Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Nokia goes for a tramp at midnight, Encarta's spelling at a premium, and high tech mishaps on the Cote D'Azur. But who is Patch Handler?

Monday 6/10/2003
Kids today. Number One Son is currently engaged in AS Level activities, one of which is the dread Media Studies. He came back from college today with a spring in his step -- new girlfriend? Teachers on strike? None of the above: "We've been using the fastest desktop computers in the world," he says proudly. "The Mac G5s." That's not bad going, I say. And it isn't: state schools aren't all Chinese burns and coagulated custard these days.

"Yeah. We've been doing Photoshop, image editing, applying effects, that sort of thing." Any good? "Suppose." He pauses. "Wish they'd let us do something fun on them, though."

Pardon? I'm aware that I'm turning into Viz' Victorian Dad these days -- living with a teenager is an excellent way to bring out the hidden blackshirt in even the most Guardian-reading of chaps -- so I momentarily fight the instant response. Microseconds later, I give in.

"Fun? FUN? In my day, we had BBC Micros. That G5's probably got icons on the screen that take more memory than the Beeb's entire operating system. We dreamed of image editing. Hell, we dreamed of images! We thought a Mode 7 teletext graphics editor was the height of cool. Don't you realise you're being let loose on the culmination of twenty years of continuous development in hardware and software and being told to mess around with high resolution images to your heart's content?" And so on, and so forth.

He bears this outpouring with the stoic resignation so infuriating in the young.

"Yeah, yeah. But..."


"It's a Mac, innit?"

Somewhere deep within my unworthy mind, a small devil sniggers.

"You have a point. Tell me, oh best beloved, what know you of CP/M?"

"Er, nothing."

"Time you learned. Pull up a pew and download me an eight-bit emulator. I'll show you fun..."

Tuesday 7/10/2003
Ah, the Nokia N-Gage. Could any product have a less auspicious start? Seemingly named after a model railway track size, this peculiar silver lump has been attracting some very unwelcome press: phone reviewers say it's not a very good phone, games guys shake their head over the entertainment software, and everyone else wonders if trousers will ever become fashionably baggy enough to contain its shiny vastness.

I'm standing late at night on the northbound Piccadilly Line platform at King's Cross, minding my own business and watching the peculiar automated laser theodolite that hangs from the ceiling and constantly checks the tunnel walls with robotic whirrs and clicks. That's there to check for subsidence due to the Channel Tunnel extension works: this should be reassuring, but somehow has the opposite effect.

My musings on great underground tunnel tragedies are broken by the appearance of two gentlemen in day-glo waistcoats clutching bundles under their arms. They walk nervously down the platform looking at the mesh metal seats. But why? They see an unattended row of four, and spring into action. A piece of paper -- no, it's a self-adhesive sticker the size of a magazine -- is produced from the bundle, the backing peeled off and the sticker stuck down on an empty seat. They quickly move on, knowing full well the price one pays for acting in a risible manner among the heckle-prone denizens of the Underground after closing time.

I  saunter over to inspect the strange planting. It says "This is where I left them standing -- Nokia N-Gage". I'm not the only one with an aroused curiosity: one of the Underground's more hirsuite and randomly dressed gentlemen staggers over and sits on the next-door seat. He peers down at the advert, frowns and moves over to sit on it. He shuffles his bottom a bit, much in the style of a hen taking a dustbath, shakes his head and returns to his first choice. He then proceeds to peel off the advert, roll it up -- sticky side in, no fool he -- and carefully stashes it in some inside pocket of his copiously layered coats.

It's a shame. Those seats are rather uncomfortable, and I too would have appreciated that little bit extra padding in the advert which would have led to a more pleasant posterior experience. At least he got something out of Nokia's advertising spend, although I doubt he's the target demographic: as for the popularity of the object itself, we'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday 8/10/2003
Readers with long memories may remember the launch in 1993 of Microsoft Encrata, the multimedia encyclopedia to end all multimedia encyclopdiae. Although MS hasn't seen fit to celebrate its precocious offspring's tenth birthday -- shame! -- it has continued to enhance, upgrade and update the product. You can now get a DVD version with absolutely splendid audio, video and text.

