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Friday, 11 March 2005


Celestial Weasel

I don't know if you read this fine book on my recommendation? I think it is the best of its kind, although High Stakes, No Prisoners has the merit that Ferguson does not try very hard to make himself out to be a nice-guy whereas Kaplan is very much the hero of his book).
I could write much about this, and maybe will later, but three things leap to mind
a) the phrase 'Pen OS/2' always brings a smile to my face. I am smiling now :-)
b) clearly the big mistake (and since you have mentioned IBM I hope this is not a spoiler :-)) was going with IBM not HP. How could anyone have been stupid enough to make that decision (as I have probably said before I had the misfortune to have to deal with Dec and IBM back when to develop software you had to do more than buy a 1 grand PC and a 2 grand MSDN subscription, you had to talk to these wretched, wretched people - I got the impression that HP and Sun were much better to deal with though I didn't have the pleasure myself, I got lumbered with IBM and DEC instead).
c) the book (and the Ferguson one to an extent) makes it clear how much PC magazines at the time, and I am really thinking of U.S. ones like Byte not the much better British ones, really were a tissue of lies. All sorts of vapourware (hard- and soft-) was talked about in said magazines as though it really existed and were viable development platforms.


Well, he sings the praises of HP before saying "of course, we went with IBM". I guess that in 1989, the notion of IBM has the invincible leviathan was still very much current. HP were still mainly an oscilloscope company then (in all my years, I have never come across a non-PC HP computer in the flesh, although at DERA someone did have an IBM AIX server running an x-ray machine and when I first went to Ericsson we had to enter our timesheets on an IBM mainframe in Sweden through a 3270 interface - really!). In 1995, you'd definitely have gone with HP; today, there's no way, you wouldn't go with IBM. It's a safe bet that in 16 years from now, IBM will still exist, but HP won't.

I bought "Start Up" in a secondhand bookshop in Lytham, probably ~1998, I'd guess. It wasn't purchased on your recommendation (I just thought it looked interesting), but I will retroactively consider it to have been.

Celestial Weasel

The trouble with having done this for money for, um, 20 years this year, is that one can lose track of what happened when. I am betting I was working on the HP stuff in about '93. Which is 4 years later, and 4 years was a long time in those days (so much for things accelerating towards the singularity :-)).

We had them around a bit before I worked on them, though. I guess HP bought Apollo a bit before then (all together now 'if only there were some global information resource and a mechanism for searching it' - alright, 1989), so these would have been 9000s.

There is a book about Apple which essentially claims that Apple were responsible for Apollo (which at one point had a bigger market share than Sun) having to be bought by HP since they collaborated on a machine positioned somewhere between the 2, and Apollo threw all their resources at it, then Apple pulled the plug on it.


The Apollo/Apple story seems quite plausible to. The Apple Lisa after all was an all-singing, all-dancing workstation, as was the Job's NeXT, so those in the Apple orbit were obviously keen on trying to crack the workstation market through the 1980s.

I don't know if 4 years is long time any more, but I do know that I had been doing the MBA in 1998, the company I would want to work for would be Sun. They were the best company in the world to work for in the 1990s - they were truly cool in a way that Microsoft or the media trndies at Apple can only dream of. But I wouldn't want to work for them now.

Celestial Weasel

I have never thought of Sun or other U**x companies as cool. Certainly not IBM, I have never gone along with the 'they're evil, but they're a cool evil' theory myself.
I find Java and all its spawn (e.g. J2ME, J2EE) pretty laughable. So much complexity, so little power...
Even notwithstanding my dislike of American companies having worked for 2, I can't think of any I would want to work for on the 'cool' basis.
I would like to work on something 'cool' however, I am somewhat bored with my current job, though it has a lot in its favour beyond the actual interest level.


I've always been a DEC man. The first serious computer system I used was the QMW Starlink VAX cluster running VMS. But although Digital did produce many innovations throughtout their histoy (have HP ever produced *any*?), everything I've heard or experienced suggests that DEC was never a cool company to work for, rather the opposite, it is sclerotic, atrophied company dominated by sales managers in sheepskin car-coats.

