PCW Plus "Langford" Columns, 1991

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Column 52, 8000 Plus 52, January 1991


Welcome to Hack's Quest, the interactive game that makes the Hitch-Hiker adventure look like a Conservative Party conference, and Nightmare on Elm Street 27 look like a repeat. In this sizzling intellectual challenge you play a freelance writer with an article to deliver. The editor has just moved your deadline two weeks forward because of an unforeseen cataclysm called the New Year. It is a bleak Monday. You have a hangover.

Type your commands at the > prompt. (Enter HELP to ask for assistance.)

You are in an indescribably sordid hallway. Shabbily carpeted stairs lead up to your workroom.


Kindly remember you are a freelance writer. That is: you're on your own, sunshine.


Stop kidding around. You have no idea which way is north.


That's better.... You are in a grimy workroom, whose stale, dead air is thick with the sweat of old deadlines. Bills litter the few square feet of available floor. Like an altar-idol dominating the foul temple of some obscene cult, the PCW broods over the shambles.


You turn savagely on the computer, but it is totally unmoved by your threatening attitude.


You can't do that.


In your eagerness to rush to the pub last night, you forgot to switch the machine off. It now seems very warm. An electricity bill is prominent in the heap at your feet.


I see no disk.


An hour passes. Eventually you find the disk under some rejection slips in the far corner of the room.


Are you sure?


By first cleaning off about an ounce of revolting tangled hairs and dust-bunnies glued by static to the disk, you have avoided the immediate, catastrophic failure of your drive. (Score 1 point.)

A blank screen confronts you!


You can't do that. You have no inspiration.


Where do you want to look? There is a book here. There are bills and rejection slips here. There are old copies of 8000 Plus here. There is a bottle here labelled `Inspiration: Matured 10 Years in Oak Casks at Glengrotty', but it is empty. This is why you have a hangover.


The book is Roget's Thesaurus. You study it for inspiration and find excitation, possession, afflatus, exhilaration, intoxication, headiness, encouragement, animation, incitement, provocation, irritation.... As usual, the irritating truth is that there's no inspiration to be had from Roget. But one keeps hoping.


They are full of good stuff. You wonder whether you could steal something from older ones which everyone must have forgotten.


Unfortunately your rigid moral code prevents you from actually doing this.

> OH

But as you stare blankly into space, the shadow of a notion begins to take shape in your mind.... The doorbell rings!


It might be someone with a cheque, or Steven Spielberg's office boy asking after movie rights to your articles on How To Write Assembler Real Good.


You are in the sordid hall. It was the postman. Why did he ring? Peering blearily at the mat, you find a card saying: `You failed to answer the door within the prescribed 0.5 nanoseconds, and three valuable-looking parcels have therefore been rushed back to our depot two hours' walk away.' The rest of the mail is all brown envelopes with sinister windows in them.


You are in the grimy workroom. Your train of thought, such as it was, has been completely derailed and lies upside down next to the tracks.


As you stare blankly into space, the shadow of a notion begins.... The telephone rings!


Are you kidding? You deliberately chose one whose tone rattles the windows of houses across the street, to make sure you never miss an important call from your publishers. Or Steven Spielberg, of course.


A hollow voice says: `Good morning! Have you thought how much you could enhance the value of your crummy home by ripping out the windows and installing expensive double glazing, covering up the original Victorian brickwork with synthetic cladding in a lurid shade of pink, and replacing that out-of-date slate roof with fibreglass simulated thatch?'




As you stare blankly....


... you are inspired with a sudden, blazing need for coffee!


Coffee. A beverage made by brewing the roasted and ground seeds or beans of a tropical evergreen shrub 8 to 10 metres high belonging to the genus Coffea, of the Rubiaceae, or madder family. Or in your case, instant from the Co-op.


You have wasted valuable time catering to your selfish wish for coffee. It is only two hours to the last postal collection! The article must be finished and printed out by then!


We have already been into this. Remember, you pay Class 4 National Insurance contributions, which bring you absolutely no benefits but are purely and simply an extra tax levied on you for your temerity in being a self-employed person. You are, in other words, the scum of the earth. You expect help?


You have discovered the magic word! (Score 1 point.) Here is a hint. To solve this puzzle you must find and read something you have not yet studied.


The small print says that it contained known carcinogen E6234, permissible colouring, fusel oil and monosodium glutamate.


There is a message on the keyboard! It begins: `TAB QWERTYUIOP'.


The first envelope contains a bank statement. It is horrifying! Your overdraft exceeds the poll tax deficit of many small boroughs. Staring at it in terror, you feel all your moral inhibitions dissolving. (Score 1 point.)


Ok. You have now shed your scruples and demonstrated the qualities required to survive in 1991 Britain. (Score 2 points.) You have completed Level 1 of Hack's Quest.

Your score was 5 points. You have graduated from No-Hoper and now qualify as a Grubby Hack. In Level 2 you will confront the thrill-packed challenges of the Plagiarism Suit, the Cirrhosis Clinic and Writing A Novel.

Continue now?


You can't do that.

[This was the column which came out looking most surreal on the page. The magazine's software for moving the text to a Macintosh (for page design and printing) flipped at the `prompt' signs, and all the paragraphs starting with > were omitted....]

Column 53, 8000 Plus 53, February 1991


One of the most tiresome things that computer owners do is to play the ever-popular game `My Computer's Better Than Yours, So There.' You know: my PCW is better than your IBM because it fits more text on the screen, but my IBM is better than your PCW because it's `state of the art' (i.e. costs more).

Most boring of all are operating-system snobs who drone on about the superior virtue of CP/M or MS-DOS -- whichever they happen to use. This one-upmanship obscures the interesting fact that if you know the basics of CP/M, you automatically know a fair bit about DOS as well ... and vice-versa. Forget the tedious arguments and revel in the knowledge that when confronted with an IBM (which ghastly fate can happen to any of us), you can suss a great deal by remembering elementary CP/M.

If you prefer to ignore the whole issue and use LocoScript for all `file housekeeping' operations, you have my sympathy, not to mention permission to skip what follows....

In both operating systems, the basic `type something and then press Return' prompt looks like this: A> -- carrying the additional message that Drive A is being used. You can change it by entering B: to select drive B. IBMs often have a hard disk C instead. Challenge to the intellect: what does the command C: do? Or on the PCW, how about M:?

(I'm not going to keep mentioning this, but each of these CP/M and DOS commands takes effect when you press Return or Enter following the actual command.)

Typing DIR displays the directory, although its appearance differs in DOS. (The DOS command DIR /W, where /W stands for `Wide format', gives a more CP/M-like look.) Another familiar command, TYPE FILENAME.DOC, shows the contents of a `plain ASCII' text file on the screen. CP/M does better here, halting at each full screen with a friendly `Press Return to Continue' ... DOS demands either hair-trigger reflexes on the Pause key or, again, a more complicated command.

