Under-the-desktop Publishing

I thought all this computer stuff was meant to save us time. But one thing that Apple missed out of the desk top metaphor was the pair of legs sticking out from under the desk while you're trying to find out what your computer's getting itself into a tizzy about now. Mine's been in quite a lot of tizzies lately because I've been trying to add a lot of new stuff to it to make it run faster and better and do all sorts of sexy new things, with the result that I have become extremely well acquainted with the underside of my desk, and the magisterial chime with which the Mac tells you that it's had enough for the moment and is going to restart itself. When it 'restarts' itself it does so with that infuriating little question mark icon which seems to say "Yes? What do you want me to do?" What do I want it to do? It's got a 160 Meg internal hard disk, a 600 megabyte Qisk external drive, a MacPeak 140 Meg external drive, a Rodime/Syquest cartridge drive, a Relax optical disk drive, an Apple CD-ROM drive, an Apple Scanner and it's asking me what I want it to do? I want it to start itself up, god damn it, and stay started up.

Even before it started to behave like this, of course, I had been exploring the floor quite a lot, attempting to address the serial port. This is a ridiculous problem, and should have been dealt with years ago. I generally have my modem attached to my serial port. Then I got a FAX modem as well (before you could buy combination modems). So all I have to do if I want to send a FAX is select the appropriate driver under the Chooser menu, press print, then crawl around under my desk changing the plugs at the serial port. There was, of course, the Kensington serial port switcher attached to the port, so that I could at least switch between two different devices. Two. So, if I wanted to use my Farallon MacRecorder I would have to dive back under the desk again, which means that any piece of voice mail I recorded would usually have a few expletives at the beginning which would need to be deleted. Similarly, if I wanted to write some music on my synthesiser I would have to connect my Midi Time Piece to the serial port, which has led to the composition of some pieces of music that are as loud and bad tempered as Beethoven but with fewer good tunes.

Sometimes I escape from my Mac for a day. Writers very rarely get to go out, but when they do they like to know what they're doing. Since all of my diary and address book is in HyperCard I have to download it into my Sharp Organiser. Guess what that means I would have to do? Scrabble around on my knees with a plug again.

I got very excited a while back because I saw some excellent reviews of a new digitising tablet. It was called a Wacom tablet and an artist friend of mine told me it was excellent because it responded to pressure - the harder you pushed, the thicker the line. It transformed the business of trying to draw on the Mac. I've constantly been on the lookout for something that would transform the business of drawing on the Mac because I refuse to learn from experience. Experience tells me that however whizzo and zappy the tools you get for doing graphics on the computer, if you can't basically draw then whatever you do is going to look as if it's been down by someone who can't basically draw. Having graduated all the way from MacPaint, to PixelPaint, MacroMind Director and so on, I have only succeeded in making more and more elaborate and startling messes. However there is an ignorant and primitive part of me much like the ignorant and primitive part of Sylvester Stallone (I'm referring here to his brain) which actually thinks that he could look like a real actor if they could only get the camera angle right which still remains convinced that I could be a good artist if only I didn't have to do it with a mouse. (Many earlier years of hopeless thrashing about with a pencil are of course conveniently overlooked by this ignorant and primitive part of me, which was waiting for a computer to make it easy for me.)

So, my I & P part got very excited by the idea of the Wacom digitising tablet, and I was all ready to quote some plastic down the phone to MacConnection when some uneasy sixth sense made me go and consult one of the reviews in greater detail to find out how the tablet connects to the Mac. The answer was, of course, that it connected to the serial port. Not to my serial port it didn't. I am trying very hard to increase that portion of my life which I call quality time, by which I mean time that is not spent under my desk.

I was ready for the worst when I heard about the Caere Typist. For those of you who don't know, it's a very neat little hand-held device that works like a vacuum cleaner for text. I read through the reviews with deep gloom. Not because it didn't sound wonderful it did. It sounded terrific. It is a constantly available input source that sits right there at your elbow, and if you come across a passage in a book or magazine that you want to keep a record of, you just run the Typist over it and, hey presto, the text appears right there in the document you're working on. This was the sort of thing that Arthur C. Clarke was talking about when he said that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. A few years ago, magic is exactly what we would have thought was going on if someone had showed us Typist at work. The reason that it filled me with the gloom, however, was that I assumed it would have to connect to the serial port and that therefore I would not be buying one.

