Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Psychotic birds, crumbling software, arrogant telcos and upgrades that never go as planned? Looks like business as usual.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 29/5/2006

It might be a bank holiday where you are, but it's not in Sweden. I've spent the past two weeks holed up in a lightly converted chicken shed some 100km south-west of Stockholm, enjoying the absence of mobile phone signals and any form of connectivity other than the World Service on shortwave. Perfect conditions for putting the grasshopper mind out to graze and actually concentrating on a project. There are times when you really don't need the deadly distractions of Google, IM and blogs written by those more clever and interesting than oneself.

However, technology still has a way of intruding. I work on the first floor, at a desk (actually an upended crate) by a window which looks out onto a veranda and the verdant loveliness beyond. While I could use the laptop for music, it's far more satisfactory to light along the iPod and portable speaker set. These, I prop up on a couple of bricks behind the computer, just in front of the window.

And so to work. After a couple of days of tapping, I have a visitor, a neat little monochrome wagtail, black top, white face, black bib, which perches on the veranda handrail and peers in at me. There's no shortage of wildlife in the Swedish countryside — much of it delicious — so I think nothing of it. It flies away.

Then it's back. It seems somewhat put out by my presence, and starts to put on a display — throat puffed out, head bent back, tail up, beak open. I'm not sure whether it's trying to scare me off or asking me to sleep with it — shades of PR parties of the past — but it's entertaining enough. Then it flies straight at the window, bounces off, perches on the sill and starts to hammer away at the glass with its beak.

Blimey. Is this some editor from a past life, reincarnated and angry for copy? I check for a nest in the shed, but find no proof of trespass. And while I have had some success with the birds in the past, I hardly feel a fit match for a wagtail no bigger than half a venison sandwich.

The show repeats itself daily. In fact, I am often woken up after a long night's bashing by the sounds of my new friend attempting to muscle his way in through the glass through beak power alone. Enough is enough — but what's causing it?

Eventually, I hit on a ruse. I go outside onto the veranda and try and see what the bird would see. At first, nothing suggests itself. And then I see it. My iPod speaker system is white — of course — but I've stuck something on the back, a vinyl "Charles Darwin Has A Posse" sticker, which sports an iconic picture of the man himself in black hat, white face and beard, and black coat. To humans, he appears to be the epitome of Victorian revolutionary enlightement — but to the wagtail he looks like another wagtail.

Which leaves the main question open — is this an Intelligently Designed wagtail, specially created by mysterious inventors to attack Darwin, or is this evolution at work?

Tuesday 30/5/2006

Project complete — at least, the first cut — I prepare to pack up my impedimenta and head for home. And I'm ready to get reconnected.

During my stay, there's been a lot of discussion with my hosts about broadband. The farm owners have a place in London as well; they'd like to spend more time in Sweden but are seriously constrained by the lack of connectivity. This may seem odd — the pragmatic Scandiwegians are portrayed as leaders in online technology, but in reality the heavily managed and somewhat sclerotic regulatory environment has let Telia, the old Swedish telco, get away with murder.

You can be in a good area with massive amounts of connectivity ("Broadband" to a Swede means 100Mbps or greater; ADSL is not seen as true broadband) or somewhere without even a date for anything more than dial-up, but either way the prevailing philosophy is "you'll get what you're given and like it". I ask my hosts what Telia says about their area, and get a reply that'd make a wagtail blush — not only is Telia unable to give a straight answer to the question of "when will we get broadband?", but it is supremely unconcerned that we might want it.

WiMAX should be perfect for the country, which has a lot of lightly populated rural areas. Yet there's no sign of a national programme, nor of anything other than a handful of local test projects. These follow a pattern: a utility company gets together with a tech company, acquires national and EU funding, and rolls out a network with a few hundred users. These are then interviewed in the local paper — "it's nice it's so fast" — and everyone pronounces themselves delighted. There is grandiose talk about extending the service. Silence then falls.

There may be 3G coverage, but at ridiculous prices — 3 Scandinavia's much vaunted plans to replace wired broadband with handsets look like so much posing — and as for satellite comms, forget them.

What makes my hosts particularly frustrated is that the nearest people with broadband connectivity aren't so very far away, and are certainly within reach of a wireless link. Couple of high gain antennae on some 802.11 gear would do it; some of the WiMAX gear on the market would manage it with ease. We could, we calculate, get a link in in a day or so and with an outlay of a couple of hundred euro tops — less if we were cute abut it. What are the regulatory and licensing issues? Ah, well, good question. While I know what UK rules are golden and which can be bent, that may not be a game to play abroad.

