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My Gadget

Pratchett`s gadgets that help mould the Discworld



Reprinted by popular demand! In an exclusive interview, Britain`s best-selling author and the planet`s leading fantasy writer Terry Pratchett tell Gadget about the gadgets that help mould his writing…
“If I didn`t use computers, would you ask me about my pens?”” is Terry Pratchett`s testy response to the obvious Gadget question about his writing tools.
And the answer, frankly Terry, is Yes.*

Eventually, Pratchett succumbs. Perhaps it`s the Italian food we`re eating. Perhaps it`s the chemicals in the Johannesburg air. It`s certainly not the the fact that this interviewer has been introduced to him as “”a fan””. He dreads being asked questions by fans who remember obscure punchlines long after he has retired them from his best-selling Discworld series of satirical fantasy novels. Or questions about his computers.
But persevere, and he begins to wax lyrical.

“”If I still used a typewriter, it would be an old old Imperial 58. That`s the one I had most fun with. After that I got an electric typewriter, but typing a page was so final. You felt you had control of the Imperial 58: it was purely manual.””

“”When computers became available I began using a computer immediately. My first computer was a ZX-81, but I did word processing on it only for fun. The first computer I used for writing was an Amstrad 464. It was really a games machine with a tape dr ive built in, so my first word processor was on a cassette.””

Pratchett then “”graduated”” to the personal computer:
“”In the last 10 years I got through six PC`s, six portables and a couple of handhelds. Which is less odd than it sounds, since the real life of early machines was very short – from the XT to the AT and then pretty soon the 386, which let one use Wind ows with one window open. No one would expect an author of my input to use a PC bought 10 years ago.””

“”I always had a policy of having two machines to work on and at the moment it is a low end and a high end Pentium. If one blows up, I want a maximum of 10 minutes before I am working on the other machine.””

Pratchett likes his computing as portable as possible, but is not wildly impressed with Windows CE. “”It looks nice,”” he says, “”but it just doesn`t have the capacity.”” nInstead, he uses a Toshiba Libretto when travelling.

“”The nice thing about the Libretto is that I am writing a novel on it, I have all my other novels on it and my letters are on it, so if I need to check on something, I`ve got it there. With CE you can`t have that. And the Libretto is not much heavie r than a high-end CE. I`ve also got a Palm Pilot with me. It`s fun and quite useful.””

A little more useful, indeed, than Hex, the hilarious, elaborate computer housed at the Unseen University in the Discworld series. Although Pratchett might disagree…
Pratchett`s gadget put a Hex on his work

Hex is a computer like no other the world has ever seen. Or rather, that the Discworld has ever seen. For it is the one and only computer on the bizarre world created by Terry Pratchett, Britain`s best-selling author and the world`s favourite fantasy writer.

In the Discworld series, Hex evolves under the watchful eyes of apprentice wizard Ponder Stibbons, who by default becomes what we might think of as the IT manager at the Unseen University in the city of Ankh-Morpork.

As Pratchett puts it in his Christmas send-up, Hogfather, “”Hex worried Ponder Stibbons. He didn`t know how it worked, but everyone else assumed that he did.””

Sounds like most IT managers we know, doesn`t it? But this is different: Hex is activated by initialising the GBL, which Stibbons reluctantly admits stands for “”pulling the Great Big Lever””. This releases millions of ants into a network of glass tubing, hence the sticker on Hex that reads “”Anthill inside””. And it is all powered by a waterwheel covered with sheep skulls. That is, male sheep. In other words, ram.

“”Hex is a lot brighter than most computers,”” says Pratchett, discussing the properties of this very insane machine in the very sane light of a Johannesburg afternoon.

In The Last Continent (his new book, set in Australia), Stibbons says that after he has been working with HEX for a long time, it is easier to talk to senior wizards, because he has to break every idea into small bits and mustn`t leave any room for ambiguity.

“”It always amazes me that people who spend a great deal of time programming computers don`t spend time programming their fellow human beings.””

