Guy Kewney's Diary

Monday

A great way to make you feel inadequate, is to get stuck into a presentation on complex technology -- preferably, something which you have been semi-ignoring for a while. You know, like wavelet compression, which you 'understand in general principle.'

Try 3D display, if you really want to get baffled.

This isn`t stereo, though there's another whole ball game to catch up on, there. You know the strange property of Scotch Light? It reflects any light back to its source, whatever angle it arrives from. Now, they're using this to create stereoscopic screens; you have two projectors, one for the left eye, one for the right. You set up a little eyeball monitor, and it works out where your pupils are, and then shines the light for each pupil from the right place.

Anyway, that's not what we're on about: we're talking Z buffers and texture units and parallel rendering and interlace interpolation -- and when the guy from 3DFX finally arrived to demo his Voodoo2 card(s) it got seriously embarrassing. I think I could have spent the entire session asking him to explain words which are mainly acronyms, for which I don't even understand the acronyms never mind know what they are.

The important thing, however, is that my state of mind is all too common. Three dimensional rendering has escaped from the cage. The conventional world has lost sight of it, and it's screwing up the PC platform royally.

And as indicated in a short aside, last week, my worst fears were fulfilled. This beast uses not just one extra PCI slot, but two.

The good news: Quake II already comes with a version that directly addresses Voodoo2, on the CD. The bad news: ID Software still can't manage to get a disc to us, and even worse, Voodoo2 won't be available till April. What is the point? Claimed performance is ten times faster than a Nintendo 64 and eight times faster than a Sony Playstation. Quake will run at 100 frames per second, the firm added. And? I can't have one! Waaah!

Tuesday

I gather that my colleagues who were not trying to fix an STB screen driver (I was trying to fix one) went to a CompuServe party, this day. Me, I spent the day uttering imprecations.

You recall that Monday was 3DFX day, and I remarked, in passing, that 3D has escaped? It's example time: I connected up my shiny new Gateway, which has an STB Nitro 3D display card, with STB Vision. I installed Laplink for Windows 95, connected it to the old 120 MHz beast, and shuffled all the files I wanted across. And then I went home. And there, needing some files, I dialled into the office machine.

On Laplink, all machines have names. I don't altogether approve of this: I have a colleague who is an inveterate PC name-giver. His preference is to give the machines names implying extreme potency, unusual processing power, remarkable capacity, or great expense. It's an exercise in what we techies call 'willy-waving' -- a programming term which wouldn't make sense outside object-oriented methods, and I won't bore you with a dissertation on it now, except to say that I am obliged to give the damn things names, and long experience has taught me not to follow my own instinct. If you ever get a big yacht, remember this; if your engine fails outside Dover and you have to call the Harbour Master up on VHF radio, you don't want to endure the giggles that will greet: "Fancy Panty, Fancy Panty, I'm suffering stuck gusset!"

So I'll draw a quick veil over the time I named one machine with the epithet that its behaviour tempted me to apply to it, and then had to tell a remote support rep what it was...

In the game of Quake, there are (for reasons one can only guess at) pools of lava. They aren't the sort of messy, congealing pumice you find in volcanoes. No, these are nice tidy pools of lava, maintained at the correct lethal temperature year-round by hidden thermal control processes. Fall into one of these, and the dispassionate robot which monitors your progress through the game will report on the cause of death: "Guy visits the Volcano God" it will say dryly. Or: "Guy turned into hot slag." In an effort to pre-empt this, I normally play Quake under the name Hot Slag which serves the dual purpose of making my colleagues think I'm a woman of loose behaviour, and of concealing the amount of time I spend congesting the office network. It also makes the game robot report that HOT SLAG TURNED INTO HOT SLAG, which appeals to my warped mind. And the new machine, perhaps inevitably, has acquired the same name.

Hot Slag, when I started Remote Control, displayed a completely black screen. I've seen this before, where the palette was confused into selecting 16 colours, all black. On this occasion, however, it became clear that the matter was rather more serious. And my suspicions, as I sat at my home desk pounding the surface of the keyboard, were that the STB display wasn't obeying standard Windows calls.

