Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Bah, humbug! Exploding trousers, naff cards, multiplayer madness and Santa's ERM all conspire against our hero -- but Google is there to make it all right again
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor on
Monday 13/12/2004

It's the last week of term, and a certain levity infests the air. I try to find something sensible to say about Intel's roadmap, and fail. Likewise, attempts to cogently analyse the business implications of Nortel's VoIP strategy fall at the first.

In an attempt to find inspiration, I turn to New Scientist -- the magazine that delivers. And I am not disappointed. It turns out that in the New Zealand of 1931, attempts to control an invading alien weed by a newly discovered pesticide were going well. The mighty ragwort was falling back under the relentless onslaught of sodium chlorate, until pair by pair farmers' trousers started to smoulder. Some ignited, and a few pairs even exploded. Although many happened on the washing line or in the laundry basket, others were in service at the point of combustion. Before long, the nation was gripped by an epidemic of massively exothermal hose.

The trouble, of course, was the sodium chlorate. Harmless in solution -- except to the evil ragwort -- it becomes unstable when combined with organic material. As splashes and spills soaked into the agricultural strides, the trousers became liable to ignition and explosion. It'd be like wearing underpants made out of gun cotton: one false move and the bottom will fall out of your world.

I hesitate to admit it, but one does wonder if there may be an application for this. Just a small amount of sodium chlorate introduced into the fawn dye used in the Burberry factories could do so much good to the world.

Tuesday 14/12/2004

Few people doubt that at some point in the indefinite future, all information will be digitised. But the process of converting the uncounted millions of existing books has always seemed so slow, expensive and laborious that it was never clear who would do it and why.

Now Google has stepped forward and said it'll be digitising part or all of some major college libraries. Why? Because it can. Furthermore, the projects -- in conjunction with four American universities and Oxford -- will result in data available freely to all. Of course, Google will want to make money out of it somehow, but the thinking seems to be that this will come from encouraging a rich environment of worthwhile information online.

Google's also developed new scanning technology: it's being quiet about this, but doubtless it's got its eye on the universe of corporate paper records. Meanwhile, we get the benefit of several million books over the next few years. I'm prone to hyperbole, but universal access to knowledge -- at least, the potential of universal access -- must count alongside universal literacy and the freedom of the press as among the most significant landmarks in the history of human knowledge.

It's not all gravy: all these books will all be out of copyright, of course. The cold hand of the ever-extending IP law ensures that stuff that falls within the copyright retention period cannot easily be uploaded: this will include most books that people will actually want to read and which will be most useful. So far this chilling effect has been tolerated, but the pressure on copyright owners and those who make the laws can only increase as more and more information finds its way online.

It shouldn't be impossible. After all, libraries -- generally considered a good thing -- came into existence and let people read books in copyright without too many restrictions. That could be a role for DRM that's not evil: instead of preventing people from reading things, it will allow them to do so, for free, by replicating various library rules. If you can check out a maximum of four titles at most, for example, with a restriction on length of 'loan' and reasonable-use rules on excerpting, then an online library will work in the same way as the physical one.

If Microsoft wants to keep up with Google, it could do worse than employ its considerable lobbying powers and resources to get the debate on copyright moved on in this direction.

Wednesday 15/12/2004

You may have noticed the stories about malware-infected fake Christmas cards arriving in people's emails. Naughty, naughty. Anything that encourages people to click on links connected to unsolicited mail is wrong: if you don't get this behaviour right, then any attempt to screen out viruses and other infections from your PC will be compromised from the outset. Human behaviour is the biggest problem in computer security.

So a big fat raspberry to ScanSafe, the "leading worldwide provider of Web virus scanning and Web filtering as an Internet-level managed service". You'd hope that such a company would have some sort of idea about how Web-borne security threats propagate: you'd certainly hope that they wouldn't do anything as silly as send out an email Christmas card that requires the recipient to click on a link to an external website.

But they did. And then they sent these out to journalists. Plonkers.

Moreover, I think I'm going to put the word 'leading' into my spam filter rules. Any company that describes itself thus, isn't. In fact, 'leading' almost guarantees that you've never heard of them -- and in any case if you have heard of them, then you don't need to be told what they are. Worse, a press release that describes a company in such a way is saying "We're really important, but you haven't heard of us", thus subtly implying that the journalist reading it is either extremely inexperienced or utterly incompetent.

These are not good things for a journalist to think. Assuming you're given the benefit of the doubt and the hack wearily pursues the story, they're going to find out how big and leaderish you really are -- and if you're using the L word, you're not. Are you?

So, PRs, please desist. Stop using the word. If you must use it, back it up with some figures showing how your company is leading -- which market it has a dominant share of, what independent analysis puts their technology ahead. That sort of thing. Otherwise we won't like you.

Thursday 16/12/2004

There is none so glum in the run-up to Christmas than the enterprise software marketing manager. Nobody -- but nobody -- is thinking in terms of strategic investments in scaleable data management solutions: not the CIO, who is contemplating a round of golf on Boxing day, and most certainly not journalists, who are contractually obliged to churn out iPod stories at this time of year.

But that hasn't stopped the Butler Group. Some bright-eyed PR from the agency obviously had one Advocaat too many at the Christmas bash and came up with the idea of a press release which started thus:

"What technology tools does Santa need to successfully deliver presents to the children of the world? Butler Group takes a light-hearted look at the technological issues Santa has to address in order to complete his yearly task…"

It then goes on at considerable length about coordinated supply chain systems, electronic document and record management systems and distributed information platform. Curiously, Santa's wife is called Mrs Clause -- perhaps she does a bit of light lawyering in her spare time.

Our heroic PR asks in passing:

"Is Santa registered with the Information Commissioner as a data controller under The Data Protection Act 1998?"

No. He lives at the North Pole, which is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Maritime law probably applies (there was once a murder near the North Pole, which was never prosecuted due to uncertainty about jurisdiction). And since he does his work by magic, his requirements for integrated enterprise systems are roughly zero.

Far more interesting to contemplate what Santa could do to improve the enterprise software market. Given the high rate of dodgy specifications, underperforming and failing systems, one does wonder if a small room full of elves with calculators wouldn't be a better idea.

Friday 17/12/2004

"Buy land", the old saying used to go. "They're not making any more."

Leaving aside pedantic responses about Holland, this used to be true. But now, the news comes that an online gamer has just paid nearly £14,000 on a virtual island in Project Entropia. The news reports concentrate on the abandoned castle, the mining rights and the ability to sell on parcels of land for development -- which raises the deeply depressing idea that somebody is taking the time and trouble to play a character in a rich and exciting fantasy virtual world only to become an estate agent.

This is all most strange. The creators of the game really can make more any time they like, which rather messes up the scarcity mechanism that governs land price in real life, and as far as I know the characters in these games don’t enjoy the same sort of property and inheritance laws that we do. What happens if the character gets grazed to death by a passing gnu? What if the other inhabitants of the land of Entropia have a revolution, declare all property to be theft and impose central control of all natural resources in the name of the proletariat?

I am deeply concerned. Moreover, my trousers are getting curiously warm. I think it's time to lay down my keyboard and disappear until 2005 -- so have a small dry sherry on me, don't eat too much plum duff, and see you on the other side.

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