It is a mistake to put your machine on a high-FAT diet, but that's what I did this weekend. My technique was beautifully simple: do a file transfer at the same time as a directory update. The File Allocation Table got eaten.
If you want the details, it goes like this: very smugly, I back up my home machine to the office, and vice-versa. It means that I always have two copies, and no need to go and dig out tapes.
The drawback, of course, is when the backup goes wrong; then you have no backups. So I do that onto the notebook. Easy, and usually foolproof, right? Except for the last three weeks, for no obvious reason that I can recall, I found myself doing remote control operations. This means: instead of importing all the data from the office, I actually ran the software on the data at the office, with me sitting at home. Well, the weather was right for that...
So in the middle of the first backup after that long delay, I noticed that (stupidly) I'd actually copied some of the data into the wrong directory, and that this meant I was about 50Mb short (with 250Mb of useless information) of what I would be comfortable with. So I deleted the directory.
"Enter the name of your command interpreter - e.g. C:\WINDOWS\COMMAND.COM" said the PC primly. Yes, everything was scrambled, folks. And because the scrambling occurred during the transfer, the scrambled files had over-written the good ones.
Next mistake: of COURSE I had a boot disk. It included the Microsoft CD Extensions (MSCDEX.EXE) and Dos and config.sys and autoexec.bat and several important Dos utilities. For some reason, MSCDEX wouldn't run.
So I carefully replaced the corrupt version by copying it from my notebook. Mistake! Even bigger mistake, because of course, what I *should* have done was to copy the disk first, and over-write the *new* disk. Oh, dear, oh dear. I still can't believe I did that; anyway, what was happening was very simple, and it's called diskette rot. Bits of magnetic material, in short, were flaking off the surface.
I did check the diskette afterwards. It has been recycled by sticking new labels on each time it was reformatted, and I pulled about five labels off. The bottom one read: "Amstrad 2386 System Disk 2". Some of you people were still at school when that machine was pensioned off.
The Inland Revenue wrote to me, about self-assessment. I wouldn't want you to run away with the notion that this caused me any anxiety. I made a warding gesture, to deal with any Evil Eye radiation, and put it in a sanitised envelope to send to my accountant. And I thought: "This will be an interesting thing to ask Scott Cook about over lunch."
Scott is known in computer legend circles as "the man who turned down Bill Gates". In fact, he didn't turn Bill down; Microsoft tried to take over Intuit, but the US Government said it couldn't. And so Quicken continues to outsell Microsoft Money.
Interestingly, Quicken is not what people think. It's a "personal finance" package for keeping track of home spending but, in fact, most people who use it run their small businesses with it. And the other surprise is that only 15 per cent of Intuit's revenue comes from it: the big seller is QuickBooks, a simple accounting package. And it's the new version of QuickBooks that Scott wants to tell me about.
No, it doesn't do Self-Assessment. Quicken will do that but not yet, and the reason is simple enough: nobody in the accounting business has been able to, because the Inland Revenue has taken until last week to decide what the forms should have on them. I gather there have been five revisions since January...
What it does, is rather neat. It configures itself. You start up QuickBooks, and it won't take an order, won't record an invoice, won't accept a billing. It wants to interview you. How big is your company? how many staff? do you charge VAT? do you invoice people? do you hold stock? how many stock items? - each question multiple choice. At the end, you get a QuickBooks version that's right for you. Well, that's the theory. As I said, it's not that finance makes me anxious, I merely leave that sort of thing to my exorcist.
Who better to buy your breakfast than Kelloggs? So I headed, early early in the morning, to Covent Garden, to Bedford Street, headquarters of Gateway 2000 in the UK. Kelloggs was providing breakfast as a way of publicising its "Breakfast Briefing" - http://www.kelloggs.co.uk/bbb/index.html -- and you'll be told: "The Breakfast Briefing is a free e-mail based news service bought to you by Kelloggs in conjunction with The Press Association. It is a personal service, and you can choose exactly what you do and don't want to receive from a choice of national news, sport, business, television and weather information."
A devastatingly attractive marketing expert from the US (and Canada) pours me a bowl of fruit and cornflakes. "I'm experiencing a personal renaissance," she informs me buoyantly, "ever since I arrived in the UK in January, and starting eating breakfast every morning."
