PCW Plus "Langford" Columns, 1992

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Column 62, 8000 Plus 64, January 1992


1 January: New Year's. All over Britain, professional writers resolve that in 1992 they will be kinder to the often reviled tribes of book publishers and editors. After all, are they not human? If you prick them, do they not bleed? At the same time, computer journalists resolve never again to abuse Alan Sugar: is he not human? If you prick him, does he not sue?

2 January: Writers lose patience and start to draft intemperate letters beginning, `Where are the royalties that were due in April 1991, you bastards?' Computer journalists grow bored and sketch out headlines like AMSTRAD'S BEARDED LAGER LOUT IN PCW BONK HORROR, hoping that a story to fit will sooner or later turn up. (Recommended reading for those who've read too many headlines like that, and even more for those who write them: Waterhouse on Newspaper Style by Keith Waterhouse, which is good on the distinction between striking, memorable and just plain awful tabloidese.)

February: Public Lending Right Month. Authors rejoice to receive generous payments for loans of their books from public libraries. Yes, every single borrowing (except the ones from libraries not actually being monitored by the PLR scheme) brings the lucky author a fraction over one penny! To understand the colossal esteem in which our country's writers are held, you have only to compare this sum with the typical cost of hiring, say, a video....

March: National Hackers' Week. There is a US program called Password Coach, sold as a security measure to stop the users of big corporate computer networks from choosing passwords which are just too predictable by evil-doers. The list of `cultural icons' from which all too many Americans pick their passwords includes Alka-Seltzer, Aristotle, Asimov, Beatles, Brando, Disneyland, Dracula, Frodo, Garfield, Godzilla, Hitchcock, Hitler, Jesus, Jetsons, Kirk, Kleenex, Madonna, Nintendo, Scud, Superman, Wheaties, Xerox.... (Reported in Harper's Magazine, Nov 91.) Inspired by this insight, a group of hackers attempts to break into Amstrad's secure internal network using the passwords JOYCE, PCW, SUGAR and SHIFTEXTRAEXIT, achieving final success when they key in the word MONEY.

(Fact: when I was doing wicked things on an Oxford University computer years ago, a surprising number of passwords proved to be either PEANUTS or SNOOPY -- if not PASSWORD. Fact: an anonymous civil servant, working on a nationwide Government computer system that handles billions of pounds, was told of all the above and almost wept at the variety of passwords open to Americans. `We're only allowed four letters....')

1 April: The Feast of All Missing Address Marks, a day of immemorial rustic pursuits. The colourfully clad address-mark hunters track their fleeting quarry across huge expanses of wasted time and corrupted data blocks, with hearty, traditional cries of `View halloo!', `Tally-ho' and `Forgot to make a backup!'. If a `kill' is made, huge stirrup-cups are drunk with heartfelt toasts to Dave's Disk Doctor Service. If not, even huger cups are drunk to blot out the thought of retyping the whole document from memory in the days to come.

1 May: May Day. Fresh from a campaign against the pagan and/or erotic associations of traditional May celebrations (especially maypoles), the Fundamentalists Against Absolutely Everything crusade turns its attention to the dubious symbolism of thrusting disks into PCW drive slots. A new PCW add-on reaches the market: frilly covers for disk drives, to help protect the sensibilities of the pure in heart.

June: Still stricken with poverty, the scattered ex-Soviet republics place giant orders for the most economical word processing system available from the running-dog capitalist West. Hard-currency payments for the `PCWski' being something of a problem, Amstrad reaches a cunning compromise and is soon in the thick of a massive publicity campaign for its new line -- forty-two million gallons of own-branded vodka, now available at every branch of Dixons as `disk head cleaning fluid, nudge nudge, wink wink, know what I mean?'

4 July: American Dependence Day, dedicated to all the owners of incredibly expensive IBM and Macintosh computers whose costly, imported software includes alien spelling-checkers, deluding the hapless buyers into writing `airplane', `color', `honor', `humor', `labor' and all the rest. Special naff points are scored by those dim bulbs who try to correct this without actually bothering to use a dictionary, producing nonce-words like `humourous' and `labourious'. Recommended reading: Mother Tongue: the English Language by Bill Bryson (who, as an American who's lived over here since 1977, has a good transatlantic perspective).