So it looks like my disconnected haven will continue to be proof against digital distractions for years to come. And while there are plenty of things wrong with the UK's commercial connectivity, don't sigh over those tales of some gigabit wonderland across the North Sea. We're getting the better deal.

Wednesday 31/05/2006

And this is why broadband matters: I get back to my desk to find a Hauppauge Personal Video Recorder package waiting to be plugged in. By itself, it's nothing that new — a digital TV tuner with a USB connector and software to save programmes on your PC — but it comes bundled with Orb access. Orb streams live and recorded video from your PC over broadband to whatever device you have plugged into the Internet elsewhere. That includes mobile devices hanging off wireless. So if you're already paying through the nose for a particular subscription TV channel and don't fancy paying yet more to see it again on the hoof, this might be for you.

The same day, Rory from our sister consumer site cnet.co.uk comes back from the launch of the Slingbox, an eccentrically shaped gizmo that hooks into your existing video installation and supplies the same sort of features. He's raving about it: people exposed to Slingbox tend to behave like that. Last year, an American marketing bod came into the offices ostensibly to talk about wireless networking, but halfway through his laptop-based PowerPoint pitch he said "Oh, you've got to see this" and pulled up some baseball game from his home setup in Atlanta. I guess the poor man hadn't had time to finish watching it in his hotel room before breakfast.

You don't need to be a telly addict to see what's happening — broadband is spawning entirely new services, just like we said it would back in the last century when we were bashing down BT's door asking very nicely for them to get their digits out. There is a degree of pain involved for the established media and communications companies, because none of the new services are a very good fit for the way they've always done things, but we can live with that — provided always that the establishment doesn't try and change the rules to nobble the competition. As if they would.

But the rules are changing anyway. Is it legal to stream TV over the Net? You won't get a straight answer from anyone, because nobody's quite sure — even when they apply the usual rule that "if we want it to happen, it's legal, if we don't want you to do it, it's not", because nobody is quite sure what they want. It might seem cut-and-dried that if Sky wants to open up a new revenue stream by selling a channel over the Net, it's not going to want to let you provide that same channel to yourself from your existing subscription. Yet if you're paying the bandwidth costs and consuming more TV than otherwise, then Sky will get more revenue by letting you than by stopping you — even if they could. If you then multicast the channel to your friends who don't have a subscription — what then? What do Sky's advertisers think? Its content providers? There is no consensus, and no sign of one, except among the consumers.

The same uneasy truce among the undecided exists elsewhere. You won't find a mainstream Linux distribution with a full range of codecs to play all the online content that's out there, because so much of that technology is larded about with patent and licence restrictions. Yet it takes a moment to find the places that provide all that stuff packaged and ready for instant installation: the distro bods are happy to point you there with a "We can't officially support this, but here it is" figleaf. The IP owners look the other way. Again, broadband has rewritten the rules faster than anyone can work out what's going on and whether they like it.

You think about this sort of thing when your only connection with the outside world is a long wire connected to a shortwave radio and your iPod is under attack by a homicidal creationist wagtail.

Thursday 1/06/2006

It's Ubuntu day! Yet more evidence of the power of fast networks: the moment the finished Ubuntu 6.06 LTS distribution is ready, I can snatch it off a server, write it to a CD, reboot a sacrificial machine and — whammo! The world's most user-friendly Linux is mine.

What could be easier?

Let's start with the fact that none of us in the office has burned a CD for some time. Why would we? We've all got broadband and portable hard disk devices for our info-pleasure. So this means I rediscover that XP has no ISO burning built in, but that this doesn't matter because IT has saved three quid fifty and not fitted a CD burner to my computer. My two nearest compadres do have CD burners, but neither work. One just doesn't plain work full stop, the other has the audacity to seemingly work but produces coasters.

There is a laptop with a CD burner that works, but the networking's a bit dodgy. How to get 660MB of image onto it? "You could always burn it onto a CD" said a passing techie. But don't worry, he'll be back on his feet in no time. I have a 2GB USB thumb drive that Kingston kindly sent me, but it is sitting in the back of a PC at a friend's house where we accidentally left it one evening, it being so small and easy to forget. In the end, something is cobbled together with FTP and I have a bootable Ubuntu CD.

Unfortunately, I haven't read the small print. The standard Ubuntu 6.06 CD is very, very clever: it's a live CD that boots into a fully working version of the OS, and if you like what you see you can then click on an icon to have it install itself on your PC. Ubuntu 6.06 also has the most excellent Linux characteristic of running perfectly well on slow, memory-sparse older machines. However, as I discover after an hour of CD thrashing on an ancient Compaq Armada, such machines aren't really capable of supporting the live CD while it's simultaneously doing the installation. "For machines with 192MB of RAM or less", the small print reads, "you should use the alternative, text mode, install-only image".

