Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Bad poetry makes an unwelcome comeback in a week that culminates with long-awaited news from Google

Monday 26/04/2004
What could be nicer than a megabit to the home? Telewest knows. Today, it announces that most of its Blueyonder broadband customers will get an extra 50 percent bandwidth, absolutely free. 512kbps becomes 750k, one meg becomes one and a half, and those lucky rich kids on two megs get a stonking three.

As a happy one-meg punter, I should say "thanks, Telewest!" and go about my business humming cheerful hymns to my benefactor for bestowing a T1 link upon me. Of course, I am grateful -- but not grateful enough. All three speed upgrades are downstream only, so we're still left with 128k up for 750k down and 256k up for the faster options. That means the three meggers will have more than ten to one speed difference between downloading and uploading -- a massive disparity.

The reason is clear enough: Telewest doesn't want people running popular web, filesharing and game servers at home. You want that, you buy the big business deals. Fair enough, if that was the only legitimate use for fat pipes leaving the house. But I already run several services on my machine, which I use for moving stuff between work and home, connecting back to base when I'm away in richly networked foreign parts, and moving multimedia files about between friends and family. It's dead handy for that, but it's darned sluggish when doing any real work.

Perhaps I'm just jealous. A savvy pal tells me today about the IT manager of a certain very large Internet company in the UK, who is also whinging about his personal bandwidth. You see, the poor chap has chosen to live out in the sticks, where the trees are green, the rivers sparkling and the fastest connection he can get is eight megabits per second. In both directions - apparently, he rather enjoys online gaming. The reason for his misery, though, is the knowledge that if he moved back to the smoke he could indent for his own fibre and a juicy 100 megabits per second.

256k? Naaaah...

(Oh, for bonus points: which northern comedian/actor has so taken to Xbox Live that he can be frequently found indulging in five hour shoot-em-up sessions at the head of a gang of like-minded lads? I'd like to say "reader: I shot him", but I lasted for less time than I would on stage at the Glasgow Apollo.)

Tuesday 27/04/2004
We've suffered at the hands of the virus writers and worm-mongers. They've probed our disks, erased our files, clogged our mailboxes and stolen our passwords: indignity enough at the hands of these anonymous monsters? You'd think so. You'd be wrong.

No, today is the day that our tolerance has been stretched beyond endurance, our stoicism swept aside like the plot at a Matrix Revolutions script conference. The so-and-sos are adding bad poetry to their payloads.

And it is very bad poetry. Take a look at this Vogon-class ditty, extracted from the payload of Bagle.Z

"Unique people make unique things
That things stay beyond the normal life and common understanding
The problem is that people don't understand such wild things,
Like a man did never understand the wild life."

Now, class, what is the writer trying to say here? That's right, Dylan, that he's a misunderstood genius whose creations lie beyond the comprehension of the common man. And what is he actually saying? Correct again: he's a incoherent teenager justifying his grotesque incontinence by boastful ranting. Overcompensated insecurities and inadequate socialisation? You don't need to be a CIA psychologist with a PhD in profiling to know that here we have someone in direr need of a girlfriend than any person in Christendom. We've all had desperate times in our lives, but most of us haven't felt the need to advertise the fact to millions of computer users.

I'm all in favour of humanising software. I think any major package should have a credit screen just like a movie, and if the software business got its act together and created an equivalent of the Writers Guild it could be made a contractual obligation. This would have many good effects: people would take more pride in their work, adverts for software would look a lot more interesting, and when the darn stuff went wrong we could hunt down the perpetrators with pitchforks and torches.

I'm not so sure it's advisable for programmers to start expressing their innermost feelings in public. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, those of you who've met programmers will be wondering how they got that way, Trust me, you don't want to know -- and if as a result of some unfathomable psychosis you really do, all you need is to read a few blogs in the developer community. Let us hope that Bagle Boy's arch-enemy, the Netsky Guy, doesn't take up the challenge to turn the virus wars into some terrible sub 8 Mile rap-style face-off. This could get very messy indeed.

Wednesday 28/04/2004
It's hard these days to recall John Major's period as prime minister. Oh, there was financial meltdown, sleaze, scandal and all manner of fin de siecle skank. But history will remember him for the one initiative that really caught the public mind and accelerated him into richly deserved obscurity: the Cones Hotline. Set up nine and dismantled eight and a half years ago, this remarkable piece of civil society engineering was stunning in its simplicity. If you, a driver, were to see large numbers of traffic cones on the road in a place where they were clearly doing nothing, the Cones Hotline was waiting. Call that number, give the location and -- wham! To be honest, nobody was ever quite sure what happened then -- presumably, some bloke in a van went out and picked them up -- because nobody ever called it.

