The Computer Chronicles “Special Christmas Edition” (part 1 of 2)
So, are you a techie, and searching for last-minute Christmas gifts for all your tech-minded friends? Well, I’ve got good news for you: You won’t have to look any farther than this very special episode of the PBS series The Computer Chronicles. I now present a half-hour showcase of all the latest hot computer gadgets and popular software, just in time for the holidays!
Well, I guess there is just one little, tiny thing I should probably mention. See, this episode aired exactly twenty years ago, during the 1985 Christmas shopping season. But, hey. Come on. It’s just high technology! How out of date could it possibly be?
Before we get started, I’d like to say sorry to all of you that were expecting the recaps for the A Patrick Swayze Christmas theme month. The Hudson Hawk Mega Recap just took too damn long to put together, and to be honest, I’m still pretty burnt out from that. The Swayze recaps are still on their way, but you won’t be seeing them this month, unfortunately.
Still, I didn’t want the holidays to slip by without something to mark the occassion. It was way too late for me to order (or Netflix) something short and Christmas-related, so I turned to the very excellent site The Internet Archive, which offers a wide range of free, downloadable short films and other assorted material that nobody would ever pay for in a million years. So, seeing that they had nearly every episode of The Computer Chronicles that ever aired, and being the smart ass that I am, I decided it would be funny to take a look back at the computer-related Christmas gifts people were buying twenty years ago.
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be that funny, but to be honest, pretty much everybody has gone home for the holidays, and nobody’s really going to read this recap anyway, so just think of this as a Christmas present for this site’s devoted readers. And just like any Christmas present, you should smile and act absolutely delighted to receive it, even if it sucks.
The Computer Chronicles was on forever, airing on PBS for nearly twenty years. For those who never saw it, it was sort of an idiot-friendly rundown of personal computer technology, featuring A) roundtable discussions in the style of The McLaughlin Group and B) news reports similar to Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street Week, except everything was nominally about computers, and a great deal of it was extremely lame. But it’s fondly remembered, mostly because it premiered at a time when only hobbyists and hardcore enthusiasts owned personal computers.
Time is of the essence here, so you won’t get a whole lot of background info from me about the dawn of the personal computing age. So without any further ado, return with me now to the Bronze Age of Computers, won’t you? Signpost up ahead, next stop: Stone Tablet City. Population: You and me.
So the episode begins with the host, a middle-aged guy, standing in a rundown Electronics Boutique. Or possibly, he’s tunneled his way into the computer section of an abandoned Waldenbooks. Either way, he’s in a shopping mall that seems long overdue for remodeling, and by remodeling I mean bulldozing.
He’s going through various items and talking to himself, trying to decide between “computer books, software, joystick… what should I get him?” Ah, the fake self-debate. A staple of cheap reporting for decades. All that’s missing is the sharp turn to the camera and the “Oh hi! I didn’t see you there!”
But he does ask if we, the viewers, are in a bind and trying to “figure out what to get the hacker on your Christmas shopping list”. If so, he and a shitload of other people will be coming along to give their picks for “Christmas presents from the computer store!” On a “special Christmas edition” of this, The Computer Chronicles.
And hanging on racks behind him are games, and you can see most of them are on, gah, 5.25-inch disks. Hey, at least they aren’t on cassettes, am I right? You know, this reminds me: I have several boxes of 5.25-inch diskettes up in my closet. I have no idea what to do with them.
There’s even a book or a software package behind the guy’s head called HACKER. So, I’m guessing “hacker” didn’t have quite the negative connotations back then. I think it just meant someone good at computing, and not a lonely, sub-literate fifteen year old with bad hygiene who devises feeble phishing schemes and uses l33t speak with no trace of irony. Phear me. Phear this Christmas special.
So the credits come up, and they’re showing crude computer-related drawings and paintings throughout history, first an ancient Chinese guy with a abacus, and then a Renaissance guy with a bigger abacus, and then some wild system of gears that I’ll just assume has something to do with Charles Babbage (hey, why not?). And then a typewriter-looking thing from the early 20th Century (I guess), and then finally high tech! punch cards, futuristic tape reels! and a microchip! on the tip of somebody’s finger. Zoom in on the chip and its many wonderful circuits to the logo for The Computer Chronicles. And all throughout this, we get music relative to each time period, first it’s all mystical Asian, then lutes and lyres, then harpsichords, ragtime jazz, and finally Moogs-a-plenty when we reach the modern age. I wonder if this show updated and extended their credits with rap and grunge and N’SYNC as time went on.
