Tag Archives: IT

Version 1.0

14 Sep

Here’s a question for yoversion-1u: how many versions of a document / manuscript does it take to create a Version 1.0?

To clarify, V1.0 is something that you the author are happy to publish and distribute to the world. On the cover, after the title, in large, friendly letters, it says:

 

Document Name

Author: YOU

You will be judged on the content, the grammar, the spelling and the layout. If it’s a work of fiction, add the plot and characters too.

halberdPart of my day job is authoring design documents, which are subject to internal review prior to being published. Hence I’m used to criticism. The most complex design doc is the High Level Design, or HLD. I reckon on 4-5 iterations by the time v0.1 goes out for comment. I then expect to go through another 2-3 versions before final publication. I’m really happy if v0.3 is the final version before v1.0, which gives 8 versions in total. If a document reaches v0.5, I start minor increments (v0.51). Once we get to 15 versions (v0.56) , I’m chomping at the bit to get the damn thing out the door. At this point, between me and success there’s always a pedant who won’t be moved because he/she doesn’t like a particular paragraph or requirement definition. All the time I’m boiling away inside, feeling personally slighted and wishing for a medieval weapon.

For The Ferret Files, I tried to follow my tried and tested methodology. It took six revisions to create v0.1. I figured v0.3 should be it. I was wrong. We’re finishing up on v0.53. Where I went astray was my estimation for how long it would take. I thought perhaps weeks. Try two people full time for four months. The final version of Ferret is revision 13. I was not happy with this figure to begin with. Recently, I saw Jeffrey Archer being interviewed on TV. He said that on average it takes him 17 revisions to get a manuscript right, all hand written then typed up. He neglected to mention that he has a secretary to do the dirty work. So by his estimation it takes two people full time for nearly a year to produce a best seller.  Suddenly, I’m feeling much happier.

My copy editor asked me why I was on v0.53 and not v0.8. Well, it all harks back to my first serious job, working for Commodore computers, who made the C64 and Amiga. One day, I met Frankie, a big shot engineer over from California, who was auditing the UK’s manufacturing processes. We got on rather well – he was a solid, no crap kinda guy at work, a hoot down the pub., which is where he told me about a recent chip manufacturing saga.

chip-03“Have you ever looked at what’s stamped on the top of a chip?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the chip catalogue number.”

“And after the serial number?”

I’d never paid much attention to the last set of figures, which on most chips was ‘-01’ or ‘-02’. Occasionally, there was a ‘-03’. Frankie explained that in order to blow a chip, the engineer must first create a mask. The final set of figures was the mask number. Given that each mask cost $100,000 (in 1982), the engineering department obviously preferred a ‘-01’. Frankie then pointed me to a chip that had ‘-05’ on it, which, I remarked, had  presumably cost a cool half a million dollars to get right. Frankie laughed. The engineer who been tasked with making the mask didn’t know his ass from his elbow. By the time he’d reached ‘-07’, this was obvious to all and sundry. Except nobody stopped him, so on he went creating new masks and muffing it up. Each time, his boss figured he’ll get it right soon… if I just give him one more chance… And so on. Eventually a working chip appeared with the suffix ‘-33’.  It had cost months of messing about and $3.3m to make.  To avoid public humiliation, the suffix was immediately changed to ‘-05’. This was followed by an enquiry, during which the engineer responsible was reassigned and told never to work on chip masks again, and his boss was fired. Presumably into orbit.

The moral of the story for me is quite simple: keep your version numbers low, preferably below 0.5. If you get to 0.5, panic and start the cover up. Management can’t tell the difference between 0.5 and 0.54. They can. however, tell the difference between 0.5 and 0.9. If you’re covering up, don’t leave it until 0.7, as this grabs too much attention. Finally, if it takes 33 revisions to get something out the door, perhaps you’re in the wrong job…

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Rise of the Sexbots

8 Sep

machina_aSome years ago I found myself working with a bunch of very bright management consultants, all with impeccable educational records. It was around the time of the dotcom boom, and conversation frequently veered towards the next big craze – which stock to buy/company to invest in. One of the group was a bit of a computer nerd – actually, he was a lot of a computer nerd – our go-to guy for deep technological problems. So we’re having a quiet beer one night and he offers up some confidential advice from a successful entrepreneur he once worked with.

“You only need to ask one question of any technology, to know whether or not it will be successful,” he said. “Does it aid the spread of porn?”

Well, we all tittered and guffawed.

Meanwhile, he carried on, talking about the history of film-making, and how the very first porno-shoot took place almost as soon as the photograph was invented. When the movies came along, so did the porno-flick.  With the invention of the cine camera came the shooting of home porn. In the 70s, the video cassette appeared. According to our friend’s business model, it was always going to be a success. The same applies to the CD, the DVD and Blu-ray – all meet the spread of porn criteria. Finally, in the 1990s, the internet came of age. Was it going to be a success? I’ll leave that one to you to answer.cine-camera

My friend’s prophecy 15 years ago was that the mobile phone would morph into a mobile data device with an LCD screen, and because it would be possible to spread porn using such an invention, it too would be a roaring success. We applied the ‘spread of porn’ criteria to many companies and many different technologies, to see which ones we thought might make it. Apart from the mobile phone, Virtual Reality (VR), which was still in its infancy back then, stood out as a clear winner.

Fast-forward to today, and VR has taken amazing steps forward. Porno-VR is already being trialed, and porn stars are already figuring out how to licence their images accordingly. The thing is, in order to become fully immersed in such a virtual world, ancillary devices are a must, for both sexes. They’re on their way too. Here’s a link to an article I stumbled across the other day: SEX ROBOTS

freefly-vrHowever, it appears all is not well in the world of sex robots. There are certain moral and ethical issues arising around the creation of sentient sex toys. Is it alright, for instance, to produce Sexbots of children? Whoah! I hear you say. For the record, I was uncomfortable even writing that sentence, it does my head in. Once the basic mechanisms have been perfected and Artificial Intelligence modules installed, where do you draw the line? Dogs; sheep; co-workers you fancy who’ve said ‘no’; exes who’ve slapped you with a restraining order.  There is, of course, a campaign against Sexbots. Personally, I think the whole scene is just damn weird, and I’d prefer a real person any day. Would I have an affair if I wasn’t getting any at home, or might I visit a Sexbot Booth for a few hours? That’s coming too.  I can just imagine telling the missus I had a go on a Sexbot but it’s OK, because I programmed it to look and talk like her. I’m pretty sure I’d be sleeping in the car. To be ultra-realistic, my missus-a-like Sexbot would have to have the occasional headache. What would I do then? Cheat on the Sexbot that looks like my missus with another Sexbot that also looks like my missus?!? And what might I do if Sexbot #1 finds out?

The only people who are going to make money out of such a complicated scenario are the lawyers. I have to wonder, did we miss a trick all those years ago? Perhaps the question we should have been asking all along, regarding the potential of a technology business to succeed is this: does it facilitate the spread of lawsuits?

 

The Petrollica Affair (vi)

18 Apr

Troubleshooting

“Is it foggy?” I asked Bleep, as he returned from his soiree.

“Why?”

“You’re flying low,” said I, pointing at my friend’s zipper.

“Well spotted, stewardess.”  Bleep returned to his seat, leaving his flies untouched.  Another cigarette was soon sparked-up; a long drag followed, the exhaled smoke forming a plume of blue grey, a shadow mask around my pal’s face.  Contentedly, he took a sip of icy cider.

“Well?”

“I’m thinking what a cracking day it is.  We should go to the park and feed baseballs to the ducks.”

“One word: Hooverstein.”

“Shush!” emphasised my friend.  “I’ve told you, don’t say its name, not ever.”

“If you don’t hurry up, I’ll say it three times quickly.”

“Mate…”

“I mean it.”

Extracting what happened next required another pair of ciders and a couple of dayglo chasers, which Bleep had acquired a taste for in Belgium.  Initially, Petrollica’s Telex Exec (Uber Edition) was only configured for 4 boxes, which according to the official line was to allow the system to properly bed in.  Unofficially, Babyface ran into a series of hitches and took a lot longer than expected to hack and splice the code together.  Onsite, as Babyface completed the various stages of development, a series of minor engineers delivered extra boxes until eventually the system was half complete.  This was when the training was timed to finish and Petrollica started to use their network in anger, putting the ‘putas through their paces.  Coincidentally, it was also the point when hardware began to misbehave.  Everything was either running slow or performing erratically.  Or sparking.  One of the printers had a heart attack, coughed-up blood and set fire to a desk.  After a series of support visits by the same engineers who had added the extra Telex boxes, everything appeared to settle down again, but there were still a few annoying niggles that kept reoccurring on a daily basis.  Much to my pal’s annoyance, Reg soon ran out of patience with the lack of progress and ordered him to sort things out.

Fearing for his safety, Bleep resisted as long as he could, with a string of feeble excuses until Reg could stand it no more and had Ronnie read him the riot act.  Realising he had no choice, my pal decided to arm himself against the beast under the floor; hesitantly, he contacted Hoover, intending to ask for a detailed specification for Hooverstein, in order to pinpoint its weaknesses.  But the mad washing machine scientist was nowhere to be found.  Aristotle and Einstein were just as elusive; according to their lock-up neighbours they’d packed the contents of their offices into a pair of vans and quit town overnight in a cloud of dust, leaving no forwarding address.

