PCW Plus "Langford" Columns, 1988

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Column 16, 8000 Plus 16, January 1988


Once in a while, when green screens get too much, I escape to a North Wales flat where my wife forbids computers. Amazing how much hard work goes into bashing a portable typewriter.... When dragged away from the ancient keyboard, I dutifully tour mountains and castles: the most boggling scenery tends to lurk in estate agents' windows, because houses in 'remote' parts like Snowdonia are absurdly cheap. No one wants them.

The computer connection emerges when you remember those books about how by 1984 we'd all be living in country villages, working at keyboards linked to the office via modems. Norman Macrae's eccentric The 2024 Report described how: 'a typical telecommuter ... keys in figures from her terminal in the Isle of Arran to the computer in Saudi Arabia.'

One hopes the company's paying her phone bill. Meanwhile, where are these figures coming from? Is the typical worker making them up? Are they appearing on another terminal (in which case you might ask why they're going via Arran at all)? Or does this hi-tech, computerized future depend on stacks of material arriving by post, in which case...?

The Macrae book gets progressively sillier, with ICBMs made obsolete by 'telecommuted computer messages' which redirect them homeward. (All warmongers equip their nukes with radio receivers and spare fuel for the return trip.) Even the straightforward Isle of Arran scenario makes you wonder what chance there is of 'remote' office work becoming the rule. Many companies would resist strenuously: outfits that can't bear the idea of people working at their own pace, so that if you finish the day's chores quickly they insist you stick around staring at the wall until five o'clock, while workers trying to complete a long job while it's fresh in their minds get thrown out at five to avoid overtime payments.

Other problems include certain jobs' need for personal contact (try running a supermarket check-out from a desk on Arran), the unhealthy urge to live in cities, and the insatiable desire to horrify certain 8000 Plus readers by visiting pubs with one's office mates.

I have a candidate for another major reason why so few people are living in idyllic Snowdonia and doing their work via modem. The reason is British Telecom.

Global linkages sound good. When Arthur C.Clarke finishes an SF novel, as all too frequently he does, newspapers go Oooh and Ahhh at the delivery route: squirted by satellite link from the Clarke word processor in Sri Lanka to his literary agents in New York. Gosh, that's science fiction! I must submit my next novel that way!

Satellite lines are too pricy for mere mortals, so we're stuck with the phone. Let's see, the bog-standard modem transmission rate is 300 baud (bits per second): 37.5 characters per second. My last novel ran to 85,000 words, the usual range for non-blockbusters being 60,000 to 90,000 words. Say 600,000 characters. Transmission time to the publishers: well over 44 hours. Rather your phone bill than mine.

Higher transmission rates is possible: 1200 baud, taking 11+ hours. Even at night, this is ludicrously more expensive than posting two kilos of print-out (you can reduce this weight by using very thin paper, a false economy since the publishers will then hang it up in the room where very thin paper is most in demand) ... or even a disk. The 'industry standard' transmission rate of 9600 baud, which starts to make the process almost feasible (at 1 hour 40 minutes or so), is too much for too many of British Telecom's antiquated phone lines.

Other snags? Such transmissions generally won't allow special control characters as in LocoScript files (they must be converted to ASCII -- bang go all those boldface, underline and italic codes). And, having experimented with short chunks of text, I can guarantee that many nasty things will happen to any novel-length manuscript as it passes through the rumble, flutter, wow, echo and reverb facilities of BT's long-distance lines. Some communications software has built-in error checking and keeps re-transmitting spoiled text until it arrives OK. I've watched these clever programs send one block (128 characters) of text 63 times without BT once letting it arrive unscathed.

The BT 'Prestel' mail-and-information system is colourful and easy to use, but futile for serious data transfer: you are limited to electronic postcards rather than electronic mail, since messages are accepted only a screen at a time -- and a Prestel screen is just 25 lines of 40 characters, with at least three lines reserved for the page header, menu information and garish graphics. Forget it!

Next I tried 'Telecom Gold' electronic mail (For Serious Business Users), which ... oh dear. This needs a whole column to itself, and you will find it here.

It's like this in the Home Counties, Silicon Valley UK, where you'd expect a high-class phone service. There's objective confirmation that we've got a terrible system: American immigrants with a basis for comparison keep saying so, even while praising our post office and the friendly way our policemen aren't always weighed down with ruddy great guns.

In the USA, many more people do manage to work from a home terminal as part of a company. In Britain, we have British Telecom, and if I tried to transmit documents from Snowdonia (where last time it took me sixteen efforts to get through to London at all), this column would probably start:

Onxe nn a{SMJAHJUhsd wxile, whnfgrn screns....

Another Typical Conversation

AUTHOR: 'I can send it to you on any standard-size disk, 3", 3½" or 5¼", or if you've got an electronic mail link we can....'

THRUSTING, GO-AHEAD PUBLISHER: 'Oh God, just post me a manuscript.'

Column 17, 8000 Plus 17, February 1988


A computer is a pretty science-fictional object to have around, so science-fictional that few SF writers caught on to the potential of a home terminal until the things were everywhere. Writers tended to prefer walking, talking, menacing robots and androids, which offered better drama. If Victor Frankenstein had merely stitched together a small word-processing system, his life would have been far more tranquil....

Faced with the challenge of setting SF in the complex, computerized tomorrow which seems inevitable, some writers retreat into fantasies of a primitive past or post-holocaust future where the only software problem for the fur-jockstrapped hero is working out where in the opposition's tummy to insert his pointed stick or four-foot broadsword. Others try to tackle the implications, sometimes successfully and sometimes with mind-numbing corniness. Computers and artificial intelligence (my pal Charles Platt calls it 'artificial stupidity') have already spawned dozens of plot devices and run them so far into the ground as to evoke coarse laughter from editors you might have hoped to impress. Here are ten randomly selected storylines to avoid, guaranteed SF duds. Some of them worked once, but not any more.

• All stories in which your Amstrad PCW is upgraded and becomes God. This brand of SF, known to aficionados as the shaggy god story, is particularly bad when treated seriously ('In the beginning was the word processor,' etc.) or humorously (with the serpent of Eden turning out to be Alan Sugar).

• All plots wherein an insane, villainous computer intelligence is caused to sprain its operating system and go up in smoke when confronted with logical paradoxes (SF hero: 'Everything I say is false!' World-dominating electronic brain: Fzzzzzt....), emotional tripe (SF heroine: 'There are limits to your power, Machine! You cannot love ... or weep.' Mad computer dies of embarrassment) or plain dumb questions (Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner: 'Why?' Collapse of hyperintelligent computer complex, which might reasonably have come back with 'Why not?' ... or of course 'Because!').

• Any trick ending involving the final death-or-glory battle of a vast spacegoing attack fleet which fights against virtually impossible odds to penetrate savagely hostile planetary defences, and which finally smashes apart the opposition and reaches ground level, only for Time to stop and vast glowing letters to appear in the sky, saying GAME OVER -- INSERT COIN.

• In an unsubtle reversal of the previous item, teenage computer-game addicts notching up colossal mega-scores in Manic Space Goat Attack find out that really they're operating remote-controlled weaponry responsible for the last defence of Earth against the ravening Vegan mind-hordes (or vice versa).

