Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Apple lends a hand to fundamentalism while Rupert takes the temperature of the healthcare industry's IT, considers how mesh networks could help in a heatwave and laments the passing of a dear friend

Monday 24/07/2006

IT is growing up. You only have to look at the way that some of the more peculiar habits of humanity are now translating themselves across to the technical world to realise that it's part of us for good now. For example, Christian fundamentalism isn't quite sure what to make of technology – in some cases, the appearance of IT is branded as Satanic, with biometrics being condemned as the Mark of the Beast and exorcised by little old ladies with the help of ballistic bibles.

Elsewhere, though, God , mammon and microprocessors are cheerfully coupled together. You may not have heard of the forthcoming videogame "Left Behind: Eternal Forces"; indeed, you may be unaware of the "Left Behind" phenomenon altogether.

This is a most American business, a series of novels set in the fundamentalist fantasy world of the Rapture, a time when the holy have been whisked away to Heaven leaving the rest of us godless sinners behind. The Rapture is a 19th century bit of self-contradictory Christian dogma and one which has attracted, shall we say, a minority following among theologians. It's darn popular among the rank and file, mind, who've been hoovering up the books by the million, as well as bumper stickers with messages such as "In the event of the Rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned".

Hence the videogame, where I am led to believe large numbers of Christian troops will battle the godless, dispatching them to the afterlife by violent means while shouting "Praise the Lord!". For those who find this sits uneasily with more conventional New Testament concepts of love and forgiveness, you get more points for converting the heathen: also, some versions of the game will come bundled with a Bible and some with a book of cheat codes. Pick the bones out of that one, St Augustine.

However, I digress. While you're battling for the Lord, you're going to need some banging tunes, right? To that end, there are in-game links to iTunes Music Store -– if a melody sounds particularly stirring and helps to push your Christian soldiers particularly onwards, you can click and order the same from Apple. It does stretch the imagination a little to see the chaps in Cupertino lending a hand to the forces of fundamentalism, and to wonder about some of the other items in the game being made available via online ordering. Rapid-fire machine guns, anyone?

It's also interesting to imagine what might happen if a conversion (sorry) to the game appears which follows the precepts of some of the more muscular forms of Islam, and to consider what the media reaction might be. As someone who sees all forms of religious fundamentalism as basically interchangeable, I'd like to see one central game engine that can be skinned into whatever flavour of God-driven correctness you're into -– and one big online virtual world where you can go and explore the consequences of your decision without dragging the rest of us into it.

Who knows -– if it's really popular, the game might suck every religious extremist on the planet into an addictive frenzy of righteousness, a sort of cyber-Rapture that keeps them off the streets. Gives the rest of us the chance to, you know, sort things out a bit.

Now, where did I read about the meek inheriting the earth?

Tuesday 25/07/2006

Congratulations to Xara on 25 years of business. Xara is one of those quintessentially British companies that finds a niche and sticks with it -– not always entirely voluntarily -– but any IT outfit that manages a quarter century in this country deserves a round of applause.

You may know Xara better than you think. It started off as Computer Concepts, a two-man outfit flogging software for the Acorn Atom –- the forerunner of the Acorn Proton, better known now as the BBC Micro. CC wrote a word processor for the Beeb called Wordwise that quickly became an industry standard; the company continued to produce Acorn software into the now-mythical age of the Archimedes. This led to graphics software, which led to Windows software, which most recently led to open source -– go and have a look.

I nearly ended up working on a project for them, back in the heady days before the Acorn Risc Machine had become the embedded ARM and the Archimedes was still a thing of wonder rather than an evolutionary dead end. It was the late '80s. Computer Concepts had looked at the Amstrad PCW8256 word processor and wondered to itself whether there was a market for something like that but capable of doing proper graphics. They called in Alfa Systems, the small yet sparkly design company for which I worked, and we all trooped over to the Computer Concepts sumptuous Dockland workspace to sharpen our pencils and read our way through the datasheets. The Acorn Risc Machine was really very clever indeed, we discovered, and Acorn had done all the right things in producing a set of support chips that helped make a complete computer at minimal cost. There was enough processor umph in the system to easily cope with the task in hand, and between CC and us there was enough software smarts to make that part of the project tractable too.

Technically, it could be done. Aesthetically, it was tempting –- we could see how to make something that was elegant, inexpensive yet more powerful than the dearer alternatives. Financially, though... well, we tried our best, but none of the figures quite made sense. Yes, it would be cheaper – a bit. Yes, it would be better -– quite a lot. But none of that promised to make a market appear out of nowhere the way the Amstrad PCW 8256 had managed. It was almost as if the dedicated appliance market had been and gone, and PCs were entering the 'just about good enough' zone for just about everything.

