Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Hot news of Shakespeare on the Net, sees Rupert make his worst jokes yet. Temptation strong sees him accurs'd. He will go on, from Bard to verse
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 12/6/2006

Dear Diary. Here's how I spent my weekend.

Go to parents, prepared to exterminate last copy of Windows 98 on my support radar. Am equipped with big ol' external hard disk (for backups), Genuine Advantage Look Its Legitimate Really Now Will You Stop Bugging Me Bill Windows XP, Genuine Ubuntu, and a Genuine Dell Laptop to Genuinely Access the Genuine Internet. if things go Genuinely Bad.

Plan is simple: Plug in external disk, back up data, reformat, install XP, replace documents, put on dual-boot Linux, give father keys to kingdom, home for tea and medals.

Reality is not: Plug in external disk. Ah. It's Windows 98 first edition - which has always had a problematic relationship with USB. Go online, find drivers (not helped by Seagate eschewing model numbers on their external disks, so you have to choose by pointing at pictures). Install drivers. Plug in drive. Seems to work. Start to back up data. Machine crashes.

If you've been here, you won't need reminding. If you haven't, then you're best spared the utter teethgrinding tedium of debugging a USB problem. So let's fast forward two hours - two mind-numbing, tear-strewn hours - to the point that I've booted into the Ubuntu live disc which knows about the hard disk, knows about the external disk, knows about USB and is happy to do the job. Just very, very slowly - but it's USB 1.

Spend three hours quality time with parents. Check back on copy, to find that it had hung (around five minutes after I'd got confident enough to leave it alone) because of an extraneous Ubuntu query about a non-standard character in a file name. Discover that one of these will crop up roughly every ten minutes, and that the Linux magic to avoid this is currently beyond me.

Spend three hours quality time with computer, pressing IGNORE once every ten minutes while trying to learn about Linux, filenames, regular expressions, filters etc in between.

Copy finished. With joy, eradicate another copy of Windows 98 from the world. With misgivings, install XP. XP refuses to recognise video card, USB hub, and sovereign statehood of Taiwan. Hm. How do you work out what video card is in a computer without taking it apart? Eventually find myself poring over a hex dump of the video BIOS from Debug - something I haven't done for around five years. It's an ATI... er, something. Google some likely looking data - find one hit on French blog, in French. Then find that ATI want me to download .Net (30MB) and some wrapper (25MB) in order to get the right driver (Probably well under 1MB).

Oh, it goes on and on. And on. Fighting every step of the way. Reinstalling Microsoft Works 4.5 from a backup (original disks long gone) proves quite exhilarating, trying to find missing files from various places fast enough to keep the installer fed turns into an intricate dance across multiple computers, hard disks and the Net.

At the end, upgrading to XP took a good fifteen to twenty hours of a weekend, when I had it down for five at most. Which meant there was no time to install Linux, let alone do the necessary cross platform training - and so the Empire keeps another soul.

I think I'll invoice Bill. What's a good hourly rate, do you think?


Tuesday 13/6/2006

The street finds its own use for technology, said William Gibson, not realising that this sort of talk leads to bad TV shows. However, it is true. One fine example is the way children have taken a weapon aimed at controlling them - a near-ultrasonic tone inaudible to adults that, fed through a PA, drives them out of an area - and adapted it to a stealth ringtone that lets them communicate without alerting the straights. .

Just about all people past the age of 20 start to experience a drop-off of high frequency sensitivity as hair cells in the ear die, meaning that there are parts of the audio spectrum left for the sole use of annoying teenagers. Thus, they can carry on texting each other in peace and quiet at the back of the classroom without pedagogical interference, safe in the knowledge that even if they are discovered, the implicit insult to the aged gives them virtual victory anyway.

It’s just the start of an arms race, though. It would only take a minor tweak to a bat detector to make it go off in the presence of just such an inaudible ring tone. After that, a smart detector could work out the frequency of a second ultrasonic tone to mix with the first, creating a beat frequency modulated with Max Bygraves in the head of the accursed child. Total Spectrum Dominance, as the US war machine has it, will be ours.

In any case, time is running out for the whippersnappers. To my great delight, progress is being made in discovering why the cilia in the ear don’t grow back - and blocking the gene that creates the protein that blocks the regrowth. I can once again hope to sit in the gloom of crepuscular woods and hear the bats swoop overhead, something I haven’t been able to do since I was in my early twenties. That’s if they aren’t blocked out by the blasted ring-tones.

Wednesday 14/6/2006

Peter Kirwan at the Fullrunner, the marketing and communications professional's guide to the UK tech marcomms scene, is quite taken with freelance Dennis Howlett's analysis of how SAP managed a team of bloggers at its Sapphire user conference. SAP took a bunch of bloggers and treated them like press - flew them in, put them up, got them access -- and the coverage gained was, says Kirwan, very satisfactory indeed. Other companies should follow suit.