Out of options, Bleep was forced to return to Mayfair on his own, under cover of maximum daylight, to fully assess the situation.  Petrollica had a massive suite, recently refurbished, on the top two floors of a really prestigious apartment block; from street level it was impossible to tell it was an office, its location being deliberately discrete and almost invisible to the untrained eye.

“Because they were located in an expensive part of town, they attracted some real stunning babes,” reminisced my friend, “all upper class tasty – one pinters the lot of ‘em.  Despite the lurking horror under the floor, the visits were really enjoyable.”

“Visits?” I queried.

“Once I discovered the business was run almost entirely by smart tarts with delicious accents, I decided there was no real hurry and did that engineer thing of finding me a favourite and making her feel special.  Charlotte was her name, I can still picture her now.  Anyway, I soon forgot about Hooverstein and fell in lust instead.  Charlie was drop dead gorgeous, with a subtle hint of lilacs and a fabulous set of bristols.  It was quite by chance, as I was straddling between floors ogling her suspender lines through a tight black dress, hoping for a glimpse of stocking top as she bent over a photocopier, that I discovered something we’d missed.”  Bleep took a jolt of dayglo chaser. “Oh, melons.  Nice.”

“So let me get this,” said Babyface perplexed, “every time the photocopier went swoosh, you heard a frak! of indignation from somewhere in Petrollica.”

“Exactly.”

“And then, when your harlot switched the light off in the photocopy room, the fraks became a stream of beefy expletives.”

“Don’t call her that, her name’s Charlotte and she’s lovely.  Look, this is obviously a tin and wires problem and I’m really the applications guy,” wriggled my pal.  “This is your area, not mine – so it’s over to you.”

“Coincidentally,” said Babyface, switching to serious mode, “Reg has tasked me with installing the final 12 telex boxes this weekend.  Unfortunately I’m busy – Father’s having one of his weekend parties and he needs me there in a coordination role.  You know what we’ve got to do.”

Bleep choked as a penny dropped. “We?”

“Yes, WE.  WE have a window of opportunity on Friday night.  If you think you’re going to stitch me up and send me back there alone after dark, think again.  We’re the only ones who’ve seen Hooverstein who are still here to tell the tale and this is an omen I do not like.  We do this together, because if I go alone and don’t come back, Reg won’t believe a word of it and then he’ll get Ronnie to send you in by yourself, all alone, to face Hooverstein and no matter how much you squeal and shout you won’t get out of it, not without running away.  And if you do that, the monster will sense your weakness and one day when your guard is down you’ll feel a tap on the back and before you know it, you’ll vanish under a random floor somewhere in a flurry of tentacles, never to be heard of again.”

“OK,” said Bleep, shaking.  Whilst Reg worried him and Ronnie frightened him, he was absolutely terrified by the prospect of facing Hooverstein alone, in the dark, in the buff. “I’ll be there.”

“And make sure you bring crosses and garlic and any silver bullets you might have lying around.  Just in case.”

Nine o’clock on a Friday night: while the rest of London was in party mode, winding up for the weekend, Babyface and Bleep headed down to Mayfair.  After leaving Bwain’s offices in Victoria, they had a good few bevies for the road and then a smoke, just to be sure they were in the right frame of mind.  Upon arrival, they let themselves into the offices, as arranged with the security desk.  Once inside, Babyface assembled a makeshift crucifix from a pair of screwdrivers which he bound together with gaffer tape, whilst Bleep produced a garlic string from his toolbox and draped it about his neck.  Not being entirely certain as to the heritage of their foe, they took the added precaution of smearing themselves with wolfsbane and then sprinkled holy water in a circle in one of the side rooms, to define a much needed sanctuary space in case of trouble.

Despite his reputation as a space cadet of some merit, Babyface was truly methodical when it came to problem analysis, and before long he had some answers.

“Look at this,” pointed Babyface, wielding the cruci-driver as a pointing device. “I’m running diagnostic Pro, across the network between half a dozen ‘putas I’ve turned into probes.  This ‘puta here is the master.  On the count of three, flick that light switch on.  One, two…”

“Nothing,” noted Bleep.

“And now switch it off again.”

<<Fzzz>>

“See that – it’s a power spike.  All of the data on the master scope is frakked and garbled.”

“So it is,” mused Bleep.

“It’s exactly as I suspected: the monster we helped jam under the floor is also the monster in the ceiling when viewed from below.  And what’s more, it’s somehow patched itself into the light circuit and is slurping on the electricity supply.  Every time a light goes off, it bitches and chews data.”

“Oh, hell.  What are we going to do?”

What they did in their excited state was to place a call with Reg, who had a word with Ronnie, who had a word with one of his special mates.  Within the hour, a shipment of lead was on its way from the East End, where an unfortunate vicar would no doubt discover to his dismay that come the next serious rainstorm, his church was no longer watertight.  Once the ceiling tiles had been removed and the monster encased, it was game over for Hooverstein.

At least that was the theory.

It was two in the morning by the time Bleep and Babyface finished installing the remaining telex boxes, and being half straight, half sober and half hungover, they had a tactical line or two of Babyface’s favourite wake-me-up-before-you-go-go powder.  In a blaze of euphoria, heads clacking like a pair of analogue telephone exchanges during a bank raid, the duo proceeded to toast their success with several nips of Welsh whiskey from an aging hip flask that Bleep’s grandma had given him as a present, for use in emergency celebrations, just prior to leaving home.

“We’re brilliant!” exclaimed Bleep, puckering like a squeezed lemon.  “None of the other engineers could have pulled this off.”

“Yes we are,” admitted Babyface, taking the flask and a double nip.

“We should pack up and go home.”

“Yes we should.  The question is, are we brilliant enough to power up the entire system and give it a thorough test, or do we leave it for the trainers on Monday?”

“Oh, frak.  Do we have to?”

“Are we brilliant or are we deluded wasters?”

“Can’t we just be brilliant wasters and leave it at that?”

By six o’clock in the morning, the amphetamines were gone, the flask was empty and Hooverstein was still in its death throes, wounded but refusing to die.  No matter what they tried, as soon as they cranked the system up above 50% utilisation, the telex transmission lines became unstable, receiver circuits flaked out and frakked data became the order of the day.  They tried holy water, garlic breath, wolfsbane to the tentacles and the Lord’s prayer, forwards, backwards and sideways, all to no avail.  In abject frustration, Babyface declared that Hooverstein had destroyed the integrity of the space/time continuum and ruined the telex boxes forever.

Obviously, Reg could never be told the truth and fearing he’d set Ronnie on them if they didn’t have a good story, a faulty batch of hardware was declared, a tried and tested engineer’s explanation for strange goings-on that remains in place to this day.

Bleep retrieved another smoke and seeing it was the last one, crumpled the packet up and threw it as far as he could. “It’s a good job I bought 200 at the airport.  Go to the bar and get the lager in, while I search through my bag for the other 180.”

The Petrollica Affair (v)

2 Apr

The Network

“Well, my son,” grinned Hoover, “wod’ya fink?”

“It’s very, very strange.”

“All it’s missin’ Bleepy Boy is a name,” said Hoover, to a look of contempt from his henchmen.  “We’re still arm wrestling over that.”

“Where did it come from?” asked Bleep, dismayed.

“Secrets is secrets,” said Aristotle, stuffing a pony in Bleep’s pocket.

“Gypsies,” said Einstein, removing the pony.  “I know these Gypsies who run a rubbish tip out of town.  They flogged us a mile of TV cable they found.”

“Found?”

“More discovered,” said Aristotle, reinserting the pony.

“In all honesty,” said Bleep, “it’s very, very scary.  In fact, it frightens the living bejesus out of me.”

“Whatever do you mean?” asked Einstein.  “I hope you’re not deriding our masterpiece.”

“Our baby,” added Aristotle, patting the thing.

In front of my friend, stretched out lengthways on a well worn wooden bench lay a contorted monster, the mother of all cabling nightmares, nestling in a pool of its own putrid slime.  In construction, the creature was comprised of a huge life affirming double helix, wrapped loosely about itself, forming a central core off which two hundred and ten satin black arms hung limply, each terminating in a shiny silver connector which to the uninitiated could easily be mistaken for an eye.  The graft-point where arm and helix met was bound tightly with gaffer tape, creating a series of compact nodules, reminiscent of eggs sacs – which provided a clue as to the creature’s reproductive habits.  There was no way it could be trustfully left alone with your children, your pets or the contents of your larder, not if you ever wanted to see them again.  All the mother of cabling nightmares required to bring it into being was a jolt of electricity from a lightning storm.  Come the aftermath, the all-seeing bald behemoth would undoubtedly be last glimpsed slithering away into the drains, chased by dozens of villagers armed with burning brands and pitchforks.

“It looks like twenty one point two five octopuses engaged in some bizarre mating ritual,” said Bleep.

“Excuse me?” said Einstein, threateningly.

“Octopuses have eight arms,” coughed Bleep.  “Do the maths.”

“My partner is not questioning your skills at division, but your use of the English language,” said Aristotle.

“Twenty one and a quarter then.”

“Twenty one and a quarter what?” asked Einstein.  “And the answer better be octopi.”

Bleep paused for a second, to take a swig of gin.  “The network just sat there glistening, covered in a layer of Vaseline, staring at you malevolently through hundreds of tiny eyes, like it was waiting for something to happen.”

I began to snigger.  “Perhaps it was waiting for Professor Quatermass to come along and give it a proper fight.”

Bleep gave me a look of thunder.  “IT was anything but funny, mate.”

