Rupert Goodwins' Diary

IBM makes storage fun, The Inquirer and The Register battle it out in London's Soho badlands, and Rupert is saved by the belle...
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 24/03/2003
Adam Osborne is dead, alas. I mention this in the office, and the reaction "Who?" is far too frequent for comfort. He was a journalist who made a small fortune writing the first wave of computer books in the late 70s, made a larger fortune selling one of the -- if not the -- first portable computer in 1981, the Osborne 1, and then lost it all due to some spectacular misjudgements and plain bad luck. When last heard from, he'd vanished to India. The Osborne 1 was one of the first computers I came into contact with, albeit at a drunken teenage party in a hotel on Dartmoor (the owners' son went to the same school as me, and while they were away he had his sixteenth birthday there). Imagine Lord Of The Flies meets Fawlty Towers and any three American college frat party movies, and you won't go far wrong. It was spectacular (although I wasn't the one who threw up from the top of the spiral staircase in the main hall). I was wandering in a pretty badly fried state in the basement of the hotel, and came across what I recognised as a computer. I turned it on, and tried to make sense of what was going on... but the characters just swam around in front of my eyes, and I had to give up. At the time, I blamed it on the drink: now I know it was the tiny 40-column screen pretending to be 80 columns by jumping around in mid sentence. Nearly put me off IT for life... but somehow I pulled through.
Tuesday 25/03/2003
When a man is tired of London, he's tired of life. So said Dr Johnson -- the curmudgeon's curmudgeon -- but when a man's tired of London Transport he's tired of walking two miles, watching ten buses go past crammed to the gunnels, and finding three tube stations on the trot closed down. There were even fisticuffs at Highbury and Islington station, as 20 minutes of standing still in unbearably cramped conditions pushed people to the edge and beyond. And I had to be in early today, as I'm off this evening to visit IBM down at its Hursley Park research labs. More on that tomorrow. As for today, I had to take a broken Nokia digital TV set-top box back to Tottenham Court Road through the worst chaos that London Transport could throw at me, then get into the office. Two and a half hours later, I succeeded -- roundly cursing the maggot-ridden midden full of blood-streaked stool that is London (only not in such polite language, you understand). Thankfully, the good humour of the ZDNet UK office restored my own in short order. Reviews sidekick Jonno Bennett -- Robin to Charles McLellan's Batman, if you will -- misheard newsbunny Graeme Wearden saying "What happens if you type 3G Porn into Google?" "Oh, you never would!" shrieked Jonno. He does do camp rather well, for a married man. "Would what?" asked bemused Wearden, who is of the opinion that as an Internet journalist he can -- and should -- Google anything he darn well likes in the cause of sniffing down a good story. Not Safe For Work is a pretty small set of badness hereabouts. But Jonno got there. "Take 3G porn to a funeral", said Jonno. "Mind you, if you did, there'd be two stiffs by the end of play..." Sinful boy.
Wednesday 26/03/2003
Down to Hursley Park, IBM's biggest European laboratories set in hundreds of acres of deer park near Winchester. It's a fine place -- the Spitfire was designed here, before IBM bought it -- but I'm here to learn about storage solutions, a category for which worthy but dull is altogether too interesting a description. But my cynicism is misplaced: it turns out to be more than that. The chief architect for the TotalStorage SAN Volume Controller -- or as everyone calls it, Lodestone -- is a substantial, genial engineer called Steve Legg. Tall and diffident, he almost succeeds in giving the impression that he's happy to deal with a range of questions which one suspects he doesn't particularly enjoy -- and then gives the game away by lighting up with boyish enthusiasm whenever a subject close to his heart comes up. He also has fun with his remit. Lodestone is a clever way of connecting lots of different sorts of hard disk to servers, and one of its selling points is that these don't have to be IBM hard disks, at least in theory. But one of the problems is that nobody ever says what happens when their disks go wrong: there are no standards for this, and when you're trying to make something that's very reliable this causes great problems. Legg said that he was puzzling over this on a flight to the US, and by way of diversion started to read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The first sentence proved to him that Tolstoy had worked all this out in 1877: "Every happy family is alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Alas, Leo failed to come up with any more useful engineering insights. He also pointed out that Lodestone used a form of distributed processing based on the Paxos algorithm, a fault-tolerant system proposed by a researcher and written up as a fake archaeological report on a lost civilisation on the mythical eponymous Greek isle. It describes how laws are made and votes taken by part-time parliamentarians, and so Lodestone owes its existence at least in part to whimsical musings on the tax on olives. Don't you love it when you go to a day-long symposium on storage systems and get slipped a bit of culture? Later that day, IBM took us to a soul-freezingly dismal building in an industrial park in Havant to see one of its resellers. We sat through a very dull Powerpoint presentation, one slide of which was an eye-curdlingly illegible combination of dark brown text on a dark red background. "This is our skill set", said the presenter, rather nervously. "I can't see -- does it include PowerPoint design?" said one wit. One of the presenter's colleagues tried to stifle a bark of laughter, and failed.
