Become an expert

To become a computer expert, you need a computer, literature, and friends.

A computer to practice on

If possible, buy an IBM PC or clone. If you canít afford a full system, start by practicing DOS and BASIC on a one-floppy IBM PC clone with 256K of RAM and a monochrome monitor. Mail-order discount dealers sell that combination for about $200. So do many folks selling used computers. By saving your money, you can later add more RAM, a second disk drive, printer, and applications software.

To pay even less, ask your computer friends whether they want to get rid of any "used junky obsolete computers" for under $50, or ask them whether they can lend you a computer for a weekend. Swap: if they lend you an Apple for a weekend, bake them an apple pie.

Another way to save money is to join your friends for a group purchase. For example, if 9 of you each chip in $10, you can buy a $90 computer. Divide the 9 of you into 3 trios, and rotate the computer from trio to trio every day, so that you get to use the computer every third day.

Literature to read

Begin by reading The Secret Guide to Computers. Then read the manuals that came with your computer.

Find out whatís new by subscribing to computer magazines or reading them in your townís library.

You can get computer books and magazines from the bookstore at your local college. You can also try your local branch of Waldenbooks or B. Dalton Booksellers, which are nationwide chains. A cheerier chain is Borders, whose salespeople are more knowledgeable. If you live near Denver, visit Tattered Cover, which is Americaís largest independent bookstore (303-322-7727).

To pay less, shop at discount chains such as Staples (which has a 15% discount on the few books it stocks) and Comp USA (which has big discounts on magazines and a 20% discount on all books). You can also get discounts of 10% to 31% from mail-order computer-book dealers such as Business & Computer Bookstore (Willow Grove PA, 215-657-8300, out-of-state 800-233-0233). If you live near Boston, go to Harvard Square in Cambridge to visit Words Worth (10% discount on all paperbacks, 617-354-5201).

The following big stores specialize in computer & technical books, and most are willing to ship all over the world. They usually charge full price:

Opamp Bookstore (Los Angeles, 213-464-4322)

Computer Literacy Bookshops (San Jose CA, 408-592-5775)

Staceyís Bookstore (San Francisco 415-421-4687, Palo Alto CA 415-326-0681)

Computer Book Works (New York City, 212-385-1616)

McGraw-Hill Bookstore (New York City, 212-997-1221)

Quantum Books (Cambridge MA, 617-494-5042)

Calgary Computer Books (Calgary Alberta Canada, 403-270-0952)

Since The Secret Guide to Computers is an underground book, you wonít find it in stores that are "overground". To find out which nifty bookstores, computer stores, and consultants near you carry the Secret Guide, phone me at 617-666-2666, and Iíll look up your ZIP code in my computer.

Friends to chat with

When you have a computer question, phone me at 617-666-2666. Another way to get help is to join a computer club.

The biggest and best computer club was the Boston Computer Society (BCS), which had about 30,000 members, held over 1,000 meetings per year, published many magazines and newsletters, and had hundreds of volunteers who gave free phone help on technical topics. It began in 1977 but shut down in 1996. Its founder and first president was a 13-year-old kid. I hope some other 13-year-old kid starts something equally wonderful someday!

If you live near New York, use a touch-tone phone to call New York Personal Computer (NY PC) at 212-LED-NYPC. Youíll be talking to a computer using voice mail. The voices will guide you through verbal menus; youíll have lots of fun! The voices will also invite you to become a member for $35 per year and call Hy Bender at 212-829-5534 for more details.

If you live near Philadelphia, call the Philadelphia Area Computer Society (PACS) at 215-951-1255, 8AM-4PM weekdays. Membership costs $27 per year.

The biggest and best club for Macintosh computers is the Berkeley Macintosh User Group (BMUG). Itís based in Berkeley, California; but itís so good that it attracts members from all over the world. Join! Twice a year, youíll get a "newsletter" thatís 400 pages long! Any day you have a question about Macs, you can get free technical help from the BMUG staff and volunteers, who answer their phones daily from 9:30AM to 5:30PM. Membership costs $25 for a half-year, $40 for a full year. To join, phone 510-549-2684 or 800-776-BMUG. Once youíre a member, you can buy two huge BMUG books for $15 each:

"The BMUG Guide to Bulletin Boards and Beyond"

an excellent tutorial in how to use Mac communications software, 541 pages

"The BMUG Shareware Disk Catalog"

lists all the shareware you can buy from BMUG, 686 pages

Many other computer clubs have sprung up, all over the country! Ask your local computer store or high-school computer department about computer clubs in your home town; if there arenít any, start one yourself!

Americans living in Tokyo have started the Tokyo PC Users Group. Their newletter, written in English, is top-notch! If youíre in Japan, phone (03) 3576-9783 (for a recorded message about membership) or write to Tokyo PC Club, Shibuya Post Restante, Shibuya, Tokyo 150 Japan.

If you take a computer course, get personal help by chatting with your teacher and classmates. To save money, sign up for the cheap courses given by your high schoolís "adult education" evening program and your local community college.

I occasionally travel around the world and give courses inexpensively or for free. Heads of the computer industry got their training from my courses. To join us, use the coupon on the back page.

Land a computer job

To become a lawyer, you must graduate from law school and pass the Bar Exam. But to become a computer expert, thereís no particular program you must graduate from, no particular exam to pass, and no particular piece of paper that "proves" youíre an expert or even competent.

You can get a job in the computer industry even if youíve never had any training. Your job will be sweeping the floor.

To become a top computer expert, you must study hard, day and night. Read lots of computer manuals, textbooks, guidebooks, magazines, newspapers, and newsletters. Practice using many kinds of computers, operating systems, languages, word-processing programs, spreadsheets, database systems, graphics packages, and telecommunications programs. Also explore the many educational programs for kids. Use many kinds of printers, disk drives, and modems. Study the human problems of dealing with computers. No matter how much you already know, learn more!

When I surveyed computer experts, I found that the average expert still spends two hours per day reading about computers, to fill holes in the expertís background and learn what happened in the computer industry that day! In addition to those two hours, the expert spends many more hours practicing what was read and swapping ideas by chatting with other computerists.

As a computer expert, you can choose your own hours, but they must be numerous: if your interest in computers lasts just from 9 AM to 5 PM, youíll never become a computer expert.

To break into the computer field, you can use six tools: college, home consulting, home programming, salesmanship, job expansion, and on-the-job training.


The most traditional way to get a computer job is to go to college and get a Ph.D. or M.A. in computer science. Unfortunately, that takes a lot of time.

Home consulting

The fastest way to break into the field is to keep your current job but spend your weekends and evenings helping your neighbors, friends, and colleagues learn about computers. Help them buy hardware and software. Then customize the software to meet their own personal needs. Then train them in how to use it all. Lots of folks want training in how to use DOS, Word Perfect, and other popular software.

At first, do it all for free. After youíve become an experienced expert and developed a list of happy clients who will vouch for your brilliance, start requesting money from new clients. Start cheaply, at about $10 per hour, then gradually raise your rates over the next few years. Most computer consultants charge about $50 per hour, and some charge much more than that; but I suggest that you be gentler on your clientsí pocketbooks! By charging little, youíll get more clients, theyíll rack up more hours with you, and you wonít need to spend lots of time and money on "advertising". For example, at $20 per hour youíll be very popular!

Home programming

You can write computer programs at home to sell to friends and software publishers, but make sure your programs serve a real need and donít duplicate whatís already on the market. Be creative!


For a quicker career path, learn enough about microcomputers to get a job selling them in a store. As a salesperson, youíll be helping people decide which hardware and software to buy; youíll be acting as a consultant.

The store will probably give you permission to take hardware, software, and literature home with you, so you can study and practice new computer techniques every evening and become brilliant. If you wish, you can even moonlight by helping your customers use the software they bought and designing your own customized programs for them.

After working in the store several months, youíll have the knowledge, experience, contacts, and reputation to establish yourself as an independent consultant. You can call your former customers and become their advisor, trainer, and programmer ó or even set up your own store.

Job expansion

Another way to break into the field is to take a non-computer job and gradually enlarge its responsibilities, so that it involves computers.

For example, if youíre a typist, urge your boss to let you use a word processor. If youíre a clerk, ask permission to use spreadsheet and data-management programs to manage your work more efficiently. If youíre a math teacher, ask the principal to let you teach a computer course or help run the schoolís computer club.

Keep your current job, but expand it to include new skills so you gradually become a computer expert.

On-the-job training

The final way to break into the field is to get a job in a computer company, as a janitor or clerk, and gradually move up by using the companyís policy of free training for employees.

Phone me

Many companies phone me when theyíre looking for computer experts. If you think youíre an expert and can demonstrate your expertise, Iíll be glad to pass your name along to employers.

