Rupert Goodwins' Diary

You too can rule the world by remote control. Just hand over your card and smile for the iPod...
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor on

Monday 4/10/2004
It's all very well being a noble defender of the downtrodden, a fearless crusader against evil and a vigorous vanquisher of injustice -- but sometimes the bleeding downtrodden make you want to give up and leave them to get vanquished themselves.

Take the following email, sent to our office manager by the building facilities people. "Warning!" it said. "The Barclays cash machine in Tower Hill tube station has been tampered with. It was an obvious cover put over one side of the machine with a very rough silver paint job and really easy to spot."

Damn. I missed it. I'd been wanting to see one of these skimmers for a while. They're quite sophisticated -- the scammers take the insides of a tiny digital camera, add a card reader, record the magnetic data from the card and then transmit back pictures of the pin being entered. Still, I'm sure I'll get the chance.

However, the email continues:

"Despite me standing there and telling people they still wanted to put their card in."

You can only go so far in trying to help. "This cash machine is bugged -- it will duplicate your card and your entire savings will be transferred to Caracas to pay for plastic surgery on family pets!" "Yeah, yeah, but I need fifty quid for tonight."

I've seen this before. A fake mobile phone company Web site offered loads of great deals that were -- frankly -- too good to be true. Some investigation revealed that it was a well-designed yet obvious fake. This knowledge was distributed on a discussion board read by a few hundred knowledgeable -- you'd think -- punters. The following conversation ensued. "We've checked it out. The company name's a front, the Web site is registered to a random address in California, the contact numbers don’t work and the prices are lower than Nokia can make the phones for."

"Yeah, yeah, but it's such a good price - I might put in an order, just in case it's legit."

I tell you, it won't take much more of this before I set up a site marked "FRAUD-R-US! Please enter your credit card number, and see what happens next!" But then I always promised myself I'd never become a publisher…

(The Caracas reference to plastic surgery for pets? Apparently so: the latest fad is to hire surgeons and lend them to an elderly relative so their pets can be modified to look like their owners. Who knew?)

Tuesday 5/10/2004
Over at the Symbian Expo, 'Scoop' Wearden is on the hunt for stories. The keynote is strong on Symbian's deal with Intel for the next generation of development systems, which Scoop duly scribbles down. However, like all good journos he takes care to ask other parties with an interest in the matter -- people like Texas Instruments, who go head-to-head with Intel in phones and PDAs -- what they think of the announcement.

TI is unimpressed, and points out that since virtually all Symbian phones already use TI chips, why would anyone get that excited by Intel? Fair point.

This doesn't please Intel, who gently chastises Scoop by phone later in the day for not talking to its man at the expo.

"Really?" says Graeme, who thought he'd nattered to everyone of note. "Where are they?"

"Oh, they've gone now," says Intel, "But you could have arranged to talk to them via the PR".

"And when were they here?"

"Between 10:30 and 12."

"When the keynote was on?"


"When I'd have been in, er, the keynote?"

It seems the poor lad is doomed by his inability to be in two places at once, chasing up reactions to stories he's yet to write while detecting the presence of appropriate people through telepathy alone. Pull your socks up, G!

However, he was somewhat snookered later on. A passing Symbian executive quietly suggests that Scoop takes the opportunity to test out the new All Questions Answered (AQA) text messaging service. "You just send your question, and they get back to you in minutes!" said the suit. "Oooh!" thought Scoop. Much easier than having to wear out the shoe leather chasing after contacts. So he tried, bashing out a quick "What's going to happen to the mobile phone market?" Moments later, the reply came:

"Opinion is divided concerning the future of the mobile market. Industry has pushed new technology. Yet consumers want basic phones and better coverage."

Well, yes. Pine trees are tall, but do not touch the sky. Not overly impressed with the depth of the analysis -- plus the fact that he couldn't easily cut and paste from his phone to the word processor -- Graeme moved on.

What he didn't know -- but I did, due to in-depth research of my own among the back end systems of AQA (OK, it employs a friend of mine as a freelance researcher) -- is that this wasn't a random suggestion by the Symbian bod. AQA is run by friends of Symbian, and the back ends had been briefed earlier to 'expect a flood of Symbian questions'. It was all planned to get AQA some exposure in the press. The really neat bit is, the ladies and gentlemen of the press had spent their own money on the text bills to test it out -- whereas if AQA had just come straight out and said "Try it out, chaps" there'd have been a lot of huffing and puffing about demo accounts.

But since I haven't laid out a penny of my own money, I am pleased to go along with their little jape.

Wednesday 6/10/2004
Congratulations! As a reader of ZDNet UK this week, you're part of a rarely observed phenomenon -- the exact moment when a word passes from street argot to mainstream English. That word -- roll on the drums please -- is chav. Type it into Word or OpenOffice.org, and you'll get a wavy red line: not for long.

