THE ORIENTAL EXPRESS

Copyright Dr Alan Solomon (1986-1995)

It was August in London, the kind of August that you think about in
December but rarely see in August.  The heat lay over the City like an
exhausted cliche, as the thermometer nudged up towards 20 degrees
(that's 68 in the old money).

I took another winegum, and for the umpteenth time toyed idly with the
idea of learning C, and once again decided that it would have to wait
until I grew up;  meanwhile, I'd stick to Pinball.

In the anteroom outside my office, Janet was doing the misfiling;  I
could hear her drawers slide in and out.  I use a very simple filing
system - everything important goes onto a heap on my desk, and
everything else goes to Jan.  Heaven only knows what she does with it.
Still, I didn't hire her for her filing skills.  She couldn't type
either.  And furthermore, she wasn't very good at keeping the public
out of my office, because a Japanese woman had just walked into my
office without so much as a by-your-leave.

She was like a miniature flower - small, elegant, delicate, beautiful
and fragrant.  I stopped playing Pinball, and stared at her while my
balls slowly sank towards the bottom of the screen.  "Doctor Solomon",
she said.  "Please, quickly, you must help."

Immediately I put on my bedside manner.  In the disk quack game, you
soon learn the key phrases, like "There there" and "Oh, no!" and "No
backup?!" in a sympathetic tone of voice.  And of all these, the most
useful is "Tell me all about it", and that was the line I fed to
little Lotus Blossom.

She responded with a torrent of explanation, none of which I
understood.  That's OK, the first explanation is usually pretty
incoherent, but it seems to calm the patient down, so that you can ask
the vital questions like "Which computer?" and "Which version of DOS?"
and then find out exactly what has happened to their data.

People often ask me, "What is the usual problem that causes massive
data loss?" The answer is always the same, "Inadequate backup." The
reasons why hard disks go toes-up are many and various, and there are
rarely two the same.  The other question that any Disk Quack gets
asked a lot is "What do you use, Norton?" The answer to that one is
Debug and Turbo Pascal, although I'm thinking of switching to C.  I
think people mention Norton just to prove that they've heard of Pete's
noddy little proggie.

Anyhow, after she'd finished telling her story, I started asking my
standard set of questions.  "Which computer?", I asked.  "An IBM
5551", she said, which stopped me cold.

Oh boy.  It just so happens I've heard of that little baby.  It's the
Japanese-language word processor they sell in Japan, with a monochrome
graphics screen and three upright 5 1/4 inch floppy drives.  It isn't
an IBM PC clone, but it is an MS-DOS machine.  There's an awful lot of
these little fellows in Japan (that's another story) but this was the
first one I'd heard of in the UK.

Apparently her boss had been using it as a word processor.  For the
last three months he'd been writing a major report on the Eurocurrency
market for his Zaibatsu back in Japan.  He was just finishing it off,
before going on a week's holiday, and the disk had become corrupt at
the last minute as he did another save.  No, there was no backup, none
whatsoever.  Yes, the document was critically important.  "This could
be a matter of life and death", said Lotus, in a significant tone of
voice.  "Please hurry.  We've got to get it recovered before he gets
back from holiday."  Why is it everyone wants the express service?

Normally, when I quack a disk, there's a lot at stake;  usually at
least two month's work and sometimes an entire business can depend on
whether I succeed or fail.  But to me, it's just data.  I've done work
for the military, and, on the other hand, once I rescued a game for a
14-year-old kid.  The importance or significance of the data is
irrelevant to me.  Surgeons have the same attitude;  when you're
sewing up torn flesh, you have to forget that it's a person in pain,
it's just more meat.

But I'm not a medical doctor, and I'm not used to blood.  I expect
surgeons have the same squeamishness when it comes to computers.  I
had visions of a Japanese man shamed, complete loss of face, total
failure, and ritual Seppuku.  Seppuku is rather like formatting your
own entrails, on purpose.  I've never done a disk quack with quite so
much at stake, but how could I refuse?

Actually, I could think of several ways to tackle it.  If this had
been an IBM PC and English, it would have taken me about five minutes.
It wasn't a PC, but it was an MS-DOS machine, and I know MS-DOS and
her little ways.  The main problem was going to be the fact that the
documents would be in Japanese, and so I wouldn't be able to read
them.

