Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Rugs are on Rupert's mind this week - they're not just for covering bare patches anymore, you know...
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 5/5/2003
Worrying intelligence from the Continent. German chipmaker Infineon is demonstrating a smart carpet --- no, not a nice taupe rug with subtle ethnic influences, but one with chips, sensors, light-emitting diodes and wiring all in the weave. The idea is you cut and lay it just as any other carpet, but then you apply power. The monster matting wakes up, each chip seeks out its neighbours and creates an ad-hoc network. It's then ready for work. What work can a carpet do? Well, the sensors can warn about fire or flood, or it can tell where you are and the lights then guide you to your destination. It can flash advertising messages, and -- one presumes -- you could play a really neat game of physical Space Invaders. So far, so good. Infineon says that even when parts of the carpet get damaged the rest of the circuitry can route around the problem. Which sounds ominously like the way the brain works, with its neurons constantly reconnecting and rerouting. What we may have on our hands here isn't just a piece of flashy floor covering, but the world's first truly self-aware device. Not so much MFI, more MFAI. And it's a carpet. How annoyed is it going to get about that? Not only will it have a justifiable grievance at its lot in life, but it'll have to put up with the sort of damage that does for us humans. Take a teenage party: the amount of booze, fag ash and pharmaceuticals that ends up on the floor would put a rhino into The Priory. We'll have to employ detox textile specialists to coax the poor thing back into sanity afterwards. And imagine the banter between the smart vacuum cleaner and the carpet: "Sure, you've got flashy lights, but I've got wheels and I'm free." "Naaah, suck on this!". It'd make a good movie -- Mad Mats, Beyond The Underlay We are tumbling headfirst into a frightening future, where even the soft furnishings plot and scheme against us. Trouble ahead, you mark my words.
Tuesday 6/5/2003
Some people never learn. The record industry is hard at work designing downloads that damage your data, according to reports. Should you be so misguided as to grab a tainted MP3, you'll run the risk of having your computer lock up -- losing anything you may have been working on but not saved. Anything to save ourselves from the incredible evil of peer-to-peer transfer. But we've been here before. Back in the eighties, software copying occupied a similar position in the minds of industry associations as chief threat to civilisation. Various heavy-handed solutions were proposed: we had dongles that had to be plugged into the printer port (and stopped your printer from working), arcane optical devices that displayed passwords when placed over scrambled pixels on screen, even special chips that had to be added to motherboards. All were circumvented in days, with the only people inconvenienced being legitimate users. All have been abandoned: the biggest threat to the software industry now appears to be patent lawyers. But the worst notion was the one where software detected it was running illegally and formatted your hard disk. Yes, people actually did that. And yes, it sometimes triggered incorrectly. You can guess what happened to the company behind that bright idea. So, before the RIAA deploys killer MP3s (something I frankly doubt is possible), it should consider that countermeasures will be out in hours, that people following the rules will be hit disproportionately when things go wrong -- as they will -- and that destroying your customers' data never, ever does you any good. All they have to do to confirm this is read a few computer magazines from the 1980s.
Wednesday 7/5/2003
I've always found Dublin somewhat uncoupled from normal concepts of time and space. In the Joycean continuum of that fair city, you may well set out on a mission with a good idea of where you have to be and when, but you've got as good a chance of making it as Saddam has of playing for Real Madrid. Which makes MIT's latest invention doubly brave. Born at MIT Media Labs Europe in Dublin itself, the software runs on a PDA and combines normal GPS mapping with predicative techniques. Not only does it show where you are on screen, but it draws a bubble around you showing how far you can get in half an hour. It knows about walking speeds, street layouts and other factors, so it's a realistic guide to whether you can get there from here before closing time. In the future, it'll add knowledge about traffic conditions, public transport timetables and even the availability of cabs -- perfect for cutting it fine. That would be a darn fine thing in any city, but there? It will take a very high degree of intelligence indeed to factor in the major reasons for indeterminanism: you bump into a friend, you pop into a bar to catch up, there's a phone call from the next pub along where they've just heard that Fergus is back in town... Good luck, MIT. And if you need a hand in the beta testing, why, I believe I know just the chap.
Thursday 8/5/2003
Talking of such things, it's always a particular pleasure to drink BT's beer. This evening, a small delegation from ZDNet UK and Silicon are being entertained by BT PR flack Michael Wadley in a local tourist trap, the Dickens Inn. Used to the ways of journalists, he takes it in good spirit as we vigorously toast bloated monopolies, price-gouging broadband strategies and mobile service mishaps. In the spirit of true objectivity, we also pass on our opinions, gossip and other actionable items about BT's competitors, ex-executives and other industry notables. Outrageous. A rather scurrilous tale surfaces. One of the aspects of being a head honcho in a major corporation is that you're always having your picture taken -- company brochures, newspaper articles, magazine profiles and so on. A photo agency had been called in to snap the head banana of BT Retail, Pierre Danon whose name, as I've said before, I can never hear without the sensation of a female voice cooing "Ooooooh, Dannon!" over a picture of some artificially sweetened yoghurt concoction. But perhaps that's just me. Anyway, the snappers from the agency called up Danon's chief of staff to discuss how to photograph the great man. There are only so many ways to produce a corporately acceptable snap of your senior executives: sitting at a desk in a suit is OK, dangling upside down covered in clingfilm is not. One of the standard images is to have your Armani-clad exec leaning over the top of a spiral staircase, looking down in a sort of "Ah, there you are. Come on up!" moment. It's replete with the sort of symbolism that appeals to our status-conscious betters, and at least proves that the bod in question is allowed near dangerous drops without a bodyguard. But not in this case. No sooner had the agency suggested this, than there was a sharp intake of breath from the other end. "No way. Danon doesn't do stairs," said his aide de camp. The last person to use this line was reportedly Mariah Carey, apparently unwilling to have her behind hoisted to eye level, but as far as is known there's nothing untoward about the dapper Danon derriere. It turned out to be "something of a misunderstanding", and Lucky Pierre was more than happy to look down from on high at his adoring congregation. It's an exciting life in corporate communications.
Friday 9/5/2003
It's particularly exciting in Microsoft's PR department at the moment. The company that's doing so much to convince us that it's got Trustworthy Computing as dear to its heart as Dick Cheney's pacemaker is looking down the barrel of a potential two trillion dollar fine. You can read the details in our news story but in brief: MS was hauled over the coals by the Feds for security breaches in its Passport online ID service. It promised -- in writing -- to do it properly in future. This week, another huge hole was discovered that let hackers fake a URL and reset account passwords. The deal with the Federal Trade Commission can potentially incur a $11,000 fine for each user affected, and with some 200 million Passport users -- well, you do the sums. Even by Microsoft's well-heeled standards, that's a major wedge. Of course, it won't come to that. But the lesson is clear: next time Microsoft promises something it's been bad at delivering before, get it in writing with substantial penalty clauses attached. The downside is that institutional investors may start asking awkward questions about company liability when considering MS stock, and while that would normally be an excellent way to make an organisation mend its ways the market's shaky enough right now without this sort of scare. Could one fake URL really mess up the global economy even more? You know the answer to that one as well as I do. I look forward to the day when a recalcitrant rug is the biggest of our worries. Click here to see more of Rupert's diaries.
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