The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



If you could see the machine I'm writing this on, you would laugh. It's an HP100LX, if that means anything to you; a computer so small and limited in capability it's called a PDA, or personal digital assistant. Or "palmtop," depending, I suppose, on how you intend use it. Hardly more than an electronic organizer, some would say, although it has got four megabytes of ROM application software (including DOS 5.0), two more of system RAM, and ten or more in removable "flash memory" that fits into a credit-card-sized slot in the side. I bought it a few weeks ago, because... Well, because. I'll get to that part in a minute. First, let me take a few pages to retrace my history in computers, which seems as good a way as any to start this narrative, because like cars, computers are intensely personal possessions, and which ones we own and what we do with them and how we feel about them say an awful lot about who we are as people, and where we are headed.

My first was a COCO. That's hip, early 80's slang for the TRS-80 Color Computer, a.k.a "colortrash," a Tandy stepchild that was poorly supported, compatible with nothing, and really pretty crappy when you got right down to it. Almost the only software you could get for it came from Radio Shack, and, especially in the early years, most of it took the form of copy- and tamper- proof, Nintendo-like ROM cardridges that popped into the computer's side. Manufacturers were still a little murky in those days ab out the difference between video game systems and actual home computers, though, so Tandy shouldn't really take heat for this. It was kind of a standard trick.

The one thing the COCO had going for it was that at under $US 200, it was cheap enough that a 14-year-old could hope to acquire one with a dilligent saving of his allowance. Well, the base unit was cheap, anyway; in typical Radio Shack style, the machine didn't actually work until you'd hung it with another hundred or three in "optional" peripherals and upgrades. So after my big purchase I banged around uselessly for a few weeks, squeezing feeble tricks out of the 4K RAM, zero-long-term-storage architecture, before convincing my Dad to spring for those upgrades, using the "educational tool" argument that's probably as old as civilization itself. After that, I was ecstatcally writing my own programs on my very own personal personal computer. Well, okay, that term didn't exist yet, but what good is nostalgia if you can't color it with future knowledge?

COCO was a weird machine in a lot of ways, and it was definitely a wimpy one, but its hard wiring included a mutant strain of Microsoft Basic (and remember, Microsoft was just one of many struggling software companies at that time) that allowed and even encouraged a certain cleverness on the part of the programmer. You could write some interesting video games with only four or five lines of code, and Adventure-style text games with a few dozen. Eventually I came up with a BASIC text adventure game engine that took up less than 4K on its own, leaving the remaining 12K (officially; in actuality it was more like 4) for the scenario data, which was fed to it in dense, info-rich string variables.

Except for a few suckers with Atari and TI and even Sinclair desk ornaments, all my friends were using Apple II's, and sharing and trading the programs they'd written in the same way earlier generations had traded marbles and baseball cards. There was also a brisk market for insider tricks and pirated software. Being shut out of this nascent information economy was frustrating, but I did invite friends over to see my work, and even enjoyed the occasional grunt of jealosy when they saw the COCO do something their Apples couldn't. More importantly, I learned a lesson about the long-term cost of orphan formats (remember Betamax VCR's?), and that lesson has stuck, coloring the whole of my adult life. Perhaps most important of all, though, I learned to squeeze every possible jot and squiggle of performance I could from that machine. I learned to code tightly, to look for loopholes, to cut out all but the most vital of steps in any and every program. Process simplification, data compresion, conservation of bandwidth... I didn't think about it in these terms, but the instinct was the same, and became very deeply ingrained. Another lesson that stuck, and a good thing, too, because I'm a writer now, and without these skills I would be up shit creek indeed.

Moving on now. My second computer was a COCO II, just as orphaned as its predecessor but considerably better equipped. A bad decision, and I knew it at the time, but COCO was the system I loved to hate, and I knew damn near everything there was to know about it, and by this time I'd invested thousands of dollars in hard- and software I had no interest in simply discarding. Plus which, decent computers were as expensive as ever, and the bargain-basement COCO II would buy me a little time before I really had to jump.

Third computer was an IBM PC, actually a loaner forced on me by my father, who thought that as a college sophomore I was getting a little old to be playing with toys. Should I mention at this point that I had more than a passing acquaintance with real computers? Both parents were computer industry professionals, and for a while they'd even owned their very own Molecular minicomputer that took eight-inch floppy disks and had a very enviable 10-megabyte hard disk drive. I learned WordStar on that machine, and took some of my first, tottering steps on what would later become the Information Superhighway. So the PC, orders of magnitude more advanced than my COCO II, didn't come as a shock, but it was nice to have ten megabytes of my own, in a huge, breadbox-sized external drive that made as much noise by itself as the whole Molecular had. And finally, I was on a non-orphan machine and free to join the information age, which I eagerly did.

But the PC, as I've said, was just a loaner, and a year later Dad needed it back in his office, and I needed a machine of my own. Actually needed, because by early 1987 the Engineering School at the University of Colorado had gotten wise to the personal computer thing, and had begun to assign homework that realistically couldn't be done without an expensive, high-end programmable calculator at the very least. Also, I was heavy into writing by this time, having won a couple of contests, and was working simultaneously as a night guard, homework grader, and lab assistant (yeah, more computer work), and this, coupled with my heavy course load and new-ish fiancee, had begun to make time management a seriously non-trivial problem. If I could get a portable computer, I could take it night guarding with me, and get both writing and homework accomplished while getting paid to sit on my tail feathers anyway. The prospect was pretty damned attractive.

