Guy Kewney's Diary

Monday

Locked into the same dark room, trying to find lost spreadsheet data. "What same dark room?" you ask. Ah yes, of course, you won't know about last week, because I didn't get around to doing a diary, due to illness. Well, that was it, really: locked into a dark room with Excel, trying to find cells. Except for Friday, when I went to bed for the weekend.

Excel. I don't know... is there a curse on this wretched program? I'm seriously starting to think there might be. Just wait while I list the disasters.

First, you have the caveats. Things tend to go wrong with Excel and me, because I hate the thing. Not because it's a nasty program; quite the opposite. It's the fact that I only use it to track my business expenses, and off the top of my head, I can't think of anything at all, which I like less than finance. It's a phobia, no less.

All I have to do is sit down with a pile of bills and receipts, and my mind instantly fills with demonic images. I see bank managers saying; "We are not prepared to discuss this." I see finance directors saying: "This has to be done by Tuesday, and that's not negotiable." I see budget managers saying: "The handwriting on this taxi receipt is clearly your own, and we're arresting you for fraud."

I'm far from unique in this. In reality, of course, none of these things ever happen (well, hardly ever!) and when we phobics finally type in the data and present it to the Financial Authorities, they basically check the arithmetic, and pass it on. But I can never actually believe this; and it can become insane, watching myself avoid the job of loading the .XLS worksheet. Last week I managed to completely tidy my home office, throw away 15 large plastic bin liner bags full of old software and broken bits of hardware (how about five EGA display cards? Two eight-bit UART cards? That sort of thing...) and then set up and install OS and software on four PCs, two of which were notebooks. I also managed to transfer some of the data from my old PC to the new one.

And there was the disaster, you see. There's a kind of natural law of the universe which says that if you have a backup, it will be in perfect nick for months, unless and until you lose the hard disk. At that point, the backup mechanism will also fail.

So it was with me.

It was the process of transferring all my spreadsheet data from the old PC to the new one which went wrong. The reason it went wrong, was that this was the backup. Normally, I keep all this data on my own PC at home, and back it up onto my portable. That way, not only do I have two copies of the data, but they are rarely in the same room.

It naturally follows that when the home PC died (and I do mean, died -- no electricity on the motherboard, scrambled hard disk) and I attempted to transfer the data onto the new PC from the notebook, somehow I managed to delete the entire MS Office directory instead of transferring it. I simply don't know how you do this. If you asked me to do it, I'd be puzzled. But it managed it all by itself; I moved all the data from the Ameol directory OK, and then started out on the Office stuff, only to find that the Office directory didn't exist.

So this Monday (back on track!) I was still looking, in vain, for other copies of the data. Five, maybe six worksheets, laboriously entered last July, and postponed till now. All gone. I sometimes back them up onto the office machine but, it seems, I haven't done this on the new office machine. Another mystery. I sometimes back them up into a file list on CIX, but again, this time, that hasn't happened.

And I spent the whole of Monday vainly trying to force myself to enter the data in again, and the demon voices.

Tuesday

That accounted for Tuesday, too. Well, that, and the voice non-recognition business.

Daft though it may seem, there's a market for voice recognition software that doesn't work. Here's how it goes: Auralog, a French company, noticed that people with French accents couldn't use standard voice recognition software, because the computer didn't understand them. They instantly realised how valuable this was.

You or I would have thrown the voice software in the bin, with an imprecation. Not Jean Richen's outfit. The company has just sold hundreds of packages to the Spanish educational system in Andalusia. The way they looked at it, the problem with funny accents was the key to a new market: "If this only recognises correctly pronounced words, we can use it to tell people when they are speaking incorrectly!"

And so they released Talk to Me in 1995. All it does is tell you what to say in learning a new language, and then insist that you keep saying it until you get it right. So your average Frog, trying to say "Ardweir" will be encouraged to say "Hardware" and your typical Yank, trying to say "Logickial" will be gently led through to "Logiciel" -- the French word for "software".

What I gather they can't do, or haven't chosen to do, is to provide the Equity-approved version, for struggling soap-opera actors. "Taich yissewf Easlunnon" would be really useful for two or three supposed inhabitants of Albert Square; and "D'ye ken hoo?" would have saved generations from the belief that Star Trek had a dolpin engineer from California with a speech impediment, instead of a Scott. But I suspect the technology will never be adequate to teach Canadians a New York accent, or vice versa.