Wednesday

A day spent trying to work out what IBM thinks it is doing.

The local PC company, now known as Personal Systems (a bid for the nostalgia vote?) has worked itself into a corner with the varnish brush. I'll pay tribute to an old colleague, here: John Lettice of Microscope, who summarised the company's problem as 'imitating Compaq, but imitating the appearance, not the underlying reality.'

The difference is rather important. If you have a rival magician, and he's pulling all the crowds with a remarkable illusion whereby he saws his attractive female assistant in half, it really is quite crucial that you correctly analyse his advantage over you. If you think to steal the crowds back by taking an axe to a scantily clad bimbo, rather than studying the illusion and producing a better one, you will certainly make the headlines. But not, I think, the headlines you want.

The strange thing is, I rather think Compaq came dangerously close to pulling the same trick in imitating Dell, but managed to work out what the real trick was.

Otherwise, to be honest, Wednesday was too busy. I must have been too busy, really, to recall what I was up to. Beyond, that is, visiting the Travelling Software web site for help with the wretched STB card.

My worse fears were realised. 'Black screens occur when Remote DeskLink is unable to correctly send video information across the connection. There can be several reasons for this, but the primary reason is that the video driver on the HOST computer is not Windows 95-certified.'

Not only does the STB bypass the standard Windows GDI which is the approved Windows way of sending system calls to the display card: it's worse than that. Some card makers, approached by Travelling Software, agreed that ultra-fast 3D rendering was irrelevant to a remote user, and have written new drivers, which allow you to switch the card into GDI mode. STB, however, told Travelling Software to get lost; they have more important stuff to do, like trying to catch up with 3DFX, in short. Fat chance, I suspect.

But the result is that in order to use my super-fast STD card, I have to set it into 8-bit, 800 by 600 mode. Frankly, I'd rather throw the thing away, and use a Voodoo Rush card -- perhaps even a Hercules Voodoo Rush.

Oh, yes; that reminds me! I took an awful lot of flack, a couple of months back, from readers, who told me I was an ignorant fool for slagging off the Hercules Stingray as a Quake display. I now gather from inside 3DFX that when the Voodoo2 cards appear, it is unlikely that Hercules will be one of their partners. In short, they seem to agree with me. Odd, eh? Perhaps the guys at 3DFX are ignorant fools, too?

Thursday

A fascinating day, involving the Salutation Consortium (see Kewney's World) and some satellite Web technology from Adaptec. It should also have included an Oracle briefing, and a Digital Equipment backgrounder. And I can explain everything... like this: It's going to be Xmas soon, and if anybody is planning to send little tokens of esteem, can I just say: 'Socks!'?

Let me elaborate. It may take a moment, but stick with me; it will all make sense. See, I do try not to get my family to play too many of the roles in this diary, but today, there's simply no way to avoid it. And my socks come into the story. Not that I'm blaming my wife for getting caught in the downpour that struck London around 8 AM... indeed, if anybody is going to get 'blame' it's me, for booking too damn many appointments. But I really do think that I'd have managed it, a bit late from one venue to the next perhaps, but getting there in time to shake hands and collect the press pack, if the water hadn't arrived. And if I had more socks.

People do accuse Brits of talking about the weather. That's because we have so much of it. Someone (Lord Avebury) once foolishly remarked that 'there's really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.' An idiot. He certainly wasn't trying to get to the Tube Thursday morning.

Me, I wasn't actually out in it. I was struggling to finish off a couple of bits of writing for The Vampire, Manek, who was sweeping about the office in a fine Victorian flourish, cape flying, goatee sinister, eyes gimlet-bright, shouting: 'Copy! Where's all the copy you writers promised me for yesterday?' So there's me, trying to cut and paste a clipboard from my remote-controlled office display, visible at last! -- to an article we're concocting from assorted Microsoft mischief witnessed by our own reporters, plus paragraphs 'quoted' from our stringers (PC Week staff, in fact) in the US. And the door starts emitting soggy noises. And they turn out to be the return of my good lady, drenched.

