Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Mind-reading machines, Dr Evil's favourite mouse, dodgy downloads and Scandinavian broadband all contribute to a week of fun, frolics and frustration
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 23/8/04
Monday morning, and already I've had enough. It is, unless I've been woefully misled, the year 2004. We are twelve billion years into creation, half a million years into Homo Sapiens and more than fifty years into the information revolution. We have created atoms, listened to the sounds of creation and invented the dry martini. We even have tins of stew you can open without a can opener, for heaven's sake. And still it seems that software is being designed by primordial swamp moulds from the planet Stupid.

It's not even lunchtime, and already I'm in a mood fit to scare a Sumo skinny.

I'm sending email from AOL when I get an email from another client telling me something important has arrived. I go to close down AOL. No, I can't close the program because it's telling me "Your email has been sent" -- in a window hidden by another -- and I have to click on the blasted OK button before I can do anything else. Of course my email has been sent. That's what I use the blasted service for. Why do you think I pressed the blasted SEND button, you quivering heap of incandescently imbecilic IT idiocy?

The important message says I have a software upgrade for the office phone system. This has a Windows client that takes the age-old business of making phone calls and adds many layers of indecipherable complexity to make it as easy to use as sandpaper bog-roll. I do not like it, but I have no choice. The upgrade grumpily loads and then tells me "You must restart your system now."

You must restart now. This disrespectful insult - whatever you're doing, puny human, is unimportant compared to Me - is so commonplace in the Microsoft world that most Windows users aren't even aware that the rest of the universe long ago declared it unacceptably arrogant. There's no technical reason for it, apart from Windows' internals resembling the La Brea Tar Pits, but we have to say yes sir, thank you sir and shut down our lives for five minutes.

Which means, eventually, that Windows restarts and various other programs blink groggily in the light of day. I always enjoy this - can I type in one password fast enough before another piece of software starts up, takes over the keyboard, demands its password and blats its splash screen over the top of whatever I was doing? No, I cannot.

Start-up is dangerous for other reasons these days. Some software will inevitably go and take the opportunity to check for updates themselves. Today, there's one for Office. So Office goes away and starts its own downloading process, while the phone system software gets on with continuing its new life as the most important thing in the universe. Alas! It wants to do something to Office and is now demanding that I close Office down. Office has other ideas, none of which include that. So I have to shut stuff down using the brain-surgery-with-pruning-shears option of Task Manager. Then I have to reset. Then Office says 'I was interrupted doing something important. Starting in Safe Mode', which the phone software also doesn't like. And so on, and so forth.

None of this is hard to get right. Remember usability? Simple rules. Basic rules. Stuff that's been known for more than twenty years. Do not give the user a choice without explaining it. Do not make the user take unnecessary steps. Do not assume that you are the only blasted piece of software on the system. Do not hog shared resources.

Most importantly, do not make me start my week wishing for an extinction-level event to visit the entire IT industry.

Tuesday 24/8/04
Stirring news from Sweden, where ISP Bredbandsbolaget has decided to launch a service for around fifty quid a month that delivers 100 megabits a second. You have to have good wiring, man, and my Swedish isn't good enough to decode the fine print on the deal, but DSL's been around for a while now and technology has moved on apace. This is the sort of development we should be seeing.

In a happy world, I'd pick up the phone to BT and ask "When will we get this?" But I haven't done it yet, because the rain and the lengthening nights are making me miserable enough already. BT is being forced at regulatory gunpoint to cut its prices, while offering -- coo! -- a 512Kbps service with a 50:1 contention ratio for which you could expect to pay between seventeen and twenty quid.

That means that if everyone else sharing your bandwidth is making good use of the service they've bought (at roughly seventy times the price per bit of the Swedish service. Seventy!) you and they will see around 10 kilobits a second, or about a quarter of what you could reasonably expect from a dial-up link. I do not expect BT to have nice things to say to me if I ask for 100 megabits at a reasonable price.

And don't get me started on the capped services. It wasn't until I'd gone through a number of sets of FAQs and background documents on one that I found the answer to my question - does your gigabyte a month include uploaded as well as downloaded data. It does, which makes stuff like voice over IP and Web cam conferencing a very different proposition.

Don't be seduced by the Scandinavian wonderland just yet, though. While all might be swimming in Stockholm, friends of mine in the Swedish sticks say they've got a better chance of teaching an elk to tap-dance than getting a straight answer out of the telco on when they can get not broadband, but their analogue line fixed to the point at which dial-up becomes reliable.

Wednesday 25/8/04
The Web has a short-term memory problem - it doesn't forget easily enough. That's what Logitech must be thinking: it has a big surprise for us all planned for 1 September, but someone didn't quite spot the embargo and published a preview anyway. That got yanked in short order, but not short enough: Google cache to the rescue!