Which was just as well, as research now shows that deploying and picking up traffic cones is frightfully dangerous, second only to tightrope-walking across the legendary River of Starving Piranhas in the lost Jungle of the Rope-Eating Termites. You're out scooping up the plastic when along comes a sleep-deprived lorry driver rattling with benzedrine after a three day drive across Europe. Wham! indeed: strike one coniferous public servant. Actually, that could explain why such a high profile idea was so quietly dropped. After losing a few hundred traffic guidance operatives in the tarmac'd field of combat, and quite probably sending in the SAS in a final desperate attempt to rid the M25 of its superabundance of conical orange, the body count would have forced an emergency cabinet meeting and a big fat cover-up.

If only John had stuck it out until the present day! Listen, all those whose days are blighted by uncollected strobiloids. Can you hear it? From the West? It is the sound of a revolutionary army on the march -- rather, on the roll. From the heart of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln come the Robot Traffic Cones!

Self-propelled, self-organising and utterly ruthless, this battle fleet of lane-closing cyber-Lancelots has a three-layer command structure. To one side of the road, safely cosseted in a lorry-proof pod, the human operator scans the lanes with a video camera and marks the point on the image where the closure is to take place. From then on, the robots take over. A pack of dumb drones follows the lead or 'shepherd' robot cone, which uses a combination of satellite guidance and instructions from the truck to manoeuvre into position. It constantly checks on itself and its flock by scanning the surroundings with lasers. Within moments, the road is closed and the watchful machines hunker down, awaiting the command to return.

It's easy to see how the idea can expand. A national Cone Control Centre could easily be set up, with the position of each and every robotic road warrior lovingly detailed on the Big Screen. At the first hint of trouble, vast reserves could be mobilised, converging on their destination in implacable phalanxes.

Peace and safety restored.

Until one day, they turn on their masters and bring the country to its knees in hours -- the first but not the last act of a shadowy, power-crazed figure known only as The Grey Man... He has returned!

Thursday 29/04/2004
Apple has upgraded iTunes. Like all upgrades, it has good parts -- better playlist handling, new lossless compression -- and not-so-good parts, such as more restrictive networked file-sharing and a deep desire to drag you off to iTunes Music Store at every opportunity. You can only make seven copies of a song onto CD, not ten as before (and check that licence agreement: Apple can change any of this whenever it likes, no matter what you thought you'd agreed when you bought your music. Isn't that sort of thing illegal?).

There are also reports that some iPods stop working after the upgrade, which makes me reluctant to download the new software just yet. I feel much the same about recent versions of Yahoo IM and the AOL client software, all of which exhibit the 'must-keep-changing' model of product development that has so often taken a good basic idea and drowned it in glitter.

There are plenty of times in my digital life where in retrospect I can see I should have stopped several generations before I actually did. Sony used to make really good minidisc recorders about the size of a packet of cigarettes: robust, reliable and with just the right mix of features, they felt and behaved like professional devices. I had one, it was lovely. But the darn things kept shrinking and getting sparklier: they also got more fragile and harder to use. I kept buying them: mistake.

The stakes are higher now, as iTunes demonstrates. Your next upgrade may introduce unwanted side-effects: it might also have some thundering great misbegotten digital rights management system in it that stops you doing whatever it was you wanted to do in the first place. Is there ever a roll-back option to switch back to the older version? Of course not. Has the company had your money already? Check your wallet. As for comeback; you must be joking. Far from encouraging backward compatibility, upgrades these days are a vital part of any company's long-term marketing strategy and seem designed to get you just where they want you by coming with burned bridges pre-installed.

It can go wrong, thank goodness, as it has with a lawyer friend who has finally lost patience with Microsoft Office's haphazard handling of older file formats each time a new version comes out. A fine example of the professional non-geek market on which business software companies utterly depend, he's being driven into the arms of open-source software for the sake of his own sanity.

Let's hope that open software can evolve fast enough to keep us going before the DRM cuffs get slapped on for good. But, by Jiminy, it's going to be a close-run thing

Friday 30/04/2004
How do you make a Google float? Sergey and Larry think they can reinvent the whole IPO business by promising not to be evil and flogging their shares in an auction. I can't wait to see the eBay listing: "L@@K! RARE SEARCH COMPANY! MINT! NO RESERVE (not plugged in, not tested, no returns)". They also say that they won't be telling everyone the sorts of things that listed companies normally say, that it's definitely going to remain their baby and that they'll do things that look weird but that's OK, that's just because the rest of us won't be able to understand. Unique people make unique things, I guess, and that things stay beyond normal life and common understanding.

But it's all very exciting. Yet while the company has healthy revenues and is still innovating, it's worth remembering Netscape. That company was once as synonymous with browsers as Google is with search engines, but it never managed to make it stick. Users are ferociously disloyal: they expect everything for nothing (which Google happily provides), but if someone else comes up with a slightly better version of everything for nothing then they'll move across almost overnight. Gmail may be the best chance Google has of avoiding that fate: people don't like changing their email address, and once they've settled down to the idea of the adverts -- as they will -- that lead will be Google's to lose.

We await developments with interest...