Rupert Goodwins' Diary

(Apologies for the non-appearance of last week's diary. This was due to the entire Online department - and hangers-on, such as I - vanishing over to Amsterdam for four days R&R.

(Apologies for the non-appearance of last week's diary. This was due to the entire Online department - and hangers-on, such as I - vanishing over to Amsterdam for four days R&R. I wrote a short round-up of the events that took place but following legal advice I'm only left with the words Rain, Sofa, Leather, Boat, The Lost Twelve Hours, Where's Eugene?, and "It was there when I left the bar, officer". Everyone has now recovered, except Saul Hazeldine, our Web programmer. He's resigned and gone to live on an ex-Admiralty survey ship).

Monday.

Nortel buys Bay! If you're not involved in networking or telecoms, this short phrase could mean anything; Sheik Albeh-ben Nortel invests in some racehorse, for example. The truth behind the words is far more interesting: Nortel is still a telephone company at heart, while Bay is a troubled but still very useful purveyor of networking hardware. Everything is rushing together: it's a bit like the first microseconds of an atomic bomb blast, where the circular shell of explosives have gone off and are busy sending a compression wave through the fissile material. Providing the world economy doesn't go into spasm thanks to an unholy combination of Far Eastern recession, Y2K panic and sabre-rattling, we'll be moving to the ideal data distribution model of everything, all the time, everywhere within the decade.

Tuesday

Windows NT Server 4.0 Terminal Server Edition is here. One big server in the corner and everyone can run Windows on cheap little networked pooters. Lard the rafters with shouts of praise! Well... no. Don't bother. Its many hundreds of dollars per user licence fee somewhat swamps the fact that Acorn (you remember Acorn) has announced a $199 terminal that'll use this technology: it'll cost more per year to run this than to buy everyone a computer in the first place.

It's also not very impressive. A super-duper dual Pentium II running at 300MHz will perhaps be able to manage 100 users, if you have absolutely lashings of memory: when I were a lad, I worked on a VAX 11/780 with something like sixty users. That had about a megabyte of memory - shared between all of us - and a processor that approximated to the grunt of 33MHz 80386. No, we didn't have all this Windows stuff but we managed to design computers, cars, chips and code nonetheless. Ironically, NT took a lot of the ideas of VMS (the VAX operating system) in the first place...

There is one compelling edge to Terminal Server, though: with ADSL giving us permanent domestic Internet access, someone else can go to all the bother of making Windows run properly and you and I can just log on and use it from home.

Wednesday

If you can remember the days of real computers - bare boards, 512 bytes of RAM, hex with everything - you'll remember Circuit Cellar. That was a long-running hardware feature in Byte (RIP), featuring loads of clever little things to do with your soldering iron. It finished years ago but I've just discovered it's turned into a magazine of its own - Circuit Cellar Ink (That's probably an engineer's joke, but I can't work it out). Leafing through the pages I find that the spirit of the true hacker is alive and well and working with smart chips embedded in dumb objects.

This stirs my long-quiescent hardware hacker instincts and I uncover some old plans I had for a fab PC toy. Basically, it's a huge panel of lights you hang on one side of your monitor to make it look like a Real Hollywood Computer: every fiftieth of a second or so, the computer dumps the binary contents of its stack onto the lights, so they twinkle along in time to whatever the thing's thinking about at the time. I check the adverts in CCI for the bits and make a couple of phone calls to component distributors.

Alas. There's one particular bit that would make the design much, much easier. Nobody will sell me one. They'll sell me twenty - at £150 each - but not one. "How am I supposed to build a prototype if I have to cough up £3000 for just one part?" I ask. The shrug on the other end of the phone is audible - they have the part but wouldn't even consider selling it. Obviously, the overhead in putting it in an envelope makes it uneconomical. They still have their parts, and I still have my design. On paper.

Thursday

Phone call: "Hello, you naughty English technical journalist. Madame Fifi den Harg here. We have found your underpants." (*)

Friday

Bill Gates buys Cliveden! This sprawling country house in Buckinghamshire has seen more famous people behaving infamously than has the broom cupboard in the Commons - and it's proved the downfall of many. It was at the centre of the Profumo scandal, and has one hell of a reputation. As the Guardian said today, when Macmillan was told that there had been 13 judges in an orgy there he replied "Five, I could believe...".

I've only once been in a situation where the ruling classes let their wigs down: through circumstances too unsettling to relate, I found myself invited to the 21st birthday party of the son of the Marquis of Bath, at Longleat. It was a fancy dress bash, and as it's hard to find much in the way of hire costumes when one is as rotund as I: I went as a monk. After the first drunken baroness asked if she could secretly confess to being a Roman Catholic, I realised that this was going to be no normal evening...

Yes, there were clandestine couplings and so on and so forth - nothing you can't find going on in parties from Penzance to Peterhead, wherever people with more money than morals congregate - but the overriding sense was of people who knew that they played by their own rules. The whole place dripped with breathtaking self-confidence that bordered on the careless, and it's this that eventually trips people up... hmmm.

I'm sure Bill and Cliveden will be very happy together.

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(*) Not true. And in any case, I stole the underpants line from another journalist. Have we no shame?