• Any plot in which the high-tech computer hackers penetrate NASA (or Pentagon, or Kremlin, or NatWest) computer security in one paragraph of reasoning going something like this: 'H'mm, this system was designed by the great Hasdrubal Bloggs, acknowledged world grandmaster of data security, so our chances of cracking it are pretty slim. Just for a laugh, though, let's try the password HASDRUBAL!' A short pause. 'Well, that saves us a lot of trouble....' Naffest recent example of this: Fred Saberhagen's sf novel Octagon, in which two independent passwords have to be guessed, and by sheer chance turn out to be the same.

• The brilliant idea of your word processor coming alive and electronically taking over the storyline ... unfortunately this has been done too often with old-fashioned typewriters to stand being updated yet again. See for example Michael Bishop's nifty novel Who Made Stevie Crye?

• Anything with lots of glowing, hallucinatory scenes in which 'computer space' is seen as a surreal geography through which hackers travel to battle the deadly electronic defences of the Pentagon, the Kremlin, Barclays, etc. Quite apart from that flawed film Tron, this whole 'cyberspace' scenario is the trademark of William Gibson, who's done it three times already ('Burning Chrome', Neuromancer, Count Zero), is busy with a fourth (Mona Lisa Overdrive), and who's so tempting to imitate that an entire US movement of 'cyberpunk' writers has grown around him.

• Anything relying on a new loophole in Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. Apart, that is, from the really glaring loophole which is mercilessly exploited by present-day computers: they're all too stupid to understand the Three Laws anyway. Adding extra Laws is definitely not cricket, even if Asimov himself has taken to doing it....

• Any attempt to lend conviction to an SF computer story by writing page after impenetrable page of it in a computer language, either real (especially if it's BASIC) or fake -- see Xorandor by Christine Brooke-Rose, which also carries computer jargon into everyday expletives. 'Booles!' people swear. 'Debug!' they vilely continue.

• Any story involving any variation of this dramatic exchange. AGED SCIENTIST OR POLITICIAN: 'Well, my friends, this is it! We've put total control over all the world's conventional weapons and nuclear arsenals into the electronic hands of the invulnerably armoured Deusexmachina computer complex, thus ensuring universal peace and harmony. It only remains for me to switch on the as yet untested artificial intelligence system, programmed by Dr Barmy Bloodlust just before we fired him, which will henceforth co-ordinate world affairs....' IDEALISTIC YOUNG SCIENTIST OR REPORTER: 'I have this crazy hunch that we could be making some mistake!' (But it's too late. Classic example: Colossus by D.F.Jones.)

This isn't a complete list: for example, I currently suspect that any further attempt to describe an electronic afterlife (people's intelligence transferred to software in vast computer complexes) will have to be incredibly innovative to outdo the treatment of this theme by Rudy Rucker (Software) and Frederik Pohl (The Annals of the Heechee). Another omission is the idea of spending a thousand words describing awful computer clichés. This has already been done quite badly enough in the present issue of 8000 Plus, and your editor doesn't want a repeat performance....

However -- doubtless a writer of genius could breathe new life into almost any of the moribund themes described here. Just make sure, before you spend too much time trying, that you are a writer of genius.

Speaking of Isaac Asimov

I once devised an alternative, realistic version of his fabled Three Laws of Robotics: (1) A robot will not harm authorized government personnel but will terminate intruders with extreme prejudice. (2) A robot will obey the orders of authorized personnel except where such orders would conflict with the Third Law. (3) A robot will guard its own existence with lethal antipersonnel weaponry, because a robot is bloody expensive.

Column 18, 8000 Plus 18, March 1988


Somewhere out there are aspiring writers so new to the game that they haven't discovered the Official Manual, as recommended by the Society of Authors. Like a BR timetable, the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook is indispensable and without parallel. Also like a BR timetable, it isn't quite 100% reliable and satisfactory....

I've just bought the 1988 edition of this fat reference work. It lists 600+ British newspaper and magazine markets, with addresses and phone numbers, and continues with the Commonwealth; fifty-odd pages of small print list British book publishers and what they want to buy; and so on through poetry, film, broadcasting, art, music, etc. There are essays on every aspect of authorship, and further lists of literary agents, press-cutting agencies and addresses useful in research. Next time I need to consult the College of Arms or the Botswana High Commission, the details will be at my fingertips.

One booby-trap lurking in the Yearbook is delicately indicated, or obscured, in the introduction to the newspapers and magazines section. 'Many do not appear in our lists because the market they offer ... is either too small or too specialized.' And again, 'Those who wish to offer contributions to technical, specialist or local journals are likely to know their names and can ascertain their addresses....' Well, fair enough. I write for one exceedingly specialist magazine, devoted to Apricot computers and available by mail order only: I don't expect to find it listed, any more than I'd expect (after that warning) to find listings for magazines solely devoted to stamp collecting.

But hang on -- in the Yearbook's classified index, there are indeed four philately magazines. On investigation, I find great hordes of technical (Pharmaceutical Journal, Practical Electronics), specialist (British Esperantist, Spiritualists Gazette) and local (Manx Life) entries. What does this 'too small or too specialized' exclusion clause mean?

I will tell you. As far as I can see, it's a get-out which allows the Yearbook editors to do the absolute minimum of work in updating their lists. Once an entry gets in, no matter how technical, specialist or local, it seemingly stays there until the magazine dies. Breaking into the listing in the first place is the difficult part. I became quite justifiably paranoid on finding that, of the nationally distributed, glossy-covered magazines and newspapers to which I've contributed in recent years, not one is covered! Computer Weekly, Knave, Sanity, Starburst, What Micro?, White Dwarf ... not to mention The Other (Official) Magazine and 8000 Plus.

As you know, there are scores of computer magazines, and many have been around for some time. When in 1984 I complained about their shoddy Yearbook treatment (I was writing in another major computer newspaper, not devoted to any one machine, not listed then or now), there were precisely four computer publications deemed worthy of mention. Now, so resistless is the march of progress, there are five. Contrast this with the thirty-two listed specialist publications for blind people. Another statistic: the listing includes more than twice as many magazines for farmers as for computer owners. How many people with computers do you personally know? How many farmers?

Suspicions that the Yearbook skimps its updating are reinforced by the presence of an article by Louis Alexander on word processors. This was a jolly good, state-of-the-art piece when first written, in 1983. A year is a long time in the computer world; five years is an epoch. Here is a literary reference book, published in 1988, which gives the following information:

• A decent word processing system will cost you between £1500 and £2000.

• You should beware of computers whose memory is not 'expandable to at least 64K'. (Quick quiz: what is the typical home computer and what two memory sizes does it offer?)

• Typical computer magazines are Which Micro?, PC User, PC Magazine and Personal Computer World -- three of which, oddly enough, aren't thought worth mentioning in the market listing. (More difficult quiz: which of these is devoted to a product actually marketed as a complete word processing package?)

• 'Non-standard 3" disks ... may not always be easy to obtain.' In 1986 I mentioned the same fear here. Amstrad's marketing success has long since guaranteed a continuing flow of these disks from independent, competing suppliers. [1992: no longer so certain.]

• 'IBM compatibility is becoming a de-facto standard.' But so -- if you talk to typesetters and editors -- is 3"-disk-and-LocoScript compatibility. Many markets ask me to submit on 3" disk and won't even handle the old-fashioned 5¼" floppies. (To be fair, 3½" disks are my favourites.)

Most of the article's generalities remain pretty much OK, though there's an old-fashioned flavour in such hints as to make sure you buy a word processor with search-and-replace facilities, and the ability to add, delete and move text. (Imagine a country guide book from the same publishers, warning motorway travellers against the ever-present perils of highwaymen.) I think a standard reference book has a responsibility to do more -- to commission a brand-new survey of the word-processing scene for each edition, rather than have an old piece patchily updated.