By this time, Ubuntu's release is common knowledge and the servers are pretty saturated. I try BitTorrent, but something on our network isn't having that. So it takes me the best part of a further hour to download the alternative ISO, then squeeze it through the ad-hoc CD writing system and slap that into the Compaq. It happily swallows, and I set it going to sort itself out.

Which leaves me with a spare Live CD... and my main Windows PC, which has a spare 10GB hard disk in it already, currently hosting a time-expired beta of Longhorn. Oooh. Tempting. Go on lad, ladle in that open goodness.

It all goes swimmingly. Ubuntu fairly flies in — not bad for a penguin — and despite a moment's hesitation while I convince myself that I'm telling it to put itself onto the secondary disk and not the main one with all my Windows work related stuff on it, I have little fear in pressing the Go button. Within ten minutes, I'm looking at a fully functioning installation. I even get Evolution talking to the company mail server, set up access to our content management system and start replacing Ubuntu's relentlessly brown colour scheme with something a little less... brown. It looks as if not only does the darn thing work, but that it will work well enough for me to use it as a direct Windows replacement in the office.

One last thing — I'd better check I can still boot into Windows. Close down Ubuntu, up pops the Grub multiboot menu (ugly as its insectoid namesake), and there's the old dear still slumbering away. Choose it, and off we go. Excellent. I do a couple of housekeeping tasks in XP, and decide to return to Ubuntu. Restart, please.

After a minute staring like a moron at my machine repeatedly resetting itself, it's clear that bad things have happened. I'll spare you the subsequent pain, but it looks very much that something in Windows — perhaps our corporate AV scanner — had spotted the multiboot loader and decided it was not to live.

By 11pm, I am deep in Linux partitioning hell, trying to work out what exactly gets loaded when and what happens next. Ironically, I can only get Windows back by reinstalling Ubuntu: there is some magic by which I can just reset Grub, but it escapes me. If I let Windows run just once, I'm back to square one — and I'm loath to tinker too much with the master boot record.

Looks like the plan to get Goodwins onto open source only may be progressing rather too fast.

Time for bed.

Friday 2/06/2006

Ubuntu's new shininess comes at a good time. Like most of you, I act as an unpaid support service to a collection of friends and family, and that usually means battling with various broadband and Windows problems over the phone or — if I'm lucky — a glass of wine during a site visit. A lot of this is Windows 9x running on elderly machines, usually encrusted with enough cruft to hold a dog show. This combination has become unsupportable, something that came home to me on my recent travels: I overheard at least three conversations in shops and airports between people moaning that they were really going to have to move on from exactly that setup.

Next week, I am meeting with one of my more recently acquired clients, who has a 2001-vintage laptop with Windows ME. It no longer works. And sometime this month, I'll be in a similar position with a parental computer — more recent hardware, but Win 98 SP 1. I have a choice in what to recommend. Do I say "new hardware and XP", which even though you can get a decent box for £400 these days seems a lot for just webbery, emails and letter writing? Do I make heroic efforts to return the installations to some sort of working form as-is? Or do I turn up with a live Linux CD and say "There we go?"

For lots of reasons, I'd like to do that. Clearly, once its set up and running it will do what they need and carry on doing it — and I will be more than happy to be relieved of the worries of AV software, registry hacking and trying to undo some of the messes that botched or inappropriate software downloads can do. And while I don't mind donating time and effort to supporting software for free — these are skills that have served me well and it's good to do what you can for people you care about — I'd much rather it was free software. I know Windows backwards, which should make it easier to support, but in practice it has so many arcane and baroque ways to go fut that even solid experience doesn't always help. And XP is pretty time-expired itself these days.

Yet — printing. Network configuration. New peripherals. USB drives. "Rupert, I've got this Access database I need to read". "Your mother needs to share these files with me". "This CD writer isn't working." How will it feel to take those phone calls?

I have a cunning plan. It involves making a selection of live CDs — Puppy Linux is impressive in its simplicity and flexibility, while Ubuntu seems to "just work" — and giving them to my punters. Go and play, I'll say. See what you think. You decide. Of course, I'd love to give Windows XP (and, one presumes, Vista) a fair crack of the whip, but that's illegal. Then I'll set everything up, most certainly including proper remote management via SSH on secret ports, and leap.

The other cunning plan involves settling on one standard Linux distro, buying ex-corporate Dell Latitudes from eBay at £150 a pop, setting them up and refusing to touch anything else.

And the other other cunning plan involves moving back to the chicken shed in Sweden and refusing to come out. Ever.


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