Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Space turtles, long-distance Norwegian typewriters and George W. Bush on helium are just some of the reasons Rupert should have stayed in bed this week.

Monday 4/11/2002
Alien hunting can be fun! Just the other day, I found a turtle on Mars -- well, it looked like a turtle, it was on a Mars Global Surveyor picture, and people have sold millions of books based on dafter theories. But most of my active extra-terrestrial tracking activities are courtesy of Seti@home. Seti@home takes observations from the Arecibo radio telescope, parcels them up into bundles of raw data called work units and sends them out to PCs around the world. These rootle through the numbers and look for ET's signature. No little green men yet, but in two years I've racked up nearly 5,000 work units hunting for radio signals from space. Done my bit for the Galactic Empire, I have. Some people, though, seem to be taking it far too seriously. Not so much the science, which is understandably exciting, but the competitive aspects. Thanks to the ranked user lists on the Web site, people's desire to be better than the rest has provoked a show of pure microprocessor machismo. Somewhat predictably, this has spilled over into cheating -- a variety of mechanisms exist that let you give back results you haven't worked out. So some frankly incredible numbers have been appearing, to the distress of many and the anger of others. "It's ruining the competition!" they say. Excuse me? Competition? It's a pain that one aspect of the project has become somewhat disgraced, raising difficulties for future expansion and taking resources that should be used for something less tacky. But the core purpose remains: the science is fine and if anything it gives us unwashed masses of honest thousand-unit toilers a bit more hope. It can be depressing seeing the stats mount up, knowing that if there is a signal to be found the chances are that one of the monsters will snaffle it first: now I know that those figures contain fakes, it means the science hasn't been done and my work counts for a little more. The odds are redressed, just a little. Valuable lessons have been learned, and one of the great ironies in the search of extra-terrestrial intelligence -- that it tells us more about ourselves than any mysterious aliens -- is repeated once again. Tuesday 5/11/2002
News breaks of a mission into quite a different space. DSpace is a project to catalogue, preserve and distribute the intellectual output of MIT -- a prodigious piece of work that is expected to expand to over a petabyte of data or 1,125,899,906,842,624 bytes, if you don't fancy counting them yourself. It's open source, it copes with all sorts of digital data, and it revolves around the idea of communities -- people with a common interest who manage their own portal into the data. That data is bunched into collections, and contributors can choose to which collections their work should belong. People set their own territories, and the system supports them in that. The whole thing is designed to be accessed from the Web. It's an enormous undertaking, with pretensions to universality. For that sort of vision, and for the clarity and openness of the system, both MIT and its co-worker HP are to be applauded. It's the sort of ambition made palpable by the way Google is becoming the global library, and it should work in tandem with the creative chaos of the Web itself to give us all a formal archive coupled with enormous freedom of analysis. That the world is moving with such alacrity towards the digitising of all data is tremendously exciting -- it may be how history remembers these years, if the fates are kind. Compare and contrast the approach of other curators of great bodies of data -- the entertainment industry, national administrations, publishing. Whether your ambitions for the information in your charge are commercial, intellectual, personal or perverse, one thing remains true in all cases. If nobody can find it and get it, it might as well not be there. Wednesday 6/11/2002
Apologies if you didn't expect to see these words because they've appeared in the middle of a letter to your bank manager -- I'm using a cordless keyboard, and according to reports from Norway this can broadcast messages somewhat wider than you might expect. Two Norwegians in the town of Stavanger discovered that their HP wireless keyboards were quite capable of communicating with each other's computers, despite them being around 150 metres apart -- 15 times the rated range. HP's taking this revelation very seriously, as well it might: after all, there's no point in having ten-zillion-bit encryption on your computer if the password you type is transmitted to the neighbourhood in clear. It all sounds a bit odd to me: keyboards and their receivers have to be registered with each other before they work, and even light security should prevent unregistered transmissions from being decoded by accident. That's a software issue which can and should be fixed. But a bit more digging shows that the HP keyboards -- like the one I'm using here, from Gyration -- use the 49MHz frequency band. You probably don't know 49MHz. It's used for low-power devices like toy walkie-talkies, baby monitors and radio-controlled models. Tune around the band on a suitable receiver, and you'll hear bleeps, buzzes and the occasional deeply unsettling sound of regular, deep breathing as some tot snoozes by remote control. There are apocryphal tales of parental arguments and babysitter snogfests being broadcast in this way, and for the most part that's the only exciting thing that ever troubles 49MHz. But the band lives on the borders between VHF and shortwave. Most of the time, it behaves like VHF -- signals fade after a short distance and don't get interference from far away. Sometimes, though, when atmospheric conditions are right, even tiny signals can carry thousands of miles. I've heard South African policemen come through a toy walkie-talkie on Dartmoor, and heard kids playing in a Miami back yard on my radio in North London. The next-door band, 50MHz, is known by radio amateurs as the magic band, because when it gets lively you can get the most fantastic long-distance contacts on tiny amounts of power. This is fab if you're a ham, not so fab if you're pouring your heart out to your girlfriend -- or more excitingly, someone else's -- or inputting the password to your work VPN. The sooner everyone moves to Bluetooth or Zigbee, which are immune to these problems, the better -- but there are hundreds of thousands of old keyboards out there that won't go away tomorrow. I can see a brand-new long-distance listening hobby starting: fishing for keystrokes across the ether.... Thursday 7/11/2002