The thing about Sun is that at the same time that Digital was being bought by Compaq, Sun was cementing its reputation as a company that one ever lost their job for buying from (Dave's sister and brother-in-law did seriously OK working for Sun in sales in the late 90s). Solaris had a reputation as the best Unix and the UltraSPARC architecture was pretty cool. Furthermore, Bill Joy was Chief Scientist and Scott McNealy forbad Microsoft from Sun premises (SPARC laptops anyone?). And there stock price was tending towards the vertical. There new HQ at Fleet even had its own Costa Coffee (I think it was a Costa and strictly this was after the end of the dotcom boom, but it was more certainly exciting than the Ericsson or Siemens offers). It was a heady mix: cool technology, cool environment (did they foosball tables, I wonder), products that sold themselves and a share price going only one way.

Of course, it's all went horribly. Who is the Sun of today? Google? But I doubt they do anything of interest in the UK. If only I could wangele a move to the California ;)

Celestial Weasel

I don't really know much about HP. Before the breaking down of the 'HP Way' they had a reputation for ethics and egalitarianism - supposedly only H, P and some guy who was tremendously annoying had their own offices.

Famed for their programmable calculators of course, though I was of the Casio faction at school. And lab computers, now I come to think of it. I remember wanting one for my secret basement laboratory, probably before I had heard of DEC at all. [You can remember your imaginary friends, I can remember my imaginary computers (*)]

Now, there is probably another scene from the great geek novel / series / musical, where the HP and Casio factions line up a la Sharks and Jets.

(*) OMFG - thinking about it, I can remember an imaginary friend's imaginary computer. Shoot me now.

Celestial Weasel

Hmmmm. I cannot find any pictures of the computer I am thinking of, but I do not believe I made up the computer. If I recall correctly it ran 'HP Basic' (you can find lots of references to this on the web) and had a built in VDU, quite a small one. I think they were mainly for controlling things in labs.
Doing a search on the web finds lots of HP desktop computers from the late 60s which is not what I am thinking of. Obviously they were doing the same thing as DEC e.g. it's not a computer it's a 'programmable caclulator' (a la PDP = personal digital processor - not a nasty scary computer).


If the HP desktop computers from the late 1960s (I remember coming across a good site on them once) aren't what you were thinking of, what were you thinking of - in general terms. How different from the desktops were they? What sort of year are in taking? Late 1970s? Is this your imaginary friend's computer (no shame in that).

Wikipedia claims that PDP stands for Programmed Data Processor. I do know that Olsen was dissuaded (by the first VC) from building a computer when the company started because there was considered to be no market for small machines, so for the first year or so, they build various electronic logic modules based on the TX-2 computer they had been working on at MIT (

Celestial Weasel

By count of hits on Google, your version of what PDP stands for wins. I think I prefer mine, however.

My imaginary friend had an Acorn Atom with the hardware hack done to do the strange blocky multi-colour graphics mode that I believe was used on the Multi-Colour Swap Shop background (64 * 32 in 8 colours). This was envisaged as being used for a strange graphical Adventure type game called Android One. I make no apologies...

I am not sure I believe in the HP machine any more. My recollection was that it was vaguely Osborne size (but not really designed to be portable) i.e. with a small integrated display and a separate QWERTY keyboard. I am guessing this would have been late 70s early 80s, and the sort of thing that would probably have been Z80 based with about 64K of RAM (it may not have been, but it was the sort of thing that might IYSWIM).
I can find no trace of it but will continue to look...


Were Swap Shop-style graphics state of the art for computer games in 1981 or were you already thinking terms of retrogaming?

I had imaginary computer called the Macron, which had a keyboard with no moving parts like the ZX-81, which, for some reason, i thought was the way of the future in about 1982. It also supported a Philips Dullscreen (I hadn't come across camel case then) monitor. I was never happy about the name (it should have been something like EasyScreen), but this was the time when there was concern about eye strain from monitors.