After the boys had finished melding the mother of all nightmares together on the bench, they found they couldn’t shift it out of Reg’s garage, it was just too weird and heavy.  Hoover was forced to drape a tarp over it, so as not to scare any more passers by.  Then, on Saturday morning he got one of his mates with a forklift truck to move it into Aristotle and Einstein’s Bedford so they could deliver it to Petrollica in one piece.

“Bleep,” said Babyface, stepping from the pavement into the road.  “I have no idea what you’re playing at, dragging me halfway across town to Petrollica’s offices in my lunch break.  This better be good.”

“Oh, it’s good,” said Bleep, displaying all the skills of a regular traffic cop as he directed the traffic around a parked-up off-white Bedford van with an obscene drawing of an erect penis etched in the filth of the back doors, its three hazard warning lights flashing merrily away.

Babyface took a step back, and in that diligent way of his began to survey the scene, quickly directing his attention to two oddball workmen dressed in badly fitting faded blue overalls, tugging desperately on a length of thick rope.

A head popped out of a sash window some five storeys above the street.  “Pull, one two free,” it shouted at the workers, in a gruff gravely tone.

Babyface’s eyes followed the rope, all the way up to a makeshift pulley, erected against the superstructure of the building and then back down again to a cradle suspended in mid-air.  The angles were confusing, which prevented the baby faced one from making out the contents.  As he contemplated what was occurring, the rope snagged, causing the cradle to come to a jarring halt.  A single menacing tentacle fell out, its silvery eye staring blankly downwards, its pupil filled with malice.

“What… is that?”

“Shush,” said Bleep.  “It might hear you.”

“What might hear me?” said Babyface quizzically.  “Have you been drinking?”

“Have you?”

“You first.”

“We had a jar or two on the way,” interrupted Aristotle, “it ain’t half thirsty work, this networking.”

“And you are?”

“Aristotle, Intellectual Networks.  The one with the rope around his middle – that’s Einstein, my partner.”

“Afternoon,” waved Einstein.

“They call me Babyface,” said the baby faced one.  “I’m the code-head responsible for making all the communications software work.  I have to ask: what is that thing suspended in the air?”

“That thing,” said Aristotle emphatically, “is the network.  In Latin it’s the ‘Networkus Primus’.”

“That’s a network?”

“It’s not a network, it’s the network.  Networkus Primus.  Now stop gawping mate and get stuck in, give us a hand to pull it up there, while Bleepy Boy does his best to make sure we’re not all turned into a massive spread of strawberry street jam.”

It took an hour of pushing and pulling to get the network through the window in one piece.  By the time the gang had finished their work, there was a sizeable crowd of curious onlookers gathered below, all watching in wonder, trying to figure out what the crap was going on.  Thankfully, Petrollica’s Chief of Operations was on hand in a pastel purple suit to keep things calm and fend off the police with tales of epic endeavour against the odds, from his time in Nicaragua, while Hoover and his pals from Intellectual Networks got on with the installation.

“And how do you intend to fit this thing?” asked Babyface, now completely absorbed in the drama.

“It’s goin’ under the floor,” replied Hoover, pleased with his planning.  “We cleared it wiv Reg, he’s had all the paperwork, he’s sweet.”

Aristotle and Einstein nodded at each other.  “Under the floor it goes.  Let’s get them boards up and get cracking, networks don’t install themselves.”

“It’s for the best,” said Bleep, taking Babyface to one side.  “They CAN’T leave it exposed, it’s evil!  I’m scared of it and I know what it is.”

“What it is,” said Babyface screwing up his face in contemplation, “is a hybrid between every single networking topology known to man, and a few more that are still to be invented.  They haven’t used one idea, they’ve used every idea.  You know there’s not a cat in hell’s chance of this thing ever working.”

“I know I’m not touching it, whether it works or not.  I’m from the Valleys, remember.  When my forefathers dug up anything like that down the mines, they belted it with shovels and set fire to what was left.  I know the stories, my Gran warned me about things like that.”

“Relax,” said Babyface, “it’s inert.  It wouldn’t harm a fly.”

“Only because a fly has no nutritional value and dead-end DNA.”

“I’ll show you,” said Babyface, reaching out to pick up a tentacle and recoiling in horror as soon as he touched it.  “Urgh!  That’s not right.”

“I told you!” squealed Bleep.

“It feels sort of alive, as in the dead sort of alive that nothing has the right to be.”

“It’s an abomination, that’s what it is.  An affront to God’s creation.”

While Babyface and Bleep discussed the merits or otherwise of the network, Aristotle and Einstein set to, pulling and pushing at the beast, ramming it under the floor, placating it with rubber mallets and crowbars where necessary to ensure it didn’t resist.  Under instruction from Hoover, who grasped the master floor plan like it was a map to hidden pirate treasure, they pulled the connectors out in pairs at what looked like appropriate points, intending that each set be connected to a ‘puta.

“We’re all done nah,” said Hoover.  “I’ve got me some lads comin’ in Sunday to finish orf the ‘putas, so you can go ‘ome.  Or dahn the pub.  You’re bohf as white as sheets, you look like you need a large stiff one.”

“And you have every confidence that this thing will function as designed?” asked Babyface incredulously.

“Are you questioning the operational capabilities of Aristotlestein?” asked Aristotle.

“Hooverstein!” insisted Hoover.

“I still like Einsteinstein,” said Einstein, to a look of derision from his two colleagues, who both agreed it was the least sensible suggestion of the three.

“There’s a pair of ‘putas in the van,” said Hoover.  “While we argue the toss, why don’t you go get ‘em like a pair of good girl guides and I’ll proof to you it works.”

“And?” I asked, suppressing a snigger.

“By the time we got back, they’d reached a ‘rock, paper, scissors’ agreement.  Hooverstein it was.”

“I mean did it work?”

“Babyface and I were both extremely sceptical, until Hoover powered those ‘putas up, plugged them into his monster and everything burst into life.  Don’t ask me how, I really, truly don’t have a clue.  I’ve worked with hardware for most of my life and by all the laws of physics it had no right to be anything other than an inert lump of copper and plastic.”

“Once you bring a monster to life, it’s powered by the supernatural,” I quipped.  “Everyone knows that.”

“Stop taking the piss.”  Bleep looked around furtively.  “IT might hear you.”

“I do believe you’re serious.”

“Of course I am!  I’ve just told you something I’ve never told another living soul.  Babyface and I made a pact there and then, on that day in the pub, never to mention the network ever again.  And under no circumstances were either of us to lift any floorboards and take a look.  Ever.”

“What about Ronnie and Reg?”

“Ronnie wouldn’t go near something he couldn’t frighten and Reg was totally oblivious, he had no idea his new network was a malevolent grotesque.  Babyface and me, we figured our mission was to install the server software and some telex boxes, no questions asked.  So we went back on the Sunday afternoon, did what we were paid to do and left pronto, intending from that point onwards to hand over to the trainers and the support engineers and never set foot inside Petrollica again.”

“But you did.”

“Obviously we did, that’s how these things work.  Now, get the ciders in while I go for a slash, then I’ll tell you what happened next.”

The Petrollica Affair (iv)

27 Mar

That Fabulous Feeling

You can’t keep the lid on a great feeling forever, and according to my friend it wasn’t long before everyone involved began to talk the project up in-house, and that soon got them talking out of house too.  Then the trade rags caught a whiff of the story and sought an interview.  After a spot on the front page of Compu-Diddly-Doo, the business world decided it was time to take an interest, which prompted Reg to employ a PR company, who in turn procured valuable column space in the ‘Who’s Hot and Who’s Not’ section of the Financial Times.  Imagine that – Reg’s well-honed bushlit gracing the pages of the FT!  Once the excitement hit the broadsheets, even Babyface lightened up – and suddenly, bang!  Before anyone knew what was happening, the whole company and their friends and relatives were caught up in the drama.  It was the mid-Eighties, the housing boom was in full swing with no end in sight, the city was full of expensive cars, the champagne bottles came clinking one after another, seemingly without end; life was good and about to get even better.  The staff became convinced that Bwain were going to make millions and when Reg began talking flash company cars and shares options for all, that was it: everyone including the cleaner was thoroughly sucked into his dream.

“It was a fabulous feeling, a fantastic time to be alive, like being part of a hit West-end show.”  Bleep raised his empty glass and stared through half closed eyelids. “Gin,” he stammered. “Get me gin.”

I duly complied, returning with a matching pair of double gee and tees, knowing it would take a lot more alcohol than this to see the story through to its conclusion.

“Hoover,” smiled Reg, “I have need of your unique talents once again.  In my lock-up in the East End – the BIG one, not the small one – you’ll find two hundred brand-new PC cases in their boxes.”

“Yes, boss,” replied Hoover, looking craftily from side to side like a cheap sewer rat covered in expensive, reclaimed bling.  “These ‘puta cases, what should I do wiv ‘em?”

“I want you to purchase two hundred second-hand PCs, the cheapest you can find, and fit the innards into the new cases.”

“The ole one-two-switcharoo.  Posh.”

“I need them all working within the week.”

“I know a couple of blokes in the twilight removals business, right up their street.”

“Very good.  Can they be trusted?”

“Wiv me mum’s funeral arrangements, swear to god.  They’re solid geysers Reg, solid.”

“Excellent.  Now, there’s one more thing.”

“And wot would that be?”

“I need to commission a brand new network and as a payment for services past I’m giving you the privilege of building it.”

