To become a computer expert, you need a computer, literature, and friends.
A computer to practice on
If possible, buy an IBM PC or clone. You can buy a nice one for about $1000, a plain one for about $500. If you can’t afford even $500, get a used computer. Ask your computer friends whether they want to get rid of any “used junky obsolete computers” for under $100, or ask them whether they can lend you a computer for a weekend. Swap: if they lend you an Apple for a weekend, bake them an apple pie.
Another way to save money is to join your friends for a group purchase. For example, if 9 of you each chip in $10, you can buy a $90 computer. Divide the 9 of you into 3 trios, and rotate the computer from trio to trio every day, so that you get to use the computer every third day.
Literature to read
Begin by reading The Secret Guide to Computers. Then read the manuals that came with your computer.
Find out what’s new by subscribing to computer magazines or reading them in your town’s library.
You can get computer books and magazines from the bookstore at your local college. You can also try your local branch of Waldenbooks or B. Dalton Booksellers, which are nationwide chains. A cheerier chain is Borders, whose salespeople are more knowledgeable. If you live near Denver, visit Tattered Cover, which is America’s largest independent bookstore (303-322-7727).
To pay less, shop at discount chains such as Staples (which has a 15% discount on the few books it stocks) and Comp USA (which has big discounts on magazines and a 20% discount on all books). If you live near Boston, go to Harvard Square in Cambridge to visit Words Worth (10% discount on all paperbacks, 617-354-5201).
The following big stores specialize in computer & technical books, and most are willing to ship all over the world. They usually charge full price:
Since The Secret Guide to Computers is an underground book, you won’t find it in stores that are “overground”. To find out which nifty bookstores, computer stores, and consultants near you carry the Secret Guide, phone me at 603-666-6644, and I’ll look up your ZIP code in my computer.
Friends to chat with
When you have a computer question, phone me at 603-666-6644. Another way to get help is to join a computer club.
The biggest and best computer club was the Boston Computer Society (BCS), which had about 30,000 members, held over 1,000 meetings per year, published many magazines and newsletters, and had hundreds of volunteers who gave free phone help on technical topics. It began in 1977 but shut down in 1996. Its founder and first president was a 13-year-old kid. I hope some other 13-year-old kid starts something equally wonderful someday!
If you live near New York City, join a computer club called New York Personal Computer (NY PC). Membership costs $45 for 1 year, $80 for 2 years, $30 per year for students. The best way to find out about the club is to look at its Web site, www.nypc.org, which also includes info about other clubs in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Some info is also available by phoning 212-643-NYPC for a recorded message.
If you live near Philadelphia, join a computer club called the Philadelphia Area Computer Society (PACS). Membership costs $37 per year ($32 per year for senior citizens). The best way to find out about the club is to look at its Web site, www.pacsnet.org. The club’s phone number, 215-842-9600, usually gives you just a recorded message telling you to visit the Web site.
Americans living in Tokyo have started the Tokyo PC Users Group (TPC). Their newsletter, written in English, is top-notch! The best way to find out about the club is to look at its Web site, www.tokyopc.org. If you’re in Japan, phone 03-5956-7228 (for a recorded message about membership) or write to Tokyo PC Club, PO Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691 Japan.
The biggest and best computer clubs are in retirement communities in Arizona (near Mesa) and Florida.
To find computer clubs near you, ask employees at your local computer stores, high schools, and colleges. You can also check the list put out by the Association of PC User Groups (APCUG) at http://database.apcug.org/database/loclist.asp.
The biggest and best club for Macintosh computers was the Berkeley Macintosh User Group (BMUG), but it is shutting down. Its remnants are at www.bmug.org.
If you take a computer course, get personal help by chatting with your teacher and classmates. To save money, sign up for the cheap courses given by your high school’s “adult education” evening program and your local community college.
I occasionally travel around the world and give courses inexpensively or for free. Heads of the computer industry got their training from my courses. To join us, use the coupon on the back page.
To become a lawyer, you must graduate from law school and pass the Bar Exam. But to become a computer expert, there’s no particular program you must graduate from, no particular exam to pass, and no particular piece of paper that “proves” you’re an expert or even competent.
You can get a job in the computer industry even if you’ve never had any training. Your job will be sweeping the floor.
To become a top computer expert, you must study hard, day and night. Read lots of computer manuals, textbooks, guidebooks, magazines, newspapers, and newsletters. Practice using many kinds of computers, operating systems, languages, word-processing programs, spreadsheets, database systems, graphics packages, and telecommunications programs. Also explore the many educational programs for kids. Use many kinds of printers, disk drives, and modems. Study the human problems of dealing with computers. No matter how much you already know, learn more!