Wireless changes your life in all sorts of other ways, too. I am not by nature an early riser, but other more larkish members of the newsdesk clock in well before civilisation's rightly begun. Part of my job is chipping in when stories break, and these are no respecters of a chap's beauty sleep. So I've got the laptop on the bedside shelving, quietly monitoring our instant messenger channel as I sleep -- and if something comes up before me, a sharp PPPPRING! from the office summons me to wakefulness and instant intellectual rigour. Well, something of the sort. But today's duvet-disturbing news takes longer to sink in than most. Sendo is canning its Z100 phone, and abandoning all Microsoft-based development. Does that mean, I groggily think as I press the emergency turbocharge button on the coffee machine, that my memories of the launch of the Z100 a couple of weeks ago were just dreams? No, there's the phone on the table. The rest of the morning is taken up trying to find someone somewhere who'll talk about this. Normally voluble PRs go silent; marketing department phones go unanswered, heads are scratched. Finally Sendo amplifies a little -- it decided Symbian was a better match for its plans. That's a bit bland by way of explanation for killing your flagship product after years of development, two weeks after launch and having sent out review phones. True, says Sendo. It was a hard decision, and we wouldn't have made it unless we had to. But why did you have to? Why did you decide to effectively throw another year's delay into your product line? No answer. Microsoft, bless it, comes up with a statement at the end of the day that takes spin to new heights. The company is -- wait for it -- really excited by the news, as it shows the importance of software in mobile phones. And no, it's not saying why it happened either. The best we can come up with is that perhaps the network customers for the Z100 decided that they'd sell none against the many Symbian phones on offer. It's quite possible that battery life and hardware requirements will mean that they'll never be competitive. Perhaps Microsoft set some terms for Sendo that Sendo just couldn't stomach. Or maybe after two years battling with the software, Sendo just got sick shoehorning the big fat Windows mess into a tiny box and decided it would never work well enough. It's a big fat wriggling mystery. We're working on it. Anyway. I now have a Z100 phone running Windows Smartphone 2002 software, a thousand words or so of unfinished review and a gaggle of screen shots. Collector's item. Only eleven in the wild. No reasonable offer refused. If only the darn thing worked better... Friday 8/11/2002
It's been a long week, but I've got a couple of spare hours to play with a new toy that arrived earlier. The Hauppauge DEC 2000 is a set-top box for free digital terrestrial TV that also has a USB port. So you can watch digital telly on an ordinary set, or plug the thing into your computer and watch it there, or record stuff onto your hard disk and watch it later. Great! Means you can pump stuff onto your laptop during the evening and watch it on the train going into work. And how hard can it be to watch television, after all? Let me count the ways. Having deftly sidestepped the cunningly mislabelled aerial and TV sockets on the back of the set-top box -- us experts laugh at such trifles -- I pointed the aerial at Crystal Palace and let the set scan the airwaves. Great! Loads of channels, pin-sharp reception, let's turn up the sound... ah. It was on BBC News 24, which was broadcasting a picture of a frankly thuggish man. A villain, you'd say without hesitation. Yet when he spoke, it sounded like Minnie Mouse on helium. Odd, I thought. Must be one of those voice-changing devices. But then the interviewer spoke, and Donald Duck had nothing on him for high-frequency quackery. A quick check of the other channels shows they're all like that. It's very entertaining, especially when you get someone particularly pompous. The thrill palls, though, so its time to track down the problem. Elton Adams to the rescue! This delightfully named technical guy at Hauppauge listened patiently to my plea, and identified the problem as someone else's software on the test PC. We removed that. It made no difference. We copied something else. No difference. He sent me a long list of instructions, part of which involved going into Safe Mode on Windows XP to tamper more effectively with its innards... which is great, only you have to press F8 during the boot-up sequence and my wireless keyboard, being USB, doesn't work until XP is actually running. Nothing is too much trouble for the readers, though: in two hours, I had removed my old DVD software, scanned the PC for rogue files, re-installed, changed keyboards, made absolutely darn sure that not a trace of squeaky file remained on the hard disk, and run a special Hauppauge utility that did something clever. Elton sent me that via email, at which point I discovered that our email gateway is set to delete executable attachments. Just in case they're useful, I guess. So that was an extra little treat, and another good reason to keep that Cix subscription going -- thus bypassing the antivirus stuff altogether. After all that, a clean reinstall and channel acquisition. Back on News 24, and an empty podium presages George W. Bush speaking to his and other nations. He steps up to the microphone, and one is suddenly very aware that on this man's whim the safety of the planet depends -- and it's not the whim you'd want to take home to mother. He opens his mouth... and it's Mickey Mouse all over again. That's not pungent political comment, that's the set-top box continuing in its mischievous ways. Then again, perhaps the world really is like this. To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.