By The Flash

The Flash is a computer journalist who would rather remain anonymous.

The computer show comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be the local user group's flea market in a high school gym or one of the alphabet matrix of national exhibits-NCC, COMDEX, CES, SOFTCON- overflowing the vast convention centers of San Francisco or Las Vegas or Chicago. Whatever its dimensions, the computer show is an odd tribal rite where computer makers, dealers and enthusiasts spend too many hours on their feet, talking too much about too many products that have yet to see the light of day.
    It's true that a great deal of business gets conducted at computer shows, but more important is the gestalt, the state of the art of "state-of-the-art," the latest chimeras and chipped-out fantasies of electronic intelligencers. The point is not to get lost in the detail. Do you really care about the umpteenth IBM-compatible business machine, the zillionth "integrated" software package or the zenith of Donkey Kong knockoffs? Haven't you heard enough about what's new and how Microsoft/Digital Research/IBM/Apple just pulled off the coup/screw-up of the decade?
    The answer is the thirty-minute computer show, inspired by the forty-minute Louvre in Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 movie Band of Outsiders. Of course, you'd probably have to linger a minute or two in front of the Mona Lisa at the famed Paris museum, but the computer showgoer has no valid excuse to dawdle. Even Apple's Lisa is not worth the wait: you can see icons any old time at ye local computer shoppe.
    In thirty minutes or less you can absorb the big picture, pick up brochures and spec sheets for later perusal, and even engage in a few clipped conversations. It takes tremendous concentration and quick reflexes to complete the course in time, but at the end comes the kind of euphoria you'd feel after running the marathon. Make sure you're wearing the proper shoes; I favor Adidas, although their bright blue-and-white design does clash with the dark pinstriped three-piece suit de rigueur at a number of IBM PC-dominated computer fests.
    The beauty of the thirty-minute computer show is that you won't need to bring any peripherals. The squeamish might want to take along a canteen or a first-aid kit, but such precautions are unnecessary if exposure to other showgoers is limited to a half-hour. You will be subject to torrents of hot air, and possible contamination from fanatics of certain operating systems and programming languages, but almost all thirty-minute computer showgoers have survived to tell the tale. The only equipment you'll need is a plastic floor, for holding all the brochures you'll pick up. These same bags are also good for garbage, which the brochures inevitably become. (And computers were supposed to lead to a paperless society ... )
    On your mark. Get set. Start. Now it's up to you to run the grid pattern of the computer show's floor-like Pac-Man gobbling up data and documents, glomming the color screen displays and gleaming hardware, weaving in and away from hordes of humans and robots, occasionally curving around for bonus points when something or other lights up, and pressing on toward your goal of the thirty-minute show.
    Is it really worth it? Ask anyone who's done it. Of course, the practice does raise eyebrows among professional showgoers, those unhappy souls who are part of the computer industry and condemned to serve time at shows until they can get their sentences reduced for good behavior. Then again, they're probably jealous of anyone with an independent, devil-may-care attitude.
    No doubt others will improve upon the thirtyminute computer show, but what I'm looking forward to is the day these shows are placed on-line on a computer network. Then you can let your fingers do the walking-all over your keyboard. And then maybe someone will write about how to do a computer show in thirty nanoseconds or less.

Free Software

My best computer prank involved counterfeiting twenty thousand brochures for a phony computer. I did it at the First West Coast Computer Faire, where the Apple was introduced.
    The big computer of the day was the Altair, so we named ours the Zaltair. We made it an incredible dream machine, with full Altair-100 bus compatibility plus 50 extra connectors. We called this the Zaltair 150 bus and had quotes in the brochure saying things like "And what a motherboard."
    The brochure compared the Zaltair's performance with that of other machines, including the Apple, and offered discounts for Altair trade-ins. We also had lots of "Z" words, since they were really popular back then. Words like "verZatility," "BAZIC" and "perZonality."

Zalatair Brochure

    Potential customers at the fair ran to the Altair people to ask for Zaltairs. Of course, the Altair folks didn't know anything about it. But they got concerned enough to begin confiscating boxes of Zaltair brochures. No sooner did we bring in another box than it would disappear, and we began to worry that we might get caught.
    Then I got an idea. We started sneaking our brochures into key distribution points around the fair, putting them underneath piles of legitimate material. I started leaving them in phone booths and other public places. Eventually the Homebrew Computer Club caught on and recognized it as a big joke and a prank. But the best part was the way I framed someone.
    I've discovered that the way to play a prank is to make it look like someone else did it. It's like playing two pranks at once! For the Zaltair I put a quote at the top of the ad, supposedly from the president of MITS. You took the first letter of each word in the quote and it spelled Processor Technology. I figured that some computer person would look at the nonsensical quote and realize that it contained a cipher. But nobody did, and I wasn't going to say anything.
    Then one day Gordon French, the founder of the Homebrew Computer Club, came by Apple and said, "I know who did this thing. I know who wrote the brochure!"
    I had kept it such a secret that even Steve Jobs didn't know I was the culprit, so I was very interested in what he had to say. With Jobs and a few other excited Apple people around, someone asked Gordon: "Who did it?"
    He said it was Gerry Egram from Processor Technology. "I know it's Gerry, because he's got a strange sense of humor."
    I just howled. I knew who had the "strange sense of humor." Anyway, I decided this was the right opportunity to let someone know about the cipher.
    "Hey, you guys," I said. "Look at this! If you take the first letter from each word in the quote at the top of the page, it spells out Processor Technology!"

The quote in the Zaltair brochure read:
"Predictable refinement of computer equipment should suggest on-line reliability. The elite computer hobbyist needs one logical optionless guarantee, yet. "-Ed Roberts, President, MITS, Inc.

    In a few seconds I had everybody there spelling out P-R-0-C-E-S-S-0-R T-E-C-H-N-0-L-0-G-Y, right down to the Y. So now, supposedly, they knew who the culprit was.
    It wasn't until four or five years later that I told anyone I was responsible for the Zaltair prank. I went out to dinner with Steve Jobs and told him the whole thing. He was beside himself. He had never once suspected me.


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