Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The tinsel has gone, the hangover faded and a new year begun. And Microsoft's being silly - looks like the Diary's starting as it means to go on

Monday 10/1/2005
What ho! Hope Santa brought you tons of top presents. Having educated the nearest and dearest in the true treasures of this world, my stocking bulged with green laser pointer, theremin, DAB radio for the bathroom so Phil Jupitus can join me in the shower, and a dandy little portable iPod speaker system. Yes, I have the complete portable Jean-Michel Jarre kit. Watch out, Docklands.

However, Goodwins Minor celebrated his first Scottish Hogmanay by contracting some devilish disorder, and got booked into Glasgow Southern General for a week or so. There is no sight so sad as a teenager, to whom broadband is as essential a gift of nature as air and vodka, laid up in a bed where all forms of electronic communication are interdit. He has for his spiritual sustenance a pile of gaming mags, a Game Boy Advance, and hospital radio.

Readers whose minds haven't been beaten into pulp by the horrors of festivity may recall a recent disparaging remark about hospital radio and the consequences. But as we sat there, contemplating mortality and the cost of Glasgow taxis, the other half had a bright idea. Now everyone's got portable radios, she said, why don't the hospital radio mob do Wi-Fi?

It's a stonking idea. Presumably the blanket ban on two-way radio stuff is in case it interferes with the machines that go ping, which is a bit specious -- one hopes the medical kit is designed not to dump two litres of morphine into the bloodstream if a passing CBer calls ahead for a pizza. If the hospital has experts on hand who can install wireless access points and sort out any problems, then that really holds no water. A collection of old portable computers would provide at-bed access delight to those not already in possession -- how many three-year-old laptops are mouldering in cupboards for want of a battery and any eBay value -- as all you need to stay sane is Web access.

It all fits. Hospital radio dates from the time when technical enthusiasts clustered around wireless as the best game in town, and now the same chaps are deeply digital. Those incarcerated at the NHS' pleasure once lacked for pocket radios and portable CD players; now it's email and their 20 favourite sites. Not sure the doctors will appreciate their charges researching maladies between consultations, but I dare say we'll learn to live with it.

Hospital radio chaps -- your country needs you! Cableheads, pick up your twisted pair; DJs, polish your blog code. Save the disconnected teenager from a fate worse than dissertations.

Tuesday 11/1/2005
Ah yes, those blasted blogs. A few months ago, an outing to see "American Splendor" led directly to an urge to buy the comics on which the film was based. After much fruitless enjoyment in various Edinburgh bookshops, we ended up in Waterstone's -- you're ahead of me now. We lucked onto a sales assistant who not only knew what we were on about, but knew the books in question. He vanished for a few minutes and came back with armfuls of options, picked out the perfect selection for the enthusiastic novice and relieved us of a large slice of the week's gin budget.

This never happens in bookshop chains. Certainly not in Edinburgh Waterstone's, which celebrated 2005 by sacking the man -- Joe Gordon -- for blogging vaguely disrespectful things about his boss. You've probably read the details and they don't need repeating here: the only thing I can add is that on my experience the management should have done everything in their power, up to and including scattering rose petals before him and ringing silver bells as he passed, to keep him manning front of house. Do book shop managers actually feel physical revulsion at the thought of selling books, or do they just behave that way?

Joe Gordon's sin is woefully slight as provocation for such wanton company foolishness, but he does seem dangerously innocent about one of the primary rules of corporate life: do not make your boss look silly to their boss. Calling them names in public will do that.

There is much talk about whether this affair gives companies unreasonable control over what their staff do after hours, and many megatherms of hot air is being expended over freedom of speech, civil rights, self-expression and so on. I don't think so.

In the middle of last year Corinne Maier, a French worker and part-time author wrote a book called Bonjour Paresse -- Hello, Laziness -- in which she painted a most uncomplimentary picture of French business culture, gave directions of how to get on while doing as little work as possible, and gave a new spin on the Peter Principle. That states that people get promoted to their level of incompetence: Mme Maier pointed out that incompetents then get put where they can do no harm, viz. senior management.

Unsurprisingly, her employers (Electricite de France) decided this was a bit off and put her through the ringer: the resultant publicity made them back off and her very famous. Or take Scott Adams, who caricatured his own experiences of corporate farce so effectively that his telecom employers could pretend it was nothing to do with them. Nobody has said in either case that freedom of speech was being perverted by bureaucratic paranoia: Maier didn't care and Adams knew his politics.

You cannot in general slag off your employers and get away with it. Ask David Blunkett. You can do it if you disguise it or yourself well, or if you don't publish until you've got another job lined up. Blogs are just a very efficient, low-cost way of demonstrating these facts.

And sacking brilliant staff for the misdemeanour of poking fun at bad management is a very efficient way of demonstrating another fact: Waterstone's doesn't deserve anyone's custom.

Wednesday 12/1/2005
The green laser pointer that Santa left me has proved to be the coherent light source of Satan. At various points during the holiday, its hypnotic 532-nanometre glow led otherwise respectable people to suggest badness. Yes, you can make a very distant policeman in a green high-visibility jacket light up like an angel. You can scare pigeons in the trees outside without leaving your armchair. But you do not -- no, not even when encouraged to by men of the cloth -- point the darn thing at nearby aircraft.

