Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Norman Stanley Fletcher's guide to IT employment, Linux 'not ready for grandmothers' shock, and the little chip company that might

Monday 24/10/2005

Some ideas just make so much sense. Take the natural evolution of the workplace: people are being put into smaller and smaller spaces, constrained by cubicles and ever-weightier rulebooks. One of the highest expressions of this concept is the call centre, where people can be anywhere on the planet provided they've got access to a computer and a headset. They could be half-way up a mountain in a monastic cell, or in an igloo on one of the remaining bits of ice cap. It's a closed, inflexible and inhumane existence. Why, they could almost be in prison.

Prison — where the wages are low and the workers compliant. Where days off rarely trouble the schedule, and you don't lose your best people for four weeks a year. Maternity and paternity leave? No problem. In fact, all the things that make outsourced call centres so attractive are doubly true for prisons — together with a lot of extra advantages.

It's no great surprise to find that the US has already got in on the act — "Domestic outsourcing at offshore prices", as Federal Prison Industries advertises its call centres. The Dutch are tempted too, although there's some concern that it would ruin the local call centre industry. You can see how that might work: depressed at losing his job, Piet takes to drink and drugs, gradually running out of friends and options until one day he's apprehended trying to hold up an off-licence. Sentenced to six months inside and bang — he's back on the phones but costing a fraction of his old wage. And who better to sell security services and insurance than the experts?

The options for working behind bars have been limited in the past, but new technology can change all that. Why stop at call centres? Lots of developers lead lives with a degree of naughtiness involved: a swoop of their homes looking for illicit binary will net hundreds. That alone could make the UK coding industry more globally competitive.

Why stop there? Any work that takes place on a computer would qualify for the porridge discount — and with the UK prison population inexorably rising, we should have enough bods to compete anywhere with anyone.

Good thing I lead a blameless life.

Tuesday 25/10/2005

New processor companies aren't the commonest of creatures. The last one to make a big splash was Transmeta with its Intel-emulating chips whose primary attribute was low power without loss of speed. That never really took off — although the company's still around, it hasn't fulfilled its early promise.

This week sees another start-up come out of stealth mode. PA Semi has a range of devices promises, this time based on the IBM PowerPC architecture. What makes them special? Low power without loss of speed. Hm. True, it's very low power - a couple of watts producing as much CPU woof as chips taking ten or twenty times as much today — but don't expect to see so much as a sample for a long time.

You have to take PA Semi seriously, though. The CEO was the lead designer on the Alpha RISC processor — one of the best designs ever — and also worked on the StrongARM chip. His vice president of engineering produced AMD's Opteron architecture, while others have backgrounds with Xeon and Itanium. These people know how to make chips.

Can PA Semi be to IBM what AMD has been to Intel? It certainly strengthens IBM's story by bolstering the PowerPC line — system designers are always happier to have second sources for products; indeed, that's how AMD got into the x86 business in the first place, at IBM's behest. And while the technical claims for the new chips are breathtaking, on closer examination they're not too far adrift from what Intel claims it will be able to do with power reduction over a similar time period.

If IBM manages to keep PowerPC's momentum going - and it should, since despite Apple's flight into the arms of Intel the market is growing healthily — then there will be no shortage of takers for efficient, high-performing chips over the next five years. It should be an easier market to launch into than the x86, since there are fewer pressures to keep everything ultra-cheap.

In short: a good bet. If they can avoid spending all their money before getting to market, they'll be in with a shout of serious success by 2010.

Wednesday 26/10/2005

I'm not sure what the opposite to a cub reporter is — presumably Great Bear — but whatever the term is, Colin Barker is your man. He has the unflappability born of years of experience: if Steve Ballmer ripped off all his clothes and swung from a chandelier chanting "I AM THE WALRUS GOD!", Colin's only reaction would be to ask whether the walrus would be available in 64-bit as well as 32.

But he was very disgruntled today. "I don't expect much from Microsoft," he said. "and I'm not normally disappointed. But this took the biscuit."

"Nice biscuits?" I asked.

"No biscuits. No nothing"

He'd been invited to Microsoft's London office to speak to some American types about enterprise software, strategy and so on. So he'd turned up on time, well-prepared for the interview and ready for action, and was shown to a windowless office in the basement. And that was that — no back-up material, no "anything you'd like?", not even the offer of a cup of tea. He sat there and watched the two Americans glug their way through cans of Coke and thought "it would be nice to have been asked." At the end of it, he was shown the door and that was that.

And the software? CRM — customer relationship management. It's all about making people feel loved, supported and wanted. Colin felt like he'd be summoned to take dictation.

