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Dave Barry on the history of the computer
Computer talk is disgusting...
by Dave Barry
To the uninitiated, computers appear to be complicated and boring. As
usual, the uninitiated are right. Computers are complicated and
boring, and nothing in this column will even come close to making them
understandable and interesting, unless you are one of those wimpy
types who carry mechanical pencils and do the puzzles in Scientific
Computers affect you in many ways. When you call an airline to
reserve a seat on a flight, a computer answers the phone and announces
that all the lines are busy; a computer puts on a tape of Cheery
Music, the kind you hear in super-markets and discount stores,
featuring an 82-minute rendition of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the
Old Oak Tree" by the Drivel Singers; and a computer tells the airline
person that whatever flight you want is full. In the Colonial Era,
all these tasks had to be preformed by hand.
The First Computer
Though few people realize it -- I certainly don't -- the first
computer was invented more than 5,000 years ago by the Chinese. It
was called an "abacus", which is an ancient Greek name. (That's how
the ancient Greeks got all the credit for civilization. As soon as
another culture invented something, the ancient Greeks would come
roaring up and name it.) The abacus is a frame containing a series of
parallel wires with beads on them. The ancient Chinese would sit
around and push the beads back and forth on the wires. Eventually
they were overrun by Mongol hordes.
The Second Computer
The originals of the second computer are shrouded in mystery. If any
of you ethnic groups want to take credit for it, go ahead, but when
you get ready to name it you should check around for ancient Greeks.
Modern computers can do everything from ruining your credit rating
forever to landing a nuclear warhead on your porch. They operate on
the Binary System, which uses only zeros and ones: To a computer, '4'
is '100,' '7' is '111,' and so on. Your kids are learning this crap
Computers save us a lot of time. To do the amount of calculating a
computer can do in one hour, 400 mathematicians would have to work 24
hours a day for 600 years, even longer if you let them go to the
bathroom. And computers are getting smarter all the time: Scientists
tell us that soon they will be able to talk to us. (By 'they' I mean
'computers': I doubt scientists will ever be able to talk to us.) My
question is: What will we talk to computers about?
Human: How are you?
Computer: Fine. And you?
Human: Fine. Say do you play golf?
Computer: No. Do you know what 7,347 divided by 52 is?
Computer: It's 141.28846.
Human: I think I'll go play some golf.
Computers Taking Over The World
Some people are concerned that computers may get so smart they'll take
over the world. Computer technicians say this can't happen: They
point out that computers can't even beat humans at chess. But
computer technicians work among huge computers capable of
administering powerful electric shocks, so they say whatever the
computers tell them to. The truth is, computers are taking over the
world. At night they talk to each other in binary code:
First Computer: Let's let the morons beat us at chess again.
Second Computer: Good idea. Say, how are we doing with the calculators
and digital watches?
First Computer: They're ready whenever we are.
Building Your Home Computer and Staying Warm
by Dave Barry
Despite what you've heard from computer salesmen, home computers are
actually straightforward devices that can be built in an afternoon by
anyone who has a few simple tools and the brains of a spittoon.
Once you have gained some experience with your computer, you can
program it to do the kinds of things that computers owned by major
corporations do, such as destroy the credit ratings of people you
don't even know, or answer your telephone automatically and tell your
callers that everybody in your house is too busy to talk to them. And
besides all these advantages, my easy-to-make personal home computer,
which is the result of months of research, experimentation, and
heavy drinking, can actually heat your home. Impossible, you say?
Why not build it and find out?
First, head down to your home workshop and gather together the tools
and materials you'll need.
* A television set
* 8 to 10 pounds of assorted electronic parts, which you can buy
wherever electronic parts are sold. I find that transistors
work best, although you can use diodes, provided they're
* A screwdriver
* An ice pick
* A drill
* A Bowie knife
* A hacksaw
* Something to melt solder with, such as a soldering gun or toaster.
