Relatively speaking - and non-professionally: I am not
and never was part of any computer-related business and have no special
education in it - I have rather a lot of experience with computers -
which seem the most important invention since printing, as far as I can
see, and essentially for the same reason: it enables individuals to
have access to and work with much more information that they would have
without the technology.
Here I shall briefly outline
my experience with computers, and review the best and worst programs I
saw since 1987.
Sitting daily in front of a
computer for many hours since 1987, I have seen a lot of programs. It
must easily run in the tenthousands, if not more, but I never made a
proper count, and indeed used most programs only very briefly. Most of
my experience with computers is with PCs
and more specifically with programs running on the operating systems
I have some experience with the Apple
world and with some other operating systems, but am in no position to
say much that is useful about them.
In a sense, my computing
experiences started in the early 70-ies, when I worked for a company
that rented out software engineers to banks and such institutions, to
write programs for
mainframes, mostly written in Cobol.
I had landed accidentally in that company looking for work - and left
it again after several months because I did not like the atmosphere ("ITs"
- "Information Technologists" - of the early seventies, as greedy and
dishonest as those of the late 90ies), but it did first expose me to Algol
During the 70-ies I did many
different things, but spend most of my time reading and learning
mathematical logic, philosophy and science, not because of computers,
but because of an interest in clear thinking and logic. Mathematical
logic turned out later to be generally helpful in understanding
computers, and those who are interested in a dose of the same should
check my Logic page and a book by Marvin
Minsky: "Finite and infinite machines", that explains very
clearly what a Turing-machine
is; what a Post-
production system is; what McCulloch
and Pitts 1940-ies theory of neural nets was like, and many
other interesting details.
In 1979 a friend of mine
bought the first handheld computer I saw (apart from calculators, of
course). It was called "SIM",
and consisted of a naked motherboard on which there was an LED-window
as used on calculators, that was capable of displaying all of 12
characters. It was in fact a handheld calculator with the extra that it
could be programmed - in its own machine
This SIM was not much of a
success, even while it was theoretically interesting, and my friend
bought an Apple
in 1980 or 1981. This had its own video-screen (yellow on black, with a
very crude resolution), had 48 or 64K RAM,
and did run AppleBasic.
It was great fun (and quite expensive), but one of the setbacks was
that you had to store your stuff on
audio-ape - there were no floppy disks or hard drives then.
Also, there was no editing software, no spreadsheets, and not much else
besides Basic. (Even so, the experience was totally different from
computing on a mainframe - where one had to hand in one's programs as
punch-cards and was returned a printed page of output.)
In 1987 I first saw an Osborne,
which was my first intimation of what personal computing would
be like. Osbornes were the first "laptops" - except that they
were designed in the early 80-ies, and quite heavy and large. But they
did run WordStar,
they did run VisiCalc,
they did have their own mini-screen, and they had all of 64K RAM, a 0.6
Mhz processor, and the operating system CP/M.
They were not only great fun, but definitely useful for writing and
calculating, and you could store your work on 128K
soft floppy disks.
The same year I got my first
which happened to be a Philips (since the father of my then girl-friend
was an overpaid and incompetent middle manager in that Dutch company).
It had a 4 Mhz processor, 256 K memory, and no hard drive. Also, it ran
WordStar, an early version of the spreadsheet Lotus
In 1988 I upgraded to an 8 Mhz
processor, 640K memory and a 20 Mb harddisk, and this, in various
variants, remained my personal computer till 1996. I did some
upgrading, mostly on the video - which turned from green on black to
with 8 basic colours (useless and ugly) and then to EGA.
In 1996 I first got on the internet
with a 133 Mhz computer, incidentally for a price ¼ of the
Osborne and ½ of the Philips I had used before; then I got a 366 Mhz
machine with 8 GB diskspace, which I bought for less than the 133 Mhz
of 1996; and in 2003 I am working on a 1,6 MB HP with 256 MB RAM and 40
As far as I am concerned, the
best thing about the last two machines I used is the video: For the
first time since I am computing I can display photographs on the screen
which do look like photographs, also if they have the size of the
Finally, there are two things
I have done most with computers:
Writing texts, and writing
programs. These days, I write texts exclusively in HTML
plain ASCII, and I write programs either in Prolog
(DOS: perhaps not as neat but easier to program than for
or Delphi (for Windows), and I have developed a
for Smalltalk and specifically Squeak, because
it has a nice approach to programming.
The best programs I saw:
Here is a list of favorite
programs I saw since 1987, and my reasons why.
This I first saw in 1987 on an Osborne computer. These ran on a 0.6 Mhz
processor with 64K memory, using the operating system CP/M. It was the
first spreadsheet I saw in my life, and it was pretty spectacular.
Compared to recent spreadsheets running on 200+ Mhz processors VisiCalc
was a mere plaything, and an ugly one at that, but it was this program
that convinced the business community that computers might be useful.
