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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Biggles Flies Online, Dame Porter's Revenge, cheating at strip poker and naked journalism? Just another week in IT

Monday 12/9/2005

Novell runs an event called Brainshare, an intensive get-together for developers, clients and the press. The European version kicked off today in Barcelona, a city well equipped for the task. It's a work hard, play hard business: the best bits happen in the bar afterwards, when executives and hacks mingle and strike sparks off each other. It's even rumoured that some high-level Novell suits regard it a matter of personal pride to get the hacks absolutely steaming — but as that rumour was put about by one rather raddled chap who confessed to 'losing five hours' trying to get back from a bar to the hotel, it should be taken (like the margaritas responsible) with a pinch of salt.

One journalist — who agreed to talk under conditions of anonymity, although he's starred in the Diary before and I am, as always, open to bribery — was at the receiving end of the Novell largesse until quite late, but sensibly made his excuses and returned to his room before things got out of hand. Or so he thought as he slipped gratefully into reviving sleep: his psyche, however, was having none of it. He came to some time later with four facts struggling for supremacy in his fogged consciousness: one, that he had been sleepwalking; two, that he was now facing his shut hotel room door; three, from the outside; four, that he was stark naked.

He ducked behind the nearest potted palm, and considered his position — which was, whichever way he looked at it, crouching naked behind a potted palm in a hotel corridor. This is not tenable, even in Barcelona at 0300. He briefly considered trying to rouse the PR to obtain a towel, but quickly decided that appearing naked at her bedroom door might be misinterpreted (or worse, correctly interpreted. "She's quite a hotty" he told me, "and I wouldn't have minded…"). Nothing for it but to take himself in hand and bluster it out at the front desk.

I asked him whether he stepped boldy or whether he covered his shame. "I used both hands," he said. "Make a note of that. Both hands." The front desk rose admirably to the situation, issued a new key without demanding ID, and our hero made his way swiftly back to safety. "Still maintaining your decency by hand?" I asked. "Certainly", he replied. "But it could have been much worse. The bar only closed an hour beforehand, it was full of people from Brainshare, and it overlooks reception".

It was only after I'd finished extracting the story from the hapless streaker that the great unanswered question struck me — how did he carry his room key? There are two obvious ways, and only one involves the mouth. There are some mysteries best left unexplored, I feel.

Tuesday 13/9/2005

Journalism has many subtle pleasures, and one is sitting at your desk reading newspapers while convincing yourself that you're hard at work. Today sees a double dose of that as we avidly deconstruct the new-look Guardian (or theguardian, as it appears to have become). Layouts, fonts and double page spreads are discussed, colour printing is examined, size is, well, sized up. There is serious talk of kerning.

But where is Doonesbury? There is none. It has been dropped.

A fearsome mistake by the Guardian's Ian Katz, which one in four people who gave the paper feedback on the redesign are keen to point out. The focus for this unrest is the editorial blog the paper is running, where hundreds of posts pile in to excoriate the decision. I must admit now that two of those posts were by me – only one under my own name, with the other being the product of one of my more belligerent sock puppets. I feel mildly guilty about this, but the temptation was too strong, the stakes too high to resist the deception. My misgivings are eased when a news story about the kerfuffle uses two quotes from two different blog posters, both of whom are me. It was still wrong, and I apologise, but darn it if it didn't work.

But the rest of the paper is much improved. It feels revitalised, it is graphically excellent and as Andrew Brown says in his blog the colour throughout should be a huge draw for advertisers. With the Guardian and the Observer between them losing a million pounds a week – sister titles like AutoTrader bring in the dosh — this is an important factor. Curiously, the online side hasn't been redesigned at all and keeps many aspects of the old paper – evidence perhaps that the paper's management still see the Web side of things as secondary, despite its huge success. You can't do everything at once, though.

Wednesday 14/9/2005

Those industrious chaps on The Register have produced an engaging story on the back of various governments getting miffed at Google Earth. The global mapping software is only too happy to provide images of military installations to anyone who can type in the coordinates, which enrages those responsible for Top Secret Airbases and similar. The rest of us love it, of course, and the pleasure of safely snooping on South Korea's tasty collection of American hardware is only intensified by the knowledge that it really, really annoys people in uniform.

I know it's aiding the enemy, but I can't resist dropping a link to the story on Pprune, the flyboys' bulletin board — more specifically, the Military Aircrew section, where they can be a bit arsey towards civilians (or "bloody spotters" as we are sometimes called). Although that's as nothing compared to the caustic banter unladled on a junior American military type who complains that he can't get the Brits to salute him: fans of the acerbic will find strong meat there.

But Biggles looks kindly upon my link, and the chaps are soon merrily swapping lats and longs. This is entertaining enough, but highlights one basic flaw with Google Earth and other geographic systems: there is no standard way to exchange this information. There are plenty of proprietary formats, some of which have achieved near-standard status among GPS manufacturers, but none is suitable for handling as ordinary text on Web sites, in emails and so on. Google Earth itself does have an XML-based link format, but it can't easily be embedded in a cut-and-pasteable way on the page.

