Rupert Goodwins' Diary

From Pluto to the Isle of Wight, why Thai shortfalls delight style-conscious hacks, and the fridge that eats inboxes - five days that didn't shake the world but mildly discomforted the ZDNet offices

Monday 22/03/2004
To IBM Hursley, Big Blue's very big house in the country near Winchester, where once the wartime production of Spitfires was co-ordinated but now Java, Websphere and transaction processing are the order of the day. We've been promised a meeting with the head of the labs but he's unavoidably detained elsewhere, so we spend time looking at demos of voice systems and pervasive computing.

That's good fun: IBM is especially proud of its method for making sensors, controllers and the like talk to each other across a variety of networks without too much fuss. We stand and are impressed as a Head Inventor shows us that he can spy on his wife in the Isle of Wight by interrogating his house about current spikes in the mains -- yep, there goes the kettle for the eleven o'clock cuppa -- and equally impressed when he admits that this side of his work does not go down well with Mrs Head Inventor. We see Coke machines that trigger flashing lights saying "Fred just bought a Tango" -- Dasani not pictured -- and glowing green balls that go an angry shade of red when things get too hot elsewhere. Whether this was the emotional state of Mrs H-I on realising that her morning refreshments were being used to titillate a bunch of hacks, I cannot say.

As for the voice side: not good news, I'm afraid. Call centres are rarely exciting places to phone, but at least you could have some fun trying to get the person at the other end to go off-script. Now, IBM says, it can automate a whole swathe of standard call centre stuff, like checking authorisation and identity, by having a voice-recognition robot quiz you before you're allowed to go through and talk to a human. It works very well, says IBM, it's quicker than doing it all with humans and of course you can get away with employing a lot fewer people. No indication what the people who were working in the call centres are expected to do next: doubtless if they phone up the Job Centre to find out, they'll end up speaking to a Xeon server somewhere in Bangladesh.

On my return, I discuss the day with newsmonger Mun. He says that he was due an Important Announcement from Google, but that had to be cancelled due to the absence of yet another leader of men. We wonder idly whether there's a special breed of superbug going around that doesn't attack children in hospitals, but rather directs its attention to board-level officers of major companies. That would give the remuneration committees something to think about the next time corporate governance is on the agenda... Tuesday 23/03/2004
Space is the place, as Sun Ra said. So is Macclesfield, where a scale model of the solar system is being created. Even at a scale of 1:15 million, however, that leaves Pluto out in Fort William on the west coast of Scotland, and Uranus in Bath. Which leads to happy speculation about schoolchildren stopping policemen on the Bath streets and saying "We want to see Uranus, constable. Can you point it out to us?" Few of the reports of the Macclesfield cosmic caper say that there's already a 1:500 million scale model of the solar system already orbiting York -- and this one's on a cycle track, so you can pedal your way to Pluto at ten times the speed of light.

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, philanthropist and professional investor, also likes space. The company founder has announced he's funding a brand new radio telescope, a huge array of dishes to scan the heavens for signals from other intelligences, establish whether they're able to communicate and then upload any security patches they may have missed. Paul Alien has kept SETI -- the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence -- alive in the past, as the discipline is often seen as just that little bit dodgy by its cousins in radio astronomy and astrophysics and frequently misses out on the begging bowl. This time, though, it's full speed ahead -- the Allen Telescope Array (or ATA) will have 350 dishes spread across the North Californian countryside.

All this is under the auspices of the SETI Institute, which has shepherded the search through good times and bad. It's clearly full of confidence these days, as you can see from its nice shiny Web site and persuasively corporate logo . But I do hope that there's no significance to the curious similarity between that logo and that of another famous bunch of aliens...

Wednesday 24/03/2004
Oi! Microsoft! Nooooo! I wasn't going to mention the company this week, but it's committed a terrible sin. I'm not talking about Super Mario and the EU; I'm not talking about supporting SCO.

The company has announced that it's merging its graphics development systems for the Xbox and Windows, with something called XNA. No word on what XNA stands for -- although the Web page devoted to it has a shiny double helix down one side, so no doubt we're supposed to think about digital DNA -- but let it never be said that Microsoft is reticent about mixing its marketing metaphors. Brace yourself, here comes the first paragraph:

"Microsoft XNA is the catalyst for a new ecosystem of interchangeable, interoperable software tools and technologies from Microsoft, middleware and game development companies. By integrating software innovations across Microsoft platforms and across the industry, XNA forms a common environment that liberates developers from spending too much time writing mundane, repetitive boilerplate code."

Leaving aside the fact that 'boilerplate code' is supposed to be mundane and repetitive and there to free you from writing the dull stuff anyway, one can only stand in awe at the idea that a form of DNA is a catalyst for an ecosystem. You can see what they're getting at -- but it's just horribly wrong. And it is the use of the word 'ecosystem' that is particularly galling.