I told Lotus to fetch me the machine - no promises, mind, but I'd have
a look at it.  Meanwhile, I had other fish to fry, and perhaps even
some chips, since it was time to feed the inner man.

The next day was more like summer - cold, drizzly and with a hint of
thunder.  As I squeezed past Jan into my office, I saw several large
boxes on my desk, and a collection of diskettes.  I connected the 5551
together, but there was one box that didn't seem to have any obvious
purpose.  It said Racal-Vadic on the front, and it was obviously a
modem, so I just left it disconnected.

The power plug was a very different shape from our three-pin square
plugs, but the end that connected to the 5551 was a standard PC-type,
so I connected the power cable from my PC to it.  Then I had second
thoughts.  Why did it have this funny power plug?  How did they
normally plug it in?  What voltage did this thing work on?  I had a
look at the monitor, and sure enough, it was 110 volts.

I got Jan to phone up Lotus, and asked for the transformer that I
guessed existed.  She said I already had it, and I guessed that there
must be quite a lot of people who can't tell a modem from a power
supply.  When the transformer arrived, I powered up the 5551, and
booted it off its DOS.  Then I put in the corrupted diskette, and
looked at the boot sector, FAT and directory using good old Debug.

Horror!  The boot sector looked only slightly like a boot sector, the
sectors that should have contained the FAT were completely
unrecognisable and there was something that looked like a directory,
but it was in the wrong place, and had the wrong structure.  Could a
disk be so badly corrupted?  Well, yes.  I've often seen disks with
all sorts of data splattered over these vital early sectors.

I looked at the early sectors on the DOS disk, and it looked just as I
thought it ought to.  So I fired up the WP program, and spent a few
minutes wondering what the Japanese menu was offering me.  I'm not
usually one for icons, but at that point, even a MAC garbage can would
have looked good.  I couldn't begin to guess how to make this program
do anything.

So I phoned up Lotus and had a little chat with her about things.  The
big thing I wanted to know was how you got blank diskettes ready for
use - did you format them, or did the WP program do it.  As I feared,
it was the WP program, which meant that maybe this thing didn't use
DOS disks.  So I asked Lotus to send me a few simple documents on
disks, plus an explanation in English of what the menu choices meant.
And sure enough, when I looked at Lotus's documents, they were not DOS
diskettes.  That meant I'd have to reverse engineer the format that
the diskettes used.

I had a look at some documents.  The Japanese Kanji characters were
each represented by two bytes (there are 1836 different Kanjis).  And
it looked to me as if the most significant nibble (half a byte) in
each word was being used for formatting information.  Every now and
then on the disk, there was something that looked like some kind of
header, and since there was no FAT, this header probably included a
pointer to the last chunk of file, and to the next chunk.  The fact
that the WP file was so highly structured meant that I couldn't just
collect together all the sectors on the disk into one long file, and
let Mr Moto sort out his document.  I had to understand how the WP
stored documents.

The process of reverse engineering a file format is good fun, and the
method you use is the obvious one.  First you create a file that
contains nothing, and have a look at that.  Then you create a few
files that have got a single character and see what the difference is.
Then you gradually work up to bigger and more complex files.  All the
time, you write down what you've found out, and all the time you're
hoping that the guy who designed this thing had a logical and straight
forward mind.

I think the next few days were quite good for my soul.  Sometimes, you
can get so drunk with your own cleverness that you forget what
computers must be like for most people.  I discovered the simple joys
of a manual that meant nothing whatsoever to me, and might as well
have been written in Greek.  I found myself on the receiving end of
incomprehensible little prompts that were probably telling me to press
some key, or insert some diskette, only I couldn't understand them.  I
travelled through menus that I didn't understand, and put in diskettes
without knowing what they were.  There were tantalising fragments of
English that I could almost understand, and the menu choices used
numbers, and the whole thing was almost comprehensible - I felt close
enough to persist.

But by the time the week had ended, I still couldn't work that word
processor program, which meant that I couldn't reverse engineer its
funny file format.  Nor could I deduce the file format from the
samples that Lotus had given me;  I needed to be able to make changes
myself and see the results.  I got very frustrated and very grumpy;  I
even snapped at Jan when she asked me how I was getting on.  Because
the calendar was ticking away, and when Mr Moto came back from
holiday, I knew what would happen if I hadn't rescued his report.

