Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Rupert finds comfort in the lowly worm this week, as eBay becomes a cosmic estate agent and Apple goes out of tune

Monday 28/04/2003

A message from the future...

"Captain's log, star date 2804 point three. Due to a chance encounter with a Rigolian wormhole and an estate agent I have been thrown back three hundred years, to the dawn of the 21st century, in order to look for a flat. Using the crude technology of the time I interface with eBay, whose scanners throw up artefacts far more interesting than anything that ever appeared on our scanner screens. Curious.

And I'm in luck. For a mere two million of your Earth dollars, I can buy a flat done up as a replica of the inside of the Star Ship Enterprise -- and not the tatty old one that Kirk tooled around in, neither..."

But what the slaphead captain would have found if he'd checked further is that this flat is situated in a quadrant that strikes fear into even the staunchest starship trooper -- Hinckley, conveniently situated halfway between Birmingham and Leicester. It's not a place normally associated with two million dollar flats, even ones as mildly famous as this one. It was entirely remodelled by owner Tony Alleyne: he split up with his wife and he sought solace in the stars. Now, zealous overwork prompted by grief can certainly get you a long way -- but even the most ardent Trekkie (*) must some day come back from those dark shores and realise that moving on is an option.

But what do you do when you've turned your flat into a film set, undoubtedly at great expense? What happens when you hook up with a nice woman who finds it a little... well, unconducive? And what happens when you realise that you're not in Los Angeles, where you might be able to shift such a property, but just up the road from Nuneaton?

It doesn't help that Alleyne's removed the cooker and washing machine -- well, when was the last time you saw a spin cycle at warp nine? And try as I might, I can't imagine what it would be like to buy such a place. That magical moment when you first open the front door with your own key -- you walk in, press a few of the fake buttons making bleep-bleep noises, mutter Make It So... and you're still in Hinckley, only much, much poorer.

EBay may be a wonder of the age, but you can cover me in fur and call me a Tribble (**) if it works here.

(*) Yes, I know the term is Trekker really, but it winds them up something wonderful. (**) And yes, I know about furries. Don't even think it.

Tuesday 29/04/2003

The new iPod is here! Or it will be in the next couple of weeks. It's much like the old one, except it's shrunk a little and grown a couple of games. Apple hasn't added recording, an FM tuner, wireless networking or video capabilities, but if it's not broken, why fix it?

One thing that did get fixed lately -- up to a point -- was Apple's dispute over terms of its contracts with some of its retailers. It had got to the point that Dell pulled all iPods from its system, and it wasn't alone. Exactly why relations had deteriorated to that state remains obscure, but the rumour was that Apple had got fed up with retailers complaining about things it should or should not have done. The company had slapped in some truly draconian clauses to the effect that Apple would be the final arbiter in any dispute. Even going to court was off the menu. Once the news broke, however, things rapidly changed: about a week after it became public knowledge that things were sour, sugar was added, feathers smoothed, rifts healed and other soothing clichés rolled out. And nobody will talk about it in anything other than the most anodyne terms.

Whether this sort of 'take it or leave it' attitude will also seep though the new online music service, I don't know. But it might -- the 128Kbps sample rate, the relentlessly mainstream content and the Apple file format, not to mention the US-only Macintosh-only restrictions, does it no favours. If anyone else had launched a service like that with such restrictions, they'd get walloped in the press, but this is Steve Jobs and he still gets a free ride from American journalists.

Us PC-using MP3-friendly non-American types with working ears will have wait and reserve judgement.

Wednesday 30/04/2003

If there's a theme for this week, it's worms. Not only has some unnamed miscreant in the office found and installed a networked copy of the Worms game -- thus bringing all work to halt at distressingly frequent intervals -- but accident investigators raking through the bits of space shuttle Columbia have found a live colony from one of the orbital experiments.

These particular worms, called C. Elegans, are beloved of scientists because they have very few cells, their genome has been mapped and they're well on their way to becoming the most thoroughly understood animals of all time. What's particularly impressive is that not only have these specimens survived a fiery catastrophe followed by weeks in storage, but they're now four or five generations on from the originals. In other words, while utter destruction reigned all around them and they plummeted to almost certain doom in a Texan cornfield, they just carried on. At it, as it were.

I mention this to a friend of mine, who said "Nothing puts worms off their stroke. Their entire lives are spent eating and having sex with themselves" -- hmm, perhaps I'm not as evolved as I once thought.

[More evidence of this came with the fact that two of our number at ZDNet are getting married in the near future, Matt B and Marissa. No, they're not getting married to each other. Now, Marissa is an elegant woman with poise and considerably more class than the rest of us rabble, so I wasn't going to put my usual crudities in her wedding card. But I try to affect a vaguely louche demeanour, so I signed it "Another one off the menu!" when it came around. Embarrassing to admit? Not half as embarrassing as my subsequent discovery that it was in fact Matt B's card.]

Thursday 1/05/2003

It was with some trepidation I went into work today. The May Day Festival Of Anarchy, Bricks And Shouting was expected to have kicked off by the time I made my way into the City of London, and our building was hosting a large collection of rather bored policemen -- or iPlods, as someone called them. As I'm not the most dapper of men, I worried more that the boys in blue would consider me some sort of demonstrator trying to sneak in than I'd actually cop it from a crusty with a brick and a dislike of global media companies.

Nothing happened, of course. It's also notable that previously strident warnings about anarchists and cyber-terrorism were completely absent from the telly. Perhaps the lack of serious online mass destruction over the Iraq business finally convinced the authorities that crying wolf too often wasn't a good idea -- or perhaps cyber-terrorism continues to be much less attractive than the real thing.

Friday 2/05/2003

Even in London, we've heard that elections are going on in the world outside the M25. A lot of them have some form of electronic voting option too, and this is seen as one of the major experiments leading up to full blown e-voting at a post 2006 general election.

As far as I know, no protocol for electronic voting has been published in the UK. Are these things open source? "We've seen the source", says one council, neatly sidestepping the issue. How do you do recounts? How extensive is the authentication of the results? Has anyone considered running two systems from separate companies in parallel, for redundancy and verification? Aircraft do it, and how much more important is democracy?

I have previously asked these and other questions of the Cabinet Office, but never got anywhere. Time for the Electoral Reform Society, I guess. Although with a government whose taste for the truth is so dissipated it gives extensive funding to institutes for fundamentalist Christian propaganda -- and lets them operate as state schools -- the struggle to get any sense may have to go on for some time.

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