Rupert Goodwins' Diary

It started in Florida, involved 65,000 alcoholics, veered wildly across the Irish sea and ended up going down the pan. Just another week for Rupert

Last Week

A flying visit to Florida took up the end of last week, with twenty hours in the back of two Virgins buying me slightly longer in Fort Lauderdale — Milton Keynes with palm trees — and an afternoon in Miami. The purpose of my visit was to check out the rather amazing claims of XG Technology, which says it has some superb ideas to make broadband wireless much cheaper, easier and quicker. You can read what I made of all that here… but it wasn't just a matter of hanging around in fields squinting at oscilloscopes, fun though that is.

Some background: this was my first trip to Florida, a place I know mostly through music videos, US Presidential elections and the work of Carl Hiaasen. Through this filter, I had an impression of a hedonistic place inhabited by eccentrics with colourful backgrounds and an engagingly dynamic relationship to matters legal and fiscal. Also, alligators.

I was not disappointed (except with regard to the gators). One of our PRs on the trip — the stonkingly gorgeous Tara — proved to be the girlfriend of Jimmy Vega$, a WWE wrestler. This proved a fascinating topic over dinner: stories of mad families of fans, cock-ups in cage fights and other matters more than worthy of a Hiaasen novel displaced concerns over multipath distortion in the wireless data stream. And we can only dream about the Jimmy Vega$ versus Johhny Vegas deathmatch.

As for XG Technologies — the chief executive, Rick Mooers, has history. He is relentless in his defence against what he characterises as press smears concerning previous ventures into technology entrepreneurship which ended badly and in some confusion. Who did what to whom and why I, a mere technology journalist, cannot say. It's all out there on the Web, if you care to look it up: I got a more than thorough briefing about what happened, what it all means and XG's future negotiating strategy from Mooers, which he underlined whenever we found ourselves at a loose end. He is a driven man.

The gators never turned up, despite us being shipped across the wetlands on a highway known as Alligator Alley. There were lots of current investors in that bus, some of whom were Icelandic and none of whom seemed quite sure what they were doing with journalists. There were also some prospective investors who were even more uncertain about the small smattering of hacks, and rightly so. I overheard a fascinating conversation between one such and a senior XG executive: that and some of the things Mooers told me in the back of a cab were so far removed from the sort of sanitised, pre-digested pap that PRs normally give us on such occasions that I'm keeping them for later.

On reflection, I do have one further disappointment. It's those Hiaasen novels. They're nowhere near outlandish enough to reflect what for want of a better term we must call Floridian reality.

Monday 7/11/2005

Happy birthday, Homebrew Computing Club. Thirty years on, the HCC has acquired an almost mythical status as the birthplace of Apple and much else that set the West Coast microcomputer scene — much as the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club is seen as the spiritual home of hacker culture.

I do wonder what things would have been like if I'd been five years older and living in California when the HCC was kicking off. I recognise my own background and obsessions in those people, but all that was available to the young Goodwins was the Plymouth Amateur Radio Club. That was good fun and I certainly learned stuff, but there wasn't quite that Californian buzz of entrepreneurship. Having a go at selling pre-cut aerial elements didn't count, and while there were a couple of bods messing around with digital stuff the emphasis was more on beer and Morse. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

These may be the last examples where enthusiasts physically gather and innovate: these days, the need to congregate anywhere except online is much reduced. There are plenty of people dabbling in robotics, wireless and distributed computing — the areas where big things may next grow — but increasingly they hang out in chat rooms and on the end of VoIP conferences.

This is not necessarily a good thing. One of the big driving forces that keeps people involved and productive is the kudos gained from actually showing off an innovation. That's what makes the eyes stay open at 2am in a solder-fume filled basement as the prototype keeps refusing to work; you'll get a kick when it gives in and starts to behave, but nowhere near as big a thrill as when you press the button in front of twenty of your peers.

Showing off online just isn't as satisfying — which is true for so many things...

Tuesday 8/11/2005

It's 5:00, I still haven't quite recovered from Florida and I'm up and shaving in the darkness ready for the 5:30 cab to take me to Gatwick and thence to the Isle of Man — a place described by Billy Connolly as "65,000 alcoholics clinging to a rock in the middle of the Irish sea" (a quote that Manx Telecom chief executive Chris Hall is remarkably fond of trotting out.) It's certainly the home of the grumpiest barman in the Atlantic Isles, whom we are to encounter many hours later in the airport bar on our way back.

It's wireless broadband again, only this time it's the far more corporate O2/Manx Telecom showing off the far more ready-to-eat HSDPA system that they've attached to a 3G network. Although it's the official launch of the network, it's actually been up and running for nearly a week by the time we get to see it and rather disappointingly it does exactly what the company claims. "Can I run Netmeter?" I ask. "Sure. It's already on those laptops" says the chief technology officer. It is — and the figures match what they promise. They have paying customers. They have 30 base stations across the island. They have a plausible strategy for Germany, Ireland and the UK. What's sanity doing in a mobile phone company?