“Awright!  I’ve got me some uver mates bin wanting to build a proper network fer ages.  Av you perchance, got any of them books wiv pictures that might elp?”

“Drop by the office tomorrow.  I’ll lend you one of our engineers and get him to assemble the appropriate literature from our extensive design library.”

“Extensive design library?” I guffawed, choking on a fragment of ice cube.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” said Reg, winking, “I’ve always been rather liberal with the truth.  Now, the engineer I assigned to shadow Hoover was none other than your old pal Bleep.  Isn’t that right Bleep.”

“It sure is,” said Bleep, switching back to his own voice.  “While Babyface got cracking with the code, I worked on the hardware specs and the configuration files.  By the time Hoover arrived, I was well ready.”

“Bleepy Boy, wot I require is some books about networks,” demanded Hoover, “Wiv big pictures, just like the old washing machine repair manuals.  Did I tell you I cut me teeth on washing machines?”

“Several times,” retorted Bleep.

“If you can do washing machines, my feory is you can do anyfink,” said Hoover.  “The world is yer hoister.  I ad a word wiv my ole mucker Reg, and he’s agreed we can build the server ‘putas too.  Ain’t that sumfink?”

“That’s my job.”

“You can elp if you like, but you’re not to interfere,” said Hoover, slipping a pony in Bleep’s pocket.  “And you’re not to tell Reg any of our trade secrets.  Aris and Eino don’t like it when their secrets is spilled, they take it very bad.”

“Too right,” said a voice from the doorway, belonging to a beanpole of a man, clad in overalls a couple of sizes too small, zipper down to his waist, displaying a faded ‘Pub Quiz team of the year’ tee shirt beneath.  “Cept I don’t like being called Aris, it sounds cheap.  To you my good man, it’s Aristotle.”

“And I’m Einstein,” said a short swarthy chap with mad hair, clad in overalls a size to large.  He smiled and held out a thick, calloused hand in greeting.

“Bleep,” said Bleep, swapping voices and shaking his own hand.

“Nah we’re all ‘ere,” said Hoover, “it’s dahn to business.  We need pictures, specs and a dawg.”

“What kind of dog?” asked Bleep suspiciously.

“A white one wiv a handset, you dodo.  I can’t be calling me mates on a Cocker spaniel, now can I?  They’d think I woz some kind of ponce.”

Despite being a technology company, technology really wasn’t the Large brothers’ forte and Ronnie, finding computers quite unscarable took a back seat when it came to the nuts and bolts of business, trusting Reg, who was only a shade more technically literate than he, to get on with the job of securing the profits.  Hoover was ordered to scrimp and save wherever he could, with an index-linked bonus for bringing the hardware in as cheap as humanly possible.  It was, therefore, no great surprise to discover that the grey hardware with new cases wasn’t so much grey on the inside as a shade of red-hot crimson, purloined as it was from a network of spivs who plied their trade in the backrooms of a number of well known city pubs.  From every available source the dodgy hardware came: some lost off the backs of lorries, some from the fronts of trade stands; hot-standby spares that mysteriously went missing from trading room floors, unopened boxes purloined by RAM raiders in the dead of night – all this and more passed through the dealers’ shady hands.  For Reg’s order, which was bigger than most, the bulk of the equipment was rescued from the Crusher – the final resting place for decrepit ex-government machines, well past their sell by date.  Condemned to death due to the confidential contents of their hard drives, it really was a waste of perfectly good if underperforming tin.  Being government putas, the hard drives in question were remarkably small and it was well known in Spiv circles that they hardly ever held confidential data, which was why the man in charge of the big red lever looked the other way when the hardware was replaced at the last with a box of underperforming pink fluffy rabbits with broken hoppity springs.  Government being government, Spivnet knew no-one would notice the discrepancy in weight or pinkness just as long as the forms were completed without spelling mistakes, on time, in black ink.

My friend supposed that Reg wasn’t fully aware how crap the solution his corner cutting contractors were pulling together really was, but then Reg was a big picture salesman with no attention to detail.  There’s no doubt he intended to save money to make money, but whether he planned on shaving off all the corners on offer to create himself a round table remains open to debate.  By the time Hoover and his gang had finished building all the ‘putas, Bleep had a pocketful of ponies, one per objection, which made it impossible for him to objectively object to anything.  The 12 line-servers at the heart of the system had already been given triple bypass surgery courtesy of Babyface, and even though Bleep tried really hard, they were soon abused further.  For good measure, Hoover installed an extra loud fan to hide the fact that one of the ex-Whitehall disk drives had developed a high pitch pig-like squeal whenever it was stressed, which due to Babyface’s design was more often than not.

Bleep lit another smoke, handed me the pack and took a long, hard drag. “After we’d built the special servers, that’s when things went really queer and IT happened.”

“IT?”

“IT.”

The Petrollica Affair (iii)

25 Mar

The Golden Carrot

Taking a swig of beer, Bleep slammed the empty glass down and switched his voice, imitating Reg’s well perfected sales purr, a vocal trick I’d heard him perform many times before, but previously only so accurately with Sean Connery and Roger Moore:

“Look, Babyface, I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer, you’re the best developer we have.  You breezed 4, 8 and 16, so 24 is easily within your grasp.  I know you have the skill and determination, so what’s the problem?”

“Speed,” replied Bleep, switching his posture and deftly answering his own question in Babyface’s pre-pubescent tones.

“Very good!” said I.  “You’re quite the wicked impersonator when you get going.”

“You wait til later, when you appear!” winked my pal, returning to his act.

“Speed,” reiterated Babyface.  “It’s all to do with speed.”

“You told Ronnie you’d given that up,” swerved Reg.

“I mean there isn’t a server fast enough to keep up,” snapped Babyface irately. “I’ve done all the calculations.”

“Let’s use 3 servers then.”

“That was a one off.”

“What about 5?” asked Reg, undeterred. “Or 10? Name your configuration and we’ll do it.”

“Reg, it’s not a hardware issue, this is all about the software – it simply isn’t up to it.  We’ve got patches on our patches as it is.  We need a complete rewrite to stand a chance, and that’ll take months.”

“A month you say? Get to it then.  As I’m such a brilliant boss, let’s call it a round 25 days.”

“You have to be kidding!  I’m not doing any more bodges or half arsed splatches.  Enough is enough, my foot is down.”

“Right, that’s it.  I’m cutting your pay by a grand for insolence.”

“You can’t do that.”

“Now it’s two grand, for insolence AND wasting my time.”

“I quit.”

“Make that three grand, for insolence, time wasting and cowardice.”

“You can’t do that.  I just quit.”

“A three grand pay cut, to be restored as a three grand raise when you deliver Petrollica.  And as a special bonus, I’ll give you the photographs plus negatives from the company trip to Amsterdam.  You must remember your entwining encounter with the masked python woman of Tripoli?  Ah.  I can see from your face that you forgot.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy the rediscovery.  Along with your fiancé.”

“Now you’re bluffing.”

“Clubbus Eroticus.  Babyface meets the porno rhino.  Oh, I see, you forgot about that too.  Make Petrollica work, or the photos go to the Sunday Sport.  The editor is a personal friend of mine.  I can see the headline now, ‘son of a…’”

“…You can’t fool me.  I don’t believe you’d do that, not for a second.”

“You better.  An empty threat is like a bald hedgehog – laughable and quite, quite pointless.”

Bleep opened his wallet and produced a folded page from the Sunday Sport, showing a topless bloke on all fours twisted into a rather revealing pose with an uninhibited snake goddess, replete with erotic back tattoos, a black rectangle obscuring his face.  Despite the attempted black-out, the curl of unruly hair poking out above the black gave the identity of its owner away in an instant.  For once, Reg was telling the truth.

Bleep shook his head. “Babyface’s family and fiancé were threatened with total embarrassment unless he did the business.”

“What did he do?”

“What could he do?”

The baby-faced one set to like the grizzled old pro he’d become, patching patches on patches, bodging bodges on bodges and frigging the frigs that had historically been applied to a load of other frigs.  By the time he’d finished, the product stunk like the outhouses at a French glue factory and what came out of development at the end of that stint was most unsavoury.  It might have worked well enough to the untrained eye, and splitting the input queues over 6 servers and the output queues over another 6 solved the throughput problem, but it wasn’t the twenty four seven solution the client was expecting.  Babyface didn’t care by this point, he was mentally wasted from all the late nights and early mornings; all he wanted was his photos and once they were in his shaky little mitts, he was planning to be off to the Far East in a cloud of dust, for a nice long Thai-stick induced relax in the sun.

“Did he get them?”

“Hell, no.  Reg had never seen Babyface so motivated and on it.  He wasn’t about to surrender his newly discovered golden carrot, not without properly wearing it out first.”

The Petrollica Affair (ii)

21 Mar

Twenty Four Seven

“Why is it,” I found myself asking as I waited patiently for four pints of beer to arrive, “that everyone involved with Petrollica has either run away to Ireland to learn basket weaving or quit the country never to return?”  It’s a question which has kept me awake at night for years, begging for an answer.  Despite many beers with many ex-Bwain engineers over the last forty eight months, no reasonable answer has yet been forthcoming.  I’ve heard many theories, including one that proposed Reg had perfected a porcine aircraft carrier, for which Petrollica were contracted to supply the fuel, but an outbreak of foot and mouth in the hanger bay soon put paid to that plan.  Another theory suggested that Reg had become involved in an international smuggling cartel, importing specially trained monkey pilots from Latin America to fly the pigs, but it all fell apart because he let the monkeys watch too many racy wildlife documentaries, which resulted in a gang of badly corrupt primates, quite prepared to mount anything with a pulse, especially the pigs.