August: the Silly Season. 1992 sees a spate of new graphic design programs to help PCW owners devise and implement their very own crop circles. Students of the paranormal are soon thrown into uproar by an amazing series of Wiltshire cornfield patterns in the exact shape of a PcW 9256. `It is completely impossible that this could be a hoax,' gasps a top expert: `All this week's phenomenal events were accurately predicted by Nostradamus back in the 16th century, in his famous prophetic verse that begins: A great king of terror (i.e. Alan Sugar) will descend (i.e. falling Amstrad profits) from the skies (i.e. satellite TV), In the year 1999, seventh month (i.e. August 1992)....'

September: Sprouts Day. Hot from Brussels comes the long-awaited EC directive on disk sizes, an awesome tome running to 750,000 words. The gist is that to eliminate incompatibility from future computer systems, all 3" and 3 1/2 " floppy disks will now be superseded by the new standard Eurodisc, measuring an easily remembered 86.5 x 94 millimetres. This avoids any possible charges of company or national favouritism, by being unusable in all existing disk drives.

After buying up a huge stock of the now-obsolete 5 1/4 " drives for a mere song, Alan Sugar amazes the world by releasing his spanking-new pCw 9257 ... and everyone gets rich selling file transfer systems for moving documents from 3", 3 1/2 " and Eurodisk formats to the new Amstrad 5 1/4 " standard.

31 October: Hallowe'en. Strange eldritch Things flit through murky air and stalk the haunted night, being the usual rumours of LocoScript 3 with artificial intelligence, LocoScript 4 with the Virtual Reality interface, etc.

5 November: Bonfire Night, when huge pyres of never-opened Amstrad manuals are constructed in every town and the person responsible for the stupidest computer problem is burned in effigy by technical support departments all over the country. This year's winner is an inexperienced secretary who complains of steadily declining screen visibility when using LocoScript 2. A crack support team from Locomotive finally cures this difficulty after four arduous hours scraping off the Tipp-Ex.

31 December: New Year's Eve. Where does the time go? Your columnist resolves to be nicer in 1993 to editors, publishers, taxmen, VAT officials and Alan Sugar....

Column 64, PCW Plus 66, March 1992


Once upon a time I wrote the book review column for a fantasy games magazine. Although the magazine used little fiction, and although a lowly columnist should never be confused with that godlike being the editor, readers started submitting stories to me. Being tremendously humane, I devised a form-letter of reply which required inspection of page 1 only. It went more or less as follows. (Since then I've stopped being tremendously humane -- no MSS, please!)


A tick in this section means that a jaded editor would probably reject you without reading any actual words.

[ ] It's hard reading. You need [ ] a new ribbon, [ ] a new print-head, [ ] letter rather than `draft'-quality print, [ ] larger print (12 letters per inch minimum).

[ ] Only black ink is acceptable. Keep that violet ribbon for personal friends, or enemies.

[ ] Line spacing must be set to 2.

[ ] Margins too narrow: leave at least an inch all round.

[ ] The MS lacks [ ] your name, [ ] your address, [ ] a word count (`5,341 words' brands you an amateur -- round it to the nearest 10 or 50), [ ] a traceable title, [ ] page numbers.

[ ] Paragraphs aren't (or aren't clearly) indented. Set the tab to at least half an inch.

[ ] The paper gives a poor impression: [ ] too flimsy, [ ] grubby from previous submissions, [ ] unseparated continuous stationery.

[ ] Too many obvious hand-corrections -- 3 per page at most. (Don't be a cheapskate ... reprint the page.)

[ ] Flawed punctuation: [ ] spaces are needed after commas etc., and [ ] are not acceptable immediately before.

[ ] Don't break words over line ends by inserting hyphens -- printers hate this.

[ ] Use paperclips or staples to hold the pages together (in separate chapters for long works): elaborate bindings are frowned on.

Minor points: [ ] editors prefer bare-minimum covering letters and do not wish your opinions on the brilliance of the story; [ ] right-justified text is generally disliked (but more editors are coming round to the use of actual italics, in place of indicating them with underlines); [ ] page numbers are best placed at top right, in a header including your name and perhaps an abbreviated title; [ ] leave the top third of page 1 blank for title layout design.

Skimming the Opening

No single item here should drive you to despair, though a bad mark for spelling should come close....