When I surveyed computer experts, I found that the average expert spends two hours per day reading about computers, to fill holes in the expert’s background and learn what happened in the computer industry that day! In addition to those two hours, the expert spends many more hours practicing what was read and swapping ideas by chatting with other computerists.
As a computer expert, you can choose your own hours, but they must be numerous: if your interest in computers lasts just from 9 AM to 5 PM, you’ll never become a computer expert.
To break into the computer field, you can use six tools: college, home consulting, home programming, salesmanship, job expansion, and on-the-job training.
The most traditional way to get a computer job is to go to college and get a Ph.D. or M.A. in computer science. Unfortunately, that takes a lot of time.
The fastest way to break into the field is to keep your current job but spend your weekends and evenings helping your neighbors, friends, and colleagues learn about computers. Help them buy hardware and software. Then customize the software to meet their own personal needs. Then train them in how to use it all. Lots of folks want training in how to use DOS, Word Perfect, and other popular software.
At first, do it all for free. After you’ve become an experienced expert and developed a list of happy clients who will vouch for your brilliance, start requesting money from new clients. Start cheaply, at about $10 per hour, then gradually raise your rates over the next few years. Most computer consultants charge about $50 per hour, and some charge much more than that; but I suggest that you be gentler on your clients’ pocketbooks! By charging little, you’ll get more clients, they’ll rack up more hours with you, and you won’t need to spend lots of time and money on “advertising”. For example, at $20 per hour you’ll be very popular!
You can write computer programs at home to sell to friends and software publishers, but make sure your programs serve a real need and don’t duplicate what’s already on the market. Be creative!
For a quicker career path, learn enough about microcomputers to get a job selling them in a store. As a salesperson, you’ll be helping people decide which hardware and software to buy; you’ll be acting as a consultant.
The store will probably give you permission to take hardware, software, and literature home with you, so you can study and practice new computer techniques every evening and become brilliant. If you wish, you can even moonlight by helping your customers use the software they bought and designing your own customized programs for them.
After working in the store several months, you’ll have the knowledge, experience, contacts, and reputation to establish yourself as an independent consultant. You can call your former customers and become their advisor, trainer, and programmer — or even set up your own store.
Another way to break into the field is to take a non-computer job and gradually enlarge its responsibilities, so that it involves computers.
For example, if you’re a typist, urge your boss to let you use a word processor. If you’re a clerk, ask permission to use spreadsheet and data-management programs to manage your work more efficiently. If you’re a math teacher, ask the principal to let you teach a computer course or help run the school’s computer club.
Keep your current job, but expand it to include new skills so you gradually become a computer expert.
The final way to break into the field is to get a job in a computer company, as a janitor or clerk, and gradually move up by using the company’s policy of free training for employees.
Many companies phone me when they’re looking for computer experts. If you think you’re an expert and can demonstrate your expertise, I’ll be glad to pass your name along to employers.
Occasionally, I even have job openings here at The Secret Guide to Computers. Feel free to ask. Although some of the jobs here are mundane, a nice fringe benefit is that you get to play with my 40 computers and oodles of software packages and take them home with you. You can also choose your own hours: work whenever you please! After you work here a few months and do your job well, I’ll gladly give you an excellent reference that will help you get an even nicer job elsewhere.
If somebody’s interested in hiring you to be a programmer or consultant, you must decide what rate to charge.
If this is your first such job, be humble and charge very little because your first job’s main goal should not be money. Instead, your goal should be to gain experience, enhance your reputation, and find somebody you can use as a reference and who’ll give you a good recommendation. Convince your first employer that you’re the best bargain he ever got, so that he’ll be wildly enthusiastic about you and give you a totally glowing recommendation when you go seek your second job.
If you can’t find anyone willing to pay you, work for free, just so that you can put on your résumé that you “helped computerize a company”. After such an experience, you should easily find a second job that pays better.
Although your first computer job might pay little or nothing at all, it gets your foot in the computer industry’s door. After your first job, your salary will rise rapidly because the most valuable attribute you can have in this field is experience.
Since experienced experts are in short supply, they get astronomical salaries. On the other hand, there’s a surplus of “kids fresh out of college” who know nothing. So consider your first job to be an extremely valuable way to gain experience, even if the initial salary is low. When applying for your first job, remember that you’re still unproven, and be thankful that your first employer is willing to take a risk on you.