The Yearbook remains the only game in town. You need it regardless of all my nitpicking. The reader is warned....

Vital statistics: The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 1988 is the 81st annual edition of this tome. It's published by A.& C.Black, runs to 528 pages and costs £5.95. Every home should have one, despite the flaws: if you're starving in a garret, don't forget the reference section of your local library.

High Society Footnote

The Society of Authors isn't the only writers' organization around, but it's my personal Best Buy: excellent advice and support for [1993:] £65 a year (published authors only) -- 84 Drayton Gardens, London, SW10 9SB. The Writers' Guild is also highly regarded except by those who don't fancy TUC affiliation (430 Edgware Road, London, W2 1EH). Both organizations are working to improve writers' lives by establishing a Minimum Terms Agreement for book contracts: the virtuous publishers who've so far signed this are the BBC, Faber, Century Hutchinson and Headline, and you can draw your own conclusions about the rest. The SF Writers of America should be just the organization for SF authors, but is a bit iffy: they don't take much interest in publishing disputes outside the US mainland, and give the impression of spending a lot of subscription money on parties British members can't get to, plus awards which always go to Americans.

Column 19, 8000 Plus 19, April 1988


One month it's UFO sightings, another brings us bending spoons: today the computer world is buzzing with tales of electronic AIDS. How worried should we be? At first I suspected a classic case of modern myth, as documented by Jan Harold Brunvand....

Prof. Brunvand's recent The Choking Doberman is a survey of 'urban folklore' -- fascinating but untraceable anecdotes which always happened to 'a friend of a friend'. My attention was caught by 'The Mystery Glitch', a computer-caper story about joke messages in an operating system, which the Professor feels is just a legend.

Even before the current computer virus scare, I thought he was wrong.

You can usually detect folklore by totting up the improbabilities. In the 'Choking Doberman' story, it's unlikely that a guard dog would succeed in biting off a burglar's fingers; doubly unlikely that they'd stick in its throat; trebly unlikely that the vet who extracts them would jump to conclusions and give the dog's owner a warning phone-call; quadruply unlikely that the mutilated burglar should later be found still groaning under the bed.... Conversely, a feasible joke program needs only one improbability -- that someone would be idiot enough to write it.

Several harmless japes are going the rounds on other machines, and no doubt PCW versions exist already or soon will ... like DRAIN, which reports water in your disk drive and goes through gurgling 'drain' and whining 'spin dry' cycles.

Less harmless are the ugly 'public domain' programs which promise a nice mindless game, but when loaded erase every disk in sight, often with derisive messages about wasting your valuable computer on fripperies.

Now we have 'viruses' which literally infect programs or disks, spreading invisibly and leaving a trail of ruin. Despite the media scare, I stayed sceptical for a while. Too many suggestible folk have been persuaded to confirm spurious UFO sightings, or to notice for the first time that one of their keys is slightly bent.

When curiosity became too strong, I spent an evening devising a test program which will never be allowed out of the Ansible secure laboratory. The bad news: it worked and (given a little assembler expertise) was horribly easy. This research 'virus' attached itself to program files which in turn would invisibly spread the virus on being run. When no uninfected files were found, contaminated programs would beep mysteriously before running as normal.

It was depressing to confirm that genuine, non-folklore virus programs could be written for any computer I use, including the PCW, and to reflect that a malicious programmer needn't stop at occasional beeps.

The gap between theoretical nasties and real life is apt to close rapidly. On Amigas, viruses have stopped being 'someone else's problem' and become a serious pest -- dealers are flogging 'antibody' programs. The latest epidemic affects IBM compatibles, including the Amstrad PC. After lurking for years in SF and folklore, the virus seems to be a bad idea whose time has come.

How do they work? Simple 'bogusware' relies on your running that game you got from a mischievous friend, an electronic bulletin board or a public-domain disk. The worst a simple effort can do is to erase or corrupt the disks in your machine. More sophisticated nasties might load themselves into CP/M's free memory and hang around -- potentially destructively -- until you switch off or press Shift-Extra-Exit.

A virus goes further, deliberately copying itself to new locations and spreading from disk to disk. My laboratory version worked by attaching copies of itself to COM program files and rewriting them to run the virus code before the main program.

The scourge now afflicting IBMs in America is more insidious: it perverts the actual operating system on a start-up disk. When you've started up from an infected disk, the virus copies itself to any other start-up disk which is accessed ... even if the 'access' consists of no more than a directory listing. Each time it copies itself, the virus clocks up an internal counter on the Typhoid Mary disk; and when the count passes four (i.e. four new plague-carriers are loose), every disk in the machine is wiped so thoroughly clean that no 'recovery service' can retrieve a word of text.

That's not very nice, is it?

The good news is that the Amstrad PCW is a special case. You're less likely to be threatened, because:

• The odds are that you just use LocoScript. Although a virus which affects LocoScript start-up disks can't be entirely ruled out, the technical difficulties are immensely greater than in CP/M. And how often do you use someone else's LocoScript?

• Relatively few PCW users hang out in the low haunts of dedicated computer freaks, promiscuously swapping software and possible nasty infections.

• There are few PCWs in America, Eastern Europe and the Far East, the main sources of virus programs. Maybe in Britain, yobs who think this kind of thing funny have less expertise and prefer dropping concrete blocks off railway bridges.

• Because the PCW is a budget machine, you probably don't own a hard disk. Having the equivalent of several dozen floppies sabotaged is far more traumatic than losing one or two.

So if a PCW virus does ever emerge, the precautions are obvious:

• Be careful where you get software. If you only use what comes with the machine, no virus can reach you. New commercial programs should also be safe. Reputable public-domain sources check what they pass on, but are marginally riskier: library organizers handle huge amounts of software and aren't infallible.

• Flip the write-protect tab on all your start-up disks, where possible. No trouble with LocoScript; however, CP/M's 'submit' procedure creates temporary files, so a CP/M disk which automatically loads a program mustn't be write-protected.

• If your PCW cohabits with alien disks, watch for virus symptoms. Do program files (names ending in .COM) or hidden start-up files (ending in .EMS) have larger file sizes than you remember? Does the space on the M: drive seem to have shrunk? Do mysterious 'read only' error messages appear when you try some innocuous access (like a directory listing) to a write-protected disk? (A virus could be trying to copy itself.)

Finally, don't panic yet. It's the users of other computers who are learning that when you sleep with a strange disk, you sleep with all its old mates.

Column 20, 8000 Plus 20, May 1988


The thing writers are supposed to ask about a new computer is, 'Can I do my VAT on it?' Actually, many authors merely shudder uncontrollably at the thought of ever getting involved with the hideous complexities of VAT ... but since it's the most bizarre and science-fictional concept in taxation since Morton's Fork, it seems worth a column.

Value Added Tax is one of those things like milk lakes and the Data Protection Act, which we didn't want but are among the compulsory benefits of EEC membership. The idea is that everyone who's registered for VAT has to charge tax on the 'value' he or she has 'added' to raw materials, but can reclaim the VAT charged by whoever supplied the materials.

So I buy a ream of paper for £4.70p, being £4 real cost plus 17½% VAT. I increase its value immensely (or not very much, as the case may be) by writing a novel on it, for which a publisher offers me £1000. When rudely reminded that I'm registered for VAT and have a real VAT number of my own (just call me 292 6643 31, people), the publishers ungraciously cough up an extra £175. This I pass to the VAT collectors -- that is, H.M. Customs & Excise. If I fail to do so, I will be awarded sanitary accommodation at Her Majesty's expense. But before paying up, I can deduct the VAT I paid on paper, ribbons, etc., thus coming out ahead by a tiny fraction of my stationery expenses. Glory, glory.