Equally disappointingly, I come armed with a long rant about mobile data tariffs and find I'm pushing at an open door. O2 knows all about bill shock and claims with some believability to be against it. After three months finding out how people are using the network, they're keen to get the tariffs set up so that people can actually use the system. They're not keen on letting the filesharers go mad, but other than that… well, we'll see. I do make repeated requests for low tariffs and generous bundles. Let's hope.

There is one reassuring departure from making sense. I ask about voice over IP using HSDPA. "No," says the CTO. "We can't see that being a good idea. It probably won't be a reasonable value proposition". This stance is somewhat weakened when they show a video clip of a BBC report from the island, where the network is used instead of some wired broadband that didn't work properly. The BBC engineer in charge is delighted to be able to make the broadcast link back to the studio over the system — using, rather inevitably, Skype on a laptop

It further turns out that just about everyone in the boardroom has their own Skype account, and it doesn't take long for the Manx Telecom bods to tacitly admit that yes, perhaps people will use it for that after all. I end up using Skype to talk back to the office (thus bypassing the horrendous roaming rates on the island) while I flash some screenshots over. It's not going away — and in the same week that the CEO of France Telecom said that voice is going to be free, the future seems inevitable.

And so after a long day we're given a bottle of Manx Spirit apiece — a most peculiar beverage — and drive through the countryside to our encounter with the grumpiest man on earth.

Wednesday 9/11/2005

What a day for voting. Not only has that lovely Blair chap failed to persuade his people that suspects should be locked up for quarter of a year while the plod peer through their computers — and if anyone can tell me exactly what technical reasoning lies behind this magic figure, I'll be most grateful — but Arnie got told off by an e-voting machine.

The Governator wanted to exercise his franchise during Californian state ballots, but the high-tech robo-teller would have none of it. "You've already voted once, now naff off" it told the non-girlyman. He hadn't, of course, and after a while the voting organisers traced the problem to his name being used beforehand to check the system's connectivity. Since nobody had thought to remove his name from the database of those who had voted, when the real thing turned up he was slapped down. The appropriate entry was removed and he was once again allowed to register his approval of his own ideas.

Just one of those things, eh? Not really. This means that whatever protocol was adopted to check the systems integrity prior to the election, it didn't include setting the voter exclusion records back to their default state. What else was in there? We don't know, and clearly neither does anyone else. We can be grateful that the problem involved such a high profile voter, otherwise we'd never know that following all the kerfuffle over unauthorised code changes and vanishingly poor security, the electronic voting systems are still a wobbly sack of walrus sputum.

We can also be grateful that for all the daftnesses and authoritarian twitching going on at the heart of the UK's government, there is seemingly no taste for electronic voting at all. There may still be some subcommittee scratching away at a report deep within the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but for now it looks like we'll be stuck sticking bits of paper with pencil marks through slots in metal boxes for the foreseeable. And that, despite my love affair with all things bleepy, is just fine by me.

(Thursday's entry has been removed because of disturbances in the space-time continuum)

Friday 11/11/2005

Back in the days of the Homebrew Computer Club, data comms were difficult. The only way to get online from home was over the phone, and that was limited by immutable laws of physics to glacially slow rates. Then, the Data Fairy turned up and waved her magic wand, Claude Shannon found himself in a sequined ballgown and we had megabits down the line. "Aw, that was nothing" said the Fairy — and as if by magic the phone line was joined by the cable TV, electricity supply and the airwaves as conduits that could carry more data in a second than a tribe of monkeys could type in a lifetime.

But now it's getting silly. I mean, the gas main? Apparently so — details are scarce and the company concerned hasn't done much more but say they think it's possible, but by squirting Ultrawideband radio signals down copper gas pipes you can deliver the Internet alongside the therms. The good bit is that because the stuff is underground you can use a lot more power without breaking the rules — although how you stop the interference leaking out of the gas cooker is a bit beyond me. It also makes one wonder if you can heat up the milk on a token ring, whether the pilot project runs a risk of being blown out if the window gets left open and whether flame wars will ever be entirely safe again.

And if the gas system can be used for data, what does that leave untapped? Sewerage? No, people have got there already — there are proposals to get fibre to the home by running it through existing pipes, thus avoiding the expense of digging up the streets all over again. And which pipes are the safest and easiest to use? That's right. Gigabits to the bowl. It even turns out that the system is called Sh… well, it rhymes with Hitnet, within the industry.

They don't really send the data, of course. They just go through the motions…