I tried, I really did.  That weekend, I took the 5551 home with me and
worked on it there, something I swore I'd never do.  I tried
everything I could think of - I used Debug to string bits of disk
together, and tried to get it into the WP, which refused to accept it,
and gave me an error message that I couldn't understand, and which
might have said "No Way" or might have said "Please press the Z key".
It was like playing hunt the thimble, without anyone to tell you if
you were getting hotter or colder.  I felt like a single monkey with a
single typewriter, trying to write the complete works of Shakespeare.

At 3 AM on Sunday, I gave up.  Well, actually, I fell asleep, my head
resting on my log book.  The next thing I knew was Jan shaking me to
wake me up;  it was ten o'clock on Monday morning, and I hadn't turned
up at the office, so she'd got worried and she'd come and got me,
bless her.  I ran a razor over my stubble, slung the 5551 into the
back of the car, and drove down to the City, wondering how I was going
to break the news to Mr Moto.

Lotus Blossom showed me into his office.  Mr Moto stood up and bowed
to me, and wished me good morning.  I bowed back, and said "Ohayo,
Moto-san", which used up most of my Japanese.  We then exchanged
cards;  I gave him my disk quack card and intoned "I am Doctor
Solomon".  We bowed again, and sat down.

His desk had the kind of Zen simplicity that I often strive for but
never achieve.  It was completely bare of papers, and had nothing on it
except an in-tray with some papers, a beautiful lacquered desk-set and
an abacus.  The Japanese still use the abacus - a skilled abacus user
can be faster than someone using a calculator, and there are no
batteries to run out.  I had a bet once with a Japanese friend;  we
would race to add up a column of two-digit numbers, me with my
calculator and she with her abacus.  She was fast, very fast.  Her
fingers flew over the beads, and when she'd finished, she looked up
and I told her the right answer.  She was astonished - she'd never met
anyone who could use a calculator faster than she could use an abacus.
"I cheated", I said.  "I did it in my head."

Some people find it difficult to cope with the length of time it takes
Japanese to get down to business - I have problems with the way
Americans and Brits jump straight in.  The door opened and Lotus came
in, carrying a tray.  She put the tray down, closed the door, picked
the tray up and put it down on the desk.  Very carefully, she put down
two paper doilies, and then she put a small glass of jasmine tea in
front of each of us.  I took a sip.

"Well, Doctor Solomon", said Mr Moto.  This was the moment I'd been
dreading.  Should I try to break it gently to him?  Should I explain
how impossible it had been?  Should I apologise?

"I failed", I said.  He gazed at me impassivly.  "It was too difficult
for me;  I couldn't get your document back." His face was blank,
inscrutable.  He reached for his lacquered desk-set, and my worst fears
were realised;  the letter-opener glinted dully in the fluorescent
lights, looking just like a Samurai katana, and I knew that I couldn't
sit idly by and let this appalling thing happen.  I dived for the
letter-opener, tripped over the carpet and fell flat on my face across
his desk;  his tea landed in his lap.  "Don't do it!" I yelled, dazed.
Lotus Blossom rushed into the room to see what all the commotion was
about, just in time to see me grab the letter-opener.  It felt
strangely light in my hand, and I realised that it was balsa wood,
lacquered to look like metal.  Mr Moto and Lotus were very concerned,
and asked if I felt all right.  I explained about the letter-opener,
and Mr Moto looked puzzled.  So I explained that I'd been trying to
stop him committing Sapporo, on account of losing so much face when he
lost his document.

He stopped looking so inscrutable.  He made a funny sort of snorting
noise, and then another, and then he couldn't hold himself in any
longer and started falling about helplessly with laughter.  Don't ever
let anyone tell you that the Japanese have no sense of humour - they
just have a different culture and find different things funny.  As I
rubbed my painful nose, I began to see the funny side of things, and
soon we were both rolling around shouting "Sapporo" and "Banzai".
After a while, we both ran out of puff, and he explained to me that
Sapporo was cherry blossom time - well, of course I knew that, I just
keep getting confused about the words Sapporo and Seppuku.  And then
he explained that losing a diskette wasn't exactly the end of the
world, and certainly not something to be purged in cold steel.  So I
asked why the job had to be done by the time he returned, and he
explained that if I couldn't get it done by now, he was going to have
it retyped.  "Retyped?", I echoed stupidly.  "Yes," he said, "from my
latest print out."