Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Crispy fried penguin, the unintended consequences of rude word filtering, hanging with the kids and the latest industry gossip...

Monday 17/4/2005

Aren't four day weekends wonderful? Like the Three Day Week, but the lights stay on.

Tuesday 18/4/2005

Meanwhile over in Seattle, Chinese premier Hu Jintao is popping in to see Bill Gates – his first official engagement on the state visit. You can read about the significance of this everywhere: Bill has agreed to cut the price of Windows and Hu has agreed to make sure his subjects pay up, and everyone is very pally indeed.

How things change. Three years ago, Microsoft was having no end of trouble in the Middle Kingdom: a string of local CEOs had resigned, in some cases cashing in on the experience by writing books exposing how the company was behaving like an arrogant imperalist. Telling people this is a bit like Kurt Cobain persuading teenagers that they're miserable — not a hard sell — but MS did seem intent on making the story particularly convincing. Now, it seems, Microsoft can do no wrong. I certainly wouldn't put any money on them being hauled up for abuse of monopoly.

Yet curiously, Bill Gates himself has long had heroic status among the Chinese youth. A survey back in March 2002 and reported in the South China Morning Post asked 1600 teenagers in Hong Kong and mainland China who they idolised most. Top of the list in China was former Premier Zhou Enlai – who's seen as a key figure in the downfall of the Gang of Four. Number three was Mao Zedong, whose meaning to the Chinese I confess I find increasingly enigmatic. But at number two? William H Gates III. He clocked in ahead of Deng Xiaoping, Albert Einstein and 'my parents'.

Admit it, You're already having visions of those Chinese revolutionary posters, with the shining, serene visage of Bill gazing into the middle distance while clutching a tablet PC. Or perhaps a UMPC — which incidentally excelled itself at Samsung's launch of the Q1 this week. In front of horrified executives, the CEO failed completely to persuade the device to show a PowerPoint presentation before the battery ran out (time alive — around five minutes); a backup model went to the other extreme and riffled through the presentation in about five seconds despite all attempts to stop it. If sales get into three figures, I'll be astonished.

Still, such failures will not happen now that Bill is officially one of the revolutionary pantheon. Wonder if he'll want to reunite Linux...

Wednesday 19/4/2005

It's not enough that da kidz are out there sniffing hoodies and happy-slapping alcopops, or whatever it is they get up to these days. No — it's what happens when they get to do the stuff that adults provide that things go really badly wrong. Or so thinks Baroness Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, who told the House of Lords this week that scandalous things were afoot with Web browsers. A "growing scandal developing under our very noses as technologies such as cognition-enhancing drugs, mind-changing software and electronic devices that interact with brain and mind are being applied to our children with insufficient thought and regulation", she speechified.

Couldn't agree more. It's scandalous that when I was at school, we had to brew our own drugs and write our own software, and the electronic devices were limited to transistor radios and — if you were lucky — a Nintendo Game+Watch. Were there similar debates in the nobility when literacy became widespread, I wonder? "It's not natural to make them read, you know. It affects their brains."

The Baroness has a point, though, and it's not just children who fall foul of the unbearable lightness of being online. For anyone with a predisposition towards wandering attention, the Internet is a ghastly place. No matter how deeply embedded you are in your work, Alt+Tab will transport you more efficiently than the starship Enterprise to anywhere in the galaxy you fancy. And that's it; you've lost context, concentration and focus. Everything in your head (which could well include whatever it is you picked up last time you alt-tabbed) dissipates into nothingness like a breath of cigarette smoke: it's more disruptive than booze, dope or women. Forget the pram in the hallway, the sombre enemy of good art is the wireless router in the cupboard.

What I'd like to see is a little utility that monitors the number of times I move focus away from a document while I'm editing it. Each IM, each email, each slipping away to Firefox should be noted — and ideally, marked in the document by a tag of some sort. And then, perhaps, some sort of automated stick or carrot: each time I do it, my net connection slows down, or if I get to the end of a page without blemish a little door in the PC opens and a cold miniature of tequila is dispensed. Doubtless this could be adapted to the education environment — a small tube of glue, perhaps, or a ringtone.

There is another way, and that's cold turkey. Which is why I've already booked my yearly spell in the IT equivalent of the Priory, my chicken shed on a Swedish farm where the only connectivity comes whistling in on the shortwave frequencies of the World Service and switching windows involves looking up to see the cows on the hillside opposite. Days writing in severe isolation, nights spent watching art movies with pals and contemplating skies free of light pollution.

And no kids. It gets no better than that in this world, and I hope the Baroness would agree.

Thursday 20/4/2005

Actually, I lied. An equally nice place is tucked up in a proper Soho boozer with a load of PRs and hacks, gossiping like a bishop and sliding gratefully into my happy place. Tonight, Edelman — something of a byword for buttoned-down corporate press relations — is attempting to change that image, and not without a measure of success. I note with pleasure that it takes but a single drink for them to lose the modern habit of starting sentences with "So..." ("What's going on with Vista losing all its features coming out late?" "So: Microsoft is committed to reliability above all..."). I'm going to start CASBEWS — Campaign Against Sentences Beginning With So — and print some red cards that people can hold up in meetings where the practice is out of control.

