys and the chief executive is confidently predicting we'll have full-colour screens rivalling LCD flat panels by 2005. Well, yes. We were going to have something like that three years ago, once a few small problems were ironed out -- contamination leaking in and giving them very short lifetimes, I seem to remember. The contamination problem is fixed now, and everyone's moved on to the next issue. This time, the big showstopper is differential ageing: red, green and blue OLEDs fade over time, but at different rates. What looks like a crisp, well-balanced image at manufacture acquires a curious hue after a few months, or so I'm told. It's fixable, given time, and all you can say is that when it is, the next set of problems will come to the fore. Eventually, the product will be good enough to ship, flaws and all: nothing's ever perfect. Even the cathode ray tube is being tweaked, a hundred years after its birth. But until the point that you can sell what you have, the financiers have to be kept happy -- and that means they have to believe they'll start getting their money back within a reasonable frame. Something like, oh, two years? And thus, this acquisition is a good opportunity to say to the money people, "See? Progress! Just a little longer, and we'll all be in clover." And the best way to say something to the capitalists is to put it in a press release and tell the world -- which is why everything is two years away, all the time. Of course, at some point this will be true. But I don't know that'll it'll be in two years' time, and neither does Cambridge Display Technology. Tuesday 29/10/2002
Today is a Why Do I Bother day. I know this instinctively, from the moment I stumble to the laptop, coffee in hand, and check the breakfast emails. Halfway through the task, the error messages cluster over the screen -- my broadband has gone down. It comes back for a bit, just long enough for me to download a press release about University College sending the world's first human handshake across the Atlantic between Boston and London. It's quite a nice story, involving Internet2 and haptic systems -- real senses of touch sent over an experiment ultra-high speed network, eh? OK, it's a goer. So I phone up the press contact for UCL and ask about this Internet2 business. "Ah," he says. "I'll have to get someone to get back to you." While waiting for this, I search away... and find out that one of the people heavily involved in Internet2 in the UK is an old school chum, Tim (now Doctor Tim) Chown. I primarily remember Tim for drunken nights on Dartmoor and incidents involving a toad called Europa and a shed full of Girl Guides, but I'm sure he's moved on from such juvenilia. So I call him to find out more about the UCL business. The phone rings out, and I'm just about to give up when there's what sounds remarkably like a croak on the line. Surely not... "Tim? Tim Chown?" "Ugh? Ugh? Yes?" It turns out he's in Los Angeles for an Internet2 event, it's 5 a.m., and he forgot about the fact that phones roam to the US now. But he struggles manfully to wakefulness. Yes, he knows about the demo. It's happening between London and LA. But the press release says Boston. We're both mystified, but he's mystified, jetlagged and groggy, so I leave him to it and wait once more for UCL to get back to me. For the next few hours, I battle on in an ever-widening circle of people who don't know what's going on. The UCL press office puts me in touch with experts in touch technology when I want to talk about networking, everyone thinks the test is going on between some combination of Boston, LA and London but nobody can agree on what... and all the time, my broadband is on and off my box more often than Angus Deayton. But,darn it, I have a story. In the end, I pummel it into a vague reflection of what might possibly be happening either in this universe or a near-parallel thereof. And I doubt that anyone else could have done it much quicker, so we've got something quite cool... but of course, the rest of the world got there ages beforehand. Their version of events seems less likely than mine, but who's to say? I glower at my laptop. 404 Page not found, it says back. Gah. Wednesday 30/10/2002
"Are you e-fluential?" asks the email from a friend. Market research company Burson Marsteller has decided that there's a group of people out there who spend so much time contributing to online discussions, hanging out in chat rooms, forwarding information to pals and generally being online bigmouths that they must be influencing other people. You can do a little test on to find out if you qualify. I do the test and yes, I am effluent, or whatever the noun is. I think this is a solid idea, although the test on that Web site is woefully inadequate to detect such people. Humans like finding people to trust when looking for information; that coveted word-of-mouth marketing that so delights Hollywood works just as well online -- word of mouse? -- and with a much wider audience. But instead of relying on such people to identify themselves, the truly enlightened market research company should go out and find them. Something similar to Google should do the job. Google ranks