Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The secrets of tech news writing, Windows Media Center’s latest eccentricities, How Not To PR, and lots of brains in vats. Rupert raises a jar to the week

Monday 25/10/2004
Tech journalism might seem like a riotous festival of bacchanalia lightly seasoned with acts of gross irresponsibility, but the truth is - we have standards. No, honestly. We have at least two.

One is not to mix the ads and the stories up so you can't tell one from the other, because then you might think we're advertising salesmen. We'd rather be thought of as those strange people who film high-heel-wearing women stepping on insects.

The other is not to mix up news and comment, because then you wouldn't be able to tell what we find out and what we make up. We're just about on top of that ourselves, but we need all the help we can get.

Nevertheless, all journos have opinions about the stuff they write. That's necessary - otherwise how would we ever spot a story - but it's important to let the facts speak for themselves. One of the best ways is to find someone saying something that looks a bit strange and then find someone else with a degree of integrity who'll say something to put it into context.

You know the sort of thing: Bill Gates says "Microsoft will build super-intelligent holy robots that will mix the perfect martini and not run off with your daughters." Your average hack will look at that and say "Good heavens, what nonsense. But it's news" - and then phone up the Vatican to get a comment along the lines of "All robots are sinful creatures who will most certainly seduce your offspring, and they never chill the glasses properly." Thus, the journalist has a story with balance - or, if you prefer, one that matches his picture of the world. Tricky chap, Mr Objectivity.

Today provides us with an object lesson in this approach. Bruce Sterling, noted novelist, essayist and commentator on matters cyber, fell upon a story written by our own Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden, in the approved fashion. The story itself is a good 'un, with an RFID proponent loftily dismissing privacy issues as being a lack of understanding on the part of the consumers, while a privacy group he dismisses takes the RFID man to task for being a sinister bunny. Sterling's deconstruction of it on his Wired blog takes it to a new level, rattling out machine-gun apercus through the interstices of the story.

It's very amusing, spot-on perceptive and if you might suspect that this X-ray diffraction technique reveals something of the inner workings of a tech journalist's psyche then I'd be hard pushed to argue with you.

Tuesday 26/10/2004
We're off to London's glitzy Soho, to a huge art-deco bar with no fewer than nine enormous mirror balls dangling from alcoves in the ceiling. The occasion is Microsoft's launch of Windows Media Center 2005, and the company is pushing the boat out. The theme is The Best Of British, so there's a DJ playing hits from the Beatles through to Franz Ferdinand, film loops of Michael Caine and football matches and… er… well, at that point the idea fizzles out a bit. The champagne is Monopole (fair enough - Best of British rarely encompasses sparkling wine), the various bits of kit scattered around the place are more American than UK, and there's a good mix of people from around Europe intent on enjoying themselves.

Last time I went to a Media Center launch I behaved abysmally - I drank MS' booze while rudely pointing out the various flaws in their product. I was assured that this time, it will be different. It has to be said - the interface is slicker, the feature set appears to be better targeted and the kit itself looks more like something you'd have in your front room. Some of it does, at any rate. I was particularly impressed by the fake front room demonstrating the Vivaldi kit - stuff that Harrod's will sell for £25k, thus giving the lie to the idea that WMC is just too expensive.

So, filled with good intentions, I perambulate around the event with the intent of checking out all the vendors. It doesn't take long for the basic problem with this idea to become clear. "And what do you do? A Media Center. Great! And you? A Media Center. Well, that's very interesting. How about you? No, don't tell me, I'm keen to guess…"

It soon got to the point where I fell joyfully into the arms of Hauppauge, who had an unrepentantly geeky display of video cards and what we professional attenders of events call The Right Attitude - ie, they were more than happy to give unvarnished opinions about things. However, I then decided to ask around for a few demos.