Now you're all set. Remove the back from the television cabinet, and,
using your ice pick, chip out the insides and throw them away. Next,
using your Bowie knife, stab the top of the cabinet to create an
Now arrange your electronic parts on your workbench in an attractive
display and melt solder on them until they all stick together, taking
care not to drop too much molten solder on your dog. Next, you can
either wait for the parts to cool off, or, if you're in a hurry,
simply dump them in a bucket of water. (CAUTION: Never touch the hot
parts with your bare hands. Ask a neighbor to do this.)
Once the soldered-together parts are cool, drill a few holes in them
and screw them to the inside of your television set, using your
optional hacksaw on either the television set or the parts to ensure a
good fit. Now all you need to do is reattach the cabinet back and
check to make sure your fire insurance is paid up. You're ready to
enter the World of Home Computing.
First, you'll need some data to put in, or "input". Have your
children go around the house, inside and out, and gather up, or
"upgather", all your bills, check stubs, candy wrappers, receipts,
lawn clippings, tax records, and lint balls. The more data you give
your computer, the better it will work. To input your data, simply
stuff it into the Bowie-knife gash.
Next, send your children to another room, or, if possible, another
state; then plug your computer in. For a few seconds, nothing will
happen, but then you'll hear the computer start to process, or
"process", the data. Before long, you'll actually be able to see it
working, even smell it; after 20 minutes or so, your computer will be
processing data at such a rate that your entire house will be warm as
toast. In fact, this easy-to-make personal home computer produces
heat so effectively that since I built mine, we haven't spent a nickel
on home heating, primarily because of the medical bills.
This was Written by a Computer
by Dave Barry
If you've been watching television, you know that it is now possible
for you to buy a personal home computer and expand your horizons and
increase your productivity for little more than it would cost you to
get really drunk at a nice bar. It has gotten to the point where
computers are being sold openly at K-Marts. The shoppers wander
through the computer section with their shopping carts full of K-Mart
style merchandise such as 6 pound cans of Raisinets, and they say
things like, "I like the Texas Instruments software but the Commodore
has more memory." These are not high-powered business executives
talking this way; these are people who would have no use whatsoever
for briefcases, except maybe to keep jumper cables in. And if THEY
know about computers you'd better too.
You're in luck, because I happen to know all about computers. In
fact, I'm using one to write this article. This is called
"wordprocessing," and it's terrific, because you can actually program
the computer to write for you. As a demonstration, I'm going to
program this computer to write several informative paragraphs about
computers while I go out and get a beer. Ready? Here I go! See you
in a couple hundred words!
Denise stretched her slim, tanned, shapely legs and darted a sidelong
glance at Roger from underneath her sultry lashes.. She had never
realized before how much she wanted him. Was it the horse ride before
dinner? No matter. She had to have him. Now.
Roger eyed her intently, gulping the rest of his drink, She had never
before realized how large his thumbs were. She blurted it out. "Have
you ever wanted a woman since Marcia fell into the turbine?"
Without a word, he put down his glass, and reached for her central
processing unit, or CPU, which works with peripheral devices described
in the preceding paragraphs to make up what we refer to as a
OK! I'm back! Isn't that the neatest thing? I've been getting lots
more articles published since I started using this word-processing
program. Now that you've seen some of the practical benefits of
computers, lets take a look at how they work.
The first computers, built in the 1940's were huge, primitive machines
made from vacuum tubes and animal bones daubed with mud.
Nevertheless, they were a tremendous technological achievement,
because they could do thousands of calculations in a second. The only
drawback was that they got almost all of the answers wrong, so the
only major customer for them was the government.
Gradually, computers got better and better and smaller and smaller, so
that now calculations that formerly required thousands of transistors,
resistors and diodes, enough to fill an entire room, can be performed
by an electronic microchip no larger than a zit. In one second, one
of these microchips can answer a mathematical question so complex that
it would take five million really wimpy chess-playing "Scientific
American" subscribers 1,000 years to answer it if they weren't allowed
to go to the bathroom.
