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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

This week: Alien bait, salacious voicemail, what Saddam's graveyards have to do with key escrow, modern music and more...
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday, 15/02/1999

I pop over to the Beeb to address the nation: nation appears not to notice. This week, the subject is the future of defence technology (I once worked for Marconi Space And Defence Systems, but for the good of all concerned this didn't last very long). However, during my research I uncover some underpublicised stuff that makes depressing reading: North Korea's three-stage ICBM that could probably hit anywhere in the world, Saddam's nuclear stash hidden in a cemetery (which the inspectors couldn't dig up, obviously), and more. The real reason that the US and the UK are busy needling Iraq at the moment appears to be a desperate attempt to get him to make a mistake and give us an excuse to go in after him: he's still got enough bits to cause a lot of havoc.

All very depressing. But it does shed some light on the curious business of key escrow. You know that before Christmas, the DTI said that we should all hand our encryption keys over to 'trusted third parties' to let the police rifle through our files whenever we liked? The only other country with this sort of ingrained silliness at the top is the US: we have exactly the same situation as each other. The top level of government want key escrow, everyone else says 'nonsense' and there's a degree of sulking on both sides. No other government seems to have this approach, but us and the USA are like peas in a pod.

Just like in Iraq. It's that 'special relationship', which actually turns out to be politico-speak for a little deal that went down during World War II. Our security services were joined at the hip over intelligence issues (Enigma, Magic and all that) with an agreement referred to as UKUSA. It's unique in geopolitics, and whenever us and the US end up doing precisely the same thing for no clear reason it's a fair bet that the spooks are behind it. Hence the nonsense over key escrow.

Not that I'm paranoid.

Tuesday, 16/02/1999

The special relationship certainly doesn't hold here: this just in from the SF Gate web site:

"Despite protests from fat activists, a health club is refusing to budge from its new ad that suggests that overweight people will be the first to be devoured by hungry space aliens when the invasion comes.

The [billboard] ad for 24 Hour Fitness... depicts an artist's vision of a space alien and reads, "When they come, they'll eat the fat ones first."

Fat activists find the ad demeaning and took to the sidewalk in front of one of the fitness chain's outlets Monday to show their displeasure.

"Eat me!" the 30-some protesters in front of 24 Hour Fitness at Van Ness Avenue and Post Street chanted as they held an aerobics class and waved signs that read, "Bite My Fat Alien Butt," and "I'm Yummy." Some handed out lollipops."

As a member of the fraternity so delightfully depicted as prime Martian munchies, I can but hope that the prediction turns out to be true. You get much better value for your money with RupeBurgers [tm].

Wednesday, 17/02/1999

A friend is busy testing Wildfire, a voice-driven call handling and messaging system that works over the phone. It has what he first thought of as an utterly charming personality and female voice to match -- but hidden aspects have come to life. The system responds when you say "Wildfire", and has a conversation with you: viz. (Wildfire's responses in bold)

"Wildfire?" "Yes?" "Call the stationary suppliers" "Calling..."

and the call goes through. It handles multiple incoming calls, dialling stuff by number and general organisation. It also does the following...

"Wildfire?" "Yes?" "Do me a favour" "What kind of favour?" (flirtatiously) "What noise does a cow make?" (sample of cow going "Mooooooooooo!")

"Wildfire?" "Yes?" "I'm depressed." "YOU'RE depressed? I live in a box. When I'm depressed, I like to put on a William Shatner album" (sample of William Shatner singing "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds")

"Wildfire?" "Yes?" "Fancy a shag?" "Huh. This is what happens when a real man has a shag" (sample of cow going "Mooooooooooooo!" with man laughing in the background)

The rest of the system works 'very well indeed', says my friend. But I'm not sure he's being entirely objective...

Thursday, 18/02/1999

It's all free! Everything! This week has seen Virgin going free, Slate (the Microsoft-funded and really not that bad) magazine going back to freedom after a spell in the paid-for wilderness, and now the Free-PC mob are coming over to Blighty. These chaps give you a PC if you agree to spend so much time online, and arrange it so that when you're using it the screen you see loads of ads.

Of course, nothing is ever really free (*) and some of this stuff is, as we used to say at Mary Dean's Primary School, cruisin' for a bruisin'. What's going to happen when all the ISPs are free and BT drops the local call rates? The company will have the whole country's Internet provision industry over a barrel. Oftel should do something, and fast. Don't hold your breath...

(* apart from lunches, if you're a journalist. Why do you think I'm so attractive to aliens?)

Friday, 19/02/1999

Now here's a very snazzy place that Guy Kewney pointed out to me -- www.imagineradio.com. It's a good idea: the site's servers are stuffed with thousands of CD tracks. You rate them according to your personal preference, and the site then serves music at random weighted according to your taste. The result is your personal radio station: you can also register your station on the site to let others with similar likes tune in and nod along.

I've always said that the Web is the perfect medium for finding new music, and this is a particularly imaginative way of proving it. When you hear a track you particularly like, you can find out more and -- of course -- order the CD.

I've got it playing at the moment. It's even got a sense of humour -- when I selected the Indie 80s stream it said "Ah. You remember the days when Ronald Reagan could clean his own teeth..."

By this time next week, I very much hope to have sorted out my own station and will be sharing it with you all. Post-industrial bleepy noisefest ahoy!

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