Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Odd inventions and odder marketing tactics rear their heads in this week's epistle

Monday 11/08/2003
He's back! Older, balder and smoother of chin, Uncle, later Sir, Clive Sinclair has been winkled out of hiding by some smart PR cookie and given a Segway electric trolley to play with. This has had the predictable results of lots of footage of Uncle Clive whizzing around happily on the thing, followed by his well-tried modus operandi of shafting the competition while making vague but confident promises of better things to come. In this case, the Segway is dismissed, albeit respectfully, as a "toy": we can expect the real thing shortly, he says, with his C6.

This is so gloriously familiar that I feel sixteen again. Of course, there are no details of the C6. No development team has been announced, no schedule unveiled, no partners or plans revealed. There will be a C6 next year, and it will be better than sex. Sir Clive Sinclair has spoken, and now we wait.

Perhaps there are some reading this who don't remember the glory days of Sinclair Research, where new products were announced and put on sale with such alacrity the designers often hadn't actually finished them yet. Allow 28 days for delivery, the adverts said, never quite specifying which 28 days those might be. When the kit did arrive, it was often somewhat at variance with the promises -- bits sticking out of the back, parts missing, the software buggy and incomplete. The only thing that ever made serious money was the ZX81, which had the unusual merits of extreme simplicity: five chips, a smidgeon of software (not written by Sinclair) and nothing to go wrong (well, apart from the 16K RAM pack, but let's not get too steeped in boyhood nostalgia)...

If there really is a C6 -- and not just Clive making product plans on the hoof, another charming characteristic that made life so interesting for Sinclair executives -- then extreme scepticism is advised until rubber actually hits concrete. On the other hand, a world that seemed inclined to believe, before its unveiling, that the Segway was actually some sort of magical antigravity device may still be a fertile hunting-ground for his imagination. On the whole, I'm glad he's back.

Tuesday 12/08/2003
Congratulations to the District of Columbia Radio Control Club, who designed, built and operated the model aircraft that took off from Newfoundland and touched down in Roundstone Bog, west Ireland, today after nearly two days' flying. Takeoff and landing was by remote control, but everything else was automatic -- the six-foot-wingspan craft guided itself by GPS and reported back on progress via satellite. Although other, larger automatic aircraft have flown across the Atlantic before, this is the first true model plane to make it: it weighs less than five kilos, has a 10cc engine and carries only two and a half kilos of fuel. It had around fifty grams left on landing.

It's a wonderful achievement for DIY technology, but opens up quite a can of airborne worms. In my darker moments, I see flocks of robot aircraft zooming around the place, hopping over borders with impunity and carrying untraceable packages to unknown destinations. I don't know how visible model aircraft are on radar, but the same stealth techniques are available for little planes as for big ones. Nobody's going to be carrying hundreds of kilos around the planet like this – not yet, anyhow – but combine these ideas with the home-brew cruise missile being cooked up in New Zealand at the moment and we're getting to the point where a reasonably determined individual can build a selection of useful surveillance and delivery mechanisms.

If it does turn into a problem, expect sums of money to be made available to companies building kit to counter the threat. Tiny interceptors, specialist radars and quite possibly some form of automated butterfly net might all be commissioned: for those contemplating a future career, it may be an idea to invest in some Airfix kits, some ham radio gear and a particularly big pot of glue.

That's going to be my excuse, anyhow. Wonder if it's tax deductible? Wednesday 13/08/2003
Cheap, sleazy publicity stunts always meet with a warm welcome here, and Evesham Technology -- Evesham Micros, as was -- is clearly up to the stiff challenge. Its new Student division is flogging pooters to the studes with a small bundle of extras: vouchers for coffee shops, a free phone SIM and, best of all, a packet of condoms. Are they just pulling the wool over our eyes, so to speak?

Of course not, says Evesham. You can't tell our over-active youth enough about safe sex and the importance of thoroughly bagging the old chap before indulging in non-virtual interaction. No word as to whether they've solved the problem that all people below the age of 21 invariably blow up the condoms and send them farting around the room like flatulent Zeppelins, but it's worth a pop.

Curiously, Evesham itself seems to lie on some sort of ley line for prophylactic-powered publicity. Local firm Stretch Marketing -- see what I mean? -- has a history of setting up contraception schemes for places like the Philippines and Malawi, and even more worryingly also manages a local band called The Panic Hats. An interesting euphemism for rubber johnnies: if only their debut single wasn't called Leak... Thursday 14/08/2003
Finance and insurance company HBOS has announced it's going to be fitting lie detectors to its phones, in order to help detect fraud. What an interesting idea, given that voice-operated lie detectors have such an abysmal reliability record, but the company's keen -- if the detectors flash their lights, then the operator switches over to a new script designed to examine claims far more closely for fraudulent intent.

When it comes to voice-stress analysers -- as these things are known -- what people say is not always what they mean. The courts don't accept VSA evidence, but nonetheless law enforcement officers are keen on them: when a suspect is confronted with a machine that says "you're lying," it can often break down their defences and make them change their story. While it's undoubtedly true that people do reflect their mental state in the tone of their voice, it's also true that any confrontation with authority is going to be stressful -- so what does the test show?

I've also found phoning insurance companies to be very stressful: it's something you do when something nasty has just happened, you're worried that there's some reason they'll find to deny your claim -- or even that you'll be thought a fraudster. The idea that there may now be a faulty robot mindreader hooked up to the system will calm my nerves not a jot -- who wants to go through that, especially after some personal trauma?

And here, I suspect, lies the real reason for HBOS' decision: deterrence. Doubtless some of those planning fraud will be deterred from phoning up, which is of course a good thing: doubtless others who are just scared of falling foul of the porky machines will be too nervous to risk making a justified claim. Fewer claims makes for a happier insurance company -- shame about the customers. Friday 15/08/2003
No entry today, as I'm awa' across the watter. Amsterdam, to be precise, where CompuWare is demonstrating exciting aspects of middleware, model design architecture and other aspects of development environments where people wear ties. Of course, nothing can go wrong on a press trip to Amsterdam, especially when people of such probity, restraint, abstemiousness and sensitivity as myself are involved, and I look forward to spending the evening before the press event reading around the subject area, contemplating the role of Netherlandish thinking in world history and preparing myself for full immersal in corporate software issues. And while I'm at it, I'd like to make a claim for an accident involving my electric vehicle. Hmm. Why is that light flashing?