Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Comrades! Throw off your shackles, overthrow the oppressors and take control! Rupert's revolutionary week shows you how...
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 7/2/2005

Cast your mind back to "Bridget Jones", "Sex And The City" and that whole chick-lit-single-girl malarkey. Not so long ago, but already almost off the radar, thank the Lard. One of the terms from back then is 'Smug Marrieds', people whose relationships are permanent and entirely wonderful (at least from the outside) and who were thus only intermittently bearable.

Well, there's a new tribe on the block. They've been out there for a while, but recent events have forced them into the open. You'll know some: you might even be one. These are people who say "Spyware's a real problem, I hear," and "I don't know what all this trouble with desktop security's about." They are the Smug Maccies.

Apple fans have always been pains in the backside, an attitude the company has never failed to cultivate. Posters with Picasso, Einstein and other secular deities underlined the cultish sense of superiority, while the Switcher ads instilled the fervour of the recent convert. It's a good way to cope with the insecurities that otherwise come with being heavily outnumbered: the more obscure a computer language, hardware platform or other religion, the more ardent the adherents.

But people, enough already. Today I have had two such encounters, one from a bloke from a record company who asked me "Is it true that my Macintosh doesn't need antivirus software". "Yes," I said. "It also leaves you more time to be smug". "Well, smugger" he replied. The other was an otherwise impeccably disreputable graphic designer, whose natural instinct towards Smug Married is to seduce both of them without the other knowing. She said "I know I don't need it, but I soooo want a Mini. It would be, like, my baby".

You see my problem. One's choice of computer is a personal matter, and I do not seek to judge -- how could I, a chap who once nearly bought an Atari ST [Ed -- And who has been letting the office know how much he wants a Mac mini...]. I know the joy that well-designed products can bring, and how it's all the greater when all about you are knee-deep in dreck. But heaven help me -- one more simpering, bright-eyed expression of undying love and we'll be testing the splinter point of white polycarbonate with an industry standard crowbar. That's one comparison a good old-fashioned ironclad dreadnought PC aces.

Tuesday 8/2/2005

Ya godda love them crazy Noo Yawkers. A new online service, ISpyNY.com, is offering NY residents instant online access to 'every criminal record in the state and throughout the country'. Log on, slap in the name, slap down your virtual plastic and you too can find out whether that chap you were considering for the post of marketing VP really has a history of crocodile abuse, or whether he just looks that way.

This is a serious, grown-up business. Except in New York. Because ISpyNY.com is launching on February 14th, it's offering a special Valentine's Day gift. If your Valentine turns out to be a convicted felon, the company will send you a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates, and even arrange to dump the hapless suitor. I do hope that's "dump" in the sense of tell to get lost, and not some strange Bronx gangster argot meaning "to coat lightly in sulphuric acid and deposit in municipal incinerator". But I guess that if anyone at IspyNY.com has need of such services, they're in the ideal position to locate the specialists. But they're going to donate free searches to local good causes, so their heart's in the right place. Rather than Sing Sing.

Criminal records serve a number of purposes. For the state, they serve as a database of people who have behaved so badly that their deeds require recording in case they do it – or other sins -- again. For employers and immigration officials, they're a crude test of trustworthiness. But for the rest of the world, criminal records have been mostly hidden. We no longer require offenders to wear a visible mark of their guilt to aid ridicule and ostracism, such practices having been found to be very effective in making sure the criminal stays thoroughly criminalised.

All that is changing, and so far without judicial acknowledgement. The idea that prison is a debt that can be paid makes less sense if the subsequent life outside is one of continual -- and potentially arbitrary -- punishment. Doubtless, there are plenty of people who approve of harsher, longer punishments for all criminals -- I'm sure there are some who will even take it upon themselves to plunder the records database to check on all their neighbours and publicly mark those who have erred. Vigilantism is always in fashion.

Others, like me, find such ideas reactionary, dangerous, self-defeating and plain wrong. But there should at least be a debate in the judiciary about these developments: increasingly, public access to criminal records will change the nature of punishment and that shouldn't just happen by accident.

Wednesday 9/2/2005

As the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas get their old wedding videos shown on telly's endless loop, there are serious implications for everyone working in the IT industry. In the good old days, sanity maintenance during Royal Wedding fever was relatively easy -- unplug all televisions and radios from power and aerials, wrapping carefully in two layers of tin foil, cancel any newspaper or magazine subscription, pay the landlord of the local a hefty bribe to make sure his set is on the blink, and retire to the snug for the duration.