I swear, I'm not making this up.
A nostalgic trip; Gateway, the cow-based PC company from Sioux City, is trying to recover its roots. It started off about five years ago with a startlingly aggressive pricing policy with the first 60 MHz Pentium machines. At the time, I prophesied that its pricing policy would become less suicidal once it was established as a respectable supplier - a remark that the UK head then took issue with. "This is our pollicy, not an attention-getting device," he told me.
"Nonsense," I retorted, "it's like that famous press conference, where Sophia Loren was complaining about Marilyn Monroe's shamelessly loose blouse; she started out doing topless poses herself, but once she was a respectable actress, she disapproved of that sort of thing. And you'll disapprove, too, once you're respectable."
Turns out I wasn't wrong, but it's not something today's Gateway managers like to be reminded of. So I pop around occasionally bully them into upgrading my system (yes, I do use a Gateway box) and pull their corporate legs. "How are things in Sue City?" I quipped gaily, referring to their latest legal manoeuvrings.
Apparently, that isn't funny, either.
Another accounting firm, Sage, is also not doing Personal Assessment.
Actually, I got a lot more out of lunch with them, but my goodness me: accountants aren't people to push the envelope, are they? They were explaining, quite seriously, how quite a lot of their customers "will install this new Sovereign for Windows version on only 80 per cent of their PCs, because the rest still run Dos."
Apparently, that's the proportion of new sales of Sovereign that still go into Dos machines. "Oh yes, but that's hardly surprising. We'll sell quite a few Windows versions to people who are running 386 machines, and just for data entry, that's all you need."
It occurred to me that the obvious thing for buyers of data-entry Sovereign software, would be a network computer. "Well, there's no demand for that," said Sage.
Apparently, some accountants are thinking of installing these new-fangled 486s soon...
A futile effort, trying to get Kodak to admit they're finally launching a decent digital camera. Back in November, I carried a digital camera around Comdex in Las Vegas and came back with 100 photos of no earthly use to anybody. Today, exactly as anybody could predict (unless swamped by a quicksand of wishful thinking) anybody who bought one of the cameras on sale then, will be kicking themselves.
The standard 'high' resolution PC camera in those days gave 640 x 480 pixels - or worse. In five short months, the standard has trebled: Kodak has announced a major breakthrough in resolution for digital cameras, with the US launch of a sub-$1,000 DC120 model, with megapixel storage per shot.
But the fact that this is all over the US trade press doesn't impress the mandarins at Kodak UK, who swear that "all available new product information is on our Web site." All I want is the UK price, guys.
So on to lunch with another angry IT manager, who is trying to make sense of Microsoft Office 97.
Poor fellow, he thought that when Microsoft said that "new versions of Word and Excel and PowerPoint will be able to export files in formats for Office 95" that they would produce Office 95 format files. He has discovered that this is an option you can select, yes; but what they actually do is to produce Rich Text Format. So embedded OLE objects get turned into bitmaps. And other oddities; PowerPoint background graphics that are full screen get saved as tiled mini-images. And you can take some files and say "Save in Office95 format" and then say "reload" and it simply won't reload.
We spend some of the afternoon trying to get someone at Microsoft to answer the phone. They do good music, eh?
Nicest product of the week: ClickBook; originally from BookMaker Corporation. It's now a £30 product from ForeFront.
The program is beautifully simple: a Windows version of Booklet - which was a Dos utility to turn a string of text into a print schedule for double-sided printing in A5 half-page format. Pocket sized, you see. ClickBook is now a much better price, I can't help noticing, for version 2.0 which is a rather better product, suitable for Mac and PC. In fact, what on earth is ForeFront doing, peddling a little utility like this?
Inside the package, all is revealed: "Once you've printed your booklet, you'll need a stapler!" - and BookMaker Corporation is selling big multi-page extended spine binder staplers "worth $90" for a mere $70. Offer valid only US, says the brochure, so I ring them: "Oh no, we're selling them here in the UK. Do you want one?"
Software as marketing materials? Well, don't say I didn't warn you it would happen. I did.