Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Ready, steady, GO... As the team amuse themselves with hot-spot racing, more serious battles are occurring in the world of Dig-Dug

Monday 27/10/2003
If you haven't seen it, may I recommend you inspect our spiffy new Wi-Fi map of Great Britain?  With hundreds of hot spots just a mouse-click away, it's a great way to virtually zoom around the country planning your broadband wireless exploits. Simple, handy and fun to use, it's an essential guide to the modern road warrior.

Right, that's the advert. What you can't tell from the map is what went on behind the scenes. You'd think that as ZDNet UK spends so much of its time writing about IT automation, the ever-increasing rate of information interchange and other blah-di-blah, the database behind the dots would be some fantastic example of XML-powered geographic data management.

If only. While people are more than keen to donate their information to the cause, the stuff turns up in all sorts of weird ways. Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, "it's all on our website", Oric Atmos C15 cassette tapes, carrier badgers clutching Sanskrit clay tablets in their claws -- you name it, we've seen the format.

But we promised you a Wi-Fi map, so a Wi-Fi map you shall have. A crack editorial team was selected through a rigorous procedure -- Can you read? Can you type? Are you breathing? -- and set to work. You may remember those old promotional films about the wonders of computers, where scratchy newsreel footage of halls full of clerks working their way grimly through piles of paper faded to spinning tapes and a couple of white-coated technicians nodding over banks of flashing lights. Well, the only white coats present in the ZDNet UK office over the past week have been those nice doctors dragging the twitching corpses of Editorial out to the fresh air for a quick dousing with a bucket of cold water before returning them to their posts. The piles of paper, however, are extant.

So far, there are well over 500 hot spots on the map and -- to the delight of the typers -- there are more to come. To invest the process with a bit of pizazz, the data entry was turned into a competitive sport -- I'll start at zero, you start at 200, and we'll see who does a hundred first. Unfortunately, the person who won is far too keen to see their name in the diary, and that would never do.

Just think of us when you next discover the Union Street hot spot in glorious downtown Plymouth, or gratefully log on at 33 Church Street, Inverness. And if you're planning to roll out a nationwide network of the things -- please, please ask us about data formats first. It's not that we don't like badgers, but they've got into the snack machine and we're running out of Hula Hoops.

Tuesday 28/10/2003
Rumours circulate that Intel may be closer to releasing a 64-bit desktop processor than its letting on.

Although the company has denied it, stories about the Yamhill project -- 64-bit extensions to the IA-32 Pentium instruction set, a la AMD -- have been circulating for a while. The latest whisper is that the silicon to do this may be present in the next processor designs but not enabled, exactly as the company did with hyper-threading.

This runs in parallel with persistent stories that a similar introduction plan is intended for the LaGrande "trusted computing" security stuff -- or even that it's already in the Centrino chipset, just waiting for the magic code to arrive and suddenly enable and become enabled. That would make sense, given that Intel insists you use all of its components before you can call your laptop a Centrino device -- choose someone else's wireless card, and you lose the right.

It's a cunning plan. Intel knows that as soon as it introduces a LaGrande chipset there'll be endless discussion in the media about whether you want to buy into something that has such considerable implications for digital rights management, privacy and so on. But if it just waves a wand and says "Now, you already have it!" then the story is very different. That difficult initial adoption stage happens overnight and without any user decisions whatsoever -- and others, such as Microsoft, can immediately start selling services and products that rely on the technology into a user base that's materialised out of nothing in the twinkling of an eye.

Intel, of course, is saying nothing. But as I've seen the company deny a new product just an hour before announcing it, it's best to season the chips with more than a pinch of salt.

Wednesday 29/10/2003
Good to see that the old school high fidelity audio loony is still alive and well. A story in New Scientist, backed up by a pal's personal experience, mentions a recent hi-fi show in London. Esteemed UK manufacturer of posh knobbage, Quad, was demonstrating some replica gear -- but one aspect really caught the attention of the assembled golden ears. The speakers were connected to the amp by a mystery cable, bright orange and suggestively thick. Quad wouldn't comment on it, but the listening masses agreed it sounded absolutely splendid.

Now, hi-fi cables are a case unto themselves. You can buy any number of infinitely expensive models, each claiming some arcane magic of mono-crystalline copper, electron enriched, tri-filiar wound wire. Despite the fact that no test equipment on earth can spot so much as a gnat's tweeter difference between any of them, audiophiles swear blind that the psycho-acoustics of each are dramatically different, and there's no way you can possibly enjoy your music without the latest and most gobbledegook-soaked strand of metallic spaghetti.

