Tag Archives: PCW

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!

Missing an old wordprocessor

Every so often, writing on my decrepit laptop at home or on the fast up-to-date PCs in the library, I find myself wondering when modern word processors like Word will catch up with the old one which I used from about 1989…

I’m talking about the Amstrad PCW8256, running a wordprocessing package called Locoscript 2. (Later, I upgraded to Locoscript 3!) The computer had 256 kB of memory (yes kilobytes not megabytes), though I eventually upgraded mine to 512 kB. It had no hard drive. Starting up the wordprocessor involved inserting a 360 kB disc, waiting until the grunting noises from the disc drive stopped, then taking it out to insert whatever disc my documents were on.

The computer had a specially designed keyboard, with extra keys which are absent from the standard PC one: in particular the [CUT], [COPY] and [PASTE] keys. Also unlike a standard PC keyboard, it had all the characters on it which you would have expected any decent typewriter to have. (Yes, I remember typewriters too…) And they were a comfortable distance apart–less stretching of the fingers was involved than on most PC keyboards.

As I recall–unless I had to upgrade the memory before I could use that version–Locoscript 2 fitted on one side of its 360k disc; the other side was used for extra fonts and things. Yet it could happily do useful things which in modern wordprocessors are either absent or very difficult. Features I particularly miss are:

  • Multiple clipboards for copying and pasting. I found this incredibly useful if I had a set of notes in a more or less random order and was trying to collect them into something organised. There were effectively 36 clipboards, labelled A-Z and 0-9. So if I wanted to collect the material together for a particular section of my document, I would simply go through the notes, and copy/cut each relevant one to one of the clipboards. Then when I’d got them all, [B][PASTE] A [PASTE] B [PASTE] C [PASTE] D[/B] etc. would plonk the contents of clipboards A, B, C, D… all down into the new location, nicely collected together in the desired order. You’ve no idea how clumsy and inefficient having just one clipboard seems after being used to working like that.
  • Search and replace for formatting codes, not just text. By formatting codes I mean the ones for bold type, italics etc. Suppose you decide that a particular word–say a name of a pub or something–should always appear in quotation marks. Then you change your mind and want it in italics, without the quotation marks. Simple: you search for all instances of “word in quotes”, and have them automatically replaces with word in italics.
  • Add any accent to any character. I think I’m right in saying that with current PCs running Windows, if you want a particular accent on a particular character then you’ve got to have a font installed that includes that particular accented character. Some are more difficult to come by than others. For example, I’ve searched and searched unsuccessfully for a c with a hacek on it (needed, for example, if I want to spell the composer Janacek properly, or even if I want to spell hacek properly), and I occasionally want to type Welsh words which have a circumflex accent on a w or a y: both very common in the Welsh language but completely lacking in the standard fonts. This was easy in Locoscript: accents are like separate characters, so you just type the accent, type the character, and get what you’re after.
  • No need to use 0.5 when you mean a half. How many times have you seen people type, say, 1.5 hours simply because it’s so hard to get at a half sign? (I mean, since when did we divide hours up into tenths? Units of six minutes? It’s crazy!) It leaps out as WRONG. No problem on the PCW: it was properly thought-out and you simply pressed the half key, located somewhere to the right of the spacebar. I still remember my shocked disbelief the first time I used a standard PC keyboard, was merrily typing away, then needed to type something-and-a-half. How could anything so utterly basic be missing?!
  • Add user-designed characters to a font. No font can cover absolutely everything that might be needed. In my case, I wanted to make notes on harmony, and I needed symbols which are used for that, such as a 6 above a 4, or a 9 above a 7 with a flat sign after the 9. Obviously those didn’t come with the font. But it was easy enough to create them, and add them as special characters.

The question is: if a wordprocessor which fitted on one small disc and ran on a computer with only 512k of memory could do all this, why can’t the memory-eating modern ones like Word do it? In particular, the multiple clipboards and the half sign seem to me like essentials in anything calling itself a wordprocessor, and ther absence makes present-day wordprocessors feel clumsy and amateurish in comparison–almost as if they’d accidentally missed out a letter of the alphabet or something.

And don’t get me started on the amateurishness of the DTP-like features of certain wordprocessors… Well not unless you want to. Let’s just say that some of the default settings are designed to make any document leap out as being amateurish and the first thing you have to do for any piece of serious work is to override them all…

There. That feels better! 🙂