Guy Kewney's Diary

MondaySo, you were wondering, perhaps, what happened the week before last, and why I didn't post my diary? It's not an easy question to answer: but part of it is simple enough: my father was ill, and I took some time off.

Since I had to travel to Yorkshire to visit him, and since I also had to write three columns, and since I couldn't go to all the press conferences I had planned to cover, it ended up, on Friday, with our Editor asking me, very politely, whether I could do a diary. "Oh, flack," I said, invoking the God of Public Relations. Or something like that. "I forgot. Sorry. No, I can't."

It isn't true that I did nothing worth reporting, however. I did try to install a 120Mb floppy Superdisk in my home machine, and was comprehensively humbled. Also, I took advantage of my visit to see my father, by setting his brand-new PC up. Now, there's a story that will run and run.

But this Monday, this week, was uneventful, unless working like a maniac all day and getting very little done is an event.

One thing that did happen was that Microsoft achieved a satisfactory resolution of my friend's e-mail problem on MSN. If you remember, he found that his e-mail was broken, and MSN support told him it was tough, and he could have a new e-mail ID, at no extra charge, but the old one, once broken, couldn't be fixed.

This turns out to be simple incompetence on the part of the support people -- something which may have caused the customers involved more than a little misery. According to my friend with the broken e-mail, he ended up explaining what had happened to someone in Redmond, who took it all very seriously indeed. "What was really impressive," he said later, "was how their attitude changed once your name got mentioned. Up till then it was 'push off, you hardly pay us enough to justify the time' and now suddenly it's 'Heads will roll!' at the highest level, and Microsoft is talking to us, not the other way around!"

So, having crucified MSN support, it seems only fair to say that once they worked out what the problem was, they did fix it.

And the problem was that my friend had installed the beta of Windows 98.

Now, you and I might imagine that Microsoft beta-test software is stored on a central server, with a list of bug fixes, and known unresolved bugs, and that if Windows 98 beta breaks MSN, this would be information that Microsoft passes straight on to MSN support. And indeed, according to a very nice publicity video that Microsoft showed us at the launch of IE 4.0, that's exactly what they do. And the question of why, when someone reported a known fault, the support database didn't come up with the right answer, is a question which someone in Redmond is currently working late to sort out -- or so I'm told.

I have to say, my own experiences of using Microsoft "help" files for Word and Excel seem to suggest one or two profitable avenues of investigation... in short, Microsoft "help" engines need a thesaurus.

It's all very well saying; "Search for keyword" but the trouble is that you're looking for "partition" and the text involved actually refers to "sub-divide" -- or the other way around. Which is forgivable up to a point. Obviously, the writer of the help file can't think of all possible synonyms for "partition" and we don't expect him/her to. On the other hand, when they actually tell you to solve this problem by sub-dividing the disk, but don't use the word "sub-divide" anywhere in the chapter on partitions...

And while I'm being fair to Microsoft, I have to say that I don't know any software publisher who's any damn better. The trick appears to be: hire some English Lit. graduate who wants a job in computers, and tell them :"write the help files", and just as they're getting the hang of it, move them into tech support.

Tuesday

Hilarity: someone has written in reporting a request from a Microsoft Web site form for his fax number.

Apparently, all he wanted to do was download some software updates, but to do this, he had to give his wife's maiden name, his dog collar size and his fax number. He doesn't want faxes, he says, so he left that blank. Back comes the response:

"We need the field

"fax number"

completed in order to:

"respect your wishes not to receive unsolicited faxes."

Which I thought was very funny.

It turns out, it isn't funny; it's serious. Here and in America, the art of spamming has long been known and predates the Web. Junk faxes are big business. But many people don't publish their fax numbers, because they don't want to receive junk fax.

So, in America, getting a list of fax numbers is done by BFMI (brute force and massive ignorance) because it's free. All you do is dial every number on the exchange from 111-0000 right through to 999-9999, and listen for fax tone. Sure, it irritates all the people who are voice users, but so what? All they get is your fax number, which is set to dial out, not receive calls. But at the end of the exercise, you've dialled all possible local calls, and have all local fax numbers -- free, since local calls are free in most places in the US.

So when you want to do a junk -- no, sorry, bulk -- fax mailing, you buy one of these lists. And then -- this is the crucial bit -- you go through your own database, and remove any numbers you have which are marked: "Does not want junk -- er, bulk -- fax mailings."

The day ends with the Trends section of PC Magazine going down to print for the first time since I started working on it five years ago, without a single word of mine in it. Fortunately, my colleagues rallied around while I was off work and Trends has some good stuff in it. But it's a sad record, and one I hope never to be repeated.

Wednesday

You'll recall I had to set up my father's PC. What actually happened (it can now be revealed) is that Dad got his PC as a retirement present. The office bought it from PC World in Leeds, and it's a nice, mainstream Packard Bell P166 with a tiny display, but a nice Epson printer. And a hard disk full of Krupp.

What has obviously happened, is: someone has been playing with it.

For example, there's a Quake directory. Quake is a game that PC World does not give away free, I gather; and if it did, there would be an EXE file in there. There isn't.

