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Monthly Archives: November 2008



To my mind Thanksgiving has always been the most familial of holidays. I know for a lot of people, it’s Christmas, but I grew up celebrating Christmas always with just my parents and brothers and sisters. We never went anywhere. We never visited relatives. We opened our presents and played with our toys and stayed home and made a lazy day of it.

Thanksgiving was different. It was a day of feasting, to be sure, but feasting with aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. Sometimes there were friends who had no where else to go. We always had much more food than we needed. The adults always gathered in the living room after dinner and talked and talked and talked and reminisced about bygone days. The younger kids played until they couldn’t stand up any more, and the older kids, torn between the desire for play and the desire to hear family stories, sometimes joined the younger kids and sometimes the adults.

Sometimes in the evening we would gather around the piano and sing hymns everyone seemed to know. We all felt much closer than we really were. Or maybe we really were closer, and the distance produced by space and time and difference was what was unreal.

There was always turkey, of course, and mashed potatoes and gravy, and home-made dinner rolls, and plenty of butter. Usually there was pumpkin pie and green bean casserole with French onion topping and jellied cranberry sauce and dressing. But what I remember most was not the food. It was the comfortable feeling of satisfaction, the fulness of being sated with food and family and fun.


Good Book


My 11th-grade daughter will be reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende this year. I decided to read it for myself, in part because she told me there was a lot of sex in it. I wasn’t sure a book with “a lot of sex” was appropriate  for 11th-grade girls. I’m still not sure.

Nevertheless, The House of the Spirits is a spectacular achievement, a book epic in its scope, full of tragic romance, love, and magic. It is one of the best books I have ever read. I highly recommend it. Sometimes it seems to be about the 1973 coup in Chile that led to the death of President Allende and government by a military junta. But it is really about the women of the Trueba family. Allende herself said of her fictional family that she needed no imagination to tell the story of the Truebas. Her own grandmother was clairvoyant; her grandfather was the model for Esteban Trueba. Indeed, the book feels too true to be merely fiction, which is the mark of the best fiction.

Now, I know my daughter will not suffer any harm from reading The House of the Spirits. She’s a sensible girl with a strong and independent sense of self. I don’t worry about her being influenced by it. But I don’t think she will like it much. I expect she will find the casual immorality, spiritism, and political oppression equally offensive. I’m not sure she will like the main characters much: Clara, Blanca, Alba. She’s a good student, so she will dutifully read it. Will it awaken in her a taste for great modern literature? I don’t honestly know. She has already read nearly all the Jane Austen novels and Jane Eyre, none of which have been required for class. She even read Gone With The Wind, even though she hated Scarlett O’Hara. I think she read it only because I bought it for her.


First Computer


My first computer was a Sinclair ZX-81, a masterpiece of low-cost design. The entire computer was smaller than a medium pizza box, but it did have some drawbacks. To keep down costs, it did not include a monitor, but to encourage wider adoption, it produced NTSC video, so it could be used with most television sets. I purchased a big, clunky stereo boombox with built in black and white television to go with it. I used the television as my display. The ZX-81 also supported standard cassette tape for digital storage. It wasn’t perfect, but it usually worked. The first thing I did when I got my boombox was void the warranty by opening it up and adding a switch that would allow me to run the television and cassette player at the same time. I could use it more conveniently with my ZX-81.

The computer itself wasn’t much to look at. It was smaller than a pizza box and had a cramped membrane keyboard. One of the first upgrades I made was a real keyboard. I also expanded the memory to 64 kb.

The ZX-81 sported a custom version of BASIC known to aficianados as “Clive Code,” after Clive Sinclair, the man behind the computer. Clive Code had some interesting and unique features. My favorite was VAL() function, which would evaluate a string as if it were code. It was possible to build very complex expressions using string variables and then have them execute as a single line of BASIC. In the early 1980s when I returned to college after a six-year stint in the Air Force, my ZX-81 went with me. The college had a DEC PDP-11 for students. (This was before PCs had become common everywhere). Since the native language on the PDP-11 was also a version of BASIC, students in numerical analysis were supposed to write all their programs in BASIC instead of in FORTRAN like the examples in the text. I would write my numerical analysis programs on my ZX-81. When they were debugged and working properly, I would print out a copy of the code, walk across campus to the Computer Center, and enter my code at one of the terminals on the PDP-11. Usually I could do what little translation was needed in my head. Occasionally, I found I could even write my program in more compact form on my ZX-81.

The printer driver actually shared code with the video driver, so it was always possible to print what was on the screen. Unlike the video driver, which ran from ROM, the print driver was copied into RAM before running. By tweaking it and adding your own code, you could print things that were higher resolution than could be displayed on the screen. Keep in mind that the printer used a print head that mimicked the scan lines on a television. It used electrostatic sparks to burn the surface of metallic coated paper. It was a marvel of cheap technology but not at all practical for business applications.

I learned what little I know about assembly language programming from my feeble attempts to write assembly language for the Z-80 chip in my ZX-81. I think it was the most educational toy I’ve ever owned. I wrote dozens of short, single-use programs with no utility beyond the momentary problem they were designed to solve. It was fun.

The Sinclair ZX-81’s success was short lived. Within a few years it had been entirely supplanted by other, more-capable systems. By the time the IBM PC was introduced, it was already an obsolete product. When my printer finally went out, it was impossible to find a repacement, and I had already moved on, too. Still, I sometimes feel a little wistful, thinking about how easy it was to write my own programs on the ZX-81. I can’t even begin to make headway with Java or C++.