Rupert Goodwins' Diary

After a week of sackings, surges, wheeler-dealing and pointless fingering, Rupert looks east to outsource his woes

Monday 7/3/2005

It's not exactly IT, but Boeing chief executive Harry Stonecipher has been given the boot for playing park the jumbo with a female manager further down the corporate structure. This may have repercussions beyond aviation. Public morality is big business in the US right now, so big business must be publicly moral - and that will curtail one of IT upper management's favourite hobbies.

For example. Elsewhere in Seattle, Melinda "Mrs Bill" Gates was plucked from the ranks, as it were. She used to be the project manager for Microsoft Bob, so it's hard to argue that the company was harmed by her retasking to a different kind of user experience. And while no hint of suspicion clings to Bill's post-marital behaviour, there are plenty of rumours to be had regarding any number of other ranking executives in the industry. It's a mystery - what on earth can drive people with highly competitive alpha-male personalities, equipped with vast amounts of money, opportunity and energy, into dalliances with attractive women? Thank goodness such types will be drummed out of IT.

Actually, they'd better hurry if they want the opportunity. According to Prof Deb Armstrong at the University of Arkansas - a state that knows a thing or two about philandering potentates - the number of women in IT is diminishing rapidly. In 1996, the feminine gender made up 41 percent of the IT workforce, but by 2002 it was down to 35 percent and the drop-off is accelerating. That's not to be blamed on predatory behaviour by the suits, though: IT's constant demands on updated skills and unsocial hours make it particularly unfriendly for families - so attempting to curb salacious activity behind the monitors isn't going to do much good here either.

In the end, I'm inclined to agree with entertaining blogger Harry Hutton, to whom I bequeath the last word on testosterone-driven downfalls.

"The only civilized reaction to this type of thing is a patient shrug. Every adult must at some point have paused during some slapstick piece of debauchery and thought, "Christ, this is ridiculous". Having testicles is like being chained to the village idiot; sad, but there it is. And when we have solved every racial, political and economic problem, we will still be stuck with that one."

Tuesday 8/3/2005

Much sound and fury among Redbus customers, who are still waiting to hear what sort of compensation they can expect from last week's extended - and expensive - power supply outage. Details tricking out make it sound like a doozie: a short across one of the phases of the incoming mains tripped safeties but only after muscular spikes went walloping up through the distribution cables and fried various bits of equipment along the way. A glance at a multiway socket halfway down this ISP's status page might give you an idea of how much fun was had - when your earth and neutral lines are blown out, you've got troubles indeed.

Some of the uninterruptable power supplies did kick in as hoped, although these were not always as useful as they might have been. Not only were main routers already toast, but the accompanying fire alarm meant that everyone was out of the building for some time -- certainly longer than the UPSs were prepared to hold out. As all the security was also connected to the same failed supplies, when access was allowed again it was possible for anyone to get in -- fuelling further discontent.

As anyone who's been involved with a power supply crunch involving large amounts of mains wallop will know, these are forces we have barely tamed. Huge amounts of energy in the wrong place can spread havoc in all directions, and the only truly guaranteed solution is to have a hot backup ready to roll somewhere far from home. Any disaster which hits both will have consequences diverting enough to distract the customers from their web sites.

If you can't do that, then you make sure that you do the best you can -- but be honest about the limitations. You don't promise, as Redbus did before the event, to have a local power system so over-engineered that utter reliability is guaranteed, and you don't leave the consequences of a major disaster uncovered in your contracts. Otherwise, you end up with a smoking ruin in the power room and smouldering resentment among your shortly-to-be-ex customers. It's not as if there isn't plenty of competition in this market, and it's not as if you can't lose everyone overnight.

Oops.

Wednesday 9/3/2005

Repercussions are building from Monday's amazing EU software patents decision - where procedural mystery replaced democratic accountability and as if by magic the much-despised directive moved forward once again. Many questions remain: why did the Danish representative at the meeting not do as its parliament had directed to kick the offending item into touch? Is the Irish hustlingin any way connected with Irish investment? And can the European Parliament itself make any headway against the seemingly unstoppable directive? In theory, it can: in practice, it seems unlikely.

All this is terribly depressing, not least to those in favour of the ever-closer union at the heart of the great post-war European experiment. Intellectual property is hard work: protecting software rights while promoting innovation and fair play is an issue that demands vigorous debate and cool, informed thought. Trying to squonk a dodgy deal through behind the scenes is bad for everyone: the software industry has prospered with a light regulatory regime, and this should not be replaced or discouraged without clarity at all levels. Instead, we have what one software developer described to me as "the FUD wagon" dispersing its slurry to all points of the compass.

