Thursday, 6 January 2011


When I was small there were no computers. Well, that's not quite true. They existed but they had far less memory than the average modern microwave and less processing power than a washing machine. They also occupied an entire room and cost more than a Rolls-Royce. The ones used on the moon landings would not be able to run a basic word processor now. There were no iPods or CDs or DVDs or even VCRs. Hell, there were damn few colour televisions around! I watched the moon landings on a monochrome set. My record player still had a setting for '78 rpm' but I'm not quite old enough to have owned such a disc.

I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and was delighted when cassette recorders appeared. The quality was lousy but the portability was appreciated.

Television had three channels and they weren't on all day. Remote controls were unheard of, you actually had to get off your arse and travel the six feet across the room to change the channel, and if you were further than six feet away you couldn't see the screen because it was too small. If you missed a program, you missed it. No means of recording existed and there was no special repeats channel and BBC iPlayer was so far-fetched it didn't even appear on 'Tomorrow's World'. You know what? Aside from a momentary disappointment at missing the latest Bill and Ben, we didn't mind. We just went out to collect newts, tadpoles and lizards and work on turning our mothers' hair white.

The idea of computers fascinated me. A machine that does what you tell it to do. I was 18 before pocket calculators reached real-people prices and they didn't do much. The posh kids had ones that could do square roots but we had been taught to do that with pen and paper anyway. So it was with some excitement that I brought home my second-hand ZX81 with the astounding 16 kilobyte expanded memory and set to work learning BASIC.

Programs were recorded onto cassette tape. If the power went off, the machine forgot everything and it had to be reloaded from the tape. Sometimes 'save' didn't work. It was an intensely frustrating machine but when it did work, it was a lot of fun. Still, moving to an Amstrad PCW was like moving from a Morris Minor to a Ferrari. Then the 286 - damn, that was like being in control of the Enterprise! It had 2 Mb memory, a 30 Mb hard disk and a proper colour screen.

From then on it started getting silly. Now there are terabyte-sized disks that could, if they failed, lose the entire history of the planet. Memory is measured in gigabytes but every time the memory increases, a new operating system appears to use it all up. Speeds have moved from that 8 MHz 8086 laptop I once had into the range where if I run my old Lotus Works database, it will find a file before I know I want it.

I don't write programs any more. I can't follow all the C++ and the HTML and the Java (I thought that was coffee) and all the rest of it. I used to upgrade computers but even that has become uneconomical. Now I just use what's there, and programs do far more than I need them to anyway so there's no need.

I was on the internet in Compuserve days on a dial-up modem. It took the total collapse of Compuserve to get out of that damn company's clutches. Now I have broadband and to be honest, it doesn't seem all that much faster. There were no animations or fly-in ads in those days. Pages were simple and to the point.

Speaking of the point, it's time I got to it.

I like gadgets. I like electronics. I like the Internet and I like the spell-checker facility when I'm thinking faster than my fingers can type. I wrote my PhD thesis longhand and had it typed up. Today I type the novels straight in. This is, to me, a good thing. To the typists who depend on work, it's not, but there are still curmudgeons out there who would rather dictate or hand over scrawled notes for translation so the typists will last a while yet.

Sometimes I step away. If I go on holiday, Internet is limited or zero. If it's a fine starry night I like to sit in the garden with cigars and beer. There haven't been many of those for a while. Sometimes on fine days too. I have sat so still for so long that sparrows have perched on me. Mice have run right up to me and the look on their faces when I say 'Hello' is priceless. I have paper mail I haven't opened yet, never mind Email.

I have been on the internet since before many of the Facebook generation was born, and yet if you take away their computers, they get withdrawal symptoms.

The scientists asked volunteers to stay away from all emails, text messages, Facebook and Twitter updates for 24 hours. They found that the participants began to develop symptoms typically seen in smokers attempting to give up.

There is no chemical here. No active ingredient. No physical drug. Yet they show the same symptoms as smokers trying to give up or druggies going cold turkey. I have been online far longer than most of them and yet being offline doesn't affect me at all. I have never thought of it as a neccesary part of life. Like smoking and drinking, it's recreation. Addiction is a state of mind. Nothing more.

