Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Someone's having a 'maire' - and they're not alone, as Rupert discovers the joy of the Null Modem Cable

Monday 27/10/2004
Primed by an exciting story in Spectrum, the online newsletter of the IEEE, I'm off sniffing out stories about odd power sources. The Spectrum piece is about the rather science-fictional idea of making self-powered chips by embedding small lumps of radioactive material in the silicon. It may sound like Star Trek, but people are doing it and it seems to work. Those of a nervous disposition might take comfort from the fact that the amounts of radioactive substances used are miniscule -- there's much more in a smoke alarm -- and the amount of power generated is in the nanowatts so far. So far, tricks include getting the radiation to blatter electrons about directly in the silicon, and making small nanotechnology machines vibrate up and down at speed due to the accumulation of beta particles in their fabric. They're seriously thinking about making microscopic turbines next. Splendid stuff -- but nuclear energy is the most ambiguous of energy sources, and it'll take some marketing.

During my research, I discover a piece I wrote in 2002 about a more mundane -- but still worthwhile -- innovation. Rayovac had invented a modification of standard NiMH battery technology that let you fully recharge them from flat in under quarter of an hour. As someone who spends far too much time shuttling batteries from radios to music players to cameras to phone handsets, this struck me at the time as being laudable. But here we are in 2004, and there's no sign of 'em.

I check online, and not only are they everywhere in the US but they're very highly thought of. Seems they do everything Rayovac promised: to use them is to love them. So where's ours, eh? No sign of them over here.

The same disappointment comes our way when we read about a new Netgear product -- a wireless access point that includes a repeater unit. You plug one box into the mains and the network as per usual, but you can then plug a further unit into the mains anywhere else in the house or office and it then rebroadcasts 802.11g signals -- a very neat way to fill in gaps in coverage with almost no configuration problems. But again, there's no sign of it coming over to Europe.

Wouldn't mind if the same limitations applied to certain other American exports…

Tuesday 28/10/2004
I'm not sure whether this is a good idea or not, but a company in Leeds - jeftel - says it has invented a new email system that integrates with existing clients but uses an proprietary protocol, encryption and peer-to-peer technology to communicate. The .safe email addresses are thus entirely separate from the nasty spam-ridden, virus-sodden world of real email and can be handed out to other jeftel subscribers with impunity.

The logic is clear, but it may not be fully thought out. It's difficult to see how you could get by with just a .safe email address -- unless you lead a particularly hermetic business life, you'll need some form of external email address for the rest of the world so you'll carry on suffering anyway. And if you're going to have two email addresses, one public and one private, why not just… well, have two email addresses and not tell anyone you don't want to know about the more secret one?

However, the idea of peer-to-peer email is intriguing. The obvious way to do it is via IM, where my experience is that anti-spam technology works quite well. I have two or three IM accounts on different systems (to say nothing of IRC), which I use pretty well constantly -- and apart from some background noise on AOL, which the system is good at managing, I get almost no hassle from bad people. So why not link that into my email system? I should be able to point at a friend on a buddy list, click 'Send an email', get an edit box up and type merrily away. All the clients have file transfer features already, so attachments are taken care of, and if someone's on my buddy list then I'm on theirs -- we're already mutually authenticated.

It's a curious corner of functionality that's been untouched so far, and one that has some intriguing possibilities. If I were to be a money-grabbing vulture, I should by rights patent the idea right now and then lie low until someone else comes up with it, but by publishing it I've scuppered my chances of seeing a dime. On the other hand, nobody else can nab the idea either, so it's comfortably in the public domain -- where such ideas should be, I reckon.

This might all fall apart if someone's already got the darn thing covered, of course.

(Curious fact about this story: when first published, the initial sentence said "Leeds-based company jeftel, which is backed by a local mysterymaire, has launched a 'leak proof' email system for a £25 annual subscription." What, you might reasonably ask, is a mysterymaire? It's a lovely word, redolent of gothic horror and dark, forbidding forests -- if only it existed. Some investigation showed that at some point, a macro had been run over the story to apply certain house style features -- one of which is to convert all occurrences of the word 'million' to the letter 'm'.

