The Computer Chronicles “Special Christmas Edition” (part 2 of 2)
So what this game amounts to is that you have to pick the words that match a pattern, like “G–“, meaning you have to figure out if a three-letter word begins with the letter G. Paul insists his four year old daughter, if he does in fact have one, has been playing this game for months.
If the word begins with G, he explains, you hit the space bar, but if you don’t, the word falls into a crude graphic of a trash can. And when you get five matching words, there’s crappy animation of Reader Rabbit dancing. And Paul keeps talking about how stupid and boring this game is, while simultaneously insisting that kids will love it. And all I can tell you is if I got this gift when I was 4 years old, I would have immediately known it was the worst gift I had ever received, and ever would receive for the rest of my life. Reader Rabbit? Meet Dusty Copy of Scrabble. You both will be partying for an eternity in the Back of My Closet Club.
Next, Paul’s got a “package” called Ultimate Trivia, and before he even gets into it, he’s already addressing naysayers on the Computer Chronicles staff who don’t believe he plays Ultimate Trivia each and every morning. He says he even has to turn the sound down so his wife doesn’t know what he’s doing. Wait, is it porn? George prods him and Paul reveals playing trivia in the morning “gets the juices going”. In the spirit of the holidays, I refuse to touch that one. Well, it’s also in the spirit of me keeping down my lunch, so it works out well for everybody.
Now he’s got another “package” called “Bakup” [sic], some kind of rudimentary hard drive backup utility. Other than the stupid spelling, there’s really nothing notable about it. Then he pulls out something in a gray box called “Higgins”, and he even points out how dull the packaging is, but “it’s aces”, and it helps you get organized. End of presentation. I feel very enlightened about this Higgins thing.
Now Stewart himself has something to recommend. It’s a peripheral for an Apple II that plugs into the joystick port, and it’s a set of scientific instruments, including a “thermistor” (which I guess is like a thermometer, but trying to figure out the difference between the two makes my head hurt), and a “photoelectric cell” to measure light, and you can see all your readings and measurements right on the screen in real time. Now this is pretty cool, I must admit. But then again, I was the kid who had the chemistry set in grade school. Not that I ever got it to do anything cool, like foam up or change colors or eat through the living room carpet. You know, now that I’m older, I honestly can’t think of a worse gift for a kid than a chemistry set. You’re basically handing over poisonous chemicals to young children and letting them tinker around with them unsupervised. Is it any wonder meth labs are springing up around this country at an alarming rate?
Anyway, not much to ridicule here, expect that we learn it’s 90 degrees in the studio, and the guys have 3.1 “foot candles” shining on them right now. (That can’t be right.) Then he shows off this “strip chart” feature that… makes a line across the screen. He even points out that he’s not doing anything with the instruments, so whatever he’s measuring wouldn’t be changing anyway. Pretty pointless, and not really software, either, but hey, this is about the best gift anyone’s recommended so far. If I was a kid and I got this, it would probably delay my bitterness for a significantly longer period of time than the Reader Rabbit game.
And then Stewart’s picture gets smaller and we see what’s next: “Hardware Gift Ideas…” When we come back, the Wedge is all covered in random furry objects. Paul has disappeared and in his place is Wendy Woods, “Editor in Chief of Newsbytes on the Source”, like I have any idea what any of that means, and she’s got a teddy bear with her. She calls it “AG Bear”, and it’s got the Santa hat on, and Stewart muses for a moment that perhaps Paul Schindler transformed into a teddy bear. This is an agreeable notion, for a multitude of reasons.
Wendy says AG Bear is for kids who “like computers”, though the bear’s connection to computers is tenuous at best. I guess there’s a “microprocessor” in the bear, that lets it “talk back to you”. And by “talk back”, I mean it makes a demonic noise, even more demonic than adults talking on Charlie Brown cartoons, as it imitates your tone of voice in wordless, creepy, synthesized speech. Ahhh! Kill it! Kill it!
“That’s basically all he does,” Wendy even admits at one point. Yep. Just makes creepy noises back at you when you talk to him. If you’re the type of kid who likes to imagine that Teddy Ruxpin needs an exorcist, this is the toy for you.
George asks if it’s “good for kids goin’ to bed,” and Wendy lies, “Definitely!” Especially if they’re not having enough nightmares. She tries to pretend the thing will “listen” to you and then respond, but instead the damn creepy teddy bear is constantly murmuring the entire time she’s talking. Things take a grisly turn when Wendy pulls out the speaker-microphone box that drives the bear, and explains that all it does is filter your voice through the icy reaches of Hell and direct it right back at you. I’m confident that someone tripping on acid would be entertained for roughly six hours. Not bad for thirty bucks, as Wendy tells us.
So now Stewart turns to George to ask his hardware recommendations. And, my god, that freaky bear is still making noises in the background, mocking everything Stewart says. It’s AG Bear’s impression of Stewart as Satan. And now George is talking about a IBM-compatible made by Epson, and I can’t pay attention to a damn thing he says, because that evil teddy bear is still giving me commands, telling me to do horrible things to my family.
