Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Holy mobiles, Batman! Looks like the Plod's looking for new PCs, the people's flag's flying over the Web and Rupert's upset about Windows. Again
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 29/11/2004

Deutsche Welle -- the German equivalent of the BBC World Service -- is running an odd story about phone companies and God. It's not about those strange messianic neuroses that so commonly afflict those in charge of large telcos, more about the strange synergy that exists between places of worship and mobile phone base stations.

The mystically inclined might put this down to a common desire to make contact across the aether, while the sardonic might mutter something about the services never quite living up to expectations and you never get the answer you need. It's more prosaic than that, of course: churches are tall and notoriously under-funded structures positioned near all the oldest and densest centres of population, often exempt from various layers of planning permission, while mobile phone companies are high-spending beasts desperate to get within cell-shot of as many people as quickly as possible. So the vicar gets a wedge of cash for the roof fund, the mobile company gets to put its antenna somewhat closer to God than before, and everyone's happy.

Nah. Of course they're not happy. People hate phone masts. They think they slowly cook the children -- if only -- not because of any scientific risk assessment but because they are New and therefore Scary. They think, further, that the masts are ugly, when any civilised, enlightened being would recognise them as some of the most glorious expressions of the human spirit since Duchamp's Fountain. Yet the customer is always right, right?

So Austrian company Industrieanlageabau has come up with a variety of disguised masts - deciduous and evergreen trees, for example, or chimneys. And for the church? A tasteful crucifix, with Christ on an antenna-infested cross. In place of the crown of thorns, a pair of jaunty Yagis, and radiating elements clipped onto the ends of the crosspiece.

I hesitate to delve too deeply into the theology of all this, but it's unlikely to appeal to the Protestant traditions which have largely dispensed with actual sculptures in favour of a more symbolic and unadorned cross. Other religions will also have problems adapting their symbols -- the Star of David is already close to a loop antenna, an efficient device but hopelessly directional, while the crescent moon more resembles a satellite dish in cross-section.

However, I can see a way forward. The evangelical Christians, normally conservative in outlook, may be persuaded to allow a little discreet antenna placement on their buildings if only the mobile phone companies allow a few bibles at their HQ. Perhaps a chapel or too -- but let's hope they draw the line at Prayer For The Day downloadable ringtones, eh?

Tuesday 30/11/2004

Roving reporter Ingrid Marson cables back from Madrid, where she's enjoying a couple of days at the HP Software Universe show. There's the usual cheerleading from the stage, especially about numbers -- 900 more delegates than expected, which probably put a strain on the finger buffets. Curiously, Ingrid says, she had a hard time finding real customers: with loads of HP bods and tons of partners, the actual paying stiff was thin on the ground.

More excitement back at the hotel, though, where a large and rather imposing entourage sweeps through the lobby. It is Abdoulaye Wade, the third and current President of Senegal, together with the standard issue set of bag carriers, bodyguards, protocol pushers and deputies that accompany a head of state when he's out and about. As befits a mere peon, Ingrid lets the wash of people go past. The Prez is just getting into the lift when a rather loud voice says "Hello, lady!" in Ingrid's right ear. Recovering her wits, she finds the voice attached to a happy-looking chap from the Senegal party who crept up behind her and appeared to be looking -- in vain -- for some kind of positive response. Not getting one, he silently vanishes away and repeats the experiment on other, similarly chromosomed members of the press party. Some subtle PRing from HP, or a lost opportunity for exotic adventures? We shall never know.

At least 'Lady' is a bit more fun than 'Mrs Marson', which is how Gentoo addressed our noble scribe. The Gentoo operational manager, Chis Gianelloni, had a long chat with Ingrid about an upcoming live release of the software, and the Lady wrote it up. But not to Gentoo's satisfaction: there was a misunderstanding over package management tool functionality -- don't you hate it when that happens? -- Slashdot got overexcited and Gentoo reacted rather strongly -- including a missive addressed to Mrs Marson. Fortunately, all is now sorted out and we all love each other once again, but Ingrid probably remains the only person to get married by a Linux distro. We haven't told her boyfriend yet… nor yet the cultural attaché from Senegal. Too many hearts to break at once.

Wednesday 1/12/2004

Much chortling in the office over the proposal that IT bods should enlist in the special constabulary to help Plod nab computer-savvy crooks. As the proponents say, there'd have to be a few changes in the rules -- currently, if you want to work for the police you have to pass a physical designed to make sure you have a chance of being handy when the rough stuff kicks off. Your average IT manager, while more than capable of doing damage to a crowd of ugly-looking pints, isn't quite cut from Sweeney cloth. At least it'll let us make some jokes about PC Support and the Boys in Blue Screen Of Death.

But the thing that worries us is that… well, you know what people get like when they put a uniform on. We hesitate to claim that everyone in a funny hat is an anal jobsworth working out their inferiority complexes through hierarchical repression, but we've met a few. It's always the quiet ones with the staring eyes, no social skills and curious hobbies that are worse, so if the Old Bill is careful to screen those out when recruiting from the pool of technology specialists… this isn't going to work, is it?