We hear a brief excerpt from the Computer Chronicles theme song, which is repeated over the closing credits. And yes, just as I suspected a while back, it sounds almost exactly like the theme song from Overdrawn at the Memory Bank. But when you’re composing on a cheap synthesizer down at the PBS studios, I suppose there aren’t that many places to go, artistically.
Oh, and this program was made possible, in part, thanks to AFIPS. I could tell you what it stands for, but I think it’s more fun to let you reverse engineer the acronym yourself. And providing “additional funding” here is McGraw Hill, publishers of Byte magazine. Ah, Byte. That sure does take me back. Whenever I was at a magazine rack in the early ’80s, I always used to pick it up, because even then I was into computers, and I knew Byte had something to do with computers. But no issue ever made the least bit of sense to me. I think they were actually giving instructions on how to wire up your own BIOS or something. I’m more of a software and user interface guy, I guess; Hardware issues with wiring and grounding and amperes just make my brain unhappy.
Anyway, here we are at the Computer Chronicles set, an oppressively beige set with a large wedge-shaped desk. Two guys sit here, the host and a pale skinny guy in a white blazer, who has a full beard. Wow, this guy is into computers? He’s also wearing a Santa hat, in keeping with the Christmas theme. Also keeping with the theme is a rudimentary computer, an Apple II or something between them, which is playing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, and yep, it sounds pretty much like any MIDI played through your computer’s default onboard speaker.
The two are all staged-giggly about the stupid Santa hat, with the host introducing his partner as “Gary Claus or Santa Kildall”, and Gary Kildall finds this all hilarious, because he’s a moron.
[Well, I did break down and do a little cursory research on the people you’ll be seeing on this program. It turns out they’re not really morons. In fact, a couple of them invented famous, groundbreaking technology. But something about this show and being on camera, I think, turns them into complete idiots. More info on them later. —Future, Judicious Me]
The host turns to the Apple II and calls it “the ultimate high-tech present for the hacker on your list!” No, the computer itself is not a high-tech present; He’s referring to what’s on the screen: “A Christmas card on a floppy disk!” Basically, it’s a set of really crappy 16-color images of houses covered in snow, and they wipe in and out like a lame screensaver. It’s the “Jingle Disk”, and it comes from “Thoughtware”, and this incredible innovation is worth only $9.95 of your hard earned money. I’m sure “the hacker on your list” will love this one.
The host calls the images “animated”, and in the sense that they wipe in and out, then yeah, I guess that’s correct. We get a more accurate assessment of the product when he admits he doesn’t know how to shut off the stupid beeping Christmas carols. So like a doofus, Gary picks up a foam hammer that he calls his “Bit Banger” and proceeds to make what he calls a “hardware adjustment” by pounding on the keyboard. Without really watching many other episodes of The Computer Chronicles from this time period, I’ll just assume the “Bit Banger” is a recurring joke, and Gary Kildall is like Gallagher, and whenever a piece of shitty software is reviewed he’ll pound on it with this hammer. I hope I’m right about that.
One lame joke deserves another, so the host asks if the foam hammer is “software or hardware?” Bwah!
Everything’s stupid patter and forced laughs here. You can tell the host is vaguely annoyed that he still can’t shut off the high-pitched hellish Christmas noises, but he goes on anyway. Here it’s finally revealed that our host is Stewart Cheifet, the Jim Lehrer of crap computer gifts. He says “the whole Computer Chronicles family” will be here to talk about Christmas gifts, and he for the third time references “the hacker on your list”, and then he throws it to this awful pretaped piece that’s supposed to show us “how computer shopping is going out at the computer stores!”