In retrospect, we were dead right. With the exception of Apple, all of the other late 80s platforms morphed into niche machines (Amiga in video, Atari ST in music) and then vanished – and Apple stared into the abyss more than once. But I remember how badly we wanted to build something that nice, and how much we wished it would work – and how proud I'd be now if we'd tried and got something as swish as we were imagining to market.

But then, I wouldn't be writing a congratulatory note about Xara-cum-Computer-Concepts surviving so long. Saying no is a much underrated survival skill, as is not spending money. They're almost as important as their opposites. Wednesday 26/07/2007

Open your mouth and say "Aaaahh", please. Now, look at this chart -- it shows the current state of IT in healthcare worldwide –- and say "Aaaaaarghh!". Thank you. Briefly: it's a mess. It has to change. Much of the global healthcare industry's IT is ten years behind the times, if not more so, and a great deal is stuck in the days of the '70s and '80s when standards were for hippies and every IT company worth its salt vigorously defended its own incompatible patch. If you had to make things work together, it cost you a fortune. Such attitudes make life easy for the suppliers. You develop stuff at your own pace, your customers are locked in, and you charge what you like. It's not so nice for the customers, of course, but you can usually avoid dealing with them by hiving off a very expensive maintenance company. Plenty of cash to go around – and if some of that ends up going into the pockets of the people buying the kit, well, what of it? This is a complicated and highly technical industry, and who's to tell whether everything is exactly as described? There's just one problem with this: it can't work for much longer. With healthcare costs going through the (often leaky) roof, if we don't increase efficiency by orders of magnitude we will not be able to afford to look after our ageing population -– which is going to be us, soon enough. The healthcare business must have its own standards-driven revolution, or it will implode. There are two ways to set standards: sit around talking all day, or buy in a bespoke, non-standard system off the shelf and push it hard into the industry until the way you do things becomes the way everyone does things. Microsoft did this in the 80s with MS-DOS, building everything thereafter on the sides of the valleys that DOS cut in the rock of the industry. And now here's Microsoft again –- buying in a bespoke, non-standard system off the shelf (well, the operating table) to amalgamate clinical data for diagnostic purposes. Peter Neupert, MS's vice-president for health strategy, says that he had to convince Steve Ballmer that this was a good idea: I bet the pitch was about two lines long. Microsoft is right and wrong. The dynamics of the health system are not going to be massively changed by the introduction of the equivalent of the PC (although it is intriguing to muse about the possibilities of what the medical equivalent of the personal computer might be), which combined with advances in communication technology to overthrow the hegemony of the old ways (despite, it must be said, Microsoft having much greater affinity for those old ways than the new). The health system must and will change, but what triggers it and in what direction is still open to debate. This is the place to be, though. If you want to get into the next big wave of technology innovation, then break out the stethoscope. Everything will be up for grabs – there's gold in them thar pills. Thursday 27/07/2006

It ain't half hot, mum. If we're having problems, think of the poor machines. Last weekend, Yahoo and MySpace both fell off the planet for many hours because of problems exacerbated by power failures due to excessive heat-related demands. And today it's London's turn, with a power cut knocking out places like Oxford Circus and VNU. How are they going to edit those Wikipedia entries now?

It's hard to know how to make provision for power cuts these days. Not so long ago, you could get by with some sort of local backup like an uninterruptable power supply or generator. All your home and office communications would be by BT telephone -– and that had battery backup too, across the country. Even if the blackout were to last for ages, you'd have plenty of time to find out what had happened and decide what to do next.

Things are much more fragile now. You can still run your office or home equipment on UPSs, and the BT landlines still have battery backup –- not much help if you or the people you need to talk to aren't on traditional landlines. I don't know how much resilience is built into the mobile phone network in terms of power, but the system is known to run out of capacity when things get hairy. And IP services rely on each link in the chain staying up –- with no legal requirement for power outage survivability and nobody in overall charge, I doubt it's going to be robust.

As the experience of the London bombings on 7/7 showed, our modern communications systems are not to be trusted. We shouldn't be surprised: after all, we've entrusted them all to companies who cut corners and work on guesswork even when they're commercially exposed to the results: how much more likely is it that systems never tested in anger or independently, expertly audited will work when we need them?

There is an alternative -– the infrastructure-free network. A wireless mesh system is independent of central control but is both robust and self-configuring: put a load of nodes in an area, and the total bandwidth there goes up just when you need it. Such things have only been developed for specialist uses, because it's difficult to make money running something that doesn't exist. And without commercial demand, there's no pressure on the regulators to provide spectrum.

However, there's currently an interesting anomaly for rent. Between 30MHz and 80MHz are vast tracts of empty space that once belonged to old TV systems but are now fallow. There's not enough bandwidth for broadband data, the antenna aren't efficient and the radio propagation characteristics are variable: commercially, the frequencies aren't that hot. But the signals do go a long way on little power, and aren't easily put off by buildings and other obstacles.