All this is fuel to my argument that only real people -- real, talented, well-paid people -- should be given the power to edit text. Computers might be OK at adding things up (and encrypting email) but they're thick as curdled milk…) [Said macro has been (ahem) edited since - slightly blushing Ed.] Wednesday 29/10/2004
My beloved father the self-described 'thick west-country vicar' has long since ceased to be either a vicar or live in the West Country (and you can't be that thick and get an MA from John's at Cambridge, can you?). However, until this week he's been priest-in-charge of Isleham parish in Cambridgeshire -- his attempts to take early retirement were stumped when the incumbent in his chosen parish had a heart attack about four months after my father arrived. So with the chap invalided out of the service and no replacement on the horizon, my father slipped on the old cassock and did a bit of light priesting.

As of this week -- and to the considerable relief of my mother -- that's over. He's now properly retired, following one final communion service last Sunday that involved a number of theological innovations which I'm sure would have got the old goat burned at the stake back in the days. A lot of work went into sorting out the Creed fifteen hundred years ago together with a number of rather messy schisms and altogether too much politics -- I'm sure the Church Fathers never intended it to be replaced by a version accompanied by a synthetic computerised banjo.

But I digress (it's a family tradition). As I was visiting for this service, I thought I'd perform my own work of mercy and upgrade their digital Freeview set-top box. This was a Nokia 221T I'd bought for them more than a year ago and it was running an old and rather buggy version of the firmware. While updates are occasionally broadcast over the air, you have to know about them and put the box into a special receive mode at the right time: neither of these things is obvious and it never happened. The latest version of the software does all this automatically, but of course you have to get it into the box.

Fortunately, the box has a serial port and can accept an update from a PC -- so I arrived equipped with the firmware and the appropriate updating software. Unfortunately, Nokia decided to make the serial port male, just like the one on a PC, presumably in case anyone ever decided to offer a subscription service that needed a modem.

Of course, nobody has. The only thing that ever gets plugged into that socket is a PC -- which means the dreaded Null Modem Cable is needed.

It's been a long time since I've had to tackle RS-232 head on, and whoever came up with the old saying that "any job involving serial cables, no matter how trivial it may seem, takes one-man day" deserves a medal for spot-onification. I started at 8 p.m., and by 2 a.m. I was a desperate man. I'd scoured the parish for cables, test meters and spare adaptors. I'd found a Laplink cable (remember them?) in the attic of an ex-veterinarian friend of my father's and got a digital meter from the chap next door (who had just that second come back from the hospital following a heart operation, and was rather bemused by the local priest turning up on the doorstep and asking for such things). I'd tried uploading the software from a laptop, a tablet PC and a desktop running Windows 98. I'd tried about 50 combinations of cables. I'd even cannibalised an old (and archaeologically significant) Sinclair QL serial lead for the right sort of connector.

Nothing worked. The set-top box remained stubbornly attached to version 1.0 of the firmware, and as I was determined to remain stubbornly attached to my sanity I called it a night and gave up.

Nokia: get a clue. Get USB. There is no place in the modern world for the arcane nonsense of RS-232, especially when configured in a way nobody will ever use. You have given an old man an extra strand of grey hair, and a little part of my soul will forever curse you. Thursday 30/10/2004
Much fun in a Soho pub, where a small but dedicated band of boozy hacks has decided to reconvene an old London IT journalist tradition -- the First Thursday drinking session. We have been summoned by the resourceful Lucy Sherriff of The Register, who has made good use of her science degree by getting the date wrong by a week. So we've rechristened the event the Last Thursday, which we feel has a proper sense of desperation -- and after all, there's nothing to stop us repeating the exercise next week if we feel like it.

Also in attendance -- Iain Thompson of VNU, Jono Bennett of uk.builder.com (that's us) and Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden. Two outsiders were also sucked into our whirlpool of beery depravity; Geoff Marshall -- newly minted Guinness Book Of Records holder and possessor of the famed 50p iPod -- and my future missus and BBC Radio Scotland producer, Louise Yeoman.