Two beers, a round of cocktails and a pair of shooters later, Bleep was ready to talk.

“Did you know,” he said, taking a break from chain smoking ciggies, sparking up a stubby evil-smelling cigarillo, “it was Ronnie Large who founded Bwain?”

“Never!” I said, taking a matching stubby and sparking it up.  “I assumed it was sly old Reg, he was the mover and shaker.”

Over the next few drinks my friend filled me in on how Bwain came to be.  Whilst Reg was a foxy salesman par excellence, it turned out he wasn’t the man with the money.  He used to make ends meet working in the city, selling insurance schedules for thoroughbred pets to the wives of executives with too much money and too little sense, until one day he got wind of a brilliant sales opportunity from a mate who knew someone who knew someone.  Rather than spending the rest of his life shifting medical repayment plans for pampered high-end ponies, he smooth talked his brother Ronnie into trading him a directorship – some might say ‘dictatorship’ for a share in a deal which he claimed would set them both up for life.  Whilst many firms were jumping on the latest technology bandwagon known as facsimile, or fax for short, there were still three businesses that refused to accept a fax as legally binding evidence in court.  Banks, shipping companies and anyone involved with petrochemicals simply weren’t having fax, they demanded good old telex instead.

Between the pair of them, Ronnie & Reg bought up a one man and his dog outfit that specialised in computerised Telex systems, rebranding the product line as ‘Telex Exec’.  Reg fulfilled his part of the bargain by borrowing a copy of the contacts database from Medi-pet, paying special attention to shipping tycoons and finance moguls, whilst Ronnie called on his legal expertise to put the frighteners on their newly discovered client base.  The plan truly came together with the hiring of office space at a prestigious London address and the launch of the new range of Telex Exec solutions.

Very soon Bwain cornered the market with their secure computerised Telex system; they couldn’t get product out the door fast enough.  Within six months the business had expanded tenfold and Ronnie and Reg were well on their way to making their first mint.

“You remember the Bwain Support File?” asked Bleep.

“The master list of who’s got what, made purposefully unintelligible to the uninitiated.”

“It came about because Reg wouldn’t stop selling product for long enough for Development to catch up with Sales.  They developed a version of Telex Exec that worked with two telex devices, so Reg sold a client four.  They worked day and night on the four port version, and as soon as they finished Ronnie scared someone into needing eight.  It was the classic shifting goalposts manoeuvre, and after six months we were all frackin’ knackered from working ‘til stupid o’clock every night.  Then came Petrollica, a full-on petroleum dealer, who asked for twenty-four telex lines, all working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.”

“Twenty-four seven three six five?  I’ve had firsthand experience of that particular product, there’s no way I would ever trust it as a mission critical component.”

“Listen to you, with your smart new business speak!” laughed my friend.  “It sounds like you’ve recently eaten a management consultant.”

As expected, Reg took no notice of Development, who said 24 lines couldn’t be done, curtly dismissed Babyface’s reservations with a deft wave of his hand and went right ahead and sold Petrollica the most advanced version ever of a theoretical product, along with a bulk order of PCs, several file-servers and all the network cabling.  All in all, it was the single biggest order that Bwain had ever seen.  Suddenly, Banks all over the continent sat upright and started paying serious attention.  Reg could be seen out to dinner in restaurants where only the rich and famous dwell and for a while he became a minor celebrity in the banking fraternity, but no matter how much he talked himself and his products up, no matter how scary Ronnie’s horror stories became, no-one was prepared to place an order for a comparable system until Petrollica was fully commissioned with all the bugs ironed out.

The Petrollica Affair (i)

20 Mar

It’s been a while since I last posted anything in the way of creative writing, mainly because I’ve been very busy with the Ferret Files.

Back in the 80s & 90s I used to work in the City doing tech support and installs for a number of different companies.  One experience in particular sticks in my mind and that’s the installation at Petrollica, who were a petrochemical dealer based in Mayfair.  I’m going to publish Part I over the next few days – see what you think.

The Promise

“So, tell me Bleep, where did you acquire your nickname?”
Bleep ran his hand through thinning hair, shorter than when we’d last met, now with a hint of grey around the temples. “Really mate, you don’t remember much do you? I’m a recognised black-belt at swearing in every continental language. Back in the day they used to call me ‘Monsieur Bleep’ in France and ‘Herr Bleep’ in Germany.”
“Really?”
“Absolutely! It’s only Mister Bleep in England, mind. In Ireland they call me Sweary O’Bleep and over the borders it’s Bleepy McSporan. Babyface was the first one to recognise my unique talent. You remember Babyface?”
“Yeah, I remember Babyface,” I said reminiscing, “but only just.” Truth be told, all I could remember of the baby faced one was his pug nose, childlike grin, squeaky high voice and that one curly lock of annoying hair atop his head which was destined to be forever out of place, no matter what he attacked it with. Everything else was an out-of-focus blur. “I met him twice,” I continued, “the second time was his unofficial leaving do, which happened a week after I joined. After that, everyone was actively encouraged to forget him, which they quite happily did.”
“Babyface left because he didn’t want to manage you,” quipped Bleep, his dark brown eyes flickering playfully. “And who can blame him?”
“What about you? You left at exactly the same time. Rumour had it you both eloped in a sloppy gay lovefest.”
“Now there’s a story,” mused my friend, draping his scuffed and worn duffel coat across the back of a chair, plonking his bum down.
“You made a promise,” I half complained.
“I haven’t forgotten.”
I removed my own jacket and placed it on the back of a chair at right angles to Bleep. “I think I did a rather splendid job of tracking you down after so long. That’s got to count for something.”
“OK, I guess you deserve an explanation – I did sort of drop you in it.”
“You kid me not,” I said, straddling the seat. “Get your mate a fantastic new job and then vanish a couple of days after he starts with no notice or forwarding address. That’s hardly cricket.”
Bleep looked down guiltily. “I don’t suppose you’d like to hear tales of Brussels? I’ve only just got back from a lengthy assignment there. Some very, very good beer, brewed by some very, very strange monks.”
“Absolutely not.”
“I figured that might be the case.” Bleep removed a packet of trademark gold carton cigarettes and regaled himself with an ashtray. “Before I tell you in lurid detail exactly why I was forced to leave the Bwain Consortium, answer me this: have you ever heard of Petrollica?”
“Now there’s a name that could bring any meeting to a close in under a minute. I used to mouth it in those boring sales presentations that Reg held every quarter. Worked like a charm, sent him packing and running for cover every time, without fail.”
“Not surprising, mate. If only you knew.”
“I assume that’s what we’re here for. I have no idea why ‘Petrollica’ inspired such a reaction, just that it did. One of the support guys taught me the trick, but he was new and he didn’t know why it worked either. And neither did the guy who taught it to him.”
“Have you ever read the Installation Report?” asked my pal, cracking open a new pack of golds, discarding the wrapper randomly on the table. “Duty frees. Another of the joys of working in Brussels.” As Bleep carefully withdrew a cigarette, badly bitten fingers chewed to the quick, I caught the whiff of freshly minted tobacco, causing my own demons to briefly cackle awake and assume the position.
“I searched high and low,” I said, doing my best to ignore the lure of tobacco, “every filing cabinet including the special blue ‘confidential’ one which Reg kept securely locked.”
“Depends on who you know.” Bleep gave a smug grin and flipped a cigarette into the side of his mouth, in a well rehearsed motion. “Did you look in Reg’s secret safe?”
“The one with the broken lock hidden behind the picture of him with the Queen? Of course I did.”
“That’s his ordinary safe. I mean the safe hidden behind that safe.”
“Ah.”
Bleep leaned back on his chair, a rickety affair bandaged together with glue and nails, which had obviously been ritually abused in this manner before, probably by guys much larger than my friend and firestick in hand, sparked-up. “Reg intended that that particular report never see the light of day again.”
“In that case why didn’t he just burn it?”
“I guess he needed to keep it as a reminder of how things once were,” said Bleep nonchalantly.
“How is this related to your sudden departure, mystery boy? C’mon, spill.”
“You’ve waited two years already. Another few minutes won’t matter.”
“We’re in the nineties now, 1990 and a half to be precise – that makes it four years.”
“Four year, schmore years. Go on, get the beers in before the barman comes over to have a word. If you want to know about the Petrollica Affair and how it forced me out the company and later the country, you’ll have to get me proper drunk first – which will take approximately six pints of strong beer and a couple of B52s. Have you kept the afternoon clear as suggested?”
“One till four, review meeting with external supplier.”
“Congratulations,” grinned my pal, throwing a brochure down on the table. “Here’s your sales pack, I declare the meeting over. Let’s start the drinking the traditional way with a pair of pints each. I’m hearing good things about the Testicle Roaster, allegedly it’s as lethal as a barrel of pythons fitted with vibrating butt plugs. I’m afraid I’m fresh off the plane with a pocket full of Belgian Francs, so you’ll have to buy.”
“On one condition.”
“Such as?”
“Cigarette. Now.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything, but I knew you’d crack eventually.” My friend smiled, handing me the pack.