If 10MHz' worth of this fallow spectrum were made available for licence-free low-bandwidth IP-based mesh networking -– a cross between Wi-Fi and CB, if you like -– there'd be plenty of opportunity for companies and experimenters to build inexpensive boxes that provided, say, 1Mbps links into the cloud. They'd be low power enough to run for ages from batteries, but have the range to get across cities (and further: if the idea was a success, point-to-point high bandwidth links bringing together areas of high density would be a natural sequel). The result would be a robust, free usage communications system that would be highly difficult to disrupt, built out with minimal investment and little risk, and one that overlaid our existing systems with a complementary set of functions that we badly need. In time, voice-over-IP handsets, PC cards and the like would follow.

It's hard to see how to make billions at it. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. Friday 28/07/2006

Another obituary, I'm afraid. Walking towards the bus stop last night after a pleasant evening sweltering in Soho, I make a detour with half a hope of grabbing a last pint in noted Hanway Place drinking hole, Troy's.

Troy has fallen. It is shut. It's been taken over by one of the adjoining Spanish bars. This is a landmark event.

Troy's has been a landmark for wayward journalists, IT and otherwise, for decades. I first stumbled into it one Saturday afternoon about twenty years ago after an Iain M Banks signing on the Charing Cross Road. Time and other factors cloud the details. I believe I was in the company of a disreputable bookseller (but I repeat myself) called Groberts, and Gamma –- an off-planet creature exiled on Earth and unconvincingly disguised as a literary agent. I was new in town, and still a bit dazed, but very up for adventure. Gamma led the way into a winding medieval street off Tottenham Court Road, past puddles of piss-scented rubbish, into a narrow, unmarked doorway and up narrower stairs.

And there was Troy's. It looked like the front room from The Young Ones, only in worse repair and with a bar at one end. There were already a couple of SF authors installed at the bar: on inspection, one proved to have fused symbiotically with the woodwork, while the other was alternately muttering something about tax inspectors and motioning for another scotch. The air was thick with the smoke of a thousand Marlboro Reds; the carpet looked like the surface of Titan, each crater made by the fag end of one of those Marlboros glistening with a tiny hydrocarbon lake of partially evaporated lager.

As Groberts pushed his way past a gaggle of indeterminate gender by the quiz machine in search of beer, he nearly stepped on a small dog and was greeted with a burst of pleased profanity by the twinkly, dissipated woman behind the taps. I took about thirteen microseconds to fall utterly in love with the place.

That love was reciprocated: the place proved a safe haven from the world when licensing hours were no longer your friend, a good place to meet a very wide variety of people of similar interests (drinking and not going to bed) and even (it was rumoured) a wide variety of people to go to bed with once drinking was no longer an option. The SF crowd came and went, as did other members of the Soho tribes -– actors, musicians, journalists, advertising types, film company oiks. I got quite a lot of work from there too, usually over a 2am pint with a desperate editor, but I wouldn't recommend it as a strategy.

The woman behind the bar was Helen. She had been a saleswoman working for the distilleries, flogging spirits to hotels: not a job anyone can do for long, she told me. Each day it involves going to a hotel, splitting a bottle or two with the manager, sleeping it off and setting off after breakfast the next day to repeat the experience. She had a variety of interesting afflictions as a result of this lifestyle: running a bar might not have been the perfect career move. But she was very good at it, keeping the bank, the breweries, the Metropolitan police, the magistrates and the punters in order with charismatic ease.

So many stories: the shoe-throwing contest from the window into the street below. The New Years Eve party where the normally absolute no-drugs policy was spectacularly reversed and various people who should have known better raced their nostrils up both sides of the bar along a track marked out in a seasonal white powder. The time I won Helen twenty quid on the quiz machine and got honourary membership for life. The night after the 1992 election when she asked the braying crowds "Did you lot vote Tory?" "YEEEEESH!". "This is a members-only club, you know. Let's see your cards." Grinning, they proffered the proof. She plucked them out of their hands and ripped them up, one by one. "I said, this is a members-only club. Get out."

I can't remember whether it was the fourth or fifth time the doctor told her "one more drop and you're dead: I mean it this time" that the prediction came true. She left the place and the dog to her barman, a Northern Irish chap called Charlie, but liberalised licensing laws and his increasing hands-off approach to running the place soon finished it off. The last time I was there, I came within a whisker of getting comprehensively beaten up by the pharmaceutically enhanced doorman: I talked my way out of it (amazing what talents one discovers in extremis – making angry crackheads see sense may yet be evolutionarily advantageous), but whatever bibulous angel guarding Troy's had clearly departed. I live in hope – and fear – of finding where it's landed now.

So, goodbye Helen, Charlie. Goodbye, Troy's, and the thousands of good-natured, garrulous, bright, miserable, fun, random examples of boozed-up Sohoites I met there. You will not be forgotten. Not remembered, exactly – my god, what did I get up to last night? -- but not forgotten.