Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Travellers' tales, distant space probes and quantum nucleonics are well and good but it's the IBM PC BIOS that really has Rupert scratching his chin this week.

Monday 24/02/2003
Ah, Star Trek. As the old joke has it -- how come whenever they boldy go where no man has gone before, there's always someone there? But it's getting like that down here on Earth. Once upon a time, when friends departed for a year off travelling around the world to find themselves (or dysentery, whichever came first), you could expect a handful of postcards and a couple of drunken evenings with the photograph album on their return. Not pleasant, but bearable. Now, everyone's got a Hotmail account and every village with more than two shacks and a donkey has an Internet café. So now there's the weekly email, full of wonderful things they've done and seen and how much they're missing the cold, miserable, dull old UK, haw haw haw. These are usually hierarchical, so if you're a very special friend of the wanderer you then get a second, for-your-eyes-only, email detailing the real mischief they've got up to and some of the more amusing diseases they caught while they were up there. (Don't bother, travellers, these get forwarded just like anything else). I dare say that with picture phones and the ever-rolling tide of broadband, we can expect audio and video reports any time now, just to make us boring old stay-at-homes with our eau potable and flush plumbing feel even more inferior. And just to make sure, someone's building a Web café on Everest. Just at Base Camp for now, so we'll be spared the unpleasantness of a breathless "Top of the world, ma!" if we have pals who make it to the top, but at this rate there won't be an unwired spot left on the planet. People won't be able to resist the temptation of telling the rest of us just what a good time they're having at the exact time they're having it. Bah, humbug. Bring back longhand and short postcards. (This from the man who set up a Web cam from his hotel room at IDF so the poor sods back in the office in London could check out the sunny view - Ed.) Tuesday 25/02/2003
What is it with you lot? Last week at IDF, I found myself stuck in a session which seemed to have limited interest to even the ubergeek. Intel wanted to do away with the PC's BIOS, replacing it with an extensible mini-operating system called EFI. Still, if that was the material to hand I'd better get on and write it up -- and that evening, steeling myself against the inevitable sarcastic comments from my peers, I duly filed the story. It would make a good T-shirt: "I Went 6000 Miles To San Jose, And All I Wrote About Was This Lousy x86 Assembler Code Replacement Scheme." Man, was I ever wrong. The story did better traffic than just about anything I've written, and when the US ran it at the weekend it continued to pull in the hits like Henry Cooper's chin. I'm pleased, of course, but worried. Have I misunderstood the geek zeitgeist? Is there a market for more and more obscure stories concerning, oh, PCB manufacturing techniques, fan spindle design and keyboard plastic specification? Of course, the rest of the team now want more. How about a step-by-step disassembly of a really important option ROM from a SCSI adaptor? Inside The Mind Of The Boot Sector? Fifty Things You Never Knew About Reset Vectors? It's not as if there's any lack of deep dark recesses in the PC specification, crawling with primordial slime and ready for exposition. But I thought the PC was a commodity these days, and people were no more interested in the low level guts than they are in the way their refrigerator compressor works. Am I wrong? Is the world gagging for the real hard stuff? Or is it just the BIOS, and I can safely put away my Pentium timing diagrams and the original PC Hardware Reference Guide. One can but hope. Wednesday 26/02/2003
Walking back home from work, the Evening Standard hawkers catch my attention. It's bad form for journalists to bash publications for which they don't work, but when it comes to the Standard and its sister paper, the Daily Mail, it's hard for an unrepentant Guardianista to stay his tongue. But I'll leave the rant about reactionary poisonous propaganda until another day. My lifelong boycott stays in place: although the banner today is lacking the usual venom about Blair, immigrants or Red Ken. "London: Amazing view from space", it says. Has to be on the Web, right? Right. Taken by the crew of the Intenational Space Station, this picture is truly wonderful. There are higher resolution versions, and Londoners can try and spot their house by finding the nearest large park and dead-reckoning across to their street. I'm in the big glowing 0207 bit in the middle, so that's nice. But it's striking how much the picture looks like any number of distant galaxies glimpsed by Hubble as it points its lens in the other direction. There's other fine space news this week: a large chunk of money has been put aside by NASA and its