Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The terror of one's friends, chicken wings, cheap ways to get to space and how not to make a light bulb? Just another week in the life of Rupert Goodwins

Monday 7/4/2003
Had a cracking Sunday, mostly spent at Carter's Steam Fair. This is a travelling funfair that pops up on the Holloway Road for two days every April, running a variety of restored rides from the turn of the century onwards. Powered by a variety of steam engines and original electrical gear that makes you wonder how anyone survived the 1920s, it's got the lot -- from galloping horses, dodgems and divebombers to swinging yachts, all beautifully kept up by the Carter family. Enormous fun, visually marvellous and not a little psychedelic. However, I'm there with a travelling circus of my own, including Adrian. Being irrepressible radio nerds, and to the resigned horror of our belles, we arranged to rendezvous at the fair with the help of our walkie-talkies. That worked well enough, but the subsequent plan for Ade to report on a ride by wireless went badly wrong. His stint on the Octopus -- twirly chairs whizzing around at speed through the air -- was rendered almost useless by his and his partner's terrified screaming. As this tended to occur as the ride reached the top of its ascent, this boosted the range of his transmissions to a good couple of miles, I reckon. Anyone listening on that frequency in Holloway may have been surprised by broadcasts of sheer spine-tingling terror: subsequent monitoring showed that it's used by builders, shop assistants and what sounds like the local train station. It could have been worse. I've assembled and am now running an Internet-linked repeater on the selfsame channel, as described in last week's diary. That works surprisingly well, but had it been in service at the time of the Octopus radio incident the visceral shouts of horror would have been broadcast in Australia, Belgium and Surrey, among others. Is the world really ready for this?

Tuesday 8/4/2003

Fancy an Internet-enabled lightbulb? Matsushita has made one, and it's unutterably bizarre. It's taken a standard fluorescent tube and built in an Ethernet controller that can turn the light on and off -- it's a common or garden wired Ethernet port, requiring an RJ-45 connector, running the very uncommon next generation of internet protocol, IPv6. I've pondered this for some time, and illumination has failed to appear.

If it's there to promote IPv6, it's pointless: who's got a network to plug it into? If it's there to promote home control networking, it's daft: people are planning networks with wireless, mains signalling, even washes of infrared light. Nobody does it with cabled Ethernet. There are plenty of cheap alternatives either here or on the way -- Zigbee is wireless designed explicitly to be good for lighting control, among other things, and I'd buy a Zigbee light and a USB controller in, as it were, a flash.

All this may go to explain why Matsushita has made only five of the things, although that could still be thought of as five too many. It's still peddling the line that 'we must have IPv6 because we're running out of IP addresses', which has so far stubbornly failed to come true no matter how many times it's repeated. Trying to underline your point by making comedy lighting products does nobody any good.

