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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

This week: The price of freedom, viral antidotes, chiller email, asparagus versus Mumm's, and a copper-bottomed joke
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 26/4/1999

Rumours abound that Tempo (Dixons' wannabies) are about to launch a free ISP. Ho, hum. And there'll be free phone calls at weekends and evenings. Ah!

It's all tied up with Localtel, who sell telephone services. Somewhat confusingly, they sell BT's telephone services -- for 10% less than BT can. Whatever's going on here isn't yer ordinary commerce, now is it?. And if you sign up to Localtel, you can make those free phone calls to Tempo's system.

Three things worry me: first, how on earth can Localtel manage that? With only a few small assumptions, I think a Localtel customer could easily cost the company £500 a year using that service. Second, if they can make it work, what on earth is going to stop everyone on a free ISP (I estimate that's around 2 million at the moment) from switching over? And two million people -- who know what to do and can do it quickly -- hitting a service at once is going to make it explode like a giant squid in deep space. And thirdly, voice over IP is going to become extraordinarily popular in double quick time: hell, I'll get my friends and family on that system faster than you can say "I will not be requiring a large phone bill this quarter, thanks".

There must be more to it than this. But it's good to see such excitement.

Tuesday 27/4/1999

I say I say I say. Those must be nuclear underpants: if you don't keep them up tight, Chernobyl fallout. OK, so it wasn't very funny the first time. But as the tales of meltdown come in from PCs around the world, it's clear that in terms of sheer destructiveness this virus wins the Memorial Concrete Sarcophagus, pants jokes or no. It's not really possible to find a more harmful payload than one which vapes your BIOS chip -- effectively removing the PC's concept of its own identity -- but in this case it really was avoidable. BIOS chips have usually been set at the factory and not changeable thereafter: with the introduction of flash memory BIOS, anyone can change the contents. Useful for bug fixes: lethal in the hands of virus writers.

It would cost pennies to add a circuit to a PC so that the BIOS can only be writeable for, say, an hour after a button on the PC had been pressed (or a link removed and replaced). In fact, it would probably be simple enough to arrange for the reset button to do double-duty (press it three times in quick succession to put the PC into a window of upgradeability. That sort of thing). A little more thought, and many millions of pounds-worth of damage would have been avoided.

Wednesday 28/4/1999

I don't watch much television, and vanishingly little prime time stuff. So I only discover who Jill Dando was after she was shot -- which, combined with the American school massacre, Serbia and some nutter with nailbombs, leaves one with a disturbing sense of pre-millennial tension.

One of the nastier effects of all this is the threatening emails. One friend of mine, who does some daytime/cable TV presentation work, received a worrying missive not actually saying that she was next for the chop but very capable of being read that way. "Dando got killed because of the Serbian TV massacre," it said, "and all TV workers in this country should be aware that they are legitimate targets now". Scary stuff, especially as it came from a free email service and was entirely untraceable. And then another friend got an email claiming to be from the Tesla Institute in Belgrade -- a research establishment -- saying that they had a decommissioned nuclear reactor on the premises (true, as far as I know) and had been informed that they were now going to be targetted by NATO. This, the email said, would spread contamination across the entire country and cause a massive ecological catastrophe.

What is true? That email checked out, as far as can be told -- but does the Tesla Institute really think that? Is it a bluff? Have they been told by the Russians that the building's on a target list, and if so, is it?

Email remains the single most potent force for societal change on the Internet: we don't always realise it, because it seems so natural and so like telephone or paper mail. But it will evolve into something altogether different, and it will change the way we live our lives much more than we realise.

I think sometimes about giving it up -- not because I want to, but because I wonder how hard it would be and where it would leave me.

Thursday 29/4/1999

For nostalgia, and because I like doing that sort of thing, I pop along to PC Magazine's Editors' Day. This is where Mag invites loads of computer companies along to a hotel for the day: they show us theirs (new products, plans, etc) and we show them ours (take on the markets, technical stuff, what wonderful, human people Ziffies can be, that sort of thing). My task: to stand up and talk about Linux and how it'll cause other software companies (OK, Microsoft) more problems than one might think. And it is, and it will, and it's going to get a lot worse remarkably quickly. People are starting to notice that Linux is turning up on more embedded systems than is CE, and on much bigger systems than NT, and it's really just the one platform -- not the three disparate and compatibility-challenged wooden legs of the Windows stool...

Worst bit: rushing through a succession of bad connections and very long queues so that I turned up for my 3pm talk having managed to eat nothing all day. Best bit: being given a large bundle of very fresh asparagus by Tim Lawes, genial, bearded, biking MD of Sareen Software (OfficeTalk! What a great piece of groupware! -- there, who says journalists can't be bought?).

Later that same evening, Lotus has a launch party for Notes R5. It's on the Silver Barracuda, a boat moored in the Thames, and involves roulette tables, nice nosh and an extremely well-stocked bar. I stuck to the beer (oh, OK, Mumm's. But it was yellow and fizzy), but other less restrained journos made the most of the wide range of spirituous liquors festooning the bulkhead. Haven't been to a bash like that for ages: it was well worth it. But no asparagus -- so no gratuitous plug.

Friday 30/4/1999

The funniest joke I heard this week. Bloke carries his dog into the vet's, and puts it on the floor. "It's not moving much" says the bloke. "Can you have a look at it for me?" The vet prods the supine canine for a bit and says "Sorry -- it's dead." "Can't be," says the bloke. "It was right as ninepence an hour ago. Are there some more tests you can do?" "Well, OK, if you insist..." replies the vet, and whistles. In through the door walks a big black labrador, which goes up to the prostrate quadruped and sniffs around it for a bit. Then it cocks its leg, widdles all over the prone bone-muncher and walks out again. "See?" said the vet. "Told you. If your dog was alive, there'dve been a huge fight. Dead." "Nah, still don't believe you," says matey. "There must be something else you can do." "Oh, have it your way" signs the vet and goes over to a basket in the corner out of which he takes a small Siamese kitten. He puts it down by the head of the immobile mutt, and the kitten carefully walks up and down on top of it. Then it turns up its nose and goes back to its basket. "Now do you believe me?" says the vet. "If that dog wasn't completely stiffed, there'dve been wailing and hissing and all manner of nonsense." "Oh, I guess you're right" says the man. "How much do I owe you?" "Hundred and fifty quid" says the vet. "HOW MUCH?" screams the owner. "What's all that for?" "Well," says the vet. "Thirty quid for me, and sixty quid apiece for the lab test and the cat scan".

Addendum: "Police pictures for you to print or use as wallpaper for your PC": says the Metropolitan Police website. Yes, but the bleeder won't stay still while the paste dries.

And with that, I'm off for the Bank Holiday. No diary next week due to fun: but I'll tell you about that in a fortnight's time.


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