I've no doubt that from the company's viewpoint the coverage was very satisfactory - and that the bloggers and the readers also found it useful. My major concern is that blogging is, almost by definition, something you do for reasons other than money. Once you make your living from your blog, you're a journalist (or a marketeer, or a marcomms consultant, or whatever): as far as I can tell, everyone on the Sapphire blog bus did other things to pay the rent. Those would be industry things: hey, why else would you want to go to a SAP event?

So, whereas a journalist covering the SAP event would, by definition, have no financial interest in SAP or the relationship SAP had with them - we'd be sacked if we did -- the bloggers would be quite the opposite.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, providing it's clearly stated up-front. There's a lot of the trade press that survives by printing press releases and articles nominally written by executives of companies involved in whatever field the journal covers. (There are journalists who make surprising amounts of money ghost-writing that stuff too, but that's a story for another day.) Everyone knows how to approach those titles, and what filters to view them through.

From another point of view, there is no such thing as true journalistic objectivity even among the noblest of the race. But we try, and most try quite hard, to be aware of our subjective leanings and counter them. There's comeback if we don't.

If companies and bloggers want to get together to make the best use of each other to get information out to the world, then great. We need more expert analysis and criticism of enterprise IT, not less. But the value of the exercise to all parties will depend on them taking on board the pernicious nature of influence - real or imagined - and how it can poison the well.

In other words: don't try and buy bloggers - and bloggers, don't get bought.

Thursday 15/6/2006

The news that Google has built a Shakespearian microsite is too good to resist. The office quickly fills with bad Bard:

"To be or not to be?" "To, be, or, and not are common words and will be ignored"

"Hark, what blight through yonder Windows breaks?"

"Beware the march of IDEs" (that's Integrated Development Environments, non-programmers. We know how to have a good time).

Thoughts turn to how Bill S would cope with the great dramas of our industry. How would he portray Steve Ballmer's "Developers, developers, developers!" rant? It works quite well in the the "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech from Macbeth - which could also do duty for Jim Allchin being asked when Vista's coming out -- viz:


Developers, and developers, and developers, Creeps on this petty project from day to day, To the last entry on recorded timesheets; And all our yesterdays have the wrong tools, The way to dusty deadlines. Out, out, brief code! The client's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and wastes his money on our wage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Signifying nothing."

I don't know why the last couple of lines resonate so. Do you? And as for the story itself, where ruthless ambition and weakness combine to first trap and then destroy those who overreach themselves - it could so easily be the theme play for the entire industry. But what we need is a playwright who is comfortable with the Shakespearian yet capable of handling the gritty details of modern information technology, able to tease out the characters and their motivations from the bigger engines of power and politics which they pretend to steer. Also, someone who's not afraid of the odd outrageous pun.

There can be only one. Tom Stoppard should be appointed the Official Dramaturge of Data Processing, locked up in a shed with a Tandy Model 100 and a large supply of batteries, and not allowed out until he'd done the business and documented the last twenty years of IT nonsense in one stunning tour de force.

Bagsies I play Philippe Kahn.

Friday 16/6/2006

To the BBC World Service, where instead of speaking peace unto nation I'm asked about Google's enormous yet secretive new data centre being built in a remote part of Oregon. Yes, I know that's a tautology. To which I can answer anything I like - Google's not saying. It's put the whole nearby town under NDA, and there's no point in spilling the beans while Microsoft and Yahoo are busy spending their money trying to build data centres to catch up

Some things are obvious: it's out in that part of the world because of plentiful, cheap hydroelectric power. If it's going to grow enough to satisfy its investors, it will need acres and acres of servers. Some things are pure guesswork: thin client, real time language translation, even the fun Google's had with us and its hints of artificial intelligence and biological data sifting.

And more than that, one cannot say. Will it show up on Google Earth? Is it a good idea to build everything into one huge centre, where it's vulnerable to physical disaster or some nutter in a nicked plane? Is it indeed all eggs in one basket: how many other clutches are in smaller baskets distributed around the planet?

A distributed system makes a lot of sense, for many reasons. The best example is the Internet, which despite being the most complicated thing we've ever spun, despite being in a constant state of reinvention and spurts of exponential growth, despite being used by millions of people for all manner of independently generated and unsupervised purposes, hasn't stopped working in twenty years.

It also helps ease the big, big problem of data integrity. If you build a data centre the size of Wembley Stadium, how do you back it up? It'd be bad enough if Google Search dropped off the edge of the world - how much worse would it be if we're all relying on Google thin client to look after all our data and perform all our computing? A big fat data centre needs a big fat pipe or two, which is vulnerable to mishap or mischief: a distributed data centre has thousands of connections, and isn't.

Google has been running hundreds of servers around the world for years, so it knows all this. In fact, I suspect that the data centre is probably not so much the Fort Knox of the modern world as the red herring of the punditsphere. But I wouldn't mind a look around.

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