 

The Day I Met George Best

15 Jan
commodore64_grande

A Commodore 64 Yesterday

Back in the eighties there were many things that were cool and the Commodore C64 was one of them. At the height of its popularity I was busy working for Commodore Business Machines, where one of the highlights of the year was the annual Commodore show which took place at the Novotel in Hammersmith.

Showtime

Commodore always premiered at least one new games title at every show and this year it was the turn of Astronomy and International Soccer. Roger, the rising star of Marketing decided it would be a brilliant idea to get Patrick Moore on board for a bit of interactive planet spotting and quickly signed him up. Not to be outdone, his pal Dick set off in hot pursuit of George Best. However, during negotiations he failed to explain to George in plain English what was required of him, and George being George, simply forgot to ask.

The show lasted three days, with the first day pitched at business and each of the weekend days aimed at the consumer. Saturday and Sunday were each split into two sessions – the morning and the afternoon. On Saturday morning, George was up first; his job was to challenge all comers at International Soccer for a full thirty minutes. Marketing imagined they’d get at least five games out of George, a slew of publicity photos and a sackfull of autographed footballs. George had an entirely different agenda – get the one game over as quickly as possible, grab a pair of the tastiest models he could find from the promotions agency and squat the bar until closing time.

It was about halfway through game two when George realised he’d been had. By now, a sizeable crowd of over enthusiastic dads had gathered around him and there was no way he could sneak off without causing a scene. So he put on a brave face, smiled sweetly and leaked goals like Lichtenstein away, losing heavily to a succession of kids who had never even seen International Soccer until that day, let alone played it. A string of embarrassing defeats later and George was not a happy man, having conceded 50 goals yet scored only 1. Onstage a perfect gent, backstage he had a sense of humour failure and absolutely refused to go home until he’d had a damn fine drink and was as damn well drunk as it was humanly possible to be.

Ten thirty in the bar, my boss collared me. “This George thing – it’s out of hand.”
“Is he still here?”
“He’s just left for a nightclub with three of the models. But he’s refusing to come back tomorrow unless his list of demands is met.”
“Which are?”
“Put it this way, it’s going to be a long old night for those idiots from marketing while they try and think of a solution. They’ll come to me eventually for answers, they always do, but as I owe them big time for misdemeanours past and I want them to sweat like a fat lass scoffing curry in a sauna before I let them off the hook. Meanwhile, I want you to assemble your boys and getting cracking on a fix. And if anyone asks, deny everything. This conversation didn’t take place. You know nothing.”
“I do?”
“Good lad.”

Sorcery

george_best_manchester_united_668

Georgie Best Superstar

George’s demands, as relayed by his agent were really quite simple: George Best is a world class footballer who doesn’t get beaten by children. He’s also a busy man. Give him the best training you can, in thirty minutes, so he can defeat everyone he plays tomorrow. Otherwise no George, regardless of what it says in the contract. And he wants a special something, preferable shaped like an ex-Miss World, as compensation for embarrassment suffered today.

To the job in hand. For the price of a disk crammed with hacked copies of newly released games, myself and the aforementioned boys blagged the keys to the main hall from an obliging security guard and sat down with a pot of strong, syrupy coffee to plot how we might save Georgie Best, Superstar from public humiliation on the morrow. All apart from Mac and von Bismark, who set about locating the helium cylinder used for filling the show’s balloons and proceeded to get very silly and become a right old nuisance to low flying aircraft for the remainder of the night.

“What do you reckon?” I asked of the remaining boys.
FAB was the best games player in our gang, and as he’d been testing International Soccer exclusively for the last three months, his was the first say. “Hmmm. We could try and teach GB some sneaky game-winning moves, but the kids coming in tomorrow are all the competition winners from the promotions we’ve been doing in the computer mags. Some of them are gonna be good. Real good.”
“So how do we hamper them?”
“Not with helium, obviously – Mac’s made off with that.”
“Let’s electrify their joysticks,” suggested Rambo, the resident hardware engineer, helpfully.
“We can’t be seen to purposefully shock any children, even though some of them undoubtedly deserve it,” I retorted. “And we can’t use mantraps or exploding lemons, or any of your other favourite dangerous things.”
“Awww.”
“It’s the rules – we’re not at work now.”
“There’s only one option left” said FAB, “I’ll have to impersonate George.”
“I know you’ve had your eye on those models all day,” sighed Rambo, “but there’s no way, even with state of the art prosthetics that you could pass for such a well known star. You’ll be spotted in seconds and the dads will scrag you and debag you for heinous crimes against football.”
“Then we’ll have to use sorcery,” I concluded. “Between us we’re good at that – or at least I am, being the reincarnation of the Wizard of Frobozz. So thinking caps on, we’ve been entrusted with saving a superstar.”

Kung Fu Fighting

The morning came. Marketing, who’d spent most of the night bravely propping up the bar became ever more frantic and descended on our table at breakfast mob-handed, all shouting different demands at once. My boss simply shrugged his shoulders and denied it was his problem, until the shouting subsided and the pleading began, in pathetic, whiney voices. Only at this point did the offer of maybe, possibly some training for George materialise. As we all know, desperation is the mother of inflation, and Marketing being as desperate as an enclave of desperados watching a poncho clad Clint Eastwood ride slowly into town on a pale horse, chewing a cigar butt, capitulated, agreeing instantly to pay my boss ‘anything he wanted’.

SONY DSC

Remember these?

“Considering my price,” my boss grinned, “I hope you can deliver.”
“I know nothing about anything.”
“Good lad.”
“FAB will train George,” I whispered. “He’s the best player we’ve got. He’ll show him one or two tricks that aren’t in the manual – overhead kick, super speed mode and kung-fu fighting, although technically killing other players is a red card offence. But we can disable that.”
“Excellent. You’re going to get George all tooled-up.”
“Something like that.”

Sometime later that morning FAB, Rambo and I duly got to meet George Best, shake his hand and tell him how good he was at football, whilst he in turn paid no attention whatsoever to any us, preferring instead to pinch a couple of bums and make the odd lewd remark, which got him a breathtaking smile in return, but when I tried the same lines later that day, got me nothing but a stinging slap. Even when Mac and von Bismark turned up, with a lungful of helium each, giggling like a pair of little girls with a powder puff and a kitten, George remained unmoved. He was charming, with a certain je ne sais quoi, but what he really wanted wasn’t adulation or a conversation, but guarantees. He looked at me, grimaced at Rambo, scowled at FAB, dismissed the two bemused wreckheads with a wave of his hand and turned his full attention to Dick from marketing.
“If this training goes wrong mate, I’m sending Mel Smith and the lads round to kick your car in. Then they’ll eat your ears. Mel likes eating ears, especially in pairs, fried up with mushrooms and a little claret. Understand?”
“Yes, Mr Best,” stammed Dick, covering his ears and running off to move his Porsche into a more secure parking spot.

George Versus

In the days before the Internet and Facebook, there was a much more magical grapevine that functioned just as quickly and just as efficiently, although quite invisibly to the naked eye. Thus it should have come as no surprise that word had gone around town overnight, faster than an amphetamine fuelled cheetah with a rocket pack, resulting in half of London turning up to see George Best play soccer with a joystick, badly, and lose. Security were not prepared for the numbers that followed. At the doors, punters without tickets were initially let in, until the hotel owners began to twitch about fire regulations, after which they were turned away in droves. The guards and bouncers were doubled, trebled and then beefed up again. By the afternoon, the hall was packed, the tension palpable, the atmosphere electric.

International_Soccer_Farbe_PokalGame one started slowly, Best Vs a chap calling himself ‘Lizardman2.0’. George was a nervous bag of ticks, his hands covered in sweat. By 3-0 up, he was starting to enjoy himself, and relaxed somewhat, handing the joystick to Dick, whilst he shook himself down and cracked his knuckles, allowing Lizardman2.0 to get a goal back.
“Watch this,” he laughed, turning to the crowd and scoring a fourth with an impossible back-heel from outside the box.
Final score 5-2 to Best.

Game Two, and George was out of the traps like a bullet, scoring within four seconds against the WerePig and setting a new record. He moved, he grooved, he mesmerised the opposition, slipping past the back four with ease and scoring a couple from close range, before hammering in a belter from the halfway line. Final score 4-0 George, the WerePig retiring beaten.

By Game Three, George was asking for a football, which he kept up with his head, whilst running circles around Bam Stroker, seemingly scoring at will. The crowd stood transfixed, not quite believing what they were seeing. George was supposed to be past it, on the wrong end of a mauling, but the canny old master was back from the dead. Score 3-1 to Best.

Game Four saw George pitted against the Code Mangler. From the off, it was all Best. Best, Best, Bessst! Watch him dribble, such skill, see him nutmeg the goalie. Oh! Best! Unbelievable goal! George loosened up, showboating and ran around 11 players, slipping one in at the far corner and winning 4-0, to a round of raucous applause.