But! No! My ignorant and primitive part suddenly went whizz and zing with excitement. Typist connected to the SCSI port! Everything was going to be all right. I would have to move one of my hard drives out on to the network somewhere because I was fresh out of SCSI numbers, but it was worth it to get some serious magic into my system. I picked up the phone, talked plastic, and a day or two later a satisfyingly hunky box was delivered to my door. I unpacked it. I started to install my Typist.

The reason I mentioned that it was my ignorant and primitive part that got all excited rather than my rational and sophisticated part is that my rational and sophisticated part was raising its eyebrows rather sharply at this point. My rational and sophisticated part knows perfectly well that SCSI is a whole other basket of snakes next to which Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is as predictable as rain at Wimbledon.

You will have noticed that I have rather a lot of stuff hung off my SCSI port. It didn't get there by chance, or at least it didn't get to be in that particular configuration by chance. There was an awful lot of head banging work involved in getting them all into an order which wouldn't make the Mac go "Yes? What? What is it you that want me to do exactly?" The business of getting a SCSI chain into the right order is one of the world's blacker arts, and is rendered all the more impenetrable by the assumption which many manufacturers make which is that theirs is the only device you are ever going to attach to your Macintosh. Are they mad? Are they benighted, twisted, barking creatures who have never consulted the back pages of MacUser Don't they know that there's anybody else out there selling Mac stuff? Obviously not, or at least they choose to ignore the fact. What do they do? They put internal termination into their damn stupid machines! How do they know I don't need to put their wretched device somewhere in the middle of a chain? How do they know I'm not running an FX?

Excuse me, I'm getting cross but not as cross as I'm about to get. Not by a long way. But let's get there by stages.

So setting up a SCSI chain that doesn't make your Mac go bing or 'What?' involves not only crawling around under your desk, but at the same time fiddling around with screwdrivers trying to remove the internal termination from the interior of pieces of equipment that would have made Marconi squint. You finally get them all arranged into an order in which they will all work without grumbling, sulking, going bing or 'What?' or, out of sheer spite, scrambling the directory of your boot disk, and then what happens?

Your Caere Typist arrives and you try to install it. I mentioned earlier the benighted, twisted, barking creatures who put internal termination into the SCSI devices they sell, thus consigning you to weeks of sitting under your desk like a cursing hermit, but these people appear as shining white knights of rational thought next to the blithering, cross-eyed insects who designed the Typist with only one SCSI port! My world reeled. I clutched helplessly at the furniture, hyperventilating.

Of course it didn't work, stuck at the end of the SCSI chain. Nor for that matter did anything else while it was stuck there. Then its INITs wouldn't init properly. I phoned up and asked for advice on this and was told the obvious: in logical order try every possible combination of SCSI devices against every possible combination of INITs and see if any of them work. A quick calculation told me that this procedure would be unlikely to be finished before the most optimistic estimates of when we may expect the heat death of the universe, and that it would certainly be quicker simply to hire someone to type everything out for you. I mean everything: the Library of Congress, the Bodleian Library, everything.

I limited myself to just one weekend trying to get it to work, and for one brief flickering moment on Sunday afternoon, it did. But it's rather like building a twelve storey house of cards: it's a neat trick if you can do it, but you wouldn't want to live in the thing. Someone banged a door elsewhere in the house and the SCSI chain went 'Bing!' and 'What?' again, and stayed like that till I removed the Typist altogether.

So now it works very well as a very smart and elegant if rather expensive paperweight. It holds down great stacks of paper quite effortlessly while I type in what it says on them myself. I wouldn't mind so much except for one thing: I have now acquired a wonderful NuBus card called a QuadraLink which gives me four extra software switchable serial ports. Four! And if that's not enough, you can put in another card. It is absolutely wonderful, and is responsible for a nicely deepening layer of dust on the floor under my desk, which I have not had to visit for weeks. The thing that bothers me is that I could have bought myself a Wacom tablet after all. It cost more or less the same as my smart new black and red paperweight.

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