|Gollancz, 1981, 279pp, £7.95|
Another Dave Langford review. Do bear in mind that this was 1982....
The aim of this book is to take computer virgins by the hand and gently lead them towards a happy consummation -- first dispelling all those fears of naughty interfacing implanted by folklore, then advising on the ideal choice of partner, and finally blossoming into examples of the Joy of Programming. It's not only my metaphor which seems dubious here. As with other forms of fun, there is no substitute for hands-on experience of manipulating computers. Even if the book achieved all its aims, the only way to get full satisfaction would be to read until halfway down page 131; then rush out and buy a computer, having learnt how to choose one; and carry on with the next paragraph, which begins by telling you how to unwrap it.
I don't recommend this course of action: the book is a mess. It opens like a Dianetics text -- 'You have in your hands a book that can change your life', and similar threats of instant menopause for unwary readers -- and is soon babbling that symbiosis with home computers represents mankind's next evolutionary leap, and that if you don't buy one right now you're headed for the dustbin of history. There are chapters of pure Readers' Digest uplift about the wondrous computerized future, and of pure froth about terminology: 'Should we call [a computer] the 'prediction machine', then? Or perhaps 'reality machine'?' (The term computer, you see, 'suggests mathematics too strongly'.) There are masses of partially relevant material -- Babbage, calculators, attacks on logic and IQ tests, the interesting revelation that computers are in no way complicated (that's just a lie put about by elitists who want to Cover Things Up) ...
This last might explain the reaction of Martin Hoare, a computer professional whom I invited to flip through this volume. 'One of the worst I've ever seen,' he remarked more in sorrow than anger. 'It starts by assuming you know nothing about computers. Anyone who finishes it will probably be in the same position.'
Let me say very loudly that an attack on whatever mystique may surround computers is merely dishonest when, as here, it goes so far as to suggest that there are no difficulties whatever. One is reminded of Anthony Burgess plugging Finnegans Wake as a fun book for all the family, made to seem difficult only by the evil activities of literary critics. The truth is that programming is in many ways like writing: anyone can soon master the computer-program equivalent of a postcard or a slushpile story, but to achieve anything worthwhile requires study, practice and patience. Not to mention talent. The large and complex programs used in commercial computers are by intention the simplest, cheapest ways of handling large and complex problems. They are not, as implied by the authors, a vast system of obfuscation designed to keep us in the dark -- any more than The Shadow of the Torturer represents an inefficient way of telling a story which could have been handled much better as a Ladybird book.
Essentially, the first section of The Home Computer Handbook is padding and drivel, surrounding what could have been a perfectly sensible little article setting out the familiar truths that computers are not intelligent, that anthropomorphism is a mistake, that the machine will only do what you tell it to and can never err ... though the last is a half-truth at best. 'All so-called "computer errors" lead back to some human being', say the authors soothingly, leaving us to wonder who should be blamed when, as is not unknown, a computer memory bit is 'flipped' thanks to electron showers produced by cosmic radiation. All this is written in the friendly, folksy, easy-to-understand style of authors writing down a steep slope towards an audience assumed to be moronic.
Next come 'Buyer's Guide' chapters, addressing themselves to the problem of which computer to get. Apparently, the original US edition discussed specific machines, but the list was out of date before it appeared and has now been dropped altogether. Instead, there are 'what to look for' suggestions, often so generalized as to be useless -- many questions you're invited to ask are merely fatuous, like 'Where do I install it? How do I connect it to a power source? How do I shut it down when it's not in use?' The musty air of these chapters is enhanced by stern warnings against 'toy' computers without cassette/disc storage -- which in today's market is like warning motorway travellers against highwaymen. Best advice in this section is to throw the book away and study computer magazines; the authors don't quite put it like that, but I do.
Though mentioned in the text, an appendix listing such magazines has been sliced out to spare some Gollancz editor the hideous effort of visiting a large newsagent to jot down some of the many British titles; but you can do this yourself. Comparisons and reassessments of standard small machines (Tandy, Pet, Apple, etc.) and newer ones (Vic-20, BBC/Atom, etc.) are published more often than you might think. And if you find yourself unable to choose a computer without first having experience with a computer (a common problem), you could always follow the example of the BSFA Litho Boss and try the cheap though limited Sinclair ZX-81. You'll save more than 10 percent of its cost simply by not buying The Home Computer Handbook.
The remaining half of the text is also fairly dispensable. By this time the assumption is that you own a computer -- in which case you'll have acquired an operating manual specifically intended for your machine. It may not be a masterpiece of the technical writer's art (the Tandy manuals are fairly well organized, for example, while the Vic-20 one is chaotic). But it's certainly a better place to read how to turn on and try out your machine (one very generalized chapter of the book is wasted on this), to learn which if any of the numerous BASIC language dialects applies to said machine (three chapters of the book deal with a perforce generalized BASIC), and to find sample programs which unlike those here can be guaranteed to run on your machine without tinkering. Apart from this, much space is devoted to the glories of PROGRAMAP, a Herbert/Barnard invention which junks all those wicked, elitist, abstract, internationally agreed flow-charting symbols in favour of easy-to-draw pictures of little televisions and keyboards. 'But no one flowcharts programs any more' said my bewildered computer friends. I suspect PROGRAMAP of being at best a crutch which will ultimately hinder learners from programming fluently.
The sample programs themselves are stupefyingly tedious and, it seems, designed to make minimum use of a computer's potential ... 'And here is my astonishing new Computator,' cried Ralph 124C 41+. 'See how I encode this day's date upon the electromechanical Keyboardomat! Listen: even now the Computator is processing the datum! Now, upon the Cathodeicon screen -- yes, the Computator's all-potent Algorithmic Program reveals that it is time to change the oil in my car's engine!' Gosh wow, as we fans say.
Mere mockery aside, I can't recommend this vacuous book to anybody.
|First published in Vector 108, 1982.|
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