Occasionally, I even have job openings here at The Secret Guide to Computers. Feel free to ask. Although some of the jobs here are mundane, a nice fringe benefit is that you get to play with my 40 computers and oodles of software packages and take them home with you. You can also choose your own hours: work whenever you please! After you work here a few months and do your job well, Iíll gladly give you an excellent reference that will help you get an even nicer job elsewhere.

Set your rates

If somebodyís interested in hiring you to be a programmer or consultant, you must decide what rate to charge.

If this is your first such job, be humble and charge very little because your first jobís main goal should not be money. Instead, your goal should be to gain experience, enhance your reputation, and find somebody you can use as a reference and whoíll give you a good recommendation. Convince your first employer that youíre the best bargain he ever got, so that heíll be wildly enthusiastic about you and give you a totally glowing recommendation when you go seek your second job.

If you canít find anyone willing to pay you, work for free, just so that you can put on your résumé that you "helped computerize a company". After such an experience, you should easily find a second job that pays better.

Although your first computer job might pay little or nothing at all, it gets your foot in the computer industryís door. After your first job, your salary will rise rapidly because the most valuable attribute you can have in this field is experience.

Since experienced experts are in short supply, they get astronomical salaries. On the other hand, thereís a surplus of "kids fresh out of college" who know nothing. So consider your first job to be an extremely valuable way to gain experience, even if the initial salary is low. When applying for your first job, remember that youíre still unproven, and be thankful that your first employer is willing to take a risk on you.

Asking for a raise

After several months on the job, when youíve thoroughly proved that youíre worth much more than youíre being paid, and your employer is thoroughly thrilled with your performance, gently ask your employer for a slight raise. If he declines, continue working at that job, but also keep your eyes open for a better alternative.

Negotiating a contract

The fundamental rule of contract negotiation is: never make a large commitment.

For example, suppose somebody offers to pay you $10,000 if you write a fancy program. Donít accept the offer; the commitment is too large. Instead, request $1,000 for writing a stripped-down version of the program.

After writing the stripped-down version, wait and see whether you get the $1,000; if you get it without any hassles, then agree to make the version slightly fancier, for a few thousand dollars more. That way, if you have an argument with your employer (which is common), youíve lost only $1,000 of effort instead of $10,000.

Contract headaches

Arguments between programmers and employers are common, for six reasons:

1. As a programmer, youíll probably make the mistake of underestimating the time for debugging the program, because youíll tend to be too optimistic about your own abilities.

2. Your employer wonít be precise enough when he tells you what kind of program to write. Youíll write a program that you think satisfies the employerís request and then discover that the employer really wanted something slightly different.

3. Your employer will forget to tell you about the various "strange cases" that the company must handle. Theyíll require extra "IF" statements in your program.

4. When the employer finally sees your program working, heíll suddenly think of extra things heíd like the program to do, and which will require extra programming effort from you.

5. When the program finally does everything that the employer expects, heíll want you to teach his staff how to use the program and the computer. If his staff has never dealt with computers before, the training period could be quite lengthy. Heíll also want you to write a manual about the program, and to put the manual into the companyís library.

6. After the company begins using the program, the employer will want you to make additional changes, and might even expect you to make them at no charge.

To minimize those six kinds of conflicts, be honest and kind to your employer. Explain to him that youíre worried about those six kinds of conflicts, and that youíd like to chat about them now, before either you or he makes any commitments. Then make a small commitment for a small payment for a short time, and make sure that both you and the employer are happy with the way that small commitment worked out before attempting any larger commitments.

Develop your career

Here are further tricks for developing your career.


A programmer is a teacher: the programmer teaches the computer new tricks. For example, the programmer might teach the computer how to do the payroll. To do that, the programmer feeds the computer a list of instructions, that explain to the computer how to do the payroll. The list of instructions is called a program.

Languages The program is written by using the very limited vocabulary that the computer understands already. Earlier in The Secret Guide to Computers, I explained a vocabulary called BASIC, which consists of words such as PRINT, INPUT, GO TO, IF, THEN, and STOP. That vocabulary ó BASIC ó is called a computer language. Itís a small part of English. No computer understands the whole English language. The programmerís job is to translate an English sentence (such as "do the payroll") into language the computer understands (such as BASIC). So the programmer is a translator.

Some computers understand BASIC. Other computers understand a different vocabulary, called COBOL. For example, COBOL uses the words DISPLAY and WRITE instead of PRINT.

Before programming a computer, you must find out which language the computer understands. Does it understand BASIC? Or does it understand COBOL instead? Or does it understand a yet different language? The most popular languages are BASIC, COBOL, FORTRAN, and PASCAL; but there are also thousands of others. Your computer understands at least one of those languages; if youíre lucky, your computer understands several of those languages.

When you apply for a programming job, the first question to ask the interviewer is: which languages does the companyís computer understand? Or better yet, ask, "Which language do you want me to program in?" The interviewer will say "BASIC" or "COBOL" or some similar answer and then ask you, "Do you know that language?"

Most microcomputers use BASIC, DBASE, or C. Most minicomputers use BASIC, FORTRAN, COBOL, or C. Most maxicomputers use FORTRAN or COBOL. For all three sizes, PASCAL is another alternative.

Of those popular languages, BASIC is the easiest and the most fun. To become a programmer, begin by studying BASIC, then move on to the other languages, which are yukkier.

Since BASICís so easy, saying you know BASIC is less prestigious than saying you know languages such as C. To get lots of prestige, learn many languages. To convince the interviewer youíre brilliant, say that you know many languages well even if the job youíre applying for needs just one language.

The most prestigious languages to know are assembly and machine languages, because theyíre the hardest. If you can convince the interviewer that you know assembly and machine languages, the interviewer will assume youíre God and offer you a very high salary, even if the job doesnít require a knowledge of those languages.


Specific computers Before going to the interview, learn about the specific computer the company uses. For example, if the companyís computer is an IBM maxicomputer, study the IBM maxiís details. Study its operating system and its languages. If the job requires COBOL, study the particular dialect of COBOL used on the IBM maxi. Each computer has its own dialect of COBOL, its own dialect of BASIC, etc. Usually, the differences between dialects are small, but you must know them. For assembly and machine languages, the differences between dialects are much greater: the assembly language on an IBM PC is almost entirely different from the assembly language on an IBM maxi.

Analysis versus coding The act of programming consists of two stages. In the first stage, analyze the problem to make it more specific. For example, suppose the problem is, "Program the computer to do the payroll". The first stage is to decide exactly how the company wants the payroll to be done. Should it be done weekly, bi-weekly, semi-monthly, or monthly? While computing the payroll checks, what other reports do you want the computer to generate? For example, do you want the computer to also print a report about the employeesí attendance, and about how much money each department of the company is spending on salaries? Maybe one of the departments is over-budgeting. And what kind of paychecks do you want the computer to refuse to print? For example, if somebody in the company tries to make the computer print a paycheck for a ridiculous amount (such as $1,000,000 or ĹĘ), you want the computer to refuse (and perhaps signal an alarm).

That stage ó analyzing a vague problem (such as "do the payroll") to make it more specific ó is called analysis. A person who analyzes is called an analyst or, more prestigiously, a systems analyst. After analyzing the vague problem and transforming it into a series of smaller, more specific tasks, the analyst turns the problem over to a team of coders. Each coder takes one of the tasks and translates it into BASIC or COBOL or some other language.

If youíre hired to be a "programmer", your first assignment will probably be as a coder. After you gain experience, youíll be promoted to a systems analyst.

The ideal systems analyst knows how to analyze a problem but also has prior experience as a coder. A systems analyst who knows how to both code and analyze is called a programmer/analyst. An analyst who doesnít know how to code ó who doesnít know BASIC or COBOL ó who merely knows how to break a big problem into a series of little ones ó is paid less.

Three kinds of programming Programming falls into three categories: development, testing, and maintenance. Development means inventing a new program. Testing means making sure the program works. Maintenance means making minor improvements to programs that were written long ago. (The "improvements" consist of eliminating errors that were discovered recently, or making the program conform to changed government regulations, or adding extra features so that the program produces extra reports or handles extra-special cases.) Development is more exciting than testing, which is more exciting than maintenance. So if youíre a new programmer, the other programmers will probably "stick you" in the maintenance department, where youíll be part of the maintenance crew. Since your job will consist of "cleaning up" old programs, cruel programmers will call you a "computer janitor".

"Application program" versus "system program" Programs fall into two categories.

The usual kinds of program is called an application program. It handles a specific application (such as "payroll" or "chess" or "send rocket to moon").

The other kind of program is called a system program; its only purpose is to help programmers write applications programs.

For example, hidden inside the computer is a program that makes the computer understand BASIC. That program explains to the computer what the words PRINT, INPUT, and IF mean. That program (which is called the BASIC language processor) is an example of a system program.

Another system program is called the operating system. It tells the computer how to control the disks and printer and terminals. If the operating system is fancy, it even tells the computer how to handle many programmers at once.