[ ] The title is [ ] boring, [ ] clichéd, [ ] pretentious, [ ] incomprehensible, [ ] an over-familiar quotation, [ ] already used by a better-known author.

[ ] The opening is [ ] uninspiring (doesn't encourage anyone to read on), [ ] clichéd, [ ] pretentious, [ ] incomprehensible, [ ] over-melodramatic.

[ ] The spelling is dodgy. Writers should refer constantly to the dictionary. If you use a spell-check program, beware of [ ] adding your own wrong spellings to its lexicon, or [ ] accepting typos merely because they're passed as words -- are they the right words?

[ ] Dodgy grammar and syntax. Read more books.

[ ] Dodgy use of punctuation. Worst common faults: [ ] contracting `it is' to `its', [ ] using `it's' as a possessive, [ ] putting spurious apostrophes in plurals (e.g. `plural's'), [ ] using commas where another link like a semicolon or colon is required.

[ ] Proper names and fresh sentences should start with capitals. Caution and restraint are advised when you're tempted to use caps for Ironic Effect or ATTEMPTED EMPHASIS.

[ ] Don't keep italicizing your dramatic or funny lines. (This over-emphasis gives the same effect as laughing loudly at your own jokes.)

[ ] The opening features needless explanations, awkwardly inserted lumps of information, or fussy footnotes. Be subtler.

[ ] The sentences are generally too long, defused by add-on clauses and afterthoughts.

[ ] Too many non-sentences, odd qualifying clauses that don't join on to anything.

[ ] Over-use of stock SF jargon. (This and the following reflect the submissions I used to get!)

[ ] Over-use of ye olde fantasy fustian style. Long strings of sentences starting `And' or `But' are a dead giveaway; likewise a plethora of those all-purpose Tolkien adjectives like chill, cold, dark, dread, lone, pale, wild, etc.

[ ] Over-elaborate style: the reader can't see the story for the words.

[ ] Over-bald style: a distinct lack of atmosphere or sense of place.

[ ] Too many atmospheric adjectives and adverbs: indirect evocation via metaphor, simile (in moderation) or mere choice of words can be far more effective.

[ ] Needless avoidance of the word `said'. Trying for freshness by writing `Hello,' he yawned; `Goodbye,' she exploded gets mechanical and silly. [ ] In a long he said/she said exchange, several `he/she said' phrases can be omitted once the rhythm of dialogue is established.

[ ] `Make dialogue sound like talk, not writing,' said Wolcott Gibbs of The New Yorker.

[ ] Character names too [ ] joky, [ ] routine (all Smiths and Joneses), [ ]; clumsy, [ ]; somehow familiar.

[ ] Initial situation seems far too familiar. (Surprises overleaf? First you have to make the reader turn over.)

[ ] Awkwardness with point of view. Who's telling the story? If the narrative voice is one character's, beware of omniscient commentary from the author ... and vice versa.

A Footnote: Practically every `fault' above has been committed by a great writer. Genius can excuse many things, and can even make a virtue of what for most people would be flaws. But are you sure that you're a literary genius?

In Summary

This is where I'd finally confess my snap judgement:

[ ] No serious problems were found in this necessarily brief sampling. Try it on a real editor. Or ...

[ ] A professional editor probably wouldn't have finished page 1. Keep trying, but not on me.

[ ] You enclosed a suitably stamped and self-addressed envelope, and the MS is returned herewith. (Was the postage insufficient? Your problem, mate.)

[ ] No postage enclosed. MS chucked in bin. This has been a stern lesson from the school of Life.

A Final Note: Some of the judgements that I'd make when ticking items on this form were of course a bit subjective. But if you're an aspiring writer, try going through some piece of your own fiction while pretending to be an utterly merciless, unsympathetic swine (me), and see how many ticked items you can amass by never giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. The results might be instructive.

Column 65, PCW Plus 68, May 1992


In between PCW Plus columns and software work, I am a science fiction writer. It is an awesome responsibility. SF writers have a duty to prophesy the future: everyone knows that. Keen-eyed peerers into the awesome vistas of futurity, that's us.


One of my all-time favourite openings to a book is G.K.Chesterton's `Introductory Remarks on the Art of Prophecy' in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), which in one of those odd literary coincidences is set in a future Britain of 1984. This begins: `The human race, to which so many of my readers belong ...' and continues by outlining the rules of humanity's favourite game, known as Keep Tomorrow Dark, or Cheat the Prophet.