Some people have been doing just this, though. Reports from the States say that there's been a rash of pilots reporting laser light from the ground shone into the cockpit, sometimes dazzling the guy in charge. Not what you want on final approach: this being the States there are dark implications of some terrorist plot to disrupt air travel. Call me old-fashioned, but after a few years of being warned about dirty bombs, anthrax, thermonuclear devices in beefburgers or whatever it seems to me that the preferred terrorist modus operandi involves a hunk of high explosives. The idea of the bad guys putting in a bulk order to and then standing around in a field squinting at passing planes and waving pens in the air just doesn't gel. But it's probably enough to get me on the no-fly list.

Another common understandable reaction to seeing the pointer is fear. It looks very bright, not because it's any more powerful than the red ones which caused so much panic a couple of years ago but because it produces the colour to which the eye is most sensitive. It looks scary. It isn't -- after much hunting, I found lots of vague but chilling warnings of fried retinas but only a couple of actual scientific studies. The most convincing of these was of a mildly gruesome study where owners of cancerous retinas that were due to be removed volunteered to get their eyeballs zapped by laser pointers. Despite some of these exposures being hundreds of times more fearsome than anything that can happen by accident, the medical team behind the study found no evidence of anything untoward.

So I shall continue to lase. If you're passing through Holloway of an evening and see some strange flashing lights in the sky, you'll know what's going on.

Thursday 13/1/2005
Nice to see that Apple can still show Microsoft how to do it. Imagine the global scorn if Bill had pulled out a USB key drive with no display and a headphone socket during his CES keynote -- but Steve Jobs effortlessly deploys his reality distortion field and the world falls at his feet. If you haven't seen the video, you should: this is how it's done. As for the Mac mini: unexpandable collection of last year's laptop parts or brilliant attack on the Windows homeland? We'd love to tell you, but on past experience Apple will have no interest in getting review kit to the willing fingers of writer chappies. So you and we will have to work that one out together.

However, Bill Gates has been doing his best to help Apple on its way. Not only did the CES keynote go wrong, but the man got it into his head to pronounce open source promoters as communistic enemies of freedom (they've probably all got green laser pointers, too). There is plenty of irony here, as all of Microsoft's competitors have far more advanced open source strategies in place for the finest of capitalistic reasons -- as far as I can tell, Microsoft and SCO are the last ones left. And even SCO distributed Linux. Does Gates really mean to say that he alone is the keeper of the American way, with IBM, HP and Apple due to go before the Un-American Activities Committee?

I sometimes find it difficult to triage ridiculous statements made by the famous into stuff they actually believe, stuff they don't actually believe but are saying to fortify the faithful, and stuff they don't actually believe but are saying to enrage the enemy. (It's particularly difficult when I'm trying to parse things Steve Ballmer says when he's let out on his own).

In this case, I think that Gates is saying this because he believes it, and he believes it because he can't see how IP has value for its creators when it's freed. Because he can't see that, he can't see how Microsoft can play that game. So therefore the game as normally construed is wrong, and he can best win by doing it his way despite the grinding of gears at the interface between Bill and Reality. It's worked before: does anyone think Microsoft's really been hurt by the various antitrust findings against them?

I do wonder how deep this goes. Recently, MS' attempts to contribute to anti-spam standards foundered because the company refused -- at Gates' personal behest, according to rumour -- to relinquish licensing controls over its IP, and nobody could say why this was so difficult for them.

This time, though, it's Microsoft versus the whole world. I wouldn't put money on it, either way.

Friday 14/1/2005
Normal office life is returning at last, and there are even a couple of post-Christmas events to tempt the overseasoned journalistic palate. The indefatigable Ingrid Marson nobly volunteered to represent the publication in the hell-hole of a private dining club just off the Strand, as part of an evening organised by the RAF. I'm not sure what aspect of spending time being wined and dined in agreeable surroundings by dashing chaps in uniform overcame her natural reticence, but I could swear she was looking positively enthusiastic as she headed off.

The next day, we enquired gingerly as to the precise nature of the aviator-style decadence she'd encountered. The British armed services are rightly renowned for dining in style, and the RAF tops the heap: no object alive or dead is safe when they get their groove on.

A woman disappointed! It turned out that it was the RAF's PR company sounding out what the consumer and trade press thought of our brave boys and "how the media perceives them outside the heat of conflict, both as an organisation and as a brand". Flyboys there were none: the PR company didn't want them around in case their presence prevented the hacks from speaking freely. Instead, there were some PRs and journalists from Good Housekeeping, QX (a London gay magazine, m'lord) and Loaded. What could possibly go wrong? Some snippets of conversation may give us a clue:

PR person: "How many women pilots do you think are in the RAF?"

Loaded hack: "Don't know. But can they park the planes? Haw haw haw haw..." (he was to repeat this line several times during the evening)


Ingrid: "Who's hunkier, Army, Navy or RAF boys?"

Good Housekeeping: "Well, Army. At least the RAF hasn't had a Deep Throat situation."

Ingrid: "Eh?"

GH: "Oh, I mean Deepcut. Errrr... pass the bread rolls, will you?"

Shortly after this, Ingrid made her excuses and left. "I mean. No pilots!" Perhaps I'll take her to a Pprune (Professional Pilots Rumour Network) bash: seeing the species in large numbers out for a good time should put her right on a few points...

Meanwhile, I'm off for a rather different sort of flying this afternoon -- the UK side of the Huygens space probe descent. I doubt there'll be another landing on Titan in my lifetime (although that rather depends on what it finds down there), so it'd be a shame to miss it. Let's hope the probe feels the same way.