The Northern Spy — Forward to The Past

“Hey, Professor, how’s it going?”

“Oh, hi, Nellie,” I replied, sparing her a mere nibble of attention from the article I was writing. Then I did a doubletake. She shouldn’t be here. When I turned around, Nellie had claimed a chair and was perusing one of my Macintosh magazines. (Of course I read the competition.)

“What are you doing here on a Monday morning? Aren’t you supposed to be working?”

“Worm”, she announced laconically, flipping to the game reviews.

“What worm?” I asked, returning to my typing. Nellie would talk over my shoulder if she wanted.

“They’re calling it ‘SQLSlammer’. Anything running Windows and SQL server was pretty much hosed this past weekend.”

“You’ve got that setup at work don’t you?” Nellie toiled for an outfit that made distributed POS and inventory software for the swim suit industry.

“Yeah, patch was around for months but the boss didn’t bother installing it, so nothing works today. Sent us all home till he cleans up. You affected here at the university?”

“I use Macs, just like you do at home. They don’t do vulnerabilities, remember?”

“Oh yeah? I could show you a thing or two if I had time. After all, when you made me up you didn’t give me the name ‘Hacker’ for nothing.” She chuckled. “Betcha your university servers are down.”

“I’m not taking that wager, Nellie. I don’t even need to check. But we pay a big staff to fix exploits around here so it’s no never mind to me. They should have the mail up and running in another couple of hours.”

“Could be a lot smaller staff if you used UNIX or even Linux. Fact, you’d get by with practically nobody if you ran this joint on Macs like I do my web hosting business at home. Same thing at work. Said that years ago when they hired me. Nobody listened. Don’t matter now.”

“Why not?”

“Installed base and vested interests. Things will have to get much worse to make changes seem worthwhile. Meanwhile, it creates jobs, so who’s going to rock the boat? I know all about it.”

“She waved at my screen. So, whatcha workin’ on?”

“A piece for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Call-A.P.P.L.E. The editor eMailed me over the weekend wanting the finished article but I’m just getting started.” I typed faster, trying to track the flow of conversation.

“You gotta meet deadlines, I s’pose.” She chuckled hoarsely. “After all, if they weren’t important their name wouldn’t include the word ‘dead’.”

“Didn’t I tell that one when you were in my class twenty years ago?

“It’s even lamer now,” she admitted, adding, after a moment or two, “after all, nostalgia ain’t what it used to was.”

I heard a rustling of pages, then she asked, “you see this article?”

I glanced over. “The browser review? Sure. Why?”

“They claim the software from humungous corporation is the best of them all. Bunk, pure bunk. Why in the old days, you and I…” She trailed off, dropped the rag, leaned back in the chair and put her hands behind her head.

“There were no browsers then, Nellie,” I reminded her.

“My point, exactly,” she agreed.

I didn’t argue. “When was it I invented you, anyway?”

“That’d be for the article we called An Apple For Nellie – The History of Computing in Langley Schools, Call A.P.P.L.E., October 1983. ‘Course,” she added, you didn’t exactly invent me. I was a composite of several of your students, as you were wont to explain at the time. And you didn’t let me do my own talking right away, either.” She made to should slightly resentful.

“Things kinda got out of hand, didn’t they?”

“Yeah,” she replied,” and here I still am twenty years later, supposedly a thirty-six year old, and still your foil whenever you call me up from your keyboard..”

“You were only fifteen or so in 1990 in my novel The Friends when you taught hacking at Lady Mara’s New School in London,” I observed.

“So I could be in my late twenties if I took a mind to. Must’ve been version 2.0.1 instead of the beta me. Say, getting back to nostalgics…”

“What’s on your mind?”

“The October ’83 wasn’t the start of the Northern Spy.”

You’re right, Nellie. The June-July articles on the introduction of the Apple //e began the column. Those days I could call up the president of Apple Canada for juicy quotes and embarrass him over supply problems. That box was just too popular.”

“You had other sources didn’t you?”

“I’d plead the fifth amendment if Canada had one, Nellie, but let’s just say I had spies everywhere.”

“Like that time in April 1984 in The User at Large when you described the Apple //x in detail, even though only two breadboard models existed in a supposedly secret Apple lab at the time?”

“Then Apple got into all kinds of corporate troubles and didn’t bring the machine out till 1986. They could have developed the 65816 chip a long ways past that point, Nellie. The Mac would have been an interesting machine based on that heritage instead of a new one.”

“At least when you wrote Under the Hood of the Apple //GS for October 86 you had enough of a head start to win the prize for the best article in the issue.”

“Of course, unless you looked it up you weren’t around to see my earlier stuff, from before The Northern Spy debuted. Back in January of 83 I’d already published a program to undelete files called Rick’s Releter and a second containing an explanation of why people sometimes got weird errors on their Apples in ROGRAM and other DOS Traps. Those were both in All About DOS, the Call A.P.P.L.E. Special published in Jan 1983.”

