Rupert Goodwins' Diary

It's science fiction week, with aliens not quite found in home computers, Apple not quite hitting the Singularity and people making money from gravity waves. Time to flee the country...
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 30/9/2004
Bank Holiday. Stuck in bed with cold. Go away - can't you see I'm ill?

But just to keep you happy, here are two press releases from later on in the week that deserve to be more widely circulated…

Orange on the Yorkshire market:

"Further to the Orange release that was sent out this morning, we wish to point out that the header for some of you read as 'TALK NOWT', when it should have read 'TALK NOW'. The extra 'T' appeared due to the trademark ™ sign, not being able to appear in its true form when using applications such as Lotus notes."

IBM on maintaining that oh so important personal relationship between PRs and hacks:

"Subject: *****SPAM***** Two Horse Race Emerges in Storage Market as Surging IBM and EMC Post Share Gains

Dear Journalist

Please find below the 2 latest releases from IBM. The first announcement reports on IDC's latest figures on XXXX and highlights how IBM has continued to gain year on year revenue in external disk storage for the sixth consecutive quarter."

To be fair, IBM's inability to run a mailing list that bothers to even pretend to personally address the emails and its strange habit of writing reports on Australian lager are risible enough. It was our own spam filter that decided to classify the incoming message as such. However, it would save time and delete key wear if IBM were to just mark email messages accordingly before sending them out.

Tuesday 31/9/2004
Apple has chosen the Apple Expo in Paris to launch its new iMac -- well, fair enough. Our Gallic brethren have always loved the Macintosh with passion and dedication -- clearly, it epitomises style and la difference over the stolid Anglo-Saxon functionality of Wintel PCs. Predictably, my Apple-owning friends are besides themselves with joy -- but I can't see what the fuss is about. It looks like a flat-panel monitor. Well, coo. "Oh, you've got to see it!" say people who were there, and then I could decide whether the lack of integral Wi-Fi, rather meagre memory allocation and not quite best of breed video chip will sour my glee at its sheer aesthetic… flat panelness.

But what can you do? Those who think about such things have been predicting that the PC will vanish over the next ten years. It won't go away -- we'll probably be in closer personal proximity to more sheer computing and communications oomph than anyone can imagine -- but the boxes themselves will be subsumed into other devices. The end result will be some sort of wireless input -- hand gestures, speech, a virtual keyboard projected onto a handy surface -- and an image that appears as required. It doesn't really matter how good your industrial design is then.

I once experimentally set up a system to be like this -- nothing special, just a small wireless keyboard and a video projector aimed at a nearby wall. The rest of the gubbins I hid out of sight. I didn't expect it to make much difference, but the sensation of working on a system that wasn't there -- no boxes, no wires, no frame on the display; in fact, no display, just a glowing wall -- was eerie. I began to resent the space that the system boxes and cables habitually stole, and soon began to forget there was a computer hidden away at all.

There is a science fiction theme, the Singularity, where we create machines (or modify ourselves) to the point that they/we are smart enough to improve them/ourselves exponentially. In short order, we become beings of pure intellect, propelling ourselves into a universe of raw existence uncoupled from the dull limits of mere matter.

Can the iMac compete with that? I think not.

Wednesday 1/9/2004
I'll vote for anything that gets people thinking about science rather than Big Brother or Russell Grant's Guide To Astrology And Your Colon. Ladbrokes is now running a book on scientific discoveries, with the favourite being "Cosmic ray origins determined" at a mere 4/1. Gravity waves are next at 6/1 -- the bookies originally had these at 500/1, which was far too good a bargain for physicists -- with the outsider being life on Saturn's moon Titan. Plonk a quid on that and should Cassini photograph them waving back you'll collect ten grand.

I feel this system can usefully be extended to other realms. For example, Longhorn appearing before 2007? I'll give starting odds of 3/1 on it turning up without its filing system and 10/1 with. Video iPod before Christmas? 2/1. Ben Verwaayen, BT CEO, starts up blog and posts picture of cat? I won't take your money.

It might seem like just a bit of fun -- although not having seen the cat I can't be sure -- but as the US Department of Homeland Security realised, give people the chance to make money and they'll start to use information they wouldn't normally divulge. Betting, especially anonymous betting, is a good way to collate informed guesses: it might be bad taste to do this for terrorism, but I reckon we can get away with it in IT.

Not being a gambling man myself -- I tried it once, and someone took all my money away -- I'm unsure of nomenclature and the finer details of spreads, ticks, super tricasts and trixies. However, Scoop Wearden is the owner of a very fine virtual trilby and is skilled in the way of the wager: he'll be up for it, I'm sure.

