Rupert Goodwins' San Jose Diary from IDF

A man may not be able to fly, but he can Segway, and it's a life-changing experience...
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 9/09/2002
It's a long way from London to San Francisco in seat 42F at the back of a 747, and Virgin Atlantic is on the parsimonious end of the seat pitch spectrum. A mere thirty-one inches doesn't go very far when you're a growing lad. But the in-flight entertainment can't be faulted: more than forty movies on demand, a CD Jukebox and lots of other fun toys means that I barely notice my legs have turned into two giant black puddings. Also in the package of seatback software is an email and SMS sending option. You can text message other seats on the aircraft for free, or for a small charge text your pals on the ground from 35,000 feet. I'd love to do this, but -- of course -- all their numbers are in my mobile phone, which can't be switched on. A SIM reader would be a good idea. I recover the use of my legs in time to check into the hotel, demanding a room with high speed Internet access (once again, more than good enough for Radio 4 in stereo), and congregate with the rest of the EMEA journalists. That's Europe, Middle East and Africa for those of you not involved in international marketing, a field not particularly sensitive to cultural variation. We wander over to the local brewery/pub for an introductory dinner, where it becomes apparent that there are about four German journalists for every one of another nationality. Rumour has it that Intel Germany has spent nothing on press events all year, purely to fund this massive airlift of Teutonic IT hackery. It's very impressive, but the Rest Of The World soon rallies and the politically incorrect banter soon flows like the Munich gutters during Octoberfest. And then it's time for the first keynote presentation, when various Intel luminaries get up in front of thousands of engineers and say how great everything is. You can read what they actually said in our IDF coverage, but there were a couple of worrying things on stage. First, the video screens above the action: normally, these are just a row of three giant projection screens but this time the one in the middle is round, like a Pink Floyd concert. Or, I realise after a while, Playschool. Then there's the backdrop. It includes a giant pyramid with an eye in it. Conspiracy fans will know what that means -- and if I mention that San Jose is also the headquarters of the Rosicrucians, you'll be reaching for your Kabbalah to see if the IA-64 instruction set is alluded to therein. Perhaps California's getting to me.
Tuesday 10/09/2002
There's no point in broadband to your bedroom if your laptop is lacking. Mine most definitely has lost the will to live. It's getting packets from the hotel Ethernet, but refusing to get an IP address. Intensive diagnostics show that the XP registry thinks that there are eight phantom network adaptors connected, and despite hours of exorcism trying to remove all traces of any network information from the computer, the registry dutifully restores these whenever I reboot the computer. In desperation, I reinstall XP (thus losing all my music and other important parts of my San Jose Survival Kit), and for a short while all is fine. I radio back to base that things are working, and I won't have to queue for the twenty PCs in the press room (among around 400 journalists, this can take some time). Then I turn the laptop on again, to see a Blue Screen Of Death. Apparently, some unknown agent of chaos has written lots of nonsense on the computer's hard disk -- including, I discover when I restart -- the boot sector. Nothing works, not even a little bit. I say a very rude word several times, loudly. Then I commandeer a press room computer by sheer force of will, and start shotgunning emails of woe across the world. Several people rise magnificently to the challenge, but the true hero of the hour is Randy Jones from HP's Mobile Computing Division in Cupertino, a few miles up the road. He turns up at the show clutching screwdriver, hard disk, spare CDs and a spare laptop and conducts on-site open-heart surgery on my moribund Omnibook. It's not a simple operation, but it is -- in the end -- successful, and I even earn the undying envy of the rest of the press room for having such splendid support. And I know Randy is a perfectly good American name, so no sniggering at the back there. It was hard later, though, as one of the demonstrators at a keynote rejoiced in the name Randy Plumber. I'm sure I've seen some of his movies... Later that same evening, I go to a "Meet The Engineers" party, where I bump into Jeffrey Schiffer. He's got a CV that I doubt will be bettered: designed part of the radio system used on the Lunar Excursion Module from whence Neil Armstrong did his One Small Step speech, has built receivers to search for extra-terrestrials, wideband wireless networks and Chinese satellite systems. He was also a big part of Intel's Bluetooth team, and chairs the Bluetooth Aviation working group. Is Bluetooth safe to use in flight? Oh yes, he says, and the European aviation authorities agree. How dangerous is it to use cellphones on planes? Lufthansa has said that on average, one cellphone is turned on throughout every flight they make. We chat on amiably enough, but I get the feeling he's rather uncomfortable. When I get back to the hotel room, I find why -- a large brown stain is spread across the front of my shirt. Test samples determine that it's not the soy sauce from the sushi at the Meet The Engineers bash, but chocolate ice cream from the press room several hours previously. So I've been wandering around the show looking like an extra from the peasant mud-eating scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That's show business.
