Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Throwing stones at those caged in glass while reading over shoulders on the train
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 8/9/2003
Last Friday, a bearded American stepped into a glass cage and was hoisted many feet up in the air. We do not know why, nor do we know why he chose a field directly opposite our offices in which to voluntarily suspend himself. But it's been great fun for us: you'll have to ask him when he gets down.

David Blaine -- or as we like to call him, the Yank in the Tank or the Arse in the Glass -- is proving an tempting target, and we often pop over there at lunchtime or on the way to the tube station after work to consider our options. We thought about laser pointers, but within hours someone had tried that and been roughly handled by the police. As a team, we are resolutely opposed to violence, especially against ourselves.

We wondered about assembling a lavish picnic, together with starched linen tablecloth, liveried butler and one of those big silver serving covers that always has a severed head underneath. But that would be cruel, and far too much work. Likewise setting up a video projector to beam the ZDNet home page onto the walls of his prison: it's bad enough for the man to have to watch the rich pageant of life pass by on the pavement and river outside without being reminded of the excitement he's missing in the world of information technology.

Instead, we're printing out a series of jokes on banners made from joined-up A3 paper, and we'll be out to try and cheer the chap up later. Finding jokes that are short enough to work is hard: we quite like "What's brown and sticky? A stick". We can reuse the word 'stick' and the subject matter may be close to the AitG's heart at the moment. While we prepare a compendium of light-hearted bons mots to delight and enthral him, we're pleased to relay a sneak peek at the journal he's scribbling down in his spare time (ie, all of it) this week. We hope that it shows that fears concerning the man's sanity are completely unfounded.

Blaine's Diary, Day 3
Looked out of windows. Drank water from tube A. Peed in tube B. Waved at crowd.

Tuesday 9/9/2003
Here's a handy hint to top executives everywhere: if you must read your corporate emails on the train, do it with a tiny font size. So tiny you can just about read it, because then you can be sure that the ZDNet journalist strap-hanging behind you can't glance over your shoulder. Last night, a senior bod from an ad agency failed to take this simple safeguard, and I fear the results do not reflect well on anyone.

It's a bit difficult to give the names of the very large telecoms company and the top-flight agency involved and remain a free man, so you'll have to plug in whichever ones you like. Nevertheless, the agency concerned has the job of handling an ad campaign (which you've seen) for the business division of the telco, and the memo in question concerned the relationship between them. You may be able to guess the tenor of the communication (if not the identity of the client) from the title: "Talking of total wankers…"

The memo went on at some length concerning the experience the agency had enjoyed with the telco, detailing the complete ineptitude of the telco's management, the way the internal structure was set up to prevent any spark of sanity -- let alone creativity -- from taking hold, and the extraordinary lengths taken to prevent anyone making a decision or taking responsibility about anything whatsoever. It concluded by asking whether any amount of money could compensate for the sheer agony of working for such a client

Our intrepid spy on the 19:15 somewhere in the Thames Valley was unable to further question the laptop-wielding rail warrior, but does say he feels the final question was rhetorical.

We are deeply saddened that such bad feeling exists in the intersection between those twin beacons of brilliance in management, telecommunications and advertising, and can only hope it was all a horrible misunderstanding.

Blaine's Diary, Day 4
Looked out of windows. Drank water from tube B. Peed in tube A. Crowd waved back. Are they trying to tell me something?

Wednesday 10/9/2003
Next week, I should be going to the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose -- my fourth such trip, so I've worked out what to do by now. However, the rules have changed. It used to be that the jobbing journo popping over to the US could get by on a visa waiver, which is a bit of paper you fill in on the plane going over that lets them know who you are and where you're staying. That's always been a little dodgy, as the waiver says you can't do it as a representative of the foreign media, but nobody cared. Now, some people do care, and there are increasing tales of hapless hacks repatriated at the border for lack of a proper journalist I visa. No wishing to offend our transatlantic cousins, I've applied for one, and today is my Embassy Interview. At 8 a.m. "Allow four hours" they say. What on earth do they want to ask me?

It's taken a while to get this far. Having heard contradictory stories of what you must do to get an I visa -- some say you can do it by post, others say you have to present yourself in person -- I phone up the £1.30/min visa hotline. The person at the other end isn't sure either, and asks around the office. Eventually, she finds out that yes, you have to turn up for interview. The fact that the journo opposite me did it by post a month ago cuts no ice.

So I just fill in the forms online? No, you can fill in some of the forms online, but the embassy has to send me a payment slip. You can't just pay at the embassy, you have to get a special paying-in slip from the embassy first, take it to a Barclay's Bank, pay in cash, get it stamped and then present it with your application. There are, of course, contradictory instructions about filling in the forms depending on where you look online, and the forms are stupendously impossible (one question asks, "have you been to the US before, if so when?" and leaves about a square inch. Another asks for "all countries visited in the past ten years" and leaves even less space). I particularly like the one about my tribal or clan name. McHack? Al Fatso? Also, the photograph required is just like a passport photo, but slightly bigger -- you can't use the normal photo booths (and the machine at the embassy is always broken). The whole thing is apparently set up to dissuade people from even thinking of applying. Hah. We'll see.