Back in town we find ourselves upstairs in the George Orwell Bar at the Dog and Duck, as perfect an example of the London pub as it is possible to imagine. Mozart and Constable are reputed to have drank there, but the artistry on show tonight is of a different order altogether.

The evening goes splendidly: a number of people are jumping a number of ships at the moment and new projects are all about, so the goss flows free and greasy despite containing nutritious meaty chunks. Dennis is starting an online IT publication, and has tempted a number of staff away from VNU and other places (not, as far as I can see, from CNET, which retains its vice-like grip on we happy throng), while down in the depths of the West Country Future Publishing is burnishing Project Steel. The consensus is that Future will do its usual very effective trick of coaxing ten staff into doing three jobs each, by way of compensating them for there being nothing else to do down there.

As the pub throws us out, there is an unsteady triage. Those who are definitely dead slouch off home, those who are a bit too lively (if this was Victorian scandal, one would say Lord V____) go to a strip club, while the uncertain decide to try and grab a final drink somewhere people keep their clothes on. I am a member of this latter crew, and we succeed in finishing the evening as we wish.

However, I had not intended to be out this late. I text the Scottish Historian to explain why I'm not on IM. Back comes the reply: "Ah, the computer says you are..." — I'd forgotten to log out from work in my haste to get Edelmaned. It's not nice to feel ignored all evening, even if the thing doing the ignoring is a comatose computer in an abandoned office.

Fortunately, I have ShoZu to hand, a rather nifty service that runs on camera phones and uploads pictures to Flickr as you take them. Via the miracle of text, I point my beloved at the appropriate Flickr account and proceed to document my journey home on London's late night bus network. It's not quite the same as being there, but it's a very safe way for the viewer distant in space and time to enjoy the sights of the mobile asylum of the night bus.

Perhaps I'll take it to a press event or two. Share the tedium!

Friday 21/4/2005

Today is the last day at ZDNet for super sub Alex Coby, the only man in the office with caffeinated hair. Being young and spiky, he for some reason thinks it's more fun to correct copy about computer games than tweak stories about enterprise storage, so he's off to our forthcoming GameSpot UK site. To mark his passing, here's a cautionary tale from earlier this week about how good subbing is so much more than just annoying the writers and reading to the end of the piece.

A friend of mine lives the life of the English jobbing intellectual — journalism, broadcasting, the occasional book — which in his case involves regular work for the dear old Guardian.

To be good at this life, you must suck voraciously at the scum which forms top and bottom of the pond of culture. Some of this will not agree with you. And, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, that now includes regular doses of some of the more rebarbative right wing beasts from the US.

One of these is called Mark Steyn, who still can't quite make himself come to terms with the massive disappointment that Bill Clinton is no longer in power and can't be blamed for everything. He compensates by advocating a particularly muscular approach to affairs of state — in particular, he gets a froth on about the idea of 'de-nuking' (his word) Iran.

My friend is no subscriber to the Mark Steyn world view.

Now, another part of making a living at thinking aloud is that you have to get what you write into the papers. There are various levels to this, including maintaining a relationship with editors, finding a niche for your particular skills, knowing your market and actually writing the damn stuff. The most mundane and unconsidered part is the business of emailing the stuff in — what can go wrong, these days? Spam filters, that's what.

Ironically, the Guardian prides itself on being unashamed to print things on its front page that makes more brutish papers blush — one of those peculiar bits of class-related inverse snobbery that John Cooper Clarke so precisely pinned in "You'll Never See A Nipple In The Daily Express." So while it is perfectly possible to publish the naughtiest words imaginable, it can be remarkably difficult to get them past the spam filters to the editors. Like many such humourless robots — the filters, not the editors — they're set to stun anything that might offend the most easily scandalised. The fact that the recipients of email are battle-hardened hacks who know no fear has not sunk in.

This means that my friend's copy is frequently mauled — not because he is particularly filthy, although he can hurl verbal poo as elegantly as anyone should occasion demand, but because he of necessity sometimes writes about grown-up things. He has a code for such occasions, where he uses a waspish synonym in [[double brackets]] that the sub-editors will see and substitute the obvious.

Normally, this works well.

Not this time. He wanted to refer to a particular very well known stage show by Eve Ensler, which is noted for having actresses get up on stage and talk frankly about one aspect of their anatomy. He knew that the key word, although precise, descriptive and in no way obscene, would be eagerly swallowed by the autoprude. In that, he was correct. He thought he knew that the subs would do their thing. In that, he was wrong.

And that, oh best beloved, is why I am anxiously awaiting the Corrections and Clarifications entry that explains to the Guardian's bemused readership exactly what was meant by the mysterious reference in print to "The [[Mark Steyn]] Monologues"

Silly cunts.