Guy Kewney's Diary

MondayIt's Y2K-scare day. A Sunday paper has discovered that 20 per cent of all PCs being sold in the shops are actually not Y2KOK; that is, when the Year 2000 strikes, they will get confused.

I have to nip up to a group of users in Nottingham, and explain it. Trouble is, I can't.

Well, the problem with the PC is that its clock is a very good example of a SNAFU; when IBM designed it, hard though it may be to believe this today, there was no real-time clock unless the thing was switched on. I remember AST becoming a big important firm when it invented a multi-purpose card called a SixPack, which included a battery-powered clock, which the system could consult when you switched it on. And then the PC would have the same time as the real-time battery clock, and if you changed the PC clock, the PC would change the battery clock.

But if the battery clock changed, and the PC didn't think it was worth asking it what the time was, they could get out of synch. And they still can; and there is still software - current, everyday software - which doesn't understand this. Among such programs is something called Windows 95. If you take your PC to America and change the Windows 95 "international" settings, all your diary references for lunch will be as much as eight hours early.

So it's very, very easy to screw up your Y2K tests. All you have to do is to do what this Sunday paper has apparently done. You go to a PC, and you turn it on. Then you go to the date and time controls under Windows 95, or other software, and set the clock to 11:55 on Dec 31 1999. Then you wait 10 minutes.

Now, what will happen in this case is rather a lottery. Most likely, the PC will simply go haywire, because the date won't be written 'through' both clocks for another 24 hours. What I mean is that if you really want to do this test, you must set the clock to nearly midnight on December 30, a whole day before the last day of the millennium. It will cope with midnight OK, and then it will (probably) cope with the end of the year, century and millennium without hiccup. Or not, as the case may be: but the fact is that if you haven't got 25 hours to run the test in, the test isn't worth much, because that isn't what is going to happen at the end of the year 1999.

I have tried to explain this conundrum often enough to know I can't. Go check it out, though; I have several people writing in, saying how they're going steadily mad, with rogue PCs which exhibit this problem. One guy was in tears because he's been setting the clock of his NT server to today's date every day for the last month; and every day, he comes in 24 hours later to find that the clock shows yesterday. Then if he leaves it, the next midnight is OK and it adds a day to the date. So it still shows yesterday, but the new 'yesterday' if you see what I mean... and at this point he decided to be clever and set the clock to "tomorrow" and immediately, it managed the midnight transition perfectly; and the next "tomorrow" that came, the PC still showed 'tomorrow' - the new one.

Tuesday

Long ago, and far away, I used to be figurehead editor on a Mac newspaper, and one of my colleagues was a nice young woman with a mad technologist husband called Alex. His e-mail address (now defunct) was madalex, so I hope you'll accept that my claim that he was mad, was supported by evidence.

Alex and his wife and I were pretty good mates, in those long-lost days, and I vaguely recall the odd informal curry with the ritual beer consumption that often attends such ceremonies after work in Soho. But that was then, and now is now, and since Alex was an Archimedes guru, and since PC Magazine doesn't really write about Archimedes that often, I haven't seen him for a while.

What he's been doing, is getting into partnership with his brother Nico, and setting up a company - (full details) - all to do with cryptography and co-processors. At any rate, Mad Alex is now Respectable Alex, and has a PR company; and his PR company has decided that it would be a Good Thing for Alex and me to meet and discuss The Industry.

So they book a restaurant.

To enjoy the joke, you need to know that our offices are in the large brick slab that disfigures the picturesque mediaeval landscape around the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Specifically, if you stand on the South Bank of the Pool of London and take the obligatory tourist pic of the Bridge and the Tower, then International House is right in the middle of your picture. And the nearest cheap restaurants are the curry houses of Brick Lane, a 10 minute walk.

So the PR company asked where we should go for lunch, and I said I didn't care: a curry in Brick Lane? Oh no, they said, somewhere respectable. Well, Mad Alex is now Respectable Alex, as indicated earlier. So I sighed, and pointed out that if we walked across the bridge, we were in Conran Lane; the Pont de la Tour (Tower Bridge, ho ho ho) and the Chop House and so on. He (Terence) has dozens of ways of separating you from your money while providing elevated surroundings and not half bad food. So the PR company booked the Chop House, and I showed up, and waited.

About five minutes late, Alex arrives. He looks exactly the same as ever, except crosser. He's also on his own.

"Where's the PR company?" I ask him.

"Fired!" he says tersely. "I told them, if Guy wanted to go and have a curry, and they book us into an expensive rip-off join like this, then they're doing exactly the opposite of what I need to be done, and I don't need to buy them lunch just in order to meet my old friends. And..."

The afternoon is benchmark time.

We have this really rather nice antique notebook, a Toshiba T4400C, which I've borrowed from my friend, Kelvin. It's a very slow old 25MHz 486 with a 200 meg disk, and Evergreen Technologies say that they can improve it more than somewhat, by plugging in a AMD X5 processor and a new disk.

But "more than somewhat" is really not much to go on, is it. "What we need to know," says the editor sternly, "is how much faster?" Run the benchmarks, he says.

Everybody's a ruddy comedian, that's the trouble round here. What benchmarks, pray? This is a four-year-old machine; when it came out, we were running PC Bench 8.x, and storing the results in write-only databases. Well, that's what it looks like from here: Roger in the Labs and I spend a fruitless half hour in Lotus Notes, looking frantically for any reference to the 4400; what we find is absolutely nothing. We do find PCBench 8.0, and install that, and run it. Turns out to have a bug in the disk tests...

