Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Old is the new new, an alarming party, nightmares in the office, an absence of curry, and why Rupert won't fall out of any more windows
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 18/10/2004
There is little as unappealing as an ancient fart grumbling about the good old days. But it's good for you so pin back your ears, young squirts.

When I were a lad, computers were fun. You got a Z80 processor, a couple of K of RAM, an operating system that ran in 8K, a bit of bodge logic and off you went. None of this namby-pamby GUI swank, no gigabyte-gobbling office suites, no giant, ill-tempered registry demanding arcane prayers: you had to get your hands dirty with the hardware. And you ended up knowing about computers, right down to the nuts and bolts.

I'd thought those days had passed. It's not that you can't go and repeat the experience -- you can, just by downloading a ZX81 emulator for your Wintel monster -- but why would you bother? There are 10 zillion distractions, and the thrill of making something work for the first time has long since been replaced by the frustration of trying to make something work for a second.

I was wrong. This week, an old comet has returned to blaze a new stripe across the sky. Take a look at the XgameStation. It is a cut-down games console, and on the face of it one stuck in a 1980s time warp. Costs $200 as well -- which for hardware that's got less whoomph than a Game Boy Advance looks like something other than a bargain.

But that's not why it's here. It's designed for one purpose: teaching yourself how games work. It comes with everything you need: a powerful assembler-based development environment; an online community of like minds; plenty of download fun; and copious documentation down to the last bit. You could build your own from the instructions, but you won't need to: it's ready to rumble.

Get one of these and you'll be right back in the groove of messing about with seriously fun hardware that repays your attention with gratifying results. It even comes with a vintage Atari joystick: that's how cool it is. The end results -- well, you know what they say about the old games being the most fun: fast, furious, colourful, noisy fun. You don't get the movie-quality 3D graphics and AI gameplay, but you don't need the Hollywood budget and the team of hundreds either. It's you, the machine, your imagination and your skills. The fact that it may be an on-ramp to life in one of the most exciting industries on the planet is mere glitter on the pixel.

I haven't seen anything for years that reinvigorated my want glands quite so effectively. This deserves more than cult status -- it should be the Meccano for the digital century. If you have any digital DNA in your genome, you should go out, get one, log off and write yourself a huge grin. In assembler.

Tuesday 19/10/2004
As you know, we are a company that moves in the highest circles -- even if our activities might sometimes set off alarm bells in corporate HQs around the world. So I wasn't too surprised on Tuesday afternoon when Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden and Ingrid 'Open Source' Marson dashed into the nearest telephone box and came out dolled up to the nines. A swanky do was on the cards. After the event, I asked for a full report. Ingrid muttered something about a breaking Linux story and concentrated pointedly at her keyboard, so it was left to Scoop to fill me in.

"I went to the British Computing Society Awards on Tuesday night in the excellent company of BT Exact," said Scoop. "Look, can we leave it at that?"

I tut-tutted. Although we might be part of an American media empire, the Fifth Amendment doesn't run on Airstrip One. "Incriminate yourself, and quickly." I said. "Or I'll find out from someone else."

Well, said Scoop. I got there a bit late after covering a late-breaking and slightly liquid story with the PR man. There were 22 different awards to get through: good taste and courtesy demanded that we toasted each winner with the fine wines so copiously provided. And it would have been rude not to appreciate the lovely Philippa Forrester who handed out the gongs.

Then, at the end, it was up to the top-floor bar for a couple of strong Belgian beers, just for a nightcap and to say thanks to our hosts for a splendid evening. However, even though we weren't on the BT Tower, I was a little surprised when the room started to gently revolve. Clearly, my duty had been done and I could leave without appearing ungrateful -- in fact, to stay any further might result in certain centrifugal effects that might be misinterpreted as the consequences of over-refreshment.

So, I gently spiralled all the way back to the basement to collect my stuff, and then to the way out. But where was it? I went up the wrong stairs, and soon found myself in the concrete bowels of the place. Luckily, health and safety is there to look after the unhealthily imperilled, and I caught sight of some helpful exit signs -- even greener than myself.