Another system program is the editor. It lets you edit files and programs. For example, on big old computers, the editor lets you edit programs written in old languages such as COBOL and FORTRAN.

So system programs are tools, which help programmers write application programs. When you buy a computer, buy some system programs so you can create applications programs easily.

A person who invents system programs is called a systems programmer. To become a systems programmer, learn assembly language and machine language.

Creating a system program is very difficult; so a systems programmer usually gets paid more than an applications programmer.

The word "systems" is prestigious: itís used in the phrase "systems analyst" and in "systems programmer". In some companies, if your boss wants to praise you, the boss will put the word "systems" in front of your title even if your job has nothing to do with "systems".

How to learn programming To be a good programmer, you need experience. You canít become a good programmer by just reading books and listening to lectures; you must get your hands on a computer and practice.

If you take a computer course, the books and lectures are much less valuable than the experience of using the schoolís computer. Spend lots of time in the computer center. Think of the course as just an excuse to get permission to use the schoolís computer. The quality of the lecture is less important than the quality of the schoolís computer center. The ideal computer center:

has a computer that can understand many languages

gives you unlimited use of the computer (no "extra charges")

is open 24 hours a day

has enough terminals so you donít have to wait for somebody else to finish

has a staff of "teaching assistants" whoíll answer your questions

has a rack full of easy-to-read manuals that explain how to use the computer

lets you borrow books and manuals, to take home with you

has several kinds of computers, so that you get a broad range of experience.

Before you enroll in a computer course, find out whether the schoolís computer center has those features.

Many computer schools are unnecessarily expensive. To save money, take fewer courses, and buy more books and magazines instead. Better yet, buy a computer yourself and keep it in your home! You can buy a used IBM XT clone for under $150, or a more primitive computer (such as a Radio Shack Color Computer) for under $50. Keep the computer a few months, practice writing BASIC programs on it and using some applications, then sell it to a friend for $30 less than you paid ó so that using it cost you just $30 and gave you several months of education. Thatís a much better investment of your money than spending many hundreds of dollars on a computer course.

Another cheap way to get an education is to phone your townís board of education, and ask whether the town offers any adult-education courses in computers. Some towns offer adult-education computer courses for under $100.

For an even better deal, phone your townís board of education ó or high school ó and ask whether you can sit in the back of a high-school computer class. If youíre an adult resident of the town, you might be able to sit in the back of the class for free. Your only "expense" will be the embarrassment of sitting in the same room as youngsters. After a day or two of feeling strange, youíll get used to it, and youíll get an excellent free education.

Community colleges offer low-cost courses that are decent. Explore the community colleges before sinking money into more expensive institutions that are over-priced.

Starting salary For your first programming job, your salary will be somewhere between $18,000 and $25,000. The exact amount depends on which languages you know, how many programs you wrote previously, whether you have a college degree, whether youíve had experience on the particular kind of computer the company uses, and whether you know the application area. (For example, if youíre a programmer for an insurance company, itís helpful to know something about insurance.)

Degrees A college degree ainít needed, but wow can it make you look smart! Try to get a degree in "computer science" or "management information systems".

"Computer science" emphasizes the underlying theory, systems programming, assembly language, PASCAL, FORTRAN, C, and applications to science. "Management information systems" emphasizes BASIC, COBOL, DBASE, and applications to business.

A major in "mathematics" that emphasizes computers is also acceptable.

Discrimination If youíre a woman or non-white or physically handicapped, youíll be pleased to know that the computer industry discriminates less than in other occupations. In fact, being a woman or non-white or physically handicapped works to your advantage, since many companies have affirmative-action programs.

On the other hand, discrimination does exist against older people. If youíre over 40 and trying to get a job as an entry-level programmer, youíll have a tough time since the stereotypical programmer is "young, bright, and a fast thinker". If youíre old, theyíll assume youíre "slow and sluggish".

Because of that unfair discrimination, if youíre old you should probably try entering the computer industry through a different door: as a consultant, or a computer salesperson, or a computer-center manager, or a computer teacher. For those positions, your age works to your advantage, since those jobs require wisdom, and people will assume that since youíre old, youíre wise.

Shifting careers If youíre older, the best way to enter the computer field is to combine your new knowledge of computers with what you knew previously. If you already knew a lot about how to sell merchandise, get a job selling computers. If you already knew a lot about teaching, get a job teaching about computers ó or helping teachers deal with computers. If you already knew a lot about real estate, computerize your real estate office.

In other words, do not try to "hop" careers; instead, gradually shift your responsibilities so that they deal more with computers.

To get into the computer field safely, keep your current job but computerize it. For example, if youíre already a math teacher, keep teaching math but convince your school to also let you teach a computer course, or at least incorporate computers into the math curriculum or help run the schoolís computer center. If you already work for a big company and your job bores you, try to transfer to a department that puts you in closer contact with the computer. After a year in such a transitional state, you can break into the computer field more easily since you can put the word "computer" somewhere on your résumé as "job experience".

If youíre a college kid, write programs that help the professors, or help others during your summer vacations. Agree to write the programs for little or no pay. Your goal is not money: your goal is to put "experienced programmer" on your résumé.

Interviews When applying for your first computer job, try to avoid the "personnel" office. The bureaucrats in that office will look at your résumé, see it includes too little experience, and trash it.

Instead, play the who-you-know game. Contact somebody who actually works with computers. Convince that person youíre brighter than your résumé indicates. Prove youíve learned so much (from reading, courses, and practice) that you can quickly conquer any task laid before you. If you impress that person enough, you might get the job even though your paper qualifications look too brief.

When you get an interview, be assertive. Ask the interviewer more questions than the interviewer asks you. Ask the interviewer about the companyís computer, and about why the company doesnít have a different one instead. Ask the interviewer how the other people in the company feel about the computer center. Ask the same kinds of questions a data-processing manager would ask. That way, the interviewer will assume you have the potential to become a data-processing manager, and will hire you immediately. Youíll also be showing you care enough about the company to ask questions. And youíll be showing you have a vibrant personality, and are not just "another vegetable who came through the door".

One of the strange things about applying for a programming job is that the interviewer will not ask to see a sample of your work. The interviewer doesnít have time to read your program. Even if the interviewer did have time to read your program, he couldnít be sure you wrote it yourself. Instead, the interviewer will just chat with you about your accomplishments. You must "talk smart". The best way is to know all the buzzwords of the computer industry ó even if they donít really help you write programs.

During the interview, youíll probably be asked whether you know "structured programming". A structured program is a program thatís well-organized. It consists of a short main routine and many subroutines. To write a structured program, avoid the words GO TO; instead, use words that involve subroutines:

Language Words that involve subroutines






Later joys In your first job, your salary will be low, but donít worry about it. During your first job, youíll receive lots of training: youíre getting a free education. After your training period is over, your salary will rise rapidly ó especially if you do extra studying during evenings and weekends. Your real job is: to become brilliant.

After youíve become brilliant and experienced, other companies will eagerly want to hire you. Your best strategy is to leave your current company and work elsewhere to gain new experiences. Whenever you feel youíre "coasting" and not learning anything new, itís time to move to a different job. The "different job" can be in a new company ó or in a different department of the same company.

By moving around ó by gaining a wide variety of experiences ó you can eventually become a qualified, wise consultant. And youíll feel like God.

Social contacts Being a programmer is not always glamorous. Youíll spend many long hours staring at your screen and wondering why your program doesnít work. The job is intellectual, not social. But after youíve become an expert coder, you get into "systems analysis" and "consulting" and "teaching" and "management", and interact with people more.

Software publishing To be a programmer, you do not have to work for a large company. Instead, you can sit home, write programs on your personal microcomputer, and sell them to software publishers, for a royalty. If the software publisher sells many copies of your program, you become rich. (On the other hand, if your program is not a "smash hit", you remain poor.)

Since your program might not become popular, do not rely on software publishing as a steady source of income. Instead, view it as a part-time activity which, if successful, will put some extra money in your pocket.

The most famous software publishers are Microsoft, Lotus, Corel, Symantec, Broderbund, and Electronic Arts. There are many others. Browse through the ads in microcomputer magazines.

Software houses A company whose only goal is to produce software is called a software house. Software houses dealing with large computers typically hire full-time programmers and pay them fixed salaries. Software houses dealing with microcomputers sometimes pay royalties instead.


Programming is fun for young kids. But as you get older, youíll tire of machines and want to deal with people instead. As you approach retirement, youíll want to help the younger generation relate to the computers youíve mastered.

To be a successful manager, you need three skills: you must be technically competent; you must be wise; and you must know how to handle people.

You should know how to program. Know the strengths and weaknesses of each computer company, and be able to compare their products. Develop a philosophy about what makes a "good" computer center. Understand peopleís motives and channel them into constructive avenues.

Keep up to date. Read the latest books and periodicals about computers. Chat with other computer experts by phone, at conventions, and at computer clubs.