Deleting files is `sort of the same'. The CP/M command is ERASE and DOS prefers DEL; but as a concession to CP/M visitors, DOS will in fact accept ERASE; however, in CP/M we usually abbreviate it to ERA, which DOS refuses to recognize. ERASE *.* remains deadly anywhere.

Certain commands use the same keyword but work `backwards' in DOS. (`You mean they work backwards in CP/M, fool,' writes Outraged DOSser of Tunbridge Wells.) REN or RENAME is the obvious one. When I want to pass off an old column on a new editor, I rename it in CP/M with REN COLUMN.NEW=COLUMN.OLD. On the DOS machine, the same effect requires REN COLUMN.OLD COLUMN.NEW. Challenge to students of relativity: which one is backwards? Perhaps DOS makes more sense here; there's something very computer-programmerish about the CP/M command.

I've heard it said that CP/M is better than DOS because many useful commands are built in and don't need program files. I've also been loudly told that DOS is better for the exact same reason. An explanation is required here.

Take REN: in each case, it both is and isn't `built in'. CP/M does have REN built in, since it will all on its own accept a correctly typed REN THAT=THIS command. But if you mistype the THIS filename as something nonexistent, the program file RENAME.COM is needed in order to issue the terse error message `No File'. Similarly, DIR can always be used but needs DIR.COM for all the fancier options.

In DOS, the most-used commands live in a file called COMMAND.COM which is always loaded ... so they're all built in, except that depending on your set-up COMMAND.COM tends to get overwritten when other programs run, whereupon DOS insists on reloading it from disk immediately. You need it around.

(Hardened operating system users on both sides have much the same solution to this recurring need for a .COM file or files: their `start of day' disk copies needed CP/M utilities, or COMMAND.COM, to a memory drive like M:, and uses special commands to tell their operating system where to look for the needed files. Of course if you have a hard disk, which all commercial IBMs now do, COMMAND.COM lives there and reloads imperceptibly.)

The biggest bone of contention is PIP. Do you prefer to type PIP NEWFILE=B:ORIGINAL or the DOS equivalent COPY B:ORIGINAL NEWFILE? DOS fanatics sneer that PIP isn't `built in' even rudimentarily (you always need PIP.COM). CP/M acolytes retort with boasts about the million extra optional things that PIP can do to files while copying them.

Let us rise above sordid bickering, and merely note that this is one difference you do need to remember. Typing PIP in DOS results in the greeting `Bad command or file name', while CP/M reacts to COPY with incredulity: COPY? There's one similarity, though -- the `verify' option which requests that extra care be taken to make an accurate copy. PIP with [V] at the end of the command corresponds to COPY with /V.

Last oddments.... In both systems, files ending in .COM are programs which can be run by typing the filename without the .COM. (To make life more interesting DOS has another flavour of program file that ends in .EXE but is used in exactly the same way.)

CP/M lets you create SUBmit files containing several preset commands: if MYSTUFF.SUB contains your favourite commands, you can issue the whole lot in sequence with the aid of SUBMIT.COM, by typing SUBMIT MYSTUFF. Again DOS is eerily similar, with its corresponding BATch files containing `batches' of command lines. You could copy MYSTUFF.SUB directly to MYSTUFF.BAT and use it in DOS by typing MYSTUFF (no SUBMIT.COM required) ... although not all the commands in it might actually, as it were, work.

And both systems come with appalling `text editors', ED and EDLIN respectively, which are almost identically unusable!

Here I planned a theological analysis of the parallels between CP/M's division of disks into `groups' and DOS's organization into `subdirectories', but I see that men in white coats are beginning to hover round. In the 1970s, someone published a massive tome which `proved' by linguistic analysis that the Hebrew language was the same as Greek. Let's not go that far -- but knowing your way around CP/M remains a good basis for coping with the mysterious and pervasive terrors of DOS.

Column 54, 8000 Plus 54, March 1991


Many years ago I completed my first full-length book and retyped the whole horrible thing in a fair copy ... ah, those ghastly days when peasants tilled fields with pointed sticks, doctors clamped leeches on your tender parts and authors bashed out typewritten drafts. Then it was time to prepare the index, another gruelling task.

The index sorting system was marginally high-tech, in that the entries were handwritten on Fortran computer cards provided by a generous employer (the Ministry of Defence). My reward for this drudgery was that the editor who bought that book has since published lots himself, each with a bibliography which cites War in 2080: the Future of Military Technology by D.Langford, whether or not it's relevant. Like most of the books he lists, it invariably has a star against it; as editor/author John Grant explains, `I have indicated by * a book which has a lousy index.'

Thanks, boss.

Yes, indexing is an art, even when your computer shoulders the burden of actual sorting. Since those laborious days I've written various indexing programs for use with word processors (AnsibleIndex for LocoScript is the one I am not going to plug here), and still find there are many creative human choices to be made at both ends of the process. First you pick which words, phrases and themes are to be indexed: for example, it's amateurish to include mere `passing references' like that to the Fortran programming language above. When the program has done its sinister work you'll want to edit and titivate the text.

It's worth taking expert advice. One good guide is Indexing, The Art Of by G.Norman Knight (1983). Also, the British Standards Institution does several pamphlets on the niceties, like BS 1749:1985, the definitive word on alphabetical arrangement ... which all by itself is trickier than you think.

The Society of Indexers can be contacted at 16 Green Road, Birchington, Kent, CT7 9JZ.

So much for the morally worthy bit. Because indexing is hard work, there's a strong temptation to conceal some little joke in the forbidding columns of the index. These can be great fun to spot.

As an example of something witty rather than actually funny, a friend of mine wrote a book of which one page contains a tiny puzzle about the author of a long-forgotten work. The mystery writer isn't mentioned in the text, but any reader guessing the correct name will find it indexed in its proper alphabetical place....

Much funnier is the index of The Clothes Have No Emperor, a chronicle of Ronald Reagan's presidency by Paul Slansky (1989). The author must have giggled insanely as he compiled the long, long entry on Reagan himself, with something like 140 subheadings:

`Blames Carter ... blames the media ... blames miscellaneous others ... Bond, James, honoured by ... books about ... bullet in chest temporarily unnoticed by ... campaign oratory of ... cancerous pimple called "friend" by ...'

There are 18 page references under `challenge to accuracy of', 19 under `inability to answer questions of', 17 under `macho bluster of', 22 under `misidentification problems of' and 33 under `misstatements by'.

It's vaguely reminiscent of the non-story in J.G.Ballard's most recent collection War Fever, which consists entirely of an index along these lines to a book which now need never be written.

