Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Free the radio waves! And who's that bloke behind the tinted car windows?

Monday 28/07/2003
It’s time for a little culture, so off we trot to the National Gallery (or NG to its friends). Here, HP and NG are announcing a new Print On Demand scheme: you select your favourite painting and out it pops from a huge HP printer. The clever bit has been HP designing a scanner and printer combination that produces colour-perfect prints to satisfy even the most demanding of retinas. Also promised -- though not yet -- is a scheme whereby the image of a painting can be made to appear as if the work was fresh off the easel, with all the degeneration of time undone. So you can not only pick your favourite Turner or Velazquez, but decide how old it is when you get it.

It’s all very impressive, although if you collar some of the colour scientists circulating around they’ll freely admit that the colours only match properly under tungsten light and there’s still plenty of work to be done. A small price to pay, and it’s instructive to hear the Gallery marketing manager say how important it is to get the art out to people -- something that’s only possible because they own the copyright in all the images. Imagine having to do two thousand separate deals with two thousand separate media companies, each trying to negotiate the very best deal for their shareholders: there are many ways that intellectual property laws work against the spread of knowledge they are supposed to uphold, and it’s as well to remember it.

As we leave, we get our own print from a previous run -- Van Gogh’s Yellow Chair, a painting I’m particularly fond of following an encounter with it in Amsterdam some years ago. But others are not so happy at being given ones that have been prepared earlier: these are expertly deflected.

Leave it to Guy Kewney, the industry’s very own Old Master and one of decidedly Early Modern Dutch appearance in his beard and lugubrious face. What’s the point of print on demand, he asks, if I demand and you can’t print? I want a different one. The NG staff, although well versed in dealing with demanding types from dukes to dustmen, know when they’re beaten: the machinery is fired up especially for Mr K and his chosen masterpiece duly appears. Now that’s what I call artful.

Tuesday 29/07/2003
As someone who has enjoyed giving and receiving bad taste for most of his life, I can only admire the way the Internet has helped break down the barriers of the unacceptable. In particular, the extreme ease with which it lets ideas go from eureka moment to online fact bypasses many of the corporate safeguards that prevent excruciatingly naff concepts from hitting the public eye. Thus we get a joyful double whammy -- an organisation making egregious lapses followed by massive corporate humiliation as it has to back down.

Two examples surface today, and they couldn’t happen to nicer fellows. First of all, Sinn Fein has had to backpedal rapidly on its oh-so-conciliatory Sniper At Work T-shirt, which surfaced in its online store. That went, just as soon as our Celtic cousins -- normally so good with words -- managed to look up ‘commitment’, ‘peace process’, and ‘don’t be such arses, yer eedjits’ in the dictionary.

Second, and much more fun, is the appearance and -- oops -- pulling of the futures market in acts of terrorism, as planned by ex-Admiral John Poindexter. Although impeccable from a theoretical point of view as a mechanism for filtering intelligence through the crucible of money, it was seen as incompatible with a government who equates all things terrorist with Satanic intrigue and godless behaviour: a bit like the Roman Catholic church operating a sweepstake on major sins. Poindexter’s a big favourite in the White House, despite being put away for a while due to all that Contra arms business and despite being behind the PR cock-up that was the Total Information Awareness programme. But even he can’t escape three strikes and you’re out, so this particular episode of immense bad taste comes with a bonus resignation.

More, please!

Wednesday 30/07/2003
Computers are literal beasts: the lot of people called O’Nion and D’Ath has not been improved by mailmerge filters and that pesky apostrophe. But it takes a special something to make a chap hide in shame and fear.

[fade up ominous music, and engage American “When Good Names Go Bad” accent]

Take Terry D’Arcy, a normal sort of chap engaged in a normal sort of job for a normal sort of company. No doubt he’s had his fair share of being called Trent, but that’s the sort of irksome jollity you can bear with good will.  Little did he know, as he filled out his registration form for the Internet World show, that his own personal apostrophe was about to turn into a catastrophe.

