Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The splendour of the Western Isles, the mysteries of outer space, the hidden dangers of the XBox and why blowing things up doesn't necessarily make you a terrorist

Monday 03/04/2006

I'm up in the Outer Hebrides, doing something I can't talk about yet for someone I can't mention — which is a shame, because it involves the best use I've seen of a technology about which I'd previously been less than enthusiastic. Bursting to tell all, I am.

But I can't. All will be clear later this year. It did involve sand dunes, though, if it helps.

Nonetheless, it's enormous fun to be in a place where mobile phones just don't work for a lot of the time. That seems a satisfactory match for the islanders' famously laid-back approach to time management and a positive aid to appreciation of the place's unique ambience. Your mobile phone may be getting no signals while you're perched on a tiny island in the middle of a huge bay, surrounded by golden sand as far as you can see, but you most certainly are.

Now and again, there's a reminder that the outside world is sinking its digital tendrils in — a large microwave tower on a hillside that feeds a call centre hidden away on an industrial estate, a poster from a government agency encouraging Hebrideans to demand their broadband, a museum that bundles radar parts alongside Neolithic stone axes. Mostly, though, you can sink into the ancient landscape and pretend that the last few thousand years never happened (given much of the later history of the islands, that's not an unreasonable fantasy).

Broadband itself has only just arrived, with the Isle of Lewis being one of the last places to have ADSL enabled. Sometimes, though, being late to the party has its own benefits. There are already plans to put digital TV on broadband, and the island has its own wireless broadband system provided by a ring of masts "designed and installed with the local weather conditions in mind" — which means, I think, they won't fall over in winds that would fell a mountain. Given that the Hebrides contains most of the 40-odd remaining BT exchanges that the company says are unviable for DSL, this is the only option for many. I hope that includes the solitary would-be broadband subscriber in Amhuinnsuidhe, where the Scarp exchange has just one ADSL preregistration — the lowest level of interest in the UK.

This could be due to disappointment fostered by a previous failed experiment in high tech communication. The isle of Scarp itself was the site in 1934 of the UK's first proper attempts at rocket mail, courtesy of a mad German inventor called Gerhard Zucker. He turned up with an experimental device packed with 1500 letters, pointed it at the isle of Harris about a mile away over the water, and lit the blue touchpaper Government observers watched with horror as the rocket exploded, littering the beach with the burning remains of its payload. After being allowed a couple more tries, Zucker himself was deported back to Germany for being a menace, where he was even more promptly arrested for being too friendly with the British. (This is thought to have given rise to the saying "Never give a Zucker an even break")

Nothing as exciting has happened on Scarp from that day to this, for which five thousand sheep and the ghost of a solitary crofter are truly grateful.

Tuesday 04/04/2006

If Gerhard Zucker was alive today, he'd be delighted — it's amateur hour in space and that's no bad thing. Firstly, the Federal Aviation Authority in the US has said that it'll accept as astronauts qualified airline pilots with whatever training a company deems necessary. For those of us brought up on the Right Stuff legends of years of intensive, cutting-edge training for the most exceptional individuals a country could find, that seems startling. Can any old Nigel really put down the Daily Telegraph crossword, strap on a fishbowl helmet and boldy go? If there's no beer in space, would he want to?

The truth is, by the time the passenger spacecraft are built a bus driver could sit up front and press buttons. The NASA image of homo superior was to large extent a Cold War myth, something the astronauts themselves acknowledged when trained monkeys went up before them. That’s not to decry their bravery in general or the exemplary skills many showed during crises or during the lunar exploration, but when the job involves sitting tight and looking out of windows – how hard is that? Still, I imagine the competition among the Virgin pilots is going to be pretty intense.

Meanwhile, a group of radio amateurs have set a new long-distance reception record by picking up the signal from Voyager 1. This space probe is the most distant manmade object in existence and is scooting towards the void around nine billion miles away, or roughly a hundred times the distance of the Earth to the Sun.

For those who care about such things, this is roughly equivalent to someone knocking up a supersonic jet fighter in their garage: NASA uses the Deep Space Network of giant radio dishes to keep in contact with its fleet of spacecraft, many of which are unimaginably underpowered. The Voyagers have thermonuclear generators which are close to the end of their lives, and the transmitters are consequently running at around 15W — only about 30 times stronger than a mobile phone.

This is the same group of commendably bonkers amateurs who are also planning to send their own orbiting spacecraft to Mars sometime after 2009 — the Voyager reception is part of the preparations for that. The Mars mission will be directly receivable by anyone with a two or three metre dish and some fairly simple electronics, so if you fancy doing your own interplanetary science then this is your chance. And if Branson's got any pocket change left over after the NTL deal, he could do worse than send a bit of sponsorship their way. After all, someone's got to supply the connectivity to near-earth orbit.

Wednesday 05/04/2006

Naked PCs are exercising Microsoft — no, not the strippogram variety, but computers with no operating system. Last week, a friend of the Diary passed on a copy of Partner Update, a promotional magazine sent by Microsoft to dealers. This had the curious statement from Michala Alexander, head of anti-piracy, that the company had recruited two 'Feet on the Street' bodies to go in to any client who wanted to buy PCs unadorned by Windows.

