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Friday, September 19, 2014

Computer Time

From the Vault Dept.: Computer time, like dog years, is reckoned differently. The piece below, which I wrote in 1987, seems positively Pleistocene today. Most of the technology is long since superannuated; most of the retail outlets mentioned are gone. But Russ Walter, author of the finest-ever computer book, now sells the 32nd edition of The Secret Guide to Computers, about which there’s more info here. Highly recommended!


AT A RECENT COMPUTER SHOW in Manhattan, over 400 exhibitors competed for the attention of the buyers with sales gimmicks that included a wandering mouse, a dance drill-team, a close-up magician and a Wheel of Fortune-esque display.

Couldn't find a cover image
from the first edition.
Not IBM. Big Blue, ever the corporate-minded entity, had politely-dressed sales reps quietly demonstrating the machines that have the computer world in a mild tizzy, the Personal Systems series.

Many took is a threat to the old PC. It certainly means another billion for Bill Gates, MS-DOS designer and author of the new OS/2.

But your PC was obsolete the moment you hauled it out of the box, so what difference does it make how loudly the death-knell is sounded? Computers outstrip home stereos in speed of obsolescence, but there is a handy network of hackers out there devoting a lot of effort to making it easy for you keep up with the trends.

And, while the attention is shifting towards the new IBM rig, the many, many clones of the old PC are coming down in price. This may be a splendid time to get in on one.

Computer people have the same fierce loyalties as dog owners or sports fans: IBM people turn up their noses at the Apple corps, who in turn won’t even acknowledge the Commodore. A PC user myself, I’m totally ignorant of any of the other types and won’t begin to explore them. But if you’re IBM interested, read on.

Not too many years ago the IBM PC gave home users a powerful 16-bit processing system that allowed desktop-convenient machinery to process information previously the province of the mighty mainframes.

In IBM’s wake followed a plethora of little computer makers, assembling completely- or partially-compatible “clones” that sold for far less.

Buying a computer is like ordering off a huge diner menu. You can get a complete unit, factory assembled and tested, with all the gadgets you want; you can buy a basic unit and add your own gewgaws, or you can by the parts and put the whole thing together yourself.

And there is no end of supplies to keep your old Edsel in line with the new Crown Victorias. You can speed it up, improve its memory, draw fancier pictures – the list goes on.

In short: take advantage of the technological confusion. It’s not as if you’re still collecting 78s.

If you’re completely daunted by the wealth of goodies available, there are some good places to turn. 

Let’s hear from computer guru Russ Walter: “Computers are like drugs: you begin by spending just a little money on them, but then you get so excited by the experience – and so hooked – that you wind up spending more and more money, to feed your habit.”

So begins chapter 3, “Buyer’s Guide,” of The Secret Guide to Computers, Vol. 1, by far the most thorough, informative, and accessible book on the subject. Walter is a self-confessed computer junkie who, besides having the rare ability to teach a difficult subject with ease, is a clearinghouse of very up-to-date information.

The Secret Guide to Computers is an indispensable starting point for the uninitiated; it’s also a valuable tool to keep by your computer’s side. The three volumes are titled “Secret Skills,” “Secret Thrills” and “Secret Chills;” the first takes you through all you need to know to buy a machine as well as a look at a variety of programming and applications, the second advances into trickier applications and techniques, the third waxes more philosophical on the subject even as it looks at the hardcore programming languages.

Each is priced at $8, including shipping; make your check or money order out to The Secret Guide to Computers and mail it to Russ Walter [see current website for updated pricing and buying info]. He also offers 24-hour phone support, which he encourages you to take advantage of.

“Volume one came out late last year,” he cautions, “so there already are a lot of different suggestions I might make.”

Once you’ve decided to take the computer plunge, you’re faced with the dilemma of buying cheaply – and blindly – by mail, or spending the extra money at a local dealer.

Almost all computer salespeople, whether over the phone or in a store, are salespeople first. It generally pays to have done some homework ahead of time.

The advantage of buying from a dealer lies in obtaining quick support when the machine goes bum or buggy, which is all the more reason to buy from a hacker. Hackers are easy to spot on the sales floor: they generally don’t wear neckties.

Omnis Computers in Schenectady is run by hackers who offer very good prices and sound advice; another such place is Computer Alternatives in Clifton Park. The Computer Cellar, in the Westgate Plaza, is stuck beneath a toy store but staffed by hackers. 80 Microcomputer Services, on Central Avenue in Colonie, has a necktie-wearing sales staff but they can put a basic system together at a decent price and won’t hustle you.

Buying a machine calls for an outlay of a big hunk of cash, but has the virtue of getting it over with all at once. Buying software, the applications you will run on your machine, is what eats a hole in your wallet. Programs can cost upwards of $600 (Ashton-Tate’s dBASE, for instance) and linger in the neighborhood of a hundred or two.

But every costly program on the market has an inexpensive equivalent that you can obtain and try for free, programs distributed as “shareware.” You’ll find them on electronic holding stations called bulletin boards, which is nothing more than a computer that’s left on all night and can be reached by phone.

Get a modem when you get your computer and you can call these bulletin boards and copy (download) a shareware program, try it out, and pay the author a nominal fee (usually $35-$50) if you plan to use it (see accompanying article).

There will come a time, soon after your machine is up and running, that you will feel completely overwhelmed by the complexity of it. And you will feel like a total idiot, stymied by a dumb machine. Have courage: like swimming in deep water or eating Mexican food, it’s something we all had to go through. Set aside an hour or so a day to learn what makes the thing tick. Forget the manuals that come with it: they’re written for people who already know how to use them. Once you’ve gone through The Secret Guide, try Van Wolverton’s Running MS-DOS, available in the computers section of the mall bookstores, to learn how to pilot your operating system.

Later, when you want to delve into the guts of the beast, Peter Norton’s Inside the IBM-PC is very informative, if technical. This book comes in two editions: the more costly one includes a computer disk of programs. It’s a waste of money; save your dollars to buy his Norton Utilities program, a set of invaluable tools for file maintenance, about $50 from mail-order discount houses.

Beware: computers are addictive. When my wife discovered she could balance the checkbook with a simple shareware program, she displaced me at the console every lunchtime to enter information. Now she’s getting her own machine. It’s better than mine. I’m jealous.

Metroland Magazine, 1 October 1987

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