The updating is particularly impressive. Less than a month ago, Cambridge researchers showed that you can recognise words even if the middles are scrambled, provided only that the start and end letter are properly placed. Microsoft has not only received this intelligence and taken it on board, but has already made it part of the marketing push for that top-end DVD version. Eager purchasers keen to experience the cutting-edge in reference material are invited to check out the Amazon page   paying close attention to the product name on the "back of the box" picture. (Thanks to the excellent Captain Blue on Cix for pointing this out.)

Of course, like any good work of knowledge it leaves you wanting to know more. Which graphics package was used to create the artwork, and where can we get the -- clearly very advanced -- spelling checker that was used to proof it? Is it a Microsoft product, and if so can we expect to have similar functionality in all future releases of Offcie?

[That's enough heavy-handed sarcasm. I have to fix your spelling mistakes -- except of course in this piece, where it was more fun to leave them in. -Ed]

Thursday 9/10/2003
How to describe NetEvents? Nine years ago, a bright lad had the idea of getting a load of European tech journalists together in a room and feeding live computer company executives to them. At least, that's what he told us. Apparently, he told the executives that we were the bait and they the snapping piranhas: whatever, they're the ones being charged an arm and a leg and we're the ones shipped over to a hotel -- on occasions, a boat -- and the occasion's been a great success ever since. Well, it took a little holiday over the Great Recession, but it's back now and the usual suspects are even now sitting in a room in Nice and finding out what the other half thinks. Admittedly, Graeme "Smashing" Wearden, our representative at the event, describes it as "speed dating outside your price bracket", but he says that about late-night shopping in Lidl.

As you might expect, the event's not without its fun. This time, the itinerant hacks were told, there'd be go-karting of an evening to help with the festivities. I'm not one for go-karting: being of above average avoirdupois, Newton's laws of motion work against me and I'm always left at the back of the pack with exhaust fumes ahead and nothing but the sound of an overloaded engine behind me. Other people take it a little more seriously, but it would be unsporting to identify the petrolhead hack -- Manek Dubash -- whose competitive spirit let him to bring his own large and shiny racing crash helmet. Easy, tiger!

Everyone else there has been having a great time with the wireless network. Dealing with French telcos is an exercise in anger management for even the most adept, and the promised broadband connectivity somehow failed to arrive. So the hotel's own connection was co-opted, but with the greatest misgivings on the management's part -- you can't blame them, really. Only Web browsing was allowed, leaving those smartypants who used telnet, FTP or VPNs chewing their own beards, twanging their sandals and twisting their bowties with frustration.

The importance of such security was brought home when one hack was surprised to hear the speaker declaim merrily from the podium that he'd already accessed the writer's laptop over Wi-Fi and had been browsing the collection of MP3s he found. It would be equally unfair to both men to name them -- stand easy, Peter Judge ("It was a new laptop! On review!") and Steve Broadhead -- but suffice it to say that the scribbler had downloaded ZoneAlarm by the time the talk had finished.

These are the people responsible for creating and documenting the high-tech world in which we live. Be afraid.

Friday 10/10/2003
There's a minor tradition of technology influencing band names -- Clock DVA was named after a socket on the back of a synthesiser, Stakker after a Mac utility, System 7 after an operating system, Binary Finery after a not-bad alliteration. From this short selection, it's possible to tell that such bands are doomed to be not very famous and not very good. However, with laptops taking over the entire world of music production it's only a matter of time before the practice becomes almost compulsory. For those still pondering what to call their latest attempt at serving up a slice of succulent pop fame pie, here is ZDNet UK's Friday afternoon guide to instant chart success.

Techno/Electronic: Glue Logic, OvvaClokka, String Slicer, Bind, Escape Sequence

Dance/RnB: Jump On Zero, Resolution High, State Machine, TLD

Indy: The Dee-Rams, The Giant Magnetoresistive Heads, Latency, The Routers, Badly Formed Tags

Nu Metal: Hedcrash, Blue Screens Of Death, Corrupted Vile, Cape Schlock

Country and Western: Patch Handler and the Trojan Worms, Johnny Cache, The Space Barflies

Rap/HipHip: DJNZ (*), Down Wi' Da Servaz, Homekeez

You can do better. C'mon, feel the emailz.

(* in case you don't speak Z80 assembler, that's short for Decrement and Jump if Not Zero, clearly the ECoast counterparts to Jump On Zero)