I've never been comfortable with formal relationships, seeing them as depersonalising. In the pub a few evenings back, I asked a senior chap from elsewhere in our company how he thought our MD perceived us. "A basket of kittens", said my correspondent — which while demeaning to us, him and kittens is not the least truthful idea I've heard this week. And the relationship between PR and hack is even more open to ambiguity and tangled motivation: yes, they're nice to us more than we deserve, but then human relationships are rarely purely dependent on a precise calculus of worth.

Still, the offer of a cup of tea is pretty much the lowest acceptable sign of respect.

There's not much further to go — perhaps being thrown into a stinking dungeon, shackled to the wall and having PowerPoint shone directly into your eyes? For many people who work in the Thames Valley, that wouldn't even be a break from routine. There are even some who might find this an attractive theme for a club night.

Colin is not one of them. Next time, eh?

Thursday 27/10/2005

It was an old computer, but perfectly workable — until the equally venerable hard disk fulfilled every critera of the cliché and literally ground to a screeching halt. I had a spare disk and no real reason to junk the computer — what better excuse to finally create that Linux box I've been promising myself? I know how to have a good time.

I fancied Ubuntu, having heard it praised for simplicity of installation, quality of support and ease of use. And silliness of names — what can be wrong with a distro called Breezy Badger? For most of the first half-hour, it went perfectly: a couple of incomprehensible questions about disk formats aside, it was hands-off.

While it worked, it was exemplary. But then I tried to tweak the audio to… well, make it work. It didn't want to.

The usual business of cutting error messages and pasting them into Google got me to the right forums quickly enough, but the quality of response wasn't all that it could be. One conversation on the same subject as my problem started with the user being told off for not being specific enough, and then — once he'd gone and dragged every bit of information into the forum — being told that his best bet was to go and look in some other forums for the answer.

There was also rather a lot of snobbery. Ubuntu was for n00bs, y'see, and thus demeaning to real Linux users. Sure, we weren't on the same level as those Neanderthal Windows lusers, but we couldn't be expected to actually understand too much. "I'd give Ubuntu to my granny," said one high priest of haughtiness, "as she doesn't need to really use a computer at all."

Poor Gran. While Ubuntu is very good, it's a long way away from being friendly enough for non-nerds. It's not just a matter of all that scary Terminator-style start-up scroll, which reads rather like those endless genealogies that pepper the Old Testament ("And gslib begat ACPI, which begat eth0…"), but what happens when you want to load some extra bits of software? One in particular coughed up half a screen about needing recompilation before it would talk to the kernel, which led to a fun twenty minutes of finding header files, magic commands, the appropriate version of the compiler and where in the world the Make command was hiding.

Make. I haven't touched Make since I laid down my sword, shield and binary debugger back in the last millennium. I don't believe my granny was much better — she was a fearsome seamstress, but her idea of multithreading involved sewing machines.

I certainly wouldn't feel happy about supporting this at a distance: I could set it up and let it go, but as soon something had to be changed or added the cold wind of fear would start creeping up the trouserleg of reality. The Linux jihad has to decide whether it's serious about creating the desktop for the rest of us — and if it does, it has to treat its target users as something other than clueless newbies who don't deserve anything other than compiler errors.

Friday 28/10/2005

I've been playing with SkypeIn, which I've been meaning to do for ages. I was finally provoked into laying down my ten euros by reading the small print on my T-Mobile contract — which in turn I was provoked into doing by getting a £200 data bill (more on that soon). The thing that did for me was finding out that when I'm out of the country, UK calls to my UK voicemail seem to attract two lots of international roaming rates — "because we have to send the call to where you are and then back to the voicemail system" before I even pick them up. That and the pound per minute call charges.

So, the thing to do is set a divert before leaving the country, and by putting that divert to my SkypeIn number I can do all my call management over the net. SkypeIn comes with a reasonable voicemail system — the main drawback is you can't pick up calls without a computer — and in tests, it all works rather well. It's good enough to keep my money away from T-Mobile until my contract expires and I can try for someone less rapacious. If there is such a being.

A friend was trying something similar, but came across a technical hitch. Whenever he tried to set up a divert from his home phone to SkypeIn, he got number unobtainable. Curious. He phoned up his telco — OneTel — who said "Nothing to do with us, mate. BT handles the diverts". So off to BT, who said almost exactly the same thing but with the names reversed.

After a couple of rounds of punter ping-pong, our pal did some research and found it was possible to force the divert to go via BT or OneTel — for future reference, *21*1280# is BT. *21*# is OneTel. The BT divert worked perfectly: the OneTel one didn't. Aha! Back on the blower to OneTel's customer support, this time with a dogged refusal to go away until he spoke to someone who knew what they were talking about.

Which, in the end, he did. "A cracking person", he said (having seen too much Wallace and Gromit), "who revealed that the calls are routed through Cable and Wireless, and if I'd have known that at the time I'd never have signed up. "What a nightmare," I told them, "but then you know that. You have to deal with them every day." They just giggled and said "No comment"."