Monday, 9 February 2004

Slow Man at the Keyboard

In 1982 I bought myself a Sinclair Spectrum and was hooked for ever. Years later I discovered that you could actually do quite useful things with a computer, but in those early days I was very happy to devote hours of my time to writing, laboriously in Sinclair Basic, programs which did nothing very much.

The one which I considered the pinnacle of my achievements was called BOUM!: you typed in your name and age and after a bit of chat it told you how many heartbeats you had had since you were born, then it beeped the old Charles Trenet song at you (Boum! Quand notre coeur fait Boum……..) and the words in French, with accents, appeared on the screen while a little red heart bounced along the lines fitting the words to the tune.

When, after a couple of months of slaving at this every night, I first ran the program and it worked, I felt, like Churchill in 1940, that my whole life had been but a preparation for that moment, and was disappointed when nobody fell about with admiration for my little red bouncing heart.

But I continued playing contentedly for many hours a week. I never liked computer games much, probably for the same reason that I never liked real games – because everyone I knew always beat me. But children who thrashed me at Ping had no desire to write silly pointless programs, so in that field I kept well ahead of them.

Then in 1984 I persuaded my employers to let me buy an ACT Apricot computer for my office: an elegant black thing it was, with a mammoth 256KB of RAM, 20MB Winchester Hard Disk, 12” monitor, Superwriter and Supercalc. (I still have it and no doubt it still works, but I know that if I tried to use it I would be constantly reaching for a non-existent mouse.) I built a padded hood to try to subdue the racket made by the daisy-wheel printer, but it was still deafening, so I had to get a dot matrix printer as well; this made a nasty buzzing sound and produced horrid blurred print.
All this lot cost £5,316.

This meant that I then had not only the evenings and weekends but also the working days to play computers, so I leapt into MSDOS with delight and had fun with batch files and all that sort of thing. Also, by the end of 1985 I had launched into what passed for DTP before DTP was invented. There was something called Managers’ Alphanumeric General Interface Code (MAGIC). You typed your text into your word processor interspersed with codes, rather like HTML tags, such as [m18][f24][s14][d18]; this one means 18 pica measure, Garamond 14 points with line space 18 points. Then you sent the file to photo-typesetters and if you were lucky back came the artwork ready to send to the printers.

Obviously, this was a fairly laborious procedure, but I produced such things as 120-page handbooks with it for a while until eventually DTP software and desktop laser printers arrived and life became much easier. By 1987 I had acquired a PC (in those days they were called "IBM-compatible") running the appalling Windows 2.0 (it was clear to me that this Windows thing would never catch on). I also bought the first non-Mac version of Aldus PageMaker (now owned by Adobe and no longer being developed) and an early version of Excel.

That was the last sea change in my relationship with computers. Since then it has just been more of the same, really; over the years I have bought perhaps 25 PCs, some for my office, some for me (and my wife) and some on behalf of a dozen charities with which I became involved. I got them from a variety of suppliers - international, national, local - and reached one conclusion about dealing with computer firms: that computer engineers are, on the whole, honest, friendly and good at what they do, while computer salesmen are, on the whole, arrogant, stupid and incompetent.

In the last few years, of course, the internet has arrived and this is now a major source of pleasure for me. I have made a few websites or webpages - for myself, for a charity, for an arts group, for a house to let, for a caterer, for a café, for a dramatic soprano. I am not much good at these - I can only do very simple ones, very slowly - but this modest skill is in demand because I don't charge anything.

And I typeset small publications with dear old Pagemaker 6.5 and make little databases with Excel 2002 and, of course, I've got bloody Windows XP.

But what's the use of all that hardware and software if it will not run BOUM! with its little red bouncing hearts?

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