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  Minnie Floppy Found...

Here's some of the first personal computer humor written, my infamous Minnie Floppy column from the earliest days of Infoworld.

   
Back in 1979, International Data Group, the publishers of Computerworld, bought a small, infrequently published newspaper from the leading trade show of the time, the West Coast Computer Faire. IDG then proceeded to turn that publication into the first news magazine for personal computers, a biweekly named Infoworld.

For the first few issues, I served as a product reviewer from the midwest, where I managed a legendary computer store, The Data Domain. But shortly after Infoworld began publishing in earnest, I joined them as editor during what was to become one of the most fascinating years in PC development (the IBM PC was introduced about ten months into my tenure, the Xerox Star was inspiring the future Apple Lisa and Macintosh, and much more).

The nascent PC industry was highly competitive, rife with fast changing technology, and going through a transition from innovation to commoditization (sound familiar?). With the bulk of each issue filled with detailed news and technical jargon, I felt Infoworld needed some humorous relief. I set to writing what became a weekly humor column under the nom de plume, Minnie Floppy. In it, I mocked the industry I reported on. No one other than a few staff members knew who Minnie Floppy was, which made the whole game even more fun (I'd get phone calls from irate manufacturers who felt they'd been kidded too vociferously and demanding to know who Minnie Floppy was; little did they know they were talking to her).

Herewith, three of Minnie's 52 columns, complete with post-game analysis by her alter ego, me.

 

Earthquake to Alter Gulch's Parameters

Experts Say That It's All for the Best

Someone recently asked me what will happen when the BIG earthquake hits California. Will Silicon Gulch bite the dust? Will the Gulchers all pack up and move to, say, Minot, South Dakota?

The answer I found in researching these questions was fascinating. Not only will Silicon Gulch make it through the big one, but it will probably experience increased growth immediately following it.

To understand why microcomputer manufacturers don't fear the ground parting to reveal a sudden extension of the Pacific Ocean, you have to know a little bit about Silicon Gulch itself.

First, one fear, that of toppling buildings, is groundless: there are virtually no buildings to topple. Microcomputer manufacturers have never been enthusiasts for vertical integration, and their dwellings reflect this.

Apple, for instance, resides in a series of one-story buildings all lined up like IC chips in a nice orderly row. Cromemco not only chose not to build a multiple-story building, but it also made sure that there were no large trees nearby to come crashing down during an earthquake.

San Jose's skyline has been compared favorably with the silhouette of Mia Farrow lying on her back. The few buildings that do reach toward the smog layer are occupied by government officials and bankers--neither will be mourned if they suddenly become part of an instant land reclamation project of Mother Nature.

The primary fear people voice is that part of California will fall into the Pacific Ocean. In researching the effects of an earthquake on Silicon Gulch, I found that few Californians were upset about losing a bit of real estate. "It'll just increase the housing values again," said one.

An area woman geologist, Dee P. ("Rockie") Fissure, feels that Silicon Gulch has nothing to fear if the ground suddenly decides to migrate. "My studies show that if we have a big earthquake, something over 8.5 on the Richter scale, the Santa Cruz mountains might head west and make a sudden splash, but the Silicon Gulch area will probably stay put."

Such a scenario was echoed by other local earthquake experts. "The mountains just spoil the view of the ocean, anyway," said Dr. Wren Tasunder, a professor of moving earth at Silicon Gulch State University.

So if a big earthquake hits the Silicon Gulch area, apparently all will come out fine. The Santa Cruz mountains will leave California headed for Japan (albeit undersea) and Silicon Gulch will suddenly become Silicon Beach.

"Such a transition would actually help us immensely," explained Essie I. Hunderd, president of a Gulch computer manufacturer. "If we could tell potential employees that we offer beachfront living, it would greatly help our recruiting of new personnel."

Mariott's Great America would find itself a sudden replacement for the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and the Bing Crosby Pebble Beach get-together might suddenly become the Los Gatos Invitational.

As far as I could tell, only one microcomputer manufacturer would have to change its name: Santa Cruz-based Mountain Computer would have to become Deep Sea Computer to match its new location. Another coastal company, Seagate Technology, apparently anticipated its new underwater status when it changed its name from Shugart Technology earlier this year.

