Rupert Goodwins' Diary

How to fix the ringtone racket, how not to get sued and exactly what to type into your browser to cop thirty years in the State Pen. Don't say we're not educational.

Monday 11/11/2002
It's been a nice weekend in Edinburgh, but the journey back to King's Cross is as tiresome as always: packed into a seat every bit as crippling as one you find in the air, I try to negotiate my way through the newspaper without impaling my neighbour on my elbow. At least I don't have a large, wet and thoroughly odiferous dog sitting under my seat -- the treat the train company laid on for me on my journey up on Friday. At last, I lapse into a troubled doze, only to be roused every five minutes by one of a selection of mobile phone rings or the conversation that follows. To my sleep-muddled mind, it feels like being imprisoned with a collection of hyperactive, bleeping robots set on singing out then talking to themselves: a dawn chorus in Hades. Then it hits me -- the answer to the mobile phone ring tone conundrum. It's not the fact that mobile phones make noise that upsets us, it's that the noises are so darn intrusive and ugly. Likewise the conversation: humans are used to being in environments where others are talking -- just not ones where you can only hear one side of the story. So, changing the rules such that mobile phones behave in a way that we're programmed to accept, and the problem goes away. We evolved, so it's thought, in an environment with lots of trees and veldt-like plains, shared with many other creatures. Of these, the noisiest are the birds, which rarely miss a chance to fill the air with song -- and us humans are well-disposed towards the sound. Put even the grumpiest curmudgeon in a sun-dappled forest filled with feathered symphonies and happiness ensues. Thus, now we have the technology for mobiles to play samples instead of synthesised bleeps, it should be compulsory for them to issue forth sweet birdsong. There are tens of thousands of species that make acceptable noises, so there'll be no need for clashes, and the morning train will come to resemble a haven of bucolic tranquillity. As for the one-sided conversation: make the phones hands-free only. That way, we'll all hear both sides of the talking, and people on the phone will instinctively be circumspect, quiet and brief. Even if it's still a bit annoying, it'll be a lot more interesting. Tuesday 12/11/2002
The digital divide is always worth worrying about: you don't have to be a bleeding-heart liberal pinko commie to appreciate that if rich countries or privileged classes keep information technology to themselves, the less advantaged will have even more problems getting a decent slice of life than they do at the moment. Unreconstructed capitalists should decry this for keeping the size of the market down; those weak-minded souls who allow morals and a sense of common humanity to contaminate their thinking will have further objections. Which makes it doubly unfortunate that some of the poorer countries are trying to exacerbate that divide. Today's news is that Panama has joined places such as Cuba and Egypt in restricting or banning the use of voice over IP: the rationale is that the state monopoly telcos (stand up, Cable & Wireless) are making too much money out of international calls to allow cheaper alternatives. We all know the frustration of watching progress slowed by entrenched interests, but in this case it's even worse -- the way Panama is stopping VoIP is by banning the use of certain Internet protocol port numbers. It's quite a long list. As all you IP experts know, it's usually possible to reconfigure a utility to use a different port number -- and a lot of port numbers are in any case used by more than one bit of software. So the Panamanian firewall won't stop the canny from making phone calls over the Internet, but it will stop a number of other, non-VoIP utilities from working properly for the majority of people. People, in this case, for whom the benefits of global information access are much greater and contain much more promise than they do for us communication-soaked Europeans and North Americans. It's true that telco tariffs can be major sources of income for poorer countries, siphoning off dosh from the richer countries in quite an effective manner. Alas, most of the people in the rich countries making those calls are ex-pats and not normally among the best-paid workers in the place -- so a lot of the telco tax comes from people least able to pay it anyway, and who will repatriate a lot of their earnings in any case. It's not a simple problem, but restricting network access is no solution. Wednesday 13/11/2002
Forms. Ugh. Speaking as a man with a 30-letter full name, an address that doesn't fit into the normal number/street name format and handwriting that defeats GCHQ's finest decryption experts, I rarely manage to fill forms out without hitting major snags. You'd hope that online forms would be much easier -- but not a bit of it. How many times have you sworn mightily at a registration page that refuses to accept your phone number as valid, or won't let you go on without a US format Zip code? We won't even mention the ones that just spit up "Error: re-enter data" when as far as you can tell everything is exactly as required. And there we were, thinking computers were there to make such things easier. Microsoft has the answer: give Microsoft all your data, and let it give it out to people who want your registration details. Thanks, but no thanks. Now, however, there's an alternative: Xforms. This is an XML-based standard for online forms, courtesy of the World Wide Web Consortium. Not only does this mean that stuff like address and name fields will be recognisable as such to your computer, but you'll be able to have your own automatic filling-in software that completes the things for you exactly as you wish -- and with no need for a centralised database holding the information. Boring? Yes. Worthwhile? Absolutely. This one development could make the online world much less frustrating and a much better place to do business. It's often the unsexy things that matter most, as I so frequently put in my online dating profiles... Thursday 14/11/2002