`The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.'

Chesterton goes on to explain that the game became very difficult in the twentieth century, because there were so many clever men making prophecies (especially H.G.Wells) that it became very, very difficult to do something that hadn't been predicted....

This is of course the secret of success in SF prediction. Make enough wild guesses and one or two of them must surely hit the mark. Bingo, you're a prophet.

The next logical stage is for SF authors to develop delusions of grandeur about this, and to start judging their betters by the daft yardstick of successful prophecy. Take a bow, Isaac Asimov -- who in his book Asimov on Science Fiction spends several pages putting the boot into George Orwell for getting it all wrong about what life was going to be like in 1984. Orwell failed to predict computers, to foresee the oil crisis, to invent exciting new science-fictional drugs and vices, etc. Silly man! Anyone would think that he was neglecting his duty as prophet and instead writing a savage metaphorical fable about 1948. (Orwell himself seems to have been under this foolish impression.)

It's strange how many people remain convinced that SF writers are all at least trying to foretell the One True Future, if not to bring it about. The world a writer might most like to live in would probably be too luxurious, hedonistic and devoid of tax inspectors to allow exciting conflicts or plot tangles ... so most SF has settings which are interestingly flawed, if not out-and-out awful warnings. To pick one example from many, Sir Kingsley Amis was thoroughly clobbered when he told the dread Margaret Thatcher that his novel Russian Hide and Seek (1980) was about a future Britain crushed by Russian occupation. She blasted him with: `Can't you do any better than that? Get yourself another crystal ball!'

In fact, as you might imagine, SF has a fairly poor record of prediction in the high-tech world of computers.

One SF trend was that of the giant brain. Gigantic mainframe computers were a fairly safe bet by the time of the Second World War. and so they proliferated in stories. A.E.van Vogt's computers were called the Brain or the Machine. Isaac Asimov's was called Multivac (a bit of a slip there -- early computers tended to have names like MANIAC for Mathematical Analyser, Numerical Integrator And Computer, but Asimov made the AC in Multivac stand for `analogue computer' -- rather than the digital computers which came to rule). Lloyd Biggle Jr opted for size with Supreme, which ran the galaxy and filled an entire planet. Other writers stuck to elaborate mechanical cams, or wrote about astrogators fiddling with slide-rules while the whirring and clicking of electrical calculators filled the space-ship's bridge....

All this clunkiness was understandable in the light of what has passed for a personal computer within my own lifetime. The first home computer manual, so far as I can trace, was the 1955 GENIACs: Simple Electronic Brain Machines and How to Make Them by Oliver Garfield. In these crude logic circuits, `hard-wiring' was the rule. The 33 ultra-simple `programs' that your GENIAC could run actually demanded that you rewire the circuits for each program change ... in effect, building 33 slightly different machines. (My thanks to Nigel W.Rowe for this information.) Those were the days!

Meanwhile, SF's other big thing in the computer line was the walking, talking robot, still conspicuously not a feature of everyday life. A robot that can wander around getting up to mischief clearly has far more dramatic potential than a dirty great lump of circuitry. The writers weren't interested in prophecy: they wanted to tell thrilling -- not to mention startling, amazing and astounding -- stories. And so the robots began to march, spreading havoc and cliché in their pitiless wake.

But then, there are such things as self-fulfilling prophecies. We are all somehow fascinated by the idea of thinking robots that walk like human beings. Perhaps one day the stories will be said to have come true. Even now, a lot of the enthusiasm for Virtual Reality systems seems to have been fuelled by the `cyberspace' SF visions of William Gibson and his merry band of imitators. Life imitates Art.

Meanwhile, with thousands of SF writers letting their imaginations run riot in disgraceful orgies of prediction, a few will always diverge from the trend -- which is lucky for them if it's a dubious trend, like the too-easy glossing over of the incredible difficulties in creating intelligent robots.

A possible minor success in the prophecy game was scored by Anthony Boucher, whose 1942 story `QUR' (Quinby's Usuform Robots) started with the received wisdom of robots as imitation people, and suggested that in fact they would develop all sorts of weird neuroses thanks to the imperfections of the human shape. Robot chauffeurs might prefer to be built into the car rather than operate it with clumsy human-like limbs; robot spelling checkers would be frustrated at having to fumble with a physical dictionary. A tiny but nice insight ... though sometimes I suspect LocoSpell would like just one hand, to slap our wrists.