I'd lived with the rapid pace of computer technology for enough years to know that every purchase should be a quantum leap. Buy a cheap, "off-the-rack" machine and you'll be obsolete and buying again in no time, and I didn't have the money or the stomach for that, so I resolved to locate the very best portable computer I could possibly afford. What I found was the Zenith Z-183. Touted as a "laptop," which certainly sounded high-tech and cool, the machine was way smaller than my Mom's Compaq, and was unique among portables in that it had an LCD screen and 3.5" floppy drive, and unlike its predecessor the Z-181, it also included a ten-megabyte hard drive. Imagine, the power of my desktop PC crammed into a sleek, lightweight machine the size of a typewriter! The power of the Molecular minicomputer, in fact, in a package both smaller and lighter than my first COCO. And with the screen built in! I spent every penny I had on that machine, and counted myself a lucky man.

Looking back on it now, I can see that the purchase was in many ways a mistake. Unlike a desktop machine, the Z-183 shipped out in its maximum configuration, with the fasfest processor, biggest hard disk, and widest expanse of RAM it was capable of holding, and (not counting the optional 1200-baud internal modem, for which I had little need at the time -- my desktop 300 baud was more than adequate) no force on Earth could upgrade it from this infant state. The very next version of the machine, released a few months after mine, in addition to being faster/better/cheaper/smaller, was considerably more flexible and upgradable, and would probably have suited me a lot better. Instead, I watched the world race by me in 286's, and then 386's, and then 486's, and of course making the jump to the disk-and- memory-hungry Windows operating system. As time went by, I found the Z-183 couldn't run any of the software designed after about the middle of 1989, so I simply stopped buying software, and when this became too painful, stopped even looking at what was available.

In March of 1993, while suffering through the early stages of what would prove to be a vicious and lingering case of mononucleosis, I purchased my fifth computer, a top-of-the-line 486 desktop PC with all the toys. With impeccable timing, the Z- 183 died on me once all its important files had been transferred to the new machine. It was like it knew what I was up to, like I'd somehow broken its heart, and despite long hours of work on my part, the Z-183 could not be resuscitated. "I could probably fix this," the Authorized Zenith Repair Center technician told me when I staggered into his shop, "but I'd have to charge you a lot more than this thing is worth. I'm sorry." So was I. I'd been planning on selling the machine or at least giving it away to charity for a tax write-off, but first I'd wanted to wipe and reformat the hard drive, which was full of personal letters, tax returns, and other assorted bric-a-brac I didn't want strangers to see. Now, such erasure wasn't possible, and if I pushed the thing as a cheap fixer-upper, whoever fixed it up would be reading my letters in no time. To get rid of the machine, I would have to first repair it, which was silly. Plus, by this time I was getting pretty damn sick with the mono, so I simply zipped the poor laptop back into its carrying case and put it in the back of my office closet, where it lies entombed to this day, right next to the COCO II.

Alas, my portable computing days were at an end. In 1987, I had made the best decision I could with the information available to me, and thinking back on the look and feel of the machine beneath my fingers, I still feel a thrill. This was the hottest thing anyone had ever seen, the envy of all, like something that had beamed down from a Star Trek episode, and as I passed from job to job and eventually out into the real world, I added the human touch by covering its top in stickers, like a suitcase showing all the places I'd been. Sure, the battery life, supposedly over eight hours, was actually more like two and a half, or less than one if you were greedy and used things like the screen backlight or the disk drives. Basically, you had to carry around the bulky power supply and a nest of cords with you wherever you went. And the screen, predating active-matrix and supertwist LCD's, had all the contrast of a polar bear in fog and all the speed of cold honey. And yet, this primitive technology resulted in the display's darker grays appearing reddish and the lighter ones blue, thereby achieving something those crisper, more sterile successors did not match until years later: a kind of weak color image. And at 14"x13"x3" and 15.7 lbs (22.7 with all the supporting gear), the machine was not really a laptop by any plausible standard, but it was definitely portable, and it definitely met my wants and needs for several years, and at least my minimum requirements for several more.

And now I am leaving on a long trip, and find that I once again need a portable computer to bring along. But I can't afford and do not want the overpriced, overfeatured laptops the manufacturers are pushing these days; if you ask me, those gigabyte hard disk drives and super VGA color monitors and quad- speed CD-ROMs and such are just expensive accidents waiting to happen. One false move and your machine is crunched, your data gone forever. Why would I pay extra for that? And those fragile features are battery hogs, as well. No, what I need is something simple, something I can type books and stories and articles on, maybe produce the odd line drawing or spreadsheet or graph, maybe fax or modem the files home every couple of days. Stereo sound and flashy color graphics and 16-megabyte operating systems are all well and fine when you're playing network DOOM, but my traveling requirements are far more spartan. What I need, quite simply, is another computer like the Z-183, with its price scaled down to mat ch its obsolesent purity.

The answer turned out to be a personal digital assistant, which in addition to standard computer-type applications can double as an appointment book, notepad, fax machine, and about a hundred other useful things. So I bought the HP100LX and assorted peripherals, used, for $580, familiarized myself with its quite straightforward workings, and programmed in all the data I might possibly need for my trip: maps, addresses, phone numbers, schedules, etc., etc., and I still have almost 4 megabytes left to type on. Yeah, it's a bit of an orphan (though there's still quite a lot of DOS software kicking around the world), and yeah, it's not exactly a quantum leap in technology, so have I violated my own principles by buying this thing? Naw, my real computer sits on the desk at home, readily accessible by the HP100LX from any phone jack in the world. Right now I'm just adding a third hemisphere to my brain, one that has built-in communication ports, and fits in my hand instead of my skull. So that's what I call it: the Brain.

Okay, now we're ready to begin.


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