Weeknote, Sunday 25th October 2020

I’ve been watching episodes of The Computer Chronicles quite a lot lately (they’re all available on a YouTube channel). It’s quite a blast from the past and makes me nostalgic for the era when computers were huge desk-bound machines which required you to type arcane commands in them to make even the most trivial things happen. I say trivial but at the time — we’re talking about the mid-1980s — what those computers could do was amazing. The idea that you could write a book and then go back and easily edit it was revolutionary. If you’re at all nostalgic about the earlier years of computing I recommend it. And yes, portable computers really used to look like that.

The earlier episodes feature Gary Kildall as co-host. Kildall was the inventory of CP/M, one of the most popular early microcomputer operating systems. According to legend, when IBM wanted an off-the-shelf operating system for their top secret IBM PC, Bill Gates pointed them in Kildall’s direction. Kildall, though, was out when the IBM people arrived — he spent a lot of time flying to visit customers — and his wife (co-owner of the business) wouldn’t sign the required NDA. So, we ended up with DOS, not CP/M on the IBM PC and Bill Gates as the richest man in the world.

Another piece of my early computing history was Byte Magazine and Jerry Pournelle's column "Computing at Chaos Manor". Pournelle's columns were epics, rolling in at around 5000 words a month of rambling prose detailing what felt like every single computing action he took over the course of a month. You can get a taste of one on his website, which still looks like something from the late 90s.

I started reading Byte way back even before I bought my first computer. I was obsessed with science fiction and computers which you could actually own were like a taste of the future. And Byte was where you read all about it. Every month Pournelle would receive new equipment from vendors eager to get a mention in his column and having all that technology ¬¬– which I would have called “kit” at the time, a word I later went on to hate with a passion — sounded like a fun job.

It would be remiss not to mention that Pournelle was also a raging right-winger who consistently claimed climate change was a hoax and thought the democrats were all pawns of the Soviet Union. His fiction was often steeped in virulent militarism, and he got worse as he got older.

Eventually, of course I became a computer journalist which lead to a career in publishing and my current status as what can only be described as “a suit”. I may still wear the t-shirts, but my work is really people and business. Perhaps that’s why I’m still so obsessed with technology: it’s the link to my past.

Stuff I’ve been reading

Viticci’s review of the new iPad Air is interesting and of course as in-depth as you would expect. If you’re thinking about getting an iPad and want something powerful but not as expensive as the iPad Pro, this looks like the one to get.

One of my aims at the moment is to back to more slow reading and writing and less social media and instant reacting, so I'm using RSS more. There’s a new release of Reeder out and it’s an excellent newsreader. Highly recommended.

This is a good thread on why writing makes you smarter. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

How do Norwegians stay happy in the winter? Part of the answer is “get dressed up and go outside” which feels like heresy to those used to warmer climes.

How do you break bad habits? By replacing them with good ones, of course.

I’ve always thought that multitasking was a myth. So is “dual-focusing”. Pay attention, Microsoft. Related: I have turned off almost all notifications on my phone and watch.

Speaking of email... Shawn is right here, the default mail client on iOS is the best one. Fight me.

Good interview with Cory. I particularly liked this quote:

Technologists have failed to listen to non-technologists. In technological circles, there’s a quantitative fallacy that if you can’t do maths on it, you can just ignore it. And so, you just incinerate the qualitative elements and do maths on the dubious quantitative residue that remains. This is how you get physicists designing models for reopening American schools — because they completely fail to take on board the possibility that students might engage in, say, drunken eyeball-licking parties, which completely trips up the models.