80-Bus News


May–June 1984 · Volume 3 · Issue 3

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Dave Hunt’s Bits

Introductory Wafflings

Time flies, it seems like only yesterday I was writing my last piece in a panic to get something into the mag. Yet, in the intervening time I have been on holiday, come back again, sat around, another mag. has come out, I have done this and that and I still don’t feel inclined to start setting anything down for the next issue. Still having read the letters in the last issue, and having a distinct feeling that I’m being got at, I have summoned up the energy to put fingers to keyboard, and pour out more of the same old gibberish I’m famous for.

As I seem to have got away with some rude remarks about our Editor in my last piece, well try again. He’s had a new toy for the last six months!! No, it’s not Viv, as mentioned in my last article … but read on. If any one in the readership happens to be a traffic cop on the M1 or M6, en route from Chesham to Blackburn, and if you happen to stop a white TVR doing what it’s supposed to (about 150, that is), don’t put him away for too long, or well not see another mag until you let him out again .... That’s if you can catch him in the first place!!

Computer Illiteracy

Now there seems to be an interesting case of computer illiteracy in our local junior school, and I hasten to add that this school is one of the better thought of schools in our area, progressive but sensible with it. Anyway the story goes like this:

They recently spent some of the PTA loot, extorted from mugs like me who have to spend good money going to school fetes and things, on four computers of the type very popular in schools right now. That’s four computers between 400 kids, a pretty poor ratio for a start. Then they sent one class teacher off for a one day course on teaching the kids the mysteries of the computers. Now I believe you can learn a lot in one day, but the mysteries of computers … in one day? Well when I was dragged along to the last open evening by the Mrs (I had to go, duty or something, as she’s on the Board of Govenors), I decided to find out what they did with these computers. I chatted up the teacher in charge of the computers and tried to find out what was taught. Well it wasn’t programming as he didn’t know a PEEK from a POKE, it wasn’t how it worked, because he didn’t know what a processor was, yet alone what type, or what the accumulator was, or anything. I was told they had 32K of RAM whatever that was, but he seemed to somewhat wooly about how much of that was workspace, video RAM, etc. What they did have was some ‘educational’ software, but the purposes of this were somewhat obscure, despite the teacher’s obvious enthusiasm.

In all quite a waste of twelve hundred quid if you ask me, but I haven’t finished yet. Number one daughter, who is twelve, shows no inclination towards computers apart from playing ‘Wheelie’ on a Spectrum. She’s more into carpentry at present and spends her time murdering pieces of wood and mangling my tools.

Number two daughter is different, ten years old and altogether a quieter and more studious character. She wants to learn about computers, and fully appreciates that if you can program them, they can do very clever things far faster than you can do them. So after seeing the computer teacher, she went to the school library and borrowed some books. Rather good books they are, with serious intent, but amusing with it. Partially in comic strip, with cartoon bugs upsetting the programs, and written in the most generalised way. They are written for Microsoft BASIC, so what is so syntactically different, that you can’t get them to work? The type of computers they use in schools of course.

Pitiful isn’t it. Kids with interest can’t get past the first few hurdles because the machines they have don’t match the books in the library, while the teachers whilst keen, don’t know what it’s about. Number two daughter is now allowed on my machine, and is bashing in all the programs from David Ahl’s book ‘101 BASIC Computer Programs’. Good practice is this book, it’s written for Microsoft BASIC and because many of the programs don’t work properly they require modification to make them go. She’s actually getting very good, and is writing a database to keep track of her bird watching activities.

Altogether not bad for a ten year old (Dads are allowed a little pride in their kids, aren’t they?), but an indictment on the current way computers are being taught in our local junior school. I hope this isn’t par for the course in other junior schools, but I rather suspect it might be.

The printer revolution (horrid pun, you work it out)

A couple of years ago daisy wheel printers were priced such that you could only afford one if you were the sort of chap who could afford to buy gold plated ashtrays for the spare Roller. Certainly not the sort of thing to be purchased by the home user (to write poshly typed pleading Letters to the Bank Manager), nor the sort of thing which may be used by smaller companies to write a couple of dozen letters a day, or to bash off the odd quote or two. In other words they were expensive!

Despite their price what you got for your money was something which was built like a battleship (so it didn’t wear out churning out thousand upon thousand of circular letters which looked hand typed) and that went at a fair old speed (so it didn’t take a month of Sundays to churn out the thousand upon .....). You know the sort I mean, the Readers’ Digest ones which get consigned to the round filing cabinet unread. Qume and Diablo were the byword for these printers. As such, these beasts were (and still are) worth the money. And if you can lay hands on one at a reasonable price, they would still do for the better quality print job around the home.

However, over the last year a number of ‘cheaper’ daisy wheel printers have appeared. Some of these are simply office typewriters fitted with computer interfaces, some are purpose built computer printers. The office typewriter types tend towards the lightweight, both physically and also in longevity.

Two or three years ago one famous typewriter manfacturer got very cross with some enterprising people who had fitted an interface to one of their lightweight typewriters which was not designed to pound out text, sheet after sheet at a continuous 12 characters per second without stopping every now and then for coffee or to got to the loo (the typist, not the typewriter; before I get any more letters about DRH’s funny little mistooks). The reliability problems started to get the manufacturer a bad name. Things have improved now, and the interfaced office typewriters are now robust enough for the average low duty cycle of the typical one person word processor user. Some even have the keyboard arranged to be a serial output device so it can be connected to the computer as the main keyboard. These also act as stand alone office typewriters, and so are seeing increasing use in offices around the country. As far as I’m concerned the only snag with these is the size. With the built in keyboard they are too big for my situation (and I dare say most other home users). I need something I can stick in the corner, and as I already have a keyboard for my computer I don’t need (nor want to pay for) another.

When I started playing with computers the only choice at a price I was prepared to pay, was an antiquated IBM golfball. Solid (if its weight was anything to go by, made of lead), reliable, horribly mechanical, noisy and slow. These could be purchased for two or three hundred pounds and provided hours of innocent amusement trying to interface them to a Nascom. I wonder how many readers remember the early issues of the INMC magazine, that was printed on the old IBM golfball, which I might add is still giving sterling service, although no longer in my ownership. Somewhat dearer at that time were surplus Diablo and Qume daisy wheels, equally as heavy and reliable, less mechanical and more electronic, almost as noisy, a lot faster and a nightmare to interface as a lot of them were not fitted with serial or parallel interfaces as we know them today. Software and the necessary hardware drivers for these were diabolical, hampered by the total lack of cooperation on the part of the manufacturers in supplying interface information.

Whilst thinking of interface and service information, I remember IBM computers were totally unhelpful when it came to details on their golfball printers. However, in this instance, a point worth noting was that the IBM typewriter

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