When trying to run a computer center, you can easily make mistakes. For example, many computer centers put four-foot-high partitions between their programmers, to give the programmers "privacy"; unfortunately, the partitions are counter-productive: theyíre too low to block noise, and too high to permit helpful conversation with your neighbor.

When putting a computer center into a school, you must develop a cadre of hot-shot students who are bright, friendly, and outgoing, and who will help and encourage the other students to use the computer. If the hot-shots are not outgoing ó if they become an elitist, snobbish club ó the rest of the school will avoid the computer.

If youíve hired "programming assistants" who help the programmers, donít let the programming assistants hide in an office or behind a desk. The programming assistants should walk up to the programmers at the computer keyboards and offer help.

In too many organizations, terminals are locked in the offices of prestigious people and arenít used. Let everybody share the terminals.

Too often, managers judge their own worth by the size of the computer centerís budget: the bigger the budget, the more prestigious the manager. Remember that the sign of being a good manager is not having a big budget; the sign of a good manager is the ability to meet the companyís needs on a small budget.

Too often, the head of the computer center decides who can use the computer. So the head of the computer center becomes powerful ó and evil. To avoid concentrating so much power in the hands of one bureaucrat, use distributed processing: get several small computers instead of one big monster, and give each department its own small computer.

If youíre a "microcomputer consultant" and honest, youíll tell your client to buy low-cost popular programs, instead of telling him to pay you to invent "customized" programs.


You can find three kinds of salesmen.

The "slick" kind knows "how to sell", but doesnít know any technical details about the computer heís selling. He doesnít know how to program, and doesnít know much about the computers sold by his competitors. All he knows is the "line" that his boss told him to give the customers. That kind of salesman usually resorts to off-color tactics, such as claiming that all computers sold by competitors are "toys".

The opposite kind of salesman is technical: he knows every detail about every computer manufactured, but canít give you any practical advice about which computer best meets your needs.

The best kind of salesman is a consultant. He asks a lot of questions about your particular needs, tells you which of his computers meets your needs best, and even tells you the limitations of his computer and why another, more expensive computer sold by a competitor might be better. Heís an "honest Joe". He clinches the sale because you trust him, and because you know you wonít have any unpleasant surprises after the sale. While selling you a computer, he teaches you a lot. Heís a true friend.

A woman can sell computers more easily than a man. Thatís because most computer customers are men, and men are more attracted to women. Itís also because, in our society, women are more "trusted" than men. But if youíre a woman, say some technical buzzwords to convince the customer that youíre technically competent. Otherwise, the customer will assume that since youíre a woman, you must be a "dumb secretary".

Be an entrepreneur

How about starting a rental service, where people can rent microcomputers? How about starting a camp, where kids can spend the summer playing with computers? How about starting a computer set-up service, where you teach businesses how to start using microcomputers? How about writing easy manuals explaining the most popular software? Each of those ideas has been tried successfully; join the fun!

Learn to spell

If you donít spel gud, yur coleegs wil thinc yure an idiut.

Be especially careful with these words, which beginners often misspell:

Wrong Right Comments

computor computer "Computer" is a machine or person that computes.

"Computor" is a snobbish computer.

softwear software "Software" is the opposite of "hardware".

"Softwear" is a negligée.

imput input "Input" is what the computer takes "in".

"Imput" is said only by "im"beciles.

silicone silicon "Silicon" is what you put in an integrated circuit.

"Silicone" is what you put in your breast.

hexidecimal hexadecimal "Hexadecimal" means "six and ten", or "sixteen".

"Hexidecimal" is icky.

hobbiest hobbyist A "computer hobbyist" likes computers.

A "computer hobbiest" is even more hobbier.

Epsom Epson "Epson" provides printers.

"Epsom" provides salt.

COBAL COBOL "COBOL" means "COmmon Business-Oriented Language".

"COBAL" is a co-ed who likes sex.

TSR-80 TRS-80 "TRS-80" stands for "Tandyís Radio Shack".

"TSR-80" is a nut who says the alphabet backwards.

TRS-232 RS-232 "RS-232" means "Recommended Standard #232".

"TRS-232" means you worship Tandyís Radio Shack.

Dartmouth U. Dartmouth College "Dartmouth College" is where BASIC was invented.

"Dartmouth U." exists only in utopia.

For the following words, choose your favorite spelling:

Most computer experts write "disk", but some write "disc".

For "half a byte", humble programmers write "nibble", but snobbish programmers write "nybble".

Computerize your home

Back in 1970, computerists tried to predict what life would be like in 1990. Letís look at their predictions and see which ones came true.

The predictions appeared in Martin & Normanís The Computerized Society (published by Prentice-Hall in 1970), John Kemenyís Man and the Computer (published by Scribnerís in 1972), and a prize-winning essay by G. Cuttle in 1969.

Work at home

Cuttle said, "It may be more economical for companies to subsidize home Ďcommunications roomsí for their employees than renting expensive office space to commute to. Some establishments are already starting to provide computer terminals for the homes of senior staff. This is sensible when one considers the tendency for great ideas to materialize in the bath. Many of the better characteristics of the cottage industry may return, particularly in terms of personal freedom."

Martin & Norman said, "The first widespread use of home terminals will probably be sponsored by employers. Mothers who participate may be relieved of the boredom they feel when they are unable to leave their children."

Kemeny said, "Executives complain they rush into their offices then spend half their time talking on the phone, which they could have done as well at home. Office files will be kept in national computer networks, accessible from home. If we remove the need for millions of people to rush in and out of the city daily, weíd be well on our way to solving urban problems. Perhaps the central city will become truly an info center where the machines are located but not the humans who use them. Since cities still would have a central location, they might expand their roles as entertainment centers and places to live for those who insist on seeing a play or sports event in person rather than on TV."

What happened instead Personal computers have become so cheap that most homes contain them instead of terminals attached to timesharing services. Personal computers can communicate with national computer networks by using the Internet. Many executives work at home on personal computers during evenings and weekends but still prefer to meet face-to-face with other employees during the day.

Electronic shopping

Martin & Norman: "Instead of coming into a store, the consumer could scan a list of available goods and their prices at different shops on the home terminal, then use the terminal to order."

Kemeny: "For items costing over a dollar, cash transactions will totally disappear."

What happened instead Since banks charge merchants large fees to handle charge cards and fund transfers, many merchants require cash for all purchases under $15. Most attempts to develop computerized shopping systems have failed because consumers want to see photographs of goods before buying them. TV shows such as The Home Shopping Network succeed because they let consumers view before buying.


Cuttle: "Anyone who has any doubts about a computerís ability to cook breakfast has only to remember the average housewifeís state of mind at 7AM to realize that preparing breakfast is a very mechanical task indeed. Many other household tasks are equally suitable for computers to invade. At present each piece of equipment needing such a computer has its own small one built in, but the logical development is to have a bigger household computer tucked under the stairs. Circuits could be wired through the house so each individual gadget could be plugged in."

Martin & Norman: "A family driving home after a few days away will phone home and key some digits on the Touch-Tone phone to switch on the heat or air conditioner. A woman before leaving for work will preprogram her kitchen equipment to cook a meal; sheíll then phone at the appropriate time and have the meal prepared."

What happened instead Now that we have microwave ovens and gourmet frozen dinners, housewives (and househusbands!) can create dinner in less than five minutes without using a computer. Instead of being linked to a big household computer, each appliance contains its own fancy microprocessor (which controls the timing, temperature, etc.), since microprocessors have become so cheap.


Cuttle: "The householder could ask the computer whether any legislation in progress affects his neighborhood or interests. He could have easier access to his congressman. Conversely, he could be asked questions, and this might be a better way to keep congressmen in touch with the feelings of their constituents."

What happened instead Rich citizens can send e-mail messages to politicians by using the Internet. Low-income citizens havenít bought modems yet. Some communities have tried using two-way cable instead.


Kemeny: "Letís consider a system under which The New York Times, instead of publishing hundreds of thousands of copies, would store the same info in a computer tied to a national network, from which each reader could retrieve the items he wanted, in as much detail as he desired. Sitting at home, he could dial the computer network and ask for his personalized New York Times. The computer would remember which topics he normally reads and present stories on them a frame at a time. He could ask for more details. Heíd have available at any moment, day or night, completely up-to-date info. The system would make sure he doesnít miss any news that concerns him. If The New York Times adopts this suggestion, it should change its motto to ĎAll the news that you see fit to read.í"

What happened instead On-line services, such as America OnLine and the Internet, provide the complete text of daily newspapers around the country. Few people use those services, since they work just while the reader sits by a phone jack, and since the computer screen is too small to display the contents of a full newspaper page pleasantly.


Cuttle: "Automatic diagnosis by computer could be a useful aid. Interrogation through a home terminal could pin-point some everyday ailments. Much treatment can be carried out at home that today might necessitate hospital treatment. It may be far cheaper and pleasanter for the patient to have monitoring equipment brought to his home and connected through the terminal to a hospital computer."