Celestial Weasel

Define state of the art. The Atom was probably about the 2nd cheapest assembled computer one could get (the ZX80 or maybe 81 at the time, I guess) was the 2nd. Therefore it is not so much state of the art, as state of the art with a cheap computer.
Different websites say different things, I think the Atom came out in 1980 or 81.
I was thinking not so much of retro-gaming as weird impressionistic graphics gaming. The concept, and I must stress this is a concept and not anything I actually set about coding or designing in any meaningful way, was basically a graphical adventure game, the user being a robot exploring an abandoned city (multi-level a la a dungeon). The robot having low screen resolution (but also a textual display, so you could swap between the Swap-Shop mode and a textual status screen). Beyond that I can't remember any details, I don't think it was ever very well thought out.

Anyway, the imaginary friend with the imaginary computer is not necessarily contemporaneous with the imaginary HP in my basement lab, they are different fantasies I think (I don't remember the imaginary friend with the modified Atom coming into my basement lab).

I can't believe I just typed that. I have already done the Alexei Sayle joke about imaginary friends, I assume?


"[T]he Alexei Sayle joke about imaginary friends". I haven't heard that one. Go on.


"Swap Shop" started in 1976, but I imagine that the BBC video effects depatment had the budget to procure specialised equipment that was only becoming available to the consumer with the Atom 5 years later. So, your game *would* have had state-of-the-art graphics for consumers in 1981. Interesting about the special graphics mode to produce "Swap Shop" (Ceefax?) graphics, but I do recall that the BBC had many graphics modes too.

Celestial Weasel

Obviously we are losing a lot in the translation but in one TV series he did a monologue to camera on the lines of (and you can choose suitable values of n and m here):

'When I was n years old I had an imaginary friend, he was better at sport than me, braver than me, more popular than me.
'Then when I was m years old I had an imaginary girl-friend, she was kind, beautiful, gentle, intelligent and laughed at all my jokes.
'Of course, they met each other and it was love at first sight and then I never saw either of them ever again'

Boom boom.


Imaginary girlfriends? Yes, I've had lots of those. I even went out (in real life) for several months with someone who (spookily?) had most of the characteristics of one of them. She dumped me in the end.

Celestial Weasel

Did that complicate the relationship?


Not especially. I didn't tell her, I hasten to add. I think there's a plot in here somewhere.

Celestial Weasel

There is actually a novel I read (bordering on the chick-lit side of life) where a character invents a fantasy boyfriend based on someone at Uni and then meets said person later when they are a doctor. The novel has the novel written by the main character about the imaginary version of her and the imaginary boyfriend, intercut with the framing story. It was actually pretty good, there are 3 linked novels but the author seems to have stopped writing them (or maybe just can't get them published) which is a shame, though she is a vicar's wife and the degree of God stuff was kind of creeping up by book 3.


Any idea of the author? This loks like something that might be interesting. Certainly, the imaginary boy/girlfriend who turns out to be real is a common trope in romcom fiction.

Celestial Weasel

Catherine Fox. The first book is 'Angels and Men' (set at Durham University), which is my favourite of the 3. The 2nd, which I was talking about here, is 'The Benefits of Passion'. The 3rd doesn't seem to come up on is 'Love For the Lost', but anyway by this point she is getting tediously religious and has a kind of obvious and annoying plot point (hint, a book about a female trainee vicar written by someone who is obviously moderately religious is called 'Love For the Lost', what might have happened in her past? Answers on a postcard...).

The first is, I think, really very good. The second is pretty good. She also writes a humourous column for the C of E newspaper (on the theme of being a vicar's wife, basically), and there are some books which I think are kind of collected from this. She comes across as the sort of person that, God stuff not withstanding, that you kind of feel would be fun to know.


