I'm down in the West Country at the weekend, and miles away from any sort of network access when the news of Columbia comes through. Which is frustrating: Usenet groups sci.space.shuttle and sci.space.history have a considerable congregation of people who were or are active in the American space industry... but in the end, none of that matters. We can worry about the International Space Station later, and it'll be a while before anyone works out what happened to Columbia: for now, nothing can touch the sadness and shock. The space programme has always been controversial: it's undoubtedly a great deal of money spent for reasons that are obtuse at best. Was Apollo the greatest expression of human's spirit of exploration, or a massive piece of Cold War machismo? How come the US is still at it? Why did a multi-billion dollar spaceship and seven astronauts perish when the sum total of humanity's knowledge and happiness would be largely untouched if they'd all stayed at home and painted the garden fence? Sitting on my backside in the United Kingdom, where our solitary rocket hangs in a museum, the irony of the US' commitment to manned spaceflight is even more sharply defined. The world's most materialistic and certainly one of the more religious nations is prepared to expend lives and seemingly infinite resources in the name of knowledge. That should be a lesson to everyone who, like me, is tempted to think of the States in simplistic terms. And besides, we've got places to get to, planets to see. As SF author Ken MacLeod said of the Columbia crew: their names will be written under other skies. Tuesday 4/2/2003
A bad day to be called Seymore Butts from Arsenal, especially if you have a problem requiring your MP. New spam filters on the Parliamentary inboxes have been doing what spam filters always do -- letting through the penis extensions while blocking the real meat. In particular, discussion of the forthcoming Sexual Offences Bill is being shown the door, while anything in Welsh is similarly deemed inappropriate and liable to harm the eyes of those reading it. And, sweetest of all, the Lib Dem's consultation paper on censorship has fallen foul of the silicon Mary Whitehouse. It's nice to see our beloved leaders finding out how the real world works, albeit five years after everyone else. But it all sometimes works. I fired off a whinge to my MP, the very personable Chris Smith, via www.faxyourmp.com concerning all that nonsense over the ID cards. Not only did I get a prompt reply, but it was a model of clarity -- yes, he shared my misgivings, no, he didn't think that any of the arguments for ID cards stood up and yes, he was continuing to say so to the appropriate people. I'm unlikely to vote for him -- or indeed any party that supports teaching fundamentalist religion to children in the guise of general education, as Labour does with Emmanuel College at Gateshead -- but it's nice to know that with appropriate technology even the daftest of spam filters can be bypassed. They've yet to teach a fax machine to spot a rude word. Wednesday 5/2/2003
Oh, this promises to be entertaining. Microsoft is counter-suing Sendo over the l'affaire Z100. In brief: Sendo decide to make Microsoft-based smartphone, Microsoft buys part of Sendo and pumps in dosh, phone is repeatedly delayed, Sendo launches phone and immediately cancels it, Sendo sues Microsoft for bad behaviour in the relationship, and now this. That Microsoft would counter-sue was inevitable: there's no way that they could just defend the Sendo accusations -- that MS ripped off ideas and refused to produce working software -- without pinning the blame for this massively dysfunctional project back on the boys from Birmingham. Sendo's sins, say MS, are bad project management, fraudulent reporting back to MS and a determination "to release an unstable and unreliable project." Yes, Microsoft really said that about someone else. What happens next? My gut feeling is an out-of-court settlement will be made, as both sides realise that the court process will uncover many, many things that would best be left undisturbed. Against that, Microsoft might reckon that its chances of ever selling another smartphone licence will be zero if it doesn't publicly get rid of the Sendo accusations, and Sendo... well, it could be life and death for the company. If the court case goes ahead, the only winners will be the lawyers. Oh, and anyone else who wants to know just what really happens when Microsoft takes an interest in your company -- so that's all of us, I guess. Thursday 6/2/2003
Another submarine surfaces on the Web. Submarine patents are those that the owners keep quiet about, letting other companies build enterprises using technologies covered by the patents. Only when things have been going for a while and there's actual money there does the submarine surface and point its guns at the surprised businessmen. This time, it's streaming video and audio: a company called Acacia claims to have these basic technologies covered and the lawyers are out there asking for their royalties. Even this one tiny aspect of patent law stinks. It is not possible nor plausible for a small company building a new business to do a comprehensive patent search, as many of these software patents are so broad you'd never write another line of code in your life were you to take them seriously. Likewise, it is inimical for companies with such intellectual property to keep it quiet in the hope of trapping the unwary, or for them to seek to exact money from those companies least well able to defend themselves. Not that I'm saying Acacia has done any of the above, but it does happen and the way the patent law works encourages this. It would be far fairer to use the same idea as applies to trademarks: a company that owns the IP has to actively protect it in all circumstances. If you let anyone use your IP for any length of time, it is deemed that you have no interest in maintaining it and it lapses. This leads to some sad cases -- such as when a farmer was forced to remove a picture of Snoopy from the roof of his barn -- but does at least lead to a level playing field and many fewer surprises. Friday 7/2/2003
So, farewell then, floppy disk. Dell is ditching the dinky data device from some of its top-end desktops, and the writing is clearly on the wall. I've seen 'em all, from 8" hard sectored giants to the long-forgotten Zenith 2" tiddler. I lusted after 5.25" floppies when I was stuck with Spectrum tape drives, and got my first taste of real mass storage with those enormously capacious 720k 3.5" Sonys that, in one variant or another, have stuck it out to the end. I came to those after struggling -- there is no other word -- with ZX Microdrives for a year. Despite my love of Sinclair goodies, it has to be said that moving onto a computer with a real display, keyboard, storage devices and operating system was always a euphoric moment. Now, I have bags of floppies and nothing to read them on. I have 5.25" floppies in BBC, Commodore, Apple II, QL and who knows what format, and as for the 3.5"s... IBM, of course, but various Macintoshes, Amigae, STs and QLs (again) have contributed their memories to the pile. What's on them? I fear many emails and documents too horrible to revive -- did I really write all that stuff? To that woman? Oh, dear -- but that one day may keep an aged Rupert in wry smiles and curled toes. So I can't throw them away, but I can't afford to spend the time or effort in getting them all copied across to something current. And every year that passes makes the conversion process more difficult. There'll be good work in the future for digital archivists.