Wednesday 11/09/2002
It's here: Nine Eleven. Curiously, if you avoid the TV and the papers, it seems much like business as normal. There's a moment's silence at the beginning of the show, but that's it. We finish with a briefing about ultrawideband radio, which is shaping up to be one of the more interesting technologies of the next few years. Intel has pretty well saturated the Forum with the more old-fashioned 802.11b wireless network, which means it's a simple matter to be on the Net while ostensibly taking notes during a presentation. I take advantage of this to transmit the audio from the UWB briefing to a pal in London via the microphone in the laptop and Yahoo! Instant Messenger's voice chat feature. He hooks up his laptop -- also on a wireless network -- to his stereo to make the most of the admittedly rather poor audio, and makes a very effective ghost member of the audience. I'm not sure Intel would quite approve of this. They've told us off often enough for trying to record or photograph the technical briefings, and while I'm complying with the letter of the law I'm not minded to cause problems. Outside the show, the streets of San Jose are thronged with crowds commemorating the first anniversary of what will doubtless be remembered on this date hundreds of years from now. There's an open-air concert in a park next to the hotel where a mullet-haired rock group are power-chording their way through songs of defiance, and the Stars and Stripes are fluttering from baby buggies, pick-up trucks and the backs of bicycles. I feel very much the outsider. One chap drives around downtown for hours in a huge truck with an even huger flag flying from the roof, but this isn't the time to bring up the ironies of petrochemical culture. Once again, the EMEA journalists are rounded up and taken to a nearby restaurant where we sit outside and try to persuade the waiters to bring us steaks that aren't well done. We're under the flight path to San Jose International Airport, and so 9/11 finishes to the sound of aircraft powering a few hundred metres overhead, one every couple of minutes, with the sound of the open air concert spilling over in the spaces in-between. I've always found life a surreal affair, but sometimes it excels itself.
Thursday 12/09/2002
Mere words can't do justice to Thursday. The show's winding down, and it feels like it. The keynote is considerably enlivened by William Shatner popping up and bantering with Pat Gelsinger, chief executive of Intel, who arrives on a Segway -- just because he can. The occasion of this is Kirk's new book all about technology and inventors, so that gets a good airing. Not the sort of plugfest for which Intel is most famous, but fun nonetheless. When he's speaking in public, Gelsinger comes across as a mix between Michael J Fox and Woody Allen, and the contrast between him and the 100 percent age-cured ham of Shatner is remarkable. After the keynote, Gelsinger and Shatner do a pally Q & A session with the assembled journalists. It soon gets hysterical, with Star Trek digs mixed in with Shatner's stream of consciousness take on technology ("I know nothing about anything. I wonder how it works, I really do, but I'm coming from a position of complete ignorance. Is this leather? It's plastic. Was it invented for chairs, or for something else?") and had some great anecdotes of how his home automation failed completely. Good enough for one day? Hell, no. On the way out of the keynote, I'm handed a keyring containing a small scrap of nanotechnology -- an extreme-ultraviolet reflective mirror made from eighty layers of metal ten or fifteen atoms thick. While I'm digesting this (and it was very tasty, for a mirror) I come across a small gaggle of engineers in the corridor outside. It's the Segway, being demonstrated by a sharp-suited and horribly competent handler. There are times in the affairs of men when one just knows what to do. "Anyone want a go?" "ME!" I bellowed, and presented myself with extreme prejudice at the front of the crowd. I'm not a forceful chap by nature, but I can sometimes radiate a get-out-of-my-way-punk field that deflects small asteroids. And there I was, perched on top of an electric trolley with nothing between me and bottom-bruising indignity but massive computing power connected to two large wheels. For some reason, the Rolling Stones were going through my head: Have you seen your mother, baby, standing on the Segway? The machine trembled beneath me -- I don't blame it -- and the demonstrator looked nervous for a nanosecond. Then his training took over. "Look at me" he commanded. "Think forward." It was showmanship of a high order, and by jiminy it worked. The Segway started to glide towards him. "Stop!" he said. "Think back". It took a moment or two of gentle lurching, but soon your correspondent was gliding around the floor with no mental effort at all. You don't learn to ride it, you just learn not to: it feels like telepathy. The sensation is very close to dreams of flying, and utterly compulsive. A city filled with these things would be a wonderful place: a city filled with a mix of these things and large automobiles is frightening to contemplate. But perhaps that's just a hangover from the day I drove a C5 through West London during the Friday rush hour. Could the day get better? Well, no. But I made the compulsory pilgrimage to Fry's, the electronics megastore where Woz and Jobs bought the bits for the prototype Apples, and made a few small purchases. The trip is complete. To see a picture of Rupert on the Segway, and his selection of mobile gadgets from the show, click here.
Friday 13/09/2002
Nothing left to do but pack five hundred thousand Power Point slides, a few hundred dollars' worth of essential supplies from Fry's (noise-cancelling headphones for $50 with a ten hour plane trip coming up? Who could resist?), some very dirty shirts and a redeemed laptop. London, here I come.
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