Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Robot babies! Hanoverian word processors! The secret behind the madness of SCO! All this and more, in just one week.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor on

Monday 25/08/2003
It's a bank holiday, so I hope you'll excuse me this story about Jane Austen's laptop word processor -- a bit of technology some two hundred years old. Late copy, even by my standards. [No comment - Ed.]

While researching other, duller things, I came across a post by James Follett originally posted in rec.arts.uk.fandom -- a place not for the squeamish, those overly concerned with good taste or anyone with a tendency to worry about the survival of homo sapiens. Mr Follett is a writer of novels, radio plays and the like, usually with a SF or thriller aspect, and perhaps not the first person you'd expect to be fanatical about Jane Austen. But he is, and he went a-visiting the Austen cottage in Hampshire.

In it, he found a strange device, rather like a crude fan. It had ten thin rectangular ivory panels, held together by a single rivet. He recognised it -- a similar device had been passed down through generations of the Follett family, although nobody knew what it was. (This perhaps says more about the family Follett than it does about peculiar ivory devices).

But it's not a fan. It's a 200-year-old word processor. Back then, paper cost a packet: instead, prolific writers wrote their first draft on these slim slabs of ivory: you could rub out pencil or wipe off ink with a damp cloth until you got every paragraph just so. Then if you needed to rearrange them, add an intro or so on, you just shuffled the panels until you got the right result. When content, copy the results longhand to the expensive medium of paper, clean off the swatch and start again on the next passage.

Brilliant, eh? Follett reports that the device is solid enough to be used without additional support, so you can scribble away on your lap, and that his 200-year-old version looks solid enough to last for another couple of centuries.

With no consumables to renew, no batteries to replace and no software to upgrade, it is a truth universally acknowledged that no manufacturer would touch it with a bargepole these days.

Tuesday 26/08/2003
Japanese researchers want to build a robot child. Called the Atom Project, it will run for thirty years and cost around ten billion quid -- thus ensuring a long life for the old AI joke about it being easier and quicker to do the job with unskilled labour. The announcement goes on about it being the equivalent of the Moon landing, and that it will put Japan, Inc., at the forefront of a new and lucrative industry. Alas, funding is not yet guaranteed.

AI seems to be having something of a resurgence at the moment, with several large projects getting money -- though none as stupidly overspecified as Atom. Some intriguing work is going on with evolutionary computing coupled to neural networks, following the same model as the human brain seems to follow when it first gets going in a body. Set up a rough framework of rules, feed it impressions, select for processing pathways that best sort out the sensations into a coherent picture, repeat until something goes ping. Thing is, that doesn't cost a great deal of money to play with, especially now we can build huge networks of processors for a few tens of thousands of dollars.

My own feeling is that following a fallow period where our models outstretched our abilities to test them, we're entering a time when some real experimental work in silicon and living systems will kick start something much bigger. But it won't come from billion-dollar projects, and it won't look like anything we're expecting

It certainly won't look much like Kevin Warwick, who's still at it. This month, an experiment to monitor his neural impulses thought it was dealing with a particularly big spike of Warwickian cogitation, when it was picking up a text message being received by a researcher's nearby phone instead. This opens up a whole new area of fun, of course: we've had Aussie performance artist Stelarc deliberately connecting himself to the Net so his limbs twitch on incoming messages, but if we can make the Prof dance like a amphetamine-laden puppet whenever his mobile goes off then we may be getting somewhere. Beats downloading ringtones.

Wednesday 27/08/2003
We're checking a story that's come in from the US. It's about RFID tags, and says the usual:stuff: inventory control, exciting replacement for bar codes, supply chain management. So far, so… uh, wake up at the back there.

But one line catches our eye: "Coke cans all have the same bar code". They do? A furious debate kicks off in the office, with the more eager debaters diving down into the can recycling bin to find evidence one way or the other. The results are inconclusive, but eventually the old journalistic instinct reasserts itself. Why not phone Coca-Cola and ask?