And while we know a few programmers who habitually spend long periods at their keyboards dressed up in a variety of interesting leisurewear, it's not clear whether the Tech Specials will be required to be properly attired while on duty. Presumably for the deep cover jobs -- inveigling yourself into a network of webcamming villains and pornographers -- disguises and appropriate clothing will be required. One of the things about special policing, though, is that it's designed as far as possible to fit in with one's normal job -- and while helping out at the local football ground is one thing, poking around online in the name of the law can as easily be done from work as anywhere else. In fact, it may be the only place with the right equipment.

The comedy potential is endless. "What on earth are you doing, Sanderson?" "Lunch break, boss." "But you're taking off all your clothes!" "Yes, I'm investigating the MSN Willy Waver -- he breaks into chat rooms and… well, you know. That sort of chat room. Gotta fit in. Here, catch!"

Thursday 2/12/2004

I've always felt in two minds about unions. On the one hand, capitalism hates its workers. It wants to pay them as little as possible for as much work as possible -- beyond that, they're a problem. To have a chance at a decent crack at the whip, the people have to get together and get their hands around the business' windpipe from time to time. At least, that used to be the case. After a good few decades of -- often union-led -- legislation and a degree of social change, there are plenty of companies which do behave as well as they can towards their people, and there are plenty more rights that come with a job now.

On the other hand, unions can be destructive, personality-led and self-defeating. My few experiences with them have not been good, such as a notably cack-handed strike in the 80s that caused no end of trouble and achieved nothing.

So it's good to see that there are other ways to shake up a company. One seems to be working at games company Electronic Arts, which is currently quaking under an onslaught of criticism due to its working practices -- which, complainants say, ask 80+ hour working weeks with no overtime payments for the entire duration of a project. Did the company care? Hell, no. The HR policy, insiders report, was "Like it, or shut up and leave," based on the idea that there are always more keen kids desperate to get into the business than there are burned-out shells leaving it. But a series of anonymous -- and not so anonymous -- open letters, blogs and class actions gelled online, and now the company is suddenly aware that its attracting a lot of attention. There's already a leaked memo saying that they know things are wrong and they'll set out to change them.

Another interesting affair is going on at Ryanair, which is run by notoriously union-unfriendly Michael O'Leary. Recently, what with one thing and another, the pilots have been considering joining a union: M O'L's been reacting to this idea very badly indeed. Once again, online forums -- at first, the PPRuNe (Professional Pilots Rumour Network, if you must know) Web site, and now a new Ryanair European Pilots Association site -- have formed the focus for dissent, ensuring that any attempts to divide and rule are reported to all within minutes.

Now, if we can only apply the same fire to the feet of our beloved political masters, we might be onto something…

Friday 3/12/2004

I'm running late. Which means of course that my computer's crashed, which means - horror of horrors -- a reset. Windows itself has got better -- if you avoid using Outlook or IE it can run for simply ages -- but the same can't be said for the mess of beta, pre-release and otherwise ungodly applications one runs in the course of one's duties.

That's OK. What's not OK is the ever-increasing imbecility of all this nonsense when it wakes up in the morning. We're all a bit like that -- some of us more than others -- but it's now taking me a good three minutes to get past a forest of blithering nonsense before I can do anything I want to. I know I've said this before, but it's getting worse.

For example: Yahoo! IM. This used to be a model of rectitude: now, it springs into life offering me great yet unexplained rewards if I choose to upgrade. I know, having made that mistake on another computer, that this upgrade will result in BT's VoIP balderdash making a permanent and -- yes! -- noisy home on my computer. You can't de-install that: neither can you tell Y! IM not to bother asking in the first place. So up pops the "You want to upgrade!" window, over the top of the "Please log into Gmail" box, which is on top of ICQ - neither of which seem to want to let me tell them to just remember who I am. The timing of these things is perfect - just enough to let you start to type in your name and password but not enough to finish before the next one appears. [I've tried telling him to install Miranda, but will he listen? - Ed.]

Or take Prevx Home. This is a free anti-spyware utility that works a bit like ZoneAlarm. It monitors various internal activities in Windows, and if it spots something writing files that should not be written or tampering with the registry it stops the event and raises the alarm. Jolly good idea, and with the latest version it seems to have stopped its habit of taking down your operating system pre-emptively before spyware can have a go. But for 'Generic Intrusion Prevention' it's bloody intrusive. Restart, and up it pops. "Prevx is about to check for updates", it says, all over the top of the other twenty windows demanding your attention. That's nice. Oh, I have to click on Begin? And when it's finished noisily sucking down its bits, I have to click on Finish? Even when there's nothing to download?

Each individual quantum shell of idiocy doesn't add much to the sum total of morning misery, but put them all together and a chap's wishing for the days when the only technology that took minutes to warm up was the wireless. Kudos to people like Grisoft, Webroot and Gipsymedia who make stuff like AVG, Spy Sweeper and Digiguide -- stuff that sits there silently and only interrupts me when there's good reason.

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