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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

More robot threats, Macintoshery, sick computers and Toshiba's Large Electricity all give Rupert a quick charge this week
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Monday 28/3/2005

Easter Monday. Eating eggs. Come back tomorrow.

Tuesday 29/3/2005

Easter is notoriously quiet on the tech news front, so what better time for MIT's Media Lab to coyly unveil Clocky — an alarm clock that runs away from you as it spouts its unwelcome news of morning. A grateful technology press promptly writes it up and generally takes the designer at her word, with the exception of the inimitable Orlowski who snarls away at the madness of it all. He stops just short of suggesting that what the inventor really needs is a damn good… Andrew, Andrew, you can get ten to twenty in San Quentin for those sort of allusions these days. Be careful. These inventions are jailbait.

I have long suspected that warfare will be the inevitable result of our obsession with machines clever enough to outwit us. Clocky may be the Archduke Ferdinand of this conflict. I’ve never found an alarm clock which cannot be defused in my sleep: we soon learn to hit snooze an infinite number of times without actually waking up, and other clevernesses such as escalating alarms and carefully hidden buttons just result in the unconscious brain getting cleverer and cleverer.

This has two very unfortunate results. First, who wants a clever unconscious capable of extended autonomous action on its own? I have enough trouble riding herd on mine when I'm fully awake and able to countermand some of its more outré suggestions. I want my subconscious barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, thank you very much. Second, there will be an arms race between us and our alarm clocks. Once we learn how to get up and hunt Clocky to extinction without having to actually wake — I give it around a week — the inventor will have to come up with one that climbs walls, hides in the water tank or starts to fight back.

It’s only a short step to armed robots restlessly patrolling our bedrooms, checking their watch for the precise moment at which they have been commanded to shove their blaster rays under our carbon-based probosces and yell "GET UP, YOU ‘ORRIBLE LITTLE BEING!". And then we shall rise — well, some may rise, some may pull the duvet over their heads — and mankind will be at war.

And all for what? The history of mornings is littered with desperate attempts to wake. Leonardo Da Vinci invented an alarm clock that tickled the sleeper’s feet. Other ideas have been ones that inch their way up the walls as they bleep, forcing uprightness in the victim; blasts of cold air; falling tea-trays; beds that tip and beds that electrify.

Can’t we just stay in bed?

Wednesday 30/3/2005

This isn’t the first virus writing contest, but I hope it will be the last. An outfit called DVForge had offered $25000 to the first person to infect a couple of Macs running OS X, but had cancelled the competition under pressure from, well, everybody. DVForge’s head bloke, Jack Campbell, went down grumbling, saying what a PR risk it had been for his company and he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Doing a service to the Mac community, he was, helping them out of their complacent feel-good fog. Just because they’d never been infected didn’t mean that they couldn’t, and the sooner they join the real world of expensive antivirus software that doesn’t work very well, the better.

An interesting stance. But Campbell’s right on one point — it was certainly a PR risk. For if you type Jack Campbell into Google, the very first hit is a page on the Macintouch Web site titled Jack Campbell Schemes and Scams. Even assuming the chap’s been Googlebombed, the page is an engaging read. He’s tried it all — mice, furniture, cameras — but rarely with satisfied customers as a result.

Either our hero has been astoundingly unlucky in his choice of suppliers, employees, products, business models and everything else that might get in the way of supplying a product, or he's… well, judge for yourself.

He also pops up from time to time as a source in news stories offering opinions and quotable quotes on matters Macintosh. Be interesting to see if that continues, or whether the people who give him column inches get the hint and check for his online persona first.

Thursday 31/3/2005

There are reports abroad of a new battery technology from Toshiba. The figures look fantastic — as much capacity as current lithium ion cells but capable of being charged in a minute. Moreover, they should last for many more charges than the current tech. How many gizmos lie mouldering because the battery’s dead after a year?

It all seems a little too good to be true, so I do some maths. If you hoik [Thats a technical term for 'carefully remove after fully shutting your computer down, you understand - Ed.] the battery off your laptop (wait until you’ve finished reading this or the screen will go dark. I know these things), you’ll see it marked as something like 12V and 4400mAH. That means it can supply around four and a half amps for an hour, at twelve volts. That’s a surprising amount of power — enough to power a 100 watt light bulb for 30 minutes, for example.

But that power has to come from the charger in the first place. Now, 100W for 30 minutes is the same amount of energy as 1kW for three minutes. Or 3kW for a minute — the time in which Toshiba says their battery can be charged.

A 3kWW power supply is not a thing of beauty. It is not something you can encase in a small black plastic case the size of a tin of sardines, all the better to carry around in your briefcase. It will not have delicate black wires terminating in a twee little round plug. A 3kW power supply will be much bigger than a laptop, will weigh much more than a laptop, and at that sort of voltage will have leads like well-fed pit vipers. Short them out by mistake, and they’ll briefly illuminate the surrounding room so you can get a last look before it, you and they combust in short order.

The modern executive may have issues with this. I rattle off a few questions to Toshiba in Japan and elicit the following exchange.

Q: What sort of power supply will be needed to deliver the recharge performance promised by the battery chemistry?
A: Power supply for large electricity.

They’re not joking. And, as they say further on in the conversation, laptop and mobile use will be ‘studied’ after the technology is first used in industrial and automotive applications (where you can and do safely deal with power of the order of kilowatts).

It’s still very interesting technology, and it’s not alone — if I can get it together, I'll take the rest of the Toshiba Q&A and do the same for some other purveyors of super-fast charging technologies and report back on the scene as a whole. But things aren't quite as innocently joyous as they may seem from those original reports.

Friday 1/4/2005

Midway through writing a piece about antivirus software, I realise what’s been bothering me. I don’t know what to call the stuff. It was easy enough in the beginning, when the only threats to PCs were a handful of viruses, but these days we’ve got spam, spyware, Trojans, root kits, adware and heaven knows what else alongside the viruses. Some software combines elements of antivirus, spam filtering, firewalling and anti-spyware, others focus on one area in particular, but they’re all doing the same job. Calling all such software 'antivirus' is just plain wrong, but there’s no good noun for this class of unwanted and potentially damaging code .

Crimeware is too aggressively cyberpunk and rather prejudicial — and besides, it makes me think of Josiah Wedgwood’s creamware ceramics. Then there’s threatware, which has utterly failed to engage anyone (54 hits on Google) despite being quite euphonious. Malware sounds right and is a reasonable portmanteau word, but despite more than two million hits on Google it still hasn’t caught on in general use. And it still doesn’t really cover spam, which lives halfway between actively malicious payloads and the weightless radiation of DDOS attacks — surely anything with 'ware' in it has to have some association with running a program.

Naw, we'll have to lose that association. Malware it is. Thus, software that deals with it is anti-malware, and we’ll just have to accept that stuff like firewalls will be a bit traditional network security and a bit anti-malware.

And now up to Scotland, where a riotous Saturday wedding party is promised with — I have no doubt — a definite case of malhead on the Sunday.

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