Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The dangers of Chinese telly, Thus' tussle with haggis and the most peculiar spam in the world? That'll be Rupert's week, that will.

Monday 20/01/03
When the ITV Digital liquidators told the million or so owners of set-top boxes that they had to send forty quid to keep them, the million or so owners expressed derision. In the end, Carlton-Granada's decision to give the ITV Digital liquidators the money for the set-top boxes was about the only thing they could do. Otherwise they'd have been left with just two things -- the bill to collect all those valueless boxes, and a list of a million or so people who'd just become Sky subscribers. So they've salvaged that situation, even if they did make the worst of it by broadcasting a caption saying "Congratulations! The box is now yours!" that managed to annoy anyone who'd previously bought the box outright anyway, and particularly upset those who were taping whatever it was on that channel at the time. But there are more tales to tell of digital telly. The story didn't get very wide coverage, but the Chinese religious sect Falun Gong managed to hijack Chinese state television on several occasions last year, including coverage of the World Cup and broadcasts of the fifth anniversary of the Hong Kong handover. They did this by taking over the state-run Sinosat communications satellite, something that remains curiously easy to do with quite modest equipment. Although it didn't get much coverage outside the region, the events did cause some beads of sweat to break out on some very important brows across the world. With the huge increase in satellite, cable and terrestrial channels, the distribution networks have got concomitantly more complicated. In the good old days, the transmission chain was very well defined and had numerous safeguards to prevent someone feeding in unauthorised material at any point. Now it's much messier. Trouble is, the set-top boxes can all have their software updated over the air -- and they all assume that if something's being broadcast at them, it's kosher. No security. By and large, that's a safe assumption, but it soon became clear after the Sinosat incident that if someone did pull the same stunt over here and got it into their minds to broadcast sabotaged software, then there'd be nothing to stop them. All the boxes in the country could be vandalised at a stroke -- "WE OWN YOUR TV HA HA HA!!!" would be far from the worst thing they could do. There are software updates in the works to sort out this problem, so it probably won't happen. But it's slightly disturbing to realise that it could. Tuesday 21/01/03
It's not Burns Night yet, but Scottish telco Thus have decided to have a Burns Night party anyway. Deep in the crypt of St Ethelreda's Church in the City, they've installed a lot of executives in kilts, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time, and got a French company to do the catering. I know about the Auld Alliance, but I'm not sure Scottish oat cuisine is a natural match for Gallic cookery. And of course, there were the inevitable jokes from the hacks as they made their way to the venue ("You encrypting, old chap?" "No, I'm vault finding"). For those who've never been to a Burns Night, it follows a time-honoured format. There's a lot of declaiming, toasts are drunk and general merriment had in the name of Rabbie. As he was noted for his many exceptional appetites, the evening can become quite Bacchanalian without disgracing his memory, but the centrepiece is a spirited piece of pudding play. A haggis is procured, and brought into the room behind a piper. Robert Burns' Address To a Haggis (you know the one, "Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!" and all that) is then read to it. At the line "'an cut you up wi' ready slight" it is hacked around with a sharp knife, then taken out with more piping to be doled out with neaps and tatties to the hungry mob. All of the above happened -- except, the hungry mob realised as the evening progressed, the return of the haggis. It had vanished, and what we took to be finger food prior a substantial main course was in fact all we were getting. By this time, the whisky tasting was well underway, and a number of otherwise sober fellows found themselves drinking heavily on empty tummies. Perhaps that helps explain the frankly bizarre speech given by a senior Demonite (whose name will be withheld to spare his Australian blushes), which -- we think -- was about the ambiguous sexuality of journalists. But there was much scandalous gossip, which we'll be happy to pass on to you just as soon it gets past the libel lawyers. For those of us who decry the bland, conformist professional image that publishing so courts these days, it was a delight to hear further stories of Felix Dennis, publishing mogul, tree-hugger and breadhead ex-hippy par excellence. Those who've been around the industry a bit will know many stories about glass-topped tables, light boxes, painted penises and so on -- but the fact that he's celebrated his recent adoption of a less bohemian lifestyle by writing and publishing reams of poetry is still seen as shocking proof that he still cares less than tuppence for convention. Wednesday 22/01/03