Wait, why the hell is George pimping Epson computers? Didn’t he create the Pivot? Regardless, he’s babbling about how Epson got it right on this one, and says the word “compatible” ten million times, and something about “256K” of memory, and how the Epson is “not totally complete”. And by “not totally complete”, he means it does not come with a monitor. Yeah. That could be a bit of a stumbling point for some people, I’m thinking.
So Gary Claus starts to talk about some printer he saw at Comdex, and the horrible squawks from the evil bear have become too much for Stewart, who finally gets somebody, anybody, to shut the damn thing off.
This evil presence vanquished, Gary shows off a dot matrix printer that he calls “lightweight”, even though it appears to weigh roughly as much as a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. He says you can carry it around along with your “transportable computer system” from, say, Compaq. He says this machine, for a few hundred bucks, does the same thing as other printers that cost $2000 a few years ago. This includes how it “scrunches the paper up [nervous laughter] when it misfeeds [nervous laughter]”. Something tells me Stewart took Gary aside after the taping to clarify the meaning of a “recommendation”.
And now George is getting all up in Gary’s grill, asking how much it costs, how much it weighs. “It’s a, uh, dot matrix printer?” Ease up, George. What did you expect him to say? “I believe it to be approximately 11.2 kg, Professor! But let me use this thermistor and make sure!”
But it’s really important to note that Gary doesn’t want to endorse this specific printer. Come on, what would give you that idea? No, his point is simply that they have “some really nice, small portable printers like this right now around the market.” So, good luck doing your own research, suckers! What, you think he’s on this show to review stuff or something?
George tries to one-up Gary, talking about printers even smaller than this that run on batteries, but Gary basically whips it out on him. Gary’s system at home is a “Compaq 286”, okay, which actually has a “hard disk”, so step off, and this is the kind of printer you would want for a kickass system like his. Suck on that, Pivot Guy. Of course, less than two minutes ago he said that this printer was perfect for a “transportable computer system”, so… ah, yeah, forget it. I’m a on a tight schedule here.
Stewart uses this to segue to an extremely small device. He calls it a “microcomputer” but it looks like a calculator that happens to have a full keyboard. It’s called the “Access”, and it has a lovely 40×8 resolution screen. Yes, 40 columns by 8 lines, which makes it about as detailed as consoles on today’s fax machines. Apparently, this soon-to-be piece of junk can actually store files, and Stewart triumphantly declares that it can do a “keyword search!” to find the file you’re looking for.
Oh, but there’s even more. The Access has a modem, and an “acoustic coupler” that we don’t see, so if “you’re at the airport, [and] you can’t get to a modular plug,” you can just go to a pay phone and slap that receiver on there, somehow. He doesn’t really show us. I think he just made that part up. And now he’s talking about how he can get CompuServe, Dow Jones, Wendy’s articles at The Source, “home banking or whatever”, and he can even “download” and “upload” stuff from this thing. Whoa, whoa. Slow down there. I mean, I’m sure you can surf the web with a Commodore-64 too, but I’ve never met anyone crazy enough to try it. Then good old George pipes up.
Yeah. Wow. I’m totally gonna buy it now. Thanks, George. Then Stewart totally blows our minds when he says the thing has “40K of internal memory,” and then he snaps out a big chunk of the device and calls it a “64K memory cartridge”, which you can carry around in your pocket. That sounds comfortable. Then we get a quick shot of Wendy, who’s so fascinated by the Access that she’s paying absolutely no attention at all, and looking down at something in front of her. Girls are so dumb!
As Stewart snaps the cartridge back in, George says, “That can be either RAM, or ROM there!” Does he even know what he’s saying? Take your lower lip and pivot it up against your top lip and zip it, mister. Gary, ever the programmer, asks if this thing can be programmed, and Stewart alludes to the future possibility of a “programming language cartridge”, which doesn’t even begin to make any sense to me.
Anyway, the Access starts at $500, but Stewart quickly shuts down all discussion so they can talk about the furry things on the Wedge that look like giant fuzzy slippers.
According to Wendy, they’re big motorized stuffed animals—cats, to be specific—called “Petsters”. She says the company will have dogs next year, but judging from the awful demonstration we’re about to witness, I don’t think there will be a next year. She claims they’re responsive to “your voice and to claps,” and just to prove what a sham we’re in store for, one of them abruptly and randomly motors away from her, skidding across the Wedge in what one must assume is a desperate attempt to escape.
She hurriedly yanks it back and begins this fiasco in earnest. First she has Stewart clap. He claps several times, and nothing happens. Then, suddenly, one of them goes speeding across the desk… directly towards George. “Well, that’s close,” Gary says, depressing everybody. Then the painful banter continues as George says something about “hardware comes to the hardware designer” and arrrrrgh I can’t take it anymore. Guys, here’s an excellent idea for a Christmas present from you to me: No more banter!
