At the New York airport on the way back to Denver, I sat in the bar. Over in the corner was a motley assortment of people that could only be a rock and roll band on tour. Leather pants, nose rings, orange hair, and a half-dozen drinks in front of each person were just a few of my clues.
At the counter, the band members stood around making the agents nervous. Evidently, they had booked their seats late and were not pleased with their assignments of middle seats. As I was in the same boat, I stood with this crew harassing the ticket agent. I surreptitiously flashed my frequent flier card, she grabbed my ticket, handed me an aisle seat.
Getting on the plane, I saw that I was next to one of the disgruntled musicians, this one adorned with shoulder length hair and various martial adornments on his leather jacket. He squeezed over me and sat down.
“You have to be with a rock and roll band,” I ventured.
He grunted, presumably in confirmation.
When we got into the air, he called the flight attendant over and ordered two double screwdrivers (“hold the orange juice") and began methodically going at them. I drank a beer and started reading The Chinese Screen.
To my great surprise, he leaned over and asked “Is that Somerset Maugham?” I said it was, and we sat there discussing late nineteenth century English literature.
His name was Würzel and he was in Mötorhead, the quintessential British loud rock band. They were on tour with Judas Priest and Alice Cooper in a heavy metal extravaganza. Würzel’s job was lead guitarist.
“Basically, I try and play as loud as I can,” he said, explaining his job.
“Well, somebody’s got to do it,” I replied.
This comment pleased Würzel so much he waved to the flight attendant to bring two more double vodkas for himself and a beer for me, simultaneously repeating my new rationale for his existence to his mates scattered a few rows up. The flight attendant was treating this crew quite gingerly lest they mistake the plane for one of their hotel rooms, and promptly brought the drinks.
Before landing, Würzel handed me his business card and invited me to the big show at some location he couldn’t remember. Alas, I was still reading my mail by that evening and let this opportunity for cultural enrichment pass me by.
Although I got back in late August, it was into the second week of September before my tapes from the ITU finally arrived, leaving us about 20 days to convert the tapes before the hooptedoodle began.
At INTEROP 91 Fall, on October 11, a live video link to Geneva had been arranged. Pekka Tarjanne and Tony Rutkowski would make the big announcement about the newly freed Blue Book to a packed and hushed audience in San Jose.
My job was to get the standards converted and on the network before the announcement so there would be no turning back. Until we actually let the documents loose on the Internet, there was always the possibility that the bureaucrats would somehow gain the upper hand and stop the experiment.
A week spent trolling the halls of the ITU had produced documentation on about half of the proprietary, in-house text formatting system they had developed many years ago on a Siemens mainframe. The computer division had given me nine magnetic tapes, containing the Blue Book in all three languages. Despite repeated tries, we had gotten nowhere on trying to also get the CCIR radio recommendations and reports, even though the Secretary-General and the head of the CCIR had both appeared anxious to see this data online.
Along with the magnetic tapes, we had half a dozen TK50 and TK70 cartridges from the ITU VAXen. The cartridges contained PC files that were stored on a VAX using DEC’s PC networking products. We had two types of files, one of which was known to be totally useless.
The useless batch was several hundred megabytes of AUTOCAD drawings, furnished by the draftsmen who did the CCITT illustrations. Diagrams for the Blue Book were done in AUTOCAD, then manually assembled into the output from the proprietary text formatting system. The draftsmen were very helpful and quickly said I could have any data I needed.
On my way out of meeting with the draftsmen, however, one of them starting asking some questions about scanners and babbling on about TIFF files. I was puzzled. Why should I care about scanners and TIFF files when I had the diagrams in the original formats?
Turned out that AUTOCAD was indeed used for the diagrams, with the exception of any text in the illustrations. The textless diagrams were sent over to the typing pool, where people typed on little pieces of paper ribbon and pasted the itsy-bitsy fragments onto the illustrations. Come publication time, the whole process would be repeated, substituting typeset ribbons for typed ribbons. A nice production technique, but the AUTOCAD files were useless.
The rationale for this bizarre document production technique was that each diagram needed text in each of the three official languages that the ITU published. While AUTOCAD (and typing) was still being used, the ITU was slowly moving over to another tool, MicroGrafix Designer. There, using the magical concept of layers, they were proudly doing “integrated text and graphics.”