Perhaps the shortest, sharpest and rudest use of the index as a weapon is in Bernard Levin's The Pendulum Years (1970), whose account of 1960s Britain naturally includes much about the Lady Chatterley's Lover censorship trial -- where all the juiciest four-letter words were solemnly bandied in court. If you go to the index and look up a certain reprehensibly anatomical term, you'll find it referenced: `see Griffith-Jones, Mervyn' (the prosecuting counsel). Ouch.

From time to time someone has the bright idea of giving a humorous book an elaborate, wordy index full of jolly laughs. Purists are sniffy about this, and the fun is usually poisoned by consumer resistance to sitting and reading through an index. Once in a while, though, you do find something worthy of chuckles.

A.P.Herbert's various books of `Misleading Cases' have highly tendentious indexes, full of little digs in the ribs. Once, though himself an MP, Herbert chafed at the unfairness of Parliament's failure to observe things like the licensing laws which it imposed on the rest of the country ... so he made a list of all the activities Members could presumably get away with in their privileged House, and strewed them through the index of Uncommon Law (1935):

`ADULTERATED FOOD: May be sold at the House of Commons ... ARSON: Is lawful, in the House of Commons ... BRANDY: May be sold at tea-time, in the House of Commons ... BURGLARY: In the House of Commons, is lawful ... CHILDREN: Born in the House of Commons, need not be registered ... CHLOROFORM: May be sold at the House of Commons....'

Another of Herbert's books, What a Word! (1935), crusaded for better prose with splendid if not very functional index headings like `Bacilliferous Beverages', `Cannibal English' and `Septic Verbs'.

The index as prose poem is illustrated in that famous collection of bad verse The Stuffed Owl, edited by D.B.Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee (1930). This faithfully chronicles all the poets' daftest metaphors, so you find entries like `Worm, lisping ... militant ... far-fetched, see Silk-worm' and can follow the cross-reference to: `Silk-worm, Spartan tastes of ... sinks into hopeless grave.' There is social comment here too: `Frenchmen, fraudful, mix sand with sugar' and `Bilious attack, poetical description of.'

But perhaps the least-known, the most useless and the most grimly instructive index of them all (for aspiring writers, at least) is the one appearing in Hilaire Belloc's satirical Caliban's Guide to Letters (1943). Slowly it dawns that every single reference is to --

`Action, Combination of, with Plot, Powerful Effect of in Modern Novels, see Pulping, p.187. Advertisement, Folly and Waste of, see Pulping, p.187. Affection, Immoderate, for our own Work, Cure of, see Pulping, p.187. Amusements of Printers and Publishers, see Pulping, p.187. Art, Literary, Ultimate End of....'

Column 55, 8000 Plus 55, April 1991


I used to know a home computer pundit who swore by the Sinclair ZX81. This, according to him, was the trailblazer machine, the one that began it all. Yes indeed, it used the same microprocessor as the present-day PCW, but there were a few little deficiencies. My pal was undaunted.

All right, the horrible plastic membrane keys were no good. He'd added a real keyboard. Also, the picture output to the TV screen was terrible. He'd added a real monitor. And of course the ZX81's data storage on slow, slow cassettes was something of a joke, so he had this huge adaptor box sticking out of the computer, interfacing to a hard disk drive.

That was a few years back, and I like to imagine his desktop today: a seething spaghetti of wires and ribbon cables entirely concealing Sinclair's original plastic box, trailing off to CD-ROM units and modems and, of course, the status symbol for home users ... a laser printer.

This all came to mind when I went mad and bought my own laser printer. It seems perverse to add a printer costing substantially more than the PCW, but there are other computers here too, and anyway I was feeling gloomy and wanted a new toy (too many computer peripherals are bought for no better reason than this).

In 1989, incidentally, the prices of laser printers began to slip visibly. They used to cluster around the £1500 mark, but there's now a fair choice at well below a thousand. You have to shop around with steely eyes, because the Recommended Retail Price con is in operation: `RRP is £1399 but we can offer it for an astonishing £800!' Just as with hi-fi systems, research invariably discloses that (a) nobody anywhere is asking the full RRP; (b) everybody else, especially mail-order outfits, is undercutting the first price you heard.

Me? I bought an Epson GQ-5000 by mail order for less than half the official fantasy price, and started connecting it to all the computers in turn. Would it work with a PCW? Oh, the agonizing suspense.

I must confess to imitating one bad habit of real software professionals -- rushing madly into things without looking at the instructions. (`Manual? We don' need no steenkin' manual!') My first discovery was that although I could see the alternate printer drivers called D630.PRI and FX80_NLQ.PRI on LocoScript 2's disk manager screen, the menu revealed by f6 `Settings' was adamant that no printers but MATRIX could be selected. H'mm. I capitulated, peeped into the manual, and found nothing.

A bit of head-scratching solved this one. As supplied, the printer files were in Group 1. LocoScript was not happy unless you started with them in Group 0, so it could then copy them to Group M for use. I did the copying, went through the selection routine for FX80_NLQ again, and was told `Printer absent'. Aha: LocoScript contacts the printer with a little chug when you load the start-of-day disk. Time to restart with Shift-Extra-Exit. No, on second thoughts: time to save the new printer setting (same f6 menu) and then restart.

I'd already connected the hardware. Our 8256 has a CPS8256 interface box on the back, mostly used for serial communication with IBM computers. A standard (`Centronics') parallel cable joined the box to the printer, which can be set up via little buttons on the front to imitate various other machines, including Epson FX models ... hence the choice above. Excitement mounted.

Well, it sort of worked. A beautifully printed sheet slid out. The justification and pitch changes were all right (the printer's basic Courier 10 font looked a bit crowded in 12-pitch, but I could fix that by selecting another typeface with the printer console buttons). Italics, boldface, underlining, super- and subscripted text, all came out perfectly.

Not so successful were the various unusual characters I'd put in the test document. If they were in the standard international character sets, they printed exquisitely: Continental accents like the acute é, for example. If not -- meaning that LocoScript constructs them as graphics rather than just sending an ASCII code to the printer -- they printed as spaces. This was the fate of my Greek and Old English test characters, and likewise of the copyright sign (which, maddeningly, is in the printer's character sets).

It seemed a hopeful start. I fiddled with the document and tried printing again. Instantly, nothing happened!

No doubt anyone from Locomotive who reads this will send a strong letter about how I should have bought their disk of printer drivers before even considering this idle experiment. All the same.... Although the laser gadget imitates an FX matrix printer pretty well, there is a failure of communication somewhere between it and LocoScript. After one page, the software gets all petulant and insists that the printer is `waiting for paper'. Meanwhile, a gigantic stack of nice clean A4 paper sits in the printer tray, ready to feed automatically.