“Ever make any money off those?” Nellie always wants the bottom line. She often mentions the ton of toys she has in her condo. I think the manager of the Sony store hears cash register bells whenever he sees her walking down the mall, but the appetite for goodies makes her all too conscious of the dollar value of her work.

“No, but a fellow faculty member who accidentally deleted his entire PhD dissertation still owes me a dinner from when I got it all back for him. Nothing is ever truly erased.”

“And, what’s a ‘rogram’?”

“Glad you asked, Nellie. The Apple ][ line used memory page zero for system information and a few scratch locations. Turned out DOS and Applesoft both employed a location there for conflicting purposes, and under the right circumstances DOS would get hosed, leaving a pointer to the wrong place in the error message table, so users saw “‘ROGRAM ERROR’. I couldn’t fix the bug, but at least I explained it.”

“The Spy’s kilometreage varied, though,” she pointed out.

“How so?”

“You got the //gs right, but remember what you said about the Lisa?”

“That all Apple had to do was get the price down and they’d sell millions? Hey, I’ll claim that as a win, too. The Lisa essentially became the Macintosh. Last time I looked, Nellie, it has sold a sight more than one million.” (All right, perhaps that’s a stretch, but Nellie can’t argue unless I let her.)

She changed the subject. “What about software?”

“Well, we were using Visicalc for a while, but when A.P.P.L.E. brought out The Spreadsheet, which was faster and easier to use, I switched over the Church books and my personal ones to it. Not until Excel came out on the Mac was there a better spreadsheet program, and I still use that, with a workbook model that’s a direct descendent of the original. Added a few formulae here and there, but…

“…three new heads and four new handles don’t mean it ain’t still the same axe.”

“You got no right stealing my lines.”

“I am one of them, remember? How you going to stop me?”

My fingers flew, pushing my deadline. “Remember the word processor reviews for August and October 1984 when Screenwriter II, Word Juggler, and Write Away were big products.”

“We did articles using Write Away for years, till switching to NisusWriter,”

“Write Away had one of the fastest search and replace functions ever programmed, Nellie. It was all in machine language of course. I wrote drivers for it whenever I got a new printer.”

“You never liked Word, though, did you?”

“No, not after version three set a new record for buggy software. Besides, it’s just too different. If I’m away from it for a week I have to re-learn everything.”

“Speaking of machine language, you eventually wrote a bunch of routines for the Apple, didn’t you?”

“A.P.P.L.E. sold my Ampermanager package for some time. If I recall correctly, it added some seventy routines to Applesoft and DOS, including the releter, a better catalogue, a print using command…”

“You sound like an old commercial. How were those routines accessed, anyhow?”

The ampersand character ‘&’ was a reserved symbol in Applesoft that caused a jump to a vector on memory page three. Applesoft patched the location with an RTS so by default, nothing happened when that symbol appeared as a program command. I his my code just below DOS, placed a jump to it in the magic spot and was off to the races.”

“Hard stuff to do nowdays, though.”

“Yeah, even if you disassemble modern code its all subject to change with the next version of software or hardware, so you have to rely on the high level interface.”

Fine and dandy unless the OS itself changes, such as between OS 9 and OS X, even the high level calls get hooped.” Nellie was annoyed because some of her favourite games still didn’t work yet in X.

“Price of progress,” I pointed out.

“You never made much money on your own software though.”

“I did on one item. Remember when Apple brought out ProDOS and the three and a half inch drive?”

“And said DOS 3.3 was dead, because it couldn’t accommodate a file structure with that many sectors?”

“Case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing, Nellie. I figure they hadn’t looked at their own code for so long they didn’t know what it could do any more. Fact, the kind of people who wrote for Call-A.P.P.L.E. those days understood Apple’s code batter than anyone from Cupertino. Took me a day to patch DOS for double sized buffers and 800K disks. Had to call the back side ‘drive 2’, but it worked.”

“People gave you money for that?”

“Sold lots of copies at five bucks a crack, kiddo. Fact, I had shareware payments arriving for years afterwards. And, since shareware users have never paid at much higher than 5% at the best of times, I figure there must have been thousands of people using my mods. Later I had a disk that would dual boot DOS and ProDOS on a three and a half inch disk and had versions of Ampermanager for both. Never sold any of those, though.”

“Why not?”

“Switched to MS-DOS, and when that proved a catastrophe, bought a Mac.” In any event, I stopped my 6502 development work and branched into other things.”

“Like programming language standards.”

“Those, along with looking at various ethical and social issues relating to computing-enabled high technology.”

“Why that line of enquiry in particular? I think I’d have stuck to machine language, myself.”

“Because nobody seemed even to be asking questions about what society was going to be like because of all its toys. Seemed somebody ought to, so bringing a Christian word view to bear on such issues became a project.”

“And that’s how you got into novels.”

“True. Not many people read philosophy texts, even when they’re toned down for technical people, so I decided to frame some of the questions in a fictional, alternate world environment, and make it fun.”

“And mysterious. When you going to tell the readers who King James IV really was?”

