Reluctantly abandoning San Francisco on Sunday evening -- and not without incident, as something about my person sets off the security scan at the airport and I have to remove shoes, belt and practically everything else -- I stumble out of Heathrow at 11 a.m. on the Sunday. The usual sillinesses of transatlantic travel have taken place: we make up half an hour on the crossing only to be stuck in the hold for three-quarters of an hour over Norfolk.
It's a sorry picture of a man who turns up in the office in the afternoon. In my absence, the place has been thoroughly reorganised, and my seat has moved to a brand new spot by the window. My gear is beautifully arranged in a series of inchoate heaps, and I must rebuild that work in progress commonly known as my desk.
This is silly. I've spent the past five years going on about how wonderful is wireless networking, and reviewing laptops with fantastic video, audio and everything else all built in, and here I am, threading network cables, sound leads, mouse tails, printer cables, keyboards and heaven knows what else. Two computers mean somewhere around 20 leads -- two alone for my 'cordless' mouse and keyboard combination.
What's gone wrong? Why isn't everything but the mains courtesy of Bluetooth, ultrawideband and 802.11g? It's not as if I've got any coordination or cognition left after being impounded at 37,000 feet in a tin can for 11 hours, but I've said enough good things about all this technology to have earned a break.
Everything's finally plugged in. The monitors light up. "CANNOT LOCATE HARD DISK" says one. "PLEASE INSERT DISK AND PRESS ANY KEY." The other gets as far as the Microsoft XP loading screen before freezing solid. Welcome home, Mr Caine.
I just have time to think of the hippy chicks on Haight Ashbury before lapsing into a coma.
Jetlagged and jagged, I turn up at Waterloo Station to trek down to Havant, where a chunk of IBM has recently transmogrified into Hitachi Global Storage Technologies. Keen to let the world know that it's not just another company with a silly name, HGST has decided to throw open the doors of its customer support lab to the massed media -- in this case, myself and a bloke from What Laptop And Handheld Gizmo.
We sit through the obligatory corporate video -- beacon of innovation, check. World leading inventions, check. Happy pictures of kiddies staring into sky, check -- and thence into a slightly more meaty presentation. Half-terabyte drives due early next year? Four-gigabyte Microdrives? Serial ATA 3? Now, that's more like it.
Then there's a spot of lunch, and into the labs. One of the things HGST does is help out people who want to design hard disks into devices -- and these days, this can mean a lot of gizmos that aren't computers. Which means people who've no experience of mass storage are getting their hands dirty with the things for the first time: mostly, of course, everything just works, but a lot of peculiar things end up in the labs for Hitachi's once-over.
Today, there is a hard disk video recorder designed for surveillance systems in buses, police cars and the ilk, a pocket MP3 player with much more storage than an iPod, a Bang and Olufson hifi, and a Thing from Germany. We cluster around the Thing from Germany, and I have to ask: "That, er, thing. What is it?" It looks like a large chunk of Airbus control panel strapped to half a lawnmower and a large chunk of plywood.
"Errr… we don't know. Can't work it out," says the labs guy. "We guess it's some sort of test equipment, but it's a prototype. Obviously."
Obviously. And then it's on to more prosaic devices, like Serial-ATA RAID arrays, benchmarking tests, reliability evaluation and so on. It's not a small lab, but it's heaving at the seams with test equipment, chassis, cabling and bespectacled bods who know all about the most obscure storage technologies on the planet.
I feel quite at home. We're sent packing with press releases and the promise of lots of nice hard disks to test, so watch this space.
Walking into work today, I pass a large gaggle of policemen busy pulling apart a BMW by the side of the Holloway Road. A couple of vehicles are positioned either side, and one of the dayglo jackets says "DVLA Evasion Unit". Aha! Now, if I'm right about how these people work, there'll be a mobile computerised camera unit a hundred yards down the road… and there, trying to look inconspicuous outside Holloway Road tube, is my baby.
It's some nerd's idea of undercover surveillance -- a white van with blacked-out windows. That by itself wouldn't be too bad, but the nest of weird aerials on the top, the generator puttering away on the pavement and the sheer number of windows gives the game away somewhat. In an attempt to blend in, the forest of black VHF and UHF rubber whips on the roof are joined by an eggbeater TV antenna, the sort you get on caravans. The overall effect is one of a radio ham's mobile love nest, and I give it a good stare before ambling on my way.
This is ANPR -- Automatic Number Plate Recognition -- and works by optical recognition of passing cars. The van is linked to the police national computer and other databases, and if a motor flashes up as suspicious the occupants of the van radio ahead and get their pals down the line to stop the vehicle and make enquiries.
It's also desperately vulnerable to some plonker kicking over the generator, scrawling "BIG BROTHER IS READING YOUR PLATES: TURN LEFT IF YOU'VE SOMETHING TO HIDE" on a sign just down the road, or coming back to the scene of the crime a few minutes later armed with radio scanner and laptop to see what they can make of the digital communications spurting out of the top.
Not that I would, of course.
Ah, good old Amstrad. It's making money -- mostly from set-top boxes -- but the good old e-m@iler is still losing the stuff. This year, says the financial report, it should start showing a profit, especially with the third generation product with "additional revenue-earning functionality".
I shudder to think. I've had the first- and second-generation phones, and it's gone from something that sits quietly flashing the odd advert to a raucous billboard advertising all manner of nastiness -- Psychic Readings, gambling, loan consolidations and so on. At least it's still monochrome, but doubtless the Mark III will have a full-colour screen, stereophonic sound and some sort of neon billboard you have to strap over your bed.
But there is one area where nobody's made much progress, a friend suggests. How about a mobile e-m@iler? After all, Amstrad is out of the mobile phone business but is a good fit for low-end cellular stuff -- and nobody does a poor man's Blackberry in the UK. Whether people would be interested in having their pockets aglow with adverts for Mystic Al's Crystal Balls I cannot say, but you can see there being a certain attraction.
One of the major pro-mobile forces at Amstrad always used to be 'Uncle' Bob Watkins, who fled the company after falling out with Sugar over the latter's addiction to the e-m@iler idea. Now with the product within sniffing distance of breaking even and a couple of years' cooling off period passed, it could be time for Watkins, once again, to kiss and make up and take his seat in the Brentwood boardroom.
It's been a long week for our beloved leader, editor Matt "Nice Boy" Loney, who has combined his hectic duties in managing the site and all us lot with a quick trip to the Continent to see AMD launch the Athlon 64. Perhaps it's been a bit too long: moved to write a column about whether Intel has fumbled the ball by letting AMD produce a 32+64 bit architecture, he settles on the headline: "Will you still love me when I'm 64 (bits)?"
Even by our bathic standards of depth plumbing, this was a bit beneath the sonar. In fact, a scan of the Net revealed that it's been used many times before -- not least by mystery group The Bitels. The Fab Plant Four are also responsible for Unix Man ("He's a real Unix man, sitting on his Unix LAN, making all his Unix plans, for nobody", which really ought to be dedicated to SCO) and The Backup Song ("Yesterday, All those backups seemed a waste of pay. Now my database has gone away. Oh I believe in yesterday.") amid many others.
We entertain ourselves by singing these at the tops of our voice, pointing at Matt the while and laughing like cruel children. After a while, production takes pity on the hapless lad and rewrites the headline somewhere along the lines of "AMD comes to 64-bit rescue". This of course scans with the Stone's Emotional Rescue, which opens up a whole new can of song: we then lapse into the Who ("Meet the old DOS, same as the new DOS") and even some Blondie ("Oh XP, be-do, I'm in love with you XP, be-do").
What can I say? It's Friday, and time we all went home.