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Pratchett’s gadgets that helped mould the Discworld

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During Terry Pratchett’s first visit to South African in 1999, the planet’s leading fantasy writer reluctantly revealed to ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK the secret to the gadgets that helped mould the technology of his Discworld. Pratchett passed away on 12 March 2015. This is the text of the original article in Gadget.

“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 fact that this interviewer has been introduced to him as “a fan”.

He dreads being asked questions by fans who remember obscure punch lines 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 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 drive 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 PCs, 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 Windows 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.”

Instead, 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 heavier 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” (that is. “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 eight or nine 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 could 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 artificial 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 there 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.”

But 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…”

* Follow Arthur Goldstuck on YouTube at http://bit.ly/GGadgets and Twitter on @art2gee. See Terry Pratchett’s touching Twitter farewell on @terryandrob.

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Now download a bank account

Absa has introduced an end-to-end account opening for new customers, through the Absa Banking App, which can be downloaded from the Android and Apple app stores. This follows the launch of the world first ChatBanking on WhatsApp service.

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This “download your account” feature enables new customers to Absa, to open a Cheque account, order their card and start transacting on the Absa Banking App, all within minutes, from anywhere and at any time, by downloading it from the App stores.

“Overall, this new capability is not only expected to enhance the customer’s digital experience, but we expect to leverage this in our branches, bringing digital experiences to the branch environment and making it easier for our customers to join and bank with us regardless of where they may be,” says Aupa Monyatsi, Managing Executive for Virtual Channels at Absa Retail & Business Banking.

“With this innovation comes the need to ensure that the security of our customers is at the heart of our digital experience, this is why the digital onboarding experience for this feature includes a high-quality facial matching check with the Department of Home Affairs to verify the customer’s identity, ensuring that we have the most up to date information of our clients. Security is supremely important for us.”

The new version of the Absa Banking App is now available in the Apple and Android App stores, and anyone with a South African ID can become an Absa customer, by following these simple steps:

  1. Download the Absa App
  2. Choose the account you would like to open
  3. Tell us who you are
  4. To keep you safe, we will verify your cell phone number
  5. Take a selfie, and we will do facial matching with the Department of Home Affairs to confirm you are who you say you are
  6. Tell us where you live
  7. Let us know what you do for a living and your income
  8. Click Apply.

 

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How we use phones to avoid human contact

A recent study by Kaspersky Lab has found that 75% of people pick up their connected device to avoid conversing with another human being.

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Connected devices are becoming essential to keeping people in contact with each other, but for many they are also a much-needed comfort blanket in a variety of social situations when they do not want to interact with others. A recent survey from Kaspersky Lab has confirmed this trend in behaviour after three-quarters of people (75%) admitted they use a device to pretend to be busy when they don’t want to talk to someone else, showing the importance of keeping connected devices protected under all circumstances. 

Imagine you’ve arrived at a bar and you’re waiting for your date. The bar is busy, and people are chatting all around you. What do you do now? Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know? Grab your phone from your pocket or handbag until your date arrives to keep yourself busy? Why talk to humans or even make eye-contact with someone else when you can stare at your connected device instead?

The truth is, our use of devices is making it much easier to avoid small talk or even be polite to those around us, and new Kaspersky Lab research has found that 72% of people use one when they do not know what to do in a social situation. They are also the ‘go-to’ distraction for people even when they aren’t trying to look busy or avoid someone’s eye. 46% of people admit to using a device just to kill time every day and 44% use it as a daily distraction.

In addition to just being a distraction, devices are also a lifeline to those who would rather not talk directly to another person in day-to-day situations, to complete essential tasks. In fact, nearly a third (31%) of people would prefer to carry out tasks such as ordering a taxi or finding directions to where they need to go via a website and an app, because they find it an easier experience than speaking with another person.

Whether they are helping us avoid direct contact or filling a void in our daily lives, our constant reliance on devices has become a cause for panic when they become unusable. A third (34%) of people worry that they will not be able to entertain themselves if they cannot access a connected device. 12% are even concerned that they won’t be able to pretend to be busy if their device is out of action.

Dmitry Aleshin, VP for Product Marketing, Kaspersky Lab said, “The reliance on connected devices is impacting us in more ways than we could have ever expected. There is no doubt that being connected gives us the freedom to make modern life easier, but devices are also vital to help people get through different and difficult social situations. No matter what your ‘connection crutch’ is, it is essential to make sure your device is online and available when you need it most.”

To ensure your device lifeline is always there and in top health – no matter what the reason or situation – Kaspersky Security Cloud keeps your connection safe and secure:

·         I want to use my device while waiting for a friend – is it secure to access the bar’s Wi-Fi?

With Kaspersky Security Cloud, devices are protected against network threats, even if the user needs to use insecure public Wi-Fi hotspots. This is done through transferring data via an encrypted channel to ensure personal data safety, so users’ devices are protected on any connection.

·         Oh no! I’m bored but my phone’s battery is getting low – what am I going to do?

Users can track their battery level thanks to a countdown of how many minutes are left until their device shuts down in the Kaspersky Security Cloud interface. There is also a wide-range of portable power supplies available to keep device batteries charged while on-the-go.

·         I’ve lost my phone! How will I keep myself entertained now?

Should the unthinkable happen and you lose or have your phone stolen, Kaspersky Security Cloud can track and protect your device from data breaches, for complete peace of mind. Remote lock and locate features ensure your device remains secure until you are reunited.

 

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