This all sounds relatively straightforward, hardly more difficult than quantum field theory. Naturally the legislators weren't content to leave it at that. To start with, they use a special weird terminology of taxable 'inputs' and 'outputs'. VAT sufferers slowly learn that all the money you rake in must be called an output on the VAT forms, while what you shell out is naturally an input. Strong men have been known to break down and weep. [1997: The VAT forms are a bit easier to use now.]

One good point amongst the complications is that books and food (except junk food) are 'zero-rated', meaning you don't pay VAT on them, though this wretched Government would very much like to slap VAT on books. Sign the petition in your local bookshop, telling them not to: the idea sounds a complete disaster in a country whose laws are so daft that schools and universities aren't allowed to register for and thus reclaim VAT. Then there are goods and services which are 'exempt' from VAT, meaning again that you don't pay VAT on them, but the non-payment is made in subtly different ways. My accountant says I'm oversimplifying, having failed to include a third category of things on which no VAT is chargeable, these being 'outside the scope of the tax'. To mention these things would only confuse you, and so I won't.

Such cunning, theological distinctions are enshrined in endless VAT booklets: I received 388 pages of small-print information when I registered and have been ignoring quarterly updates ever since. One whole booklet was about nothing but the VAT status of second-hand electronic organs. There were vital differences between crystallized ginger (taxable at 17½%) and ginger preserved in syrup (zero-rated); insoluble grit (17½%) and soluble grit (zero); rabbit food (zero) and food put up for sale for pet rabbits (17½%); angels dancing on the point of a pin (17½%) or of a needle (zero)....

In this maze of eccentricity, writers occupy a particularly daft position. Books are zero-rated, but the Sublime Act Of Creation is taxable at 17½%. The publishers pay VAT to the author, the author pays it over to Customs and Excise, and Customs and Excise refund it to the publishers. Many forms are filled in, many civil servants are made happy, and after six months the money all ends up where it began. The justification is supposed to be that at the end of the line, members of the general public (you) pay hefty lumps of VAT which make the whole tortuous business worthwhile. But of course, books are zero-rated.

Why bother? Some writers not only don't but say it's all a monstrous imposition, forcing you to do the books at regular intervals and to act as an unpaid tax collector. Totally disorganized writers like me can find the discipline of being made to work out three-monthly accounts quite useful, especially when the tax return comes round. If you don't mind paperwork, it's financially cheering: every time you pay £23.50 for a box of disks to hold your latest trilogy, £3.50 can be claimed back ... and when it comes to buying a new computer, the saving is £14.89 in every hundred quid.

Don't all rush. It's no good trying to register for VAT until you're actually making money from writing. Registration is compulsory if your writing income is vast (well over £20,000 a year). For ordinary people it's 'optional', meaning 'we'll let you sign up if we like your face and you look profitable'. Hopeful young authors are turned away for having made only a few hundred from writing.

Of course, if you're not able to register it's much less fun being part of the musical-chairs game of VAT in publishing: the buck, or 17½ per cent of it, stops with you. I had a very gloomy letter from a small magazine complaining of my wickedness in charging VAT (once you're registered, it's illegal not to). 'J.G.Ballard didn't ask for VAT,' said the embittered editor.

A particularly awkward plight was that of the anthologist pal who became the financial intermediary between the book's contributors -- registered authors who charged him VAT -- and the VAT-registered publishers to whom he couldn't charge VAT because of not being registered. Ouch.

Do you still want to do your VAT on the computer? Use a spreadsheet and remember that magic figure seventeen and a half.

The rate was 15% when this first appeared, but it seems sensible to bring the figures up to date.

Column 21, 8000 Plus 21, June 1988


More and more writers seem to be bashing out fantasy trilogies these days. More and more writers are switching from typewriters to computer word processors. Could the facts be related? All right, I know, it isn't logical to insist on a connection ... there are equally good statistical arguments which 'prove' that television causes insanity and medical care causes cancer. (TV set purchases and the number of mental cases both rise together with the ever-swelling population; a good health service keeps more people alive to suffer the afflictions of old age; never buy a used graph from a statistician.)

Nevertheless, you can fudge up some interesting parallels between the computer boom and the horrible proliferation of multi-volume fantasy epics. I'm pretty sick of the latter: there are altogether too many derivative efforts called things like Dictator of the Circlets (successor to Emperor of the Annuli, Chieftain of the Toroids and Czar of the Hoops), divided into three dreadfully reminiscent volumes, all of which I then have to review.

One of the most familiar fantasy plotlines goes like this. Pat Nurd is a no-account but ever so sympathetic young filing clerk from our world, or stablehand's apprentice in the book's imaginary world, who steps through a magic doorway and is Pitchforked Into Adventure. Helpless at first in the menacing fantasy wilderness, Pat soon learns a few tricks and spells which control the magical fabric of the universe ... and with the help of grimoires and perhaps a wise old mentor, struggles to learn more. By the middle of book three, this formerly inadequate stable clerk is a Mage who knows the True Names of things and can toss off Words of Power to command the forces of nature. It certainly beats working for a living.

(Greg Bear's novels The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage offer one of the more intelligent recent versions of this rags-to-runes story.)

Now, the real-world version. Let's run through that familiar scenario again. Pat Nurd is a no-account but ever so aspiring young writer, who steps through the enchanted door of the computer shop and is pitchforked into a strange new world. Helpless at first in the menacing silicon wilderness, Pat soon learns a few tricks and commands which control the awesome fabric of the operating system ... and with the help of computer magazines and perhaps a local user group, struggles to learn more. By the time Pat should have finished book three of the current contract, this formerly inadequate hack is a Power User who knows three computer languages and can write programs to do all sorts of fun things.

Of course, Pat might not be doing so much actual writing....

If you accept the common picture of a writer as a mildly ineffectual person whose fantasies are acted out on paper, there's definitely a trap waiting here for the unwary. Behind the computer screen lies a strange and different space, a land which just like the average fantasy universe obeys new but suspiciously simple rules: rules that you can learn. All the sentences of its language are in the imperative -- 'Do this, do that, for I command that it should be so' -- and if they're phrased correctly they will always be obeyed. Gosh, what an ego trip. (Of course you have to watch it when invoking powers like the Demon Assembler -- one misspelling, and this fiend can burst free of the pentacle to wreak havoc on your naked, vulnerable disk directory.)

We'd better not push this analogy too far. The general point is that, just like the standard untrained-wizard-makes-good plot, tinkering with computers can pamper one's little power fantasies. Issuing commands is fun. Getting a program to work is so much more definite and definable an achievement than bashing out another thousand words of prose which might well have to be rewritten anyway. I knew two married writers who were irrevocably split on the word-processing question: the wife wouldn't touch the husband's sinister devil-machine because, she reported, 'he keeps coming round and saying 'Hey, guess what!', and I say 'Did you finish the story?' and he says 'No, but I just figured out how to make the computer do something really great!''

All power corrupts, they say, and the absolute power we wield only in fantasies and programming ... corrupts absolutely, like Tolkien's Ring. You can fiddle round obsessively with a prime-number program or a deeply useless means of detecting split infinitives: you can feel you're doing things, achieving things, when the end result is a re-inventing of products rather less useful than a square wheel. Needless to say, this kind of skewed obsession with what's supposed to be a writing tool is not necessarily all that good for the writer.