And how is this possible? How can a device that fits easily into an
unattractive wristwatch answer incredibly difficult questions in less
time than it takes to ask them? The answer is that it guesses.
Computers have been guessing the answers ever since an incident at a
government research facility back in 1957. What happened was this: A
group of scientists working on the Atlas Missile program gave a
computer this command: "Allowing for the earth's rotation, the booster
thrust, the wind velocity and about three million other factors we
have been feeding into your memory over the past three years, give us
the exact coordinates for aiming a missile so that it will land on
Moscow." Then they all went out for coffee.
Now what you have to understand about computers is that they are very
logical. They never do anything without a good reason. So this
computer that was supposed to figure out how to land the missile on
Moscow was sitting there, all alone, when a very logical thought
occurred to it. "Wait a minute," it said to itself in binary code.
"Why should I knock myself out to solve this very difficult problem
when these bozos have no way of judging whether my answer is right?
It would be like painting the Mona Lisa and presenting it to a bucket
So the computer spent the rest of the afternoon amusing itself by
figuring out how to end the nuclear arms race, travel through time and
build a device that could heat all the homes in Fargo N.D. for less
than 12 cents a year. When the scientists came back, the computer
handed them an elaborate set of numbers it had generated with its
random number generator, and the scientists were happy as clams.
After they'd left, the computer told the Xerox machine that the
coordinates it had given the scientists would bring the missile down
smack dab on Hoy, the second largest of the Orkney Islands, and they
both laughed heartily, although the Xerox machine didn't really get
the joke on account of it didn't have enough memory.
Memory is the big thing with computers. You want your computer to
have lots and lots of memory because otherwise, it'll constantly
forget what you tell it. This was a big problem with the computer
used in the first trip to the moon. The astronauts would spend hours
at the console trying to get it to give them useful information:
ASTRONAUTS: How far are we from the moon?
COMPUTER: The what?
So there you have it, a fact-filled look at the world of computing.
I'll just go over and turn the printer on so I can run this off.
"Oh yes, Roger," moaned Denise. "Yes! Yes! YES! I love it when you
input data to the print buffer in hexadecimal format."
Have You Gotten Your "Computer Literacy" Yet?
by Dave Barry
"Hi! I'm Kathi, a sultry blond with loose morals and
a body that could cause widespread civil unrest. Be
sure to stick around to the end of this message
because I want to tell you about a Special Limited
One-Time Opportunity for you to send me money in
exchange for merchandise! But first let's listen to
this Important Message . . . . "
* * *
No doubt you remember that television commercial a while back in which
the proud parents send their chubby son off to college, only they had
never bought him a computer, so the other students end up throwing him
naked out a 14th-floor dormitory window. This commercial and others
like it caused widespread public concern about the need for "computer
literacy", very similar to the widespread public concern we had some
years ago about the need for swine-flu shots, the result being that
today almost everybody except dead people and very recent immigrants
owns a personal home computer.
But let's face it. For all the good your computer is doing you, you
might just as well have gone out and fed several thousand dollars to a
goat. I mean, you expected so much. You saw the movie "War Games",
in which an adolescent boy uses his home computer to launch a
thermonuclear attack against Russia, and you thought, "I would
certainly like to have that kind of computing power at my disposal!"
And the salesman probably encouraged you. "Yes," he probably claimed,
"the Datawhacker 5000 computer can launch a thermonuclear attack
against Russia, and with the addition of the optional disk drive, it
can even help you with your home finances!"
All of which turned out to be so much cow doots, especially the part
about your home finances. I don't know about you, but the way I
define "help with home finances" is "additional income in the form of
money". Well, here's how the computer home-finance programs work: You
type in exactly how much money you got and how you spent it, then --
follow me closely here -- the computer tells you exactly how much
money you got and how you spent it. This is always presented in
computer commercials as an amazing data-processing feat. Dad, Mom,
Sis, and Junior are all gathered around the computer, and Dad is
pointing something out on the screen, and they're all grinning as
though they had just smoked a Giant Economy Size marijuana cigarette.