You know what the big thing about a Windows Media Center PC is - it has a TV tuner. It was thus unfortunate that Microsoft picked a venue where there was no TV signal, nor was there any possibility of importing one. There was also nothing much by way of Internet connectivity -- especially at Intel's stand, where the techie had forgotten to bring the right drivers for the wireless network card.

Thus, all those carefully set up WMC boxes were reduced to playing back video. Or at least trying to - with loads of remote controls all set up for the same codes, it was more like a game of laser tag. Could you squeeze in a journalist-impressing burst of pre-recorded footie before the next-door stand switched your computer into a game of Reversi? (No.)

But when they worked, they worked. All apart from the Help screen on the main set-top box interface, which popped up as a local Web page that scrolled slower than anything I've seen since Windows 3.1 days. Every box I tried it on behaved the same way, so there's something funny going on.

Would I buy one? Not yet. In the days of the £50 DVD player and the £200 PVR, it would have to be something quite special to make me want to shell out £900 for a PC that did much the same stuff. And I may never quite be convinced that having all my domestic entertainment dependent on a box that has a history of worms, viruses and other nasties is a major step forward. Still, here's to the 2006 launch.

Wednesday 27/10/2004
The gong season is progressing nicely, and Dan Ilett is off doing his bit at the PR Week awards. The party goes well, with guest speaker Stephen Fry giving a good account of himself and the profession: "We're all whores and prostitutes, and if you're very, very good at it you go into PR." So the mood is jolly when the evening breaks up, and our hero finds himself in that endless queue for the cloakroom. Next to him is a loud and lippy Cockney geezer - tall, gangly, receding dark hair - and his rambunctious entourage.

For some reason, matey takes an interest in Dan's choice of evening wear. "What sort of jacket's that, then?" he said in a rather forceful manner. "This? It's a velvet jacket," said Dan, not inaccurately. "Yer, well, it's nice enough, but it's not the sort of thing you should wear to an evening like this!" said his new-found sartorial adviser. At this, the hangers-on decided to chip in and back up their boss with a few choice comments about the terrible dress sense of the modern man, with particular reference to Dan's outfit. It was all, reports our put-upon hero, rather reminiscent of getting picked on at school for having the wrong shoes.

Still, he bore it stoically and refused to rise to the bait. Nothing is more boring to the soused comedian than indifference, so things calmed down. "'Ere, no hard feelings" says the man. "What do you do, then?"

"I'm a journalist", says Dan. There is a momentary silence, broken only by the sound of all the blood in blokey's face retreating to within.

"Oh, er, er, good. What title d'you work for?" said our somewhat less cocky correspondent.

"ZDNet." A keen student of anthropology would at this point be able to diagnose panic in the body language of one of the two parties.

A gaggle of PR women appear: impeccable timing is a PR's best friend. "Oh, hi, Dan!" they say. "Good evening? Wasn't it fun? Ah, you're talking to Mike!"

Mike? Yes, Mike. Otherwise known as Mike King, MD of Johnson King - hi-tech PR to people such as Sophos, Aruba Networks, Mirrorpoint and others. If you look on their Web site, they pride themselves on their talent for media relations - a talent that Mike at once put to good use.

"Look, here's my card. Don't dump me in it, will you?" he said to his new best pal, Dan. And he was very friendly for the few moments they had left together. Dan, being a man of considerable forbearance and honour in adversity, would of course do no such thing.

Shame about the people he works with, though. They'd sell someone down the river in a trice if there's a good story in it.

Thursday 28/10/2004
Podcasting. Does it get you hot? The idea is that ordinary people like you and me produce a little radio show on their computers, send it out over the blogosphere or whatever, and then other people download it onto their personal music devices and listen at their convenience.

I can see the theoretical attraction, but I've got reservations. Producing something that's interesting to listen to for any length of time is surprisingly hard, even if you have something to say. Choosing what to listen to is also time-consuming, unless you have everything automated - and then you get an iPod full of stuff you know nothing about but is likely to turn up on Shuffle and steal your vibe for 30 minutes.

