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By petersum at 2006-06-14 17:53
This year I am celebrating a Silver Anniversary. Not of marriage or anything so conventional, but 25 years of owning a computer. Yes, way back when I was in my prime as they say, I purchased a second hand Sinclair ZX81. It wasn't my first experience of computers exactly. I had seen, but wasn't allowed to touch, or tell anyone else, some monster rack mounted things during my military service days. However, this was something really new - and all mine.
The first moments of attaching it to my TV set and turning on the power were as exciting as having sex for the first time - well, almost. The excitement lasted even less time though. On a 26 inch color TV, if you stood back a long way and screwed up your eyes enough, you could just make out a few letters of the alphabet. A bit of tuning, or more precisely mis-tuning so that the TV displayed a black and white picture, and you could actually read something in huge, fuzzy, block shaped letters.
Next came the step where I had to read the manual to find out what to do. Strange, I still do the same today - we never learn! Anyway, to cut a long story short, I eventually got it figured out and pretended that I knew what I was doing. All was well until the "Better Half" came home from work. "What does it do?", she asked. Er...Uhm...
"We want to watch TV", said the kids. So the computer got switched off thus starting what would become a habit - late night computing after every reasonable person has gone to bed.
The ZX81 had a tiny membrane keyboard that quickly taught me to trim my nails regularly. Better Half had been told by her office that they would soon install a computer, so a new interest was aroused. Since she absolutely refused to cut her finger nails, I was forced to find a "proper" keyboard. After a few days of spagetti wiring with a soldering iron, I managed to get a scrap keyboard to function. Then proudly called Better Half to try it. That was when I found out that she could type ten times faster than the poor computer could input keystrokes. Better Half lost interest again immediately.
The ZX81 lasted long enough for me to learn machine code programming - POKEing every byte into its 1k of memory since there was no compiler. I learned Assembly language much later. Looking back, it was an excellent introduction to programming. It taught me how to write small, efficient programs. Many years later when I experimented with C language, I wrote the standard "Hello World" to display in blue letters. I just had to laugh - 56k! Shit, I can make the same in two dozen bytes or less!
As the years passed, the computers changed as well as a few Better Half's. But some things remain the same - and that is worrying! "What does it do?" still haunts me.
The Sinclair ZX81, called the Timex1000 in the USA, was a British product. It was advertised as "capable of running a nuclear power station". Now, what is interesting is that Britain had a "Truth in Advertising" act that penalized anyone making a false advertising claim. Sinclair's claim was never disputed - it really could have run a nuclear power station! I personally have made devices to control sugar mill boilers using the same Z80 CPU as used in the Sinclair. The point is that, the old 8 bit CPU of that era could do a lot of work - so running your entire home would be a breeze!
Does your computer operate your home heating system, turn your lights on and off, operate as a burglar alarm, or just wake you up in the morning? These are just a few of the simple on/off applications. If you add some robotics the possibilities are endless.
The simple fact is, after 25 years, we are still not using our computers properly. The computer is seen as a toy and not as a tool which it really is. That parallel port on the back of your computer, which you probably never use, is capable of switching 256 devices on or off. Or it can be attached to digital-to-analog devices to control just about anything. What's more, the electronics that make up the necessary interface, date back to the sixties. This isn't modern hi-tech stuff.
Your computer is idle for most of the time. It could be running your home, as you surf the Internet, watch movies, or whatever! Linux users should be more aware than others of what computers can do. Linux is now being used as the operating system in mobile phones. That is seen as a big achievement by some but I would say it is absolutely nothing compared with what Linux could do!
Isn't it time for the Linux community, who have been so successful in software development, to move into the hardware arena as well? What does it do? What could it do?
25 years have brought about changes. I no longer attach my computer to a TV, I watch TV on my computer instead. What does it do? I still don't know. I'll still take my computer apart and plug in my soldering iron occasionally. The latest Better Half asks, "Why do you use Linux? What does it do?"