The inspiration for Hex, which evolves through seemingly unexplainable upgrades like extra cheese, a CWL (clothes wringer from the laundry) and “”small religious pictures”” (i.e. icons), came from Pratchett`s own early experiments with unfathomable upgrades.

“”I started off with a ZX-81 which I put together myself. It was very easy to add things to it. By the time I was finished with it, it had a speech card, a sound card, and 8 or 9 sensors: a barometer, solar sensor, temperature sensor and various light sensors. I invented Paged RAM: effectively, I gave ZX-81 lots and lots of memory, but it could only access a certain amount of it at one time. It was important that information was at specific memory locations and stayed there. I had lots and lots of 2kb memory chips. One program would dump all kinds of sub-routines on all these RAM chips, and the next routine would run the whole damn show.””

“”I no longer knew why that sub-routine was there or what it was doing there but it was vitally important that it was there. I couldn`t figure out why, except that it stopped working if I took it out.””

This Hex prototype still exists today, and would probably be a fine exhibit in a literary museum, if they ould prize it from Pratchett`s grasp. But he does not share the same respect for it.
“”It`s still lying in a shed. It`s a real rat`s nest, and I no longer know how I got it to work.””

Pratchett got the ZX-81 do do things that the computer industry is still trying to get right in the consumer versions of multimedia PCs and artificual intelligence. In those early days, the world “”multimedia”” did not even exist.

“”I would get up and it would sense me when I went into the office and say good morning, tell me what the weather conditions were, and whatever the forecast for the day was. It had a wind sensor too. If you know the wind direction and what the barometer is doing today, and you have a lookup table, it`s not difficult to forecast the weather.””

“”It had a lovely sound card with the sound of waves breaking. It had to do things all the time. Eventually thre was too much to do, and BASIC (the computer language that founded Bill Gates` empire) couldn`t keep up.””

He pauses, and with a practised sense of timing that would have done a stand-up comedian proud, adds: “”The voice recognition system was probably a mistake.”” nBut it did provide inspiration for the Discworld.

“”Hex is pretty much the same thing. The wizards are not quite sure why it works and not sure that everything it`s got is what they added. For instance, someone gave me a box of relays, so relays became part of the system. I`m not sure why. It was all done with a soldering iron and a box of spares and a bit of BASIC. Once I stopped using it for a while, I completely forgot how it worked.””

One can never be sure if Pratchett is being serious, but there is no denying that he has a unique view – if rather a strange one in a way that would interest the medical fraternity – of the world and the things in it.

While it is almost comforting to know that our reality helped shape his lunatic ideas, perhaps we also need to look at it from the opposite perspective: if the Discworld is inspired by the real world, we have to question the sanity of our own existence .

As the Unseen University`s Archchancellor, Mustrum Ridcully, would probably say, “”Sanity? Now there`s an interesting concept. Totally impractical, of course…””

