The robot was swimming. It was a tank full of pipes in City University, Hong Kong, and the idea is to see if you can beam ultra-sound down the pipe to control the robot while it potters merrily about, repairing the walls. And it was, of course, my wife's fault.
The holiday is over: we returned from a visit to California, Auckland and Hong Kong which included almost as many days working as relaxing. And as I said, it was not my idea to end up working; it was the other party to the trip who wanted to see Hong Kong "before the Territory reverts to China" and before I knew it, I was booked up to my ears in research projects and pirated software.
It turns out that one or two technology trends are well-established in the Far East, and show no sign of appearing here yet. The most obvious one is "Video CD".
This is NOT DVD. Digital video is another matter, and some way off still. There are even those who are quietly predicting that it may never happen. Video CD, however, is much simpler. It's the inclusion of MPEG circuitry in standard CDs. And the Golden Arcade, where all Hong Kong's finest stolen software is to be purchased for $40 (Hong Kong dollars, that is, worth about 8p each) the days of software appear to be over.
What the pirates are selling is movies. For the standard $HK40, you can buy almost anything that Hollywood has produced. The titles I saw there were not yet out on video and sometimes not even out on general release. But they were packaged as standard music CD-ROM, and if you had a CD with the ability to output video, you plugged it straight into a TV.
And do you have standard video output? Yes. Almost every CD device I saw there, from computer peripherals to ordinary ghetto-blaster boxes, sported the "CD-VIDEO" sticker, and had a video output port.
Quality of these movies isn't as good as DVD will be. But it can be startlingly good. If the master from which it's compressed is a digital master, then it will be at least as good as VHS tape. Obviously, copies taken from VHS originals (there were lots!) will be no better than VHS, and indeed, some were poor. But at three for $HK 100, VHS can't easily compete because CDs can be printed in mass, while VHS tapes have to be recorded in real time.
Piracy was an issue, for a while, in the Territory.
Software piracy is policed by the same officials who have to track illegal drugs and arms smugglers. A few months ago, there was a major software piracy seminar in Hong Kong's conference centre and as a result someone important decreed that there'd be a clean-up. All the drugs and arms guys suddenly showed up in the Golden Arcades, and confiscated all the stuff. Some fines were levied.
Then the software tribe moved out of town, and the customs officials were sent hastily back to the important job of hustling drugs and arms dealers.
Out of curiosity, I picked up a copy of Tomb Raider (3D action) for my three quid's worth of Hong Kong money. The package appears to be a photographic rip-off of the original and the disc inside makes no concessions to aesthetics, being a blank, unpainted CD with the words Tomb Raider stamped on one side. So far, there are no obvious signs that it doesn't work. Am I surprised?
Long ago and far away, when Sir Clive Sinclair was still Uncle Clive, Robin Bradbeer was a lecturer in computer studies at North London Polytechnic. Robin shot off to Hong Kong as a consultant to Sinclair, among others, and made a comfortable living in that territory until several of his bigger customers here in the UK went bust around 1989 in the recession. At a loss for anything except an honest living, he started doing projects for City University in Hong Kong, and ended up as associated professor in the department of electronic engineering: will find him.
His most famous project before he left was the BBC Computer book and his most notorious was the founding of a company called Intergalactic Robots. His dream was to build a lawn mower that didn't cut flowers, didn't fall into the pond, and didn't use mains power. It would sit on the grass, and trundle around whenever it had enough solar-power charge to do so, nipping grass leaves. Most of the year, the grass would be mostly cut.
For reasons which the future will shed light on (Robin says) the established lawn mower companies killed the funds. Unkind souls have whispered in my ear suggestions: that they rely on the traditional Spring ditty:
"Spring is come
The grass is riz.
I wonder where
the mower is?" In short, people replace lost and broken mowers quite frequently, and a reliable beast would put these suppliers out of business in two years. Well, that's a theory; if it's Robin's theory, he isn't saying. What he is saying is that his robotics ideas are still leading edge, and he has a million pounds of research projects to prove it. For example, his sponsorship of the MicroMouse contest continues; and he's now doing the Robot Ping Pong tournament. I remember the Ping Pong tournament. It was notorious for the first ever gathering, where the winner was the robot which was able to get the ball over the net. Serving, that was; nobody in the game ever returned serve. These days, says Robin, things are much more advanced. At the last championship there was a 12-stroke rally. And commercial robot applications are emerging rapidly. Hence my fascination with the swimming robot in the underwater pipes. I gather we'll hear more of these things. Me, I just want the mowbot... Oh, and I saw some neat stuff in New Zealand, too; but the stuff was all a commercial Web site, and it's all supposed to be a secret for another month or two. More about that another time. Monday Finally, back at work. Jetlag at max, I find my PC is no longer on the net. The LAN, that is; but it's the same thing. I can't reach the Internet via modem, not since I installed the New Beautiful MSN and broke dial-up networking. The LAN is serious. An occupational hazard of being a PC software reviewer is that you end up plugging a lot of random things into your system. Some of them have cables. Under my desk, therefore, are about 27 different wires, all engaged in some kind of apparent copulation, and all desperately urgently plugged into equipment at one end, and the floor or wall at the other. The thought does cross my mind: "Let's ask UK IT to sort this out." One look under the desk is enough to cure this thought of the folly of venturing out of its corner alone again. It runs, screaming silently, into darkness. It turns out that the Dell machine, my NT Server box, was connected to the LAN at a time when we didn't have mini-hubs. It is, believe it or not, on Cheapernet coax. And this means one wire coming from the floor socket, and another wire going back. The wire coming from the socket is about 3 metres long. The socket is about one metre away, so this causes some tangle. It is, however, nothing compared to the