I followed them, taking me past a couple of confused cleaners ('evening!' says Scoop), and into a rather swish area. No exit yet. So through another door [note the switch into the present tense as the narrative warms up. The lad's a natural. Ed]

A loud alarm goes off. "Everyone stay in your sector. Security is on its way," booms out a scary voice over the tannoy. I retrace my steps (flashing a winning smile at those cleaners), but the sirens continue. [At this point, our hero slips into the third person: he's enjoying it far too much. Ed]

Our DJ-clad hero fears the worst (how will those dashing braces go down in the Paddington Green high-security cells?), but then he spies a lift. Pausing only to borrow an apple from a complimentary (he hopes) fruit bowl he hammers on the button, leaps in, and he's soon racing out of the building and home -- leaving behind him, in best Bond tradition, a scene of chaos and confusion.

But has this ruined his reputation with BT? Hopefully not, as he accidentally dished out Michael Parson's business cards rather than his own. Even the cleaners got one.

Wednesday 20/10/2004
We're a disparate lot at ZDNet UK, which means we don't tend to watch the same TV programmes. The sports fans -- ok, nearly everyone except me -- get to talk about the latest match or whatever, but there's not much overlap otherwise. Today is different: loads of us turn out to have watched The Power of Nightmares last night, the first of a three-part BBC series exploring the theory that there's been a conscious and prolonged effort by American neo-conservatives to find -- if necessary, to create -- threats that can be used as an excuse for power. You can see why that might interest people.

It's a fascinating area, and one that finds much resonance in a world of invisible WMDs. Although two more parts remain to be shown, it's already attracted furious criticism from the US -- the staunchly neo-con National Review is almost beside itself with rage at the "ludicrous, bizarre and preposterous" programme. Apparently, British producers are hooked on a Chomskyite vision of Amerika as the fount of all evil. Golly! And we, the British public, are so steeped in this that we can't even tell we're being corrupted (a theme that was fascinatingly reprised in Nightmares as one of the underlying engines of Islamic terrorism).

It's still quite shocking to find large numbers of American intellectuals convinced that the BBC and friends are so stolidly, institutionally consumed with hatred for America that every word they utter is liberal propaganda. The same people laugh off Fox as at worse harmless fun, at best the true voice of the American people, so perhaps this is a bridge that's uncrossable.

However, as the discussion of Nightmares continued at work, the usual mix of URLs and clippings flew from desk to desk as the conversation developed. It turned out that a lot of us had also watched Jon Stewart on Crossfire: er, who? What? Stewart is the frontman for a US comedy/satire show called The Daily Show, and Crossfire is a discussion programme on CNN. Neither is shown in the UK -- I can't recall either being even mentioned on TV or in the press.

Stewart is relentless in his pursuit of political crassness -- you can guess at his natural prey -- while Crossfire is infotainment, tired old hackery dressed up as political discourse. Combine the two, and you have coruscating television -- Stewart unleashing all the frustration and despair that so many feel at the state of national discussion in the US (a feeling not unknown over here). He was rude, he was unstintingly critical, he was impassioned and he meant every word. It was excellent television. And because it was so good, so painfully apt, the cultural ferment of the Internet had delivered it to us limeys. We were part of the discussion -- and possibly more effectively than the Guardian's ham-fisted attempt to mailbomb Clark County.

We may have hundreds of channels of largely American TV on cable and satellite, but there's real cultural discourse going on beneath the radar. Slowly but effectively, the Net is fulfilling its promise of eating through barriers of time and space: when we spend more time talking about a show never broadcast within 4,000 miles of home than we ever do about Newsnight, change is on its way.

Thursday 21/10/2004
A team of PRs from Band and Brown -- best known to us as Cisco's vicars on earth -- descend on Schloss CNET for that all-important activity, building relationships. We promptly take the relationship assembly kit and decant it and us to the Anchor Tap, a typical London pub just below Tower Bridge. There is much conviviality, a great deal of pleasing banter and thoughts are just taking that three-pint turn to the curry house along the way when my phone goes off. It is the BBC World Service, who have run out of other options for a pundit to talk about Google's financial results.

I manage to curb my beery slurring and say the right things. With infinite regret and a rumbling tum, I leave the party. Hoping that the cool London night air will reinvest me with a degree of alacrity, I get a tube to the Aldwych, neck a quick coffee -- oh, poor stomach -- and present myself at the studio.

"Thanks for coming out" says the interviewer. "We're in the studio at about twenty to ten. The results are due out at half past nine." It's nine. The beer has largely worn off: not so the clamours of the inner man -- I can switch my mobile off in the studio, but can't do much about the Mt St Helen's style gastric seismology going on within.

