Rupert Goodwins' IDF Diary

Monday 16/02/2004Time to get registered. I know the score: I've been here before, so I set off confidently to the Moscone Conference Centre where the Forum is to happen.

Monday 16/02/2004
Time to get registered. I know the score: I've been here before, so I set off confidently to the Moscone Conference Centre where the Forum is to happen. I get there, to find the signs up saying "Moscone Welcomes The 64th Annual Dental Hygiene And Floss Operatives Convention". Um. Well, that's the North Hall. Perhaps it's in the South Hall. Picking my way past an ice rink, museum and giant indoors carousel that have sprung up in the nearby gardens since my last visit -- San Francisco is an exceptionally mutable town -- I get to the South Hall. Tumbleweeds blow across the empty atrium. Fear sets in.

A passing floor buffer, perched atop a polishing machine the size of a small bus, puts me right. "You want Moscone West. A block over." By now, it's raining. A lot. Last time, there was no Moscone West, there was merely a decrepit block of shops and flophouses. Now there is a giant gleaming glass building. Many of the previous residents are still on the street, though: I have never been petitioned for money by mendicants so often. Every ten paces, a panhandler appears from the shadows and rattles a cup under my nose -- one in five turns out to be an AMD marketeer, however, thrusting promotional material at me, and after a while it becomes easier to distinguish the two tribes. (More on AMD's Intel-related activity later)

At last, I'm registered. IDF proper kicks off tomorrow but as the global brotherhood of IT journalists is hereby assembled, Intel has to do something with us. So we have an intensive briefing on some of the key technologies to be covered this time. I've covered the briefing already but there were lots of fun bits on the side. For example, one demonstration of Intel's projection display technology was carried out by the spitting image of Bob Carolgees, the kid's TV entertainer best known for his Spit The Dog puppet. However, this chap had the kind of frightening intensity that only the true specialist can muster: it quite put the projectors to shame.

A variety of pictures were shown on the demo unit, each demonstrating an aspect of the technology's wonderfulness; each seeming more and more surreal. A giant eagle's head appeared, its eye fixed hungrily on the audience. Bob poked it with a big pointer, and I half-expected him to vanish in giant talons. "Those browns," he said. "They are unmatched." Then an enormous bowl of fruit: "The raspberries are highly saturated," he said, lovingly. I defy any among us to utter those words in high seriousness. Another food scene, showing a quite delicious range of toothsome nibbles and a glass of wine the size of a church font. "This is my favourite," said Bob. "It brings together all the things I really love." Mmm. I thought. Me too. "Look at the rendering of that translucent shading, and the detail in the darker area behind the pomegranate," he continued. I made a mental note that if I were seated next to him at dinner, I would point to the ceiling and yell "Look! An eagle! Cor, check those browns!" before stealing softly away.

But my very favourite part of the briefing -- yes, more so than the Grantsdale Digital Home platform, of which Intel is so proud, and just squeezing out theintegrated photonics on silicon, which will probably prove to be the most important basic technology Intel has developed this decade -- was the cultural anthropologist. It wasn't so much for the detail of what she did, although that was worthy of any number of TV documentaries, but the little asides she threw in. I got the impression that she treated the job of dealing with the Intel engineering culture as just as much an anthropological challenge as any field work, and I very much hope that at some stage in her career she can write the book about life in the silicon tribe. IDF has many powerful overtones of a tribal gathering, with Big Chiefs uttering gnomic insights, acolytes rushing about, ritual meals, and a core of deep, dark magic that drives the whole thing. And I'm not talking about the PRs' expense accounts: everything revolves around conjuring the unseeable electron and making it do our bidding.

So when our anthropologist started talking about spiritual and religious uses of technology, it seemed only natural -- despite the fact, as she stated, that we are a very secular society and hold religion very separate from our daily lives. Not so in Asia, where she pointed out that people regularly get their mobile phones blessed by a priest: anything you're going to carry around with you all the time had better not be a talisman for evil, after all. If only some of the interface designers felt that way.

I am thus heartened to find that my beloved has emailed me a link on my return to the hotel. It comes from the excellent Web site the Ship of Fools -- the voice of Christian unrest -- and covers some of the more bizarre aspects of Valentine's Day. But best of all, it includes a prayer from Rabbi Shlomo Eliyahu.

"Please, God, help me to cleanse my computer of all... evil images that spoil and interfere with my lawful work, and allow me to cleanse myself so that I may be pure of mind and may pray with a perfect heart, and that I may raise a family in true, stable love."