Then there's Murray Leinster's little tale `A Logic Named Joe', which with dazzling good luck did actually manage to predict the desktop home computer -- with tele-shopping and on-line database facilities, too. Better still, the plot is actually about the perils of the information explosion, as dutiful video-screens issue detailed technical answers to questions on how to improve one's lifestyle by foolproof robberies, perfect murders, or worse. Rogue data, loose everywhere!

Not bad at all, for 1946.

Column 66, PCW Plus 70, July 1992


Lots of computer columns devote themselves to exciting technical tips and advice. It's time I fell into line and gave you the benefit of my hard-won experience, gleaned from long and arduous minutes in public bars. Can I have the first question, please?

I'm trying to complete Level III of the Hack's Quest adventure game but am stuck in the Vasty Hall of Rejection Slips without any usable exit. How do I progress?

This is a very common query. To complete this level of the game you must first have entered the Forbidden Pools in Level II. After persevering for thirty to forty years you should receive the Million Pound Cheque -- armed with which, you can obtain some Palm Grease and thus slip by the Ferocious Editor in the Smoke-Filled Room who is blocking your upward route to the Big Time. Also you should stop printing out all your work in single-spaced 17 c.p.i. draft quality.

When I ordered the MegaHyperSuper Ultimate Word Thingy program, I expected it to solve all my problems ... but I can't load it. In fact there doesn't seem to be anything on the disk.

This is a very common query. The software you have acquired is so high-powered that to prevent illicit copying it has been `read protected' according to access control guidelines laid down by the Federation Against Software Theft. As a magazine reviewer I can tell you that the program is dead good and worth every penny you paid. As a mere customer, unfortunately, you have too low a security clearance actually to use this classy package. A MegaHyperSuper spokesman comments: `We have to protect ourselves against you thieving sods.' Next?

First off, no blinding me with science, right? I don't know anything about these computer technicalities and I mean to keep it that way. You jargon-mongers really do make me sick. Right there on the `Opening Menu' of your elitist magazine there are all these incomprehensible hardware codes like 0225442244 -- I mean, can't you write plain English?

This is a very common query. It is our telephone number.

I have just bought a state-of-the-art IBM 486 system running at 50MHz with a 1200 megabyte hard disk drive, Super VGA colour monitor, CD-ROM reader, fax interface and laser printer.

This is a very common ... er, what is your query, please?

Nothing, I just wanted to make you jealous.

[Expletive deleted.]

I have been told that in order to become a Power User and kick sand in bullies' faces, I should learn the Amstrad CP/M manual. But after just a few paragraphs each time, my brain crashes and I have to be switched off and reloaded from a start-of-day disk. Am I doing something wrong?

This is a very common query. Stop it at once! It makes you go blind. As is well known in the PCW world, all Amstrad CP/M manuals are infected with a computer virus which inexorably destroys their readers' brain cells, often to the accompaniment of a mocking message about its being Alan Sugar's birthday. Cautious users always practise `safe CP/M' by covering their hands in cling-film and learning about the operating system only from PCW Plus.

Here's a useful tip. When ending a paragraph in LocoScript, save yourself a whole lot of tapping at the space bar by pressing the poorly documented key called Return! Look for it above the right Shift key. Not many people know this handy time-saver.

For this month's Star Letter, you win a bumper pack of 2 self-adhesive disk labels!

I am thinking of buying MegaHyperSuper's Ultimate Rainbow Adaptor add-on, which is supposed to upgrade my PCW to a full-colour display for only £3.99 plus VAT. Is the product good value?

This is a very common query. I've tried out an evaluation copy of the adaptor kit, and must say it's quite ingenious. Just about any colour combination can be quickly achieved, and the transparent felt-pen ink is easily wiped off the screen when you want to `re-customize' it. Yes, with this product MegaHyperSuper (who have just booked a two-year series of multi-page coloured ads in this very magazine) really have a winner on their hands! One tip: if you want, say, all boldfaced words in LocoScript to appear purple, it is important not to type such words in non-purple regions of the screen. Simple enough, but not everyone tumbles to this at once!

