Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Giant sheep, alcoholic robots, secret Greeks and moist laptops? Five days that didn't shake the world but did bemuse Rupert

Monday 19/04/2004
Rum news from the Antipodes, where a wandering New Zealand shepherd has captured a rogue Marino ram that eluded captivity -- and thus shearing -- for six years. As a result, we are told, the ovine freak has grown a mammoth shag pile: pictures from the South Island show a monstrous beast resembling nothing so much as an elongated pumice stone the size of a man but with a rather annoyed face peering out of one end. It has been christened Shrek.

I would be tempted to take this report at face value, were it not for an apparently unconnected press release. "Outsource your IT to NZ", it says, because we've got very good at it. In particular, the Outsource2NewZealand mob cite the groundbreaking work done by Weta with the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- this unprecedented success proves that the IT minds down below can do anything we want.

I fear they're not telling us the whole story. In particular, I suspect that they're a little more advanced than they're letting on -- and have managed to couple the output of their computer-animation devices to a genetic engineering lab. All those scenes with chimerical elephants, sentient trees and hideous, lawyer-like Nazgul hoardes were computer generated -- but not in the sense of ray tracing and frame outputs. No, the hideous secret is that they actually happened. Rogue scientists really populated the outlying remoteness of the islands with living, breathing creatures.

Of course, they'll all have been rounded up now and disposed of -- but perhaps one escaped. A prototype, one suspects, named -- much as Dolly the Sheep was named -- after some inspirational character. What better than another computer-generated monster?

Dark forces are afoot: those rumours about director Peter Jackson really being a hobbit may yet have more force than we thought.

Tuesday 20/04/2004
Four billion years ago, the Earth coalesced out of the void, shimmering sullenly in the red-heat of creation. Two billion years ago, give or take, the first chains of life were forged in the energetic soup that boiled around the bones of dead stars. Then came photosynthesis and the searing blast of poisonous oxygen that scoured the planet. Sea, land and air fell to the onslaught of life in a billion forms. And finally, here we are: questioning apes that look around us with curious eyes and ask "are we created, or are we accidents of entropy?" The purpose of life -- or its essential purposelessness -- has bemused the finest minds for millennia.

But now we know. Now the true reason for ourselves and everything we do is clear. Our strange compulsion to reach beyond ourselves with technology is explained, and the justification for four billion years of struggle is upon us.

Ladies, gentlemen and related hominids, I present -- The Beer Robot.

Created by transcendent geniuses at the University of Florida, Koolio is clearly the zenith of all thought. Like all true revolutionary concepts, it's simple yet compelling. You may remember our somewhat askance review of the LG Internet Refrigerator where we wondered out loud what the point of the thing was. Oh, how blind we were! What use is a new-born baby? Because if you put wheels on the thing, a Wi-Fi card for connectivity and some sensors for steering, your internet fridge becomes a whole new being. It becomes Koolio.

Imagine: it's late at night, you're working hard at your desk and a thirst comes upon you. Over the network you request your favoured refreshment -- and deep within its lair, Koolio awakens. Your location is relayed to it by Wi-Fi, it consults its internal maps and off it trundles. Minutes later, it arrives and bestows its blessings on your grateful gullet.

Which is not to say there couldn't be some refinement. As any dedicated student of bibatology knows, the serving of drinks is not merely a matter of delivery. A good barkeep needs to bond with their clientele and sympathise with their troubles -- which, if you're stuck behind a desk when you should be drinking, are likely to be dire indeed. They should also know when to stop serving and be tactful about it, when to step in to stop a brawl and -- if they're anything like certain publicans of my acquaintance from the East End, when to stir things up.

All this requires massive breakthroughs in artificial intelligence from the Florida minds: I hope they can stay sober enough to fulfil their promise -- but if they can't, I suggest they read The Proud Robot, by Henry Kuttner, which mixes brilliance, invention, alcohol and autonomous beer devices in equal measure.

Wednesday 21/04/2004
News from Nature: researchers at Stanford have found what is being widely trailed as 'the speed limit of hard disks'. Briefly, they took a pulsed stream of electrons, shot them at hard disk recording material and made the pulses go faster and faster until the gunk no longer accurately recorded what happened. Sounds like an entertaining way of passing a wet Wednesday afternoon -- if you've worked out how to squirt subatomic particles in globules a few picoseconds long, you might as well enjoy yourself.