What happened instead Many doctors and pharmacists use computers to double-check diagnoses and also warn of interactions between drugs. Diagnosis by computer-assisted tomography is widespread in hospitals. Many invalids stuck at home use beepers to call help when needed. Most patients trust neither computers nor doctors.

The whole family

Kemeny: "Father, if he brings his work home from the office, can use the terminal in place of a sizable office staff. Mother can do most of her shopping through a computer terminal. If by 1990 the roles of men and women have been completely reversed, the computer terminal will be equally happy to work out business problems for mother and to help father with his shopping and housework. Children will find the home terminal an immeasurable asset in doing homework; indeed the child of 1990 will find it impossible to conceive how the older generation managed to get through school without the help of a computer."

What happened instead The feminist revolution has encouraged role reversal. Kids use computers mainly to play games, practice programming, do word processing, print greeting cards & posters, send e-mail, and access the Internet.

Teach your kids

Hereís how to introduce kids to computers.


Hereís how to develop the curriculum.

When should kids start learning about computers? Programs have been developed even for kids in nursery school! For example, you can get "alphabet fun" programs: when the kid presses the A key, pictures of apples appear all over the screen; when the kid presses B, the screen is filled with bears; C generates cats, etc. To make the program fun, the pictures on the screen are animated; they dance!

Kids should start writing simple programs in BASIC when theyíre in the third grade. (The brightest kids can start even younger!) Before the third grade, the typical kid should learn how to run other peopleís programs and maybe learn LOGO (a language thatís easier than BASIC for beginners).

Which kids should take computer courses? Expose all kids to a computer. Give them the opportunity to press the buttons, run programs, and do other fun things.

Let all kids deal with the computer before entering high school. The intro instruction should be broad: dip into BASIC programming, hardware jargon, applications (such as word processing), and social effects.

The intro is important for all kids, regardless of math ability. Most computer programming requires hardly any math.

Include even the kids who are "slow" or "hate school", since the computer often helps them "turn on" to school. LOGOís been particularly effective at that.

If your school lacks enough computers to start an extensive program, wheel the computers from classroom to classroom so each kid gets to spend at least a few minutes with the computer each semester. Let kids who want to go further join an after-school computer club.

Which language should kids learn to program in? More programs have been written in BASIC than any other computer language. A person who doesnít understand BASIC is "out of touch" with reality and a computer illiterate. Every kid should learn BASIC before graduating from high school.

The youngest kids might also want to try LOGO, which lets you draw pictures more easily than BASIC. The oldest kids might also want to try PASCAL, which is more "sophisticated" than BASIC. But BASICís the most "practical" language to learn, since it can handle a wider variety of applications than LOGO and PASCAL. (LOGO canít handle random-access files well; PASCAL canít handle output formats well.)

Another advantage of BASIC is that it comes free with some computers. LOGO and PASCAL cost extra.

What should a computer course emphasize? The course should emphasize hands-on programming with a wide variety of amusing applications.

The course should not be restricted to math and science. In fact, less than half the programming examples should involve math or science. Most examples should involve the arts, business, word processing, etc.

If the computer course is taught by a math teacher, the schoolís principal should make sure the teacher doesnít spend too much time talking about math.

In the "computer curriculum", how important are music and graphics? Any computer for kids should play music and draw color graphics, because music and graphics create fun and maintain the kidsí interest.

Any course on computer programming should discuss how to program music and graphics. Besides being fun, such a discussion emphasizes that computers are not "just for numbers", and also illustrates visually the effects of programming concepts such as FOR Ö NEXT loops.

What homework should a computer course assign? The homework should including writing a computer program. To make that practical, the school must have enough computers to handle all the kids. Though the teacher should assign some standard exercises, the kids should also be encouraged to invent their own programming projects.

In what order should computer topics be taught? The course should begin with hands-on experience: the kids should write elementary programs (in BASIC or LOGO) and also run programs that others wrote.

As the course progresses and programming examples become more complex, give the kids a breather by inserting light-hearted topics such as video games, computer graphics, word processing, business software, kinds of hardware, computer companies, effects on society, and careers.

Educational applications

The computer can help teach many topics.

English While trying to write a program, the kid learns the importance of punctuation: the kid learns to distinguish colons, semicolons, commas, periods, parentheses, and brackets. The kid also learns the importance of spelling: if the kid misspells the word PRINT or INPUT, the computer gripes. The kid learns to handle long words, while wading through computer manuals.

Some kids "hate to write English compositions". The computer can change that attitude! If you let a kid use an easy word-processing program, the kid suddenly discovers that writing an English composition can be fun! The composition suddenly becomes "electronic"; it appears on screen! Revising the composition can be even more fun since the kid gets to use all the nifty "editing" keys on the keyboard. The whole experience becomes as much fun as a video game. A good word processor also corrects the kidís spelling without forcing the kid to endlessly thumb through the dictionary; it even corrects the kidís grammar and style. Watching the computer correct the spelling, grammar, and style is educational and fun.

To make the kid understand why parts of speech (such as "nouns", "verbs", and "adjectives") are important, give the kid a computer program that writes sentences by choosing random nouns, random verbs, and random adjectives. Then tell the kid to invent his own nouns, verbs, and adjectives, feed them into the program, and watch what kind of sentences the program produces now.

Young kids enjoy a program called Story Machine. It gives you a list of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other parts of speech that you can use to build a story. You type the story using any words on the list. As you type the story, the computer will automatically illustrates it! For example, if you type, "The boy eats the apple," your screen will automatically show a picture of a boy eating an apple! If you type several sentences, to form a longer story, the computer will automatically illustrate the entire story and produce an animated cartoon of it! The program will also criticize your storyís structure. For example, if you say "The boy eats the apple" but the boy isnít near the apple yet, the program will recommend that you insert a sentence such as "The boy runs to the apple" beforehand. The program comes on a $25 disk from Softkey (1 Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA 02139, phone 617-494-1200). To run the program, you need an Apple computer.

History The computer can make history come "alive" by throwing the student into an historical situation.

For example, a graduate of my teacher-training institute wrote a program that says, "Itís 1910. Youíre Kaiser Wilhelm. What are you going to do?" Then it gives you several choices. For example, it asks "Would you like to make a treaty with Russia?" If you answer "yes", the computer replies, "Russia breaks the treaty. Now what are you going to do?" No matter how you answer the questions, there are only two ways the program can end: either "Youíve plunged Europe into a World War" or "Youíve turned Germany into a second-rate country". After running that program several times, you get a real feeling for the terrible jam that the Kaiser was in, and you begin to pity him. Running the program is more dramatic than reading a book about the Kaiserís problems, because the program forces you to step into the Kaiserís shoes and react to his surroundings: you are there. When you finish running the program, you feel youíve lived another life ó the life of a 1910 Kaiser.

Such a program is called an historical simulation, since it makes the computer simulate (imitate) an historical event.

Current events The best way to teach current events is through simulation.

For example, when Californiaís Governor Brown had trouble controlling medflies, teachers wrote programs that began by saying, "Youíre Governor Brown. What are you going to do?" (One of the programs was even called "Medfly Mania".)

The best way to encourage the student to analyze the conflict between Israel and the Arabs is to tell the student to run a program that begins by saying "Youíre Israelís Prime Minister" then run a program that says "Youíre the PLOís leader, Yassir Arafat". By running both programs, the student learns to take both sides of the argument and understands the emotions of both leaders. Such programs could help warring nations understand each other enough to bring peace!

When Three-Mile Island almost exploded, teachers wrote a program that says "Youíre in the control room at Three-Mile Island". Your computerís screen shows a high-resolution color picture of the control room. Your goal: make as much money as possible for the electric company without blowing the place up. You can buy two versions of the program: oneís called just "Three-Mile Island"; the otherís called "Scram". To teach kids about Three-Mile Island, itís easier to buy the program than to get permission from parents to "take the kids on a field trip to Three-Mile Island" (which also requires that you sit on a bus while listening to 100 choruses of "100 bottles of beer on the wall" and worrying about kids who get lost at Three-Mile Island).

The best way to teach economics and politics is to give the student a program that says "Youíre running the country" and then asks the student to input an economic and political strategy. At the end of the program, the computer tells how many years the student lasted in office, how well the country fared, and how many people want to assassinate him.

The best way to learn anything is "by experience". Computer simulations let the student learn by "simulated experience", which condenses into a few minutes what would otherwise require many years of "natural experience".

Biology The computer can do genetics calculations: it can compute the probabilities of having various kinds of offspring and predict how the characteristics of the population will shift over time.

The computer can handle taxonomy: it can classify different kinds of animals and plants. The computer asks you a series of questions about an organism and finally tells you the organismís name. One of the most popular programs is a game called "Animals", which lets the student teach the computer which questions to ask.