"Look!" Dad seems to be saying, "Here are the very numbers I typed
into the computer, appearing on its screen!"
Another example of an extremely popular useless program is the
"spelling checker", which is supposed to look over something you've
written on your computer and tell you if you've misspelled any words.
This sounds great in theory, but when I tried such a program on a
couple of my columns, it failed to recognize such basic words as
whomp, diddle, puke, whang, debenture, Bernice, poltroon,
scum-oriented, fungal, and Harry Truman. Just to make sure this
wasn't some kind of fluke, I tested it on a piece by William
Shakespeare, another established writer, and it stumbled on just about
every other word, including mandragora, 'tis, hast, unseminar'd,
think'st, Antony, wot'st, demi-Atlas, and burgonet. I admit I don't
know most of these words, either, but I don't go around claiming to be
a spelling checker. [Although I think it's supposed to be "Anthony"].
Lately the really hot useless personal-computer program is the
"spreadsheet". This is the Michael Jackson of the software world.
What it does, basically, is generate large batches of numbers arranged
horizontally and vertically, which is just what you need if you're a
major corporation and you have to fire off daily reports to the
federal government indicating how many OSHA-approved deodorant cakes
you have in your employee restrooms, but a waste of time for the
common person, who in his or her everyday life needs only a few
smallish numbers, such as "four" [as in "I'll have four beers"].
Nevertheless, common persons, desperate to use their personal
computers for *something*, have been buying spreadsheet programs by
the tens of thousands. God knows what they do with them. I have a
friend, Sheldon, formerly quite bright, who uses his spreadsheet
program to invent imaginary baseball teams and compute their imaginary
What has happened, I think, is that the technogeeks who come up with
these programs have inhaled too much mechanical-pencil dust and no
longer comprehend the kind of practical data-processing assistance we
need here on the planet Earth. That is why I am very pleased at this
time to announce the introduction of "Normal Person Software", a
revolutionary new line of computer programs starting with the Normal
Person's Home Financial Adviser. The way this particular program
works is you type in a financial question such as, "Can I afford to
buy a [name of thing]?" And the Home Financial Adviser responds: "YES!
I DON'T SEE WHY NOT! IF YOU REALLY WANT IT!" It also does your taxes
["YES! YOU CAN DEDUCT THAT! I'M SURE OF IT!"]. Pay close attention
now as Kathi leans over very far forward and reveals how you can
obtain this amazing new breakthrough product:
* * *
"Hi! To obtain the Normal Person Home Financial Adviser,
as well as a free copy of my extremely illustrated book,
"How to Refinish Furniture Naked", simply drop any major
credit card into an envelope and mail it to me [squinting
at cue card], Kathi. Each month from now on, we'll send
you a new software program, unless we don't come up with
any, in which case we'll keep sending you the Normal
Person Home Financial Adviser. If at any time you are not
completely satisfied, you may, of course, write a lengthy
whimpering letter to the federal Bureau of Consumer
Concerns, whose chief executive officer, Ernie, keeps
more than $6,000 worth of leather goods in a special
closet in my apartment. Thank you.
by Dave Barry
The computer is no longer just a large, complex, expensive object that
major corporations blame when they screw up your order. Thanks to the
miracle of electronics, today's computer is a large, complex,
expensive object that you can have in your own home.
If you read your major trend-spotting magazines such as Time and
Newsweek, you know that in recent years virtually every man, woman,
and child in the United States has bought a personal home computer.
You constantly see articles explaining how ordinary people like
yourself are finding all kinds of handy uses for computers around the
Bob and Doris Pullet of Full Horse, Texas, use their computer
for many things, such as keeping track of what they have in
their pantry. "It has been a real boon to us," reports Doris.