Web pages by their content and by how many different sites point to them: likewise, influential online people can be spotted by finding out how many replies their postings in forums generate, how many times their names are mentioned online and how many times their names get out of the Usenet/Yahoo! Groups/UBB discussion areas and onto other Web pages. The way the Web generates hierarchies of trust and context among Web pages mirrors the way we do it to each other as humans -- it's how we think and organise ourselves, after all. What to do with these trendsetters once they're found? Again, previous experience is our guide. Lionise them. Give them TV shows, magazines and other pulpits. Pay them lots of money to carry on doing whatever it is they're doing, and generate commercial success by understanding what they're telling you. It can't result in a more annoying crop of celebrity pundits that the ones we have at the moment. Even finding the golden children among the hoards online could make a decent TV show. Forget Fame Academy, we're going for Anorak Poly! Get me my agent. At once. Thursday 31/10/2002
To the Oxford Arms, Camden, to discuss the state of the IT contract market (dire) with the woefully underemployed Adrian. He's just got a contract doing technical documentation at a fraction of last year's rate, but counts himself lucky. On the way from Camden Road station, my attention is grabbed by a poster on the bus stop. A colourful concoction in Soviet Collectivist style with just a hint of Futurism, it shows a stylised bus trundling over a bridge, lit by the golden rays of late evening. Overhead, four giant eyes hang in the sky like an invading fleet of UFOs, their pupils filled with the London Transport roundel. "SECURE beneath the WATCHFUL EYES" reads the slogan, and an explanatory sentence says "CCTV and Metropolitan Police on buses are just two ways we're making your journey more secure." The whole astonishing affair is signed MAYOR OF LONDON. It's a piece of art beyond anything up for the Turner, whose references to totalitarian propaganda go beyond irony. Is it possible that the designer didn't realise the effect it would have on a nation brought up on 1984? Hardly: I'd like to think that this is a deliberate attempt by whoever produced it to show their own horror and distrust at the underlying implications. Whatever, the poster has provoked equally strong reactions in everyone I've shown it to: a natural for creative reworking. So I say to you, children of the revolution, take up thy digital cameras, thy Photoshop of righteousness and thy mouse of burning gold, and get post-modern on Ken's posterior. If there aren't five decent rip-offs flyposted around the capital by Christmas, we deserve to be called double-ungood. Back in Camden, shaken but resolute, I continue on my journey as four Watchful Eyes of the Met zoom past in a police car. I'm not sure what they were Watching, exactly, but it wasn't the junction ahead: they ploughed straight into a moped, whose rider went skidding across the road. As he came to rest under a CCTV pole, I'm sure he felt very Secure. Very Secure indeed. Friday 1/10/2002
Peter Judge, our bristly-bearded Morris-dancing bike-riding neo-hippy, is back from the Broadband DSL Conference in Berlin. Touchingly, he couldn't manage to get his laptop to talk to the work network from there, despite having VPN software that's worked just about everywhere else and despite our VPN servers living just down the road in Munich. He ended up on the Cisco stand, fielding accusatory instant messages between our IT and Cisco's IT, surrounded by more bandwidth than the Leeds Very Big Men's Orchestra and not able to use a sniff of it. It was a contradictory event. The bloke who invented cellular mobile radio -- or at least, large chunks of it -- said that he thought 3G was dead in the water and nobody had the spirit to disagree. If you went to a Cisco press conference, you heard that DSL was going to be dead in the water soon and everyone would be using Ethernet via fibre. If you went to the Alcatel press conference, you heard that Ethernet as a form of urban delivery mechanism was dead and everyone would be switching to DSL. In short, you could believe exactly what you wanted to believe about the future of broadband and find someone with a flashy Powerpoint presentation to back you up. Quite the opposite of another event elsewhere we attended. No names, no pack drill, but the organisers had our intrepid journalist sign a non-disclosure agreement that said "we won't print what you told us until a certain date." Absolutely par for the course in this business. Meanwhile in another part of the forest, a different journalist found out the same information in the public domain from a completely different source. Which we published, provoking an anguished squawk from the company concerned and various sabres rattling about us not keeping to the NDA. Here, it seemed, there really was only one story but there were people with flashy Power Point presentations trying desperately to stop us writing it. Journalism. Some weeks, it's best just to stay in bed. To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.