Computing - Experience

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.

General computing experience

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 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.

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 and Fortran.

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 code.

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 real PC, 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 and more.

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 CGA 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 of the Osborne and 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 GB harddisk.

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 screen.

Finally, there are two things I have done most with computers:

Writing texts, and writing programs. These days, I write texts exclusively in HTML or plain ASCII, and I write programs either in Prolog (DOS: perhaps not as neat but easier to program than for Windows), Visual Prolog,, Java or Delphi (for Windows), and I have developed a strong taste 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.

VisiCalc: 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 facilities.

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 some time.

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.

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 cheaper.

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.

Squeak: 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 environments.

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.

WordPerfect: Between 1988 and 1995 probably enough time was lost by nave 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 cleverly marketed.

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 considerably worse).

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 hood).

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 me.

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 OS.

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 XP.

So .... people who know these things far better than I do tell me that Debian is an excellent Linux distribution.

Games: 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 exacted.

last update: Aug 26 2003