tangle that the other, 30-metre cable is causing... The cable resists untangling efforts until 8.30 that evening. This makes it 4.30am Hong Kong... Tuesday Hewlett-Packard, as everybody vaguely remembers, is a joint contributor to Intel's next processor project, which is the 64-bit chip. It will be at least another two years before we are using these machines; but when they do appear, HP will have its own variant, which will run both Intel NT code and HP-UX (Unix) code. A project like this can't wait until it's successful before being launched and promoted, obviously, and HP is doing that now. This involves a lot of serious "strategic" announcing about integration of solutions; an opportunity for a quick kip, as we Industry Observers say. But more interestingly, HP has also discovered something else: digital cameras. Now, the HP camera is nothing special; a 640 by 480 Konica engine which has no zoom and little resolution, just like everyone else's. It does have the Miniature Flash cartridge which Intel is promoting. But who cares? The important thing, says HP, is the printer. And it is promoting - heavily - a new printer which is ideal for the home user of digital cameras. Eliminate the dark-room. An interesting idea. My own take on digital cameras remains what it was back in November. That is, they are improving in quality very fast, and dropping in price even faster; and anything you buy now you'll be sorry you bought by Xmas. But they are fashionable, it seems. And the printer is a good idea, because, of course, you can download other people's digital images and print them. It's going to be launched "shortly" and I'm not allowed to mention its name. Wednesday Motorola launches a modem. It's a modem with a difference: it's for GSM phones. Does it work? Apparently. It would be hard to be sure: cleverly, Motorola's publicity genius-in-charge books Quaglino's for the launch. There, underground, there is no mobile phone signal. Not that it matters much. Motorola also doesn't have any sample Cellect cards. Lunch is nice, though; a private room at Quag's is much better than the ghastly chrome refectory that they've put in. I gather they have a diner-friendly policy of giving you two hours to eat, and then your table is needed... Thursday The question of why GSM phones don't work in odd places is one that makes the UK seem really third-world. In Hong Kong, in mountainous terrain and incredibly hostile surroundings (literally thousands of high-rise buildings and millions of electronic and electrical items going back to the invention of the thermionic valve) everybody has a GSM phone. I mean, everybody; I didn't see one schoolkid without a GSM phone. And they are ringing. You're in the elevator? The phone rings. You're in an underground car park? It rings. You're in the tube (the MTR)? It rings. Amazing. The cost of a call, there, is about a third of what Cellnet or Vodafone will charge in London, and yet C and V can't sponsor London Transport to provide a signal underground. The underground, there, is five times as busy and bustling as London Underground, but MTR can afford underground micro-cells, and LU cannot. I bump into an old colleague, Paul Lavin. He lives in the Three Rivers area, and doesn't take kindly to talk of Third World conditions. "Have you read about the parasites in our water?" he asks me, enraged. I decide not to irritate him unnecessarily by talking about London's crumbling transport and comms structure. Friday Microsoft has found a voice-clone of Bill Gates! He's Chinese by descent, and his name is Richard Tong; he looks nothing like Bill. But shut your eyes... the same high-pitched, enthusiastic and reedy tenor, the same Seattle vowels, the same rapid-fire technobabble. Unlike Bill, however, Richard appears to be able to say things that don't conform to Official Reality. Entertainingly, he also appears to be able to hear what he says... Well, it's like this. We all know (don't we?) that Microsoft is launching Windows NT 5.0 "this summer." [Note to Editor: can we include a little Shockwave plugin here, with the sound of immoderate hysteria?] And of course, we know that the phrase "this summer" is a technical one, involving indirect indexed addressing. It refers to an internal Microsoft document holding a reference to a calendar application which has an array of numbers approximating to dates. What is actually happening, of course, is that Microsoft is working on getting a first beta of NT 5.0 ready for this summer. If the beta actually works, they will try to move on to "massive beta testing" (Tong's words) "at a subsequent date." We can do the maths, if you like. I recall that "industry observer" Jon Honeyball, the man with more contacts in Redmond than Steve Ballmer has, first said that "Chicago is stable" about 18 months before Windows 95 could be shipped. And Honeyball, last week, said that he did not believe Microsoft projections about NT 5.0 so we're looking at something like 24 months before it ships, in my humble opinion. Reinforcing this we have trivial factors like: it will use a completely new object file store, it will be based on Internet domain name server technology, and it will re-locate all the PC configuration information into objects on the server directory. Piffling stuff, hardly any need to test that, you might feel. Yes, but it will also use Outlook 97. Outlook 97 is the core, the heart, and the mainspring of what Richard Tong is in London to demonstrate: Exchange Server 5.0, which went to production this week, and will ship this month for £775. And believe me, it's utterly unlike anything you've ever used in Windows before, with a completely new user interface, lots of new "helpful" ideas... in short, it could be some time before this is integrated into a new OS which also take Back Office into new areas of human endeavour. So, it will be Some Time, as the polar explorer remarked. On the other hand, there are grounds for optimism. As Tong innocently explained: "Some of this software will be shipping in beta by 1Q97." That's now, you think. No. What, then? Well, listen to Tong: "Indeed, some of it will be out by 1Q97; some of it might even be earlier." At that point, he heard what he had said, and began to laugh. Me too: it's the weekend. I need another holiday... The day ends in pure anorak frenzy. Henry McGeough (firstname.lastname@example.org) shows up to help me establish my own private web site. It appears to be the case that I've got Kewney.com... and it's part of his virtual PC. His idea is simple enough: for pitifully small amounts of money, you rent 50Mb of Web disk space, protect it by password, and dump 50Mb of your most useful data into it. Then, wherever you are, you can get it. It's a neat idea, and I've fallen for it. Don't bother going there and looking; I've been too busy to upload a damn thing. But watch that space...