Of course, the best benefit of any sudden California weight loss would be the new beachline itself. After all, what could be better for erstwhile Silicon gulch than to suddenly find miles of sand at its feet?

Hmmm. Minnie predicted an increased growth spurt after a big earthquake in the area. The earthquake happened in 1989 and the 1990's became one wild tech ride upwards. Score one for Minnie. Likewise, real estate prices increased after the earthquake, too. Of course, the Santa Cruz mountains headed Northwest, not West, and they didn't slouch off into the Pacific. Minnie was good, but not that good.

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You Are What You Compute

You are what you compute.

I've been convinced of the truth of that statement from the day I became involved with computers. I remember walking into the office of a troubleshooter for a major university computing center.

"Uh, excuse me," I stammered off to a roaring start, "but, I, ah, have some problems understanding how I work with the, uh, computer."

The man in the chair opposite me appeared as if he had been there for two weeks, at least from the looks of his gnarled and mussed hair. From the expression on his face, I could tell he wasn't exactly pleased at meeting another human.

"Where's your deck?" he said with a tone that expressed impatience in an almost criminal manner.

"I thought the computer center only had one floor," I replied, thinking maybe I had stumbled upon the Love Boat computing center.

"Your card deck," he shot back. Suddenly I became aware of the immense stacks of cards lying in every conceivable free space in this man's office. After he explained that I talked to the computer by punching holes in cards, I began to notice that everything in the room had holes in it--the walls had holes where someone had expressed vengeance with a fist, the desk had cigarette burns in the few patches not covered with cards and, indeed, even the man's sweater and shirt were riddled with small holes. You are what you compute.

My second encounter with the truth of the statement came when I met a young high-school student who had played every computer game invented (or stumbled upon) by man. His favorite saying was, "Watch this."

I met him at the local computer store. He was sitting docilely in front of an Apple II computer waiting for a cassette tape to load. Actually, on close inspection, he appeared to be catatonic, but just as I reached that conclusion the Apple beeped to indicate it had finished loading the program. Suddenly, everything in the room seemed to speed up. The boy's head snapped forward, he said "Watch this" to no one in particular, and his hands began moving all over the keyboard to some unrecognizable, yet frenzied, concerto.

Glancing at the video display, I saw a wierd shape moving back and forth across the screen. Today I know that what I was seeing was a first-generation Pong-like game; then all I recognized is that the computer and student had become one entity.

The strange thing about the boy was that once removed from the computer, he acted exactly the same. Standing in the middle of an otherwise normal room, he was prone to utter a "watch this" and then begin acting as if the room's occupants were Pong balls. Some of the computer store's customers never quite knew what to do about this young boy standing in the midst of an intimidating array of machinery shouting "watch this" and waving his hands about while all the time keeping the visitor squarely in sight. You are what you compute, and this boy, now a man of 22, treats the world as an arcade game.

By now you're probably wondering about me. I use a computer every day, and am constantly writing using a word processor.

Yes, I too am what I compute.

Immediately upon completing a book with my word processor, on a popular operating system with only six commands, my spouse told me that I began to oversimplify things.

"Did you know that life can be reduced to six simple concepts--three if you're not particularly interested in doing everything that is possible," I'm reported to have said, paraphrasing the introduction of my book.

Nor did I stop there. Friends tell me that I suddenly seem to be a cult-religion convert as I keep talking about "bootstrapping into the datastream of life." If that weren't enough, I've been accused of walking into the kitchen department of Macy's and inquiring what interface their food processors use.

So there you have it; you are what you compute. Remember that as you sit at your terminal tomorrow morning. And if you don't yet have a computer, be sure to make a careful choice when confronted with an Apple, Burroughs, Prime, or SuperBrain.

With at least one major appliance manufacturer about to introduce washers and refrigerators with Internet connections (!), Minnie doesn't seem so out of place in Macy's anymore asking about appliance interfaces, does she? Of all the over 50 Minnie Floppy articles run, this was the only one that was 100% true. I'm hoping that the boy, now in his early forties, no longer treats life like a game, but something tells me I shouldn't have high hopes for that wish.