Much faffing later, and I'm at the embassy at 8 a.m., together with a hundred other people standing outside in the light September rain under the amused gaze of policemen cradling enormous machine guns. We all have 8 a.m. interviews: what this means in practice is that they start processing us at 8 a.m. and, some three or four hours later, they'll get around to finishing the last one. On the way in, we have to show our mobile phones and prove they can't take pictures. The reason for this is clear once you're inside -- forget terrorism, the place is a crime against interior design. Huge cruciform pillars finished in the sort of shiny pale brass plate that cheap motels use for "classy" light fittings stand amid rows of uncomfortable plastic seats. Along one wall are a row of counters, like the King's Cross ticket office. You shuffle in, present your papers, have them scanned for obvious errors, are issued with a number and go and sit down. When your number comes up at another window, off you go. It's like buying a toaster at Argos, only more chaotic.

My interview, when it comes, takes thirty seconds. "What's ZDNet?" I'm asked. "Web site." I say. "Ah." Pause. "OK."

That's it? "That's it. You've got your visa". Only I haven't -- one more piece of delight is that you have to provide your own Special Delivery envelope, and they put the passport in the post. I'm due to be flying out to San Jose on Sunday. "When will you send me my passport, then?" "Friday. That's when we put it in the post."

Do the Post Office do Special Deliverys on a Saturday? Later, I ask them. "We only guarantee next-day deliveries on working days. "And Saturday is a working day? "No." "What is it, then?" "A grey area. We might deliver it."

So -- will I go to San Jose? I find out on Saturday.

Blaine's Diary, Day 5
Looked out of tube A. Drank in crowd. Tube B or not tube B? Is that even a question?

Thursday 11/9/2003
Possibly the best headline of the RIAA fiasco comes today: Music industry delighted with $2000 victory over 12-year-old. This comes at the same time as the RIAA offers an "amnesty", where you sign a legal document saying you've broken the law and you're very sorry. In exchange for this, the RIAA won't sue you. The record companies themselves might, though, especially if they get wind of the fact that the RIAA has been collecting signed confessions -- what are the chances of that? Oh, and in case you were still in the habit of thinking P2P was in some way anything less than Satan's own software, the RIAA now points out you can use it to transfer kiddy porn.

The other members of the current Intellectual Property Axis Of Evil have also been busy, with SCO issuing open letters to the open-source community telling them off for being so evil and blaming them for denial of service attacks -- but doubtless the "open letter" is thoroughly copyrighted, and if you include any portion of it in future communications you'll have to pay a $50,000 licence fee. And Microsoft has settled an anti-trust lawsuit that Be, Inc brought, paying nearly $30m but -- of course -- admitting no fault.

Increasingly, it feels as if these people are gradually detaching themselves from our universe and moving into a parallel existence where the rules connecting truth and logic are subtly different. Perhaps if we can provoke even more corporate stupidity, the density of madness will become great enough that the whole lot will collapse in on itself and everyone involved will pinch off and become a self-contained continuum of their own, unable to communicate with the rest of existence.

We should try the experiment. It's risky, but imagine if it works…

Blaine's Diary, Day 6
Tie tube B to tube A and bypass self altogether. Haven't eaten for nearly a week: smell from hot dog van under box almost palatable -- am fearing for sanity.

Friday 12/9/2003
Two days ago, we got a press release about a new, mildly clever and probably pointless technology that claims to prevent mobile phones with cameras from taking pictures in sensitive or particularly badly decorated areas. The areas in question have a small transmitter that broadcasts a "don't take pictures here" signal: the phone picks up the signal and obeys. It won't work with phones that don't have the right circuitry, and no phones do, so you can guess how quickly it'll take off.

But that's neither here nor there. The high-tech company that invented this idea chose to call it Safe Haven, and mindful of the need to protect their intellectual property in these challenging times promptly trademarked the name. The original press release therefore gave the name as Safe Haven (tm) whenever it mentioned it, which it did a lot -- being a press release and all.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line a spell checker or other intrusive bit of nanny software got its teeth into the text of the release, and mangled it. As a result, today we get a second press release with the following classic line:


The release from Iceberg Systems Ltd. issued to you by email on 10th September 2003 contains a repeated error. The system name, Save Haven (TM), became corrupted to read Safe HavenT.

We apologise for any inconvenience this error has caused."

Not at all, not at all.

Blaine's Diary, Day 7
Catch Tube B to Leicester Square. Stop off for quick drink at the A market. Getting very crowded in my box. Some strange people are holding up a message about a stick. Perhaps they're from SCO.

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