Our secret treat-to-be is the MX1000, which sounds like a secret gadget that gets stolen by evil geniuses in schlock Hollywood sci-fi thrillers. Only if Dr Evil has a thing for sharks with frickin' laser beams in their heads, he'll probably want to steal the MX1000 - it's a mouse with a frickin' laser beam. Not in its head -- it's where its ball should be -- but it is a mouse. With a laser. I thought I'd repeat that bit.

Laser beams have many useful roles to play in IT. They read and write CDs and DVDs, send thundering signals down fibres, get built into video projector remote controls and keep the support staff happy in smoke-filled pubs. So far, they've escaped mouse work.

The laser's job in the MX1000 is to scan for movement, much as the little red light does in lesser, more incoherent, optical mice. Because it's a laser, you see, the mouse can work on many surfaces where its non-laser brethren fail. Too shiny? Too smooth? Too clean? The laser is your friend.

Ah yes, you say, but what's wrong with a mouse mat? Repeat after me: Mouse. Laser. Laser. Mouse. If you're still mumbling "mouse mat", then the MX1000 is not for you.

OK, so it's a mouse that needs so much power it has a high-density lithium ion rechargeable battery aided by an illuminated four-level battery meter. That's ok, it's a mouse with a laser. You expect these minor inconveniences when you're at the cutting edge of murine advancement. It's got a super-fast RF link - "as fast as USB" says Logitech, which is a relief. I do so hate the way my ordinary RF cordless mouse has to struggle with its slowpoke old link. Why, the other day it took three hours to go from the Start button to the IE icon. And it has a 'deep-sculpted thumb support' for 'incredible comfort'. Nice.

But these are mere courtesy details. It's a mouse. With a laser. Zowie!

Thursday 26/08/04
Another must-have weapon in the evil genius arsenal is the mind reading machine, and here comes the perfect way to generate hard cash when someone tells you "Penny for 'em…". The Japanese company Brain Function Lab has produced the Emotional Spectrum Analysis System to delve into your deepest feelings and plot them out like a weather chart.

The system looks like a knitted polka-dot woolly hat hooked up to a laptop, but is really a device that records electrical signals from ten different points on the scalp. By cunning analysis, it breaks these down into your levels of mental stress, joy, sadness/depression, and relaxation. The researchers claim that all emotions are composed of various mixes of these fundamental psychic notes, although I suspect that most emotions caused by being made to look like a toadstool would lack a couple of those components.

Sharp's already using this device to help design audio equipment -- although I'd probably relay my emotions on hearing music more accurately if asked by a petite Japanese researcher with a clipboard than if I was made to wear a Mr Blobby hat with electrodes. However, it can only be a matter of time before the most rapaciously exploitative of technological markets gets its hands on the gear. Mobile phone makers, stand by your soldering irons.

There are any number of services that can be sold on the back of this -- sending emoticons to your friends that accurately detect your state of mind and format themselves accordingly, remote lie-detectors to make sure your bird/bloke is really doing what they claim to be doing, even alerts for parents to make sure their teenage offspring aren't enjoying themselves too much.

It's not just evil repressive instincts that can be indulged, though. Imagine being able to video message your beloved a large set of interesting pictures of objects and finding out instantly which one is most preferred -- make Christmases and birthdays a lot less stressful.

That hat has got to go, mind.

Friday 27/08/04
Not a good day if you're a civil servant with a fondness for exotic bitmaps. Lots of sackings and lots of slapped wrists -- no, not in a good way -- for employees at the Department of Wa… sorry, Work and Penchants, whose online forays into arousing content didn't stand up at the disciplinary hearings.

You can't fault the Department's attitude that such things are a misuse of work equipment, time and other resources. However, the focus on porn as something particularly bad is increasingly hard to maintain in the face of increasing social acceptance: isn't it just as bad to spend all day chasing floral cushion covers on eBay as it is to download Betty's Big Bap Bonanza? The images were offensive, says the Department primly, and I'm sure that lots of people would agree. But then, lots of people didn't have to see them. Until the IT department uncovered the rogue files, I'm sure the images had offended nobody. I find the Daily Mail incredibly offensive, but I guard my propriety by making sure I never read the damn thing. Of course, some images are out-and-out illegal -- which is a different matter entirely.

My one experience of a company where naughtiness was discovered on people's computers was instructive. (I gloss over the time that an animated picture of farmyard antics was quietly installed on a CEO's computer, in the full and certain knowledge that he lacked the basic skills to find out what was going on and stop it, and would probably be too mortified to call in IT. Never did find out how he got rid of it.) One chap's feet didn't touch the ground on his way out: he came into work one morning to be met by HR and a security guard carrying his desk contents in a bin bag. The other assiduous collector of the pink pixel was quietly taken to one side and told that this is not the sort of thing that's expected of him, and that any future examples would cause big trouble -- now go back to your computer and delete the evidence, there's a good chap. The only difference between these two people was that the first guy was universally loathed, while the second was seen by the company as a good chap who they'd hate to lose.

It's all very reminiscent of an attitude common among London police concerning soft drugs -- personally, they couldn't give a monkey's, but it's a good excuse to feel someone's collar if you want to nick them but don't have much else to go on.

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