Asking for a raise
After several months on the job, when you’ve thoroughly proved that you’re worth much more than you’re being paid, and your employer is thoroughly thrilled with your performance, gently ask your employer for a slight raise. If he declines, continue working at that job, but also keep your eyes open for a better alternative.
Negotiating a contract
The fundamental rule of contract negotiation is: never make a large commitment.
For example, suppose somebody offers to pay you $10,000 if you write a fancy program. Don’t accept the offer; the commitment is too large. Instead, request $1,000 for writing a stripped-down version of the program.
After writing the stripped-down version, wait and see whether you get the $1,000; if you get it without any hassles, then agree to make the version slightly fancier, for a few thousand dollars more. That way, if you have an argument with your employer (which is common), you’ve lost only $1,000 of effort instead of $10,000.
Arguments between programmers and employers are common, for six reasons:
To minimize those six kinds of conflicts, be honest and kind to your employer. Explain to him that you’re worried about those six kinds of conflicts, and that you’d like to chat about them now, before either you or he makes any commitments. Then make a small commitment for a small payment for a short time, and make sure that both you and the employer are happy with the way that small commitment worked out before attempting any larger commitments.
Here are further tricks for developing your career.
A programmer is a teacher: the programmer teaches the computer new tricks. For example, the programmer might teach the computer how to do the payroll. To do that, the programmer feeds the computer a list of instructions, that explain to the computer how to do the payroll. The list of instructions is called a program.
Languages The program is written by using the very limited vocabulary that the computer understands already. Earlier in The Secret Guide to Computers, I explained a vocabulary called BASIC, which consists of words such as PRINT, INPUT, GO TO, IF, THEN, and STOP. That vocabulary — BASIC — is called a computer language. It’s a small part of English. No computer understands the whole English language. The programmer’s job is to translate an English sentence (such as “do the payroll”) into language the computer understands (such as BASIC). So the programmer is a translator.
Some computers understand BASIC. Other computers understand a different vocabulary, called COBOL. For example, COBOL uses the words DISPLAY and WRITE instead of PRINT.
Before programming a computer, you must find out which language the computer understands.
When you apply for a programming job, the first question to ask the interviewer is: which languages does the company’s computer understand? Or better yet, ask, “Which language do you want me to program in?” The interviewer will say “BASIC” or “COBOL” or “C++” or “JAVA” or some similar answer and then ask you, “Do you know that language?”
Of those popular languages, BASIC is the easiest and the most fun. To become a programmer, begin by studying BASIC, then move on to the other languages, which are yuckier.
Since BASIC’s so easy, saying you know BASIC is less prestigious than saying you know languages such as C++. To get lots of prestige, learn many languages. To convince the interviewer you’re brilliant, say that you know many languages well even if the job you’re applying for needs just one language.
The most prestigious languages to know are assembly and machine languages, because they’re the hardest.
Specific computers Before going to the interview, learn about the specific computer the company uses.
Analysis versus coding The act of programming consists of two stages.
In the first stage, analyze the problem to make it more specific.
That stage — analyzing a vague problem (such as “do the payroll”) to make it more specific — is called analysis. A person who analyzes is called an analyst or, more prestigiously, a systems analyst.
After analyzing the vague problem and transforming it into a series of smaller, more specific tasks, the analyst turns the problem over to a team of coders. Each coder takes one of the tasks and translates it into BASIC or COBOL or some other language.
If you’re hired to be a “programmer”, your first assignment will probably be as a coder. After you gain experience, you’ll be promoted to a systems analyst.
The ideal systems analyst knows how to analyze a problem but also has prior experience as a coder. A systems analyst who knows how to both code and analyze is called a programmer/analyst. An analyst who doesn’t know how to code — who doesn’t know BASIC or COBOL — who merely knows how to break a big problem into a series of little ones — is paid less.
Three kinds of programming Programming falls into three categories: development, testing, and maintenance.
Development is more exciting than testing, which is more exciting than maintenance. So if you’re a new programmer, the other programmers will probably “stick you” in the maintenance department, where you’ll be part of the maintenance crew. Since your job will consist of “cleaning up” old programs, cruel programmers will call you a “computer janitor”.
“Application program” versus “system program” Programs fall into two categories.
The usual kinds of program is called an application program. It handles a specific application (such as “payroll” or “chess” or “send rocket to moon”).
The other kind of program is called a system program; its only purpose is to help programmers write applications programs.
