Thursday, April 28, 2011

Joining the hunt for intelligent life

It’s been quite a week for high technology.

It all started on Easter Monday when Mrs D decided it would be a good idea to shoot off early to the car boot sale, leaving the rest of the family either to lie in until midday (step forward, Dixon Junior) or do the weekly shop (self and loyal daughter).

So while two of us trudged the aisles of Morrisons searching for titbits in the post-Easter wasteland, Mrs D trawled the piles of tat heaped on trestle tables up at the racecourse.

The weekly shoppers came back with the usual stuff: cereals, bread, ham, frozen peas.

The intrepid bargain hunter came back with real treasure. Not, unfortunately, the priceless but unrecognised antique that everyone else at the sale was hoping to find, but a Ladybird book.

And How it Works... The Computer - scanned pages here - is not your average Janet-and-John-Down-On-The-Farm kind of Ladybird book. It was written for the nerds of 1979, and has section headings like Binary Arithmetic, Gates and Highways and Does A Computer Make Mistakes?.

The fact that the latter section refers to something called a “parity bit” gives an idea of the intended audience. Which must have been pretty small, even in the halcyon days of free tertiary education.

The illustrations are scary too: white-coated technocrats wrangle punched tapes and cards. Cowed inputters develop repetitive strain injury as they labour beside the visual display units of mini-computers that take up more office space than a Transit van.

Fascinating stuff, and 1979’s predictions for the future are fascinating too.

“What is the latest thing today,” we read, “may be old-hat in five years time.” Five years? Tell that to someone whose iPhone 4 has suddenly been made obsolete by the iPhone 7, a week after they took out an 18-month contract with Orange.

Most of the computers in the book are painted orange, though. So perhaps the writers were more prescient than even they knew.

What they couldn’t predict, though, was the scary technological stuff that’s happening today.

If you’re on PlayStation Network, for example, then you’re doubtless a bit worried right now about your personal details getting into the hands of hackers. Those of us with online XBoxes and/or Wiis probably shouldn’t feel too smug either.

And if you’re an interstellar alien, you may find it just that bit more difficult to make contact with us brainy humans: the people who run SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, have run short of money and turned off their radio telescope array.

Hope springs eternal, though: there’s an internet rumour that Ladybird published a very short print run of that computer book in plain covers, to teach  senior civil servants at the MoD about Peripheral Units and such, without appearing to be reading kids’ stuff.

If you find one of those, you’ve got a genuine antique on your hands, which might raise enough money to get SETI going again. What goes around comes around, they say.

1 comment:

  1. >The weekly shoppers came back with the usual stuff: cereals, bread, ham, frozen peas.

    HAM ?? Gone off SPAM now, have you ??