This experiment shows, say the mainstream media, that we'll hit a brick wall in hard disk speeds. Fortunately, this is a thousand times faster than anything we're actually doing with the things so we've got a bit of leeway.

But I don't understand, mum. Surely, these particle-pumping physicists were blattering their leptons at whatever clever mix of magnetic molecules we currently smear on our platters, which I have no doubt will indeed run out of puff at some silly speed. It was never designed to do otherwise. As the scientists themselves admit, the mechanism whereby the pulses stop registering is unknown -- so once it is, surely it's a matter of getting clever with the coating and finding a way to accept data at even higher speeds?

So it's not really a speed limit at all: it's just some interesting phenomenon that happens when you push today's technology to its limits: a bit like finding out a 2CV falls apart when you try and drive it over a hundred miles an hour. When we need to get past that point, we'll come up with the goods that let us. Still, I suppose that's no story -- and hence "speed limit reached on hard disks" is the order of the day, despite the fact there's no speed limit and no hard disks were actually involved.

Pah.

Thursday 23/04/2004
Creative Labs wanted to show off how good their portable display technology is, so they ran an advert with a woman in a bath playing with her laptop. Which may look dodgy written down like that, but all Creative wanted to push was the immersive qualities of the graphics. Bath -- immerse, get it?

Yet the ad got into trouble, and not because of anything rude. No, the standards bods upheld a complaint that this encourages people to use electrical equipment while washing, and this will undoubtedly lead to vast numbers of foolhardy bathers meeting their maker while playing Soapy Quake.

Now, I don't know whether any of the above is true. On the one hand, a laptop is a battery-powered device and shouldn't cause you anything other than a heart attack at the thought of the insurance claim if dropped beneath the suds. On the other, there is a high voltage inside that powers the backlight. On the other other hand, it's not much of a high voltage and certainly doesn't have enough oomph to even stun a small rodent. But then there's the lithium battery, which would go whoooof if it wasn't sealed, which it is.

A three-bar electric fire, it isn't. And I don't think there's much proof that people see silly things in adverts and promptly decide it's safe to emulate them -- if they do, then Charles Darwin, come on down. There is proof that people do daft things like that all the time, adverts or no, and no amount of pecksniffery from the Advertising Standards authority will change that.

So I say, damn the torpedoes, and get online from the porcelain palace. We must declare a World Day of Watery Webbery, and show these silly types that progress will not be limited by an outdated sense of misplaced responsibility.

Aux bains, mes citoyens!

Friday 23/04/2004
When you're working at the cutting edge of antiterrorist technology, discretion is required. This sits awkwardly with the natural desire of high-tech companies to tell the world how clever they are, an important part of drumming up new business. One company tossed on the horns of this particular dilemma is Autonomy, the neural network guys.

They've always had a thing for indexing and correlating real-world data. Naturally, this has interested the spooks -- who spend most of their time doing just that -- and as a result Autonomy has scored some juicy contracts in the US and elsewhere for the magic sifting of communications data. So far, so good.

And now, the company's got the gig for the hard job: monitoring communications traffic at the Greek Olympics. It's a thumper of a problem: that part of the world is a natural nexus for many naughty people, the authorities have not always been assiduous in winkling them out, and the existing security infrastructure is of variable quality. You can get shoved in jail for photographing aircraft, but blow up the chief of police's car as a warning (as happened on Leros when I was visiting a couple of years ago -- I have an alibi) and you'll probably get away with it.

Autonomy is naturally proud of this coup (the surveillance job, not the car) and has issued a press release saying so. As press releases tend to be, this came accompanied by a PR on the blower sweetening the pitch and dangling the promise of a natter with Autonomy staff on the subject. Scoop Wearden bit -- and then the script went wrong.

Although Autonomy had indeed put out a press release, it didn't actually fancy any actual journalists asking actual questions. So, the poor PR had to come back to Scoop with the sort of gentle brush-off that's normally reserved for enquiries about the MD's cocaine habit, the financial controller's prolonged holiday in Brazil, or the strange disparity between public and private oil reserve figures (note to libel lawyers: nothing in this paragraph should be construed to relate to any company, living or dead).

Scoop managed to find out more through other sources, so you have your story, gentle reader, and the evil terrorists know not to bother trying anything off-key in Athens. But the lesson remains: if you don't want to talk about something, don't issue a press release.