At 9:30 on the dot, the results appear. Eight pages of closely written American accounting -- lovely. We rush down to the studio while I try and pick the bones out of earnings, depreciation, one-time write-offs and carefully phrased talk of millions here, millions there. It's not helped by the fact that the print-out has that traditional Web tradition of a huge left hand margin and a missing inch of text along the right.

I sit nervously in the studio, headphones on, while the presenter -- the frankly impressive Judy Swallow, who is as wonderfully and waspishly acidic off mike as she is precise and effective on -- rounds off the last story. Apparently, the US has managed to persuade Albania to destroy its stocks of chemical weapons -- thank god the Albanian threat has been neutralised, eh, readers?

And then it's into Google. The interviewer finishes his precis and turns to me. "So, Rupert, is this a good result for Google?" I don't know. Nobody knows. Google has done so many things so differently, these are the first results as a public company and the usually overconfident analysts have been remarkably fuzzy. But hell, they've turned over $800m. "$800m is a lot of money," I say and immediately kick myself: this isn't the sort of incisive analysis the world is eager to hear.

Things pick up after that, I'm glad to say. We touch on Microsoft -- of course -- and Google's global strategy, which of course they've told nobody about. Live wireless. You can't beat it.

It's ten o'clock, and too late to make it back to Tower Hill for what I am later informed was a top-notch bit of Indian fork-fare. I am stone cold sober, slightly buzzy after my encounter with the microphone and I could eat a horse. No horse being available, I'm forced into the nearest Subway.

As I chomp away at an overpriced bread roll stuffed with a variety of fillings, each tasting astonishingly close to damp cardboard, I stare out over the dark street. As the first hint of a night's entertaining indigestion takes hold, I tromp up Kingsway to Holborn Tube through puddles and piles of rubbish. Don't let anyone tell you that life in the media is anything less than endlessly romantic.

Friday 22/10/2004
San Francisco is a city with many reputations. It has in the past been "the best bad city in the United States", where licentious depravity lived alongside a disapproving -- yet secretly proud -- set of civil propriety. Those days have long passed, of course: nobody now lives sinfully beneath the fog. But it still has snares set for the unwary: in my case, visits have usually involved a high risk of falling out of windows.

It's all the fault of Karen, a production maestro on our American site. She has the terrible misfortune to inhabit a frankly gorgeous apartment in the gentrified bohemia of the Haight and Fillmore area. Furthermore, she labours under the twin curses of being a friendly ex-pat Geordie and having a spare room. In return for a smuggled stash of chocolate biscuits, Marmite and teabags, she frequently allows passing British journalists to ruin her weekends, even if they persuade her to go out, listen to some terrible racket put on by passing rock and roll bands, and distress her system with gin and tonics. Her nobility in the face of such decadence is unsurpassable.

It was on one such weekend that I happened to turn on my laptop. It chirruped, and announced that it had found a number of Wi-Fi networks. As K's flat is on the top floor of a three-story building surrounded by the cribs of the IT world's cuttingest young blades, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, My instinctive urge for bandwidth kicked in, and I explored. There were three accessible networks, but none of them were particularly reliable on the kitchen table. I waltzed around the front room with the laptop, twirling like a gay young debutante while I stared deep into the eyes of my Wi-Fi sniffer software.

There was only one place where the signal was strong and the connection reliable -- perched half-way out of the top story window. I had pictures to send, email to read, sites to browse: nothing for it but to wedge myself gingerly into the space, dangle the review laptop out over the street below, and settle down for a long session. That was OK -- but of course, I couldn't resist the temptation to repeat the experiment at various other times during the weekend. Disaster was inches away.

During my last jaunt to San Fran, however, sanity had struck. The networks were there in profusion, but every last one of them had been locked down tight. I know Wi-Fi security is supposed to be hackable, but life is too short -- especially on a sunny Saturday with all the joys of the city to plunder. That didn't stop me trying to get a sniff of something open -- as long as I never looked down.

However, defenestration will soon be a thing of the past for the laptop lugging traveller. Today, the Mayor of San Francisco has said that he will not stop until every inhabitant of that great city has access to free wireless networking. If I ever go back, I'll be able to quietly peruse the world from a safer position. My travel insurance will not be tested, and my gin will remain unspilled. And another little sparkle of danger will have passed from the long and exciting history of San Fran -- to the great relief of passers-by on Fillmore.

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