Readers, this is no empty theorizing. Take pity on the neurotic, obsessed wreck which used to be a novelist called David Langford. The bytes have got to my brain cells. I've become a software company but it's a year or more since I actually wrote a book. Even if I can switch the creativity interface module back to writing mode, there is the ghastly fear that I'll end up producing a heroic fantasy trilogy, Quest of the Silicon Mage, in which the scorned hero discovers his ability to program the universe in Pascal, and....

Semantics Corner

When is a piece of add-on software for LocoScript not a piece of LocoScript add-on software? The difference is that the first description is ideologically OK for anyone to use, while the second, according to Locomotive Software's eager and sharp-toothed lawyers, constitutes an attempt to defraud the public by implying that one's add-on program is written or approved by Locomotive themselves. It might sound daft, but be warned: lawyers have this magic power to see evil where others can't. I myself have utterly foresworn and abjured the marketing of LocoScript add-on software, and am nervously confining myself to the completely different field of add-on software for LocoScript.

Column 22, 8000 Plus 22, July 1988


The great unsolved mystery of word processing (one of the most baffling and sinister cases, Watson, that I have encountered) is, why does it always look more convincing before you print it out? Somewhere between the screen and the paper, flawless-looking prose breaks out in horrid eruptions of typing errors, spelling mistakes and general infelicity. One interesting theory is that all printers contain devilish virus programs which not only pervert your text but transmit the changes back along the cable to your word processor's memory and disks. This idea, however, is obviously not paranoid enough to explain the reality.

But seriously.... Here are some slightly more plausible thoughts.

Theory number two: even the superlatively wonderful Amstrad PCW screen, so much clearer than rotten old 256-colour ultra-high-resolution IBM Super VGA displays (he said with bitter irony), is not 100% easy on the eye. Even a mild visual fatigue that you don't actually notice can take its toll. Perhaps we're subliminally repelled, and tend to scan on-screen text less attentively than a piece of paper. (I know proofreaders who are much less attentive than a piece of paper, but this is a digression.)

Theory number three is deeply psychological. We do seem to put a ridiculous trust in computer infallibility. (When did you last check all the figures in a bank statement? In a recent fit of curiosity, Ansible Information found that although the visible arithmetic was OK, the bank had lost the entire contents of one account, put us in the red by debiting a cheque to the wrong name, and imposed a mysterious charge of several hundred pounds labelled CHEQUE BOOK. Take a bow, NatWest!) All those glamorously glowing, hi-tech letters on the screen look somehow convincing and inarguable and right, until they reach the paper....

Theory number four complements number three: this fast-lane world is so full of silly words, and stupid acronyms that look like misspellings, that those exposed to it become more tolerant of apparent mistakes in a computer context. Everyone who writes about programs sooner or later adds the non-word COM to their spelling-check dictionary, since otherwise every mention of PIP.COM or whatever will make the checker go tut-tut. This is fine until you mistype 'con' or leave off the end of 'come', and the spelling checker doesn't object. As you add more of computing's two- and three-letter jargon words and acronyms, there's an increasing chance that any short mistyping will correspond to a non-word and be passed as OK. (I spent ages wondering how the obscure formation RG had got into a spelling checker. It turned out to be part of my postcode.)

Theory number five is vaguely related to number two, and suggests that the problem is that of the Leper's Squint. This tasteful domestic feature was essentially a peephole in the thick wall of a mediaeval church or Great Hall, through which the afflicted were allowed to peer at the fun goings-on within ... a precursor of breakfast television. Reading a big document on any word processor has something of the same tunnel-vision quality. LocoScript aggravates this because the Leper's Squint is narrower than it need be -- experienced users can't turn off the menu information and use the whole screen for text. The limited vista plus the slow shuffling of pages on and off the disk gives you more opportunity to forget the details of page 3 by the time you see page 6, and to use your favourite words 'concatenation', 'molybdenum' and 'gleet' too often, too close together.

How do you avoid or at least reduce the disappointment of finding your print-out less wonderful than the display's glowing prose? I hate to admit it, but there's no magic answer. Spelling checkers weed out many typing calamities, but have their limitations as above. 'Style checkers' also exist, but tend to concentrate on the red herring of complexity as measured by word and sentence lengths. (They also tend to be lazily programmed, so you have to muck around converting LocoScript text to ASCII files, etc.) Ultimately, you need to read the whole text through as slowly as possible, as often as possible.

A critical read-through at your normal speed is just part of the process. A second and very slow read is a frightful bore, but throws dodgy phrases into high relief; if you work alone, it helps to move your lips (shudder, shudder), subvocalize or even recite the whole thing loudly. There are plenty of phrases, especially in fictional conversation, which at first glance look all right but can't be read aloud without exposing flaws. In a recent bad SF novel, someone shouts, 'Sustained nullification on a huge scale might be beyond nature's ability to counteract!' The sentence is grammatical, just. But try shouting it.

W.H.Auden suggested the severest critical test of all, absolutely guaranteed to expose any stylistic flaw. The method is however only suitable for poets who aren't word-processor addicts, since it consists of writing out the whole thing again in longhand. Think about that, but not too hard.

More realistically, proofreaders sometimes look for misprints by reading in a way which kills logical sense and continuity, so that the mind doesn't treacherously make use of the context to correct lapses without even noticing them. I tried reading this very article in two such ways -- backwards line by line, and backwards word by word -- and can report that it's extremely boring. (Didn't even find any satanic messages.)

Style prose one's on effect bad a have itself could technique this using whether know don't I....

More On Silly Words

My favourite source of horrible acronyms and neologisms is the (otherwise nifty) trade newspaper Computing, which makes the whole thing twice as confusing with a house style whereby abbreviations are disguised as real words in lower case. The last word of the previous sentence, had it appeared just like that in Computing, would probably have meant Computer Aided Software Engineering -- no, I'm not making this up. Similarly, 'eft' has little to do with newts (I think it's 'electronic financial transfer'); 'pcs' are computers; and 'risc', which you've probably met, is not a typo. I'm still waiting for them to refer to a dynamic RAM chip as a wee dram.

Column 23, 8000 Plus 23, August 1988


We were delighted to score an exclusive scoop by being the first magazine to review Grottysoft's long-promised SPUNG! SPUNG is an integrated development environment with built-in calculator, style checker, pop-up PacMan game, Serbo-Croat spreadsheet and IQ test. And once again, Grottysoft have a runaway winner on their hands!

Owing to production holdups, our demonstration PCW version of SPUNG was supplied on 24 disks for an IBM PC running in Amstrad simulation mode. Three special ROM packs and a co-processor borrowed from a BBC Master completed the easy-to-understand set-up, which will of course be even simpler when the final PCW program is available. For instance, SPUNG will be crammed on to a mere 15 PCW disks, losing only minor facilities such as the ability to process text files exceeding 150 words.

It takes only a few hours to instal SPUNG for your computer. The simple, on-screen, interactive installation program is a model of clarity: we knew we were in good hands as SPUNGINSTAL went straight to the important points by asking WAHT SORT OF COMUPTER IS THS?, DOES IT HAV DISK DRIVE(s]? and ARE YOU USIG MONITOR? By the way, it's necessary to run the SET24X80 program, load the SPUNGKEY.WP keyboard file and temporarily disconnect the printer cable before SPUNG will run ... we're sure these points will be mentioned in the production version of the manual, along with the need for a special power supply.