A person who invents system programs is called a systems programmer. To become a systems programmer, learn assembly language and machine language.
Creating a system program is very difficult; so a systems programmer usually gets paid more than an applications programmer.
The word “systems” is prestigious: it’s used in the phrase “systems analyst” and in “systems programmer”. In some companies, if your boss wants to praise you, the boss will put the word “systems” in front of your title even if your job has nothing to do with “systems”.
How to learn programming To be a good programmer, you need experience. You can’t become a good programmer by just reading books and listening to lectures; you must get your hands on a computer and practice.
If you take a computer course, the books and lectures are much less valuable than the experience of using the school’s computer. Spend lots of time in the computer center. Think of the course as just an excuse to get permission to use the school’s computer. The quality of the lecture is less important than the quality of the school’s computer center. The ideal computer center:
Before you enroll in a computer course, find out whether the school’s computer center has those features.
Many computer schools are unnecessarily expensive. To save money, take fewer courses, and buy more books and magazines instead. Better yet, buy a computer yourself and keep it at home!
Another cheap way to get an education is to phone your town’s board of education, and ask whether the town offers any adult-education courses in computers. Some towns offer adult-education computer courses for under $100.
For an even better deal, phone your town’s board of education — or high school — and ask whether you can sit in the back of a high-school computer class.
Community colleges offer low-cost courses that are decent. Explore the community colleges before sinking money into more expensive institutions that are over-priced.
Starting salary For your first programming job, your salary will be somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000. The exact amount depends on which languages you know, how many programs you wrote previously, whether you have a college degree, whether you’ve had experience on the particular kind of computer the company uses, and whether you know the application area. (For example, if you’re a programmer for an insurance company, it’s helpful to know something about insurance.)
Degrees A college degree ain’t needed, but wow can it make you look smart! Try to get a degree in “computer science” or “management information systems”.
“Computer science” emphasizes the underlying theory, systems programming, assembly language, C++, and applications to science. “Management information systems” emphasizes BASIC, COBOL, DBASE, and applications to business.
A major in “mathematics” that emphasizes computers is also acceptable.
Discrimination If you’re a woman or non-white or physically handicapped, you’ll be pleased to know that the computer industry discriminates less than in other occupations. Being a woman or non-white or physically handicapped actually works to your advantage, since many companies have affirmative-action programs.
But discrimination does exist against older people. If you’re over 40 and trying to get a job as an entry-level programmer, you’ll have a tough time since the stereotypical programmer is “young, bright, and a fast thinker”. If you’re old, they’ll assume you’re “slow and sluggish”.
Because of that unfair discrimination, if you’re old you should probably try entering the computer industry through a different door: as a consultant, or a computer salesperson, or a computer-center manager, or a computer teacher. For those positions, your age works to your advantage, since those jobs require wisdom, and people will assume that since you’re old, you’re wise.
Shifting careers If you’re older, the best way to enter the computer field is to combine your knowledge of computers with other topics you knew previously.
In other words, do not try to “hop” careers; instead, gradually shift your responsibilities so that they deal more with computers.
To get into the computer field safely, keep your current job but computerize it.
If you’re a college kid, write programs that help the professors, or help others during your summer vacations.
Interviews When applying for your first computer job, try to avoid the “personnel” office. The bureaucrats in that office will look at your résumé, see it includes too little experience, and trash it.
Instead, play the who-you-know game. Contact somebody who actually works with computers. Convince that person you’re brighter than your résumé indicates. Prove you’ve learned so much (from reading, courses, and practice) that you can quickly conquer any task laid before you. If you impress that person enough, you might get the job even though your paper qualifications look too brief.
When you get an interview, be assertive.
One of the strange things about applying for a programming job is that the interviewer will not ask to see a sample of your work. The interviewer doesn’t have time to read your program. Even if the interviewer did have time to read your program, he couldn’t be sure you wrote it yourself. Instead, the interviewer will just chat with you about your accomplishments. You must “talk smart”. The best way is to know all the buzzwords of the computer industry — even if they don’t really help you write programs. For example, during the interview you’ll probably be asked whether you know structured programming.
Later joys In your first job, your salary will be low, but don’t worry about it. During your first job, you’ll receive lots of training: you’re getting a free education. After your training period is over, your salary will rise rapidly — especially if you do extra studying during evenings and weekends. Your real job is: to become brilliant.