To teach ecology, a graduate of my teacher-training institute wrote a simulation program that begins by saying, "Youíre the game warden of New Jersey. What are you going to do?" It asks how many weeks you want the deer-hunting season to last. If you make the hunting season too long, hunters kill all the deer, and deer-loving environmentalists hate you. On the other hand, if you make the deer-hunting season too short, hunters hate you; moreover, the deer overpopulate, canít find enough to eat, then die of starvation, whereupon everybody hates you. Your goal is to stay in office as long as possible.

Sex education When Dartmouth College (which for centuries had been all-male and rowdy) suddenly became coed in 1971, its biology department realized the importance of teaching about birth control:

The professors wrote a program that asks how old you are and which birth control method you wish to use this year. You have 9 choices, such as pill, diaphragm, IUD, condom, rhythm method, and "Providence".

After you type your choice, the computer computes the probability of having children and may print (if youíre unlucky) ***BOY*** or ***GIRL***. The computation is based, as in nature, on a combination of science and chance (random numbers). Then the computer asks your strategy for the next year. The program continues until the computer finally prints ***MENOPAUSE***.

The program lets you explore how different strategies yield different numbers of children. Itís safer to experiment with the program than to experiment on your body. Itís also faster, but maybe not as fun.

How can programs that tutor, drill, and test students be made exciting? Let the programs use the same techniques that make video games exciting: let the programs include color graphics and animation, require the student to answer quickly, and display a running total of the studentís points so whenever the student answers correctly the score on the screen increases immediately.

At the end of the educational game, the computer shouldnít say "excellent" or "fair" or "poor". Instead, it should just state the total number of points accumulated (in the thousands) and ask whether the student wants to try again, to increase the score.

If the studentís score is very high, the computer should reward the student by giving lots of praise and storing the studentís name on the disk. If the studentís score is low, no criticism should be given other than asking "Would you like to try again?"


When your school decides to buy computers, it will face these issues.

How many computers to buy The more the better! Whatever the school can afford!

Stick to a single brand, or buy a variety? The students should see a wide variety of computers, since each computer has its own strengths and weaknesses. The best business software is on the IBM PC, the best graphics and music software is on the Macintosh, and the best educational software is on the Apple 2GS. The school should decide on a "main" brand of computer (to simplify lectures about programming) but also buy samples of other brands (for demonstrations and for advanced students).

Best computer to teach programming The best versions of BASIC require a Commodore Amiga, IBM PC, or clone. For a cheaper alternative, get a used Radio Shack Color Computer or Commodore 128. Their versions of BASIC are all far superior to the Apple 2ís.

How to get free software If youíre a teacher, tell your hot-shot students to write the software for you. Your students will love the opportunity to work on a project thatís useful. Tell the students that if their software is good youíll write them glowing recommendations saying that they computerized the school.

Many software publishers give educational discounts. Some publishers offer "site licenses", where you pay a large fee but then can make as many copies of the software as you wish.

The nicest publishers of business software offer "trial size" versions for $10 or even free. Nice trial-size versions let you try all the softwareís keystrokes and commands but require you to keep your documents and files brief ó just long enough so you can study and evaluate the software but short enough so youíll eventually want to buy the full versions. For example, trial-size versions of word processors restrict you to one-page documents; trial-size database programs restrict you to 15-record files. When you try to exceed those limits, the software makes the computer say, "Not available in trial size. Buy the full version."

Trial-size versions are nicknamed "crippled software". Software publishers often let you copy them free, so that you and your students and friends can run "software test drives" and "software taste tests".


After buying computers, the schoolís administration must decide what to do with them.

Should you let kids play video games on the schoolís computers? Give each kid the experience of briefly playing video games since theyíre fun, encourage speed and agility, reward self-improvement, create a positive attitude towards computers and technology, lead the kid to thinking about strategies and programming methods, and provide examples of the best programs ever invented.

But discourage kids from spending excessive time on games. Give game-players lower priority than other kids who want to use the computers. To do that, you can restrict game-playing to just a few of the computers or a few times of day, or require game-players to leave when non-game-players want to use their computers.

By charging a small fee for game-playing, you can collect enough money to buy more computers.

Which rooms should contain computers? The safest place to put the computers is in the library. That reduces the chance of theft, encourages disks to be checked out like books, and makes sure the computer lab is run by a humanities-oriented librarian instead of a narrow-minded mathematician.

Most librarians know how to run audio-visual equipment and communicate with large databases and therefore donít fear technology. Since librarians enjoy humanities (especially reading) and nevertheless are comfortable with scientific technology, librarians are the ideal choice for running a computer center that meets the needs of the whole school. And the libraryís the only place in the school where all students and faculty can feel comfortable ó except for the cafeteria.

Try moving some cheap computers into the cafeteria for students to use during lunch and study breaks. That will increase the computersí visibility and turn lunch into an intellectual affair. With adequate supervision, you can overcome the cafeteriaís dangers (theft, food fights, and spilled drinks).

How can you supervise computers cheaply? Get parents to volunteer. Many parents would love the opportunity to work in a computer environment, in the hope of entering a full-blown computer career later.

Turn your schoolís computer club into a "Computer Service Organization" that helps teach the rest of the school about computers. The clubís members can mention such service on their résumés, which will help them get into college.

Give a speech to all students: tell them to help each other at the computers. Encourage teamwork.

Avoid dangers

How could computers change human society? The many good ways are obvious. Here are the bad ones.


Although the computer can have a mechanical breakdown, the usual reason for computer errors is mental breakdown ó on the part of the people who run it. The usual computer blooper is caused by a programmer who writes a wrong program, or a user who inputs a wrong number. If you want the computer to write a check for $10.00 but you forget to type the decimal point, the computer will nonchalantly write a check for $1000.

The biggest computer blooper ever made occurred at Cape Kennedy. A rocket rose majestically from its launch pad and headed toward Venus. Suddenly it began to wobble. It had to be destroyed after less than 5 minutes of flight. The loss was put at $18,500,000. What went wrong? After much head-scratching, the answer was finally found. In one of the lines of one of the programs, a programmer omitted a hyphen.

In one cityís computer center, every inhabitantís vital statistics were put on cards. One lady in the town was 107, but the number 107 wouldnít fit on the card properly, because the space allotted for AGE was only two digits. The computer just examined the last two digits, which were 07, and assumed she was 7 years old. Since she was 7 and not going to school, the computer printed a truant notice. So city officials visited the home of the 107-year-old lady and demanded to see her mom.

A man in Germany received a bill from a computer requesting the payment of "zero deutschmark". He ignored it, but two weeks later the machine sent him a letter reminding him that he had not paid the sum of "zero deutschmark". Two weeks after that another and more strongly worded letter arrived. He still took no action other than photocopying the letters and gleefully showing them to his friends. But the computer persisted and eventually announced that it was referring his failure to pay to the company lawyers. So he telephoned the company. They explained to him there was a minor oversight in the program, assured him it was being corrected, but requested him to send a check for "zero deutschmark" to simplify the reconciliation. He duly made out a check for "0.0 DM." and mailed it. Two days later the check was returned to him from the bank with a polite (nonautomated) letter stating that the bankís computer was unable to process the check.

That last anecdote was from Martin and Normanís The Computerized Society. This is from Time Magazine:

Rex Reed, writer and sometime actor, ordered a bed from a Manhattan department store. Three months passed. Then came the long anticipated announcement: the bed will be delivered on Friday.

Reed waited all day. No bed. Having disposed of his other bed, he slept on the floor.

Next day deliverers brought the bed but couldnít put it up. No screws.

On Monday, men appeared with the screws. But they couldnít put in the mattresses. No slats. "Thatís not our department."

Reed hired a carpenter to build them. The department storeís slats finally arrived 15 weeks later.

Undaunted, Reed went to the store to buy sheets. Two men came up and declared: "Youíre under arrest." Why? "Youíre using a stolen credit card. Rex Reed is dead." Great confusion. Reed flashed all his identity cards. The detectives apologized ó and then tore up his store charge card. Why? "Our computer has been told that you are dead. And we cannot change this."

On a less humorous note, a woman died from freezing because an errant computer thought she hadnít paid her utility bill.


Since the computerís a labor-saving device, it may make laborers unemployed. Clerks and other low-echelon white-collar workers might find themselves jobless and penniless.

The newspaper companies in New York City have realized theyíd save money by hiring fewer printers and using computers instead. But the printers union, upset, cried "Breach of contract!" The companies and printers finally agreed to get the computers, hire no new printers, but retain the current ones until retirement.

The advent of computers doesnít have to mean a net loss of jobs. In fact, new ones are created. Not all computer-related jobs require abstract thinking: thereís a need for mechanics, typists, secretaries, salesmen, editors, librarians, etc. There is a need for people to tell the programmers what kind of things to program. Running a computer center is a business, and thereís a need for businessmen.