So, we’re back at the Condemned Mall, as a cameraman rides the escalators and tapes random people without their permission. A female reporter in voiceover says nothing of consequence about computer sales, and then we pan over from what I think is a Hickory Farms to… oh, god. The Radio Shack. When was the last time they were at the forefront of technology? 1981?
You know, I used to have these giveaway Superman comic books that were nothing but a shill for Radio Shack and their lame Tandy computers. Like, Superman would meet some kids and they’d talk about vacuum tubes and the ENIAC, and then the kids would stop a tornado with nothing but a Tandy computer and the services of the most powerful being on earth. (How did they do it?) I wish I could find those comics, because I would surely recap them too.
Now we’re talking to Don Endy, Computer Sales Rep at the Radio Shack. He has a big cop mustache and he talks to us about how sales are good, and the “top of the line machines” are getting less expensive, which is drawing sales away from the really cheap crap they sell at Radio Shack. Random shots of people in the store, staring at Tandy computers (that go for $999!), and looking bored. The lesson here, I think, is don’t buy your home computer within twenty feet of a Hickory Farms.
The reporter’s voice tells us that “a youngster is more likely to want color graphics than a spreadsheet,” so lots of parents are getting suckered into buying “low-end” computers. For illustration, here’s a kid in front of a computer hooked up to a TV set. Yeah, it doesn’t get much more “low-end” than a computer that plugs directly into the family TV. Also, it doesn’t get much more annoying, especially when the rest of the family would like to see an actual TV program once in a while. And then you have to stop what you’re doing, and save your work, and it sucks, because you were in the middle of programming this awesome game for your Commodore-64, and you have to stop, and who cares if you want to watch Gimme a Break and enjoy the comedy stylings of Nell Carter, what about what I want, and I hate this family! Not that I speak from personal experience, of course.
Now we’re talking to Jim DeWhitt, Assistant Manager of a place called Computer Craft. Seriously? “Computer Craft”? That’s the name they went with, huh? Aren’t you just daring all the mallrats to call it “Computer Crap” as they loiter out front drinking their Orange Juliuses? Jim DeWhitt, by the way, also has a full beard. What is it with computer nerds and full beards? I fully admit to being a computer nerd myself, and having facial hair, but I can’t think of one guy who looks good with a full beard.
Anyway, blah blah blah, people are getting smarter about computers, at least according to Jim DeWhitt. Then we get a wide shot of the inside of Computer Craft, and we find Mr. DeWhitt just kind of standing there, staring at the patrons with dead eyes. Did this guy eventually end up in a clock tower with a sniper rifle? Can somebody go check on that?
In VO, the reporter breaks the ugly news: Consumer sales are slumping this year, but retailers are “optimistic” that their products can “continue to excite the public”. Back to Mr. DeWhitt, sounding very philosophical. It’s a very specific, “maybe I’ll have a job next year, maybe I won’t” type of philosophical.
Wow. Confident words. Then he spins some lie about not being discouraged, but I’ve never seen a man so broken. Then again, what can you really expect from a guy working for a no-name computer store at a crummy mall? And yes, Jim. As it turns out, history books are full of tales of the Computer Retailer Slump of the mid-1980s. Never forget!
After this, the picture shrinks down to a thumbnail and the caption onscreen tells us that “Software Gift Ideas…” are coming up next.
We’re back at the Brown Wedge of Doom. Joining Stewart and Gary Claus is yet another dork with a full beard. This is Paul Schindler, their “regular software reviewer”, but Paul has even more impressive credentials. He’s the “Senior West Coast Editor of Information Week magazine”. Not quite as impressive as being the assistant manager at Computer Craft, but you should see the East Coast editor. Now that guy’s a loser.
Next to Stewart is George Morrow, a skinny bald guy, who’s a “regular commentator”. George is also founder of Morrow Design, “makers of the Pivot Computer!” Yeah, I’ve never heard of it either.
More awkward humor follows, with Stewart joking that George will just tell people to buy the Pivot for Christmas. Then there’s even more awkward humor with Gary’s Santa hat (yes, he’s still wearing it). He hands it off to Paul, calling it a “piece of software”, and Paul says it’s “more appropriate to [his] image” than Gary’s, and um, I have no idea where they’re going with this.