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My Gadget

My Gadget: Chris Norton – 300kph is not fast enough



Chris Norton is regional director at VMware, one of the world leaders in cloud computing and virtualisation services. He also happens to own thousands of gadgets, and shares his philosophy about them…
Jen Su (a.k.a. Jennifer Su) is an accomplished TV news presenter on Summit TV and for African Business Report and Sky News. She is also a 5FM presenter on Gareth Cliff Mornings, with “The Hollywood Report with Jen Su,” an actress on M-Net Mzansi Channel’s “”Jacob’s Cross,”” a professional singer and corporate MC. We find out how her gadgets keep her one step ahead.
Ronnie Apteker, the original pioneer of the commercial Internet in South Africa and founder of Internet Solution, now in his second life as a movie producer, is working on his next production. He took time out to tell us about his favourite gadgets – which do not include cellphones!
We know his first name is Cliff and we know he has the ability to tweet the whereabouts of endless accidents, speed traps and stolen cars – all at the same time. He also tweets faster than most MECs can drive and he goes by the Twitter handle @pigspotter. SEAN BACHER asks PigSpotter about his favourite Gadgets.
In the second of our new series of My Gadget interviews, in which we ask opinion leaders in a variety of fields about their favourite gadgets, tools and apps, we feature BOB SKINSTAD, former Springbok rugby captain. He is now a popular radio broadcaster, and one of the few rugby commentators who keeps fans updated via Twitter. Feel free to tweet this!
Gadget is reintroducing an old favourite feature: My Gadget. We ask opinion leaders in a variety of fields about their favourite gadgets, tools and apps, along with advice for gadget buyers. Today we feature Aki Aki Anastasiou, host of the tech show Technobyte on Talk Radio 702, as well as a self-confessed “Weirdo, Trafficologist, Columnist, Speaker, Gadgeteer and Technologist”. He may mention the iPad in passing …
Reprinted by popular demand! In an exclusive interview, Britain`s best-selling author and the planet`s leading fantasy writer Terry Pratchett tell Gadget about the gadgets that help mould his writing…””,””body-href””:””””}]”

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My Gadget

My Gadget: Chris Norton ‚ 300kph is not fast enough



Chris Norton is regional director at VMware, one of the world leaders in cloud computing and virtualisation services. He also happens to own thousands of gadgets, and shares his philosophy about them…

Chris Norton, AKA Naughty Norton, says he was a lazy student with a penchant for sports like swimming, water polo and rugby. He started his career at IBM as a call centre operator, but quickly moved up the IT ladder. He has survived a brain tumour and a near fatal motorcycle accident. Married to Caroline, they have two daughters, Kamryn (10) and Ashley (7), both of whom have inherited his love of all things gadget.

Chris is intrigued by gadgets and owns thousands of them. The worst gadget he ever bought, he says, was a 16MB Sony Walkman MP3 player: it was the beginning of 2002, he paid R5000 for it and it could hold all of 25 songs.

He cites his best gadget yet as the TomTom Go 1000, ‚an awesome piece of kit, especially the LIVE functional traffic updates‚ . His attitude to biking encapsulates his gadget philosophy. Asked why anyone would ride a bike at 300kph, his response is: ‚Because they don’t make one that will do 350kph.‚

We asked him about his gadget life:

1. What is the earliest gadget you can remember owning?

A Commodore 64 gaming console.

2. What phone do you use and why?

Blackberry Bold ‚ I believe that it is a business tool and the most effective communication device, given the diversity of countries that I travel through.

3. What is your favourite gadget (aside from the above)?

My generator, my AR Drone and under-counter bar fridge. Even if there are no power failures, I really enjoy the prospect of being able to be completely self-sufficient for days, week or months if I need to be. And I like the concept of flight: the Drone makes it very easy and fun at the same time. The Bar fridge is always full and I am always happy to see it ‚ and use it, of course. With the generator, I will always get to see the rugby and drink cold wine or beer.

4. What is your favourite online tool or useful site and why?

The AccuWeather site ‚ when you have very little downtime, it makes it easy to plan activities in advance. It means I am able to make the most of the time that I have.

5. What is your favourite mobile tool or app and why?

Skype ‚ I believe in communication options that make the burden of travelling more bearable for both me and my family, as I can stay in contact and talk as long as I need to.

6. What gadget do you wish would just go away?

My Garmin. It’s just a backseat driver and never really seems to recognise the places I want to go. I need it for the speed trap info and warnings.

7. What is the best piece of gadget buying or using advice you can give to consumers?

Ask yourself if you want it or need it. If you need it, then it is not classified as a gadget. And remember, if you came home one day and your wife has sold that box of gadgets in the corner of the garage for what you said you paid for them ‚ you will more than likely lose quite a bit of money.

8. Which gadget are you looking forward to being launched in SA?

Buggati Veyeron ‚ technology and poetry in motion ‚ would love to test drive one, could never afford one. Not yet anyway.

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