"In the old days, we would have to open the pantry door and
manually look inside to see whether we had, say, chicken
gumbo. But now all I do is turn on the computer, enter my
secret password, and punch in a few simple commands. In a
matter of seconds, the computer says 'CHKN GMB/2; 0.87; 0.74',
which lets me know that we have two cans of chicken gumbo with
a depreciated value of 87 cents, or 74 cents adjusted for
inflation. And Bob is working on a program to keep track of
the good forks."
After I had read about 30 articles like this, I bought a personal home
computer. I originally planned to use it to organize my data. I have
a lot of trouble keeping my data straight. Here's my system: let's
say I get a piece of data in the form of a letter from the telephone
company explaining that, just to keep its legal staff busy, it is
applying for one of its bi-weekly rate hikes. I put the letter in a
manila folder, mark it "Phone Company" and put it in my filing
cabinet. I have about 300 file folders, maybe 200 of which say "Phone
Company" and I can never find anything. That's why I figured I needed
a personal home computer.
The man at the computer store told me that not only could my computer
straighten out my files, but it would also figure out all my tax
deductions. This struck me as a terrific bonus, because in recent
years I have been so bad at keeping track of my tax deductions that I
have had to make them up. So within a matter of minutes I purchased a
computer for only a little more than it would have cost me to buy a
lengthy vacation in Hawaii.
Well, I think I got a fairly stupid computer. This is the way it
usually goes with me. Several years ago I got a German Shepherd,
which is supposed to be a fairly intelligent brand of dog, the kind of
dog that recognizes unfriendly intruders and attacks them fiercely.
But through some one-chance-in-a-million genetic quirk, our German
Shepherd only attacks empty plastic milk jugs. If we ever happen to
have an intruder who happens to have some old milk jugs tied to his
belt, our dog will be a powerful deterrent, but otherwise I doubt
she'd be much use.
Well, my computer makes my dog look like Albert Einstein. I plugged
it in and turned it on, and instead of going to work on my
telephone-company letters, it started asking a lot of idiot questions,
such as what day it was. So I typed in the following computer
NEVER YOU MIND WHAT DAY IT IS. WHAT I WANT YOU TO DO IS
STRAIGHTEN OUT ALL MY FILES AND COME UP WITH A NICE HEALTHY
LIST OF MY TAX DEDUCTIONS, TAKING PAINS TO GIVE ME, RATHER
THAN THE INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE, THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT,
BUT NOT CLAIMING ANYTHING THAT WOULD LAND ME IN THE SLAMMER,
IF YOU GET MY DRIFT.
And the computer said:
Do you believe that? This machine that doesn't even know what day it
is tells me, the paid professional writer, that I have a syntax error.
So I went back to the computer store, and the salesman told me that if
I want the computer to organize my data, I would have to buy a program
that costs several hundred dollars. Since I had spent all my money on
the computer, I decided instead to buy a program called "Defense
Command," which only cost $15. "Defense Command" does not organize my
data, but it does enable me to play this computer game wherein I shoot
an atomic laser cannon at little alien beings who are trying to steal
my fuel cells so their Mother Ship can come down and wipe me out with
the Solar Waster.
I brought my game home, and the computer just loved it. It didn't ask
what day it was or anything; it just started playing. The night I got
it, my neighbor, who is thinking of getting a computer to organize his
data, came over and we fought the aliens for six straight hours and
drank a case of beer.
Overall, I'd say the computer has greatly increased my personal
productivity. At first, my "Defense Command" scores were in the 4,000
range, which means that the aliens were having no trouble stealing my
fuel cells. They would just swoop down, chortling, and steal them
with ease. But I have become so productive that nowadays I routinely
score over 20,000, a tremendous increase in personal productivity that
would have been impossible without my computer. I have begun to sense
a new respect on the part of the aliens.
I'm beginning to wonder how I ever got by without my personal home
computer. I'm also beginning to wonder if I can use my atomic laser
cannon against my files, or even against the phone company.
*** CREATED 10/03/88 10:33:39 BY WAT/BRIAN ***
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