Amazing Innovations

It soon becomes obvious that SPUNG is a rich, powerful piece of fifth-generation software which can only grow in usefulness and indispensability with months or years of experience. The 25 minutes we were allowed with it (Grottysoft's Securicor man was on a tight schedule) did not perhaps exhaust the full range of its possibilities, but what we saw impressed us thoroughly. Pop-up, pull-down, multi-windowed, Y-front menus make the simplest functions available in as few as fifteen keystrokes -- and there are short cuts too. The designers are not afraid to make imaginative use of the keyboard: the space bar, for example, has become an automatic 'toggle key' which moves you in mere seconds between the accountancy, graphics and desktop horoscope functions, and after a minute or two we found it much easier to enter spaces the SPUNG way, by holding down Alt, Extra and f3.

Error messages are signalled dramatically by reprogramming the 'beep' to sound like a large gong and flashing the entire screen on and off five times a second until you acknowledge your mistake (by pressing the Power button, of course -- everything else is deactivated. We've never met a quicker way of teaching users not to make mistakes, especially since reloading SPUNG means fourteen disk changes).

That this is high-powered, fast-lane software is confirmed by the fact that it comes all ready set up to print out on Grottysoft's own-model laser printer, giving fabulous text quality for only £2200 extra. What's more, a Printer Configurator program is promised for next year, which will allow SPUNG's sensational graphics to be simulated on your old PCW printer too.

By the way, you'll need a memory upgrade, a hard disk, an add-on serial port, a mouse and a bar-code reader if you really want to make the most of the mindboggling facilities of SPUNG.

All This and More

The documentation is particularly impressive, more than 1000 pages of detailed and clearly-written information which should be translated from the Korean in no time. (Speaking of which, we're told that retail copies will offer a selection of spelling checkers besides the Rastafarian one supplied to us.) Despite all the challenges we threw at it, SPUNG always did very nearly exactly what we thought the manual said it should, and hardly crashed at all.

One warning for all you potential users: under certain rare circumstances, such as your pressing f5, Paste, Exit or Return, it is possible for the extra overhead of SPUNG's disk accesses to set fire to the floppy drive. We pointed this out to Grottysoft, and with their usual helpfulness they replied at once that nobody else had ever reported such a problem, that they would nevertheless write to their American parent company for advice, and that they could supply cheap CO2 fire extinguishers as an added customer service. Our one small cavil has thus been effectively dealt with before the program's official release.

With such raw programming power and such in-depth support, it's remarkable that Grottysoft have been able to keep the price down to an attractive £199, exclusive of VAT, postage, packing and the special add-on software needed for SPUNG to accept text in lower case. No better bargain exists in the PCW market today, as the full-colour, multi-page ads in the next fourteen issues of this very magazine will testify!


Although the tone of 8000 Plus tends to be a mite more cynical than the above ... if you think that reviews reminiscent of this one never ever appear in any computer magazine, I can only admire the purity of your thoughts.

Column 24, 8000 Plus 24, September 1988


One neglected literary form is the covering letter you send with your deathless manuscript. Thanks to industrial spies, I've secured several examples familiar to editors the world over. The challenge is to detect the subtle reason why in each case the recipient reached for his or her trusty rejection slip without finishing the covering note, let alone starting the manuscript. Match your wits against the professionals!

• Dear Editor,

What you're waiting for is a new idea to shake up the fuddy-duddy world of science fiction. Well here it is! Based on the mindbogglingly innovative concept of Earth being struck by a giant alien meteor with startling results, my novel Lucifer's Footfall: The Forge of Earthdoom is....

• Dear Sir,

I see you publish BASIC programs, so you'll love my enclosed poem The Joy of Babbage, an epic in nineteen thousand heroic couplets. Mrs Gilbey of our village Literary Circle thought it was VERY INTERESTING and I know you will need no more recommendation....

• Sir,

I cannot reveal my blockbuster plot to you as yet, since you would steal it and have it published under some house name by one of your tame hacks, thereby defrauding me of millions. I am on to the games of you 'publishers'. Before submitting the outline I want a firm contract guaranteeing a seven-figure advance and 110% of gross film rights. For the present I am not revealing my address -- attempts to trace me and steal my notes will be useless. Kindly reply via the classified advertisement columns of....

• Attention: Editor,

Revelations chap. xiii contains the clue. We know it takes Halley's Comet 76 years to complete one orbit but are you aware that if you add 2000 AD to Ussher's 4004 BC and divide the total by 76 it goes exactly 79 times? Since 1988 is actually the year 2000 this shows that the Second Coming will occur on 26 June. My manuscript conclusively proves....

• Dear Mega-Ed,

I was having this totally ace game of Bludgeons and Blackguards with my friend Irving when we realized the excitement of our role-playing campaign would make an incredibly triff novel! So here, based on that month of fun, is Lepermage of Elfspasm, a brill fantasy dekalogy in which a lovable crew of Elves, Dwarves, Cats, Boggits, Men and a token Voluptuous Nymph go up against the Cold Dark Dread Force of Chaos Blood Death Evil, which....

• Darling Editor,

I saw your picture in The Bookseller and at once knew we would become very close friends! I am 19 and very experienced. Perhaps we could have lunch together. Or breakfast. Of course I will be delighted to buy the meal! Don't you love champagne? Here is my photograph for you to keep. To fall in love sight unseen -- it's like something from a mediaeval romance, isn't it? Speaking of which, I know you'd like a peep at the enclosed MS of my richly romantic historical novel, I Was Edward II's Teenage Groupie....

• Hi, Editorperson,

There's never been a novel like this! Imagine the excitement of a plot line in which all the past Dr Whos meet up with Darth Vader, Superman, Gandalf, Marvin the Paranoid Android, Indiana Jones, Crocodile Dundee, Captain Kirk and Spock, Snoopy, Judge Dredd, James Bond, E.T., Mickey Mouse, Rambo and Cecil Parkinson! I am sure you'll have no trouble sorting out copyright problems, and then....

• Deer Idiotr,

Plees find encloased my novvle, it is handwrote Im afraid but you will not mind this becuase GENIEUS cant be mistakken can it? No retern post encloased sinse this will nott be nessary as you will See....

• Dear Sir or Madam,

The MS herewith is a very first draft. I could change almost anything on request. For example, in the slave bondage orgy scenes I am open to suggestions (your knowledge must be so much greater than mine). Just say the word and I'll alter the lard to cod liver oil, or the protagonist's name to -- well, it's a teensy bit obvious, should we tone it down to Steelram or Goatfetish? Also there are details about bestiality which need checking in the light of your mature experience. I'm willing to take advice on any point. Just send a fully detailed letter of instruction and comment, and....

• Editor, dear Editor,

Ever heard how George Orwell's best novels were bounced by several major publishers before they got to be international best-sellers? Well, history repeats itself, and my enclosed Big Brother Farm has actually been rejected by exactly the same wilfully blind publishing outfits as Orwell's. To add to the astonishing coincidence, I have chest trouble just like him. Knowing all this, can you afford to take the risk of not....

• Dear Skiffy Editor,

This is a guaranteed SF best-seller -- you don't even need to read it! My name will assure its success. I have the deed-pool documents all ready to fill in: the final decision is yours. Do you prefer Isaac Amizov, Alfred C.Clarke or Roberta Heinlein? I had also thought of H.G.Whelks, but do not think this would be such a good seller....

