What's All This Rzamble Stuff, Anyhow?

Jan. 31, 1991
Bob discusses the difficulty of churning out columns on a regular basis and how computers do and don't help with that task.

Sometimes I go on hikes with my sons and my wife. Sometimes I go on hikes without them; sometimes they go on hikes without me. Here in Northern California, just in the San Francisco Bay area, there are many dozens of parks, and many hundreds of miles of trails in these parks.

Sometimes my wife leads a hike for the local chapter of the Sierra Club. Sometimes my son Benjamin (age 25, he has a full Red Cross certificate and I don’t, so I am not eligible to lead hikes) leads the same hike. I have been on some of their hikes. What they amount to is a Ramble. Or, as I mistyped the other day, a Rzamble, which is a word that sounds pretty good to me.

The main point is that when you go on a hike with my wife, you will probably have a pleasant ramble. If you go on the same hike led by my son, you will have a pleasant ramble, but it will be a different ramble. If you join me on these hikes through the world of analog ideas, that will be a different Rzamble, and I hope you find it enjoyable.

I read several daily columns in the San Francisco Chronicle—columns by Herb Caen, who has been writing daily columns more than 50 years. I don’t know how he can do that! I also read columns by Jonathan Carroll, who is a little bit meshugineh (a little crazy) and quite amusing. Art Hoppe is another. I have big thick envelopes full of columns by Stanton Delaplane and Charles McCabe who wrote for the Chronicle for many years, but they died a few years ago. 

I must say, I have always been impressed with people who can assemble a few hundred words, everyday (or, every weekday). This column I’m writing is every 14th day, and I must admit, that ratio of 14:1 or 10:1 is a huge difference. I maintain an awesome respect for people who can put out a column every day. 

When I took on this project, I knew immediately that if I had to meet a deadline, I would be in deep trouble. So, I would have to write a whole bunch of columns and get way ahead of the game. Fortunately, I have had a little help from my friends, and I think I’m ahead of schedule-thanks to Frank Goodenough, Electronic Design’s editor in Boston. I have been encouraged and am making good progress at keeping ahead. I’m sure if I start to fall behind, Frank will chew on my ankles and get me straightened out. 

How can I crank out all these words? Well, it helps to have a decent word-processing machine to write on. Why am I typing this on an IBM-compatible Personal Computer (made by Compaq)? Well, I own an old Coleco ADAM word-processor at home and it works perfectly adequately for writing memos and letters. But, it’s not set up to transmit text encoded in ASCII, neither by modem nor by floppy, to Frank Goodenough in Boston or to the editors back in New Jersey. So I have this IBM-compatible machine, with processing by PC-Write-Lite* from Quicksoft, which works pretty well. 

And while I’m a great fan of analog computers, I must say they’re not terribly successful at saving and storing and transmitting text. I once set up a pair of voltage-to-frequency converters to put the X-Y coordinates of some letters and words onto a stereo cassette recorder. It did work. I was able to store the words. But the resolution was marginal, the throughput rate was awful, and the amount of tape to store 100 words would be absurd. 

And when we played it back, using a brace of frequency-to-voltage converters and a pen-plotter, the words and letters were shaky due to the jitter and wobble and wow of the timebase of even the best (analog) audio tape recorder. So, I’m not going to even try to use an analog-computer word processor—even though it’s not absolutely impossible. I’ll use one of these new-fangled digital word-processors (which is not yet as user-friendly as my old ADAM) and plunk down my words. It works, and I don’t gripe much about things that work. 

What I really want is a word processor like that new Super Food Processor: You can feed in a 2 x 4, and the processor will grind it up into sawdust. Then you can put the sawdust into its hopper, and it will extrude them out into a rigid 2 x 4.

I just want to be able to do that with words, too!! 

All for now. /Comments invited! /RAP/Robert A. Pease/Engineer 

ADDRESS: Mail Stop C2500A National Semiconductor P.O. Box 58090 Santa Clara, CA 95052-8090 

*PC-Write-Lite, available for $79 from Quicksoft Inc., 219 First Ave. N #224, Seattle, WA 98109—a very reasonable price, and a plausible, darned-nearly user-friendly piece of software. I recommend. 

p.s. Herb Caen just announced in June that, after 52 years in the game, he’s going to cut back from 6 columns to 5 columns per week. That’s still a huge number of words per week. But, no more “Sunday columns” from Herb Caen.

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