The final scheduled game and George was up against the Mighty Warlock, a rotund gamer dressed from head to toe in finest gothic black, with many years experience behind the stick of pleasure, and who – if rumours are to be believed – went on to become THE top level wizard in World of Warcraft. The Warlock wasn’t having any of George’s aura, and set to like the grizzled old pro he was, slipping two past Best’s defence in a matter of seconds. The crowd became silent, the Warlock smirked.
“Bow down to the true master,” he slobbered.
Half time and it was 3-1 to the Warlock. George faltered, thinking for a second that his new found magical skills had deserted him and immediately the Warlock stuffed in a fourth.
“George!” someone shouted. “We believe in you. You’re the Best.”
“Best! Best! Best!” echoed the dads.
Picking himself up, George weaved around the pitch, stringing a series of stabbing passes together and grabbed one back. 4-2 to the Warlock. From the restart, George’s man threw what looked like a Ninja star, decapitating one of the opposition. Streaming forward, over the blood spattered head, he belted it route one straight down the pitch, where one of his strikers collected, rounded the goalie and dribbled the head over the line into the back of an empty net. 4-3.
“That was cheating!” spat the Warlock.
“Best! Best! Best!” shouted the dads.
Time ticked down, and the Warlock opted for the passing game, trying to annoy George into making a mistake. George’s players backed off, a hole opened up and the Warlock drilled an unstoppable shot into the top corner. Amazingly, Best’s goalie elongated like Mr Stretch from the Fantastic Four, and made the save, smacking the ball up the pitch onto the head of a waiting striker who met it ferociously, sending an unstoppable bullet past the Warlock’s stranded goalie. 4-4, with ten seconds to play.
What happened next happened in slow motion. Literally. The Warlock’s players became wooden, Best’s became a blur. And that was that, Best hacked down clumsily in the box, penalty to Best in the last two seconds of normal time. Best steps up to take it, he sends the goalie the wrong way and taps it in low, beating the Warlock 5-4 and prompting the crowd to break into a bout of uncontrollable hysteria.

What George won during that afternoon session was more than a game – he got his dignity and self-respect back. For a while, he was George Best the legend once more, George the star, adored by millions. He took his bows, to a standing ovation, autographed everything and anything for all and sundry, posed for photos, kissed babes on the forehead, wives full on the lips and was generally just amazing, exactly as you’d expect a superstar to be. Men wanted to be him, women wanted to be on top of him and even though games would become much more realistic and absorbing over the ensuing years, the kids who were there that day knew they’d seen something ultra-special. Even the Warlock shook George’s hand, begrudgingly at first, before he too became swept up in the euphoria of the display, and then he wouldn’t let go, pumping up and down like crazy, eventually posing for a photo that made it onto Page 5 of the Sun.

The Thing

Many hours later, once everything had calmed down, the crowds had dispersed, replete, and George had left the building with a gorgeous girl draped across each arm and a couple of spares in tow for later, my over suspicious boss came to have a word.
“What happened there was incredible,” he said, “totally amazing. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I’d never have believed it possible.”
“It was quite a show,” said Rambo. “Quite a show indeed.”
“George at his best,” I added.
“Most definitely,” concluded FAB sneakily.
“I didn’t get where I am today by believing everything I see,” said my boss. He pointed. “Show me what’s going on behind those banks of computers and monitors.”
“We don’t have the key,” said Rambo, FAB and I simultaneously.
My boss glared at the three of us. “Too rehearsed. Now, the truth.”
“The truth,” I admitted, “is that we weren’t convinced George would remember all the moves…”
“…So we took precautions,” finished Rambo.
“What kind of precautions?”
“The sort of precautions you’ve spent the last two years of your life teaching us to take.”
“Show me. Now.”

150px-InternationalSoccer(Commodore)(Cartridge)FrontCoverThe backstage of the stand was accessed via a concealed doorway with invisible hinges, carefully hidden by the joiners and it was there that all the spare bits of hardware and software were stored away, in case of calamity or worse – theft. In between the various piles of spare cables, spare monitors, boxed computers and shrink wrapped software was a carefully placed executive chair, facing a large, precariously balanced video screen, with a rat’s nest of tangled wires protruding from its rear, terminating in a makeshift circuit board.
My boss understood what was going on within seconds. “You built your own video signal splitter from scratch, to run multiple monitors from the same source. Given the timescales, utterly ingenious.”
“Why, thank you,” grinned Rambo.
“Let me guess,” continued my boss, “FAB, you sat there. George’s joystick – was it even plugged in?”
“Fully switchable between here and there,” said Rambo proudly. “As a concept, that mess of wires is light years ahead of anything you can buy in the shops.”
My boss pursed his lips and stared hard at the three of us.
“I only helped George out when he needed it,” said the software maestro embarrassedly. “That was the plan – Pogo insisted, assist not impersonate.”
I nodded. “That I did.”
“The first game was all me, I freely admit that,” continued FAB. “But by the third game George found his stride and got himself into a rhythm. I didn’t even play in the fourth game, that was all Best. Honest.”
“Tell me,” ruminated my boss, “if I were to turn this ‘thing’ into a commercial venture – just how reliable is it?”
“Well,” admitted Rambo, “the ‘thing’ is not quite there yet. There was a moment in that last game when I had to get my soldering iron out for running repairs. There was smoke and melted wires everywhere, I was convinced we were done for. It was a good job I made two of them last night, just in case.”
“So that’s how George went 3-0 down.”
“We had to dig deep that game,” confessed FAB. “It took all my skill to get the game level. I’ve been after that Warlock for years, he’s the bane of my gaming career, a very good player indeed. Without my help, George would have been toast.”
“Just how much does George know?” asked my boss, the enormity of the deception suddenly dawning.
“What do you think?” I answered.
“I think he has absolutely no idea whatsoever that this Skunkworks exists. Outside of this room, who else is aware?”
“We operate strictly on a needs-to-know basis,” grunted Rambo.
“Absolutely,” said I.
FAB nodded in agreement.
“Have you any idea what will happen if your plot comes to light?” scowled my boss. “The press will have a field day, the company name will become mud and George will be a laughing stock. This secret must stay secret, you’re not to tell anyone what you did today. Least of all Marketing, or they’ll insist on doing it again next year.”
“Whatever do you mean?” I asked. “We didn’t do anything, did we boys?”
“Absolutely not.”
“Never dream of it.”
“One last question, which I really shouldn’t ask, but I’m going to anyway: who scored the winning penalty?”
“Impossible to say,” mused Rambo. “We overloaded a circuit and blew a fuse, just as the ball was kicked. The ‘thing’ is scrap metal, until I build another.”
“I was aiming where the Warlock’s goalie dived,” admitted FAB. “Either I miskicked the ball, which I find unlikely, or by the will of the hardware gods Best got a foot to it.”
“As far as the world outside is concerned,” declared my boss, “it was all Best – and long may it stay that way. That guy was my footballing idol back in the day, it’s a bit sad how it’s turned out for him. Hopefully though, George turned a corner today, and that string of victories put him back on the straight and narrow. We’ll let him have it, and speak no more on the subject. Now, I want your word – all of you – that none of this will out until well after he’s departed this mortal coil.”
“Done.”
“Done.”
“Done.”
Fingers Crossed“Now again, this time with your fingers uncrossed, where I can see them – not hidden behind your backs.”

Epilogue

The footnote to this tale was penned on the Monday morning after the show, when a computer dealer from Tottenham Court Road phoned Commodore to check that the Commodore 64 portable that a certain footballing legend was trying to hawk was not in fact stolen. The ‘special something’ that George was given as compensation by Marketing was not the Miss World he wanted, but rather one of only five C64 portables in the country. Weighing in at a good thirty kilos with a screen no bigger than a modern digital camera, each one looked like a sewing machine in a carrying case. In today’s money, one new would cost a good £10,000, and many collectors would kill for one. But not George. To him it had no intrinsic value whatsoever, its only use being as an instrument of barter for the money of booze.

Good old George, a diamond-encrusted inspiration to the last.

A Carry on with Camels

27 Dec

As a Christmas bonus, here is one of my older pieces that originally ran in a Reed Publications magazine some years ago.  Enjoy!

Occasionally you run into an IT manager, who for some reason unbeknown to anyone other than themselves, a deft salesman and perhaps a nosy waiter has bought a right old donkey of a system, which, no matter how hard it’s pushed will ever perform the service for which it was intended. Even if we were to allow a bit of leeway, like the odd millennium or two, the donkey would still be a donkey: long eared, lonely and unhappy, but available for long summers on Blackpool sea-front, in return for lodgings and a bale of hay a week.

DonkeyQuite often, the manager in question leaves before his donkey is discovered. Or, as in my last equine experience, the company folds due to one donkey mouth too many to feed. This leaves said manager none the wiser as to his mistake and ready to install donkey #2, the ‘Son of Donk’, come the next job. It’s sort of sad for donkeys without aspirations, especially when they’re both bought and sold as something they’re obviously not.

But enough of donkeys. We’ve all seen one before now. A donkey is a donkey, game, set and match; end of story. I’m not here to moralise about Ee-haws, but rather to relate the tale of the project manager who was sold a camel, in order to fulfil what seemed like a perfectly reasonable requirement at the time, but which when put under scrutiny later, left many people scratching their heads in dismay.

Tag

“You should see what they’re ordering to support the new Fabbo billing system. Oodles of hardware and more bits besides,” one of my colleagues confided. “I even saw a camel on the spec sheet. Is that some kind of super-duper UNIX box or what?”

“No, a First World War biplane,” I replied sarcastically, ”as in Sopworth. One propeller, no humps.”

Colleague number two looked up from his desk. “I think you’ll find that it’s actually a real camel – one hump, no propeller. I was in the strategy meeting yesterday, when they decided to buy it as a value added option.”

“No, you jest! What do we know about camels?” my first colleague asked suspiciously.

“Sod all and then less.” I wasn’t really in the mood for a joke. “You two will just have to go on a camel intensive training course, probably in Saudi,” I added. And then as an afterthought, “Fortunately, they don’t let unqualified contractors anywhere near new kit, which means that I’m as safe as houses.”