Thursday 27/03/2003
What I didn't say yesterday -- and can only mention today with some pain -- is that when I returned from IBM I went straight to the Coach and Horses in Soho, where The Inquirer celebrated its second birthday. It's nice to see a technology Web site do well, even if they're in competition with us to some extent, and very nice to see a pub absolutely packed with journalists, PRs, vendors and other denizens of the IT demimonde. Refreshingly, The Inquirer's truculent proprietor Mike Magee did manage to have a pointy-finger shouty-shouty with Registeroid Tony Smith, a confrontation which increasingly rotund comms journalist Tony Dennis tried to calm down in much the same way that 42 Commando is trying to calm down southern Iraq. As relations between the Inq and the Reg have been almost cordial of late, it's nice to report even a temporary restoration of normality. Unfortunately, there was something in the sandwiches and I awake on Thursday morning with a little bit of bodily turmoil, especially behind the eyes. This is compounded by my discovery that I've lost my train tickets for a jaunt tomorrow for a weekend with the girlf: I turn the flat upside down, to no avail. I'm swearing loudly about this when Laura, our production editor and worker of quotidian miracles, says: "You showed them to me in the pub on Monday. Why not try there?" I phone up the Pomeller's Rest -- a firm favourite of ZDNet UK, due to local beer at out-of-town prices -- and the man says "You'll be going to Edinburgh, then." Hurrah! I'm only slightly miffed that Laura appears pleased for me and happy that I'm able to complete my Caledonian assignation. Surely she should be downhearted, and plotting to throw more snares in my path. But no, she's managed to completely quell the powerful attraction she, like most women, feels for me and is putting up a good show of delight. And, one might even suspect, relief.
Friday 28/03/2003
Don't you know there's a war on? Well, without dwelling on the issues, politics, legality and sheer enormity of the Mesopotamian Adventure, I can't ignore some of the louder barking coming from the Americans when the F-word is mentioned. Yes, even the makers of French's Mustard have had to put out a press release saying that they had nothing to do with the country. But it won't stop there. Check out this little snippet from The Wall Street Journal concerning the planned gift of a mobile phone system to the Iraqi people when the war's over and we all live happily ever after... "The battle over Iraq's postwar reconstruction has spread from the United Nations to the U.S. Congress, with a California lawmaker demanding that planners choose a wireless-phone technology developed by an American company. Rep. Darrell Issa sent letters to the Pentagon, the U.S. Agency for International Development and fellow lawmakers urging them to support the deployment of CDMA, a wireless technology developed commercially by Qualcomm Inc. "We have learned that planners at the Department of Defense and USAID are currently envisioning using federal appropriations to deploy a European-based wireless technology known as GSM ('Groupe Speciale Mobile' -- this standard was developed by the French) for this new Iraqi cellphone system," Mr. Issa wrote to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Issa, a Republican, wrote that if GSM technology is deployed in Iraq, much of the equipment used to build that nation's cellphone system will be made in Western and Northern Europe. The 'U.S. government will soon hand U.S. taxpayer dollars over to French, German, and other European cellphone equipment companies to build the new Iraqi cellphone system. This is not acceptable,' he wrote. He plans to introduce legislation related to the matter on Thursday." Click here to see more of Rupert's diaries.
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