• To Whom It May Concern:

Not merely a work of entertainment -- my novel is more. Here in fictional guise are the truly shocking facts about the conspiracy of scientists, theologians and armed librarians who control us. Intentionally I have given over six chapters to exposing the jealously guarded truth about gravity alone -- not a pull as Communism would have you believe, but a push! Unless you too are blind to reason or controlled by laser signals broadcast from Chinese UFOs, you cannot fail to....

• Dear Gagged Lackey of the Thatcherite Junta,

Your lickspittle rag won't dare publish this, but....

You see, of course, the common fault in all these? Not one of them addresses the editor correctly as, 'O Mighty Being From Whose Fundament The Illumination Of The World Proceeds'.

Column 25, 8000 Plus 25, October 1988


Back in a period of such primordial antiquity that your present editor was but a gleam in some mad scientist's eye -- that is, in 1986 -- I wrote about the peculiar Amstrad spares situation. The trouble then was a clapped-out PCW keyboard, which according to Lasky's could only be replaced by purchasing a new PCW8256 system and throwing away the unwanted bits. Amstrad themselves, when quizzed on the subject, reassuringly quoted that favourite maxim of the computer industry: 'Go away, we don't do business with end users.'

(Perhaps it would be better if the big computer nabobs voiced their actual thoughts and called us all 'wallies' or 'suckers' instead. At least those terms sound as though they might apply to human beings.)

That was all long ago, and sources of replacement keyboards did emerge. One rather assumed that everything in the garden would by now be lovely.

However, just recently the trade newspaper Computing ran a piece headlined 'Amstrad users face long queue for spares', featuring such juicy quotations from the trade as, 'The system just doesn't work'. There are horror stories of six-month delays in replacing not merely old and tired keyboards from battle-scarred Amstrads, but dud parts from newish machines still under warranty.

One fascinating side issue involves the mighty clash of claims between a dealer who says Amstrad has been blaming hold-ups on a riot in one Taiwanese factory, and an Amstrad official who repudiates this vile accusation with the counterclaim that Amstrad can manage lots of supply problems without requiring any assistance from riots. But let's not go into that.

Spare parts were on my mind when I bought an Amstrad PPC to lug around on all too infrequent holidays. This represents a lot of brand-name loyalty, since the idea of unfolding such a hefty object on British Rail is a joke all by itself, without considering the expensive, short-lived, non-rechargable batteries. (Use of the PPC's vaunted modem on battery power is prohibited with terrifying warnings -- the general impression is that the mere attempt will cause the keyboard to melt and the disks to fly out like frisbees, while to your ears comes the horrid noise of Alan Sugar tearing up the guarantee.)

Actually this didn't bother me: I wanted to write in a holiday flat, not while sunbathing, bicycling or windsurfing. What would be nice, I thought, would be a spare mains power supply to save lugging that additional, bulky and not at all built-in adaptor box around. The dealer was tactful about my foolish request, and thought that Amstrad might make a few spares available in the mid-1990s, but for now -- forget it, sunshine. There must be an opening here for an independent mains adaptor from some enterprising electrical firm? (13 volts, 1.9 amps, and do please send me a review copy.)

Where the spares situation becomes surreal is in the matter of the PPC's famous add-on colour monitor. Yes, there's a cute little monitor socket at the back, and by either software or hardware control you can switch from the LCD screen to the monitor of your choice ... but where to get one?

Various people have been patiently plugging in various IBM colour monitors, led on by naive trust in the fact that the PPC is nominally IBM-compatible. 100% success is not reported.

It's said that standard NEC mono monitors work with the PPC. but with a recommended retail price around £200 they don't seem a terrifically attractive substitute for a colour version.

I borrowed a guaranteed all-purpose colour monitor from a friend, and plugged it in. All the monitor's fuses immediately blew and it hasn't worked since. My former friend is still digesting this information.

Dealers say, 'No chance, squire, we can't supply a monitor. Write to Amstrad.'

If you do write to caring Amstrad, they write back and say, 'Be advised Amstrad do not supply monitors separately.'

One anguished user responded to this as follows: 'It says in the handbook you can use the PPC with an Amstrad monitor. I only have a PPC. Can I buy a monitor?'

Amstrad: 'Be advised Amstrad do not supply monitors separately.'

User: 'How can I get an Amstrad monitor?'

Amstrad: 'Easy! Buy an Amstrad PC.'

User: 'Suppose I have a PC and my monitor has been stolen or caught fire; can I buy a replacement?'

Amstrad: 'Only if you send us the burnt-out bits or a statement from the police confirming the reporting of the theft.'


I'm not sure how this bodes for the oft-rumoured portable PCW. I hardly dare to hope that some enterprising hardware firm will start supplying cheap replicas of the remains of fire-ravaged Amstrad PC monitors. If so, please don't send me a review copy.


On another subject altogether ... I take a morbid interest in the sufferings of the English language at the hands of computer programmers and journalists. Last month I read -- in Another (Official) Magazine -- a piece by Rex Last on German software. Its opening paragraph:

'One of the constant grumbles in the pages of the German computer magazines is that they have to put up with programs, manuals and adventures all written in English. It's a problem which, thank goodness, we on this side of the Channel don't have to face up to.'

How true, how very, very true....

Column 26, 8000 Plus 26, November 1988


Once, starving literary hopefuls would crouch in freezing garrets, scribbling masterworks by candlelight while rats gambolled underfoot. Nowadays garrets are hard to find (all converted to luxury yuppie apartments), starving authors all seem to own PCWs, workrooms mustn't get too freezing for fear of condensation in floppy disks, and probably rats are an endangered species. But the squalor of freelancing still has its charm ... though such writers spend long hours not writing but thinking about economics, and even longer hours wishing for some cash to be economical with.

Ursula Le Guin's advice to aspiring freelances was simply, 'Marry money.' Larry Niven suggests getting your parents (like his) to put a million dollars in a trust fund for you. And austere James Blish warned against risking it until royalties from books written in your spare time exceed your 'real world' income (if any).

Q: OK, Langford, which method did you use?

A: Er, none of them really. As a sop to Le Guin my wife is at least solvent, and I heeded Blish by lining up two book contracts before I fled the Civil Service, but when I suggested Niven's method my father remarked, 'Pull the other one, son, it plays carillon chimes.'

A vital point when on your own is to write everything down. Yes, I'm sure that with an eye to future fiction you already jot down cruel word-pictures of people who sneeze glutinously into your face and tread on your toes in the bus. More usefully, hang on to bus tickets and every receipt for anything plausibly a writing expense, with a view to the coming tax return. Without tangible records you'll forget what you've spent.

Paying by credit card and treasuring the little greaseproof chit can be useful when (as with British Rail) getting a receipt involves surly reluctance and delay. But when reclaiming VAT, strict Customs & Excise inspectors won't allow any expense not backed up by a receipt carrying the supplier's VAT number ... so watch it.

Q: Where in my accounts do I put expenses for disks and printer ribbons?

A: Stick 'em both under Stationery.

Q: Can I claim the cost of my new PCW?

A: Eventually. However, a computer is that wonderful thing a 'capital asset', and to encourage massive industrial investment in new equipment the Government lets you claim only 25% 'depreciation' expenses each year. Pay £400 for a computer and you can allow £100 against profits the first year, £75 (i.e. 25% of the remaining £300) the second year, £56.25 the year after that....

Q: Blimey. You mean if I earn £400 and spend it on a computer solely for my writing business, I pay tax that year on £300 profit which I haven't got?

A: You're catching on. Actually, £300 total profit is a couple of thousand quid below the level at which you start paying tax.

