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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

This week: the neo-futurist rocket, jammin' the Blues, Will Self and Dogs Today, BT runs out of excuses , and whispering to the aliens
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 17/4/1999

Whew! What a couple of weeks. Holidaying in Greece where a raddled old rock-star friend is marrying an incandescently beautiful Katarina. The place: Leros, a small island near Turkey, but we don't mention that. The cast: Greek and German contingents on the bride's side, and assorted Anglo-Saxons on the groom's. I won't bore you with the usual tales of outre behaviour and ouzo, but there were two unexpected delights. One was meeting a member of the wedding party who worked in British intelligence during WW II -- someone who knew Bletchley Park when it was running, and a lot more besides. That was an interesting conversation and a half.

The other high spot was discovering Lakki, a town half-way down the island. Largely built by the Italians before WW2, it was an experiment in neo-futurist colonialist architecture. Since then, it's pretty much been left to crumble and remains the most disconcerting place to wander around on a hot, abandoned Sunday afternoon. I was doing just that, trying hard not to believe I'd fallen into a JG Ballard story, when I came across a small shop selling tourist tat. Among the icons and the ceramic ashtrays was a desk-clock-cum-music-box-cum-storage-box, in the shape of a Chinese Long March rocket on its gantry. Flick a lever and the rocket revolves, its gilded boosters glittering in time to Swan Lake... at this point, I abandoned all resistance and accepted the consensual hallucination.

Bought the music box, though. It delights and disgusts my colleagues in equal measure much, I fear, as do I.

Rest of the week was filtered through a haze of something nasty I caught in the Dodecanese.

Tuesday 18/5/1999

We should rewrite that old saying to nature being blue in tooth and claw: Bluetooth specification 0.9 is out. Products by the end of the year, and more and more people signing up all the time -- but not Microsoft, not yet. Microsoft excuses its absence from the feast by saying it's not in favour of proprietary standards. Of course.

But there are other snakes in the air. Bluetooth lives on the 2.4GHz band, an unrestricted stretch of the airwaves previously left to microwave ovens, remote control garage door openers and wireless networks such as 802.11. Because there's no regulation over what interferes with what, Bluetooth has been designed to be aggressive in its attempts to get the message across -- far more so than the older standards, which sort of assumed there'd be nothing much else around. As a result, the existing wireless networks get hit much harder by Bluetooth than vice-versa -- and if you put both in a laptop, some say, the wireless network won't.

The Bluetooth consortium couldn't care less. It has its eyes on version two of the spec, which will do much more by way of radio networking, and if the competition has been jammed into oblivion by then well, hey, they'll cope. The existing wireless networkers are far less sanguine, of course, but are somewhat at a loss. Some will move to higher frequencies. Some will develop different technologies. But nobody's expecting much by way of a Hertzian entente cordiale: there will be tears.

Wednesday 19/5/1999

Off to the Grosvenor House Hotel, where the Periodical Publishers Association (PPA) is having its annual shindig. Yours truly is shortlisted for Columnist Of The Year for my stuff in IT Week, so it's a trip down to Moss Bros the day before and a booking for the Thursday after at the Oliver Reed Memorial Liver Transplant Clinic And Bar.

The evening is frantic. Somewhere in the region of 1400 magazine people stuffed into a ballroom that's slightly too small for them sit down and listen to Griff Rhys-Jones taking the mickey, followed by an endless list of awards and even more endless waits as the recipients try to get through the closely-packed chairs and tables before dawn breaks. The chairman of the PPA set the tone for the whole evening by telling us all to be good sports and clap for our rivals -- she didn't get a very good reception...

I didn't win, but then again neither did Will Self who was also up for the selfsame gong. According to accounts, he lived up to expectations: the worst we did was bark loudly when Dogs Today was announced.

Thursday 20/5/1999

Golly, I'm still alive.

Four Billion Pounds. That's a lot of money, isn't it? That's about a hundred quid from every economically active person in the country, and that's just BT's yearly profits.

Meanwhile, BT's finance director Robert Brace says of ADSL "We think rollout is just around the corner, but we haven't pressed the button yet" and "It isn't years away, it's months away. We could do it tomorrow. It's a question of when people will pay what it costs''. But then again, BT has told Oftel that Home Highway is 'fully meeting the demand for broadband' -- at the same time as telcos in the US are desperately trying to fend off customers aggressively demanding their ADSL, and as yet another report says that telephone costs are holding the whole of Europe back in the race towards an online economy.

Whatever the reasons for BT dragging its feet over ADSL -- internal politics, fear of the unknown, the expense, sheer bloody-mindedness -- there can be no doubt that it won't threaten the company in any substantial way. It will involve some risk, but not that much for a company prepared to spend multiple millions on uncertain deals with American and Japanese companies (which would benefit BT's main customer base how, exactly?) and preparing to roll out a nationwide voice-over-IP network in Spain (honestly! It's true!). And it would give the UK a huge boost in the sort of areas we absolutely need, and in ways that will increase people's wishes to use the sort of online services that BT are already selling.

We want it now, please, BT. Press that button. You can afford it, we need it and it will get us all ready to buy fibre from you in ten years' time.

Friday 21/5/1999

The Seti@Home software has gone through the place like an overclocked Pentium III burning through a circuit board. Much to the disgust of the hard-core encryption hackers, many have taken their distributed RC5 cracking software off their machines and are busy hunting little green men instead.

Of course, as a long-standing astro nut I have my machines at home and at work chuntering away. I've always loved SETI, and have a long-standing fantasy about setting up a radio observatory on the far side of the Moon.

However, as I watch the waterfall plots of my own little chunk of Arecibo data, I begin to think it just ain't going to work. The whole idea of SETI is that there must be other civilisations out there who've discovered radio, and if we listen at the right frequency we'll be able to pick them up. Well, I'll go along with the civilisation bit but... if you look at the way radio's developing here on Earth, it's not promising. The age of giant TV, radio and radar transmitters -- the megawatt systems capable of interstellar detection -- is nearly over. Better processing and new techniques mean that we are starting to use much lower power, wider band stuff that looks a lot like radio noise if you don't know better. The advantages in economics, flexibility and capability are undeniable -- and in fifty years time, I'd be most surprised if the planet hasn't got a great deal quieter, radio-wise. I mention this to Peter Jackson, fellow stargazer at Ziff, who says "That'll get the aliens over here. We'll turn off the TV transmitters and they'll have to come and visit to find out how East Enders turned out".

It doesn't do much for our chances of picking up other civilisations that have gone the same way. But I'll keep looking...

Addendum It's my birthday on Sunday, and my Birthday Picnic a couple of weeks after that. As per usual, the invite is on the Web... somewhere! Find it and come along, and you could win a Special Prize!

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