The nice thing about translation software, of course, is that you can indulge in this little xenophobic exhibition, without attracting opprobrium. At least, I'm hoping this is the case... And actually, the thing is called TaLk to Me with italics in the middle as well as the aberrant capital "L" -- but that's marketing, I guess. Details: not on the Web, darn it, but in Paris you phone Jean Richen, Sales and marketing , on +33 1 30 64 92 92

Wednesday

"What do you think of the news about Digital?" said a colleague, ringing me to find out if I was ever going to leave the spreadsheet and come in to the office. I was utterly baffled. Digital?

It turns out that the story I wrote about six years ago, explaining what a good idea it would be for Digital to merge with Compaq, has finally turned into reality. Time to emerge from my self-imposed purdah, and leave the world of financial skull-duggery: I ring up a City broker friend, for his feedback.

"Yes, amazing, and what is this going to do to Computacenter?" A very good question, because I rather think they distribute both Compaq and Digital PCs and servers.

The new toy of the week is the Option clip-on for my Palm Pilot, which connects me to my GSM phone. It's a tiny box, mentioned in this column before, and containing more power than circuitry; it takes two AAA cells, and drives the serial port and buffers that slow the Pilot down to the 9600 bits a second of the GSM data service.

In theory, it also does Short Message Service and fax -- but it's cleverer than I am. "An error occurred while sending (Error: 330). The Option office in the UK is in Basingstoke. They go home by the time I'm convinced I've got a problem. Wait till tomorrow, I guess.

The normal routine chore with a Pilot is updating the data on the PC from the Pilot and vice versa. That couldn't be simpler. Just press the button on the Option box, and it dials the number, connects, and spends about two quid's worth of time sending the data at about 2% of the normal speed. An obvious benefit for mankind!

Thursday

The Computacenter story isn't at all clear, and the stats are not easy to find. The trouble is that they are supposed to be hard to find, because the company is preparing a stock market flotation of some kind. In these circumstances, there are disclosure requirements, but also non-disclosure requirements.

The company is one of the remarkable successes of the PC business. Most distributors tended to come and go in the early days; a few of the pioneers then developed into large successful businesses -- Northamber, Fraser Associates, Technology, Pete and Pam (P&P Micro) -- but ComputaCenter was remarkable for its clarity of vision. It was founded by two graduates of the American business school ethic, both Brits who'd gone over to study in the Boston area; and from day one, they were going to be big. And they were.

But it's hard to see how the projections for sales, based on last November's predicted business in both Compaq and Digital equipment, can continue unchanged now that it looks like being the same company. For people working inside Compaq, and inside Digital, the question is whether they will have jobs in six months, as the overlapping bits get smoothed out. For the people at Computacenter, the question is what this does to the prospectus for shareholders.

That's the question. Getting the answers is going to take more than one or two phone calls. I did call round one or two of the other distributor companies, and asked them what they thought; it seems that few of them have actually put the same two and two together. Typical reaction: "Oh, so that's what's going on! Ah ha! It all falls into place..." Great; but when asked "What, exactly, is falling into place?" they all went "mumble, mutter, call me back tomorrow, mumble" -- and I suspect some intelligent quasi-insider stock trading resulted. If I only had the money, eh?

Friday

After trying (and failing) to get some online guru to explain the Universal Serial Bus to me, one of my colleagues asked me if I'd been into any Internet chat rooms. The sad answer is: no, I never had. "You should try some of the Spanish ones," he said.

I don't speak Spanish worth a damn. Yo no hablo valor de espanol una maledicion, you might say if you were guessing. I know that, because, shamed by my lack of experience in chat, and inspired by the Auralog example, I found an online translation service for chat. It almost makes Internet chat worth while.

The "almost" is a matter of taste, of course -- or lack of taste. People online talking about bits of their anatomy that are softer than their teeth may be what you love. On the other hand, Diplomat is one of those translation concepts which is very, very clever, but requires you to be almost as clever yourself. Do not indulge in metaphor, jargon, puns, or other linguistic felicitudes; it will all come out scrambled.

On the other hand, this does permit you to curse -- as Caliban told Prospero: "You taught me language, and my profit on it, is I know how to curse. The red plague rot you for teaching me your language!"

Usted me enseno el idioma y mi ganancia en el ys yo se maldecir. La putrefaccion de la plaga roja usted por ensenarme idioma.

It sort of works --

My Option box still won't send Vodafone Short Message Service messages to anybody but me. I ring Option in Basingstoke; they say someone will call from Belgium, the head office. While I'm on the phone, someone calls from Belgium, saying that he will call again, but not leaving either his name, or phone number. I check Option Basingstoke: the Basingstoke exchange is dead. I hope I don't read about this in the evening papers on the way home. It'll all just have to wait till next week, I guess. And isn't technology wonderful?

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