No such luck now. With every darn device on the planet interconnected via wireless and broadband, and business critical systems like Google doubling as news sources, the potential for regal leakage is dangerously high. We thought convergence was a business enabler: nobody said anything about its abuse as a delivery mechanism for archaic aristocratic mating rituals. And those at the cutting edge of modern technology -- those who have to make it happen and keep it running -- can't just down tools.

There is just time to develop a fix. We have antivirus, anti-spam and anti-spyware products: it's time to get anti-nuptial on their arse.

It shouldn't be difficult. Facial recognition is good enough to filter out that relatively small set of targets, especially given the high degree of familial resemblance, and a Bayesian obsequiousness filter plus some image analysis set to "bling" should provide defence in depth.

But there is another way. Revolt, comrades! The people's flag is deepest #FF0000. I said earlier that IT workers couldn't just down tools -- but why not? The nation's industry and government barely limps on with all hands at the pumps: two hours walkout by the Amalgamated Bit Monkeys And Hex Wrenchers and they'd give us anything....

Thursday 11/02/2005

Today, it's a trip to Working Lunch on BBC2, where I've been asked to reply to viewer's technical questions. These were sent over a couple of days before and powerfully reminded me of the days when I was "Dr Rupe" on Sinclair User -- a mixture of the sane, silly and utterly impossible. "My Spectrum no longer loads games, but shows a collection of flashing multicoloured squares when I turn it on. Is this normal?" "Yes, indeed, Mr Thrimble of Peckham. It means your Spectrum has fried itself for no apparent reason other than to irk you, which is perfectly normal."

We've moved on these days to a world of VoIP, spam, spyware ("Buy a Mac. But please, please, please don't keep going on about it") and Internet access from remote places. Yet somehow, I sensed, these were the same people who wrote to me twenty years ago.

One of the questions was "how can I watch TV on my computer, and what's the quality like?" (curiously consumery for a thoroughly business-oriented programme, but there we go). I said that it was easy, TV cards, USB, Hauppauge, digital options, blah -- and that the quality was splendid. "As good as you get in a TV studio", I said, grandly.

Oh boy. Wrong again.

As nobody in the studio could remember the combination number for the green room -- thus protecting the famous BBC coffee and custard Danish combo from all-comers, especially hungry contributors -- I and my laptop got dumped in the back of the gallery. This is where programmes are made, and consists of a dark room, one wall of which is lined with fifty monitors. Five hyperactive people sit there, ostensibly worrying about camera angles, sequencing clips and counting backwards but in reality passing their time by sending each other out for chocolate, crisps and gossip.

It was the wall of monitors that got my attention. We all get taught at school about the Doppler Effect and how it causes the cosmic red shift. The Curry's Effect is much more complicated. It's where you go shopping for a new telly only to see that each of the sets on display is showing a subtly different hue, picked randomly from the spectrum. Well, Studio 8 in the Television Centre could double as any provincial outlet of Dixon's Store Group. "Oooh, that's a bit magenta!" said the editor, pointing to one of the monitors. "Mine's yellow" said another. "Looks OK on that one", said a third.

So don't expect too much from the great analogue switch-off. We may have crisp, noise free widescreen broadcasts, but if they're made in Studio 8 the televisions of the nation will look like chameleons on mescaline.

I, for one, cannot wait.

Friday 11/02/2005

You may be aware that since his preferment to the News Editorhood of ZDNet UK, Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden has lost his middle name. It was felt lacking in gravitas for a chap of his exalted stature -- and besides, as he has now discovered, the last thing a news editor has any time for is writing news.

Yet it has its own rewards, one of which anointed his brow today like soft rain in desert heat.

Dan Illet, security honcho, did a story on Steve Linford of Spamhaus being cross about MCI hosting websites that distributed spamming tools -- 'for how long must we nurture this canker in our midsts' being the general nature of the piece. He then heard that the London Internet Exchange had some views on this sort of thing, phoned 'em up, got some quotes in a quick interview and banged them up. Story number two. Shortly after that, he was surprised to see much the same quotes appear on a LINX press release. "Is this good?" he wondered.

Good? It's excellent. Interesting subject, genuine news and developments to come -- it's a top story, and an example of what every news editor likes doing best: setting the agenda. It certainly put a sparkle in our new news editor's eyes.

It also gives us a new nickname to try out. Graeme "Agenda Bender" Wearden. No guarantees, mind.

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