WordStar: This I also first saw in
1987 on an Osborne computer - the same as described above, with the
same limitations of memory and speed. Even so, especially for someone
like me, who has been typing enormous amounts of texts on a typewriter
since 1966, to first see a program like WordStar was amazing.
One of the nicest things about
WordStar was the clear and sensible thinking its makers had done about
shortcuts by way of the keyboard:
Everything was as intuitive as
was possible in those days. By contrast, the much more popular
WordPerfect - that I review below - was one of the worst programs I've
ever seen, apparently made by a bunch of loonies who consciously
attempted to invent the least intuitive keyboard short-cuts for all
tasks that they could think of.
Lucid: I've seen many spreadsheets
since VisiCalc, such as Lotus 123, Excel, Quattro and others, but for
sheer elegance and clarity the spreadsheet Lucid that I bought in 1988
was amazing: a pop-up spreadsheet that ran in 64 K, was written in
Assembler, took 89K in all, and could do anything Lotus could do,
except that Lucid was faster, looked nicer, and had many more
Dazzle: I wonder how many
screeensavers there are these days. The first I saw came with the
Norton Commander - affectionately: NC - which was a very useful program
to survey your disks in DOS-days. NC popped up a night sky (or black
screen) with falling stars (or random dots "." and stars "*"). Since
these days I've seen flying toasters, whole earths keeping time with
local time, fishes, and God knows what else.
By far the most amazing
screensaver I ever saw is Dazzle, a DOS-product of 1988. It produces
better "Abstract Art" than any you ever saw in any museum, and is a
great feat of programming.
DesqView: In DOS-days, a PC had
640K addressable memory and - if you were rich enough - a 20 MB
harddisk. Also, DOS permitted the running of only one program at the
time. Ten years later, my present computer has 64 MB addressable memory
and an 8.3 GB harddisk.
At the time, this meant that
if you wanted to write a letter in which there was some
spreadsheet-information, you had to write the letter in, say, WordStar;
end that program and start up a spreadsheet, do your work in that; end
that program and save your results as text; restart WordStar and import
the text-version of your spreadsheet-info; re-edit that to WordStar's
own file-format, and so on. Of course, there also was no copy-and-paste
from one program to the other.
On the PC-s of these days,
Windows takes care of all that. Indeed, there also was Windows in 1988
and later, but it was very slow and very prone to crash, and not much
use I could see (having played with version 2.2 and kicked if from my
disk as useless).
The Windows of the 80-ies and
early 90-ies was a program called DesqView, that allowed you to open
several programs at the same time on your screen, under DOS, and copy
and paste between them. Compared to the Windows of the time it was a
miracle of programming, and worked quite well and quite quick (except
that it needed a - comparative - lot of diskspace for swapfiles).
Borland's compilers: I have
programmed in quite a few languages using quite a few compilers, but
since I started - with Turbo Pascal and Turbo Prolog - it remained the
case that I like Borland's approach to programming, programming
environments, documentation etc. much better than what e.g. MicroSoft
has to offer.
Prolog: Prolog - short for
"PROgramming in LOGic" is another type of programming language than the
better known ones like Basic or C. I like it better than either Basic
or C and have programmed a lot in Turbo Prolog and its successors, the
latest of which is known as Visual Prolog and allows fast and easy
programming for Windows - if you know the language, which will take
Edith: Effectively, I worked under
DOS from 1987 till 1996, when I got a computer fast enough to run
Windows95 and go on the internet. Also, in these days I programmed
mostly in Turbo Prolog, that was later resold by Borland to its Danish
originators, who since kept developing it. In 1991 the PDC (Prolog
Development Company) put out a special Prolog-compiler for hypertext
which I bought, in which I wrote a hypertext-editor for DOS called
Edith could do - in 1991 -
what today's browsers can do: Use long filenames, link text-files to
anchored places in other text-files, start up programs from links etc.
and did it under DOS. I finished the program in 1992 and used it for
three years as the main program on my computer, just as these days I am
generally working in a html-environment because I really like the idea
of hypertext (or texts with links to any relevant material).
StarOffice: The best "all in one"
software I know is StarOffice 5.1, originally German, recently acquired
by Sun, and freely available to private persons. If you've ever worked
with MicroSoft's Office, and have been driven to the wall by its
slowness, its talking paperclip, its unintuitive set-up or its price,
you know where you have to go for something much better - and very much
Also, if you care for
programming and for logical thinking, you may compare MicroSoft's
Office with StarOffice, and marvel. Meanwhile, StarOffice has an open
source follow-up called Open Office that's worth looking at, especially
if you want the facilities of Microsoft's Office without having to pay
and without risking to be driven nuts by its talking paperclip.