“I don’t know. Maybe around book five or six. You haven’t blabbed, have you?”

“Hey, no worry about me. I can keep my mouth shut.”

“You had better.” I glared meaning at her. We had a deal, Nellie and I. After The Peace did so well with its first publisher, and got that glowing review from Analog’s Tom Easton, she demanded to be written into the plot as the price of her silence about my fictional mysteries. So she became a mid-level Character in The Friends. But she could be written out just as easily, and knew it.

She returned to a safer subject. “You wrote something called The Wired University in 1984, didn’t you?”

“Sssshhhh, Nellie, Editor Bill might hear you. That was for another magazine.”

“You coined the term ‘The New Renaissance’ to describe the effects of technology on artistic endeavours. Any of that stuff ever come true?”

“The wired campus part? At this university, not till the last few years, but we’re getting there. And, we’re in the New Renaissance, Nellie. The new forms of art, music, and writing have come about gradually enough that not everybody realizes there’s been a revolution.”

“An overworked word, that.”

“Sometimes, but remember when the Berlin wall came down?”

“I suppose you predicted that, too.”

“Only me and a hundred other people in the information sciences. Remember, the premise of the information age is that eventually anybody can find out anything.”

“And that makes traditional tyranny based on fear and ignorance obsolete. Yes, yes, I remember my ethics course. But won’t this braver new world last only as long as it takes for someone to find a way to impose a new kind of tyranny?”

Sure, Nellie, after all…

“…there’s a sucker born every minute.” We said it together.

“You know what I think?” she asked, in a sharp voice.

“Usually, just before you do,” I replied.

She ignored this and continued. “I think the easiest way to impose tyranny would be to achieve a monopoly on hardware, software and the network. Make it so’s nobody could do any work without paying royalties to the mother-of-all-corporations, and whoever owned that would run the world. Even governments would have to do what she said.”

I took note of the personal pronoun. “Don’t get ideas, Nellie.”

“Why not?”

“It’s already been done, that’s why.”

She grunted and appeared to lose interest while I typed the rest of our conversation. A few minutes later, she jumped in again. “Seeing as how history didn’t end after all when the Soviet Union collapsed, how be we bring your reader up to date on what’s new.”

“You mean the new AlBooks, one larger and one smaller than the TiBook? I addendumed those to last month’s column when nobody was looking. Not bad hardware.”

She laughed. “And you were so taken with your new 1G TiBook they caught you completely off guard.” She snickered. “Some spy you are.”

“They sure did, Nellie. I got no sources at Apple these says, sure.” (Though if anyone reading this wants to risk their job forevermore by being one, drop me a line.)

“See today’s announcements?”

“Sure,” I replied. Bigger, faster desktop units with all the goodies such as Bluetooth, fast airport, superdrive, double speed firewire, faster memory, and some new monitor form factors. Got it all down right here so the people who read this column can run right out and order the latest version of their favourite toys.”

“You don’t sound all that impressed.”

“Making faster ways of doing old jobs does not a revolution make, Nellie.”

“Nor a paradigm shift, either,” she added, absently flipping a couple of ten cent pieces in the air.

“The new toys are nice, and dual 1.42 GHz configurations aren’t bad, but it’s not the kind of announcement that’ll change the way we live.

“So, fearless, prognosticator, what’s the NBT?”

“Next Big Thing?” I expanded. (Nellie can’t fool me with acronyms.) “Oh, I’ll still hold out for a digital hub that has all its spokes.”

“Still wanting a real PDA, like your Newton started out to be, eh?”

“For now, I’d settle for a Blackberry with Palm OS, eBook reader software, and a cell phone on board.”

“A long way short of the PIEA you have in your novels.”

“The Personal Intelligence Enhancement Appliance that’s a veritable brain in a pocket?” (No character steals my own acronyms.) It’ll come, Nellie.”

“Still, a super PDA seems like thin gruel to someone who dreamed big dreams once upon a time.”

“Not if you implant it, then program it to repair your DNA, build antibodies, dispense medications, regrow limbs, and arrest the aging process.”

“Science fiction, Sir.” Nellie suddenly became formal. Good thing too. Characters don’t call the author by their first name.

“That’s how one editor dismissed my predictions about the iron curtain coming down. Besides, we already implant medical computers. This is just a matter of increasing the functionality a wee tad.”

“We do?”

“They’re called pacemakers, Nellie.”

“I see. So, just like in the old days, you want our reader to remember she read it here first.”

“Hey, Nellie, you get to invent this thing.”

I heard the sound of her jaw dropping. “What do you mean?” she croaked.

“In my next novel, The Exile, you get to build personal medical computers and construct them in situ using custom nanomachines.”

“Nifty. Do I get to keep one for myself?”

“If you behave yourself between now and the relevant chapter. Thanks for helping me write this by the way.”

“You’re welcome, Professor. Glad I was present to see there’s some future in nostalgia after all.”

 

–the Northern Spy

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About the Author

rsutcliffe

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he’s a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.