Outside the surf, I haven't often seen a wetter human than my wife was then. She handed me the contents of her pocket, including a tissue which, I swear, was dripping drops of water onto the kitchen floor as she passed it over. There was, in short, no way of getting her to work without a complete change of clothes, and it turns out she needs a second overcoat, for this sort of emergency, because when we got hold of her spare, it had fed too many moths to be used again. And at the end of the process, when I'd finally sorted out the traditional hot drink and comforting words of encouragement and farewell, I found she'd gone off in my last pair of dry socks.

You see, the trouble with socks is that nobody will wrap them up in Xmas paper, because they are 'boring.' But the same objection doesn't apply, somehow, when it comes to borrowing them. Given the choice between spending the night at the Maxwell Club, or getting home early and washing one's socks, the average Physics student in this house will opt for staying out late, and borrowing a pair of Dad's. And yes, they do get returned, but singly. In short, I am. Short, that is, of socks. And yes, I'll happily wear a pair of commercially sponsored socks, even with a Microsoft logo on.

Anyway, that is how it was that I arrived (late) at my first appointment, Salutation, around the time I had hoped to have reached my second. And the third I could only have reached if I'd blown out the fourth, which was lunch (this is sacred to me). And anyway, it was Important.

Friday

Truly, the less said, the soonest mended. How about: The Office Party? How about: I fell downstairs while racing the dog for the post? How about: the office PC started a megasulk? and refused to answer the phone? I am fairly sure this is another vengeful blow by the STB card, by the way. I don't think they tested it properly in superVGA mode. Can I just say: don't get one?

Thank you.

The plan was, to install a SuperDisk in my nice shiny new 266 MHz Gateway P2. Craig Hatter, who has the enviable email address of chatter@nexusp.com, was meant to arrive and help me take it out of the old box and check that it worked in the new one. Having a scrunched knee knocked that on the head. It also knocked the Office Party on the head, for me; I spent the day trapped in my upstairs office at home, wishing I'd got the dosh for a stair lift. Ah well; it's that time of year.

We can't count the morning wasted, though: IBM's public relations agency was doing a ring-round to find out what prominent Journalists think of IBM's press relations.

It was nice, actually, to be able to go on the record with both good things and bad; but the best was the opportunity to say what a truly horrible, bizarrely incompetent, Byzantinely complex system the company operates for loan equipment.

This is probably only of marginal importance for the rest of the world, but it matters to me! In a nutshell, I can't buy five machines a week, just to see how fast they run. I rely on the fact that I can borrow the things. Now, there are those who won't. And seriously, I don't have a problem with people who don't want to lend equipment to journalists. I myself won't do it; journalists are lax, careless, ham-fisted and elusive. If you lend them something -- and I include myself in this generalisation -- it may never come back, and if it does, you may wish it hadn't. There's a well-known engineer's Saying: 'If it aint broke, don't fix it.' In PC Magazine, we have a similar saying: 'If it aint broke, it aint been tested in PC Mag UK Labs.'

But there's a huge difference between: 'You can't have one of our PCs because you'll steal it' -- which is fair enough -- and 'Of course! We'd be delighted to lend you one of our PCs! Please, just ask, and we'll do it! Which one?' followed up by a six month battle with a bureaucracy that makes Cairo seem informal. The IBM loan pool, in short, is run by the Loan Pool Manager, with the objective of making the life of the Loan Pool Manager simple. The fact that it might, conceivably, be a good plan to let writers see what IBM does as an exercise in building good relations, clearly, is a fact for which there isn't a part number in his inventory.

Enough, already; I think they may be getting the message. But I bet all I get out of it is: not even a pair of IBM socks.

Oh and one final thing: if it was you who rang me around 10.30 and left voice-mail saying: 'I'm sorry, I can't do any more interviews this week, but call me back and we'll see if we can sort out something else,' I am happy to do so. But next time, leave your name and phone number?