It is hard to think of an industry to rival IT for fun and games. Mole doesn't know much about light engineering, mineral extraction or forestry but he can't imagine they provide much in the way of laughs.
Leafing through his mail for the past month, Mole is struck by the absurdity of life for people who work with computers, a condition that goes at least some way towards explaining their strange behaviour.
Take the headline that appeared recently in a prominent weekly newspaper, which to protect the innocent we shall simply refer to as This One. The headline was: "IBM readies 64-bit paper". The story that followed was lost in musings over the environmental benefits of paper with print density an order of magnitude greater than conventional stationery, and idle speculation about the possibilities of including pornographic video clips and other fruity multimedia embellishments in letters to bank managers, phone companies and tax officials.
US vice president Al Gore showed a touching, if rather naive faith in technological progress when he was asked to unveil IBM's latest supercomputing monster, an enormous cluster of race-tuned RS6000s. Gore spoke movingly about the contribution the machine would make to humanity - speeding advances in medicine and helping scientists to understand and one day control the excesses of the weather. If he'd bothered to ask the nearest IBM press officer, Mr Gore would have known that the computer is to be put to rather less noble work simulating nuclear detonations, but it was a nice thought.
There is an air of complacency in many big organisations about the year 2000 problem. A few were well prepared, many more cobbled together their plans in haste but now feel that, against the odds, they are going to be ready in time after all. Peet (really) Morris, the rather flamboyant but eminently brainy technical director of the Mandelbrot Set visited one of these firms recently to inspect a system the company had just finished millennium-proofing. The software, said to be the biggest Visual Basic project in Europe, was found to contain no less than 3,373 potentially fatal weaknesses.
Compliance problems of a different kind are behind the sad case of a PC Week reader who works in the IT department at Devon County Council.
Several months ago, the reader won a competition in a magazine, which to protect the innocent we shall simply refer to as Government Computing.
The prize was a millennium clock, which he eagerly awaited. As the weeks wore on, an intermittent correspondence with the editor, Alan Burkitt-Gray ensued, but despite several reassurances of the cheque's-in-the-post variety the clock has never materialised. The reader fears it will soon reach the point where he will be able to work out for himself how much time remains before the millennium, rendering the device useless - proof that it is unwise to rely on machines of any kind to prepare for the impending crisis, and that computer magazines aren't much help either.
More news reaches Mole of the changes Bill Gates is making to Britain's coast line. Having used Excel's Maps feature to relocate Dover, Gates has now moved Cardiff several miles inland and into another county. This is bad news for the people of south Wales as it almost certainly signals Gates' intention to build a seaside holiday home in the space he's just cleared.
In cyberspace nobody knows who you are, and this fact has not gone unnoticed by pranksters. Generating Email purporting to come from someone else is a very simple business and an endless source of fun. Using Hotmail accounts, anonymous remailers and even company mail systems disguised by aliases it is possible to pretend to be almost anyone. Recent well-known examples of this sport include the mass mailer sent by "Bill Gates" offering incentives of $1,000 to anyone taking part in software testing (an obvious spoof, as Microsoft policy is that the customer pays to participate in testing by buying the product), and a fraudulent win-a-holiday competition purportedly involving Microsoft and the Disney Corporation, which was signed "Bill Gates" and the entirely fictional "Walt Disney Jr".
Meanwhile, BT was given a quick tutorial about the dangers of Hotmail-style services when it launched one of its own, Talk21. Among the first addresses to get snapped up were ian.vallance and peter.cochrane, the chairman and manager, applied research & technologies, respectively. "Ian" immediately sent a message to the head of the service asking him to ring him on his mobile. The manager duly complied only to find himself talking to a punter, though if he'd checked the address carefully he would have spotted that the real Mr Vallance spells his first name Iain with an extra I.
An interesting case of passing off of a slightly different kind by BMW.
No doubt the offending pages are gone now, but a few weeks ago, visitors to the company's Web site who took the trouble to view the source code on the opening page will have seen that the meta tag contained the names Mercedes, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Porsche as well as those of a dozen or so other manufacturers.
For the uninitiated, meta tags are what search engines use to identify relevant content to individuals trawling the Web for information. What this means is that anyone looking for information about any of the firms listed would have been directed to the German car maker's site. No doubt this underhand tactic was the result of an over-zealous individual acting on his own initiative, and was not endorsed by management. Otherwise BMW's rivals would have been reaching for their lawyers.
Got anything to tell Mole? Send him a message to [email protected] or, if reply comes there none, you might try the address at the top of this column.
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