No doubt I'm just being slow on the uptake, but I keep having trouble with the size of my M: drive and ...

This is a very common query. Honestly, I don't know why you wallies create such fuss over problems so simple a retarded woodlouse could tackle them. All you need do is make a perfectly ordinary 3.502" hole in the side of the PCW casing using a precision keyhole saw or electric drill attachment. Then, with a standard TR34 hex grommet (non-magnetic), re-align the spode emulator and concatenate the motherboard multiplexor attachment until the third lateral tag flange engages snugly with the plastic lug embossed AK292664331x-i. Remove all surplus fluff, metal shavings or bitumen, and make good with Polyfilla. Your guarantee should now be successfully invalidated. I forgot to say you should have switched off first ... oops, too late now.

Why spend money on ribbons all the time? Here's my tip: put a sheet of carbon paper over each fresh sheet you load into your PCW printer. You'll get perfect -- well, almost perfect -- print and will never again need a new ribbon!


Come to think of it, why waste money on expensive carbon paper? If you make regular credit card purchases, shop assistants will be delighted to give you the left-over carbon slips from the little chit thingy. With just a bit of time and patience these can be gummed together into perfectly serviceable A4 sheets!

This is a very common complaint. You have what medical men call Ebenezer Scrooge Syndrome. Unless you can pull yourself together and treat your poor PCW more generously, three dread spirits are likely to appear to you next Christmas ... and the horrible part is that they will all take the form of Alan Sugar.

I really appreciate the personal touch and amazing erudition you bring to the Technical Tips page. No question seems to stump you! How on earth do you keep it up?

This is a very common query. The answer is, quite simply, ILLEGAL INPUT ????????.$$$ FATAL PROGRAM ERROR IN QUERY MODULE `LANGFORD' -- PROCESSOR STACK FAILURE -- MASSIVE BDOS COLLAPSE -- Retry, Ignore or Cancel?

Column 67, PCW Plus 72, September 1992


Re-inventing the wheel in software is supposedly a thing to avoid. What a waste of time, when some suitable utility program is sure to be available. But that's not how it works out. Instead....

Well, I'm thinking, this is it. Software supremo Langford exposed as a recession-hit cheapskate. Years ago I said airily in print that I could handle any PCW disk format, and now this guy wants stuff copied to a perfectly ordinary PCW disk. Only it's 3 1/2 " and I haven't got one yet. Nor do I want to risk upgrading the old 8512 when I regularly use both its drives.

Really we should have the 3"-drive 9512 converted.

Except I tripped over its printer cable and triggered the Amstrad Surprise Circuit which, when you wiggle the plug, blows out the RAM. Can't afford repairs just now. (Can't afford a 3 1/2 " drive upgrade either, actually.)

But the pride of the Langfords demands that I produce a 3 1/2 "-format disk this week. No, I have the disk. The chap sent a blank, formatted one. If I could copy the wanted files to it....

My secret programmer's instinct, based on the hard-gleaned wisdom of years, suggests that it would not be a good idea to saw one of the 3" drive slots a bit wider.

Pause to pace the office, kicking final demands out of sight. All I need is a 3 1/2 " drive. In fact I am surrounded by 3 1/2 " drives, on obsolete Apricot computers, on the Amstrad PPC with the unreadable duckpond-murk screen, on the IBM....

Wait a minute. The IBM is cable-linked to the PCW for file transfer. Hoping against hope, I stick the PCW 3 1/2 " disk in the IBM drive and type DIRectory. `General failure reading drive B,' is the sneering screen message, IBM's way of saying `You're not catching me like that, squire.'

Thinks. You can get software to read and write IBM standard-density disks in a 3 1/2 " PCW. They're the same disks as PCW ones: double-sided, 720k capacity, even the same shape. Just a different format. Ergo, with the proper software I should be able to read and write PCW disks in the IBM drive. Even format them.

Marvel at the brilliance of my deductions. Consider running naked through the streets shouting `Eureka!', but Britain perhaps less tolerant of genius than ancient Greece.

They say: never waste time re-inventing the wheel. If a piece of software seems useful it surely exists, and something as small and handy as a CP/M-format disk thingy for IBMs is bound to be shareware or public domain. Quick circular to PD libraries and disk transfer specialists using the office fax. Wait.