Now, Microsoft has tried in the past to spread the idea that such horrible desires will lead inescapably to illicit activities, even going so far as to suggest that motherboards should come with Windows by dictat. As it is, the company does insist that you buy another copy if you replace the motherboard in your PC – arrant moneygrabbing nonsense, and the sort of behaviour which frees a lot of people from any residual feelings of guilt if they dare disobey.

But sending the lads in, just because you've no intention of using Microsoft? Surely not. Yet the piece is unambiguous. We phoned the company up and said "this 'proactive assistance' you're offering during customer visits from your anti-piracy team – you're really saying you'll send them to anyone who doesn't want your software?" "Of course not," said Microsoft. "So what does it mean?" we asked. "After all, you made it a big quote in the article itself." "We'll get back to you."

We tried to get some feedback from the dealers, but they weren't talking. Boy, were they not talking. Trying to get on the record opinion from dealers about Microsoft is like asking them to start a local edition of Private Eye in North Korea. Even the various commercial competitors were more guarded than Dick Cheney's holiday hideaway.

By then, Microsoft had indeed got back to us with a splendid explanation: it was an error in the copy. It didn't mean it. How that happened, when it was the subject of the whole article and written extra large in friendly blue letters, is destined to be a mystery forever.

The Free Software Foundation Europe, bless it, was prepared to tentatively advance an opinion that "It is an incredible piece of impudence which any politician, customer and journalist should recognise carefully". Bet you won't find them asking you to buy a new license when you upgrade your motherboard either: that's the sort of dangerous anti-capitalism that prevents honest software companies from making an honest billion.

Meanwhile, we can only recommend that if you read a statement from Microsoft that seems too outrageous to be true, you should phone up and check that it really did mean what it seems to mean.

Thursday 06/04/2006

Lots of media people worry about blogs. If the readers are just going to talk among themselves, why would they bother to consume all this expensive journalist-sourced copy? Who's going to pay the bills if the advertisers just go straight to the most popular bloggers?

It's not that blogs aren't a worry, but that the wrong people are worrying. It's not the publishers who should be losing sleep – it's the soap opera people. Witness the delightful little spat between Microsoft's semi-pro blogger Robert Scoble and his doubtless charming wife, Maryam Ghaemmaghami Scoble – who also has a blog.

Young Mr Scoble, you see, finally caved in and bought an Xbox 360 "for his son". He took the opportunity to mention that the 'Box is still in huge demand, which isn't quite the way it looks from this side of the Atlantic – not only did a pal have no problem buying one off the shelf in London last week, he had no trouble taking it back in disappointment. And Microsoft missed its sales targets by over a million units. But still, the joy of blogging is that you can share your thoughts and experiences with people who may have different takes on your conclusions.

Alas, poor Robert. One of those people was Maryam. She picked up on that particular entry and decided to post some musings of her own on her blog. You get the idea: "When you said we would discuss major expenses before making the purchase did you mean that we should discuss it publicly on the blog and after making the purchase? I just found out you bought an Xbox. Congrats! Now let's take it back." There's more toe-curling stuff about trips to Italy and the taxman, but you'll have to go look for yourself.

There are reasons I don't have a personal blog: that sort of thing is by no means the least of them. My own domestic ineptitudes are legion, but really — you don't need to know them. Honestly.

Friday 07/04/2006

Hear that sound? There! The one that sounds like an enormous meteor of cash spinning through the stratosphere? That's one side effect of this week's phenomenal amount of activity in mergers and acquisitions; an awful lot of bankers become an awfully lot richer.

Other effects will be more difficult to call. Amazingly, nobody in the US has had a hissy fit over Alcatel buying Lucent Technologies — even Senator Charles Schumer, who led the national spots before the eyes over Dubai wanting to buy the American ports, says he's happy because "The United Arab Emirates had a nexus of terrorism that France does not have". Well, if you don't count blowing up the Rainbow Warrior or engaging in huge amounts of state-sponsored commercial espionage as being in some way naughty, then you won't worry about handing over a company which has been at the heart of the security services' technology work since forever — especially not to a country which is a solid trading partner with Iran.

One thing it does block is the idea that AT&T — which is rapidly building itself back to the old Bell Telephone system by acquiring companies such as BellSouth — could have bought Lucent, thus rebuilding the old Bell Labs relationship. Instead, it and the other telcos will have to deal with a supplier that's now big enough to take back some control over the market — at least until the next mega-merger among the telcos themselves.

And then there's NTL/Telewest, which is buying Virgin Mobile and promptly assuming the V for all services. One of the reasons Branson held out is over concerns that NTL's grotty customer service record would contaminate the überbrand, leading to a promise that the Virgin Mobile shock troops would move in and shake things up. NTL says that it intends to take on Sky – which might sound a brave if not foolhardy stance were Sky not provably capable of such ineptness as (danger – contains content-free Flash).

I'm not sure about the grand idea that punters will be happy to buy all their TV, mobile, data and landline services from one place. I pay for Telewest broadband and telly, but not the landline – it's not cheap enough. And even the telly is just there through inertia; the amount and type of TV I watch off air is small and perfectly supportable through Freeview. Options are always good, and giving up all flexibility for a bit of convenience just seems to negate so many of the good things that the new technology offers.