Richard, in the comments here, mentioned animals that appear to be addicted to nicotine. Animals are not human and do not think like humans. If you give them something they like and then take it away, however, they react rather like humans in that they get annoyed about it. Many of those forced to stop smoking become 'born-again nonsmokers' and react violently when confronted with someone who is still allowed to do what they are no longer allowed to do. That's an animal response. Those who give up smoking because they want to aren't bothered by other people continuing. That's the human response. Animal responses to the withdrawal of something they regarded as a treat do not translate into human responses to something they don't want to do any more. I still say the addiction is an illusion.

The zero-nicotine Electrofag cartridges should arrive soon, snow permitting. Then I'll know for sure.

The only way anyone else will know for sure is to try it themselves.


JJ said...

“Addiction is a state of mind. Nothing more.”

This is the whole point when people often refer to something as being an addiction. Nothing in the world is addictive…it is, and always will be, how any one individual interacts with something.
They may become obsessive with something to varying degrees, but others can, when interacting with the same thing display a lesser obsession. It’s called self-discipline. I’ve played roulette for many years…but I could always walk away whenever I felt like it.
Most people can…others however, less so.

Your right Leg-iron – addiction is 'an illusion'

Happy New Year.

Neal Asher said...

I admire your spirit of inquiry, Leg Iron, but I'll never touch an electrofag myself. As well as the taste and feel of a rollie I love the process of rolling them.

Get those seeds planted!

Catherine in Athens said...

Slightly OT, but have you seen this?

Chilling stuff.

Frank Davis said...

It took the total collapse of Compuserve to get out of that damn company's clutches.

I started out on Compuserve too, in 1995 or so. I rapidly got to dislike their totally clunky user interface, and also the way they were trying to lock people in. Did Compuserve eventually actually collapse?

Anonymous said...


Related to your comment :-

"I don't write programs any more. I can't follow all the C++ and the HTML and the Java (I thought that was coffee) and all the rest of it."

You are correct in that C++ Java etc. are not suitable tools for the beginner or casual user. They tend to be counter-intuitive and involve steep learning curves.

As you might find it useful to do the occasional bit of programming in your career as a microbiologist, I thought it might be useful for you to know that a familiarity with BASIC still remains useful in the present day.

Here are a few links you might wish to peruse.

1. Use a rudimentary BASIC from within a web browser at

Click on the 'Write your own' tab

2. Microsoft's QuickBasic 4.5 (although no longer sold) can be downloaded for free from here and still runs fine under Windows XP (although you usually need to place the software onto two floppy disks before it can be installed).

3. I haven't tried this next one myself but it looks useful and runs on modern operating system versions.

4. For the graphical user interface environment it is difficult to beat this modern form of BASIC. This particular BASIC is not at all like the old forms of the language and is more suited to professional programmers. However it has all the power of any 'C' language product.

Expat Brit living in Canada

richard said...

I mentioned the animals because they exhibited a response after being deprived of nicotine. Arguably the squirrels don't have minds for the addiction to be in, ie as a psychosomatic problem, but they have a mammalian brain as we do, which is the point. The chimp I mentioned was routinely given cigs and matches by visitors and smoked. When the safari park closed he had to go without. It was then unsafe for smokers to approach him because he could smell tobacco and became agitated.

Anonymous said...

"Richard, in the comments here, mentioned animals that appear to be addicted to nicotine"

Intravenous Self-Administration: Prototypic Addictive Substances vs. Nicotine

"1.Addictive substances such as cocaine and heroin characteristically support rapid acquisition of intravenous self-administration in a large percentage of the experimental animals tested.
By contrast, few laboratories have reported successful nicotine self-administration.

There have been numerous published failures with nicotine, and yet the scientific literature is always strongly biased in favor of positive findings.

2. Special testing conditions are not necessary to demonstrate the potent reinforcing effects of true addictive substances such as cocaine and heroin.
By contrast, special testing conditions are necessary to demonstrate nicotine self-administration.

A. Food deprivation or restricted feeding schedules are frequently used.

B. Many studies with monkeys used stressed subjects:
(1) most studies house the monkeys in social isolation, and
(2) restraint chairs are frequently used to immobilize the subjects.


microdave said...

I've still got my Philips N7150 Reel to Reel recorder. I had to give it some TLC recently to get it to play my collection of Radio Caroline recordings, so that I could digitise them.

I remember the first radiogram we had with a built in cassette recorder. I think the frequency response went up to 10Khz, or 12Khz with Chrome tapes!

Dave H. said...