Maybe it was a slip of the finger by some anonymous data entry clerk. Maybe it was a rogue program deep in the belly of the computers. Maybe some long-forgotten programmer had a really bad sense of humour. We may never know. But some fateful, malign force took his reasonable, unexceptional name and perverted it -- and him -- beyond recognition. When he got his badge for the show, it proclaimed him to be the proud bearer of the moniker Terry D Acute Arcy;

“What makes it worse”, giggled my informant, “is that he has got a cute arse. He didn’t go to the show. He daren’t. What if everyone got to know about it?”

What indeed. Let us hope -- for the sake of Terry, and the dignity of D’Arcy’s everywhere, that this terrible story is kept secret.

Thursday 31/07/2003
If you’ve bought an iPod, you’ve probably found it’s taken over from most of your other forms of music listening. Earphones aren’t always convenient, and while you can hook the device up to your hi-fi at home with a standard lead it’s more difficult if you’re in a car or the bathroom. The solution, of course, is a small FM radio transmitter that plugs into the iPod and relays your glorious stereo to a nearby wireless. Such things are gratefully received in the US and elsewhere, and of course they’ve trickled into the UK. One such is the iTrip, which is a neat little device with lots of clever features, but is basically a tiny transmitter for unwired iPod enjoyment.

Oh no you don’t, says the Radiocommunications Agency, our guardians in matters Hertzian. You must have a licence for any radio transmitter, and we don’t give them out for things like that. They may interfere, you know. And so those who would sell the toy are forced to turn away all comers, and anyone intent of being truly piratical is forced to dirty, desperate measures like buying them off the Internet from the US. Where they cost less. Ahem. Or you could buy one of the many legal-to-buy-but-not-to-use DIY kits, but I didn’t tell you that.

So how come these things don’t interfere in the US, where they have exactly the same frequencies used for broadcasting and, outside Texas, the same laws of physics? A quick check on the law over there shows that if you run your transmitter at a low enough power, you don’t need a licence -- no, not even on the FM waveband. Furthermore, attempts to find instances where this has caused any sort of problem whatsoever, fail. It seems that if you have your ten milliwatt iPod transmitter in your front room, then next door is unlikely to hear it over the megawatts of Radio Earache.

What does cause interference to people are the myriad FM pirates who rampage up and down the dial, getting detected and shut down by the powers that be at roughly the same rate as weapons of mass destruction. In the spirit of choleric motorists who fume that the police should be out nabbing burglars instead of harassing innocent speeding lunatics -- oops, sorry, careful drivers taking advantage of good conditions -- I say fie on the Radiocommunications Agency and fie on their pettifogging rules.

Rise up, citizens, and play your easy listening music over the liberated airwaves! Just do it quietly, there’s a dear.

Friday 1/08/2003
Conspiracy theorists are partial to black vehicles with shady occupants doing evil deeds, even if they’ve stopped claiming the UN is behind fleets of black helicopters darkening the skies of Montana or wherever. So they may be interested in a black Landrover parked up in the City this morning: it had a discreet microwave antenna -- looked like a quadrifiliar vertical helix -- mounted dead centre on the roof, and what looked like some phased direction-finding bits scattered around it. The back windows were dark, but the front had a bloke with a computer keyboard, a large-scale map of the area and a nervous twitch. I walked past it, did a double-take -- I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally expecting quadrifiliar helices on my morning constitutional-– and was about to go back and peer at it properly when it sprang from its lair like a cheetah scenting an ailing impala and disappeared down the Minories.

So, what’s going on? It was either some form of GPS testing or wireless network sniffing -- and GPS testing is pretty old hat by now. If it was wardriving, then it was very well funded and not very well disguised: the way to do it is to stuff the equipment into the pannier of a rusty moped, stick a big red L on the back and rubber band a grotty list of streets to a perspex clipboard on the handlebars. Real spooks don’t look like spooks, and they certainly don’t tool around in shiny black anythings.

So I reckon it’s some media company preparing a shock horror documentary on computer security. Probably telly -- you can just see the moody late night shots of the blackly sleek Landie slipping through rainwashed City streets -- although it could be one of the nationals. If you’re responsible for IT for a financial institution or the like in London, and would rather not see your root password appear on Panorama, now might be a good time to give your corporate airwaves a quick once over.