Next came the engineering ritual of `Keep changing the parts until it works.' I swapped cables: no luck. I changed the PCW for a 9512; the procedure for setting up the printer was much the same, except that over there the dot-matrix driver file is called DMP.PRI. Also, the 9512 meant another cable change: instead of the `Centronics at both ends' connector previously used, you need a standard IBM parallel printer cable.

I'm still looking at the 9512 disk manager screen, which after one print-out is stuck saying `Paper please' (a phrase which makes me retort `Comma, please!').

This is the state of the art in PCW laser printing research at the crumbling, poverty-stricken HQ of Ansible Information. Will I grit my teeth, ignore the anguished protests of Barclaycard, and buy more printer drivers? Will LocoScript then continue its mocking claim of `Waiting for paper'? Will our editor tell me to shut up on the subject? Stay tuned, or not, for another sleep-inducing episode.... [A letter from Locomotive duly came, explaining with a certain smug pride that the program won't work with any printer but the supplied one unless you invest in their drivers.]

Column 56, 8000 Plus 56, May 1991


This year our company decided to save pots of money by abandoning its `sophisticated' electronic communications system. For years we'd been struggling with one of the world's worst, a nationwide network seemingly designed by a computer hacker who once went to business school but failed. You want me to name names? I will name names. Telecom Gold.

The idea is simple. You have a computer, an interface box and a modem. You ring up the system to send or receive text messages. (You can also download information from databases and suchlike.) The PCW's MAIL232 program can just about cope with this, although for regular use you'd want some software that automates the typing of fiddly passwords.

One thing you soon discover is that few people use Telecom Gold. If they're poor they write letters or make phone calls; otherwise they use telex or fax. Fax costs more and is technically inferior: messages arrive as printed images, and if you want them on disk they have to be typed in again. This is where TG should score, but it's such a pain to use that few persevere.

Taking it blow by blow....

On joining you receive a confusingly arranged booklet with a lousy index and several errors. This insists that TG is easy to use ... but the information on setting up those complicated communications things like data and parity and stop bits (without which you can do nothing) is buried on page 58 in a chapter mystifyingly titled `Off-line preparation'. The setting-up process is called `configuring' by TG: there's no index entry in the booklet for this or any plausible synonym.

Such disinformation is apparently a ploy to extract more money. A fatter manual is available, for a fat price. It's as though your phone subscription only entitled you to edited highlights of the directory.

You dial up the TG computer. If you live outside London you'll want to save money by connecting via a `PSS' number at local call rates (though many places are so remote and barbaric that this isn't available. Wiltshire, for example. More expense). The TG booklet lists PSS numbers, but doesn't mention the secret extra characters you must type before PSS will accept the connection. After that you simply type a 13-character code, followed by a 10-character PSS identifier, after which Telecom Gold requires your 9-character customer ID, and then a password....

When you finally get all these countersigns right, you are in TG itself! Often this doesn't work first time, or the system disconnects you mysteriously, or is out of action for `necessary maintenance' ... we have a theory that BT bought a second-hand computer from NASA or someone, which periodically halts while men in overalls prod it with screwdrivers. A backup machine? That would cost money. Meanwhile, you are personally allowed to pay for all those wasted phone calls.

At last the glories of Telecom Gold await you.

TG uses plain text only. To clear the screen it laboriously sends 25 carriage returns and line feeds. Posh layout consists of long rows of spaces, hyphens or asterisks chugging along the line. Occasional lines are too long, so that text wraps amateurishly in mid-word. Punctuation and spelling are erratic. You are, incidentally, charged for every character you receive.

TG does not have any system for correcting transmission noise (which is of course totally unheard-of on BT lines): so often a bit of text will l{{h;q li}kw th}}/?s. I said, a bit of t{{!qj will look like this. You pay if you want the garbled bits repeated ... per character and per second of connection time.

TG is a business system, so naturally you'd expect to use currency symbols. Yes, but only dollar signs. If you send the message `You owe me £100', the £ vanishes ... same with the yen sign and every single accented character in the ASCII set. BT chose an antiquated transmission setup which handles the text characters 32 (space) to 126 (tilde ~) only; so this British system can transmit symbols for American but not British currency. How to send that message: `You owe me #100.' Other TG victims will groan and understand.

TG has another surprise waiting. Businessmen sometimes use the sign @ (`at'), which is in the allowable range. If you type it, though, something happens which isn't even hinted in the infamous `TG Quick Guide'. The entire typed line containing the @ sign is cancelled and not transmitted. What a novelty.

TG charges for basic information about TG. Want to work out how they calculate their incomprehensible bills? First you must register yourself as worthy to learn this occult data (which took us weeks). Then you enter a special command, `INFO SBI'. Whereupon screen after screen of weird text scrolls by, full of naff layout and # signs, none of it seeming to bear any relation to your bill ... and you pay for every character.

TG lives in the past. When you ask for `INFO' on something, you are instructed to set the printer paper to the top of the page. They assume you're using not a computer but a teletype.

TG's message services are all mutually inconsistent. There is one almost straightforward way to send a plain message to another user. A substantially different and more tortuous route will send a telex. And a third, insanely complex path must be followed if you want to send a fax, with numerous daft requirements ... e.g. you must enter the full international dialling code to fax someone in far-off Britain.

Finally, TG has a sense of timing which all alone is a classic example of bad programming. Sometimes, new messages arrive in your `mailbox' after you've looked through it, but before you actually `log off' and leave TG. When this happens, TG issues its usual mass of pointless sign-off information (`CPU time 01 seconds': gosh, thanks), then announces that a message has arrived -- `Mail call (1 unread)' -- and then, without pausing one instant, it disconnects you and leaves you to plod again through the whole laborious business of getting back into TG, should you want to know what your message actually contains. Grown men have pulled their own heads off in rage at this trick.

(Even Prestel, the cheapo system mentioned in column 1 and column 13 of this series, tells you as you leave whether new electronic messages have just arrived, and gives you the option of staying connected in order to read them.)

Why do I suspect that British Telecom would prefer people to switch to fax? In confidence, what we're doing now is posting each other text on disks: nearly three-quarters of a million characters for the cost of a stamp. You know it makes sense.

Column 57, 8000 Plus 57, June 1991


`Write about what you know' is the advice given to aspiring authors in a million How To Do It handbooks. Like almost every terse, unambiguous recommendation it needs qualification, and there are exceptions....

Writing about writing is the most seductive trap of all. You are a writer. Day after day you sit there on your bottom, growing ever more pallid and flabby, bathed in the eldritch green light of the PCW screen. Inspiration is needed. A little voice says, `Write about what you know.' You start tapping out a story about a writer sitting in front of a word processor strangely like yours.