To give them credit, West of Britain Business Services (only) do reply. Wonderful people. Unfortunately they brush aside my enquiry and suggest a 3 1/2 " drive upgrade plus Moonstone software to read IBM disks in the PCW, which was not the point.

Now what? I know roughly how CP/M disks are organized ... no harm, surely, in writing a few lines of program to have a peep at the directory structure? Except I only have a blank PCW 3 1/2 " disk. That is soon corrected: a credit card order for a random public-domain something to Advantage, who, bless 'em, deliver by return of post. Meanwhile, I prepare a rough program. This way madness lies. Believe me.

How does it go? When they're formatted these 3 1/2 " disks are laid out in 80 tracks (concentric rings on the magnetic surface), each track divided into 9 sectors, each sector having its counterpart on the other side of the double-sided disk. A sector, by immemorial tradition, holds 512 bytes or text characters. Multiply up and you get a disk capacity of 737280 bytes, but part of that isn't for you: it's reserved for CP/M or LocoScript `housekeeping' information. Like the directory.

Squint at the public domain bargain with hasty home-made software. First thing on the disk is sector zero, the `boot' sector, with arcane machine-code instructions for loading a CP/M or LocoScript start-of-day file. Sectors 9 to 24 contain the disk directory.

(These, gibbering readers, are figures for 3 1/2 " PCW disks.)

Insanity mounts. A directory entry takes up 32 bytes, so there can be 16 per directory sector, 256 altogether. In each entry, the first byte says which group the file is in; the next 11 give its name (omitting the dot); next comes the one-byte `extent' (one entry can catalogue only 16k of a file, so longer files are divided into `extents' with the same filename but numbered 0, 1, 2 and so on); then two bytes whose purpose I forget (I think it's optional date/time stamping); then a byte recording the number of 128-byte chunks of the file in the current `extent'; and finally up to 8 two-byte numbers, codes for the 2k blocks of actual disk storage used by the current `extent' of the file.

To make life more interesting, the first 2k block has code number 4, indicating to the cognoscenti that that bit of storage begins at sector 25 of the disk, just after the directory itself....

Who thought up all this stuff?

So. To copy a file to this disk without benefit of CP/M or LocoScript, your IBM program merely has to (a) divide the file into 16k `extents'; (b) find a free or deleted directory entry for each -- I forgot to say the group number is set to 229 when an entry is deleted; (c) read all the block code numbers which are in use, crossing them off an imaginary list to find if there are enough free blocks to hold your file; (d) copy the file, a bit here and a bit there, to these vacant properties; (e) overwrite empty or deleted directory entries with new ones that will guide other programs to where the bits of your file may be found, in the right order.

Clever little sods, these programmers.

Everything after that is a blur. One pal always warns that `software is a disease'; another likens it to the rapture of the deep. Hours pass like minutes, days like hours. Instant copier program working perfectly at only the 5,271,009th correction. Files copied from 3" PCW disk via cable to IBM, via new program to CP/M 3 1/2 " disk in IBM drive, read back again, checked, double-checked.... Honour of Langfords saved. Customer happy. Kindly hands remove me from the keyboard, blurred figures in white coats say `Drink this.'

I just know that tomorrow or the day after someone is going to send me a public domain copier that does exactly the same thing, but until then I intend to feel smug. Shattered, but smug.

This software is now downloadable from our freebies page.

Column 68, PCW Plus 74, November 1992


Writing can be a terrible curse. I know tormented souls who are unable to stop (there is even a Latin medical term for this: scribendi cacoethes) and who travel everywhere with thick wads of continuous print-out which they will relentlessly show to anyone who offers them an opening by mentioning books, computers, paper, beer, the weather, etc.

Luckily for these unfortunates, using a PCW or other word processing system offers a vista of new alternatives to the fearful writing compulsion! Not only is a computer display several times more efficient than a piece of paper in producing that welcome headache which forces you to go and lie down for a bit, but the machine also offers countless distractions. Even while avoiding all games and keeping everything relevant to writing, one can emerge from a long busy day in the green deeps of the computer screen without having written a single word of that great novel (which, after all, you'd only have to mail out in hope of interestingly phrased rejection slips). Here are a few ways.