What's the best way to lose vast amounts of money? Oh, so many options. Microsoft, which is rather good at getting the stuff in, has chosen to do it by making a games console -- and if Microsoft can't make it work, then it really is a dog of a market to get into, right? Not according to US startup Infinium Labs, which has started to make noises about its Phantom console. Not much detail yet, except that it'll be an 'always on broadband device' and that'll be the focus of the games and services you can expect. There's the usual blather about ultimate gaming experience, massive multiplayer environments and so on, but no idea what's inside the box or what software it'll run. That's the rub of course. Infinium says, rather oddly, that there are " currently 32,679 retail game titles available and 418 shareware game titles and this does not include; adult, casino, sequels and new releases in past 6 months." 32,679 retail games? For a box that doesn't exist yet? And only 418 shareware? Something doesn't compute, Captain. But it still shows that the biggest buzz in the industry is broadband -- or more precisely, the devices you can plug into it. With CES filled with toys that couple streaming digital media onto your television or into your radio, we're moving to a time when broadband will be as much a part of everyday life as the TV itself. Can't wait. Thursday 23/01/03
At the beginning of the week, I wrote a story about SBC Communications trying it on with a patent it owned, and that it claimed covered such things as putting links in frames on Web sites. As is traditional in these matters, the company's so confident about its claim that it's going for the smallest sites least able to mount a legal defence -- in this case, it seems as if SBC, a large and voracious telco, is warming up on some educational Web sites. That's class. I heard about the story from DJ, a friendly Web software developer, who found it on a blog -- and as he pointed out, it was Martin Luther King Jr Day in the US and nobody seemed to be doing journalism over there for a bit. So we managed to get the story out before anyone else. Good old-fashioned scoop journalism -- it's great fun. Since then, the story has quietly developed as other sites and agencies have picked it up, and as predicted SBC is being very reluctant to comment, pretending that it's just business as normal and of course it has the right to exercise their intellectual property. "It's not a story, and we're not going to talk about it" is all you'll get out of the company, which of course proves that it is. Nobody I've talked to thinks the patent will hold water if it goes to court, but unless SBC can be shamed into sense that's the only way it'll end. Interestingly the patent authors themselves, who were working for a different company at the time, got a dollar for their efforts. An American reader sent in an email saying: "The lead inventor is Robert Schumacher. He is now at User Centric, Inc. (www.usercentric.com). He is three times removed from Ameritech-SBC. Previously a VP at Universal Access, he now is a Managing Director with User Centric and now consults on Internet-related technologies. I am not sure of his obligations, but the poor soul sold his intellectual property to the patent for $1.00 (common practice at companies like Ameritech)." It'll be interesting to hear what he has to say on the subject. We're on it. Friday 24/01/03
Spam. Dontcha love it? For some reason, I've been getting daily imprecations to buy septic tank and diesel valve components, which must mean my account has ended up on some really weird lists. Like everyone, I've got quite good at running my eye down the inbox and throwing away most of the stuff before having to open anything, but about once every century there's something that just says "Open me!" Like today. I have no idea who sent this, what they want or why, but I hail them as exponents of desktop surrealism, and thank them for bringing a touch of unexpected weirdness into an otherwise dull morning. ----------------------------------------------- Hello, I am offering $50,000 2003 US dollars for the below equipment: 1. The mind warper generation 4 Dimensional Warp Generator # 52 4350a series wrist watch with z60 or better memory adapter. Or if in stock the AMD Dimensional Warp Generator module containing the GRC79 induction motor, two I80200 warp stabilizers, 256GB of SRAM, and two Analog Devices isolinear modules, This unit also has a menu driven GUI accessible on the front panel XID display. Or perhaps you have some reliable all in 1 units available? 2. The special 23200 or Acme 5X24 series time transducing capacitor with built in temporal displacement. I need this with complete jumper/auxiliary system 3. An age stopping finger ring if available. VERY IMPORTANT: All equipment must be original in sealed closed casing of it's time. No old imitation electronic parts or materials are accepted. Please send photos of the above items so I can verify you have them available. I will offer you $50,000 2003 US funds total for everything with the ring if you can teleport to me in the Boston area within the next 48 earth hours to conduct business in person. Business in person is greatly preferred! If business cannot be conducted in person, I will send you a deposit only after proof you have them available, and then the remaining funds upon delivery of the time pieces. Please send a (SEPARATE) email to me at: Jbrown0112@aol.com Thanks zGyeGdwDUsuJcIian -----------------------------------------------------------------