I don't know when it started to become fashionable among the marketroids -- I think I heard it for the first time at an AMD briefing last year -- but it's spreading like rats through an Antipodean island. Processors don't run software any more; they're part of an ecosystem of compilers, applications, operating systems and firmware. I always thought that was just a system -- and if you really want to find some snappy metaphor about how it works, the closest you can get is economic.

Ecosystems are full of things that eat each other, fertilising further development with their bodily wastes and corpses. They are easily disrupted by resource monopolisation or the unbalanced growth of any one member, and react slowly to rapid events from outside. I don't know if this is the set of mental images Microsoft wishes to associate with itself and its XNA project.

All I can say is that, on mature reflection, I was dead wrong and the company should continue to employ the metaphor extensively and with vigour.

Thursday 25/03/2004
The more cynical online journalists know that there's always an easy way to get the hits up: diss Apple. It used to be Acorn -- laugh openly at the Archimedes, and watch that mailbox groan with closely argued missives from angry ARM fans saying "It's a far superior machine to anything IBM ever designed" -- and before that, you had to rip the mickey out of obscure languages like BCPL to trigger the avalanche. The early days of Linux were rich seams of instant dissent too.

However, the trouble with Apple is that every so often some reasonably critical, objective and contextually aware journalists get seduced. Sometimes, this is due to a particularly nasty experience with a Windows machine followed by five minutes on a Mac -- how lovely, they think, not realising that the bleeders go wrong in their own sweet way too. But by the time they find that out, they've sold their soul to Cupertino.

And sometimes, it's Apple playing a particularly clever trick on them. Take today: the company says that it simply can't build the iPod Mini fast enough to keep America happy, so all us foreigners will have to wait until mid-summer for our shipments instead of next month as previously promised. Normally, a company saying it's got production problems is a chance for the jackals to cluster and howl in delight--– even if selling more than you thought is a better class of problem, and even if the production bottleneck is probably in the Hitachi hard disk factory in Thailand.

Not this time. Journalistic opinion is heavily polarised by this announcement hereabouts: those who (like me) are loftily above the dictates of fashion and social flimflam can see the issue clearly and without rancour. And then there's the other lot, who are besides themselves with delight and openly profess their love for Apple: this flows not from detailed analysis of the situation and contemplation of its implications for the future, but because they had a pal who was over in America earlier this month and brought them back iPod Minis. Which none of their friends will be able to get, except by paying silly prices over the Net, for an extra three months. Or more.

Oh, joy! (It's going to be a long three months - Ed.)

Friday 26/03/2004
Ack! Just before lunchtime, the whole editorial team is shocked out of its intense copy-centric concentration by a fusillade of feeps and bleeps from their PCs. It is Outlook, which reports receipt of a thundering cascade of incoming email. This goes on for some time, leaving us all shaken and cowering under a few hundred items of inbox mayhem.

What prompted this denial of service attack? A brief investigation reveals an unlikely culprit -- but let me take you back to yesterday evening where the seeds were sown for the events of today.

As part of our general share in the gentle recovery that online IT media is experiencing, we have been shaking off those winter blues with a bit of an office revamp. Plants have sprung up, new sleek LCD monitors have shouldered their bulky CRT ancestors off desks, a pool table has appeared and a large office fridge purchased.

It's these last two items that feature most strongly on Thursday evening, as the final rounds of the company pool championship are played in front of a crowd of cheering workmates and just to one side of the office fridge, bursting at its shiny metal seams with beer. By the end, silicon.com's own Tony Hallett carried off the cup -- and the fridge was once again empty. There were departures to late-night drinking establishment to carry on the celebrations: it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Come Friday morning, and things are more subdued. People huddle down and get on with their jobs -- which on Friday includes dispatching some of our email newsletters. We have a new piece of software for this, which is much faster than the old package - it can churn through tens of thousands of recipients in no time flat. Faster than you can hit the stop button, certainly... even if you've just accidentally let it activate the internal editorial mailing list as the place to receive bounced emails. It's fast software, but it's not friendly software: if you're in a hurry and a little distracted by the exciting events of the previous evening (for example), it's easy to miss that one vital setting. I'm not saying that using that software can be like picking your nose with a loaded pistol, you understand, just that if it were a jet fighter it would be nicknamed The Widowmaker.

Some time later, as we remove the last messages saying Sally Swan is on maternity leave until June and could we please contact Julian in accounts with any queries, we reflect on the ironies that while we take an unconscionable amount of effort to prevent our email newsletters behaving like spam, every so often recalcitrant software visits retribution upon us anyway.

There's a new verb in the industry – dogfooding, meaning to experience the things you sell. I think we've been thoroughly dogfooded and the feeling's not pedigree, chum.