Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cover to Cover: Acorn Software Fall 1981 (pp. 14-15)

We're coming down the home stretch here, with the last few pages of the Acorn Software Products, Inc. catalog for the TRS-80 Model I.  The utility titles continue, with page 14:

Once again, it's 1981 and the technological limitations are significant -- if there were more memory available, or a disk drive as required equipment, the Your Family Tree program would be more useful.  But working in a 16K RAM, tape-based configuration, the program can only hold 45-55 ancestors with "brief comments," or 175 with 32K.  The math implies that each ancestor profile has to fit in about 135 bytes, so the brief comments have to be briefer than the maximum size of a Twitter "tweet."  Given that we might also want to store our ancestor's name and other relevant information, the records likely ended up being something like, "Joe Ancestor - 1821-1858 - Married Marjorie Forebear, 1842.  Three children.  Drank.  Drowned.  Idiot!" 

At the bottom of the page, we see that the idea of teaching a foreign language with a computer was already appealing and marketable.  But drills and quizzes were the order of the day, so this product wasn't really much of a Language Teacher, just an exam engine.  At least it ran from disk, so there was a good 80K of space available for storing words and phrases.  And that space was probably put to very good use, chock full of text, instead of blowing it all on audio or images like those newfangled "tutorial" programs that waste time teaching people how to "pronounce" the language and listen to "examples" of usage.  Why, when I was a boy, we had to work the merchant marine trade and drink a helluva lot to pick up a few words of French...

Page 15 has some interesting offerings:

Note the hefty price tag on the Electronic Handicapper: Basketball program -- it's going for $99.00, surely a drop in the bucket compared to all the illegal bets you're likely to win using its 85% prediction accuracy.  For last season's games, of course.  Your mileage may vary.

Disassembler 1.4 is one of those tools home computer hobbyists used to need -- if a commercial program didn't work the way you want it to, or (as was occasionally the case) shipped with bugs intact, you could try to convert the executable machine code into assembly language, attempt to change the program to your liking, cross your fingers and recompile it (with Radio Shack's EDITOR/ASSEMBLER tool, not included here.)  It was really handy to have this in your toolbox when you needed to make a nearly-workable program completely inoperable.

And of course everyone needed a telecommunications program, so Acorn's ATERM 1.4  was all set to take full advantage of your lightning fast 300 baud modem and line printer.  You could dial into the mainframe at work, as long as nobody else was trying to dial in at the same time, or pay $40 an hour to access the endless resources of Compuserve.  And if you found some cool ASCII porn art on a pirate computer enthusiast BBS, you could print it out on your printer. 

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