Stewart attempts the slow clap again, and after a moment, the toys proceed to ricochet wildly around the Wedge. Stewart points to the critters and asks Wendy, “What’s going on inside here?” From what I can see, not much. She pretends there’s a “custom chip” inside with “limited voice recognition”, and I guess that’s true, in the sense that its ability to recognize voices is as good as random chance. She also claims it “responds to about ten verbal commands”. To demonstrate, she tells one to “come here”, and of course, it doesn’t. Maybe that’s not one of the ten commands? Maybe the two cats respond to “perform a motorized version of Swan Lake” and nobody told her?
Finally, Stewart brings this entire pretense to a close. He sincerely hopes that you, the viewer, will find a “nice high-tech toy under your Christmas tree!” Well, so much for being interdenominational, I guess.
There’s one final section to this episode, called “Random Access”, where Stewart gets behind a desk like an anchorman and offers us “news and reviews”. Unfortunately, there’s not too much of interest here, so here are the highlights:
- The “surprise hit” of the 1985 Christmas season is the Coleco Adam [!]. I can’t believe “surprise hit” and “Coleco Adam” are even being thought of in the same five-minute span.
- There are “hot and heavy” rumors about a “new operating system” for IBM PCs. Just how hot and how heavy, exactly? “One version of the story is that Microsoft will come out with a generic DOS 5.0!” Ah, those silly, silly rumors. Total bullshit. Don’t believe a word of it. Not to be outdone, of course, “IBM will come out with its own superset of 5.0”, which will address PCs with “more than 640K of memory!” That’s crazy talk!
- Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is buying up millions of dollars in Apple stock, and the most notable thing about this item, for me at least, is that Stewart refers to him as “The Woz”. Wow. I never knew it was acceptable in journalism to coin your own nicknames.
- In a “Legislative Update”, a congressman has said “the Social Security Administration’s new computer system is a mess!” Gosh, can you imagine? What backwards times those were, huh? Well, I’m pretty sure they got that all straightened out in the twenty years since this originally aired. Right? Right?
- We now get the Computer Chronicles “software pick of the week”, in a segment taking place in Paul Schindler’s house [?]. There are sloppy bookshelves all around him, so I guess they’re trying to copy Andy Rooney. Paul talks about another computer “package” (snicker) called Rocky’s Boots. Paul calls this game “complicated”, and says both kids and adults can learn from it. “MIT graduates like myself may have to pinch themselves to be sure they’ve not died and gone to heaven!” Unnecessary pimping of his own academic credentials? Check. Strange, almost archaic-sounding sentence structure? Check.
- The game is pretty rudimentary, yet completely insane at the same time, and involves moving your cursor through several “rooms”, and building “machines out of wires, sensors, and kicking boots”, and the cursor provides virtual electricity to pretend circuits, I think, and it’s insane, and it “teaches youngsters about real logic circuits”, and then there’s kicking boots, and my god what is going on and what kid would actually play this? This is starting to make Reader Rabbit look like GTA: San Andreas, frankly.
- Back in the studio, Stewart pimps one of them new-fangled See Dee Rahms with over 8000 programs, which is free if you buy the “optical drive” for a mere “1600 bucks!” Holy crap, that’s a lot. And then in the next item we learn that you can now buy a “hard disk drive” for your IBM PC Jr for a measly $800. Good gravy. Who in the hell was buying this stuff?
After a few other incomprehensible items, that does it for this special episode of The Computer Chronicles. The cheapo credits play out over still frames of the Condemned Mall, and Wendy and her Demon Bear, and you’ve really gotta love the “special thanks” that goes out to “Texas Instuments [sic]” [!!].
Okay, so here’s the research I did after the fact. It turns out that Gary Kildall, who simply from watching this episode you would assume to just be a retard in a Santa Claus hat, played a huge role in the early days of personal computing. He created the very first operating system for microprocessors, which is that “CPM” that Stewart referred to earlier (It’s actually “CP/M”, which I really should have known.) “GEM” stood for Graphical Environment Manager, a user interface that was a viable alternative to MS Windows, until Windows 3.0 came out and dominated the market. Sadly, Gary died in 1994 at the age of 52, of causes never fully revealed.
George Morrow turns out to have also been something of a pioneer, and helped develop a standardized bus for PCs, which for the first time allowed expansion cards to be shared across different PC models. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 69.
Paul Schindler is still active and writing and teaching. He even has a blog, and according to the bio on his web site, one of his claims to fame is that he appeared as a contestant on Win Ben Stein’s Money. Stewart Cheifet is still around, of course, and being a minor celebrity in the world of technology, I’m sure you can easily find his website if you’re so inclined.
I tried without much luck to find any recent mention of Wendy Woods. I suspect AG Bear has to be appeased every now and then with the blood of a human sacrifice, is all I’m saying.
And would you believe XyWrite still, in 2005, has a devoted user base? Yeah, it didn’t really come as much of a surprise to me, either.
That’s about it for the Agony Booth until 2006. Merry Christmas, everybody. Or whatever you happen to celebrate. Never let it be said that the Agony Booth isn’t interdenominational.