Distraction 1: Having a Good Whinge. All computer firms have signed the Customer Annoyance Pact, agreeing that at random intervals they will spring irritating surprises such as discontinuing your favourite program, computer or disk size. (The new IBM jape is software on CD-ROM disk, with a hidden cost of £300 for a drive that'll read it.) Writing to them about their cruel decisions can offer the same high exhilaration as smashing your head repeatedly into a polished slab of teak.

For example, a thrilling correspondence with dear old Amstrad Customer Services recently fell into my hands....

`Is it still possible to get decent replacement ribbons for the Amstrad LQ5000di printer? By "decent" I mean "PT NO. Z70360", which came with the printer, rather than "soft no. 50029" which seems to be the only thing available in my local office equipment shops, and which appears, on internal inspection of both, to have only a quarter of the ribbon (if that) of the Z70360. This means, of course, that it needs to be re-inked four times as often, and will eventually wear out more quickly and have to be replaced altogether....

`The 50029 case also appears to be more cheaply constructed than the Z70360 case. After just one re-inking I found that the ribbon tended to slip out at the end of the left-hand "horn"; when I took it apart to repair it, several of the studs which hold the case together broke. It's now held together with masking tape. Also, the Z-shaped little plastic hooks which hold the cartridge in place in the printer snap off very easily on the 50029, a problem I have not had with the Z70360. I have just had to buy a second spare ribbon (another 50029; that's all I can find), only a couple of months after buying the first.

`Is it possible to me to get hold of Z70360's (or genuine equivalent) from you or another outlet?

Back came a helpful reply from the Amstrad Information Centre, explaining that `the supplier of ribbons has been changed and therefore only ribbons with "soft no 50029" are now available' ... also suggesting that the complainer buy lots from Amstrad Spares Direct Sales at once.

Our man wrote again, saying among many other things `A company of your size and market position is quite capable of telling a supplier what is required in a product; changing suppliers is not a valid reason for substantially reducing the quality. The customer, if necessary, would be prepared to pay a little extra for a ribbon which lasts four times as long.'

An even more helpful reply from Amstrad said soothingly that they weren't interested as `complaints of this nature are very few'.

The complainer's blood is up (`I intend to win'); the correspondence continues; and, several letters later, imagine how much keyboard time has been spent at this creative work rather than boring old journalism.

Distraction 2: Make It a Work of Art. My heart always sinks when I receive a letter plastered all over with the unmistakable signs of someone who has just discovered Desk-Top Publishing. Ten or twenty garish fonts, you know, and little boxes with shadow effects surrounding the address, the date and the signature, and blurry patches of clip-art everywhere ... a digital dog's breakfast which took only about twenty times as long to produce as a LocoScripted letter.

DTP is like word processing in one important way. People don't as a rule assume they can load a drawing program and instantly create great Art, or that the spreadsheet will at once teach them accountancy -- but everyone `knows' he or she can already write and lay out a page professionally. Goodness knows why anyone ever paid good money to typographic designers or layout artists.

Clip art is the most insidious DTP snare of all. The first stage of addiction involves buying countless disks of the stuff, megabytes and megabytes, and spending bleary hours watching each image appear v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y on the screen, hoping that this will be the perfect illustration at last.... Well, perhaps the next one.

(Is copyright different in the clip art world, by the way? I have seen `public domain' disks containing scanned versions of Escher woodcuts and lithographs whose copyright I thought was jealously guarded by the Escher Foundation at The Hague. I have seen a PCW-produced science fiction fanzine full of cartoons lifted straight from recent national newspapers. But my lips are sealed.)

I now have second-stage clip art addiction thanks to buying a scanner. Once I used to photocopy images and just paste them on to the print-out: now science has found a slower way to do it.

In fact you don't spend that much time actually scanning things; you become a relentless scavenger, turning over the pages of every book you own in hope of some suitable image to go with what you're writing. `No, that one's too small ... not quite relevant ... too big ... too much fine detail ... is this chap da Vinci out of copyright?' Then you stumble on the one perfect illustration, and the publishers have printed it in pale blue over a page of text. Eyes bulge, fingers throb, existence slows to a glacial pace, and unfortunately I own 20,000 books.

Distraction 3: Waving Large Magnets Over Your Clip Art Disks. [I think we could rather usefully stop there -- Ed.]

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