Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Rupert's getting all emotional about household objects this week - when he's not out snooping around transatlantic cables, that is...

Monday 24/11/2003
One of young Rupert's biggest disappointments on coming to crime-ridden London from the peace and quiet of the Devonian countryside was how thick most of the criminals were. Brought up to expect thieves' kitchens stuffed with Dickensian villains scheming complex bank blags, the sorry fact soon became plain that most crims take to the life of naughtiness because they're too darn dumb to do anything else. We'll pass over what this implies about the Metropolitan Police and their clear-up rate.

However, today's star perpetrator takes the biscuit -- or he would if he could work out how to open the packet. Displaying a rather paradoxical mix of astuteness and sheer stupidity, a Canadian, Walter Nowakowski, decided that the best way to satisfy his desire for child pornography was to drive around with his laptop until he found an open Wi-Fi connection. You can see the logic -- an untraceable connection and the means for a quick getaway means minimal risk. Why would anyone pay attention to a chap quietly sitting in a car, after all?

Alas, the temptation to sample the wares proved too strong for our criminal mastermind. Overexcited by the success of his venture, he dropped his trousers and took matters in hand. And, just in case this too would escape the attention of the Royal Canadian Mounted Nonce-Nabbers, he proceeded to drive at the same time in the wrong direction down a one-way street.

As this was all in the early hours of the morning, he stood out like a, how shall I put it, sore thumb. The mighty machinery of justice swung into action, and subsequently found a huge stash of the wrong sort of bitmap at Mr Nowakowski's home.  He is, as they say, goin' daaahn.

Tuesday 25/11/2003
BT's attitude to rural broadband is ambiguous, to say the least. As we've noted in the past, if you're a country dweller it tends to ignore you unless you show signs of getting your act together enough to provide your own service -- when BT wakes up and steals your carefully created local customer base.

So you'd think that BT would at least be moderately grateful to the campaigners for more bits in the sticks. But no. One leading broadband activist got a phone bill for 230 quid, payable in two slugs. Not surprising given the amount of phoning and dial-up net access he'd had to do to further his cause, and like a good customer he promptly paid up. So he was more than a little surprised when he tried to log on a few weeks later to find that his line was disabled.

He called the operator, who put him straight through to Debt Recovery. "You haven't paid your bill, mate." Our pal demurred, and the discussion got quite heated. He progressed up the chain of command until he got to someone who said: "Ah, yes, you have paid the bill… sorry about that."

"But I have a disabled father. We need that phone line in case of emergencies. Even if I hadn't paid, you'd have had to go through the correct procedure."

"Er, um" said the supervisor. "None of us here know how to do that."

The discussion once again raced up the Richter scale.

In the end, BT said it would turn his line back on, write him a letter confirming everything they'd said on the phone and give him compensation. That proved to be a derisory offer of twenty quid, a letter which said absolutely nothing -- but at least he's back online.

Wednesday 26/11/2003
Ever get the feeling that you're not being told everything? Last night, for example,  a number of UK Internet users noticed their connections going slow or stopping altogether, and other problems with email, Web and ISP servers. This was due to transatlantic fibre TAT-14 giving up the ghost just off the coast of France (as a veteran of the cross-Channel ferry, I know how it feels). Although it had a back-up loop, this had gone wrong a few days previously – and as fixing either fault needs a ship to pop out, scoop the stricken cable from the seabed and knot it together with duct tape, it'll be a while. But, um, two faults within a couple of weeks? Not what you want from a high-reliability system.

At roughly the same time, ZoneAlarm's client software went a bit loopy. Its auto-update function decided to call home and check for new stuff, but instead got stuck in a loop showering the Internet with DNS requests. This bug turned ZA into a denial-of-service zombie, bringing ISP DNS servers to a creaking halt. 

Just to add more fun to the mix, we looked at the London Internet Exchange status page, to see what the statistics said for the period in question. There was indeed a slight drop at 4 p.m., the time that the cable lost its photons, but between midnight and 3 a.m. there was what looked like a complete outage. Midnight? Weren't all the problems fixed by then?

"Ah, yes," said the nice lady at LINX. "We were just changing a card. No problems really, just the stats server didn't get its information." So the other murmurs we heard -- that the switch fabric in the exchange was getting its knickers in a digital twist -- were presumably just put about by engineers tired and shagged out by a night wrestling with multiple problems and infinitely irate users.

Thursday 27/11/2003
Those who know me well know my insistence on proper employee discipline within a strict, need-to-know managerial structure designed to control internal information. Not for me the namby-pamby new age hogwash of employee empowerment.

So it pained me greatly to learn that the once-great bastion of Marxist control economy, the BBC, has lost its grip. No longer conducted with the strict tempo of Reithian moral authority, the Corporation is drifting badly.

For example, it had the bright idea of flogging off its engineering arm, BBC Technology. Well, why not – the days when a broadcaster had to be a specialist in its own systems have long since gone, and if the managers at the BBC no longer feel competent to handle a centre of engineering excellence then they might as well cash it in. It's a good outfit and has embraced the challenge of modern digital media with aplomb.

However, there are aspects of the Web that clearly escape some of the top bods. Imagine the surprise of BBC Tech's thousand-plus employees when they found out about the sale not through a company meeting or a memo from the CEO, but in a news story on "The URL went through the company email like a dose of salts," said one grumpy beard -- yes, they really do talk like that down there in the basement -- "and after a while even the bosses worked out that something was up."

They have it easy. Back in the days of Sinclair Research, we had to wait for The Sunday Times to come out before we could find what on earth Sir Clive was doing with the company this week.

Friday 28/11/2003
Sony has big ideas, some of which are scary. The Playstation 3, for example, will most likely have a built-in camera: the optional one for the PS2 has been a stunning success and the technology is good enough to do things like merge pictures of players with game action. But that's not enough for Sony, which has declared that the PS3 will not only be able to capture player images but do facial and gesture recognition well enough to read player emotion.

I do not want household objects that know when I'm in a bad temper. If I want them to share in my mood, I'll hurl them bodily across the room. And what's the point in getting a call from your nearest and dearest and going to all the effort to be nice and happy to them on the blower, if the bleeding videogame pipes up and says: "He was in a right hump five minutes ago. You be nice to him."

I'm prepared to compromise on the gesture recognition. If my answering machine coughs discreetly and says: "Your editor is on line one, oh great master", I'll be happy if it knows to convert the gesture I will then make into an "I'm sorry, Rupert's not here at the moment" message. (I'll remember that - Ed.) Likewise, lights that come on with an airy wave of the hand, bathroom radios that tune away from the Archers when I shake my fist at them, and TV receivers that know to seek out and display any Carry On movie playing when I grasp my right bicep with my left hand and vigorously pump upwards.

But emotions? Leave it out. Otherwise we'll end up with the geniuses behind the Office Paperclip creating pocket psychoanalysts who pop up and say "Why the long face? Do you want to talk about it?" when we're just contemplating whether to smash our Windows system disks into tiny pieces, or just throw them on the fire. It'll trigger the great reaction against technology, you mark my words.