My favourite cartoon shows this hooded character in loathsome rags, ringing a bell and calling out, 'Self employed! Self employed!' Full-time writers tend to be self-employed, the exceptions being those who've set up limited companies to avoid graduated tax on an embarrassingly huge income. (Less wealthy authors trying this dodge find they merely pay embarrassingly huge sums to accountants, who probably suggested the idea for this reason.)

Self-employment gives you the privilege of paying Class II National Insurance contributions, which the DHSS extracts directly from your bank account to the tune of (currently) £4.05 a week, whether or not you're earning anything. Exercise for the student: program your PCW to calculate each month's cost, bearing in mind that DHSS months always have a whole number of weeks. Each year you're also done for Class IV contributions, a percentage of your taxable profit.

Q: What benefit does that bring?

A: None whatever. The Class IV rake-in is merely your governmental reward for becoming self-employed and forfeiting unemployment benefit. Sometimes the thrown-off shackles of former employment can look positively cosy.

Finally, the carefree joys of freelancing had better not be confined to writing. If your PCW muse leans mostly to poetry or short fiction, it's important to diversify. Even famous poets don't make a living from poetry: when not independently rich or mundanely employed, they live on editorial work, reviewing, journalism, reading for publishers, teaching, lecturing, media pontification, or writing articles in 8000 Plus about how the PCW made it a doddle to produce The Waste Land, The Faerie Queen or Beowulf.

The list is similar for novelists, with one notable addition: hackwork. Ever wondered who writes those novelizations of obscure films ... that is, those not by Alan Dean Foster? Usually some temporarily broke author of moderate repute, who did a rush job of padding out a thin script for thick readers, and wisely used a pseudonym.

I've tried most of the above means of bridging the gaps between 'real' books. With practice they work addictively well, leaving no time for the Great Novel which you feel you should be writing....

Q: Oh come on, when I leave my job I'll have lots of spare time for everything.

A: It is a mysterious rule of freelancing that an entire day with nothing to do but write can somehow produce less than the few hours one used to manage in the evening after work.

Q: Well, why are you wittering on in 8000 Plus when you could be writing chapter six of your sensitive comedy of manners Sex Pirates of the Blood Asteroid?

A: The money, chum, the money.

Column 27, 8000 Plus 27, December 1988


(In the High Court today Mr Justice Gleet summed up in the case of Stupefying Software Ltd vs. Halibut.)

Members of the jury, the facts of this case have already been put to you several times by counsel, with such matchless eloquence as to render them in all respects unintelligible. Numerous weighty documents have been placed in evidence, and although these purport to be elementary 'software manuals' devised for easy assimilation by the meanest intellect, it would perhaps not be wholly unjust to suspect that their meaning eludes you as it eludes me. Let me therefore strive to convey to you, probably for the first time, what this litigation is about.

Stupefying Software Ltd, as its managing director has informed this Court, is devoted to expanding the frontiers of knowledge, freeing mankind from mental drudgery, and (whether this be desirable or no) hurling its customers into the twenty-first century. To this laudable end, the company manufactures various useful computer 'programs'.

It is agreed that the defendant, Mr Alfred Halibut, purchased one such item, a light-hearted and diversionary game entitled MegaRambo Nukefest. Nor is it disputed, irrespective of the loathing with which one might regard it, that this was delivered in good working order.

Stupefying Software Ltd has consequently argued, with a smugness which you may or may not have found intolerable, that its part of the contract was amply fulfilled. Yet even the most bovine and comatose occupant of the jury box (I do not by this phrase wish to call undue attention to the snoring gentleman in the back row) must have dimly gathered that Mr Halibut disagrees.

The point at issue is an interesting and legally lucrative one, concerning as it does the unwritten aspects of the transaction. Let me strive to offer some examples sufficiently elementary for your limited comprehension. Were you, as a keen gardener, to order three tons of horse manure for the delectation of your roses, the technical fulfilment of this order would not impress you should the substance be unloaded in its entirety on top of your car. Were you the proprietor of a lodging-house whose regulations prohibited cats and dogs, you would not feel debarred from ousting a tenant who, while adhering to the actual letter of the law, had established in his room a small colony of wolves and a puma.

You may ask whether these analogies have any relevance, but I hope you will not, since should you do so I would instantly order your committal for contempt of court. Mr Halibut now claims that despite providing him with a superficially functional program, Stupefying Software has acted as unreasonably as the villains of my examples.

On receipt of his computer disk, Mr Halibut attempted to copy its contents for purposes of what is termed 'backup'. This process, the Court has been informed by authoritative if semi-literate expert witnesses, is to the computer user as important as life insurance, as psychologically vital as underclothing. You may therefore consider that on attempting to use his copy, Mr Halibut was rightly perturbed to be greeted with the message, 'STUPIFYING SOFTWARE THEIFGUARD PROTECTON SYSTEM, YOUR ATEMPT TO DO ILLEGAL COPYING HAS FALED HA HA!!!'

Despite the anguish and distress of hazarding a 'master' disk in actual use, the defendant was resolved to test his newly acquired educational product. This time he encountered the no less peremptory remark, 'THIS PRODUCT IS PERSONIZED WAHTS YOUR NAME ?' Having typed his reply, he was ejected from the program with the derisive retort, 'ILEGAL USER !!' By trial and error, and (as he has told this Court) the application of considerable intelligence, the defendant deduced the humiliating need to type his name as it appeared on Stupefying Software's receipt; that is, as 'A HALBIT', in capitals.

Mr Halibut admits that his MegaRambo Nukefest game thereafter functioned as advertised, displaying tasteful and graphically artistic nuclear detonations over the relevant tracts of South-East Asia. However, his pleasure was further muted by the fact that one-quarter of his computer's screen was effectively unused, instead showing the words, 'THIS POGROM REGISTERD FOR; A HALBIT 299 MAFEKING VILLAS NW27 UNAUTORIZED USE BY OTHER OR TRANSFER OF LICENSE IS ILEGAL UNDER COPYRIGT ACT PLEASE REPORT ILEGAL COPYING TO STUPIFYING SOFTWARE AT ONSE !!!'

The defendant claims to have felt deeply insulted.

Speaking for the plaintiff, the managing director of Stupefying Software has told the Court that without such basic precautions, Mr Halibut would be inevitably tempted to bulk-mail illicit copies to his numerous and unsavoury acquaintances, to advertise them for sale with criminally photocopied instructions, and to hawk them at less than cost on the streets of Singapore.

Here Mr Halibut's case strays from the broad paths of law and reason into the murky undergrowth of the controversial. Such prejudice and distrust, he alleges, left him thunderstruck. How, he movingly enquired until I was compelled to silence him, how could Stupefying Software imagine him capable of misconduct on this scale? His eyes having been opened to the corruption of the software world, Mr Halibut made haste to stop the cheque he had sent to Stupefying Software and which through an oversight had not yet been cleared.

For, as he argues and you may feel bound to agree, if such untrustworthiness is indeed prevalent, how could Mr Halibut be sure that forged copies of his cheque would not be disseminated to numerous and unsavoury computer dealers, or hawked at large discount on the streets of Singapore?

You may think this reasoning disingenuous. Repelled and nauseated though you must be by Stupefying Software Ltd and its products, you may feel that the company's action for non-payment is justified and must succeed. However --

(At this point the jury, all coincidentally computer owners who had struggled with ponderously protected disks, found Mr Halibut not guilty without leaving the box, gave him three cheers, and begged that all costs should be borne by Stupefying Software.)

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