Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The spamtastic BSA, overheated Danes, tough-speaking Tories and transcendental instant messages: the week that shouldn't have been

Monday 24/5/2004
She was young, she was inexperienced and she was shy -- and she'd been told to do something very, very wrong. We could argue all day whether she should have said no, where culpability and freedom end, and the obligations of survival begins. We can, I hope, agree that whoever was ultimately behind the call deserves our scorn: calling me up on a Monday morning to pitch a story on network management software is not a job for the young, the inexperienced or the shy.

Nor is it a suitable task for those who don't understand network management software. Nor if you cannot answer questions on what exactly in their 'market-leading' product makes it of any conceivable interest to anyone apart from their EMEA marketing manager.

I fear I may have made this last point overly clear, and she decided to pursue other prey -- possibly another career. I put the phone down. Seismographs around the globe barely had time to settle and I'd just begun to concoct a grade one rant about imbecilic PR companies, when the newsdesk cleared its throat in a 'if you've quite finished, Rupert' way.

"Is this a story we should chase up?" They're looking at something the BBC's written about a breakthrough in Web serving. I barely have time to click on the link before I get a saliva-flecked instant message from the tech team. "Have you seen this rubbish???" it says - well, nearly. They too have seen the story.

At first blush, the story appears to be balderdash. Still on an apoplectic high from the previous caller, there's no problem in pronouncing it so: I peer at it more closely and try to unpick what it was trying to say, but give up and content myself with dashing off a Grumpy Old Man note to the Online feedback link. I fear I may have been immoderate.

Later that same day, things are calmer. I've mainlined enough caffeine to return to a state of recognisable humanity, managed to be nice to at least two people and am no longer in danger of flash redecorating the office in Pantone PMS 209 (cranial artery red). It is at this point that the writer of the BBC piece, Mark Ward, emails back. He is a good and knowledgeable chap, and were the Beeb to byline their pieces more often I would have taken a more equitable approach.

His note is so nice and so sensible that I feel a crushing guilt over being nasty. He's also quite reasonable in explaining why he wrote what he wrote, which doesn't help either. I reply in kind, but… oh dear. I did bad.

Still feel awful about it. Just not quite awful enough to resist passing on this snippet of an IM conversation with another BBC chap:

":i walk past the news online offices every day, the door's always locked with a keycode thing. i think i know why, it's to stop irate members of bbc staff wandering in and saying "who wrote this bollocks?" "

Tuesday 25/05/2004
The Business Software Alliance phones 'Scoop' Wearden to crow about its success in closing down software piracy rings. In the UK alone, seven computers have been seized! Counterfeit driving licences and a hundred CD copiers confiscated!! The BSA even has an Internet Investigator, called Mr X, available to amplify on the smashing triumph of good over evil!!!

"So, er, how can you tell that you're having an impact?" asks Scoop, knowing full well that certain people sitting next to him on the newsdesk have more than seven computers in their front room alone.

"Easy!" says the BSA. "There's been a huge upsurge in spam offering dodgy deals on pirate software. This is the length to which these people have been driven by our iron fist closing on their slime-coated pipeline." (I paraphrase slightly).

"Really?" asks Graeme. "Sure!" says the BSA -- and to prove this, it promptly forwards a choice selection of spam to Scoop's mailbox. "Coo!" he says. "Photoshop for $40!" So not only is the BSA claiming responsibility for vastly increasing the amount of spam we're getting, it's prepared to join in and send some of the stuff itself.

Cool.

Now all we have to do is work out how our spam filter knows to let stuff through if it's from the BSA. There are dark forces at work.

Wednesday 26/05/04

Everyone's moving with the digital times. Witness the press release making a gentle 'Omm…' noise in our mailbox today. It's from the Maharishi -- you may remember him from such films as The Beatles Go Batty In Bombay, and Botty Bounce! Yogic Flying Made Easy -- who is having a global press conference to announce that "Vedic education will create a utopian civilisation". Jolly good. "Vedic universities, colleges, and schools are being established in every country to create enlightened people who won't make mistakes." Fantastic! And how does this work? "First, you give the student the unity of total knowledge, and then through analysis this unity is elaborated and unfolded until all fields of knowledge are brought to the student’s awareness."

And so on, and so forth. Exactly how "the unity of total knowledge" is imparted is not detailed, although His Excellency Dr Bevan Morris, Minister of Enlightenment of the Global Country of World Peace, did say that 'great interest' was being shown by, er, some people. It's almost worth signing up just to get that sort of job title on your business cards, if you ask me.