 

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Programming in Vatican City

As you probably know, the Pope is fluent in a vast number of tongues. What you most likely don't know is that the Pope has been expanding his linguistic capabilities by mastering computer languages as well as the merely human ones.

Curious as to which computer languages had caught the Pope's interest, I made a phone call.

"Well, he started with BASIC," said the Vice-Vicar of Computing, "and progressed from there."

When asked if he could give an example of the Pope's programming, the Vice-Vicar gave the following example:

10 REM GOD BLESS THIS PROGRAM
20 DATA KYRIE ELEISON
30 READ CHANT
40 FOR CHORUS = 1 TO 32
50 PRINT CHANT
60 NEXT CHORUS
70 PRINT "AMEN"
80 END

"I know it's not a particularly inspired program," said the Vice-Vicar, "but you have to realize it was his first program and is both syntactically and religiously correct."

I asked what kind of computer the Pope was using.

"Well, I know that the Pope had considered an Exidy Sorcerer and a Video Genie, but it was felt that these machines conjured up visions of blasphemy to some of our followers, so his holiness finally chose a North Star. He figured that the name North Star wasn't offensive to any good Christian, but also conjured up visions of the heavens above."

"What's the Pope doing now?" I asked.

"Actually, he's taken up structured programming," was the response. "He figures that if the top-to-bottom approach worked for God, it ought to work for computer programs as well."

"Does that mean that the Pope is learning other languages?", I asked.

"Sure does. Right now he's working on writing a mass in Pascal," said the Vicar. I pressed him for details. What I found out is that the Pope was impressed by the ability to create procedures within Pascal. Apparently, a great deal of material is repeated at several times throughout a mass, and the resultant savings of time by only having to program the repetitious stuff once intrigued the Pope.

The Vicar wasn't able to remember the exact details of the programmed mass, but was able to tell me that there were procedures included for: Simple Amen, Sung Amen, Flowery Amen, Goria in Excelcis, Agnus Dei, and the Eucharist.

Several favorite prayers and hymns have also been written as separate procedures that can be incorporated into the skeletal mass at the time of compilation.

Needless to say, I was impressed. The Pope certainly picked up languages quickly and with complete mastery. Even so, I was unprepared for what the Vicar told me next: the Pope was just beginning to learn FORTH.

"FORTH?" I said.

"Yes, FORTH," responded the Vicar. "I know that some might be tempted to make jokes about this--you know, 'Go Yee FORTHE' and all that, but the Pope's seriously interested in this language."

Did this mean that the Pope was beginning to think about writing other than application software?

"You might say that," the Vica of Computing told me. "The Pope is extremely interested in finding the highest level of abstraction, reaching the roots of program creation you might say."

"Does the Pope realize that some feel that FORTH is a religion, and not a language?" I asked.

"Let me state this categorically, so that there are no mistaken impressions. The Pope is not going to take up any other religion at this point in his career. He is interested in FORTH primarily as a language," said the Vicar.

Before I finished my conversation with the Vice-Vicar of Computer, I had one final question: why did the Pope choose FORTH over some of the other fine languages, such as C and PL/I?

"That's easy," came the reply. "What other language uses reverse Polish notation?

This Minnie Floppy column is probably the best-remembered of the lot, and many who have mentioned it to me also remember the whimsical illustration by M Petrovich that accompanied it (unfortunately, I can't reproduce it here, as I've long lost touch with the artist and can't obtain the rights). Personally, this was one of my least favorite of Minnie's musings, as it really is just a lame form of a long pun (i.e., everything builds to the punch line, which is a play on words). My personal favorite columns were the ones where Minnie introduced her family (Maxie, her husband, and Winnie, her daughter). Unfortunately, I can't seem to find any examples of those, though I'm sure that they're still on an Osborne disk stored somewhere in my attic. My very favorite column, however, was never printed, which, due to a multi-part series that was in progress, left Minnie stranded in Poland (there's that country again; I wonder what my fixation with it was?). Minnie's absence left such a vacuum in Silicon Valley circles that Dave Winer, a noted programmer and entrepeneur took up the tale and published his version of the story that got Minnie out of Poland and back to her family. Nice try, Dave, but Minnie was more vicious than you made her out to be.

 

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