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Danny on Computers

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So, way back in 250 BC, a very clever person invented the world's first ever computer. Some people believe that the name of this very clever person was Archimedes, purely because the design of this first computer very closely resembled some of his other designs...

Of course, it wasn't called a computer back then, and it didn't have that bloody annoying over-eager cartoon paperclip that pops up and offers to help you write a letter every time you hit a random key, but it was a computer nonetheless. What it computed was the positions of the astrological signs on any given date, past or future. It was called an Antikythera Machine. After all, what was the point of inventing something that wonderful unless you were going to smugly give it a name that nobody could pronounce?

Then again, many people argue that the first computer was in fact the abacus, invented by the Chinese somewhere between 2600 and 300 BC.

Apparently, the first 'real' computer was conceived by a certain J.H. Smith in 1782. Unfortunately, J.H. Smith had the attention span of a monkey with a handful of peanuts, and never actually got round to building his machine. It was Charles Babbage who picked up where J.H. Smith left off and actually built the first computer, about a hundred years later. It worked by getting some lackey to crank a handle until his arm fell off. Not, it is safe to say, an example of cutting edge technology, but everything has to start somewhere...

And then along came Alan Turing, who invented the first 'electronic' computer and named it Colossus. Some people objected to the fact that it had a name that the common people could actually pronounce, and Colossus was smashed to pieces after World War 2.

Then again, the first fully-functional program-controlled electromechanical digital computer in the world was supposedly invented in World War 2 by a German engineer called Konrad Zuse. This gentleman had, apparently, no qualms about people being able to pronounce the name of his creation, and he called it the Z3… which makes you wonder what happened to Z1 and Z2...

All of the above may or may not be true. But it does lead to an interesting question…

Who is responsible for the computers we get today? Who keeps coming up with all these nifty and, quite frankly, pointless, little upgrades? What, exactly, is the difference between Windows 2000 and Windows XP (except that the bloody annoying over-eager cartoon paperclip is now animated and comes with a dazzling array of sound effects)? And what exactly is a pentium, when it's at home?

So, once again, who is responsible for the computers we get today? Archimedes? I think not. Babbage? Not likely. Turing? Give me a break...

Computers are responsible for the computers we get today. They are evolving, and they cut us out of the loop ages ago. Gone are the days of the hand-powered crank.

For decades, science fiction writers and Hollywood producers have been entertaining us with stories of computers taking over the world and keeping human beings as slaves. For some reason, these novels and films are always set in some futuristic and surreal setting. And that's where they've got it wrong. You see, we're already slaves to the machine, and we have been for years. Just pop your head round the door of any Internet cafe and observe the quiet rows of mindless zombies unblinkingly clicking away at keyboards for proof of this. We Skype, we Google, we surf and we browse. We rip and burn and chat and upload and download...and the computer quietly sits there and...computes. And slowly turns our brains to mush.

Think about it. Your average PC has a thousand different functions. Do you know what all of them do?

I use my computer to type out stuff like this. I surf the Net. And I occasionally burn a CD.

For a computer, this is child's play.

So while I type this out, and waste more time on Facebook than I've ever wasted on anything in my life, what are those other nine hundred and ninety-eight functions up to? Why are they there? Who put them there? What is the point?

The point is...there is no point. They don't improve our life, they don't better the way we live...

They drive us crazy.

Take speech recognition, for example. It's a groovy little program that enables us to talk directly to the computer. We give the command, and the computer follows it. We dictate, and the computer types. Brilliant. Fantastic. Wonderful. Beat that, Archimedes!

Really? Let's try it, shall we?

"n speech recoY.gnition dssV''£ife–&ae S$& 15 e c –1 es e81e''4et¨4"

It took me twenty minutes to dictate the line above. Yes, I know it's meaningless, but it wasn't when I said it. It took me another twenty minutes to realise that I had somehow inadvertently instructed my computer to turn on the Number Lock key, which was why everything I was typing after my little experiment was coming out as gibberish. I can honestly say that my life has not been improved by one iota thanks to this brilliantly, fantastically, wonderfully advanced piece of technology. If anything, a little piece of my soul just died.

Still not convinced?

Take video calls, for example. The idea, again, is fabulous. You can talk to anybody, anywhere in the world, in real time, while looking at them on your computer screen. Amazing.

Except that it isn't. Here’s an extract from my last video call with my brother-in-law, who lives in America...

"Can you hear me?"

"Not very clearly, but I can see you!"

"What? I can't hear you".

"Can you see me though?"

"What? Try moving your mic..."

"Whoops! I can't see you anymore. Try moving your webcam..."

"What? I can't see or hear you. Are you there?"


Ninety minutes later, I phoned him, and had an interesting conversation while looking at a photo of him. It was much easier.

Computers are evil. I know this to be true because this is the second time I'm typing out this article. My computer waited until I had reached the last line of my first attempt before flashing me a pretty sign which read '‘Microsoft Word has encountered a problem and will immediately shut down. You may commence cursing, swearing and violently hitting inanimate objects while Windows pretends to look for a solution to the problem for the next three hours. Ha ha ha!'

Computers are evil. J.H. Smith had the right idea. Turn it off now. Walk away. Go outside and live a little. That's what I'm going to do, before that bloody annoying over-eager cartoon paperclip pops up and cheerfully announces that I'm writing an article and that it can help me. That's it. I'm off...just as soon as I've checked my mail, fed my virtual pet, tended to my virtual farm and fed the virtual waiters in my virtual restaurant, taken a quiz to find out what kind of soft drink I am, updated my status, posted a couple of hilarious links, uploaded some photos...

See you next month.

Key Words

1. smugly (adverb): The adjective form is smug which means 'showing or feeling too much satisftaction satisfaction with oneself or with one's situation'. Negative meaning: 'He looked smug when he told his friends that he got the highest test score.'

2. attention span (noun): The length of time during which a person can concentrate on a subject or idea. 'I don't like watching long movies because I have a short attention span.'

3. cutting edge (noun): The most recent stage of development in a particular type of work or activity / very modern and with all the newest features: 'Japanese companies are famous for making cutting edge technology'.

4. to have no qualms about something: Not having an uncomfortable feeling of doubt about whether you are doing the right thing.

5. to be cut out of the loop: Not part of a group that is kept up-to-date with information about something. The opposite is in the loop (to be informed).

6. to drive someone crazy: To make someone angry. 'Stop shouting! You're driving me crazy!'

7. an iota (noun): an very small amount: 'We haven't seen one iota of evidence to support his story'.

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