But what differentiates this latest bout of cosmic bluster from the same Natural Law Will Cure Everything baloney which has issued forth from the bearded one for so many years is that now the press conferences are interactive. Not only can you phone your questions in to numbers in India, Holland and the US, but you can IM the chap.

Yes, just direct your typing fingers to Yahoo! Internet Messenger ID 'mgcwp' and your questions about transcendental enlightenment will be answered. We don't know whether the Yogi can manage l33t sp33k - perhaps you'd like to find out for me.

Peculiarly, this is the week that our office -- which also runs on Y!IM - has discovered the avatars in the new version of the software. As you know, Professor, the original avatars were incarnations in bodily form of Hindu deities: these days the polarity is reversed somewhat. The IM avatars are cartoon forms that match, to a greater or lesser extent, the real person behind the screen.

For some of us, the extent is most definitely lesser. While some chaps, like Newshund Munir, can find a near-exact match, others aren't so lucky. For a world running to fat -- due in no small part to the physical torpor required to operate computers -- it is sad that there are no porky pixels available. Every avatar is slim, young and muscular, with clear skin and perfect proportions. Is this just another example of how we lardbuckets are being made the lepers of the 21st century? It's not enough to blame us for the imminent collapse of the health service and, indeed, civilisation itself: no, we are barred from making an honest interpretation of ourselves online. How unfair.

Perhaps I'll ask Yogi for some cosmic awareness to explain it all…

Thursday 27/05/2004
You can rely on The Inquirer to dig up the stories that the rest of the online media miss. Or perhaps pass over, in a fit of editorial dignity. But with the news that a Danish company has decided not only to allow its workers to access porn on its office computers, but to pay for some of the better sites, I feel Inq proprietor Mike Magee's mission to inform, inflame and engorge has reached new levels of turgidity.

OK, so the price the worker bees have to pay for this generosity is not to look during office hours -- right-click, save as, chaps -- but it seems a sterling step forward for worker's rights. However, the intrepid reporter could have dug deeper. Do people get to vote for which sites should be selected for managerial funding, or is it just a general selection? What do the women in the office think of it -- is there a groundswell of discontent at this implicit acceptance of the commoditisation of the female form, or a loud demand for some decent clit-lit to balance the diet?

The Danes are noted social innovators, perhaps living up to the Scandinavian ideals of non-conformity the best out of all of the northern tribes. Where they lead, others may follow. Perhaps we'll see the idea of mandatory workplace pornography appear in the next revision of the European employment laws: what that would do to the thrust of secessionist activists such as the UK Independence Party might be interesting. What could Joan Collins, to pick one name at random, say against compulsory sauce?

[Perhaps it was just a novel way of getting columnists to turn up at the office more regularly - Ed.] Friday 28/05/2004
The Shadow Minister For Economic Affairs: a title straight out of Yes, Minister? No - he really exists, if the bouffant Michael Fabricant can be said to be more a real being than a work of art. Experts are still out on that one - he may even be an avatar, although the nature of the deity whom he represents is too terrifying for even the Maharishi to calmly contemplate.

Whatever he may be, Fabricant stalks the earth. From time to time, he brings forth terrifying edicts, prophesying doom and casting forth fearsome jeremiads against the government. Today, he has marshalled the forces that drive him and delivered of himself a diatribe against the spam laws. Not enough, he cries, not at all enough. Britain is to be cast asunder into the darkest pit by our international brethren, for allowing too much nonsense upon the wires. Our future poisoned, our children thrown into slavery and our grandmothers gnashing their toothless mouths against strips of festering bark, so deep will we fall.

Ooo-er. This impassioned plea to get tough on spam, tough on the causes of spam is in no way diminished by the fact that he made exactly the same speech - well, plus or minus a detailette or two -- three months ago. The accuracy of his predictions are in no way blunted by the minor point that nothing of the sort is happening or is likely to happen.

Scoop is pleased by this, and decides to run the story. In the interests of impartiality and balance, he feels he should call the Department of Trade and Industry -- another Yes, Ministeresque confection that mysteriously exists in the real world -- to get a counter-quote, or at least a spot of alternative viewpoint. However, a spokesperson said that the department wasn’t able to immediately comment for this story "because it's four o'’clock on a Friday".

Well, if the mighty machinery of state has ground to a halt -- so have I. See you next week.