I have the ability, through a rather complex mixture of digital radios and server software, to move stuff from the BBC onto my iPod with a degree of automation, but rarely choose to do so. How likely am I to go to the bother for some pimply youth from Anaheim?

But my biggest reservation is that we've been here, done that and it didn't work. Remember Shoutcast? It was a way for ordinary people like you and me to produce a little radio show on our computers - etc. People are still using it, but a global revolution it was not. (I remember with some anxiety "Radio Jethro - All Tull, All The Time").

None of these arguments do any good against a friend of mine, who is bursting with enthusiasm for the idea. Despite my protestations, he talks me into going to a blog with 'loads of really good technical stuff' and a podcasting outgrowth.

I go over to the site my friend recommends, and download the show. Rather than load it onto my iPod, I decide to give the first five minutes a listen: if those seem good, I'll move the file across for later consumption.

It doesn't take five minutes. In around a minute I've learned that the bod casting is happy because he's had a baby - "well, let me make it clear, it was actually my wife who had the baby" - that he has no intention of getting to any kind of point, and that he has the sort of voice that would make me concrete up my ears rather than have it go on for much longer.

Podcasting. Hospital radio to go.

Friday 29/10/2004
This has been a good week for brains in vats - oh, and monkeys. First, researchers at the University of Minnesota managed to get a jar full of 25,000 rat brain cells to control a flight simulator: then, a team from the University of Pittsburgh wired a robot arm into the motor cortex of a passing simian. A computer - have you noticed that they're always hanging around at this sort of event? - decoded the neural activity in the cortex and used the signals to control the arm.

It took a while for the monkey to work out what was going on, and even longer for it to learn how to control the thing, but in the end it managed to feed itself reliably using the bionic prosthesis. "The monkey was perfectly happy doing this" said one researcher, "If it wasn't comfortable doing it, it wouldn't." No word yet as to the degree of contentment felt by the rat neurons, although with Delta in receivership and Ryanair getting more and more unionised they may feel that becoming a pilot is not the best career move.

Combine these sort of experiments with the knowledge that Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the Palm Pilot, is busy building artificial brains and it's clear we're in for an interesting few years. I would like to propose a few experiments to help advance the state of the art.

1. Grow a network of journalist neurons in a glass jar, and see whether it can accomplish simple tasks. Flying a flight simulator might be a bit hard - I've never had much luck at that, even with getting on for a million times more human neurons than the original jar had rat cells, so perhaps we can see if it can recognise a straight line from a PR, or be taught to reliably react to timed stimuli -- like a bell at 11pm -- without grumbling.

2. Teach a monkey to program a PalmPilot. As our leader today suggests the only way the PDA industry may be saved is if a cross-species market is developed. That will quite reasonably require some ape-centric software and other material, and who better to understand that market than those who are already part of it. If no monkeys show interest in learning to program, and being sensible animals this is quite possible, then teenagers, football managers or other near-humans could be pressed into service. First job: modify payroll program to cope with peanuts.

3. Take a culture of cells from an RAF pilot and see whether it can be grown into a network that behaves like a rat. Cheese detection, nose twitching and synchronised squeaking should do it. This may go some way to showing that pilots and rodents are in fact two different examples of the same species, a discovery which would surprise very few navigators and which would also please the people in charge of finding new ways to cut defence expenditure while giving the appearance of having an air force.

Brave days lie ahead.

Addendum: it would be impossible to write about this week without mentioning the great shock and sadness everyone in the office felt with the sudden passing of John Peel. It still seems like a bad joke gone wrong.

Tears have been shed, music has been played at excessive volume and countless tributes read online. I have no idea how much of the music I love came either directly from Peelie's show or because his endless promotion of the good stuff kept the record companies on their toes - but given the ska, reggae, punk, weird electronic and general shoutiness that lives on my iPod, I'd think that 'most of it' would be an accurate guess.

An irreplaceable man.