In the bank

Some of you will know that my mother died not so long ago. This brings with it a variety of admin tasks, which you go through as best you can. These can be tiring, but also, it turns out, often bring you into contact with surprisingly friendly and supportive people.

And one effect of bereavement seems to be that you find yourself wanting to talk a lot. Someone asks how you are and next thing, you’ve told them some memories of the person who’s died, or how the death came about, or that no really you’re managing fine because the way you’re feeling is nothing like you imagined it would be beforehand . . . Or at least, that’s how it’s been for me. It’s a different experience for every bereaved person, I think.

Anyway that’s not really what I’m wanting to write about. It’s background. I’m writing about the assumptions that are often made about “old” people and computers.

I had to inform my mother’s bank of the death. This entailed taking a death certificate in and filling in a straightforward form, and I’d made an appointment to do this. The bank had an open area with seats and tables, where people could do banking stuff in an informal atmosphere, and a separate mini-office which could be used if more privacy was wanted. I wanted more privacy, but was waiting in the open area for my appointment.

Also waiting was an oldish lady with a walking stick. I was in a talkative mood, we got talking and I mentioned what I was there for. She said “Oh, I am sorry. How old was your mum?” “89,” I said. “But it wasn’t unexpected. She’d been ill a long time, and . . . ”

“Oh.” she answered. “Well I’m 89!” so I hurriedly reassured her that she was in far better health than my mother had been and that I was sure she’d got years and years ahead of her . . .

At this point I was rescued from digging myself into any deeper hole by the arrival of one of the bank staff. I sat myself further away so as to let their conversation be private. But I couldn’t help hearing most of it anyway. So much for privacy in open-plan banks.

The man from the bank asked how he could help her. “Well,” she said, “I’ve accidentally locked myself out of my online banking. I entered my Face Time password by mistake instead of the banking one, and now it won’t let me in . . . ” From the subsequent conversation it was clear that she used online banking all the time, and that she was perfectly comfortable with it except for the minor issue of it being difficult to remember a different password for everything without occasionally getting one wrong.

Contrast that with the stereotype of someone her age: confused, terrified of computers, totally hopeless when put in front of one, needing to be led by the hand through the simplest of operations . . .

In fact there’s even a similar stereotype about over-50s. Well I’m one of those. In fact, if the calendar is to be believed, I’m 57. (Very odd. I still think I’m 33. Possibly a little older, but definitely no more than 36.) We’re supposed to be unable to use a computer or understand the simplest of jargon . . .

Well. By the time I left university in 1984, I had programmed in Fortran, Algol, Basic, and 6502 assembler. (The 6502 was one of the early microprocessors.) The first computer I had of my own was an Amstrad PCW8256, but I upgraded the memory to a whopping 512 kB. Half a megabyte!

You could use one of these with the software it came with, if you just wanted to use it as a word processor. But I wanted to do more with it. And if you wanted to use your “home computer” for anything more interesting, you had to program it yourself. None of this ridiculous searching around for apps that don’t do quite what you want: write something yourself that did exactly what you wanted, or possibly read computer magazines and laboriously type out somebody else’s program then correct all the typos that were stopping it running and giving you error messages . . .

I wrote BASIC programs for a while, but I knew that was inefficient. BASIC was an interpreter: that is, the computer had to translate the instructions as it went, turning instructions like IF N>10 THEN GOTO 320 into sequences of hexadecimal digits (or really, sequences of 1’s and 0’s, read in blocks of 8 and effectively fed straight into the electronics) which the computer’s processor could execute.

I didn’t like being limited to BASIC. I wanted to program in machine code (the 1’s and 0’s). This is usually done using a program called an assembler: this lets you write short instructions meaning things like “increase the value of register A by 1” or “load the value stored at the following memory location into register B”, which it then translates into the 1’s and 0’s for you. The program you then run is the translated version.

For some reason presumably known to Amstrad, the assembler that came with the computer didn’t have any documentation and I couldn’t get it to work. (It was also, I later found out, written for the wrong processor: it was for the 8080 processor, whereas the computer contained the more advanced Z80.)

So, what did I do? Give up because our generation didn’t understand computers? No, I wrote my own assembler. First in BASIC, but then—once it was working—in machine code. I used the BASIC version to assemble the first machine code version, and thereafter, each machine code version to assemble the next. And you know what? The machine code program ran at 130 times the speed of the BASIC one! I was stunned. It suddenly did in about two seconds what had previously taken it well over four minutes.

What I find sad is that since then, computers have got faster too quickly: rather than run more and more efficient and reliable software, they run more and more unwieldy and bug-ridden software which grinds to a halt on all but the most up-to-date machines. They get away with it simply because processors have got ridiculously fast and storage has got ridiculously big.

I also find it sad that at some point, schools switched from teaching children coding (albeit in BASIC because it was simple), with the excitement of making their own programs do their own things, to teaching them the tedious “skill” of understanding what all the badly-named menu options in some piece of commercial software are for. To my mind that’s not understanding computers—it’s understanding office work. And it’s all in the manual anyway, if the manual’s any good.

So there you go. I think “my generation” understood computers rather well, and I think the 89-year-old in the bank understood hers well enough for all the things she wanted to do on it. She just found remembering which password was for what a bit tricky. And who hasn’t had that problem?

Don’t make assumptions based on age!

2 responses to “In the bank

  1. Yesterday, @billt (Twitter) pointed me to https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ywaqbg/collapse-os-is-an-open-source-operating-system-for-the-post-apocalypse – a short article about ‘Collapse OS’, an open-source OS being developed for the post apocalypse (>2030) by Virgil Dupras, who thinks there’ll be lots of Z80 8-bit microprocessors to scavenge from scrap PCs, cash registers, musical instruments, graphing calculators etc.

    The OS must “run on minimal and improvised machines, interface through improvised [I/O devices], edit text files, compile assembler source files for a wide range of MCUs and CPUS, read and write from a wide range of storage devices, and replicate itself.”

    Dupras is looking for like-minded Z80 programmers to help finish his project.

    PS: Wasn’t the Z80 used in the Sinclair Spectrum predecessor?

    • I should think there probably are a lot of Z80s around—and it occurs to me that since they crammed considerably less circuitry onto the chip than modern processors, they may well be less fragile electrically and remain functional for much longer.

      As I remember, the Z80 was used in Sinclair’s ZX-80 computer, which could only output a monochrome display. I didn’t have one, but I remember us being warned in one of our courses not to try to design devices with too many functions for each button “otherwise it ends up like the ZX-80”! I’m not sure what was in the Spectrum.

      Not sure what I think of a world dominated by Z80-based self-replicating scavenging robots . . .

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