Monday, July 23, 2007

Home computers: today's 'frill' or tomorrow's fact?

Home computers: today's 'frill' or tomorrow's fact?

Sunday, January 21, 1979
20 cents


Recalling the herculean efforts needed to straighten out billing errors and those futile attempts to convince magazine subscription departments of an address change, many San Ramon Valley residents might shudder at the thought of inviting a computer into their home.

Computers are cold and calculating, insensitive to verbal abuse and --- from the consumer's viewpoint --- respond to nothing less than an act of God.

Whether it is appreciated or not, computer are playing an ever-increasing role in the lives of most people and manufacturers are now trying to convince the public that these electronic gadgets can be useful and, in fact, harmless home tools.

This softening-up process has already begun. Special purpose computers --- in the forms of programmable microwave ovens, sewing machines, video games, and hand-held electronic teaching aids --- have invaded many homes. And, following this vanguard of "humanized" applications, computers are now becoming designed for personal or home use.

While microcomputers may one day become standard home appliances, the majority of manufacturers are gearing their product to appeal to the small businessman. Regarded as "super toys" and "frills" by many people, the home computer is essentially a hobby for the individual.

One of these hobbyists, John Trenholme of Danville, invited a computer into his house three years ago and hasn't tired of its use.

"I have a hell of a lot of fun with this," said Trenholme, pointing to the electrical guts of an 8080 Processor Technology Sol package with floppy disc drive, printer and 12-inch Hitachi black and white portable television set.

Pieced together over a period of years, Trenholme's system cost him more than $3,000. But that was before the prices of electronic hardware began to drop. With increased demand for home computers and more manufacturers entering the market, Trenholme predicts that prices will drop even more dramatically --- similar to that experienced in the field of hand calculators.

What can a home computer do? If you want, it can balance a checkbook, keep tabs on tax records, chart family spending habits, regulate temperatures in the home, turn on lights and sprinkler systems, play games and teach children math and spelling.

Some computers --- much like word processors --- will provide perfectly typed letters with justified lines and even margins. It will even remember what it typed, in the event a copy is wanted later.

If a person looks at any one individual use of the home computer, it can certainly be argued that the $600 to $6,000 cost is not justified. By looking at the total number of jobs and bookkeeping duties it can do around the house, you might be justified in buying one.

Before embarking on any expensive outlay for equipment, "you should get some exposure to computers," warns Trenholme. There is a lot more involved than just plugging it in and beginning to work miracles.

Trenholme, who works in laser research at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, maintains contact with other computer hobbyists through the lab's recreation association, whose computer club boasts the largest collection of computer hobbyists in the Tri-Valley area.

Members range from those who dream that it might be nice to have a home computer to those who are up on all the latest computer technology. There are "hardware" types who like to build the equipment and watch it work and "software" people who enjoy the programming aspects of computers.

Members meet once a month to exchange information and new programs, watch demonstrations, and listen to factory representatives explain their latest designs and systems.

The club also offers introductory level courses in basic programming and classes teaching high level computer language.

Technological advances in the field of microelectronics have allowed man to build computers that rest on a table top and calculators that fit the hand. But all the integrated circuits in the world won't help the aspiring computer hobbyist if he can't program.

The computer is nothing more than a logic machine which can do no more than its programmer programs it to do. It cannot make independent decisions and --- removing the element of speed --- a computer cannot do anything that a person couldn't do. The computer's speed in solving problems of logic, however, has made the "impractical" practical and the "impossible" possible.

Programming a computer means establishing an algorithm, which is nothing more than a combination of logical steps that represent a solution to a particular problem. This generally means putting those steps into one of the computer languages, such as FORTRAN, COBOL or Microsoft BASIC.

These languages are a combination of bowdlerized English, numeric figures and signs which the computer will interpret as commands.

A lot of home computer advertising has led people to believe that they can program a computer. The ability to program, however, may be a big "if."

"Claims in this field are rampant," said Trenholme, explaining that the uninitiated will find it difficult to separate fact from fiction. In addition, there is a lack of practical programs and problems currently on the market for computers to tackle. This makes the ability to program a must.

One of the great virtues of belonging to a computer club, said Trenholme, is that a person can exchange programs and learn from others. With more than 50 members in the LLLRA computer club and all of them working on their own programs, it is possible to accumulate quite a library.

Do you need a computer?

Probably not. But, then again, who become a ham radio operator when you can accomplish the same communication by phone?

For the computer hobbyist or person with a keen interest, enjoyment is the only prerequisite.

"It's more the creative end than the user end that interests me," said Trenholme.

Going through various phases, he will concentrate on putting the equipment together, then play with the games that he has programmed or modified.

While it is more difficult to access the value of home computers as educational aids, Trenholme's eight-year-old son, Sam, is learning sophisticated math and programming concepts.

"A computer is a very patient teach and doesn't lost its cool," noted Trenholme.

To maintain their cool, consumers are advised to gain considerable exposure to these electronic gadgets before diving head first into the unknown. Diablo Valley College offers a number of computer science classes and currently has several PET computers on loan from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

In cooperation with the LLLRA, Dee G--------, owner of Computerland in Dublin, hosts various computer club meetings and classes in his store.

Persons interested in further information about membership requirements, class offerings, and meeting dates should contact computer club president Michael M-------- at 555-XXXX or Computerland's G-------- at 555-XXXX.

Note: I removed the last names and changed the phone numbers in the last two paragraphs. This article is otherwise as printed in 1979. I, of course, am Trenholme's son Sam as referenced near the end of the article.