Gosh, this is easy! Drawing on memories of times when you're sure that what appeared on the screen wasn't what you typed, you develop a plot about a word processor that comes alive and rewrites the author's words, takes over what passes for his or her mind, hacks into the US defence network, starts a nuclear war, becomes God or Satan or even the editor of 8000 Plus, etc.

Or instead you relax by playing some computer game, suggesting a story about a game that becomes real, or traps the player inside the program, or....

The trouble is that, leaving out the later and more apocalyptic developments, all these storylines are based on what you know too well: sitting at a computer keyboard. Astonishingly, hordes of other writers have already found themselves in the same position and rung endless changes on the above plots. Editors moan and gnash their teeth at the sight of yet another minimally different variation.

(There are non-fiction equivalents, such as the incredibly droll article about hilarious alternatives suggested by LocoSpell....)

This aspect of writing about what you know actually predates word processors. The annals of SF are full of strange typewriters: in 1955, for example, Damon Knight published a story about a writer whose typing errors proved to be coded messages from world-dominating supercomputers. The infamous L.Ron Hubbard anticipated the `trapped inside a computer game that has become horribly real' in 1940, with a story about being trapped in the plot of a hack novel.

Which reminds me of another pitfall pointed out by the critic Nick Lowe in a cruelly funny article. Writers often drink a lot of coffee while tapping out their masterworks. Coffee is much on their minds. Fat, lazily written books thus tend to contain all too many scenes in which, without advancing the plot in any way, the characters stop for a nice cup of coffee. When you start to notice and count these instances of authors `writing about what they know', it can become downright embarrassing.

There again, suppose you know something that's not commonplace but fairly esoteric. Can it be exploited in a story? Well, if it's such information as how to create highly specialist PCW programs or how to detect the sex of frogspawn, it might be wiser to write it up (if at all) as a straight article for a computer magazine or New Scientist, respectively.

The thing to beware of in fiction is the Great Expository Dollop required before lay readers can understand the revelation you plan to spring on them. In bad SF this is traditionally introduced by having someone say, `Gee, Professor, I know you told me already but how does the frogspawn-sexing widget work exactly?' The Professor then begins, `Well, son, it's like this,' and talks without interruption for three pages.

Alternatively, the Professor is dispensed with altogether and you get a multi-page chunk of imaginary history starting `Twenty years ago, the ships of the Federation had ...' and ending with the pungent words, `... and so the free universe was saved and frogspawn-sexing became an exact science.'

No, this story will only move properly if the weird science is woven into its fabric, revealed bit by bit in calculated, teasing asides. And it should be important to someone in the tale. A major character's happiness, or job, or life, must depend on getting that frogspawn properly sexed.

Another dangerous kind of specialist knowledge is the Thing That Really Happened To You. If you're writing straight journalism, the facts are supposed to come first (I know they don't always). In fiction, though, that's not the point.

In writing fiction, you are constructing a narrative machine designed to give the reader particular sensations of excitement, wonder, terror or whatever. If one of the components doesn't fit, it's no good wailing -- as inexperienced writers so often do -- `But that's the way it happened, I was there.' Real-life incidents generally need to be distanced, fictionalized and filed down to shape before they can work as a cog in the narrative. Authenticity, alas, is no guarantee of artistic value.

My last category of dubious knowledge is a more debatable one ... but I think it can be dangerous to be too exclusively well-read in the kind of genre fiction you plan to write.

Take science fiction (as I usually do). Obviously no one has much real specialist knowledge of such familiar SF gadgets as matter transmitters, faster-than-light spacecraft and time machines. But in a nebulous way there is a kind of SF concensus about these and many other strange devices. If you've read all the SF ever written, not only will your brains have turned to soup but you'll find yourself heavily influenced by what past writers have done.

Sometimes, agreed, this can help you avoid hackneyed plot devices. But SF which builds only on other SF will almost automatically emerge as stale, with small twists on established ideas rather than anything brand-new. If you are a towering genius, maybe you can do it. But far easier than being a towering genius is to read a lot outside SF, both fiction and non-fiction, in the hope that some strange hybrid notions will emerge from the cross-fertilization.

Ultimately, as you sit there staring into the terrible void of that blank computer screen, you have to coax something new out of the unknown territories of your own imagination. It's then that the advice in the handbooks needs to be rephrased: `Write about what you don't know.' Or don't know yet ... until you've written it.

Column 58, 8000 Plus 58, July 1991


Whether or not there's a genuine recession in the world of publishing, the industry seems to have talked itself into one. From my safe bunker I keep hearing the screams of editors toppling from fifth-storey windows with one last rejection slip still clutched pathetically in their hands.

I promise that I tried very hard indeed not to giggle when this happened to the chap who last year returned a submission with mild apologies for having sat on it for five agonized, suspenseful years....

Other editors are pale and sweaty after being summoned to the offices of Higher Management, shown the vertiginous drop from the window-ledge, and told, `One day, son, all this could be yours.' Then they are released with a caution and instructions to spend less. Except for a guaranteed international best-seller, in which case they can offer as many millions as they see fit. It's difficult just now to be an editor without spending hours gibbering and biting one's toenails.

These symptoms are caused by such decisions as: do you lash out £2,000,000 trying to poach a horror megastar author who always does well? It's relatively easy for editors to sell this idea to the holders of the purse-strings: they can point to a proven track record of best-sellers. Unfortunately eight other publishing houses are planning exactly the same. By the time the shark-like bidding frenzy is over, the deal is made, and the book is launched with the major publicity campaign demanded by such an investment, it's possible that the result will be that common phenomenon of the 1980s -- the best-seller which loses money.

This happens because today's surreal figures in the genre of Fat Books With Embossed Foil Jackets are such that, quite often, there is no reasonable possibility of making enough profit from the book to cover the initial advance to that megastar author. The publishers are in theory aiming for a long-term investment: goodwill or contractual ties which will keep the author with them, and hopes that this publicity splurge will cast a glow of increased desirability over his or her later books (plus earlier ones which they will try to buy in economically and reprint).

Of course, the moment the megastar is off that contractual hook, the frantic auction could start again, with a different publisher winning the right to pay X million pounds ... and bye-bye to the first one's `far-sighted' investment.

The notion of long-term goodwill used to apply to first-time authors. Although there are exceptions, a first book tends not to do very well. Editors used to regard it as an investment, with hopes of winning the loyalty of promising authors. A modest advance would be paid, a modest print-run scheduled: three or four books hence, this could be an established writer. And the investment was a small sum which unlike those speculative seven-figure advances couldn't possibly threaten the whole publishing house.