As cut and paste remains a surprisingly common way of moving information about, this is a significant lack. Google could do worse than installing explicit support for some simple tag-based system, and other places such as Flickr that encourage geographic information exchange could be instrumental in ensuring its success. It's something we'll need more and more of very soon, and not just for finding new ways to annoy the military.

Thursday 15/9/2005

ZDNet Editorial gets a strange note from Neil, our man in the engine room who keeps the boilers hissing and the Web site pumping. He's forwarding a note from our ISPs, who are in turn forwarding one from an outfit in California called BayTSP. And what interesting reading it makes.

After some strongly worded legalese, it gets down to business. ""It has come to the attention of Scansoft that you are distributing unlicensed and unauthorized Scansoft Products. The property you are infringing is protected by the 1976 Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 101, et seq." In particular, it continues, we're handing out copies of Dragon Naturally Speaking speech recognition software. And to prove it, the note includes a link to our sinful activity. It concludes with an even more strongly worded piece of advice to cease and desist our evil, otherwise we'll be guilty of wilful copyright infringement with absolutely oodles of dollars in fines.

Alas for BayTSP, whatever recognition software it's using is somewhat less impressive than Scansoft's product. It has incorrectly identified a review for the product itself — and clearly, BayTSP doesn't see fit to have a human check the results of its robot sheriff before sending out the frighteners.

We email Scansoft's PR, and get a frightfully apologetic reply — they had no idea what was happening and are mortified. That's OK, we say, it's not your fault. It's these BayTSP clowns and whatever strange package they're using that can't tell an 800 word text file from many megabytes of executable code. They are the idiots who've meant we have to go back to our ISP and say that no, there's nothing going on here.

Our temper is not improved when we go to make contact with our accusers. The email directs us to an officious Web page which offers us three options: 'Yes, I've complied and removed all copyrighted material for which I'm not the copyright holder'; 'No, I've not complied and I'm still distributing copyrighted material'; and 'Mistake, You sent the notice to the wrong person'. The two options we'd like to see — 'You can't tell the difference between a program and a review, you dolt' and 'Your false accusation to our ISP may be libellous, so think about that before you accuse an organisation which knows all about libel. Also, you're a dolt' — are mysteriously absent. But there is a free text box where we can make our opinions clear, together with a tick box to certify that we've provided truthful information, so we provide some truthful information, tick the box and send it off.

On no account should any of you lot provide more truthful information, tick the box and send it off. That would be bad, and beneath your dignity.

Friday 16/9/2005

You'll have heard by now of Cliff Stanford's fall from grace – a fall he continues to strongly contest. Those of us who've known the man since his days with the Commodore Pet find very little of the story surprising: he is not a chap to shy from his chosen course no matter how abrasive others may find it, and once you've made powerful enemies then bad things may happen. Our gobs were utterly smacked, however, when the reports of him pleading guilty filtered out of the courtroom, and it was with a certain sense of relief that we learned the truth of the matter – he'd been cornered by the judge and was looking at serious stir if he did anything else. The man is appealing, which further fortifies our sense of normality.

Our new reporter, Tom Espiner, had the joy of attending the court – and a most dramatic event it was too, quite worthy of Tarantino. Tory corruption, blackmail, death and hitch-hiking were all involved – Cliff's co-defendant was in such dire straits financially he'd had to get lifts down from Scotland, while the blackmail charges had had to be dropped because of the demise "not in suspicious circumstances" of a Mr Green. By telling the BBC about Shirley Porter's hidden cash, Cliff had helped Westminster Council get ten million quid from the lady – but it was his interception of the emails that got him the information that got him into court.

Tom was particularly taken by the thespian side of things – the defence lawyer really did intone, and the judge took straightforward pleasure in putting the fear of God and the judiciary into all concerned. As the legendary Pamela Jones of Groklaw says, you want to avoid courts at all costs – you never know what will happen. But if it's someone else on the receiving end of the might and majesty of the law, it can be most entertaining.

Cliff got on the blower to me afterwards and was characteristically blunt and forthright while touching on matters far too scandalous to repeat outside a courtroom: let's just say he's got no intention of giving up and his campaign to clear his name is underway. "It's a bit strange not having any support structure", he said. "I can't use Max for this one" — referring to glory days of having Max Clifford handle some of his more outré extravagances during the pop star days — "so I guess I'll have to set up a mailing list".

We'll report on his progress as we intercept the results.

Meanwhile, Doonesbury is back in the Guardian, with an entire page given over to the five strips that should have run this week. Of course, they are rubbish. Trudeau is having one of his uninspired runs where the characters just sit around and watch the television, and the effect is more like a Warhol pop-art print than the pungent, character-led satire which marks the strip out as something special. But we won. Oh, and The Guardian has shamelessly nicked the Reg's airbase story. Don't you love it when that happens?