Another day of training for your correspondent. Regular readers may recall my spectacular grumpiness a few weeks back at a day of top-notch American feel-good attitude assessment and adjustment but that, like my career, is all behind me now. Today's attempt to ladle some goodness into the Goodwinsian brain is very different -- media law, libel and copyright issues, presented by a venerable yet sprightly hack who's been there, done that, had the writs and come out the other side. It's fascinating, informative and dead useful. Ignoring recent conniptions in the world of digital content, most copyright law is sensible, by and large: you can use other people's stuff if you stick to the rules and don't try to rip them off, and those rules are well defined and logical. Libel law is much more of a lottery -- not the only word that came up -- and I get the sinking realisation that I've probably been engaged in an uninterrupted life of actionable defamation against the rich, powerful and humourless since I first put pinky to carriage return some twenty years ago. But I haven't been sued yet, so if I can keep going for another twenty in the same vein I'll probably be fine. Later this evening, some of the wise words of the elderly sage came back to haunt me: if you're caught in possession of confidential documents, you're in deep doo-doo, A group of us convened the traditional post-training debrief in the Pommeller's Rest, a pub on Tower Bridge that recommends itself by inexpensive real ale, plentiful plates of chips and quiz machines that reliably extract every sou of small change from the more competitive members of the team. It's getting into the PR Christmas Party season, and as the night wears on a few of our number make their excuses and leave. Some time later the stragglers are about to follow suite when we notice a coat, a carrier bag and a notebook by our feet. These obviously belong to one of the departed partygoers; we don't recognise the coat, but a freelance was in attendance so perhaps that was his. I go through the pockets, while others peer into the bag and leaf through the notebook. It may be the hour, it may be our jocular mood, but it takes a while for us to realise that these don't belong to anyone we know. The notebook contains many scribbles and diagrams apparently related to the tax affairs of large companies: the coat contains a Blackberry wireless email device with an identification tag on the back that we don't recognise. I'm poking around with this and saying "We better hand this into the bar staff," when a horrified shout comes from the region of a golfing video game a few yards away. "My goodness, chaps, what are you doing with my things?" is the gist. We look up, and there's a tall, bespectacled bloke in an expensive suit looking as if he's just spotted his grandmother being sold into slavery. "Oh, sorry, we thought these were left behind by... ah.... it's OK, we're journalists..." Wrong thing to say. Fans of nature documentaries will know the way certain squid can instantaneously change colour when placed against different backgrounds. Our new friend does an admirable imitation -- chalk, with just a hint of algae -- while his jaws open and close, twice a second, in silence. We take stock of the situation and quietly hand back coat, bag and notebook, one by one, much as the Three Wise Men laid their gifts at the manger. We make good our exit, leaving our pallid pal still masticating furiously at his invisible burger, and I'm halfway to the door when I realise I've still got his Blackberry. I go back in. "I think this is yours too. Sorry," I say as I return the last of his portable possessions. This time, the jaw hinges open and stays open: his two companions have also frozen into a tableau depicting Fear, Surprise and Utter Disbelief. Such is the catatonic depth they may easily be there yet. It's not until we're a good fifty yards clear of the pub that we too are overtaken by an oceanic emotion. To our eternal discredit, it's pure, uncontrolled hilarity. Friday 15/11/2002
I can see that yesterday's media training is going to come in useful. One of the things we covered was the Computer Misuse Act, which says quite clearly that if you get access to something you're not authorised for, you're guilty. A couple of weeks ago, an enterprising journalist working for Reuters found some financial results on a Swedish company's Web site before they were officially published. The figures were on a Web page with exactly the same format as the previous, published results: all the journalist had to do was retype the URL with the new date, and there it was. Good investigative journalism, or evil hacking? My instinct says the former -- don't put things on a public Web site you don't want found -- but the law is quite clear that it's the latter, and I can see the logic behind it. Now, everyone I know has tried typing in 'obvious' URLs when hunting information on a site with poor navigation: indeed, some site designer friends of mine consider it good practice to make the URL structure obvious in order to encourage this. It's a useful skill, but if the chances of getting nailed for hacking are significant it may be an easy path to unwitting perdition. In a world where the US is actively considering making illegal access a crime with a life sentence, and is also prepared to extradite people in the UK who do this, the consequences may be unspeakable. Next time you're poking around on a website or fiddling with a PDA you found in a pub, it's worth remembering that thirty years in a federal prison may be yours as a free bonus. To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.