Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Rupert considers the correct use of lipstick, the strange affair of the Toronto toilet, and journalists abroad - the shocking truth

Monday 10/11/2003
Fans of the BBC's News 24 service should look out for a big surprise. I was cooling my heels at Television Centre, waiting to go on and do a quick piece about Microsoft's European anti-trust woes, when a Beeb member of staff appeared and ushered me into the basement. It's always salutory to know your place, but this seemed a little peculiar. Ah, said my guide as we trudged through the endless twisty little maze of passageways, all alike, we're redoing the main studio in preparation for a relaunch in a much more jazzy style. He looked me up and down. Good, he said, you're not wearing any blue.


You may remember some fanfare a while ago when the BBC said it had virtual studio technology. By painting the walls of a studio blue, it could superimpose backdrops of any digital image -- so it could broadcast programmes apparently set in Roman temples, on the moon, deep beneath the surface of the sea. A whole new vista of creative and exciting transmissions opened up.

So it's a bit of a shame to see all this wonderful technology being used to make a news studio look like... a news studio. In reality -- a rather cramped basement with concrete walls, a desk and tons of lights hanging worryingly close from the low ceiling. Behind the presenter, one wall had been painted blue -- and it was onto this that the BBC was superimposing an old picture of the newsroom currently being gutted and tarted up ready for the battle with Sky News.

There were a few problems. One was that all the lighting was so hot that extra air conditioning had to be installed, producing a considerable breeze. My hair and that of the presenter kept blowing in the wind: I suggested they changed the background image to a mountaintop or some lovely green field in the country. "Hm. Too Python," they said.

The other was that the electronics in the basement didn't quite work right and the various video packages that were supposed to cue up kept vanishing. But hey, the new studio will be perfect, right?

"If only they'd let us have a practice run," said a rather downcast studio bunny. Yep, it's been decreed that the first time they try and produce a programme from the new place will be when it goes live in about three weeks. No dummy runs. No test news. Just the red light and cue the presenter.

I suggest you get your recorders cued up. It could be quite newsworthy.

Tuesday 11/11/2003
Famously, news is something that somebody somewhere doesn't want you to know. Everything else is publicity. It's difficult in IT journalism, which is overwhelmingly about the business rather than the technology of information, to walk that line: most of the stuff written about is a direct result of companies trying to sell something, and the PR game is to get us to do as much free publicity for the cause while heading us off at the pass if we stray into more interesting areas.

So what to make of a  recent report from a large semiconductor maker that Exeter is the UK's most wirelessly wired city? It's nonsense, of course -- the simple metrics of dividing the number of people by the number of hot spots means you could plonk two Linksys access points in Wetwang and be top of the heap. There are many hot spots -- some commercial, some free -- within ambling distance of my modest hovel on the Holloway Road; but I wouldn't send out a press release describing my flat as some hotbed of Hertzian activity.

That semiconductor company is a long way from being the worst offender, and it has some fine people tucked away inside that will work quite hard to help even when the story isn't entirely to its taste. But Exeter... really! I wonder if anyone from the company has ever visited the place? It's the Watford of the South West -- you have to pass through it on the way to anywhere interesting, and the sheer sense of dark foreboding the place radiates does help to highlight the delights of South Devon that appear immediately afterwards, but on no account alight at Exeter St David's.

So next time you send out a piece of mumbledefluff like that, dear people, please tweak the stats so we have an excuse to visit somewhere nice. Or weird. Or with cheap beer. You could even combine it with a Wireless Treasure Hunt, where we have to find the hot spots and win a goldfish. Just not Exeter.

Wednesday 12/11/2003
There is a saying in Hollywood: what happens on location stays on location. This might sound like an excuse for mammoth misbehaviour among a high concentration of overpaid, oversexed, underemployed ego monsters -- but the same applies to IT journalists on foreign jaunts and they so rarely qualify on any of those counts.

Take Microsoft's IT Forum in Copenhagen this week. Well attended by the Forth Estate, it started well when the company handed out tiny radio-controlled cars to the hacks as they checked in. It's a good plan, like giving the porter a huge tip when you first arrive at a hotel: they'll be on their best behaviour in the hopes of more. Shame MS then refused to hand out the batteries until after the keynote speeches -- perhaps it thought that the childlike journalists would be so absorbed playing with their toys they'd forget to turn up. Maybe it had terrifying visions of races and wheelies on stage behind the speaker. Whatever, there were sulks -- and perhaps the seeds were sown  for the reprehensible events of later.