For example, the MIDI synthesiser has been configured. It plays one instrument, and one instrument only: a Fender summat guitar. Don't ask me to recall which as I'm a strummer, not a twanger. Spanish, in other words, not rock guitar. But the result is that the MIDI synth won't play any music scored for any other instrument. Which isn't the end of the world, except for the fact that the sound card is not the card mentioned in the manual. And so, when the MIDI doesn't work, naturally we start fixing things that aren't broken, because the "line in" and "line out" ports on the sound card are only distinguishable if you have sound coming out of "out" and plug that into working speakers.

Naturally, by the time we work out that the speakers aren't working, neither is anything else.

In the end, I got cross enough to ring up PC World. No points, there: they assured me that nobody could possibly have been playing with this pristine machine. So I drew their attention to the Quake directory; "And also, there's the problem of where the applications are. Instead of being in c:\windows\start menu\programs, they're in c:\corel. Why have we got a Corel directory, anyway?"

At this point, the idiot on the phone lost all claim to respect by informing me that it was the result of "a standard Windows install, which had probably not completed." Ho, yus. "Explain this," I asked sweetly. "I lend you my car to drive from Leeds to Harrogate, and when you get back, I find a Tower of London replica in the back, and an extra 360 miles on the clock. And you tell me this is because you ran out of petrol and couldn't make it all the way to Harrogate?"

He put me onto his supervisor, who lost no time in explaining that this was not the way either Packard Bell or PC World wished to be known to the world, and they'd replace the machine AT ONCE if it turned out to be second-hand, and...

But you do have to wonder what the standard newcomer to PCs would have done...

Thursday

Ovum has done some studies on Network Computers. They hold an all-morning session at Claridges Hotel. One looks at the consumer side and says that the next few years are going to see the birth and rapid death of lots and lots of stupid ideas, as people try to develop the infrastructure. The other looks at business NC use, and says that the Windows Terminal attached to a Citrix mainframe, is the way to go.

Since I said that the Citrix WinFrame was the only sensible NC strategy almost 18 months ago, I have to say I think the second report is excellent, and very good! Dr Katy Ring says that the NC revolution in business will lead to more and more Windows: I think she's entirely right. She also thinks that Java is a failure as a rival platform to Windows, and she's almost certainly right there, but then, Java isn't a rival platform to Windows; it's a rival to ActiveX.

I do wish people could study Java before writing about it. We have a lovely guy from a corporate user department, who spends ten minutes telling us how useless Java is for his purposes. He clearly knows what he's doing with his company's big SAP accounting system and WinFrame on NT; but he knows just precisely nothing about Java. Indeed, it becomes quickly apparent that he thinks Java is Javascript. (I do hope you realise...?)

But I think the "consumer" NC report from Ovum, is entirely misconceived.

The problem is that they started off doing a research project on domestic NCs. It should have been very quickly apparent that this was not the place to start. You might equally sensibly have done a report on the future of the motor industry in 1910 by analysing the bicycle. Sure, bicycles will use the same roads, but...

And the suggestion that someone who is planning the future of domestic "multimedia" can judge the quality of a product by the number of pixels it can move in real time, is completely silly.

Moving images come in two sorts: those which are (expensively) produced by Hollywood, and those which are (cheaply) produced by a game you play, like Quake.

There is simply no way to increase the number of good quality Hollywood pixels by increasing the bandwidth of home phone links from 64 kilobits to 6 megabits. Sorry, but Electric Dreams remains a useless sequence of boring images, whether viewed in 8-bit or 32-bit colour. Equally, the typical home video footage remains jerky, pointless, mis-aimed, out of focus and irrelevant no matter how big a screen you watch it on.

Quake, certainly, does get better if you up the pixel count. I suppose I ought to keep my head down on this one: I'm currently struggling with the Voodoo Rush graphics set, and having problems. Not the least of these problems is the Hercules Stingray driver; I'm promised new ones today. We'll see. Right now, I have work to do...

But boy! have I been getting hate mail! The trouble was, I wrote a piece back in June, saying that the 3DFX (manufacturer of Voodoo) design was taking over the 3D accelerator standard -- a viewpoint I still believe to be correct, whatever Videologic or Microsoft (with Direct 3D) tells you.

That's OK: players of the Voodoo version of Quake don't mind your saying things like that. Indeed, they expect it, and ignore it, the way you ignore one more cry of "Wow!" at an American corporate marketing presentation. Where it goes wrong, is when you follow up with criticism. And, even worse, if you get it wrong, and I did. I wrote Voodoo, when I meant Voodoo Rush. Well, maybe I wrote it that way: it's possible that the "Rush" bit got dropped in editing. But there's a big difference: 3DFX has been plagued by angry complaints from Voodoo Rush users saying: "It's all very well giving us a single card to do VGA and 3D acceleration, but it's nowhere near as good as the two-card solution with a pass-through." And so angry have these zealots been, that 3DFX has had to offer to replace the Rush with standard Voodoo.

As to whether they are justified in their anger, is another problem. I've had trouble with the gamma settings -- hardly a big problem, and I mentioned it only in passing. From the response, you'd have thought I'd written personally to their partners, and derided their sexual prowess. You do not criticise Quake in print, if you wish to survive.

Next week, I think I'll write this under a nomme de guerre. It may be safer.

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