This is the paradox. Some editors try to woo promising authors exactly as I've described, but find it harder and harder to `sell' their decisions to an editorial board which keeps screaming, `We've got to have another best-seller!'

It's notorious that committee debate issues in inverse proportion to the sums involved. A multi-million-pound expense tends to be nodded through, while an order for paperclips will split the meeting in bitter controversy about expense, waste, possible alternatives, and the villainy of staff who don't appreciate that these luxuries cost £1.20 per thousand.

Just so, our editor finds it incredibly hard to make the case that Fred Obscure is worth a modest investment. There is a hiss of indrawn breath around the boardroom table. Think how many paperclips you could buy for £3000. `What's his track record?' snaps a thin-lipped editorial director. First novelists do not tend to have much of a track record.

(Exceptions are made for media personalities, noted prostitutes, famous terrorists, and so on. They may not be able to write, but get their X on the contract and the copy-editors will sort it out. An editor once boasted to me that he'd ghosted a major bestseller in four days, based on fragments of the `unpublishable' typescript from a famous name I'm not at liberty to divulge.)

As if the above picture weren't depressing enough, there's a growing possibility that submissions from new authors might never get read at all. With the latest waves of staff cuts, editors have less and less time to scan everything that comes in.

Traditionally, the first sifting of the slushpile is performed by outside help -- by freelance publishers' readers, a particularly overworked and ill-paid breed (described here in December 1987). They're now having a thin time of it, many being effectively laid off. Some major paperback imprints are no longer employing readers at all (`what, pay freelances in a recession?'), while the depleted ranks of editors still lack time to do the work. Never before in the history of literature have so many works been rejected unread by so few.

(Personal note: your columnist was recently privileged to read the entire popular-science slushpile of a noted publisher, a terrifying stack of cobwebbed manuscripts that had been accumulating for six months. `You have one afternoon to report on the lot,' they said. Half a day's pay was all the budget would allow. I staggered home with Gumby-like groans of `Urrr, my brain hurts....')

So what hope remains for all the aspiring novelists tapping away at PCWs in a corner of the bedroom? There are two encouraging points to bear in mind.

One is that there's something artificial about the current panic. World upheavals may send dread ripples down from the vast conglomerates who directly or indirectly own many British publishers ... but the general public hasn't stopped buying books, you know. In six or twelve months' time there could be an equally wild swing to optimism and a boom might even be declared. In which case some publishers will look a bit silly, like shipowners who jettisoned half their valuable cargo at a premature storm warning. If so, they'll be keen to build up their lists again. This means you.

The other point is that most really good stuff is sooner or later pushed through the horrors of the system by an editor who believes in it. Today the chances are fewer and the work needs to be better, but that loophole is still there.

We live in interesting times.

Column 59, 8000 Plus 59, August 1991


After months of perfectionist polishing, your program is brilliant. Anybody with a PCW and more than three brain cells has been yearning without knowing it for this wonderful software. If marketed, the product would practically sell itself. How to start?

Having entered the shallows of commercial software in a struggling two-man partnership, growing over the years to a struggling limited company with fewer than three employees, I know roughly how it works. None of what follows is intended to be depressing.

First ... the world must hear about the amazing product we'll call SuperProg. (Silly capital letters in unlikely locations are the essence of software street credibility, says pundit LangForD.) This means advertising in magazines, and not just once: too many floating readers buy only the odd copy and have an eerie, psychic ability to pick the month you tried to save money. Your eyes will water when you hear what ad space costs, but this may be negotiable.

Some magazines will typeset your ad to order, which could be useful if you lack a desktop publishing kit and are not a whiz with Letraset. On the other hand, in 1991 everyone knows someone with access to high-quality DTP -- don't you? If the quality isn't too high, a good ploy is to produce copy at double or triple size: photoreduction will help fine up those ragged lines.

It is traditional to send out review copies of software. It is also traditional for magazines to be short of space just then, but you never know ... worth a try.

Before this launch, and in readiness for the immense rush of orders, you need to produce a SuperProg manual. Even if the software is self-explanatory, most people like the reassurance of clear, literate and professional-looking instructions. Of course you'll have no trouble with the first two criteria. Tip: borrow someone who knows nothing about your software, and see how he or she makes out with the draft manual.

`It says I should exit from the widget menu. How?' `Press Exit, of course.' `You don't say so.' `But isn't that obvious?' `No.'

Another tip: while the manual need not be boring, no one will praise you for filling it with naff jokes. Imagine if you had to suffer the Japanese sense of humour every time you puzzled over the VCR manual. (Some people suspect that this is in fact the case.)

Modern technology smiles on small print runs. A High Street print shop can whiz off just 20, 50 or 100 photocopies of the book, quite possibly with automatic collation thrown in -- so you needn't sort the sheets into booklets yourself. In the not-so-distant days of photolithography, it was tempting to order too many copies since the unit cost dropped so rapidly after the savage expense of setting up.

Nowadays litho starts getting competitive at around 400-500 copies, or more. Always ask first.

Or perhaps you have access to a photocopier. Beware of overstraining small desktop models, or of relying on any but hefty commercial copiers (sometimes not even them) for large-volume printing -- especially on both sides of the paper.

How to bind the books? `Traditional' American 3-hole ring binders are awkward-sized and expensive both to buy and to post. Over the years we've used A4 folded and centred-stitched into A5 booklets; then two-hole-punched paper in flat plastic binders; and finally a `perfect binding' system. Here you drop the pages into prefabricated jackets with a strip of glue along the spine: a heater melts the glue and when it sets it's a book. (Plug: Heyden `Bind-It', Spectrum House, Hillview Road, London, NW4 2JQ.) Spiral binding is now cheap, I hear.

Disks are bothersome. The PCW 3" size is more expensive and less discounted than any other; you can get some reduction by buying hundreds, but might as well go for the best mail-order price you can find.

Should you register for VAT? Pro: you pay VAT on nearly all your supplies (the manuals might be an exception if the printers accept that they are VAT-free `finished books' or `newsletters') and would be able to reclaim this -- also on the relevant percentage of your phone bill, of which more below. Con: you will have to charge VAT. Thus if you reckon that £20 is the least gross return you can bear to rake in from each package, you must add 17.5% and advertise it at £23.50, doing the books and paying all the odd £3.50s to Customs & Excise each quarter.

Should you form a partnership to market SuperProg? Pro: you share the work and responsibility. Con: tax inspectors are legendarily suspicious of partnerships, and your dealings will need to be sanctified by paying an accountant. (Well, that's what our accountant told us. Virtually all accountancy firms are partnerships, so they should know.)