When computers do human work, will there be enough work left for us humans to do? Donít worry: when no work is necessary, humans have an amazing talent for inventing it. Thatís the purpose of Madison Avenue ó to create new longings. Instead of significantly shortening the work week, Americans have always opted for a work week of nearly equal length but devoted to more luxurious ends. Thatís the gung-ho Protestant work ethic weíre so famous for. Computers will change but not reduce our work.

. . . Thatís what will happen in the long run. But for the next decade or two, as society shifts to computers, many folks will be temporarily out of a job.


Since the computer handles numbers easily, it encourages people to reduce problems to numbers. Thatís both good and bad. Itís good because it forces people to be precise. Itís bad because some people are starting to make quantification a goal in itself, forgetting that itís but a tool to other ends. Counting the words that Shakespeare wrote is of no value in itself: it must be put to some use. In both the humanities and the social sciences, Iím afraid the motto of the future will be, "If you canít think, count." Some cynics have remarked, "The problem with computers is that they make meaningless research possible."

Since only quantifiable problems can be computerized, thereís a danger that, in a burst of computer enthusiasm, people will decide that unquantifiable problems arenít worth investigating, or that unquantifiable aspects of an otherwise quantifiable problem should be ignored. John Kemeny gives this example:

Iíve heard a story about the design of a new freeway in Los Angeles. At an open hearing, a number of voters complained bitterly that the freeway would go right through the midst of a part of the city heavily populated by blacks and would destroy the community spirit theyíd slowly and painfully built up. The votersí arguments were defeated by the simple statement that, according to an excellent computer, the proposed route was the best possible.

Apparently nobody knew enough to ask how the computer had been instructed to evaluate the variety of possible routes. Was it asked just to consider the costs of building & acquiring property (in which case it would have found routing through a ghetto area highly advantageous), or was it also asked to take into account human suffering a route would cause?

Perhaps the voters would even have agreed itís not possible to measure human suffering in terms of dollars. But if we omit consideration of human suffering, then weíre equating its cost to zero, which is certainly the worst of all procedures!

People are being reduced to numbers: telephone numbers, social security numbers, zip codes, etc. When you start treating another human as just a wrong telephone number and hang up in his face, something is wrong.

Asocial behavior

The computerís a seductive toy. When you walk up to it, you expect to spend just a few minutes but wind up spending hours instead. Whether catching bugs or playing Pac-Man, youíll probably while away lots of time. You may find yourself spending more time with the computer than with people. That can be dangerous. For the average American child, his motherís a TV set. Will the computer replace TV as the national fixation?

Getting along with the computer is easy ó perhaps too easy. Though it can gripe at you, it canít yell. If you donít like its behavior, you can turn it off. You canít do the same thing to people. Excessive time spent with the computer can leave you unprepared for the ambiguities and tensions of real life.

The computer replaces warmth by precision. Excessive time spent with it might inhibit your development as a loving individual.


Computerization is part of the coming technological bureaucracy. Like all bureaucracy, it encourages the individual to say, "Donít blame me ó I canít change the bureaucracy." But now the words read, "Donít blame me ó the computer did it."

When John Kemenyís sister asked a saleswoman whether a certain item was in stock, the woman said she couldnít answer, because the information was kept by a computer. The woman hadnít been able to answer questions about stock even before the computer came in; the computer was just a new scapegoat.

Computers will run governments and wars. The thought of someone saying, "I canít change that ó thatís the way the computer does it" is frightening.

Concentrated power

As computers amass more info about people, computers will become centers of knowledge. The people who control them ó the programmers, sociologists, generals, and politicians ó will gain lots of power. The thought of so much power being concentrated in the hands of a few is frightening. A handful of people, pressing the wrong buttons, could atom-bomb the earth.

Nobody should have complete control over a computer center. The power should be diversified. Sensitive data and programs should be protected by passwords and other devices, so no single individual can access all of it.


The computerís the biggest tool in the kit of the white-collar criminal. All he has to do is insert a zero, and the computer will send him a paycheck for ten times the correct amount.

To catch such criminals, computers are programmed to do lots of double-checking; but if the criminal evades the double-checks, he wonít get caught. Police have a hard time finding computer criminals, because fingerprints and other traditional forms of evidence are irrelevant. Most computers have passwords to try to stop people from fooling around with sensitive data, but a bright programmer can devise tricks to get around the passwords. The crudest is to bug the wires that go to the terminals. The cleverest is to slip extra lines into an innocent program and get someone else to run it; the extra lines transfer money to the programmerís account.

Since you must be smart to be a computer criminal, if youíre caught youíll be admired. Instead of saying "What a terrible thing youíve done!" folks say "Gee, you must be smart. Tell me how you did it." A bright button-down computer criminal who steals $100,000 electronically gets a lighter sentence than the dude who must resort to a gun to get $1000. Is that justice?

Invaded privacy

Of all the harm computers can do, "invaded privacy" worries people the most. George Orwell, in his book 1984, warned that someday "Big Brother will be watching you" via a computer. His predictionís already a reality: your whereabouts are constantly checked by computers owned by the FBI, the IRS, the military, credit-card companies, and mail-order houses. My brother once wrote an innocent letter asking for stamps. Instead of using his own name, he used the name of our dog, Rusty. Since then, weíve received letters from many organizations, all addressed to "Mr. Rusty". Our dogís name sits in computers all across the country.

The information computers have stored about you may be misleading. If you never find out about the error, the consequences can haunt you the rest of your life. Examples:

A teacher saw one of the little boys in her class kiss another boy. She entered on his computerized school records, "displays homosexual tendencies".

According to computer records, a certain man had "three lawsuits against him". In fact, the first was a scare suit 30 years before, over a magazine subscription he had never ordered; the second had been withdrawn after a compromise over a disputed fee; the third case had been settled in his favor.

Youíve a right to see what information is stored about you, and change it if itís wrong. For example, if a teacher or employer writes a "confidential recommendation" about you, youíve a right to examine it, to prevent misleading statements from haunting you for life.

Even if the information stored about you is accurate, youíve a right to prevent its dissemination to the general public. No organization should store or disseminate information unjustifiably.

Whatís "justifiable"? Fearing "Big Brother", people donít want politicians to access personal information. On the other hand, fearing criminals, people want the police to have a free hand in sleuthing. How to give information to the police without giving it to politicians can be puzzling.

Outdated information should be obliterated. An individual shouldnít be haunted by his distant past; he should be given a chance to turn over a new leaf. Moreover, info 50 years old may be couched in words that have been redefined. To be a "leftist", for example, means something different in each decade.

Only facts should be stored, not opinions. Itís okay to store that someone lives on Fifth Avenue, but not that he lives in a "nice neighborhood".

Itís unfortunate that people feel a need for privacy. If the info stored about you is correct, why argue? But many people feel a need to be secretive, and I suppose people have that right. Itís called the right to be "let alone".

People donít want to feel their whole lives are on stage, recorded by a computer. It inhibits them from acting free and natural. Even if the computer doesnít store any damaging information about you, the mere thought that your every action is being recorded is damaging, because it makes you act more conservatively. You may be afraid of adopting a good but unusual lifestyle, because anything "different" about you will look bad on the computerized records used by banks, credit-card companies, insurance companies, and other conservative institutions. The harmful thing is not that Big Brother is watching, but that you feel heís watching. You are subjugated.

Read good books

Begin by reading The Secret Guide to Computers.

Then read the hardware and software manuals that came with your computer. Although a beginner canít understand those manuals, youíll understand them ó after youíve mastered The Secret Guide to Computers!