Now comes the most obnoxiously PC—and I don’t mean “PC” as in IBM—software gift they present. Stewart even makes the point that holiday software can be “interdenominational”, as he presents something called “All About Hanukkah”. It’s a bad graphic of a menorah, and you can enter a number from one to eight to tell the computer how many candles you want to light. Wow. I think a real menorah would actually be more fun than this. Stewart doesn’t show us the Virtual Driedel module, but I’m sure it’s on there somewhere.
So then it’s a toss over to Gary, whose recommendation for an inexpensive present is to buy the kids a book. He mentions having three kids, and Stewart even razzes him about being a cheap SOB, but he’s got three kids, so can you blame him? I doubt the guy on the Computer Chronicles who smashes stuff with a foam hammer is raking in the dough. His son apparently has a Commodore-64, and wants to learn BASIC. True story, Gary is my dad. Nah, not really. But he’s got some book about learning BASIC for the C-64 and points out it’s only 13 dollars. Sold!
His daughter Christie, however, likes to “draw pictures” on the Mac, and couldn’t give two shits about programming. Yeah, girls are so dumb! Anyway, he’s got a book that’ll teach kids how to be an artist on the Mac. Then Paul points out that if Gary’s kids see this episode, Christmas is ruined for them. Thanks, Paul. But truth be told, I think Christmas was ruined the moment Gary came home and said, “Hey, kids, Daddy’s gonna go work for PBS!”
Now it’s George Morrow’s turn, and he appears to be a stuffy Wall Street type, so he suggests an “innovative product” from “Signal Software” that will alert you when your stocks start to drop. Like, say, your stocks in Morrow Design. He describes this software for tracking your portfolio, but the innovative part is that it has an “FM receiver” [!] for getting stock data in real time. Holy crud. Stock info coming to your PC by radio. I can’t imagine why that never took off, can you? And Stewart is really helping out George here, extolling the wonders of “receiving over the airwaves, uh, stock quotes!” Now, is this really a “software” gift idea? I mean, does the inventor of a computer really not know the difference between software and hardware?
Anyway, Paul points out this same capability would have cost $8000 a few years back, and he feels like a complete tool in the Santa hat, and he should, and then he marvels at “this whole movement, everything gets cheaper and faster!” Oh yes, Paul, if only you knew how much cheaper and faster it’s going to get to lose your ass on the stock market. George wishes for the Ultimate Christmas Present, however: “a gift membership to a user’s group!” I think it’s called making out a check to CASH, giving it to your kids, and saying, “Join a user’s group, you ungrateful brats. By the way, I’m not really your father.” Stewart thanks George for that useless point and tosses it over to Paul for his recommendations.
So Paul keeps talking about software “packages” and “I picked the packages that I really like myself!” And you just know he was practicing this speech at home and trying not to giggle uncontrollably every time he said “package”.
But before we can get into that, he points out to George that you actually can get a gift membership to “The Source”, whatever that is, and he thinks CompuServe will do the same. Blah blah, user groups are a good source of tech support, whatever. So back to Paul and his all-time favorite packages.
First up, he shows off a beige binder for a product called Xywrite from Xyquest. “It is, the best, word processor”. So good, in fact, that nobody these days has ever heard of it. “Is it the best for, everybody? Maybe not!” But for professionals like Paul, it’s the ultimate. Then he continues to sell it by saying it has the “world’s worst documentation,” so hey, sign me up, “But it’s fast!” Unfortunately, I refuse to believe any piece of software is “fast” until I see the benchmarks.
Sadly though, whether or not a word processor is “the best” or “fast” is completely irrelevant. Ultimately, nobody really cares about stuff like that. What they care about is if their customers, or potential employers, or family members can view or edit the documents they create. Unfortunately, this is why word processing software championed by geeks on PBS will fade away into obscurity and Microsoft Word will become the de facto standard.
Then Paul’s got two more software gift ideas, one for kids, and one for people “who are kids at heart.” For the kids he’s got something called “Reader Rabbit”, which on the packaging features a sketch of the creature that was haunting Donnie Darko. And it’s from “The Learning Company”, and from that description alone, already you know it’s just waiting to suck.