Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Broadway hits the Net, photons get twisted, trousers get tighter and Apple gets juicier. Let's put the show on right here!
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 6/12/2004

I'm working on a story about quantum cryptography - an abstruse field which is going through rapid and exciting developments. The results so far aren't going to revolutionise the world -- it's promising useful results for very high end security, but nothing immediately applicable to what we do all day. In the future, however, quantum computing could produce some astonishingly powerful machines, quite plausibly capable of things as far removed from our current state of IT as the Pentium is from a knitting machine.

That's not the only reason I'm getting hot under the collar. The best bit is that I get to phone up real physicists who are playing around in their labs with stuff like single photon entanglements, artificial atoms and teleportation. One such -- I don't want to say too much until the story's cooked -- proves to be a most amiable and patient soul who goes out of his way to guide my fumbling, half-baked questions into areas where I not only understand what he's saying, I get an idea what I'm talking about to boot.

Just as well. Quantum physics is whacky enough in its own right, but when you try and bend it to do something useful you end up jumping through all sorts of hoops. As far as I can tell, the particular brand of quantum crypto our friend is working on relies on twisting photons in various ways that can't then be properly detected. Billions are born, and most of them subsequently die lonely deaths without reaching their target: those few that do might or might not then reveal their secrets to the recipient. Neither side knows exactly what's happened - but they then swap hints with each other until they reach an agreement. The whole confection seems to operate in some hazy mish-mash of probability that gives an Eastenders plot line a run for its money in the implausibility stakes -- but if you try to sneak a look at what's going on, the whole thing twists in on itself and refuses to play ball.

Or something. What's most fun is that I quite rudely take advantage of having a real live quantum mechanic on the line to ask all sorts of ancillary questions that bug me every time I try and make sense of a New Scientist or Nature article on the subject. Little things like "So, is quantum teleportation instantaneous or is it bounded by c?" - which is rewarded by a long pause and a giggle. I get the feeling that this is something of a rude thing to ask, but like most rudery it's absolutely fascinating.

Mostly, though, I'm exhilarated by having some real new technology to write about. When every other story seems to be about intellectual property, reheated chip designs or TCO, the sense that things are thundering ahead behind the scenes is most refreshing.

Watch this space.

Tuesday 7/12/2004

OK, listen up. It's meme time. I could be perpetuating a viral marketing campaign, but I doubt it: the show in question seems to be doing insanely well without the need of any such thing and it is, after all, a Broadway musical. I write of Avenue Q, which is currently winning lots of awards and getting lots of happy reviews: it isn't quite South Park meets The Muppets, but it does involve a lot of puppet monsters helping various attractive and talented young actors sort their lives out on stage.

This may be the first time I've mentioned a musical: not that I've got anything against the art form, I can even be found sometimes singing a selection of hits from South Pacific, but they don't form a big part of my life. Let's be frank, they're rarely deeply appropriate to IT journalism. So what makes Avenue Q different?

It's a very modern production and is aimed squarely at the experiences of young New Yorkers. As such, it involves work, sex, social life, ambition and the Internet. One song in particular is dedicated to the latter: it brings together Amazon.com, eBay, online financial trading, even online birthday cards. It's light, bubbly and very, very catchy. Once you hear it, you can't get it out of your head.

And that's the problem. The song in question is a duet of sorts between Kate Monster and Trekkie, two puppets, with Kate -- a young woman of serious mien, you know the sort -- hymning all the good and useful aspects of our wonderful online world. Trekkie, on the other hand, is a Cookie Monster type of shaggy beast, equally joyous in his appreciation of the good things to be had at the end of a broadband connection. Unfortunately, his preferences lie towards the raunchy end of the spectrum -- and he gets all the best lines. One in particular... well, it has a rhyme for double-click. I should say no more.

Your task, should you accept it, is to find the name of the song. It has the word Internet in the title, if that helps. I am informed that illicit MP3s may even be floating around out there, if you can't find the CD of the show available in your local record store. I had the bad luck to be exposed to just such an MP3, and I was so shocked I immediately played it to the rest of the office -- and it's spreading through the usual network of IMs and emails.

Amaze your friends -- be first to hear it. Just be careful: singing it out loud in the office may not be appropriate. But you may not be able to help yourself. I and ZDNet UK accept no responsibility for your actions.

Wednesday 8/12/2004

You can't beat a good rumour, and Apple is a reliable source of the very best. As the rumble over IBM's sell-off of its PC division increases, some pundits are saying that this will let Big Blue get into bed with the Cupertino kids. That's an engaging thought -- after all, IBM does make Apple's chips.

If that's not enough, the other rumour is that a flash version of the iPod will be out real soon now. Small enough to wear like a pendant, the idea is that it will effortlessly conquer the low end of the portable music market and use the iPod brand to sweep all before it in a devastating example of tectonic marketing. Some of the sums involved are eye-watering: Apple could hoover up billions by taking a piece of existing technology and putting it in a white case. Gloriously, it could do all that without harming the brand at all -- in fact, it would only strengthen the more expensive products. Already, the gadget blogs are brimming with pictures: are they real leaks or Photoshop fantasies? It barely matters: we are all Apple's marketing bitches now, and we might as well learn to enjoy it.

Back in the enterprise space -- beam me up, Scott McNealy, once you're over your own Photoshop experience -- the story seems to be developing Apple's way. Yes, IBM is selling off its PC division in exchange for a billion dollars or so (remember when you couldn't buy a dot-com business plan for less than ten times that?) and a stake in the resultant company. No, it won't be making any more desktops or laptops. Does this leave a nice gap for Apple to leap into?