There should be another branch of the science, called fisco-acoustics, which does qualitative assessment of musical equipment and charts it against the cost of the kit. Unfortunately for Quad, that would be unlikely to score its mysterious supercable very highly: the exceptionally musical device came from those scientific geniuses at B&Q, who sell it for a few quid in their superstores for the purpose of plugging your Flymo into the mains out in the garden.

Thursday 30/10/2003
It's a bit like going to Brighton on a bank holiday and finding the beach festooned with mods and rockers. Reports arrive that "New Hampshire, USA, gaming superstar Donald Haynes" has just broken the world Dig-Dug record, taking four hours forty minutes to rack up a score of 4,388,520 points. The previous record of 4,211,920 points was held for three years by "Canadian gaming superstar Dwayne Richard, who achieved notoriety for becoming the first player to pass the four-million point barrier on this arcade classic." You can read a painfully detailed commentary on the whole thrilling event at the Twin Galaxies gaming board  which also tells an awestruck world that Haynes now holds five videogaming records simultaneously, only the second person so to do.

Twenty years ago -- when Dig-Dug came out -- we knew that it was all a bit, well, spoddy. But it was all we had, we children of the new pixel: we shuddered at the thought that previous generations had to make do with fruit machines and pool, ping-pong contests in draughty church halls and bracing walks. But since then, clever people have invented better and prettier games. We chased eight by eight dot matrix monsters across sixteen colour screens to the sound of constipated robots playing the xylophone because we had to: two decades of engineering and invention have liberated us. So what possesses these ardent youngsters?

This eight-bit nostalgia is getting out of hand. There are bands touring the US playing Nintendo Game Boys, Atari consoles and Commodore 64s -- check out Treewave -- and not just backstage neither. Thousands of people attend retro gaming conventions, and the emulator scene chews through gigabytes of bandwidth. It would be harmless enough -- hell, even I've been known to brush up my AY-3-8910 programming skills to torture the sound chips in ancient computers -- except that in the distance, a tinny, sawtooth-waved bell is tolling for the whole scene.

Malcolm McLaren, that one-man strip-miner of subcultural seams, has stirred in his far-off cave and set forth, scenting fresh blood and homing in on the merchants of plink. Expect an album -- indecently suspended in the slaverings of a novelty-starved media like a Hirstian pickled cow -- next spring. If you still have a Spectrum in your front room, do the right thing and hide it away until a  bearable obscurity has once again settled over the whole sorry business.

Friday 31/10/2003
OK, class, nearly time for the weekend. Here's your assignment, to be completed by Monday.

Read the following extract from a question and answer session with Rob Glaser, CEO of RealNetworks.

"Q: At what level of subscribers does the business become really lucrative?

A: One of the delightful things about being a public company is I can say things that go forward one quarter or 10 years. In the middle, it gets a little bit tricky. I'll say this: we are focused on a long-term business. It'll be 10 years in February. And if I look back and ignore this financial bubble in '99 and 2000 and think about where we thought we'd be, we're ahead of schedule. In the 20 years in the information technology and Internet industries, I've never been associated with a legal, legitimate consumer product that had the kind of consumer excitement that Rhapsody has, so that's got to be worth something."

1 (5 marks): Using advanced cryptographic analysis techniques, rank the following translations of his answer by probability:

a: "I have no idea, and never did"
b: "Is that a 1999 lucrative or a 2003 lucrative?"
c: "Sod the subscription, we make our money by shoving infinte amounts of advertising bumf in your face every time you think of playing an MP3."
d: "Even if you let me completely rewrite history, I have no idea and never did"
e: "Open your wallet and repeat after me: "Help Yourself"

2 (3 marks) Consider the last sentence in his answer. What do you think he's trying to say?

a. "You should see some of my illegal, illegitimate consumer products. Zowee, baby!"
b. "You may not be able to find a single consumer excited by Rhapsody, but we've got one locked in the basement. That's got to be worth at least $50k ransom."
c. "Rhapsody dull? Sure, but you have to put it in the context of our earlier stuff. Now there's dull."

3 (10 marks) Write a question for which the given answer could be considered appropriate, accurate and useful. Candidates are advised against sarcasm, irony or wit: this is the IT industry, after all.