The second batch of DOS files looked more promising. Modern documents, such as the new X.800 recommendations, were being produced in Microsoft Word for Windows. My second batch of tapes had all the files that were available in the Word for Windows format, the new ITU publishing standard.
To do the conversion, I was quite lucky to be working with Sun Microsystems on a research grant. They had sent over two large servers for a research program I was participating in and graciously agreed to allow us to use one server to post standards on the network. Without their help, we wouldn’t have had the resources to do anything.
Step one was to begin tackling TPS, the ITU wonder program developed years ago. I brought the tapes over to Mike Schwartz, a professor at the University of Colorado and my partner on the Sun research grant.
The ITU had documented the format we could expect the tapes to be in. Each file had a header written in the EBCDIC character set. The file itself used a character set seemingly invented by the ITU, known by the bizarre name of Zentec. The only problem was that the header format wasn’t EBCDIC and the structure the ITU had told us would be on the tape wasn’t present.
Using Captain Crunch Decoder Rings, we finally figured out a collating table for the mystery header character set and managed to hack the files off the tape. There were large amounts of data at the beginning and end of files which seemed useless and was simply deleted. We crossed our fingers that the deleted information would not be needed later and indeed, it wasn’t.
Next, we had to tackle TPS. This text formatting language was as complicated as any one could imagine. Developed without the desire for clarity and simplicity I had come to expect from the UNIX operating system and its tools, I was lost with the Byzantine, undocumented TPS.
The solution was to take several physical volumes of the Blue Book and compare the text to hexadecimal dumps of the files. I then went to the Trident Cafe and spent a week drinking coffee trying to make sense of the data I had, flipping between the four files that might be used on any given page of text trying to map events in the one-dimensional HexWorld to two-dimensional events in the paper output.
In-between trips to the coffee house, I was trying to take care of diagrams and the PC files. Diagrams were simple: I sat down every morning for a few hours and scanned in diagrams. The diagrams were saved as TIFF and EPS files, then uploaded to our Sun server.
The PC files were all unloaded onto a VAX, then moved over to the Sun then downloaded at 9,600 bps to my home network. There, the files were loaded into Word for Windows, and then exported as Rich Text Format, the Microsoft proprietary standard for open document interchange. The RTF files were then converted to Word Perfect and ASCII, and all four file formats were sent back up to the Sun.
All told, it wasn’t unusual to be downloading and then uploading 10 to 20 megabytes per day, all using a 9,600 bps modem. Still, this was the easy part. It was TPS that almost killed us.
Finally, after pages and pages of PERL code, we had the beginnings of a conversion program. We had tried to use the software developed at the ITU to convert from TPS into RTF, but the code had been worse than useless.
The day before leaving for INTEROP, I was still working desperately away on the conversion program. Tables and equations were still not coming out the way I had wanted them to, but finally, it came time to start hand editing. Any tables that couldn’t convert properly were thrown out. Same with equations.
At 2 A.M., with the SuperShuttle coming at 6 A.M., it was finally time to pack for INTEROP (and the six weeks of travel that would immediately follow INTEROP). The data wasn’t perfect, by any means, but the Blue Book was on the Internet ready to be distributed. The Bruno project was ready to roll.
As I packed, I reflected on what had been an awful 20 days, programming like a madman to do the conversion. It was amazing how the ITU had been doing a conversion, with lots of people available, but had reportedly estimated that it would take a total of 10 years, and roughly U.S. $3.2 million, to complete the job. By my calculations, if it would have taken 40 days to make the conversion perfect, my time would have been worth, on the ITU scale of reality, U.S. $10,000 per hour. My only hope was that I might be able to use this data to justify an increase in my consulting rates.
As I was going to sleep, I tried to figure out how bad a case of bureausclerosis one would have to have to in order to turn a 20 day (40 to make it perfect) conversion effort into 10 years of agony. Over the next few months, as I visited Geneva again and saw the experiment run into the famed international bureaucracy, I was to learn how it could easily take 10 years, or, more likely, never get done at all.