Then read some of these books:

software: PCís for Busy People by Einstein (Osborne/McGraw-Hill, $23)

Multimedia Madness by Wodaski (Sams, $55)

hardware: How Computers Work by White (Ziff-Davis, $40)

The Winn L. Rosch Hardware Bible by Rosch (Brady, $35)

repairs: Keeping Your PC Alive by Boyce (New Riders Publishing, $28)

The Complete PC Upgrade & Maintenance Guide by Minasi (Sybex, $40)

Windows 95: Windows 95 for Dummies by Rathbone (IDG, $20)

Windows 95 Secrets Gold by Livingston & Straub (IDG, $50)

Windows 3.1 & 3.11: More Windows for Dummies by Rathbone (IDG, $20)

Windows 3.1 Secrets by Livingston (IDG, $40)

MS-DOS: DOS for Dummies by Gookin (IDG, $17)

Running MS-DOS by Wolverton (Microsoft, $20)

Mac: Macs for Dummies by Pogue (IDG, $20)

The Macintosh Bible by Judson (Peachpit, $30)

hacker subculture: Hackers by Levy (Delta, $13)

The New Hackerís Dictionary by Raymond (MIT Press, $15)

Bill Gatesí life: Hard Drive by Wallace & Erickson (Harper-Collins, $14)

Gates by Manes & Andrews (Touchstone, $14)

Internet survey: The Internet for Dummies by Levine & Baroudi & Young (IDG, $20)

Microsoft Internet Explorer Book by Pfaffenberger (Microsoft, $25)

Internet Netscape: Netscape and the World Wide Web for Dummies by Hoffman (IDG, $20)

Netscape Navigator 3.0 Book by James (Netscape/Ventana, $40)

Internet sites: The Internet Yellow Pages by Hahn & Stout (Osborne/McGraw-Hill, $30)

Internet Insider by Prevost (Oracle & Osborne/McGraw-Hill, $15)

classic BASIC: BASIC & the Personal Computer by Dwyer & Critchfield (Addison-Wesley, OP)

Guide to Structured Programming in BASIC by Presley (Lawrenceville, $35)

Visual BASIC: Visual BASIC 4 for Windows for Dummies by Wang (IDG, $20)

The Beginnerís Guide to Visual BASIC 4 by Wright (Wrox, $35)

DBASE: Everymanís Database Primer by Byers & Prague (Prentice-Hall, $20)

DBASE 2 for the Programmer by Dinerstein (Scott Foresman, $18)

PASCAL: Introduction to PASCAL by Zaks (Sybex, OP)

Oh! Pascal! by Cooper & Clancy (Norton, $47)

C: The C Programming Language by Kernighan & Ritchie (Prentice-Hall, $38)

The C Primer by Hancock & Krieger (McGraw-Hill, $30)

LOGO: LOGO for the Apple II by Abelson (McGraw-Hill, $30)

Mindstorms by Papert (Basic Books & International Soc. for Technology, $14)

FORTRAN: FORTRAN 77 for Humans by Page & Didday (West, $43)

The Elements of FORTRAN Style by Kreitzberg & Shneiderman (Harcourt, OP)

COBOL: A Simplified Guide to Structured COBOL Programming by McCracken (Wiley, OP)

Structured ANS COBOL by Murach & Noll (Mike Murach, 2 volumes, $33 each)

language survey: Introduction to Programming Languages by Peterson (Prentice-Hall, $49)

Programming Languages by Tucker (McGraw-Hill, OP)

numeric languages: SPSS Primer by Klecka & Nie & Hadlai (SPSS & McGraw-Hill, $16)

APL an Interactive Approach by Gilman & Rose (Krieger, $48)

stack languages: Starting FORTH by Brodie (Prentice-Hall, $35)

LISP by Winston & Horn (Addison-Wesley, $40)

assembly language: Ass. Lang. Primer for the IBM PC&XT by Lafore (New American Library, OP)

Assembly Language for the PC by Socha & Norton (Brady/Prentice-Hall, OP)

For each topic, Iíve shown the two best books. If you read both books about the topic, youíll become an expert.

For each book, Iíve shown the title, author, and publisher. Iíve also shown the list price (rounded to the nearest dollar) or said "OP" (which means "Out of Print"). If a book is OP, try to find it at your local library.

Share our knowledge

Thank you for reading The Secret Guide to Computers. If you have any questions about what youíve read, phone me at (617) 666-2666, day or night.


Youíve been reading the 24th edition. Iíve been revising the Guide for 25 years:

Edition Published Format Total pages & price How typed What it praised New tutorials it included

edition 0 1972 spring pamphlet 17 pages free typewriter HP-2000 BASIC

edition 1 1972 fall pamphlet 12 pages free typewriter DEC-10 DEC computers

edition 2 1972 fall pamphlet 20 pages free typewriter DEC-10 FORTRAN

edition 3 1972 fall pamphlet 32 pages $1 typewriter DEC-10 data files

edition 4 1973 January 2 pamphlets 63 pages $2 typewriter DEC-10 ALGOL

edition 5 1973 September booklet 73 pages $2 typewriter DEC-10 graphics

edition 6 1974 July 3 booklets 260 pages $5.20 typewriter DEC-10 artificial intelligence, numerical analysis

editions 7-9 1976-1979 6 booklets 410 pages $16.25 typewriter TRS-80 model 1 hardware, micros, COBOL, language survey

edition 10 1980-1982 8 booklets 696 pages $29.60 typewriter TRS-80 model 3 discount dealers, video graphics, PASCAL

edition 11 1983-1984 2 books 750 pages $28 TRS-80 model 3 IBM PC IBM PC, word processing

edition 12 1986-1987 3 books 909 pages $24 TRS-80 model 3 clones by Leading Edge DOS, WordPerfect, 1-2-3, DBASE, C, LOGO, 8088

edition 13 1988 Sept.-Oct. 3 books 909 pages $24 TRS-80 model 3 clones by Swan Q&A

edition 14 1990 June reference 607 2-column $15 Word Perfect 5.0 clones by Gateway Mac, Excel, Quattro

edition 15 1991 September reference 607 2-column $15 Word Perfect 5.1 clones by Gateway Windows, Ami Pro, advanced Word Perfect

edition 16 1992 May reference 607 2-column $15 Word Perfect 5.1 clones by Micro Express DOS 5, Quattro Pro

edition 17 1993 April reference 607 2-column $15 Word Perfect 5.1 clones by Vtech Mac System 7, Microsoft Word, Excel 4, repairs

edition 18 1993 August reference 607 2-column $15 Word Perfect 5.1 clones by Vtech DOS 6

edition 19 1994 August reference 639 2-column $15 Word Perfect 5.1 clones by Vtech Pentium, multimedia computers, DOS 6.2

edition 20 1995 March reference 639 2-column $15 Word Perfect 5.1 clones by Quantex Microsoft Word 6, Terminal, AMIBIOS

edition 21 1995 November reference 639 2-column $15 Word Perfect 5.1 clones by Quantex Windows 95, QBASIC

edition 22 1996 June reference 639 2-column $15 Word Perfect 5.1 clones by Quantex Internet, advanced Windows 95

edition 23 1997 May reference 639 2-column $15 Microsoft Word 7 clones by Quantex Visual BASIC, viruses, advanced Internet

edition 24 1997 December reference 639 2-column $15 Microsoft Word 7 clones by Quantex Pentium 2, AMD K-6, backup-storage devices

To get on the mailing list for a free brochure about the 25th edition, use the coupon on page 639, or just send me a postcard with your name, address, and the words "send 25th edition info".

Letís meet

I hope to meet you someday. If you ever visit the Boston area, drop in, say hello, and browse through my computer library. My heavy workload prevents me from chatting long, but at least we can grin.

If you like, join one of my blitz courses, where we cover everything worth knowing about computers in one intensive weekend. I give the course in many cities and charge just $2.50 per hour.

I can also visit your home town and give a course to you and your friends privately. If you have lots of friends, the cost per person can get quite cheap.

For more information about what I can do for you at little or no charge, phone me at (617) 666-2666 or mail the coupon on the back page.

How to give a course

After you practice using computers and become a computer expert, why not give your own courses? You too can become a guru. Here are some suggestions.

When giving a course, you wonít have enough time to cover every detail, so donít even try. Tell the students that the details can be found in The Secret Guide to Computers and the manuals that come with their computers.

Instead of grinding through details, have fun! Demonstrate hardware and software that the audience hasnít seen, argue cheerily about computer hassles, let the audience ask lots of questions, and give the audience hands-on experience aided by tutors.

Here are some of the lines I use to liven up my classes and loosen up my students. Feel free to copy them.

"Hi, Iím Russ. Iím supposed to turn all of you into computer experts by five oíclock. Iíll try."

"In this course, Iím your slave. Anything you want, you get."

"If youíre a boring group, weíll follow the curriculum. If youíre interesting, youíll ask lots of questions and weíll dig into the good stuff."

"Donít bother taking notes. If God wanted you to be a Xerox machine, He would have made you look that way. So just relax. If you forget what I say, phone me anytime, and Iíll repeat it all back to you."

"Thereís no attendance requirement. Leave whenever you wish. If we hit a topic that bores you, thatís a good time to go to the bathroom, get some munchies, or take a walk in the fresh air. Better yet, play with the computers at the back of the room, so you become super-smart. The tutors will get you any software you wish."

When youíre planning to teach a course, phone me for free help with curriculum, dramatics, and tricks of the trade.

Your first course might have some rough edges, because you havenít had experience yet in giving demonstrations, fielding audience questions, and dramatically varying the pace so that your audience stays awake. So for your first course, play safe: charge as little as possible, so everybody in the audience feels the course was a "good deal" and a "wonderful bargain" and nobody feels "ripped off". For that first course your goal should not be money: instead, your goal should be to gain experience and a good reputation.

No matter how great you think you are, your audience will tire of you eventually. To keep your audience awake, offer variety by including your friends as part of your act.

Good luck. Try hard. You can cast a spell over the audience. Courses change lives.

Your source of free help,

At your service, your computer butler,


(617) 666-2666