What is most dangerous is the nagging suspicion that democracy has failed in the face of vested, powerful interests able to hide behind a veil of technology and international trade. Nothing of importance is too difficult for reasonable people to debate, or for our representatives to handle fairly on our behalf. If this doesn't happen, then those affected will wonder what to do instead. Far be it from me to point out that the Internet is managed by the biggest concentration of free software advocates on the face of the planet, people who as of now are thoroughly disorganised. Would it be beyond imagining that they might feel that their fundamental rights are being damaged, and like workers everywhere learn to organise themselves to prevent this? I don't know what an Amalgamated Union Of Internet Operatives could do to make itself a nuisance, but when one well-designed worm can cripple hundreds of thousands of computers and one dropped bus bar can take out an entire data centre, a few thousand unattended keyboards could cook up a storm indeed.

Not that I'm suggesting anything, you understand.

Thursday 10/3/2005

My home PC has been behaving badly. Every so often, everything stops dead -- and I mean dead, no mouse movement, no screen activity, no sign of interrupts -- while the motherboard makes a piteous bleeping noise. This is not good: like everyone, I spend far too much time running along my Maginot Line of tottering defences, shoring up slightly shaky software against the rising tide of spyware, viruses and other filth out there on the Net. Something like this might mean it's all been in vain.

Yet there's no sign of anything. Which means I have to think. That bleeping probably means it's a hardware problem -- please, not the motherboard -- so let's start with the easy stuff. The next time it happens, I yank the keyboard out. Instant relief. I only have one spare, nabbed from an ancient Acorn Archimedes, which works well enough but is lacking a few details -- like three keytops.

Back in the office, I spy a promising package lying unloved and untouched in a pile of review kit. It's a new Microsoft USB keyboard, which shows every sign of gathering dust. It can do that at my gaff, I think. And -- oho -- it's the new one with a fingerprint reader. What fun.

It's an exercise in staggering pointlessness. After loading two CDs of driver and support software -- what madness is this? 1.2GB of software to install a keyboard? The ZX Spectrum managed with around a hundred bytes of keyscan code -- I am confronted with a message. The fingerprint reader is not to be used as a security device, it says. It is provided for convenience only. This puts a new light on the current goings-on at American immigration. I presume the fingerprint scans I have on entry and exit are there for convenience only, and also redefines what convenience can mean.

Well, says Microsoft, it means you can switch users on your machine and also log into things that require passwords without having to remember them. The finger scanner will work out the context and supply the password when you touch it. All well and good, except that most of the things I log onto are on the Web, and I tend to log onto them from more than just my home computer. Still, I suppose it's useful for home banking and the like -- ah, no, says Microsoft, we don't recommend you use it for that. Security, you know. Yes. I know.

About the only thing that leaves the thing good for is as a guiding beacon at night, as the scanner resembles the underside of a limpet illuminated by a number of bright LEDs. These strobe and shimmer noticeably, an especially distracting effect when caught in peripheral vision - which is of course exactly where the thing lies as I look ahead at the screen.

The rest of the keyboard is nice, mind, if you overlook the huge number of tiny buttons sprinkled around the edge where you'll catch them with your arm as you reach for the mouse, the coffee or the masking tape you'll need to cover up the finger scanner.

Ah, ergonomics. All I want is my nice AT clicky keyboard back.

Friday 11/3/2005

"It's started," said my Californian friend as she IM'd me this linkfrom the Bangalore Craigslist. I was going to ask her what she was doing looking for writing jobs in India, but a glance at the posting made it all a bit academic. The anonymous poster is offering one of the bread-and-butter jobs that keep many journalists fed, ghost-writing business books for a marketing company. This is hack work: you get given a pile of articles by a would-be (or actual) guru, work out some kind of theme, give it a title like "Even An Amoeba Can Succeed -- Business Secrets Of The Single Cell World", and ferment the indigestible guru crud into a digestible pap. It's not fun, you don't get your name attached to it and nobody reads the results -- but the client is delighted, the marketing firm gets to up its fees and the hack gets paid enough to compensate for the mental drudgery.

Not this time. In return for 120 pages of the above, the "New York marketing firm" is prepared to offer $500. That's around, oh, £260, which is what you might expect for around a page in a UK computer magazine and at least ten times less you'd expect for the meanest bit of PR/marketing bumf that comes within puffing distance of that sort of length.

Would it be worth moving to Bangalore to forestall the inevitable? Even there, $500 doesn't go that far. Who's behind this great idea? What epitome of modern business thinking wants his words written at two quid a page? It's tempting to put in a bid just to find out, although faking an Indian CV and providing the rest of the required information would be an interesting exercise - easiest to pitch a similar job, harvest the CVs that come in and repurpose them. Shame that would be staggeringly immoral and quite probably illegal.

The other way to look at it is as an opportunity, much like the mythical software engineer who gets paid $70,000 and works one day a week -- and that only to mildly tart up the week's worth of work he gets from his Bangalore buddy on $10,000. It's a bit like being a literary agent, only with the usual ratio of revenue reversed -- and given some of the fiction I've looked at recently, there's no way a literate Indian graduate could fail to shine. This could be just the way to get my moribund fiction career out from under the clay loam, and all without that tiresome business of actually writing the stuff -- the one thing that takes the shine off an otherwise impeccable career choice.

Craigslist Bangalore, here I come.