I am still piecing together the details of one evening in particular, but I can report on the morning after. A large bunch of male UK scribblers were in transit across Copenhagen, led by an indomitable MS PR woman. As there were too many to fit in the one cab, they split up. Inevitably, contact was lost with the PR-less group -- who included in their number one of the old school, a bewhiskered chap with a penchant for Morris dancing. The other group, also fitted out with a beardy Morris dancer -- you can see why we have recruitment issues with the Nintendo Generation -- got worried.

"Has anyone got Beardy One's (*) mobile number?" asked Beardy Two (**). None of the assembled experts in technology and communication could help. "Oh, wait a second," said the PR. "I do. He proposed to me last night by text message."

There was some consternation, not least among those who knew Beardy One's existing domestic arrangements. Then calcified neurons began firing and cloudy memories slowly cleared. "Hold on," said another. "So did I."

"Yes," said the PR. "You all did. Simultaneously. Remember? Everyone did. Except you." At this, she gave Beardy Two an unfathomable look.

"But I did! I swear I did!" said Beardy Two.

He checked his phone.

"Ah." he said, after a pause. "Wrong number."

(* ) Peter Judge. Or Martin Banks.
(**) Martin Banks. Or Peter Judge.

Thursday 13/11/2003
Until now, the girly world of cosmetics has been largely untouched by macho electronics. Two stories surfacing today show that this haven of humanity is falling to the IT invasion, though. First, news from America where superstore chain Wal-Mart got together with the giant Proctor and Gamble and ran some tests on unsuspecting lippy buyers. RFID tags were embedded in Max Factor Lipfinity product and used to trigger remote video monitoring of purchasers at a Broken Arrow,  Oklahoma store. The tags were left active after the punters departed the shop -- raising the spectre of scanner vehicles checking the boudoirs of Broken Arrow for inappropriate lipstick usage.

Simultaneously, Spanish researcher Carlos Gonzales revealed his latest invention, electrochromic false nails. Made from layers of active plastics, these digital accessories can be fitted to the ends of your slender fingers and made to change colour with the appropriate bursts of electricty. Ostensibly there to help ladies coordinate their pinkies with the rest of their outfit, the potential is there for much, much more.

In fact, if you integrate them with an RFID detector, you're halfway there to sorting out the Wal-Marts of this world. Go to pick up a powder-puff, and if your thumb turns blue you know to leave well alone. Alternatively, they could be tuned into Wifi hot spots and made to lighten in hue as the available bandwidth increases.

This could be the beginning of something big. Alternatively, the almost universally bad reaction that follows revelation of RFID tag testing may shut that down at birth, and it's hard to see how even advanced production techniques can make electrochromic falsies cost less than a few packets of different coloured standard issue nails.

Friday 14/11/2003
I know people are getting increasingly protective of their legal rights online, and that over-enthusiastic lawyers are nothing new. But goings-on in Toronto bring new meaning to seeking relief for a wrongdoing.

First, some background.  There's a site called which pulls together pictures of urinals from around the world for no other reason than it can. It's popular among people who appreciate this sort of low-key surrealism -- I wholeheartedly count myself among them -- and while it serves no useful purpose whatsoever it also does no harm. If you want pictures of Armitage Shanks, it knows no rival.

But it does have enemies. According to Mike Masnick on the Techdirt blog, the site recently received a request from the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) concerning two pictures of urinals at the Toronto Lester B. Pearson International Airport. There was nothing exceptional about those pictures -- which you can see here -- but nonetheless, the GTAA decided, it was Bad and probably Illegal to identify them. So it demanded that the name of the airport be removed.

The site, somewhat bemused, complied -- renaming the page: "The urinals of an airborne vessel take-off and landing facility located in Canada's largest city," but made sure to tell its readers that this was due to a complaint by the GTAA. Uh-oh! Back came another letter, saying that it was also Bad and probably Illegal to mention the GTAA and its part in this peculiar cesspool censorship. Of course, being good online neighbours and unwilling to test this principle at law, the site once again complied with equal joie de vivre.

It is thus refreshing to report that we have at last first-hand proof that some organisations really do know how to take the pissoir.