Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Courtroom drama on two fronts this week, and that's before Valentine's Day leaves Rupert pondering French erotica in the rain. C'est l'amour...

Monday 10/02/03
A drama is unfolding, and nobody's noticed. The longest court martial in the history of the RAF is being held in Helensburgh, 20 miles north-west of Glasgow. In the dock is Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Williams, a military air traffic controller, who is charged with steering two USAF F15s on a training exercise into the ground. Both pilots died instantly. There have been various enquiries, of course, and the RAF has decided to prosecute. The facts of the matter are disputed, and that's an understatement. The weather was bad and the pilots were practising low-level flying: a dangerous business at the best of times. The prosecution say that Williams broke the rules, yet describe a sequence of events that various eyewitness accounts deny. But you can make your own mind up -- for the first time in UK history, as far as I'm aware, a court martial is being written up day-by-day online, on the Pprune aviation bulletin board. I've talked about Pprune before. It's an exemplary online community, with pilots and other aviation professionals from around the world able to gather in anonymity, if they choose, to discuss matters dear to their hearts. In the case of the Helensburgh court martial, friends of the defendant are posting a nightly report -- and the community of air traffic controllers are watching avidly. It's also a place where they can express their support for Williams: it's impossible not to be moved by the intensity and obvious sincerity of everyone involved. The whole business is so dramatic, and the implications so far ranging -- is the senior management of the RAF incompetent? What are the limitations of liability for air traffic controllers? -- to make it compulsive reading, even before you consider that the deaths of two pilots and the future of a serviceman are involved. The fact that this is all unfolding in way that anyone can follow, especially in the context of the authoritarian mysteries of courts martial, makes this a story and a half. So why has the media, at least outside Scotland, ignored it? It's not as if the RAF is out of the news at the moment, nor that in the wake of the controversial Chinook affair (also covered in detail on Pprune) there are no questions about what goes on at the top of the service. It's a mystery. But we don't need no stinking mass-media coverage: we can bypass it all and go straight to the source. Click here to go to the Pprune forum. Tuesday 11/02/03
Old 8-bit computers never die, they simply slip into cyberspace. It doesn't matter how obscure the machine of your childhood dreams was, there'll be an emulator -- or a hundred, in the case of the Spectrum -- out there for the PC. For the price of a little Googling and a download or two, you can recreate your adolescent gaming dreams in the privacy and comfort of your current personal computer, and if you really like it you can find like obsessives out there to trade nostalgia, and even some new games, for as long as you wish. It's an anorak's dream -- but for some, it's not enough. There is a breed of bitheads so committed to the cause that they are rebuilding the old computers in new hardware. There are two ways to go -- minimalism and over the top. The minimalists seek to rebuild their dream hardware using modern techniques, cramming an entire square metre of 1980s technology into one postage-stamp sized chip. These days, the tools and techniques of chip design are so ubiquitous that this is a viable home project, and I blame the education system for turning out people twisted enough to want to do this while having the skills to make it so. Nevertheless, even those un-eightbitten by the bug can appreciate the bonsai-like elegance of the result. Not so for those addicted to the cult of the overblown. The latest monstrosity, which is actually quite a restrained example of the genre, is the C-One. This is an 'enhanced adaptation' of the Commodore 64, a machine so named because it had 64k of memory, an amazing amount when it was introduced in January of 1982. The processor, a 6502 variant, ran at a modest 1 MHz, and the video stretched to 16 colours at 320x200 pixels. You get icons bigger than that these days. It cost around six hundred quid when it was introduced, rapidly falling to a couple of hundred, and only finally got killed in the mid-90s. And now there's the C-One. Compatible with the original, It has five hundred and twelve times as much memory, Super VGA resolution, twenty times the clock speed, oodles of inputs and outputs, and will cost around 200 euros (about £120) -- it is, almost inevitably, the product of some deranged Germans. All reasonable enough, if you buy into their insane logic, except for one thing. It's designed, like many of the others of its ilk, to fit into a standard PC case. On the surface, this is logical: it's what everyone has, there are no tooling costs involved, all the design standards are centred on this so it's cheap, easy and efficient. But hel-lo? Who let Mr Logic into this wonderland of digital daftness? The best thing about early home computers was that they all looked different -- the low-slung futuristic black slab of the Spectrum, the we-mean-business clackiness of a Memotech, the frankly under-designed beige pillow of the Commodore 64. Now, no matter how bonkers the bits inside, everything looks identical. The true spirit of eccentric eyefuls of design has passed to the PC case modders. No good, chaps. If you want to keep the flag flying, you'd better go the whole hog. Wednesday 12/02/03
Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden, ZDNet's unwarrantedly boyish reporter and ball obsessive, has complained that he hasn't been seen in the diary of late. Fortunately for him, a legal matter has come up (rather than his frankly distasteful antics at industry parties, about which I shall say no more), and it's worth sharing. The case was Freeserve taking Oftel to task over the way Oftel handled Freeserve's initial complaint about BT allowing its wholesale and retail broadband divisions to get too pally. In particular, Freeserve said that BT Openworld was given advance notice of a 40 percent price cut. Oftel initially said that this didn't happen, and Freeserve appealed. The case went to the Competition Commission Appeal Tribunals (CCAT) -- the UK's highest specialist competition law court. As part of the hearing, Oftel decided to show that Openworld had no advantage, by reading a story that young Wearden wrote at the time. In it, he said that Freeserve had announced its response to the price cuts before BT -- and so, said Oftel, it can't be the case that Openworld was primed and ready to go before the news broke. "That's as may be," said the judge, "but tell me, What is ZDNet?" The lawyer in charge of the defence looked mildly pained. "I have to admit, m'lud, that I have no very clear idea. I think it's a news Web site." Of course, Graeme is simultaneously thrilled that he's being used as evidence and rather miffed that the judge didn't respond with a "Really? Graeme Wearden said that? Well then. Case closed." I seek to mollify his hurt pride by explaining that when a famous judge comes out with "Exactly who are the Beatles?" or somesuch, it doesn't mean that he's unaware of facts which the meanest scrote in the street could be expected to have. Rather, it's a judicial device for getting an explanatory point read into the record, so that when future generations read the transcript some context is included to make the nature of the point of fact absolutely clear. I think this works, and Wearden is a happy bunny. God, man management, eh? Thursday 13/02/03
From across the country they come, raddled old journalists, bright young production people and those whose true nature has never been determined. It's the night of the big party! PC Magazine's reunion bash kicks off. The affair is funded by PR firm Hill and Knowlton, who seem curiously keen to pour beer down the throats of people who are in many cases no longer directly connected with the business of writing about H&K's clients. It's obviously by way of showing how much the company has changed since the uneven days of the early 90s, when the US parent was involved in rather over-promoting some aspects of Desert Storm. But the Knowltonians mix amiably with the rest of us, and all is fine. It's amazing how strongly the team spirit has survived the intervening years, which has seen the once mighty magazine reduced to the status of a PDF file languishing on a Web site so miserable I cannot bring myself to type its name. At one end of the bar, the truly gorgeous usability editors (why are they always women with a strange fascination for geeks? Didn't they realise they were being thrown into the lion's den?); at the other, the frankly mixed bag of Senior Editorial Figures wavering slightly in the breeze. Could it be true that ex-labs director Ed Hennings is devoting his time to writing the canonical book on the Buddhist calendar? And which hyper-hip flame-haired editrix is now working for Double Bassist magazine, and loving it? Not to mention Simon Blackwell, whose stint on production at PC Mag obviously prepared him well for his current job of writing jokes for the BBC. Mixed feelings, certainly. But by the end, we were ready for our original leader, Bill Ziff, to reappear waving his chequebook, singing our favourite refrain "Religious overspend on editorial", and kicking the whole lot off again. The team was back in town. If anyone wants an expert magazine creation squad, we're your men. And women. And lab rats. Forward into the future! Friday 14/02/03
The future, alas, has arrived. Ouch. But it's Valentine's Day. Hm. This is signalled by the arrival in my tube carriage of a crusty carrying a guitar and a loud voice. He proceeds to say: "Enough of this commercial pseudo-romance! Let's see how many couples I can break up!" before launching into a surprisingly good version of Bowie's Ashes To Ashes. Not sure why that should provoke discord among the romantic, but it's a suitably bizarre start to the day. Then I have to wade through all the Valentine's emails, texts and cards (guess how long that takes), and spend rather longer being nice to my friends who boast about using various temporary email addresses to send the same poem to multiple recipients. I don't think that's sporting, chaps! There's no love lost between Microsoft and Opera today. The maker of tiny yet perfectly formed alternative browsers was complaining that Microsoft was detecting their software and sending them broken pages from the MSN website in an attempt to make it look as if Opera itself was at fault. Heavens. Microsoft at first denied and then defended the practice, and the rumpus continues. Today, Opera hit back by releasing a special version of its software that turns MSN -- and just MSN -- into Muppet-style gibberish. I like this idea. It's a much better way of filtering sites you don't like than blocking them, and will doubtless be fallen upon with glee by the guardians of our personal morality. Imagine if porn sites had their content rendered with fig leaves over the dodgy bits, or ranting reactionary nonsense was rendered in Lear-like nonsense prose. There's a lot of potential here. I remember the early days of Canal Plus, the French pay TV channel that had no small amount of erotic content. This was back in the time of analogue, where the scrambling you could do was somewhat limited by the parameters of the TV broadcast system. Canal Plus worked by adding one of a variety of delays to each line of the broadcast picture, resulting in a very shimmery display that looked as if it was being watched though a heavy rainstorm. If you bought the decoder and paid for the key, it took out the delays in the right order, bringing the perfect picture back. Alas for poor Canal Plus, the shimmery pictures were judged more erotic than the plain version by many of the gourmet Frenchmen who tuned in, and although the channel was a great success the revenues from the decoders weren't as great has had been hoped. Want to read more of Rupert's diaries? Click here for the full archive.