(this goes on a bit. Sorry about that. I suspect it's crap too)

"Addiction is a state of mind. Nothing more."

I can't agree with you on that second bit at all. It almost seems quite an eccentric view for a scientist to hold. Doesn't the existence of very powerful (and occasionally lethal) withdrawal symptoms from some drugs disprove it?

Although 'cold turkey' for heroin addicts may be highly unpleasant, a very bad withdrawal reaction, such as the DTs from alcohol, is commonly fatal (I think in the low tens of percent of cases). Your body can also bite back lethally when coming off Benzodiazepines. That's surely evidence for an effect that's more than psychological.

It's not even so surprising that if your body has become adjusted to cope with the continued presence of a physiologically active substance it may equally react badly if the stuff suddenly disappears from the system.

Mind you, the symptoms from, say, caffeine or nicotine aren't themselves much of an issue because they are much milder by comparison. I've never heard of either becoming medical emergencies. The anti-smoking lobby are just bandying words like 'addict' around to create an association between smoking and images of junkies sticking needles in their veins, to shame smokers into giving up. It's a cheap trick. (Another one they use is going on about the rather high acute toxicity of nicotine: it's irrelevant).

I think the main reason to quit smoking is to avoid the risk of health effects arising from long-term exposure to all those pyrolysis products*. People may enjoy it enough to accept that risk. It's better just to be straightforward about it.

(*I believe soot was the first recognised human carcinogen: a doctor noticed that chimney sweeps were more likely to develop scrotal cancer. Poor bastards. I'm amazed the health lobby have never tried pointing this out. A 'Smoke that Shit and Your Bollocks Will Rot' campaign might prove effective, and is about as honest as anything else they've done. Better not give them ideas)

To return to the theme, I don't imagine withdrawal from electronic gadgets is a 999-job either. A little bit of anxiety or irritability or whatever isn't going to do much harm. Then again, I still have my BBC B and ZX81 so maybe I just haven't ever experienced it.

Leg-iron said...

Neal - too soon to plant here. It'll be the end of February before I plant anything and that will be in trays in the house. I doubt even the greenhouse will be useable before April!

Leg-iron said...

Catherine in Athens - that's scary stuff indeed. Not surprising, but scary.

It won't work. There are too many of 'No. 6' here.

Leg-iron said...

Frank - I think Compuserve were absorbed into AOL.

Leg-iron said...

Expat Brit - thanks, I'll look into that.

Leg-iron said...

Dave H - perhaps I should have specified nicotine addiction. Other things can set up physical dependencies, but nicotine is just a buzz. The addiction in that case is hype.

It's like the 'racist-Nazi-bigot' chant. The word 'addict' has been devalued by applying it to things like shopping or the Internet. Or chocolate. I've met some who think they are addicted to chocolate and who will tell me of some chemical or other that's addictive.

The truth is, they just like chocolate and want to eat lots of it. There will be no withdrawal symptoms if they stop, other than the exact same ones reported by smokers or internet users or shoppers. All the same, because those forms of 'addiction' are all the same thing. Illusion.

Physical dependency is different, I grant you, but this isn't it.

Leg-iron said...

Rose - I think that spam filter has it in for you personally, you know.

Anonymous said...

I'm quite convinced of it, Leggy.

I can't think what I did, to get it to turn against me so vehemently.


richard said...

I met the smoking chimp. He was in a bleak concrete enclosure and was hunched and miserable-looking. He had a football and when I said "throw me the ball and I'll give you a banana" he did throw it and held out his hand. At that point he hadn't seen the banana! So he understood English and the concept of trade -but probably he was unaware of NRT addiction propaganda. Nevertheless, when he had no smokes after the place closed to visitors, he begged for fags from staff who smoked and became enraged when refused. I contend therefore that nicotine is an addictive drug, but that withdrawal symptoms are blown out of proportion to sell NRT, and amount to feeling irritable and edgy for a few days - based on my own experience, I didn't ask the chimpanzee but if he acted similarly minus the propaganda maybe it's fair to postulate withdrawal symtoms based on a pharmacological as opposed to imaginary effect.

richard said...

NB: I am very interested to see how this experiment turns out, Leg-iron, but a double-blind test would be required as anyone who is convinced that a nicotine vape is the same as a flavoured one (or vice versa) might - in all good faith, of course, and without realising it - influence the results. Cheers! And now for a nice roll-up...

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