Ten Years of Computers - Part One - 1998

Computers occupy far too much of my life. If you can call it a life. So much so that it is hard to imagine that for the first two thirds of my existence I didn’t have one. A computer (or a life). I had a ZX Spectrum when they were all the rage (only the 48k model with the rubber keys – my enthusiasm had long waned by the time the 128k version with the proper buttons and the built in tape drive had arrived). I had a word processor (basically a jazzed up electric typewriter) for writing A-Level essays and while at university I became hopelessly addicted to the nascent internet (thanks to a computer scientist housemate who diddled about with the university’s UNIX machines to make them usable by an idiot like me). But that was all. I remember Windows 95 coming out in a blaze of publicity but I didn’t have the faintest clue what it actually was. When the Big Breakfast had computes as prizes ("including the latest MS DOS 6 software") I was none the wiser.

Then, in January 1998, I decided to get one. I looked through a few computer magazines and learned the following important lesson – you don’t need to know what all the numbers mean – just buy the highest ones you can afford. And what a monster I got for my money – Pentium processor (200 MHz), 32Mb of RAM, a 4 gigabyte hard drive and a fifteen inch CRT monitor. It arrived on a Monday morning – the day I started a "job seeking" course in Manchester so I had to spend a frustrating day listening to people babble on about CVs while all I really wanted to do was be at home plugging things into things. I eventually got home at about six o’clock and the adventure began.

I dare say Windows 95 would look embarrassingly clunky if I went back and used it now. But to my virgin eyes it was a miracle of science. The most exciting thing about it? That would be everything. The bundled software included Microsoft Works, the obligatory "educational" titles (mostly DK things for children), an extremely pointless (and deceptively named) movie maker and the 1998 edition of Encarta. I’ve used a lot of encyclopaedias in my time (and practically live on Wiki these days) but amazingly, that is the only Encarta I’ve ever owned.

My most used piece of software in those early days was "MGI Photosuite" – from the cover disc of one of my early magazines. It was the first edition of a package which has grown up to become part of the Roxio family. With Photosuite I was able to make my early desktop wallpapers (generally Xena: Warrior Princess ones). I’ve no idea where I got the images from – I wasn’t online at the time and didn’t get a scanner until later. I probably used the digital camera that came with the PC to photograph the posters on my walls. Now I come to mention that, I do remember doing that – if I was at the wrong angle when I took them, it made them look very funny shapes. There was one where Gabrielle’s arm appeared to be thinner than the stick she was carrying. So I was wasting my time with poor quality art work within days of getting my first computer. How things have(n’t) changed over the last decade.

Towards the end of January 1998 I had figured a few things out and thought it safe enough to start keeping my diary on the computer. I’d been using a small, paper, 5-year diary since November of 1993 and it was (a) nearly full, (b) very small and (c) falling to bits. But it was the only place which recorded my pathetic non-affair with FLC, the descent into madness that was my three years at university and the six post-study months which should’ve launched my glittering career but which instead were littered with psychiatrists and flesh wounds and stuff. The 29th January entry – the first in the new format – is painfully dull. You will be amazed to hear that the very first line concerns Sue Perkins – "Up for light lunch - Tomorrow's World special. It was good - Perks is pretty much fully recovered (they allowed her back in the kitchen)". My prose style was pedestrian, my capitalisation was lazy but my sense of priorities was already spot on.

An early lesson I learned was that computer specs don’t stand still. I was pissed off to discover, a month or so after I’d bought my PC, that the same fifteen hundred pounds could now but 233 MHz of processing power. A full 17% more juice. Ooh – I was cross. But eventually I learned that this is just how computers are. Yes, it would be nice if the manufacturers just decided, once and for all, what they could actually achieve in terms of power and performance, and just left it at that. None of this step-by-step nonsense. Just do it. Please. Thank you.

Half way through the year I did my first bit of hard ware upgrading. I bought a TV tuner card from PC World – Win TV by Hauppauge to be exact. Or Win TV by Humpage as I always misread the splash screen. With a chain of RF leads from my cable box to my PC (via a three-way RF splitter from the late, lamented Tandy) I was able to record actual video footage onto my home computer. This was science fiction. The earliest thing I remember recording was Mick Foley’s still awe-inspiring bump from the top of the cage at King of the Ring 1998. My editing was still experimentally crude but it was enjoyable in its own way. Surprising then that I gave up video editing for so many years. The crowning achievement of that time was probably the opening title sequence I produced for a Sue Perkins Doctor Who series. Using Dominic Glynn’s "Terror Theme" (from "Variations on a Theme") and every star-scape shot I could find in Star Trek TNG videos, I cobbled together a four minute sequence which would probably embarrass me hugely today. No doubt the same way I’ll feel in ten years time when I see that pornographic Patrick Troughton video and have to admit "yes – that is real semen".

The other program to make a big impact on 1998 was called "Dazzler". It was a presentation package which produced rather more complicated and interactive products than "PowerPoint" ever could. Looking back it was a mixture of FrontPage, PowerPoint and Flash – all interconnected elements and pathways through the myriad of available pages. The only thing I ever really used it for was my Christmas tradition. Before there was Brenty Four to drive me insane over November and December there was my advent calendar. It was quite a piece of engineering. In this first year I had no real idea what I was doing and how it would work so there were plenty of cul-de-sacs and lots of wasted hours. But I was on the dole so had lots of hours to waste. The gist of it was that each day you’d open it up and get a traditional advent calendar window – some open panes, lots of closed and numbered panes, and you’d click on today’s to reveal the picture behind. Needless to say, each day revealed a lovely lady upon whom I doted. It was reasonably impressive but required manual intervention each day to ensure that the correct "today" screen displayed as it had no concept of time. So on the 16th of December I’d have to remember to change the home page link from page 15 to page 16 in order for it to work properly. But it was worth it – 1998 was a learning experience as I went from a standing start to a reasonable grasp of what computers are, how they work and what they are capable of.

So it was a successful first year. I learned how to make videos, how to produce interactive entertainments, how to pour my wretched heart out each night under the secure guard of password protection and, most importantly of all, how to switch a computer on. 1999 would see me learning harder lessons.