Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Rupert's rural ramblings in the Swedish countryside soon turn to thoughts of email naughtiness, browser balderdash and the ancient beasts of computing antiquity
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 2/6/2003
The day dawns bright and clear. And early: the sun's up before 4 a.m., because I'm still in the rural wilds of the Kingdom of Sweden. For most of the past two weeks, I have decanted self, laptop and various items of radio gear to a farm in Sormland, about 70 kilometres south-west of Stockholm. The area is known as the Lustgard -- Garden of Eden -- of Sweden: it's certainly well-equipped with snakes. Also hornets, bulls, mosquitoes, horseflies, wasps and neurotic cats, all of whom have decided at one time or another to derive sustenance or sadistic pleasure from the portly bod of yours truly. The bull was particularly fun: "It'll be no trouble if you carry a stick and just yell at him," says the farmer's wife, and she was absolutely correct: the bull found it no trouble at all. As a result, I had to scamper for my life across the bottom of the cow pasture, which was sumptuously equipped with foot-deep furrows absolutely saturated with the various liquid, solid and intermediate states of matter that naturally occur in such places. Later that same day, my native guide and I find ourselves trapped in a forest with the sounds of cows all around, knowing that if one spots us and utters the special "Hey, Bull, they're back again!" moo our days on earth are over. Despite that, it's a beautiful place with much to recommend it. Ostensibly, I'm over here to write chunks of novel -- and to my surprise, it works. This has something to do with being well out of range of broadband, although other distractions are more enduring. It's a lot of fun to convert two whiskey tins to 802.11b high gain antennae and go clambering over the Svenska fields with a Linux laptop running war-driving software. The cows certainly enjoyed it.
Tuesday 3/6/2003
One of the many benefits of rural Sweden is the quiet. Not necessarily a lack of sound -- anyone who thinks the countryside is peaceful hasn't been there recently -- but electrically. Trying to pick weak shortwave signals out of the murk of the London airwaves is no fun: computers, light dimmers, microwave ovens, they all spew out random fuzz. The worst offender by a long way is, curiously, a video projector that transmits a loud ticking noise over a range of hundreds of metres even when turned off. But a Swedish farm? Silence. Distant thunderstorms, perhaps the occasional crackle as the pigs in the next farm blunder into the electric fence, but that's about it. Even the weakest long-distance (DX, in the parlance) signal has a good chance of getting through to my monkish cell -- once a chicken shed -- and when I'm not putting my fictional characters through various forms of distress, I take time off and wander the shortwave bands looking for choice DX. The most fun -- certainly to show off to passing agricultural types -- is SSTV, or Slow Scan Television. This is a bit like colour faxes sent over the airwaves, or loading pictures off tape in the days of 8-bit micros. Once upon a time, SSTV meant expensive, complicated machinery and a lot of dedication: these days, you can just hook your transceiver up to your PC's sound card and run some free software. So there's a lot of it about, with hams exchanging photo albums around the globe. Most SSTV pictures are anodyne; one might even say dull. A good 50 percent are pictures of the ham radio operator themselves -- almost invariably a balding man with glasses posing in front of what looks like the control panel from a 1950s sci-fi movie. Then there are pictures of flowers, butterflies and other wildlife; the suspect's house, a nearby mountain and so on. Although it's initially fun to see one of these float in from half-way across the road, the thrill diminishes after a bit. But then there are the Italians who, along with certain Russians, delight in transmitting stuff that wouldn't look out of place on Page 3 of the Sun. It's surprising how bursts of noise or fading signals conspire to bury the rudest bits, or how a well-positioned callsign keeps the transmission just this side of whatever it takes to stop the Italian or Russian authorities knocking on the door. But it just goes to show: even without broadband, the dedicated technologist need not go far to download porn.
