Sunday, October 05, 2008


Last year at this time I subjected myself to a gruelling "Barthathon," an attempt to read every John Barth book in chronological order. Read the posts if you want to know how THAT turned out.

I can't see myself ever reading another book by Barth, but I DID run across an interesting thing in "The Best of Creative Computing," published in 1976.

Anybody who grew up during the beginning of the 8-bit personal computer glut will remember those awful BASIC programs that tried to be INTERACTIVE. Written at a time when average people were still getting used to the idea of computers in general, a program that would ask you your name and then play "Guess My Number" seemed like magic...

...until you learned a bit of BASIC and saw that it was just smoke and mirrors. Those programs were intended for absolute beginners who had no idea about how computers worked, and I imagine even those beginners got sick of the concept pretty quickly (though "ELIZA" and "Animal" were special).

In the quest to make computers friendly, programmers in the '70s often tried to make them seem creative, at the same time tossing an educational bone to keep their programs from getting deleted off the mainframe. Larry Press' article "Computers in the English Curriculum" absolutely reeks of this stuff.

Page two of the article shows the output of a program called "BARTH," meant to emulate some of Barth's interactive-reader experiments from the '70s. It's much the same as all the other programs of its type -- enter verbs, nouns, and adjectives, which are embedded into print statements to create a nonsense story -- but DOES have the distinction of being perhaps the only John Barth video game ever created.

Incidentally, Margaret Chisman's "Producing Computer Poetry" is another example of creative-educational computer blah, notable most for how far we've come in our concept of computing (and how quickly we lost our naivete). My favourite article in that issue of Creative Computing, however, is one by Wes Thomas, in which he becomes extremely annoyed by precocious children at a computer fair.

This is SO bizarre:


Gary said...

Talk about bizarre. I clicked onto the link for Wes Thomas's article on the "Compyouter Fair" (not a typo) that was held in NYC in 1976 - and read about a high school classmate!

Matthew Korn (with the stock analysis program) and I graduated from the same "Bronx High School" in 1976. He went on to earn a Masters Degree in Computer Science, and holds a senior executive position with America Online, according to my research.

To Matt’s credit, he did not go on to become the Gordon Gecko of his day.

It's a small cyber-world after all!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Holy cow!

Gary, that is too incredibly strange.