Rupert Goodwins' Diary

A torrent of Brian Sewell, a bafflement of Home Office propaganda, a bewilderment of broadband and as fine a piece of NHS nitwittery as you could find. Just another week in Mondo Rupert

Monday 10/10/2005
Up in Cambridge, where I was taking part in a Cambridge MIT Institute day of wireless future roadmapping. I was there as much to throw ideas in as to take notes and a lot of what was said was off the record, so some things will have to remain secret.

One such thing is the identity of the chap who pointed out that Google's policy of continuously increasing Gmail storage allocations works out to around 1.6 kilobits/second per mailbox -- so by aggregating a couple of hundred free accounts, you can create a data store capable of absorbing a video stream. Indefinitely. None of the Gmail filing systems I know can aggregate multiple accounts, but it's only a matter of time -- is this the backup problem finally fixed?

There then followed a discussion about the BBC's new Internet broadcasting experiment, iMP. This is a cunning wheeze that tries to get around the problem of huge peak bandwidth demands for streamed video by using peer-to-peer. Streamed P2P is not a goer, because the random delays in moving stuff into then out of a peer soon mess things up: instead, the BBC is using DRM to push encrypted programmes out to people ahead of time. If you say you're always going to want to watch East Enders, for example, then you can get the programme when it's ready days ahead of schedule, delivered by a torrent over a few hours. All the BBC has to do at broadcast time is send you a few hundred bytes of key.

Other tricks up Auntie's lace-trimmed sleeve include variable encoding depending on the popularity and content of the programme -- Checkout Challenge will be compressed more ruthlessly than Brian Sewell's Top Ten Tintorettos -- and the magical DRM-powered disappearance of content after seven days. That's fair enough, but do they have to use Microsoft's DRM? No they don't but yes they are, at least for the trial.

This was all over coffee -- we then got down to the serious business of working out what was going to happen next and whether this was a good idea or not. The odd thing about wireless industry luminaries is that they are a bit, well, odd. At one stage, we were divided into groups of four to concentrate on particular aspects of the technology: the group that got something to do with fast data services to mobile phones discovered that two of them didn't own or use a mobile phone anyway. As for my group -- we swiftly worked out that 75 percent of us were radio amateurs: a fatal realisation as far as the remaining 25 percent went.

I can exclusively reveal one breakthrough fact: the port at Queens' College is really very fine and has peculiar space-time dilatory effects. It makes the Holloway Road seem very far away indeed.

Tuesday 11/10/2005
Not the best of days. A call from up-country says that my mother has been taken into hospital (it all worked out OK in the end). As it was a case of being ferried in rapidly from the GP's surgery and then being kept in overnight, she was unprepared for her detention. "I didn't even have my iPod!" she complained later -- which is good going for someone who didn't even listen to CDs until Christmas and had only been in possession of a nano for two days prior. (If you, like the editor of Scotland on Sunday, are having trouble finding one, try Argos. They seem to have heaps).

But once again, I'm frustrated and angered by the hospital telephone system. You can't use a mobile phone on the ward -- you have to receive calls on a bedside extension which costs around 50p a minute to call into; just to make sure the caller is comfortable with this, there's a long and very slowly enunciated recorded message to listen to before you're put through. I found it bad enough: for people on low wages, the thought of a 10-minute chat costing an hour's pay must be nearly unbearable. But you have to call -- especially if you can't easily visit because of not having tons of money to spend on taxis to travel to and from a remote hospital.

It's the worst sort of extortion – money-grabbing capitalist bastards at it again, right? Well, no. The company behind the system, Patientline, is haemorrhaging money and is currently in talks with its backers to ward off defaulting on various guarantees. The NHS went out and asked for a bedside entertainment/telephone system with certain provisos, seemingly designed to save money while being fair to the patients. The system had to be self-funding, thus conserving NHS funds for medicine; and calls the patient made couldn't be too expensive -- in some cases, they had to be free. In exchange, there would be a monopoly on calls.

Which accounts for the 50p/min charge on incoming calls -- there weren't many ways left for the company to make money, especially considering it decided to install tens of thousands of £1,700 bedside units. Yet as we have seen, people find that sort of thing unacceptable: it really does feel like extortion at a most vulnerable time. As a result, complaints have been made to Ofcom and Ofcom is busy investigating -- and Patientline has stopped rolling out its system until the results of that investigation are in. Hence the financial panic, and the fact that my mother's bedside television (also part of the package, if you care to cough up £3.50/day) was broken with nobody much caring to fix it.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: public access Wi-Fi on the wards, a pool of secondhand laptops, volunteer maintenance a la Hospital Radio and a sponsored VoIP gateway will replace all this at a fraction of the cost and ten times the capability. When you're ill, you need to be in as good a contact with your loved ones as you can be: Skype to Skype sounds like you're in the room with your correspondent, and email is perfect for talking when you're not quite sure when the other person's awake or available. And when might you want really good access to medical resources online? Quite.

But even if I could have got a laptop to my mother in time with GPRS or 3G data, it would have been forbidden by ward rules -- to protect the monopoly of a company which was failing to provide an infinitely worse service at a far higher cost.

The people who made this happen are presumably the people behind the NHS national IT project.

Shall we march on Whitehall before it really is too late?