Wednesday 4/6/2003
And so back to Britain, pausing only to bump into a pal at the airport. "Missed your diary over the last two weeks," he said. "Thought you'd probably been sacked." Cheers, mate. What's changed in my absence? Surprisingly little: my first forays online for a fortnight reveal that there's a nasty virus going around infecting Windows users, the Home Office is pretending that 6,000 critical responses to the ID card proposal never happened, no weapons of mass destruction have been found, Sendo is suing someone about Smartphones, Apple's launched some dodgy software without testing it properly, Microsoft is worried about Linux, SCO is being an absolute arse and nobody's happy with chip sales. Honestly, IT, can't you come up with something new over 14 days? The best thing that happened -- and the only one I'm sorry I missed -- was the opening of the Museum of Computing. Confusingly run by the University of Bath but housed in Swindon, this is a large collection of truly ancient devices culled from the deep prehistory of the microcomputer. You can see one such antediluvian antique in operation here and I must say it's brave of him going in expecting they'll let him out without slapping him behind glass at the first possible opportunity. The curator, collector Simon Webb, is actively considering other new exhibits, and has been spotted musing online about a display about "what would have happened if technology stopped at the ZX81." A noble thought: the idea of building a mobile phone out of 1981 circuitry is curiously appealing. Would be the size of a small house, of course, perhaps even a chicken shed. I must get back to Sweden at once and start work...
Thursday 5/6/2003
Some other things never change. I return to the ZDNet offices to the familiar sound of the Graeme Wearden Chortle. Our newshound could chortle for England: no other word describes the sound he makes when he stumbles across -- no, I'm sorry, unearths through dedication and journalistic nous -- a fun story. "Look at this!" he said, forwarding a press release. It's from a content management company, iManage, announcing that they've closed a deal with international law firm Norton Rose for various managerial bits of software. These include looking after email, collaborative document and 'matter-centric' work: I have no idea what that is, but doubtless they talk of little else in the corridors of international law. "It's a phenomenally boring press release," I said, "and not helped by all that nonsense." "No," said Graeme, positively bouncing with glee. "It's Norton Rose." Nope. No light flickers behind my over-holidayed eyes. "Claire Swire? Yours was yum?" Ah! Yes! The great dirty email scandal of the year 2000! Thirty months later, Norton Rose has finally got around to installing email control software -- but no mention of this in the press release. Clearly, the company is hoping that nobody remembers. But ZDNet UK remembers, Norton Rose. ZDNet UK always remembers.
Friday 6/6/2003
Now here's an oddity, forwarded by a Friend of the Diary. First Direct circulates a warning to its customers saying that if they're running Windows 9X and a pre-6.0 version of Internet Explorer, they have to download an update soon. Microsoft is going to pull IE 6 downloads from its Web site, says the bank, for older versions of Windows -- and if you don't have it, you won't be able to use the online banking service after a planned security upgrade in the near future. When told of this, Microsoft snorts. Nonsense, it says. There are no plans, etc. But how to match this with the reports that the product manager for Internet Explorer has said the stand-alone version may well be abandoned, presumably to tie upgrades of the browser into upgrades of the whole operating system? And why did First Direct circulate this warning if it wasn't true? The bank's not saying; not at the moment. But whatever Microsoft finally decides, the fact remains that if it wanted to it could pull support for any version of IE whenever it liked. It's not like the old days when you could happily go on using Word Perfect 4.2 forever for the terribly unfashionable reason that it did exactly what you wanted. Now, the chances are that your old browser has a whole mess of security issues that really need patching if you don't want the snorting bulls of cyberspace to come lolloping over and force you into the dung. It would be an act of pure paranoia to think that to some extent, the chronic issue of insecure code works in Microsoft's favour, forcing users to keep in the company's good books if they want to stay safe. That would be positing a Mafiosi operation, a protection racket of the most malevolent mien. It is also trite to point out that open-source software is immune to this particular problem. It's not so trite and arguably more sensible than neurotic to note that companies which require you to keep using the latest Microsoft browser for their services are doing nobody -- except Redmond -- any favours. If you're a customer of such a company -- or indeed people like the Inland Revenue -- let then know how you feel. Click here to see more of Rupert's diaries.
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