And of course, the bookie never loses. In fact, I can see a way to get two bites at the cherry -- one by sticking it to the punters, and one by taking our results and turning them into research reports. Given the hit rates of many fine, well-heeled analysts, I reckon numbers gleaned from the betting shop floor will have a very good chance of proving impressively accurate. Anyone give me five to one on that?

Thursday 2/9/2004
When I was young I loved aliens and radio, almost more than I loved chocolate blancmange. Now I am old I've ditched the blancmange habit -- but those other two passions remain.

So it was with great delight that I read New Scientist's story about mysterious signals from space. Even nicer is the fact that the report comes from Seti@home, the distributed analysis programme that's been running for years on the world's spare CPU time -- in my case, 11,506 units' worth.

The stories are a little odd, though. The Seti folk give guarded quotes, saying that it could be extraterrestrial -- although that's a long way from saying it's intelligent -- but that what it was mostly was strange. They'll go back to it, they say, and look more closely, but it's far too early to rule out an artefact of the receiver, some sort of local interference or some other systematic quirk. "It's unlikely to be real," said David Anderson, director of the programme.

Somehow, this quote got missed by the mass media and much hoo-hah commenced. I dropped a note to Anderson asking whether there was someone to talk about this, but no -- "There's nothing to talk about!" he said. "We dismissed that signal ages ago."

So much for little green men on their walkie-talkies. However, I did learn a couple of useful facts. First, Seti is back in the picture as a subject worthy of serious science, and you can talk about it and still be a respectable astronomer. It may even get time on new and rather fabulous future devices like SKA, the Square Kilometre Array which will be ten times as wonderful as the Arecibo dish that Seti@home's using.

And the other thing is that running the Seti@home client on your work PC is dangerous. Should you actually find something, your boss will be very surprised to find the world's media camped in the car-park and there'll be a lot of explaining to do in short order. "The aliens made me do it" is unlikely to get you very far…

Friday 3/9/2004
Next week sees yet another Intel Developer Forum in the hipster's paradise of San Francisco. I'll be popping over for the duration, keen to ask interesting questions and report fascinating happenings, so watch this space. Why is Intel so behind the curve on wireless networks? How come AMD seems to be winning on processor performance and innovation? Which Intel exec will have the most arresting hairdo? We don't stint on the important stuff here at ZDNet UK.

However, between London and San Francisco lies the Well of Misery -- otherwise known as 11 hours in economy class. That by itself is a necessary evil: what makes the whole business as much fun as a cow prod up the chasm is the two hour check-in queue beforehand and the welcoming charms of US Immigration afterwards. Being stuck in the middle of the centre aisle of the plane as well -- it doesn't bear thinking about.

My e-ticket arrived. Please arrive at the airport three months before your plane is due to depart. Breakfast will be thrown at you by a bonobo with a hangover. Seat 41E.

I didn't know where 41E was, but it didn't look promising. I had a vague memory of a Web site where you could check such things -- and so, it turned out, did Google. That told me that Virgin had finally put up its seat plans, and there they were. And there was 41E -- slap in the middle, right behind the bogs.

Despair. But hiding in the corner of the screen was a little red button twinkling a message of hope. "Do you want to change your seat?" Oh, you lil' darling! I clicked it faster than a starving mongoose swallowing a millet seed. Bad luck, it said, you didn't book your ticket with Virgin. You can't change your seat -- oh, to have the cup of release dashed from my lips so cruelly! -- but you can if you check in first online. Yer wot?

With every change in aviation since 11 September seemingly designed to make life harsher for the travelling punter, it is my extreme pleasure to relate that Virgin has introduced online check-ins. BA's had it for a while, but I haven't used it. You don't need to register with the Virgin service, just enter e-ticket number and passport details between two and 24 hours before the flight, and that's it. Drop your bags off when you get to the airport -- 60 minutes before the flight leaves is fine --- and that's that. And if you check-in early enough, you can reallocate your seat. I did. I have. I'm happy.

I've still got the flight itself and the US welcoming committee to go -- one correspondent had the full three and a half hour interview because he had 'too many stamps' in his passport. How many was too many? That's secret -- but at least some of the pain has been taken away.

See you on the other side…

One last note: a fond goodbye to super-sub Amanda, who has been slaving away each day on ZDNet UK for the last year or so. Back to her native New Zealand she heads - our fond wishes, as she will be sorely missed.

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