Wednesday 12/10/2005

Wandering through King's Cross, I notice some striking yellow posters offering "Broadband as you've never seen it before. Wireless", and picturing a hand holding what looks like an overfed walkie-talkie. The ad is for Now broadband, the recently renamed Netvigator service from PCCW, which has a nationwide licence for delivering megabit services over the air.

Well. I wonder if I can get the service at home -- sitting as I do half-way up a hill overlooking London. Perhaps there's a coverage map on the website? First, find your website -- Netvigator might have been an ugly world, but at least you can Google it. Now is not.

I get there in the end. There's no coverage map, but there is a postcode checker. I enter my postcode. No dice. I enter a few more - it's a bit like Minesweeper, with me finding postcodes for as many areas of London as I can, but I'm clearly very bad at this. Wherever it is that Now is, it is intent on escaping my attentions.

Still, never mind. The pricing seems good for the very low end -- 256k for £10 a month -- but the higher speeds are less attractive. Eighteen quid a month for a meg is as fast as it gets and "The service is not capped, but the fair usage policy says that 10 gigabytes a month is acceptable" sounds like capping to me. "That's about eight hours of video", the website explains helpfully, so it's not going to be much good for BBC iMP fans. There are also worrying caveats about peer to peer file transfers quickly using up the fair usage cap, and about latency perhaps being a bit stringy for gamesplayers. That's ruled out anyone under 40, then.

The one thing that Now does which DSL doesn't is let you have a contract that you can cancel after a month, making it attractive to people who are just renting or in temporary accommodation.

So by the looks of it, Now is ideal for the more mature, less affluent lady or gentleman who tends to move around London a lot. Tramps with laptops should love it - but for the rest of us, it's a case of not Now, darling.

Thursday 13/10/2005
Men and women of the future, your attention please. Jetpacks! Houses on Mars! Home robots! World peace! Flexible displays! Siemens is promising only one of the above, and yeah, it's the runt of the litter. But as the press release says, "At the Plastics Electronics trade fair in Frankfurt, Siemens developers exhibited extremely thin, miniature color displays that can be printed onto paper or foil. And the displays can be produced at very low cost compared to LCD panels."

This has caused a lot of excitement among the younger set. The greybeards are less easily swayed, and many can be seen frowning slightly. "What's up, Gramps?" asked one whippersnapper. "This means TV on cornflake boxes, movies on posters and portraits just like the ones in Harry Potter". "If it did, innocenti," said the more patient of the wrinklies, "then it would be bad news indeed. But look at that press release in more detail."

"What, the bit about the videogames and the packaging with interactive instructions? Cool!" And the kid picked up a discarded postcard, held it like a Sony PSP and drummed his thumbs on the picture of Blackpool while making "Psssssh! Neeeeow! BANG!" noises.

"No," sighed Methuselah. "Look at the rest. 'Due in 2007. 'Is already working on.' 'Are optimising.' Anything like this which isn't promised in under three months -- well, you might as well make the downpayment for that country cottage on the slopes of Olympus Mons."

"You're just cynical, you know that? Can't keep up with technologies"

"Ten years ago, I was sitting in a lab near a university, and an enthusiastic young man -- not much older than you -- was showing me his latest invention. Plastic that glowed when you put volts through it. You could mix it up in an ordinary beaker, and off it went. Exciting new possibilities. Thin, miniature colour displays that could be printed on paper at pennies per sheet. It worked too -- I saw it. Two years, he said. Two years, and it would be everywhere. Just a few small production details to finalise. Contamination and compound breakdown, but those were just a matter of cleaning stuff up. Today, the stuff's in a few gadgets, but you'd never know it wasn't just an LCD. Does the press release mention what few small production details have to be finished?"

The kid wasn't listening. He'd already gone back to his Web browser. "Coo! Look at this, Gramps. An iPod that plays video! Moving pictures in your pocket. How cool is that?"

Gramps sighed and went back to his eBay auction. Ten minutes to go on the Sinclair Microvision, and it was looking good…

Friday 14/10/2005
You can't make it up - but they can. Figures from the Home Office released today say that 73 percent of the population are in favour of identity cards - and even if a combined ID card and passport cost £250, 63 percent think it’s a good thing and would cough up.

That's just taking the Michael. I know we're a nest of anarchistic naysayers, but a quick check of the office showed that precisely nobody was prepared to pay £250 for a passport with or without an ID card. Would you?

Finding these headline figures completely unbelievable -- even if the Reg published them with a straight face -- I had a look through the Home Office report. The methodology behind the poll was interesting: I'll be peering more closely over the weekend, but the basic thrust appears to be "Here are ten fantastic advantages the ID card will bring. Would you like to obtain these gorgeous prizes quite a lot, a great deal, or enough to sacrifice your first-born?"

The ten advantages include things like "help in the fight against terrorism", which not even the Government will say with a straight face in public these days, and "enable travel in the EU without a passport". What's wrong with getting a passport -- assuming it doesn't cost £250? Oh, and they'll help prevent sales of cigarettes to minors. Yes, really.

Of the many and varied and well-attested worries about the ID card, there was no hint.

But don't take my word for it. Download the blighter and check it out for yourself. Come up with the 10 key attributes of the ID card scheme you think most accurately reflect the nature of the beast, and go out with a clipboard. If you can find 65 percent of people willing to part with quarter of a grand for the things, I'll eat a lizard.