Which was a perfectly reasonable mistake to make, given my relative camel naiveté. It’s a shame I didn’t manage to keep my mouth shut later, when the technical director collared me down the pub and asked me if I’d ever ridden a camel. Thinking the whole camel thing to be one huge joke at my expense, I was non too guarded in my reply.

“Of course I have. Rode for Britain once, in a race around the Pyramids,” I replied, failing to add that there were only two of us racing and the other party was so smashed on palm wine that he fell off within twenty yards of the start, thus presenting me with an automatic win.

“That’s good,” he replied. “It means I’ll only need to book someone on a mucking out course. Congratulations!” he offered me his hand. “By the way – you’re now officially on Camel Team as the riding consultant.”

Have you ever felt as though you’re ‘it’, in a game of career tag? I did, at that moment in time. In accord with my new found astonishment, my jaw began to do press-ups. “So it’s true then? We’re really getting a camel?”

“Yes, several actually. Management have already approved the budget. It’s all part and parcel of the new Fabbo billing system. I’m not sure exactly what the camels do yet, but rest assured they’ll become an important part of the architecture. We’re building systems for the future here, for years down the line. We might not see any immediate benefit, but it’s there.”

Oh, boy. Squirm as I might, I couldn’t change the technical director’s mind and get him to take his riding cap back. There aren’t many times I can think of when a contractor has been given the opportunity to train in a useless skill for free. Normally you have to pay good money for useless training. But nevertheless, this was about to be one of those instances when your real skill set increases whilst the experience you admit to on your CV decreases. Camel husbandry was not about to become one of my marketable assets. Goodness, no. Admit to something so specific and before you know it you’ve become so specialised that you’ll never get a job doing anything but.

Leapfrog

By now you should be asking yourself ‘Why exactly does an IT department need a camel?’

The answer is simple: because everyone else is still only thinking of buying one. Get in there first and you’re leading edge, lighting the way. Anything else is middle of the paper, or god forbid if you’re really out of date trailing edge, which just won’t do when you’re an IT Vice President boasting to your IT Vice President mates about how good and solid your IT strategy is. And therein lies your business justification, signed and sealed. Leading edge is cool, trailing edge isn’t.

“The installation of the Fabbo billing system at this point in time will allow the Company to leapfrog the opposition and take significant strides into uncharted territory.” said the IT VP at the departmental monthly brief some days later. “We’ll be the envy of every other IT department in the industry, as we become the first Company in the UK to implement this new and exciting technology. Camel Team are go! The eyes of the industry are upon us.”

All of which gave me no option for quitting straight away. There was however, one important decision which nobody had yet made. As with LAN technology (Token ring or Ethernet dear chap?), there are two different options available. Two types of camel to choose from. Do we go for Dromedary or Bactrian? One hump or two? It seems that the ISO committee haven’t finished beating each other up yet, so there’s a bit of a risk involved. There’s only a 50% chance that whoever makes the choice will get the standard right. Careers are made and broken on decisions like this. Which is it to be?

name_in_lights_banner“As I’m not fully briefed on the technology and it’s still very new, I’ll let Camel Team make that choice,” said the technical director. “Of course, I shall take the glory if you get it right. My name will be in lights forever. Should you, ‘erm, choose unwisely, I doubt you’ll ever manage to get gainful employment again. Any of you.”

I made a mental note not to extend my contract once it expired and then got stuck into the business at hand, namely the specification of a camel standard. As I became more involved in the camel scenario, it became apparent that all was not quite what it seemed.

Pin the Tail

A salesman from the Blue Star company had persuaded the project manager in charge of specifying the new Fabbo billing system that it was in the Company’s interests to purchase an additional camel module for each of the new Systems boxes. That’s three camels in Head Office for the pilot system and one per remote site once the system begins to roll out proper. The project manager, who was a busy man with far too many golf meetings for far too few days in the week duly signed the initial order and then passed the responsibility for evaluation onto the technical director.

As the technical director was an unassuming sort of chap who was relatively new to the job and none too technical, he saw the job he’d inherited primarily as one of ‘installation dynamics’. In fact, he decided that as the project manager knew absolutely what he was doing without question (the project manager is God after all; his experience is unimpeachable, his vision unpollutable; he’s also costing the Company a small French Chateau a day, so everything he says must be right), there was actually no need for any kind of evaluation to take place. The IT Vice President had said the Fabbo new billing system is leading edge, which means that the camels must also be leading edge by dint of association. Therefore they’re extremely important and must be treated accordingly. What was originally only an add-on option had sneaked in the back door as a definite purchase and there was no going back on it.

My sarcastic comments were responsible for securing me the job of camel jockey, ready and raring to go. Which in turn made me the only recognised camel expert on site. Suddenly, I found I was not only responsible for riding – my knowledge had somehow elevated me to the status of ‘camel guru’ overnight, which in turn secured me the job of recommending which camel we invested in. And finally, as an afterthought I was also lumbered with the job of housing the wee humpy beasties when they arrived and making sure that no health and safety regulations were breached in the process.

Knowing the futility of trying to extricate myself from the whole mess, I decided I might as well ring around a few suppliers and get a feel for which type of camel to go for. It wasn’t easy, as both had their merits and pitfalls and the more people I talked to, the more the water became muddied. In the end, I stuck my finger in the air and pinned the tail on the Dromedary, which ate slightly less, and therefore left less residue.

Good for the computer room, but not so good for the mucking out team, who had been practising hard with anything sloppy that they could lay their hands on. This caused a minor fracas, which resulted in the technical director authorising the purchase of a fourth camel for head office, to keep the muckers happy.

Bummer! I’d spent a week re-designing the computer room and I’d not envisaged any camel expansion plans so early on. The only way to fit the extra camel in would be to extend the computer room by another ten feet and this would take time and money. I had an idea.

“How’s about we rack the camels sideways,” I suggested to the Blue Star Salesman. “That way we can fit four in without a problem.”

“Sorry mate,” he countered, quick as a flash. “Our horizontal camel racks won’t be ready for another six months. Here, what you need is a bigger computer room. Tell you what, I’ll do you a deal. Call my brother – he’s a builder; he’ll do you a nice price. To make it worth your while, there’s a curry and a crate of beer in it for you.”

None too soon, the hidden costs of camel technology were starting to wake from their heady slumber.

Three Legs

Due to the high profile situation, the computer room extension was signed off almost immediately. The salesman’s brother found himself on the end of a deal which was worth a King’s ransom and then some, which didn’t seem to bother him somehow. The building work was finished in near record time for a hefty bonus worth as much as the contract itself and the vertical camel racking installed.

Delivery day dawned. There was much excitement around the department, as the Dromedaries arrived in a big truck. It had been decided in advance by my colleagues that the camel with the lowest serial number would be called ‘Sopworth’, to remind me of the error of my ways during that initial blunder. As if I’d forget. It’s not the sort of mistake that passes you by just like that. Grrr.

The truck parked up and the camels were led in rather hastily by a heavily bearded Camel Specialist, whose payment terms included four FA Cup Final tickets, simply for holding a piece of old rope. Without a sound he extracted payment, checked his tickets to make sure they were genuine, nodded and left rapidly. There was no ‘please’, no ‘thank you’, nothing. Training? Forget it. It was left to Camel team (i.e. me) to take stock of the situation and figure out what was happening.

Camel2“Here,” remarked my first colleague, checking serial numbers. “Sopworth has only got three legs!”

“So he has,” I said embarrassed. “We better check them all thoroughly, to make sure that nothing else is missing.”

I supposed that one faulty camel out of four wasn’t a bad failure rate, although I didn’t really know for definite. I called the supplier anyway, as you do under such circumstances.

“A missing leg? No! You don’t say. I’ve never seen that before in my life. I knew we should have had them in here before sending them out.”

“You mean you didn’t check them first?”

“No mate, we were in a bit of a hurry. They were shipped straight from the Gulf see.”

“So they’ve not been tested at all?”

“Here look, it’s not a problem – you’ve got my word.”

“And the missing leg?”

“Don’t worry about it. The camel will still work fine without it.”

“That’s not the point. It’s damaged.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Look, I’m smack bang out of camels at the moment.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“I’ll send you a new one when the next shipment arrives. Bye.”

Sack Race

The camel thing – that was ages ago now, but it still seems like only yesterday. It was a bit of a nightmare towards the end, when everything became rather too frantic for my liking. I wasn’t sure at one point whether I was competing in a scorpion filled sack race or a marathon over broken glass.

You know, I’d almost forgotten about the incident, until I overheard two people talking on the train the other day.

“My friend has just started working for a new company and guess what?”

“What?”

“They’ve got camels in their computer room.”

“Really? I didn’t think anyone bought any.”

“Not many people did. They were only popular for about two months and then the industry standardised on monitor lizards.”

“Yes, I remember that now. Anyway, these camels. What do they do exactly?”

“To be honest, I haven’t got a clue. My mate says they’re ultra reliable though. They never go wrong. One of the camels has only got three legs and it still works fine. He said he found a spare leg in the store cupboard, but it’s never been taken out of its box. The fitting instructions got lost, apparently.”

“Typical. Were they expensive?”

“I’d say! They were an arm and a you-know-what to purchase, the hump upkeep costs are horrendous and the yearly maintenance, well: I could purchase a luxury cruiser for less.”

“Why did they buy them in the first place then?”

“God only knows. But then who knows why anything happens in this industry? I know I don’t…”

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