Wednesday 9/4/2003
It's been a while since I last said it, but: Thanks, Microsoft! I toast Bill Gates' health, and pray for a long and happy life for everyone in the company. The reason is that the great Redmondo has confirmed the existence of a version of Windows for the AMD 64-bit chip architecture. It'll do a Server 2003 and an XP Windows in that flavour, the former for the Opteron and the latter for the Athlon64. It already does 64-bit versions of Windows for the Itanium, although nobody's quite sure why. This will bring some much needed diversity to the market, helping manufacturers and users alike to exercise some choice and let competition in, if only a bit. But that's not the real reason I'm so excited. The truth is -- it'll make testing computers worthwhile again. For ages now, we've run benchmarks not quite out of force of habit, but close. Everything's settled down, and the relationship between price and performance is pretty fixed: the results are interesting, but only mildly. All that will change. We'll be able to test PCs running different versions of Windows, and the same version of Windows running on different processors. The graphs will be endless, the technical analyses considerable, the pontifications and column inches expended will be immeasurable. All those skilled honed at great expense in the glory years of PC innovation will come into play, all those 3500 word Personal Computer World reviews of everyone's first 80386 computer I churned out years ago will not have died in vain. I know it's perverse, but it makes me happy. Thursday 10/4/2003
It's not been a good year for high technology delta-winged white transports. NASA's still scratching its head over what went wrong with Columbia -- they thought they'd found a protective plate drifting away from the craft on radar images from day two in orbit, but the darned thing turned up in the wreckage. So the tiny fleet remains grounded, leaving its passengers stuck with older, cruder alternatives. As has happened with Concorde, whose retirement date has been set today for six months hence. All very sad for my inner (OK, outer) child, who watched the Apollo missions and the early days of Concorde with the fervent hope that he'd be flying hypersonic jetpacks on Mars by the time he was twenty. Now all that history will be consigned to museums, icons of a very different age, beautiful experiments that finished in dead ends. The money ran out. That's OK. Look ahead. A study claims that there is no theoretical reason preventing a working space elevator -- at its most basic, a cable connecting a geostationary satellite to earth with cars crawling up and down. Build one of those, and the cost of putting stuff in orbit reduces to a fraction of the current costs. As this is the most expensive part of any journey within the solar system, the economics of getting ourselves spread around the place change dramatically. The cost of such an elevator? Around half of NASA's annual budget, and less than some other engineering projects such as the Gibraltar Bridge. It's not just a matter of sending up a large reel of Belkin's finest stranded-core Cat5 and unwinding it, of course. The cable has to be incredibly strong -- the required tensile strength is within the theoretical range from carbon nanotubes, but much more than anyone's actually been able to make. As you can imagine, they're working on that with some eagerness. There are other issues such as safety: the idea of an unstoppable cheesewire wrapping itself around the equator is not one to be taken lightly. Powering the crawlers is another issue, but there are plenty of ideas for that. The enthusiasts say it'll be practicable within ten years, which seems a little optimistic. But then it took just eight years from Kennedy's "We choose to go to the moon" speech (well worth watching, for many reasons) to Armstrong's small step for man, roughly the time it takes London Underground to fix an escalator these days. Sadly, it is harder to imagine Tony Blair making such a speech -- even though it's well within our national means and the benefits would be enormous, over a long period -- than it is to conceive of the project itself. But my inner child insists we try. Friday 11/4/2003
The inner child is silent this morning, due to the adult indignities of the night before. One of our new management's more dubious decisions has been to hold a quarterly state of the nation meeting, where the whole company (recently swelled by us buying another) is treated to presentations on where the business is going and why. I'm all for corporate communications, even though my one-man campaign to stamp out management jargon is not proving successful. We had nine 'going forwards' in just under an hour, or roughly one every six minutes: obviously I'll have to consider naming and shaming next. Even so, this isn't the dubious part of the decision -- what can go badly wrong is the "let's all go to the pub afterwards" aspect. Now, these aren't the days of dot-com legend any more. We, like everyone else in this business, have had to put the corporate yacht on hold for a while. But it has to be said the post-PowerPoint party on Thursday night was more than enthusiastically enjoyed. I was going to recount some of the less reprehensible acts, but there weren't many of those. It's been a long time since I've seen senior management prove their authority through drinking competitions (strawpedoes -- just say go), or what 50 shots of glutinous cocktails look like on one plate. And as for the co-worker who invited me to a fetish club -- somewhere, pictures exist of the last time I went in for That Sort Of Thing, and the inadvisability they demonstrate cannot be overstressed (unlike the leather straps). There was dancing of a sort banned in the lower twenty states of the USA, there was an excess of chicken drumsticks coated obscenely in barbeque sauce, and there was one recently married and very respectable bod who had to explain on her mobile from the floor of a tube train heading in the wrong direction why she was going to Woodford instead of back home to hubby in outer South-West London. It seems that London cabbies are under no obligation to take someone who is incapable of standing unaided. Did you know that? I didn't know that. And this is during an uncertain economy. What happens when we once again scale the pinnacles of high profits? I don't know and frankly I'm scared to guess. But you can be sure I'll let you know when I do. Nurse... Click here to see more of Rupert's diaries.