Aaaand - no. As part of the deal, IBM undertakes to do no design or marketing of PCs for the next five years, by which time we'll probably all be buried under ten feet deep drifts of iPods. There goes that pipe dream. The only thing with IBM on the front that we'll see between now and then on our desktops will be Lenovo built and Lenovo sold: at least, that's how it looks. Long-time fans of IT will know that such deals are rarely all that they seem, and IBM would be foolish not to have engineered a loophole that'll let it back in if something amazing happens in the market. But the smart money will not be on an IBM-Apple axis.

As a side effect of the deal, I get invited along to the BBC World Service to opine on-air about what it all means and why we should care. Once again, I get to sit in a studio with the priceless Judy Swallow: the programme is all about China, and she fixes me with a purposeful stare as I wander in. "Now, you're clearly not the dissident", she says. I feel vaguely affronted, but the studio assistant says "No, no, he's on the line" -- I'm not having my journalistic credentials questioned, after all.

Everything goes smoothly. As I'm being shown out, I ask my escort how everyone feels about the great BBC axeathon -- it can't be pleasant to be told before Christmas that thousands of jobs are going to go, just nobody will know which until the New Year. "Oh, we think we're OK" she says. "We've already had so many cuts that we should be safe. It's just that we end up as a dumping ground. All those people from Domestic that don't fancy moving to Manchester will want to come here."

And there I was thinking that a job on the World Service was just about as good as it could get, journalism-wise. I clearly don't have the right sort of ambition...

Thursday 9/12/2004

If you've been paying any sort of attention over the past ten years, you'll have come across Dan Gillmor. He's been the technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News for a decade -- in other words, the leading mainstream media commentator on Silicon Valley. He knows everyone, has seen everything and has a rare turn of prophecy. He saw and documented the dot-com boom from an unparalleled perspective -- his combination of experience and insight is unique.

Now he's off, leaving what he describes (not unreasonably) as the 'best job in journalism' for, of all things, a dot-com startup. He's got funding -- I'd love to have been in that meeting -- and is busy knocking the idea into shape before saying too much. What he has talked about is intriguing: it's a citizen-journalist project, something that will 'enable grassroots journalism'. That'll be a blog site, then.

Of course, that's far too flippant a reaction. Perhaps a better guide will be to look at OhMyNews, a South Korean phenomenon of a newspaper that publishes articles from its readers. Lauded as one of the first open-source news project, it's got millions of readers and thousands of contributors -- and it's making waves. The conservative established media of the country refer to the OhMyNews contributors as 'wired red devils': sounds like they're annoyed. Good.

There's nothing like OhMyNews in the Western world, and there's no doubt that it does something valuable. Blogging is fine, but it desperately needs more of an editorial overview: you can live in your own little bubble of the blogosphere for months without realising that equally fine stuff is going on in the Web site next door. Meanwhile, online media -- even our own fine site -- is still gradually edging its way slowly towards a more interactive world, and it's a painfully slow process. Most of what we do is near-identical to what we'd do on a magazine. That can't be right, not in the long term.

I would recommend that you keep an eye on what Gillmor's up to, but that's otiose. Whatever he does will be picked up in no time flat -- and if it helps push online interactive journalism forward, I have no doubt it'll be exciting and effective in equal measure.

Friday 10/12/2004

We have long been aware of the risks of mobile phone use. Among those health risks that are well understood -- naff ring tones and talking too loudly lead to a punch on the schnozz -- there are the more subtle radiological issues. Nobody's shown that there really are significant health risks, but nonetheless people bang on about tumours, DNA damage and other frightening fleshy disorders. And which part of the body is most sensitive to radiation? Why, that'll be the reproductive organs, already in the spotlight this week for their susceptibility to laptop heating. Heaven help the bloke using a 3G card on the move -- he might as well check himself into a monastery.

But now the gonads are fighting back. Reports from Sweden - where else? -- say that tight trousers are the number two cause of mobile phone breakage. Snug strides, strained to breaking point by their normal contents, have so little wiggle room that a mobile phone squeezed into a pocket will shatter from the pressure. Pour yourself into a really effective set of religion-revealers, and you're consigning yourself to a life of mobile misery.

The answer, of course, is a revival of Madchester Baggy. Mobile phone companies should immediately employ such members of the Soup Dragons, Inspiral Carpets and the Stone Roses as can be medically certified as alive, and set off plundering that part of our immediate cultural past. I'd be grateful if they left the pudding-bowl haircuts out of it, mind. If it could cure our young Scandinavian brethren of their fondness for support hose disguised as high fashion, I'd be only to happy to help promote it. After that, we can start on those peculiarly shaped and coloured plastic spectacle frames which enjoy such popularity on the Continent -- any chance of a study that shows they make computers crash?

Us gentlemen of a more generous build are spared all this, as the thought of your correspondent in anything other than the most adequately proportioned trews is so grotesquely against nature that there's probably a law of quantum physics that prohibits it -- Heisenberg's Unsuitability Principle. However, I have in the past disposed of an unfortunate mobile or two by sitting on them: there are armoured devices designed to cope with the rigours of life on building sites, but in general it makes more sense to keep the gizmos well away from highly stressed areas below the waist. That's a pretty good general rule for life, come to think of it...

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