How about becoming a limited company? Pro: small companies are often formed as a kind of insurance. Suppose your product SuperProg turns out to be the trademark of some US outfit, and they sue for the traditional million dollars. No matter how you grovel your way out of this, there's a chance of an unfunny legal bill which might cost you your house (say). In this remote emergency, liability would be confined to company assets and you at least wouldn't go down the hole.

Con: in exchange for this legal protection, you must pay hefty annual company fees, submit annual reports to Companies House, pay your accountant more as official auditor, and run your business along particular lines (no more dipping into the profits whenever there are some ... you need to put yourself and co-directors on a salary, and deduct tax via the PAYE system).

In the least-known Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Utopia Ltd, everyone becomes a limited company in order to get out of paying bills. In the real world, this is what the arcane jargon of lawyers and accountants would term a definite no-no.

Now, a big one. Think carefully: will you publish your phone number? If not, and especially if SuperProg has a genuine or apparent `rival product' with a contact number, you lose sales dramatically.

If you publish it ... are you in all day every day? Better invest in an answering machine. Want to use your phone for social purposes in the evening? A separate line and an answering machine. Do you think the phone number is for enquiries only and that software problems can best be handled by mail? The people out there think differently. Maybe a separate line and a fax machine, to keep things impersonal ... but not everyone uses fax (this might be different before long) and you lose sales. How about that Amstrad fax that turns into an answering machine for voice calls? Not cheap....

And to give technical support, you must learn tact. An expert gave me this example:

WRONG: `Is it plugged in?' The instant answer: `Of course! Don't be silly.'

RIGHT: `Some computers went out with defective mains plugs. Just to check, can you read me the BS number printed on the inner face of the plug?' The muffled answer: `Hang on ...' (bump, clatter, pause) `Oh, I think I see what's wrong....'

Welcome to the wonderful world of business.

Column 60, 8000 Plus 60, September 1991


From time to time I'm expected to do the decent thing and reveal the ultimate secret of literary success. Unfortunately there are hindrances to such altruism....

The first is that if I had the Secret, I wouldn't be disclosing it here but would be lolling in luxury atop the best-seller list. (Which in the present recession might not mean much. Someone recently revealed that one of the `top 100 bestsellers' in a particular chart had sold precisely one copy.) It's like those programs that tell you how to grow rich by betting on horses ... you wonder why a programmer with this Midas touch is bothering to sell software for trifling sums, and why thousands of bookies aren't going bankrupt. Perhaps they buy these packages too, and use them to adjust the odds.

The second snag is that there is no one literary Secret. Instead there are hordes of small insights, none particularly valuable alone. Think of chess, whose rules are far simpler than those of English grammar and which (mathematically) allows ridiculously few possible games when compared with the number of legitimate ways of arranging words into a book. Yet even there the Big Secret is unknown, apart from platitudes like `Play better than the other guy.' There are rules of thumb: aim for control of the centre, avoid doubled pawns, etc. But ultimately you have to win by playing well, which seems undefinable. Like writing well.

This month we study another little facet of writing -- in fact an ancient and powerful literary technique which you never see mentioned in creative writing manuals. Here's a textbook example from Britain's most prolific science fiction writer, Robert Lionel Fanthorpe:

... The silence was broken by metallic noises. Harsh clanking, jarring metallic noises. Things were stirring within the disc ship. Strange metallic things; things that were alien to the soft green grass of earth.

Terrifying things, steel things; metal things; things with cylindrical bodies and multitudinous jointed limbs. Things without flesh and blood. Things that were made of metal and plastic and transistors and valves and relays, and wires. Metal things. Metal things that could think. Thinking metal things. Terrifying in their strangeness, in their peculiar metal efficiency. Things the like of which had never been seen on the earth before. Things that were sliding back panels.... Robots! Robots were marching ... Robots were marching ... (from March of the Robots, 1961)

Yes, the literary technique we're talking about is padding. Appalling passages like the above are favourites for readings at SF conventions, attracting the same groan-laden interest as the immortal verse of William McGonagall. Hypnotized by dreadfully predictable rhythms, audiences have been known to chant along: `The city slept. Men slept. Women slept. Children slept. Dogs and cats slept.' (Ibid.)

In justice to Fanthorpe, I should point out that he was and is an engaging, intelligent fellow. What forced him to these extremes was the job of providing almost the entire SF/fantasy output of the ill-famed Badger Books, in his spare time: 121 volumes over eight years, peaking at the rate of one per weekend. Gasp.

A less than funny point underlies all this. The typical paperback best-seller is a big fat book containing all too much padding. Please note the word `typical': I'm not trying to state a universal law here. There are always special cases. I'd hate to have to edit a word from the fat but densely textured The Name of the Rose.

Many such evils are committed in the name of research. It's easy to stuff a historical blockbuster with wodges of information torn raw and bleeding from history books. Nautical adventures bulge with stuff about splicing the mizzen-fo'c'sle's tween-yard quoins (or words to that effect), lifted boldly from textbooks or C.S.Forester. War/thriller epics revel in the clotted jargon of boys' toys:

Lovingly he hefted his favourite automatic gun, an idiosyncratic VK 155 L/50 Swedish equalizer with 155mm calibre and a taut 865m/sec muzzle velocity. His mates scoffed at its bulk, but the chunky 14-round magazine and 25km range made it his kind of weapon, tough and mean....

There you are, all done from two minutes with Brassey's Artillery of the World -- which gives enough information for several more pages, including the interesting fact that it's a self-propelled job weighing 51 metric tons. Oops.

This leads to the much-feared Brand Names ploy. Ian Fleming made it famous in the Bond thrillers, which are too tightly written to be accused of padding. The idea is that judicious mention of the brand names surrounding your characters will economically anchor the scene in reality and tell you something about the people. Snob appeal is the easiest route: Gucci luggage, Yves St Laurent socks, or whatever. SF writer William Gibson played a neat literary con-trick by extracting the same knowing effect from nonexistent brand names, writing about the Ono-Sendai cyberspace deck in a way which made it clear this is the model the real in-crowd uses....

Now it's all escalated. You get long lists of names, descriptions of shopping for more brand names, descriptions of cars, cameras, wallpaper, bedding, clothes and much more. Amid these branded props, characters go through old routines from when writers were paid by the word: fiddling at length with cigarettes and cups of coffee, discussing the plot again and again in repetitive dialogue ... fill in your own list.

Why? I have a nasty suspicion. The computer world is full of people who buy games which present an interesting challenge, and then buy information on how to cheat so there is no challenge. `Cheating' in books is easier: just skim. G.K.Chesterton made a distinction between `the eager man who wants to read a book, and the tired man who wants a book to read'. Tired readers demand a fat book to pass the time, but skim inattentively. Padding and repetition come into their own, almost as though designed for sloppy reading. What a horrid theory. Can it account for Jeffrey Archer?