This is a successor of Smalltalk-80, mostly written by the same people
that designed the original Smalltalk. It was first released in 1996,
but I first discovered it in 2001. Since 2003 it is free open source
developed by its own user community. Like Smalltalk, it embodies an
approach to programming that differs from all other programming
The worst programs I saw:
Sitting daily in front of a
computer for many hours since 1987 years, I have seen a lot of
programs. It must easily run in the tenthousands, if not more, but I
never made a proper count, and indeed used most programs only very
briefly. Most of my experience with computers is with PCs and more
specifically with programs running on the operating systems DOS and
Windows. I have some experience with the Apple World and with some
other operating systems, but am in no position to say much that is
useful about them.
Here is a list of most awful
programs I saw the last 12 years, and my reasons why.
Between 1988 and 1995 probably enough time was lost by naïve workers in
offices trying to learn the keyboard shortcuts of WordPerfect -
apparently thought up by a bunch of moronic psychopaths - to feed the
many millions starving from hunger at the time, if only the time had
been spend on that instead of on learning WordPerfect.
It was a totally insane set-up, but it was very cleverly marketed, with
an underlying sound theory of human motivation:
If you succeed in persuading
office workers to start on WordPerfect, and they spend most of a year
learning a completely insane keyboard-setup, they've invested so much
frustration and time in the program that they automatically will
convince themselves it is a great program. (To psychologists, the
theory that explains this is known as "cognitive dissonance theory",
that is also remarkably effective in explaining the placebo-effect: If
you spend 100 dollars on a miracle medicine that in fact doesn't work,
you will adjust your beliefs to feel it working for you, because the
alternative, that you have been hoaxed, is even less palatable for most
men and women.)
Windows: Windows95 was a bright
bunch of kludges, workarounds and bugs. But it did look nice, finally
brought a graphical environment - pixels instead of characters as basic
screen elements - to focus, and it also combined several possibilities
into one that until then could not be properly combined. Also, it was
How many times Windows95
crashed on me, I don't know - I guess thousands of times, regularly
with the consequent necessity of reinstalling it (again three quarters
of an hour of your life wasted on Bill Gates' altar). Also, in three
years I lost between 50 and 100 Mb of files, in both cases because
Windows decided to upset the hardddisk.
Windows98 was not much better
than Windows95 (and I have here deleted some text describing my
experiences with it) and crashed almost as often.
In short: I do not like
Windows, but I use it because there is nothing available at present
that gives you the same - much like DOS in DOS-days, and much like most
moral choices in real life (namely between hopefully tolerably bad or
To be fair: IF it works well,
and as long as it does, it is OK - but as soon as you get problems, the
help turns out to be unhelpful or misleading; the wizards turn out to
be morons; the documentation you require is unavailable; there is no
help from MicroSoft; most documentation you can buy is tenth-rate,
ill-written and bulky; and there just are no clear explanations about
very many aspects of the system any intelligent user is interested in.
(And indeed, my system under Windows95 crashed at least once a day, and
Windows98 hasn't turned out to do any better for me.)
Those who want to tell me
about the beauties of Linux, should first follow this link: Linux. And there are four relevant
remarks at this point, that also explain why I still did not make the
switch to Linux:
First, I still did not succeed
in getting a Linux installed that included internet, sound and printing
and installed painlessly. At present - 2003 - this is probably due
mostly to my not trying hard enough, which is connected with my
illness M.E. (that leaves one little energy) and my distaste for
technicalities related to operating systems (which I find thoroughly
boring: They should work without my having to dive under the
Second, meanwhile I know
enough about Linux to know that running it requires a considerable
amount of technical knowledge. Most of this is not difficult and some
of it is useful but I don't have the health for it (see previous
remark) and also, as I said, operating systems do not really interest
Third, at present I run Windows XP which has - in my
experience - MUCH improved over the earlier Windows in that it doesn't
crash anymore (well: twice in a year, opposed to twice a day with
Windows 95) and if it crashes it recovers without serious problems (so
far). Since my main problem with earlier Windows were the daily
crashes, there is at present no urgent need for me to switch to another
Fourth, even so I will try to
switch to Linux as my primary OS because it is open source, which I
much prefer over hidden source, and because Windows XP includes a
license that effectively means that if Microsoft wants to enter your
harddisk behind your back and do with it whatever it pleases it can do
so by contract. If you don't agree to the license you can't use Windows
So .... people who know these
things far better than I do tell me that Debian is an
excellent Linux distribution.
Over the years I've seen quite a lot of computer games. Apart from
chess-programs, I've very quickly removed all of these. The main reason
is this: While a few were mildly funny to play with (like the "Larry"
programs by Sierra), nearly everything I've seen - "Quake", "Doom" etc.
- appears to be written by and for braindead sadists.
Put otherwise, I get no real
kick whatsoever out of virtual killin', shootin', stabbin', and it
usually bores me and also upsets me: If this is the sort of stuff that
the average male finds enjoyable, the fact that hundreds of millions of
innocent human beings were murdered this century by their fellow men
becomes a little easier to understand: apparently the average Joe
Sixpack is a psychopathic murderer as soon as you scratch his surface
or set him free with a gun and no questions asked or responsibilities