Curiously, I had a crush on girl called *Kathryn* Fox when I was in the sixth form. She's a dentist now. My fantasies of study dates never came to anything (she was doing physics, maths and chemistry in the year below me) She was the only other person I knew who was long-sighted (even 19 years later, I still know very few). I had an imaginary girlfriend called Katty (short for Kathryn) in honour of the real Kathryn. She was biochemist from Huddersfield whose parents were librarians, her father at the polytechnic, the mother the music librarian at the town library.

There was a girl in my year at the sixth form college called Catherine Blackledge, who went on to write "The Story of V: Opening Pandora's Box" ( Which probably wasn't the officially intended goal of 13 years of Catholic education. I had wondered if the author was her (there's no photo on the fly-leaf), but Friends Reunited has just confirmed that it is indeed she.

Celestial Weasel

Apart from the purveyor of sub-C.S.Lewis Christian allegory, who we have definitely discussed, have I mentioned Michelle Paver? ( or see

was a 4th year Biochemist in my 1st year, she had one of the secret non-crap rooms on my corridor [the way the system at LMH worked was that one got to choose rooms in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th year and the 1st years got what was left over - in addition to various blocks known to have good rooms, there were some secret good rooms scattered around the college, the knowledge of them being passed on in hushed whispers]. I remember her as being very quiet and mousey and always wearing white blouses, blue V neck jumpers and dark blue / black jeans. Now in photos she looks very glamourous. I didn't ever talk to her, always being rather shy about talking to people without any excuse. Apparently she was first writing her fantasy style wolf novel in 1982 i.e. then. Maybe if I had she could have been lured along to OUSFG :-)

I have probably commented before that it slightly ironic that the 3 people I can think of who are published fantasy authors from Oxford at that time, there are 2 (Michelle and Naomi) who weren't remotely involved in OUSFG.
There is of course Juliet McKenna, who mentions OUSFG on her website

I remember her going along to an OUSFG fancy dress Christmas Party dressed and made up as an elf matching her boyfriend at the time and looking rather cute. Also going as a ninja in another year (and that one of my pals thought she was chatting her up then).


I am ashamed to say that I have no recollection of Juliet McKenna. Since she did classics, she was presumably around in my first year (1986-7). I do remember that in my first year there was a group of people who produced the newsletter, but otherwise had little contact withthe rest of the society (well, little contact with those bits I was involved with). Maybe she was part of that cabal. It's also quiter possible that I've seen her at conventions, but that she has just never registered on my radar. I'll keep an eye for her.

On the strength of your comments and the evidence of the pictures of their websites, it would seem that Juliet and Michelle crossed somewhere in the glamour stakes between the early 1980s and the mid 2000s.

Most sf fans aren't Fans. When I went to the Arvon sf writing course last year, very few of the people had ever been to a con or necessarily even read much sf. Fandom can be a deeply wonderful place, but it's also definitely not for all tastes. It's the fiawol v. fijagh debate. For many people, the hobby is just reading the books. They don't need fandom at all. Especially when you consider that the fannish demographic as much in common with the real ale drinking demographic. I remember Trevor at St Anne's who was a Tolkien fan. When I told him that I'd read Carpenter's biography, he stated that he had no interest in reading about Tolkien. This was a position I could not and do not understand. But then Trevor got kicked out at the end of the first year for getting a pass.

Celstial Weasel

> On the strength of your comments and the evidence of the pictures of their websites, it would seem that Juliet and Michelle crossed somewhere in the glamour stakes between the early 1980s and the mid 2000s.

This made my laugh out loud!

I suspect the people who did the newsletter who you didn't see much would have been Pita and David. They shared a house with Maria and two other OUSFG people in their third year, and both did 4 year things so were around the year after Maria graduated. They live in Oxford (they have 2 children - they had their first in their mid 20s which confused the medical system in Oxford completely as women in Oxford tend to have their children in their late teens or late 30s / early 40s, as she had a D. Phil. she was lumped in with the latter group). We see them occasionally, and Pita appeared in a TV program about Blakes 7 fandom.

