The great Silicon Valley Wireless MP3 Barbecue

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The Independent Online

Truth be known, there are only a couple of topics of conversation here in Silicon Valley. Mostly, we talk about innovation, demos and hacks. In the summer, we also talk about barbecues.

Truth be known, there are only a couple of topics of conversation here in Silicon Valley. Mostly, we talk about innovation, demos and hacks. In the summer, we also talk about barbecues.

The US Department of Justice and Microsoft both cite innovation as the reasons to break the company up, or not to break it up, respectively. Both claim innovation will benefit if they have their way. It's the only thing they agree on, but, as far as I can tell, neither side has offered an opinion on demos, hacks or barbecues.

Strange, if you ask me: innovation is a complex issue. Demos, hacks and barbecue are much more straightforward: there's a lot more local consensus on those topics. So it will come as no surprise that when we recently threw a bash in my back yard (just off Sand Hill Road, ground zero in Silicon Valley), it featured innovation, a demo, a hack and, of course, a barbecue. I billed it as the Wireless MP3 Demo and BBQ.

But first, a little background. I once worked for a corporation where my duties included writing computer code. I spent most of that time writing high-level scripts that managed a publishing system: fairly low-level stuff as coding goes - grunt work. But I enjoyed learning the programmer's craft - a big part of which is learning how to analyse problems and break them up into manageable pieces.

In theory, you do most of the work of writing a program before you turn the computer on, often with pencil and paper. You think through the problem the program is meant to solve, and draw a diagram of shapes joined by arrows, called a flow chart, that identifies all the actions the computer will perform, the screens and choices that users will be presented and all the paths the program will follow in response to those choices.

Then you look for what's called the "stickiest box" - you identify the part of the program that will be the hardest to write and then you try to write it. If you succeed, the rest of the program is relatively easy: if you don't, you spare yourself wasting a lot of time. If you're of a certain mind, you can disappear into the code for days looking for the answer. Once you have a little experience, you begin to look for clever and elegant ways to solve Mr Sticky Box.

Really good solutions are referred to reverently, at least among programmers of a certain age and/or mindset, as good hacks. Things like the all-but-mindless ILOVEYOU virus are sneered upon by true hackers. Real hacking involves ingenuity, cleverness and deep knowledge of really arcane systems.

Nowadays time is my scarcest commodity, and I use that premise to excuse the crude hacks I attempt. In the case of the Wireless MP3 BBQ, I was trying to solve the multiple stereo problem, which you may also suffer from if you have lived in a house with more than a couple of rooms for more than a few years. Basically, every time we've bought a new stereo, the old one goes somewhere else like the patio ("garden" to you all in the UK).

The problem comes when you want to broadcast the same music throughout house, and that music doesn't come from a source such as a public radio station. We're of an age and predilection that we like music from a certain era in the late 1960s, so we have to rely on our cherished Motown and rock and folk-rock CD collection.

Now while our stereo setup isn't state-of-the-art, our home computer network includes a wireless segment that covers the whole house and back yard.

So, I reasoned that we could set up one of our laptops with a wireless network card, rip our party CDs to a server, and jack the laptop into the stereo that covered the area where the people happened to be. If the party moved from, say, the patio to the family room, you could just move the laptop, change the plug, and voilà... playlist continues.

Which is just what I did: I especially had a ball showing friends Kevin McKean and Michael Rosenberg the Linux server where the MP3s resided, sitting on its $4.98 hardware-store rack in the garage, and we spent a while inspecting the software and connections to the laptop, a tiny, offbeat Macintosh model built for the Japanese market.

While the laptop read the MP3 files over a wireless link, the ancient receiver it was tethered to required a cord. We agreed that the setup nevertheless qualified as "wireless" even after I had to plug the laptop into its power supply when its battery died.

And so the night went: we kept poking at the computer, we drank some wine, we pulled Web pages up over the wireless link, we drank some more wine, ate some barbecue and then had some wine. My wife rolled her eyes at the spectacle - we had a great time. When I got up the next day, there was e-mail confirmation for all the new domains we'd registered that night (they had seemed like such good ideas at the time) and the MP3 server had never skipped a beat.

A young friend pointed out that I could have just moved the CD player, rather than the laptop. But where's the innovation in that?

Which goes to the topic of just what innovation really means: stay tuned (wirelessly, of course) for the next column...