It's a far cry from the peak days of the old First Thursday, when entire floors of major London venues were taken over by the seething masses -- when IT news coverage had just begun to interest the nationals and numbers of Fleet Street's finest were intrigued by the spotty anoraks. I fear we've lost our mystique, chaps.

Nonetheless, we do a creditable job of putting the world to rights. Unfortunately, I am forced to take an oath of silence covering various tales so I cannot tell you about many of the things that some people took a perverse pride in revealing. I wish I could reveal the name of the hack who has taken the basic skill of not being findable -- most useful when it comes to dealing (or not) with irate editors, upset companies, curious tax officers and misguided shags -- and turned it into an art form.

Frequently, nobody's even sure what continent this man is on: Bin Laden could take lessons. The man's only contact with the world is when he decloaks momentarily to file a story over the Net, and even then he makes sure to choose a dateline that's got nothing to do with his actual location. In fact, we're not really sure he's still on this material plane -- but then, those who've known him for years report that this was always a worry.

The evening reaches a suitably sodden end -- your secrets are safe with me, fellow hacks, provided only you keep feeding me stories -- and we look forward to next month. A couple of faces from the Inquirer, IDG and Reed, and we'll be about ready to form a union.

Friday 1/10/2004
A friend of the diary relates the following tale of misunderstanding by remote control.

He was preparing to leave his home for work one morning when his mobile phone rang. He'd left it in the bedroom and raced upstairs to get it, but the call had fallen through to voicemail by the time he got there. He checked the caller ID -- it was his parents, who had gone on holiday the previous day.

At first, he thought that something had gone wrong with the trip and they were phoning from the airport -- but then realised that the number was their landline. He called back immediately, but the number was engaged -- voicemail was being left.

Finally, the number became unengaged and he got the ringing signal. No answer. Then his phone bleeped -- the voicemail had worked its way through the system. He dialled in.

What he heard chilled his blood. There was no voice, just what sounded like objects being moved around in the hallway of his parents' house. Someone was hard at work; someone who had presumably dislodged the cordless telephone in the hallway and hit last number redial. The voicemail went on for a couple of minutes, then cut off.

Once again, he tried calling back. No answer.

His parents lived about 100 miles away, in the depths of the countryside. The only thing he could do was to call their local police station -- local only in the sense it was in the nearest town, a good 20 minutes from their house.

Calling the police is not as simple as it sounds. They answered quickly, and then said "We'll put you through to the resource room" -- under-resource room would be closer to the truth, as that phone rang unanswered for five minutes. Finally, a chap answered, took all the details and said a car would be there as quickly as possible. Oh, and would it be OK if they broke in? They could re-secure the premises but it would be at our friend's expense.

Well yes, said the friend. What else can you say?

About 20 minutes later, the plod called back. They'd visited the house and found everything in order. The next door neighbours had a key, so no size 13 Doc work was required, and they'd expressed some surprise at the arrival of the police as the parents had departed not 10 minutes previously.

And so it transpired: the parents, my friend surmises, had decided to leave a day late, and that sound was his father lugging the baggage into the back of the car, having accidentally hit the phone in the process. The police seemed vaguely amused by this (to be honest, not a lot goes on up there) and the diary chum felt mildly stupid.

The parents, needless to say, are of the generation where they don't turn their cellphone on unless they want to make a call -- and they never make calls. A rather terse text has been left for them when they next decide they want to communicate.

Next time he's visiting, he says, he'll get them onto broadband and will leave a motion-sensitive Webcam hooked up. Saves so much bother.

(Fans of Mun Kotadia will be pleased to know he's not gone to India after all, but has skipped off to Australia where he'll be writing for our sister site, zdnet.com.au. As we and they share copy, we'll be seeing his byline back where it belongs here on zdnet.co.uk -- assuming he can get over his surprise and delight at finding a 24-hour pub opposite the company office. )