You may already have heard of it. You may, indeed, already be a chav. For those who haven't -- or aren't, or who don't know whether they are or not -- it can best be described as a mildly derogatory term for a member of what the definitive Web site chavscum.co.uk calls the urban underclass. It's already popular among the more sardonic middle classes, and Mike Skinner of The Streets is reputed to be starring in a new movie called Chav. But it hasn't found universal acceptance.

Until today. Our leader today -- while nominally about Symbian -- includes much discussion about how brands can move between classes of product. The original had possibly actionable references to football hooligans which, after some thought, we replaced with chavs. Would enough readers know about chavhood? Tough call, but we thought so -- and publishing in an environment where Google is a click away encourages a little envelope extension.

Unbeknownst to us, at the very time our story was percolating through the great yet remarkably well-oiled machinery that is ZDNet UK's production department, our arch-rivals the infinitely evil and totally untrustworthy Reg, are doing exactly the same thing -- only being the Reg, they've devoted a whole story to the World of Chav with nary a nod to the world of IT.

So with two sources of such impeccable reputation behind it, we can safely say that chav has been thoroughly approved and is now ready for general use by ladies of quality, men of the cloth and respectable families throughout our great nation.


(PS -- VNUNet also used the word this week, but as the company promptly shut down its News Centre operation and made large numbers of staff redundant, we think it better not to mention the fact.)

Thursday 7/10/2004
As a fan of all things wireless, I thoroughly approve when radio technology gets a mention in the mainstream media. So I perked up when Salon, the mildly quirky online magazine, ran a long piece on whether George W Bush is being prompted by remote control during debates. The main point of discussion is an outline of a paperback-sized bulge under the back of the man's suit during his last debate with Kerry -- a radio receiver?

It's horribly plausible: there have been reports of mysterious voices, picked up by radio mic receivers, apparently prompting the Prez; times when Dubya has broken off in mid-speech and snapped at an invisible someone; even rumours that in the business 'everyone knows' that Bush wears an earpiece during speeches. "It's just like a teleprompter, really" is the excuse. And there's no doubt that Bush's way with words can veer from let's say charmingly homespun to the alarmingly disconnected.

Well. Is the leader of the Western World so unable to think on his feet that he needs a shot of Marconi in the lug-hole to keep his brain ticking over? That, I cannot say -- but the bulge under his jacket is almost certainly not a radio. Unless the Republicans were using some incredibly powerful cryptographic system with acres of gubbins and a laptop-sized battery, any secret receiver would be the size of a matchbox and could be stashed anywhere -- you wouldn't strap it to the upper torso. The really good stuff fits entirely inside the ear. That bulge? Probably a ceramic trauma plate, say the bloggers, an extra level of body armour that protects against high velocity rounds.

Which isn't to say that he isn't being prompted from a bunker somewhere, with Karl Rove muttering tight-lipped commands into a microphone. The best way to find out would be to have a team of radio hams on standby at the next debate, with spectrum analysers, scanners and powerful frequency agile transmitters. A quick whip through the airwaves should find the channel in use, which could then be taken over: the 'official' transmitter will only be a watt or so, and any half-decent ham can rustle up 500 times that. And then we'll be the ones whispering in George's ear.

A quick plea for free cocaine for school children, compulsory gay marriage for Texans and the summary confiscation of SUVs -- to be replaced by recumbent bicycles -- should do for starters.

Friday 8/10/2004
Rumours are circulating of the next iPod, which will squeeze 60 gigabytes of hard disk into the existing package and top it off with a full colour screen. The beast also has video out: it's designed to be a portable repository for digital photographs so you can show everyone your holiday snaps either on the screen of the unit itself or through their telly.

But, the rumours continue, the video iPod doesn't have a memory card slot -- so if you want to move your pictures from your camera to your portable storage device, you'll either have to lug a laptop around with you or the slightly clumsy Belkin adaptor that does the same job, How inelegant.

That's not enough to make me want to upgrade. No, I want more. New Scientist this week talked about a new combined body scanner and projector which locates your internal bits and then projects them onto your skin. This was designed to help doctors find veins for injections -- speaking as a man with a needle phobia and very hard-to-find blood vessels, I can only applaud this invention -- but clearly has many other uses.

And that's what I want in my video iPod, a built-in X-ray machine. I want to be able to photograph my internal squidgy bits. It'd also be useful for finding hidden pipework in walls, spotting the chocolate bar with the million-pound prize, working out which chair the keys have fallen behind, and finding the truth when fellow journalists complain of impoverishment at the pub.

You're supposed to be innovative, clever and far-sighted, Apple. You know what I want. Deliver.

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