Anyway, I have this brainwave: Toshiba! They'll have test results going WAY, way back, won't they? I call the omniscient Val in Toshiba: "No, sorry. Back in 92/93, we didn't run the ZD Labs tests. We ran Norton."

Guess which Norton Utilities version is the one we don't have in our Labs library?

Well, heck; maybe I can't be specific about the actual performance improvements, but I can say it's more than twice as fast, right? and 1.2 gigabytes instead of 200 meg? Wonderful! And what does it cost?

It turns out that the machine came back from Evergreen Technologies in a box, without documentation, without invoice, and without data. The phone! Quick!

"I'm afraid Spencer Ecclestone has left Evergreen. He's gone to start up a small networking company, and he'll be building cheap PCs. No, we don't have a forwarding number. Tell you what, someone will call you back."

An emergency call to the PR company. "I'm afraid they don't employ us any more; when Spencer left, they decided they didn't need PR, and so they're apparently saving the money."

Another phone to Swindon and Evergreen: "Someone will call you back. They're on holiday..."

Wednesday

The plan was to have breakfast with IBM. The gods interfered: today was a day to stay at home and wait for a delivery.

So, the morning is given over to installation. First, installing an OverDrive chip. Then, an Oven.

The oven, of course, is seriously high responsibility work; a 30Amp device with more processing power than a microwave. It comes (naturally) with the wrong manual. It weighs a LOT and it's too big to lift by myself. Nonetheless, I manage to get the old oven out of the recess and into the skip, and the new oven into the recess, connected, tested and powered up, screwed down, and clean, in about half an hour.

The OverDrive is another matter. It's a dual-P5-90 server, and the plan is, to test Citrix Winframe. I'm assured that there's absolutely no point in replacing the 90MHz chips with 120MHz chips, and that the increase in speed will be minimal, and that what I really want to do, is to plug another 32 meg of RAM into it. This information all comes from the writings of one Guy Kewney, guru to the dissipated, and is validated by all the bastard operator types I've ever bought beer for. So, naturally, I pull the P5-90s out.

Alas: one of them is in a zero-insertion-force socket. The other, not.

You would think, wouldn't you, that all you have to do is line up the little gold pins and push. The OverDrive manual tells me this is the case. "However, if it isn't a ZIF socket, we strongly recommend getting professional help to install the OverDrive chip."

It is, according to my expert consultant ("I do that all the time, and almost never bend a pin") friend, a simple matter of confidence. Could one possible come up with a better way of phrasing the message: "You better not try, you're going to foul it up!"? I don't think so. After a half hour, I dive into the CIX online conf for advice: "Hit it with a hammer!" they say. And the plastic cooling fan glued to the top? "Hit it with a soft hammer, then!"

With friends like this, who needs enemies? I abandon the effort, and head off to a well-known clone builder out in the sticks, where the chief engineer says he doesn't mind doing it. A two-hour journey on clogged motorways; and when I get there, he's been called out. "But you can leave the machine here; he'll do it when he gets back. How much RAM have you got in it, by the way?"

Call me suspicious, but I feel my RAM is safer in the back of the Volvo, than on this guy's workbench. We head back home. Citrix testing is rescheduled for next week. . .

Thursday

Hectic. We start off with the Tina Awards for Technical Innovation.

Few ordinary people can afford to eat at Mossiman's Belfry, and so it's a prestige location. And so we hold the Tinas in Mossimans. You would think that a restaurant in the cusp, so to speak, of Knightsbridge and Belgravia, in the back garden of Buckingham Palace, would be something of a clue that money will have to change hands on an unusual scale. Indeed, I think the penny has dropped, because so many people have been invited that we are 10 to a table. Bruised knees...

Nonetheless, the PC Magazine Awards are greatly coveted, and apparently, well worth receiving. So they show up -- only one of the recipients performed a no-show at the moment of presentation, and I happen to know he was there for the breakfast.

Oh, yes, it is, breakfast. Most people have these things at dinner, and you have to wear a black tie, and pay for evening parking, and endure endless speeches, drunken jokes, and, inevitably, thank-you speeches.

The Tinas are blissfully innocent of this. We show up at 8.30am, and that's the only drawback (apart from the bruised knees, of course).

Friday

[Sigh]

"Read all about it! Upgrade your 486 to 586 level! It goes really quite a bit faster. And it costs a reasonable amount. Contact Evergreen Technologies.

Well, at the end of the week, that would be all I could tell you, if it were not for the glories of the Web. Off you go to http://www.evertech.co.uk/port-faq.html; where the frequently asked questions list will tell you what it costs, what portable you can upgrade, whether it's worth it. I have to say, the deal for me was well worth while, but the circumstances were somewhat unusual. Then again, a great many people offer the Evergreen upgrade, and they can indeed upgrade the vast majority of dying portables.

The week finishes with the mystery of Mike Newton. He used to run Dell in the UK. Dell in America has been growing at 50 per cent or better. In the UK, they projected only 25 per cent growth a year ago; and it looks (to me and my colleagues) as if that's what they achieved. And frankly, with a competitor like Compaq UK, which is significantly sharper and quicker than any other Compaq subsidiary, that was ambitious. But they achieved what they set out to achieve; and yet Mike Newton appears to have been given his marching orders. We place the obligatory call through to my old friend Michael Dell for an explanation: he is "unavailable." So it goes...

It's a funny old world, eh?

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