Clearly, if the only people who bought SF were Fans (capital F) it would not be a viable market niche. If your comment is related to my suggesting I could have dragged Michelle along to OUSFG, then since I didn't ever talk to her, I obviously have no idea, though from her website one could get the impression that she might have Been The Type (TM). Or be The Type now, anyway...


It could well have been Pita and David. Were they at St Catz? For some reason, I have the memory that the newsletter editors were there. This was my first year (1986-7), Maria's third year, so if they were around the year after they had an even lower profile.

Michelle Paver: the only thing that you seem to be able to do from her homepage is go to the wolf books site, where there is a distinct paucity of information about her, although a great deal about wolves. From Amazon, it is apparent that she used to write women's historical romances, the kind of book that my mum reads avidly and I learn from the Transworld Books site ( that she was born in Malawi and got a first. I certainly wouldn't suggest that you should have asked her along to OUSFG. Do you think it would have been her thing? On the strength of the subject matter of her books, I'm not sure it necessarily would have been. I tend to feel that it is best to discover OUSFG through one's own efforts and desires and I suppose if she had got through 3 years at Oxford without discovering a need for OUSFG, it was probably not going to be a marriage made in heaven, but we will never know now.

Whichever way, Stephen Baxter's wife is probably kicking him and saying: "it was wolves, you idiot, wolves, not bloody mammoths that you should be writing about!"

I am currently watching a delivery man remove a 42" PDP from a van. Sadly nothing to do with DEC minicomputers.

Celestial Weasel

Yep, they were at Catz. Incidentally, I was wandering around Oxford on Saturday and I see that Catz has sprouted a bloody great new quad, pretty much in the style of the old one but with car parking in the middle (only 3 sides of the quad have buildings, really).

Hard to tell if it would have been her thing, probably not. The theory that there were people whose lives would have been complete had they only known about OUSFG is somewhat far-fetched, but how would one prove the hypothesis? The amusing way would be to find someone who would fit the profile very well and then make sure they never found out about it. Or better still, conceal its existence from them for 2 years and then when they find out tell them that they were the subject of a bizarre psychological experiment.

Celestial Weasel

PS, OK then, what is the PDP?


The PDP I saw yesterday was a 42" plasma TV. From Tiny. So, no doubt I'll be seeing it going back some time in the next few days.

It would be difficult to conceal the existence of OUSFG from someone because it would be difficult to conceal the existence of fandom. I'm always surprised when I discover that someone who reads a lot of sf, but has never jeard of fandom. Have they never read a book *about* science fiction such as Nicholls's "Encyclopedia of Science Fiction" There was a copy in the reference library of Preseton central library. The day I bought my own copy of the paperback, even then a snip at £4.95, in the bookshop in Clitheroe in July 1981 was a Happy Day. Or even an sf magazine? OK, these were hard to come by in the early 1980s - I tried and eventually got hold of "Analog" by mail order from "At the Sign of the Dragon" in Sheen. The arrival of my first copy - dated May 1983 - was a Happy Day. I'd already been going to an sf group for over two years before I went to Oxford. I already knew everything I needed to know about Andy Robertson. (well, perhaps not *everything*). But I suppose I can't necessarily claim to be representative in these matters. I've always been as or more interested in the meta-material than the material itself. So, it might be possible to have someone who is an avid fan but never comes across fandom/OUSFG until their last year. An experiment along those lines would be unethical though. Think of the psychological damage avoided (inflicted ?) by missing 2 or 3 years of OUSFG.

You have mentioned us as At the Sign of the Dragon, Sheen Lane, London.
Due to pollution we have had to move to Scotland, to the Scottish Booktown, but we are still selling SF books and magazines etc etc. Could you please print our new details,a s follows.
At the Sign of the Dragon
St. Ninians
New Road,
Come up and see us some time. there are over 20 shops in the town, most selling used books.
Richard and Marion van der Voort

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