So I do (not that it's a slow Friday or anything). There's a Customer Information Line advertised on the side of the can, so let's start there.

"Hello. Coca-Cola. Jonathan here. How can I help you?"

"Er, bar codes. On Coca-Cola cans. They all the same?"

"No" The answer came back, instantly. "Different bottling plants in different territories have different codes."

I said thanks, and we had our answer. It was only afterwards that I realised two things: he hadn't looked it up, and his voice had the flat, desperate tone of a man staring eternity in the face from a Basildon bedsit. How many questions can there possibly be about Coca-Cola? Ten? Twenty? And how do you cope with having to answer them, day in, day out? If ever there was a case for technology being used to free humanity from intellectual slavery, here it is: no conscious entity could be expected to endure.

"That must be the most boring job in the world," I said, loudly.

"Oh no it isn't!" said the normally quiet Amanda of production, with more emphasis than necessary. I don't think she was editing anything of mine at the time, but I didn't like to ask…

Thursday 28/08/2003
The lights go off all over London. Well, the southern bit anyway, which is fairly close to London. I'm heading off into town via King's Cross, but when I get there by bus the place resembles an ant heap that someone's prodded with a very big stick. No tubes, no trains, no cabs, just a sullen stream of clotted buses and ten thousand commuters yelling into mobile phones. To cap it all, the first rain for ages is washing away the dust of a long, hot summer, so walking anywhere is massively unattractive. Give up, go home seems to be the message.

Get home, check out the London Transport Web. "Slight delays to Circle Line," the service update ticker said. No mention of the entire network spasming like a Warwick on a ring. I phone the London Transport advice line: engaged.  After a while, a message appeared on the site. "The service update feature of this site is not working", it said. "Slight delays to Circle Line", the ticker repeated.

I can imagine the chaos inside London Underground was twice as exciting as the milling millions outside King's Cross, so nobody can blame them when their ticker went wonky. But not being able to turn it off, to the extent you have to put up a message next to it effectively saying "Don't look!" while it continues to give out happy, chirpy nonsense, is more worrying -- especially since the Web site should have been the first source of up-to-date news on the situation.

Friday 29/08/2003
I try and stay away from the SCO Versus The World story, because what can I add to the universal tsunami of criticism that circles the world every time the company does something else beyond belief.

This time, though, I'm baffled beyond belief.

It's suing because trade secrets have been appropriated. Because they're secret, it won't tell anyone what they are. When it does shyly lift the chemise on a corner of its case, it looks as if it's a block of old code dating back to the birth of Unix, and thus about as secret as the writing on a gravestone. How can no secret be a secret? And if the damages are so horrendous, why doesn't it let anyone fix the problem now?

Then there's the "GPL is illegal" approach, which seems to pivot on the idea that under copyright law, it is not only illegal to make multiple copies of something without permission but that this permission can never be granted. As this would seem to make the entire software industry illegal, this might be a bit of a Pyrrhic victory if they win. In the words of the MS-DOS Format command "Are you sure you want to do this? [Y/N]".On the other hand, it would be very, very amusing for all software to be declared illegal. We'd have to start again from scratch, which would be no bad thing. Admittedly, people would starve in the meantime… but progress, eh?

Finally, there's the report in today's Sydney Morning Herald  that SCO "didn't plan" to sue any Linux companies. As various letters threatening, inter alia, billion-dollar lawsuits have already gone out to many Linux companies, this statement would seem to be a mix of hyperbole and paradox. Parabolox, perhaps.

In short: every move SCO has made seems to make no sense whatsoever, and to be riven with internal contradictions and externally ridiculous. I think they've given up on revenue from selling software -- well, would you like to send these people money? -- and on being bought by IBM, and have identified a new source of cash: arts funding. They're putting on a full-blown, post-modern installation exploring and amplifying the basic madness of being a corporation, and in time the great mystery will be resolved as they simply fall apart under their own impossibilities.

They can't really be serious. Can they?

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