paymasters to get a Pluto probe underway. If all goes well, a suitably equipped lump of hardware should go whooshing past the planet -- OK, Kuiper belt object. Objects, if you count Charon. -- in 2015 or so, if it makes its 2006 launch date. There are good reasons to rush: Pluto and pal is heading away from the sun on its elliptic orbit and the atmosphere will freeze out soon. Get there while it's hot (hot being a relative term, of course. Autumn on Pluto is even chillier than Aberdeen). And a moment's silence for Pioneer 10, which finally went silent after 30 years of zooming outwards towards the edge Solar System. Its thermonuclear power plant finally ran out of ergs: by the time it gets anywhere near another star in two million years time the last dregs of radioactivity should have cooled to a safe level and we won't get hauled up for galactic dumping. Thursday 27/02/2003
More radioactive peculiarities today. A report from the New Scientist says that the US Department of Defence is considering nuclear powered drones -- unmanned aircraft for surveillance or attack purposes. The US is getting increasingly keen on these things, but they have to return to base after a few hours for refuelling. The thinking goes that a small nuclear reactor could keep them aloft for months. This isn't the first time the US (and the Soviets, way back when) thought about nuclear-powered aircraft. The downsides are obvious, even apart from having a large lump of very unpleasant stuff ready to disperse itself around the countryside during a crash: the amount of lead shielding needed to prevent the pilots from getting toasted by the radiation makes the whole thing untenable. But a drone has no pilots. Clever, eh? And the key technology is a new kind of reactor called a quantum nucleonic device. This uses much less nasty stuff, which is persuaded to disgorge much more radiation than it should by zapping it with x-rays much like a glow-in-the-dark star gets all excited if you leave it in the sun for a bit. If you turn off the x-rays, the protagonists say, things are much safer, so in a crash you won't have nearly so much unpleasantness to deal with. This strikes me as most peculiar. Since when has radioactive decay been speeded up by anything? One of the classic bits of physics is that radioactive materials decay at a precise rate and nothing on earth can speed it up or slow it down. Hence half-lives. If this is no longer the case, the implications are enormous: we might be able to sort out radioactive waste material by getting it to decay really quickly, for example, and nuclear power plants can be made much smaller and safer. Never mind the drones -- this is the real news! One of the delights of the Web, as Blair discovered to his displeasure when he tried to palm off someone else's thesis as an Iraqi intelligence report, is that you or I can go and check up on things that would previously need dedicated researchers. So myself and friend Adrian Mars hit Google... and five minutes later, there's the answer. Quantum nucleonics doesn't work: the effect was reported once, in a paper larded about with caveats and get-out clauses, and an effort by Los Alamos to repeat the results was a resounding flop. So: the whole basis of these nuclear drones is dodgy at best, and probably completely nonsensical. But that's enough for people in the States to get government money to investigate a new weapon, and for the gee-whiz reports to get propagated uncritically. Gah! Friday 28/02/2003
It would make a dull video game. Your hero struggles against enormous odds to establish himself in the jungle, overcoming setbacks and initial disaster to refine his tactics, hone his skills and finally make it to the end in a shower of praise -- or alternatively you just press the button marked "Buy Your Way Out Of Trouble" and a bottomless bank account appears as if by magic and flattens the opposition. That's not quite what would happen if, as rumoured, Microsoft bought Sega, but it would be a good example of how the company gets bored with not doing that well in a target market and promptly sets about buying the market share it needs. You can't complain about monopolies, as the Xbox hasn't got enough market share yet to trigger any investigations, and purchasing companies is a perfectly valid way to expand your interest in new areas. But you can point to the way other major Microsoft purchases in the past have effectively stifled innovation: the purchased companies dissolve into the Microsoft amoeba and the teams which did the good stuff break up, while the opposition is scared into silence. There are reasons why this might not happen this time, and Sega is only on the market because it's already lost most of its oomph. But a bit of the old excitement will fade if the hedgehog has to hibernate in Seattle. Addendum: many thanks to DJ for -- as he says, "How To Make A Tape Recorder" is particularly fine, but lovers of eccentric music will find much to gladden the heart here. To read more of Rupert's diaries, click here.