There is in fact a constructive use for padding. Unless you have the stamina of a Fanthorpe, producing sheer waffle is actually very exhausting. A far better SF author, Robert Sheckley, claimed this as his infallible cure for the terror of writer's block, when nothing will come. (Asked if he ever suffered this, the hugely prolific Robert Silverberg said: `Once. It was the worst ten minutes of my life.') Sheckley tried a drastic exercise to get things flowing again: making himself type 5000 words a day, any words so long as he met the quota, grimly bashing out stuff like ...

Oh words, where are you now that I need you? Come quickly to my fingertips and release me from this horror, horror, horror ... O God, I am losing my mind, mind, mind ... But wait, is it possible, yes, here it is, the end of the page coming up, O welcome kindly end of page ...

After days of this, Sheckley made the great discovery that it was now actually easier to write a story than go on suffering. So he did -- saved by padding, though at such cost in mental anguish that he vowed never to use this ultimate literary secret again.

It's all yours.

Column 61, 8000 Plus 62, November 1991


One by-product of the 1991 silly season was a spate of circulars, many recognizably LocoScripted on the ubiquitous PCW. I suppose there's no way to prevent nutters and con artists from buying word processors, just like the supremely law-abiding readers of this magazine....

The most irritating item was a long tract offering a very expensive book on how to cheat. Its amazing technique of `neocheating' would enable you to win at cards, rip off friends and business associates, and rule the world -- all in a completely safe and undetectable way. Of course, the brochure adds, you don't have to cheat at cards. The idea is to attain inner tranquillity and control, stuff like that. Being able to steal your neighbours blind will be a mere side-effect of your astonishing new powers.

(Remember those old martial-arts adverts? `After ONLY THREE LESSONS you will be able to WRENCH OUT PEOPLE'S INTERNAL ORGANS and REDUCE THEM EFFORTLESSLY to a BLOODY PULP. Your new-found ability to MAIM, HURT and KILL should be used only in self-defence....')

A more familiar arrival was a posh, word-processed version of that old standby, the chain letter. I thought they'd died out years ago. Ah, the schoolday nostalgia of sending a nice picture postcard to the top name of the six listed, plus four plain cards to friends with an exhortation to do likewise and not break the chain. Then you waited for the glorious bounty promised by the logic of mathematics when your name rose to the top: 4 to the power of 6 or 4,096 cards, probably from exotic places all over the world!

I never got any, which was just as well since on reflection I had absolutely no idea what I'd do with them.

Today's chains have progressed beyond the simple innocence of long ago. The example I received is full of claims that this is not a chain letter but that entirely different and legal thing, a Multi Level Mail Order Sales offer. The currency unit is no longer the humble postcard but the used £5 note. (No cheques.)

Now, when you send fivers to the previous names on the traditional list, you are supposedly buying four valuable `financial and business reports'. Since these consist of at most two sides of paper, you can imagine how expensive they are to produce, and how crammed they must be with vital data.

But it's unnecessary for you to read these ludicrous texts. All you do is pay a fiver apiece for the things, and photocopy them for sale to the further suckers whom you yourself are expected to rope in. `It is legal because you are offering a legitimate product to your investors.' See? In due course, as the circle of golden opportunity expands exactly like a chain letter (`imagine if everyone sent out 1,000 letter packets!'), you in your turn are promised tons of fivers.

There's something slimy and repellent about the several sheets of `don't miss this great chance' evangelism which landed on my doormat. Naff testimonials from supposed past operators of the scheme are included: why do they all quote vast profits in pounds but write suspiciously like Americans? Any guesses as to where this con originated?

Let me make some obvious comments. The first concerns a testimonial from the `originator of this plan', who is letting others into it out of sheer benevolence, having himself retired long since on claimed profits of over £4,000,000. Stop and think. If we're to believe him, every penny of that sum must have come from hopeful `investors' who paid £20 for four joke reports at a fiver each. Gosh, there must already be two hundred thousand people on this game! If each sends 1,000 further packages as recommended, there are two hundred million in circulation already. A bit late for anyone else to jump aboard....

All right, most of the build-up is a pack of lies. My second comment is for people who think a bit further and argue: `Yes, it's a scam. But if this one is just starting, I could get in now and make a quick profit before it falls apart.' Possibly. But the law of conversation of mass/energy applies to money. Whether the chain letter dies out by expanding to swamp the world or by deserved shrinkage as people chuck the thing in the bin, each fiver you make is sooner or later balanced by the `investment' of somebody who won't get it back ... someone, perhaps, who believed in this nonsense as a genuine business opportunity, and can ill afford even small losses. The mere fact that you're unlikely to meet these victims of the con is no excuse.

A final cheeky thought. When I mentioned conservation laws, I didn't take into account the fact that real-world systems leak money at the seams. Just so here: all that photocopying or Loco printing, all those envelopes and especially (as the letter insists) first-class stamps. Elementary, Watson: the originator of this game must be the one outfit which makes money from it no matter what ... the Post Office!

The above is all small stuff. Over in the wonderful USA, everything is bigger and better, and this kind of scheme can be played for high stakes. One that's caused much trouble in recent years is the Aeroplane Game ... or rather, because they're Americans and don't know any better, the Airplane Game.

This is a plain (sorry) and simple pyramid scheme. I don't care to give full details, but typically the suckers join an imaginary flight as a `passenger' for $1,500, and by recruiting new victims rise through the ranks of `flight attendant' and `co-pilot' until they reach `pilot' and receive $12,000. For this to happen, 64 more people must have signed on at $1,500, each needing to recruit 64 more before they collect ... and so on. Since several times the world's population will soon need to join and pay, a rude crash-landing awaits overwhelmingly many of these clowns.

(The game is illegal in numerous US states, including New York, Texas and California.)

Am I just repeating myself? The creepy aspect of the American swindle was how it raged through the unworldly communities of what is called the New Age movement. That it was crass, immoral and doomed was evident to anyone who chose to think hard for a moment: but the open-minded suckers swarmed aboard, dazzled by `spiritual' jargon about `infinity processes' and `abundance workshops' which promised that free money could be spun out of nothing, forever.

After all, the sceptics who rudely told them the harsh facts of mathematics had been equally disrespectful about vital New Age concepts like astral channelling, reincarnation and magic quartz crystals that can cure AIDS. Who would listen to horrid people like that? Who indeed.

Usually this page talks about writing. This time we've sneaked around to it from behind: as George Orwell said again and again, to write clearly you must first think clearly. Myself, I'm every bit as lazy and greedy as the next PCW owner, but I have learned to stop and think about certain things. Writing is one (`did I really mean to say that?'). Get-rich-quick schemes are another.

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