After you’ve become brilliant and experienced, other companies will eagerly want to hire you. Your best strategy is to leave your current company and work elsewhere to gain new experiences. Whenever you feel you’re “coasting” and not learning anything new, it’s time to move to a different job. The “different job” can be in a new company — or in a different department of the same company.
By moving around — by gaining a wide variety of experiences — you can eventually become a qualified, wise consultant. And you’ll feel like God.
Social contacts Being a programmer is not always glamorous. You’ll spend many long hours staring at your screen and wondering why your program doesn’t work. The job is intellectual, not social. But after you’ve become an expert coder, you get into “systems analysis” and “consulting” and “teaching” and “management”, and interact with people more.
Software publishing To be a programmer, you do not have to work for a large company. Instead, you can sit home, write programs on your personal microcomputer, and sell them to software publishers, for a royalty.
Software houses A company whose only goal is to produce software is called a software house. Software houses dealing with large computers typically hire full-time programmers and pay them fixed salaries. Software houses dealing with microcomputers sometimes pay royalties instead.
Programming is fun for young kids. But as you get older, you’ll tire of machines and want to deal with people instead. As you approach retirement, you’ll want to help the younger generation relate to the computers you’ve mastered.
To be a successful manager, you need three skills: you must be technically competent; you must be wise; and you must know how to handle people.
You should know how to program. Know the strengths and weaknesses of each computer company, and be able to compare their products. Develop a philosophy about what makes a “good” computer center. Understand people’s motives and channel them into constructive avenues.
Keep up to date. Read the latest books and periodicals about computers. Chat with other computer experts by phone, at conventions, and at computer clubs.
Here are hints about how to manage a computer center:
Too often, the head of the computer center decides who can use the computer. So the head of the computer center becomes powerful — and evil. To avoid concentrating so much power in the hands of one bureaucrat, use distributed processing: get several small computers instead of one big monster, and give each department its own small computer.
If you’re a “microcomputer consultant” and honest, you’ll tell your client to buy low-cost popular programs, instead of telling him to pay you to invent “customized” programs.
You can find three kinds of salesmen:
A woman can sell computers more easily than a man. That’s because most computer customers are men, and men are more attracted to women. It’s also because, in our society, women are more “trusted” than men. But if you’re a woman, say some technical buzzwords to convince the customer that you’re technically competent. Otherwise, the customer will assume that since you’re a woman, you must be a “dumb secretary”.
Be an entrepreneur
How about starting a rental service, where people can rent microcomputers? How about starting a camp, where kids can spend the summer playing with computers? How about starting a computer set-up service, where you teach businesses how to start using microcomputers? How about writing easy manuals explaining the most popular software? Each of those ideas has been tried successfully; join the fun!
Learn to spell
If you don’t spel gud, yur coleegs wil thinc yure an idiut.
Be especially careful with these words, which beginners often misspell:
For the following words, choose your favorite spelling:
As you spend time with computers, your personality will change. You’ll gradually become a hacker (a person skilled at fiddling with the internal workings of computer hardware and software). I hope you become a helpful hacker instead of a cracker (a hacker who creates mischief by screwing up the internal workings of computer hardware and software, such as by writing a virus or by using password-evasion tricks to secretly spy at private files).
Back in 1993, 100 hackers in an Internet newsgroup got together and wrote a description of a hacker’s personality. Here’s the description, as edited by Eric Raymond (in his New Hacker’s Dictionary) and then further edited by me. Not all hackers fit this description — but most do!
If you hang around computers a long time, this description will probably start applying to you too! Watch yourself!
As America and the world become more computerized, the hacker personality will gradually dominate our planet. If you don’t like the “hacker personality”, see what you can do to alter it.
The hacker mind is intelligent but strange.
College intelligence Most hackers past their teens have a college degree or are self-taught to a similar level. Before becoming a full-fledged hacker, the typical hacker majored in computer science or electrical engineering or math or physics or linguistics (since studying human languages is a good stepping stone to studying computer languages) or philosophy (since philosophy analyzes the meaning of language and “life forms”).
Read a lot Hackers read a lot, and read a wide variety, though with extra emphasis on science facts and science fiction. A hacker’s home includes a big library, with many shelves full of books that the hacker has read. A hacker spends more spare time reading books & magazines than watching TV. A hacker spends as much spare time reading as the average non-hacker spends watching TV.
Bad handwriting Hackers have bad handwriting — their script is hard to read — so they usually write in simple capital block letters (LIKE THIS), as if they were junior draftsmen writing on a blueprint. The capital block letters make sense, especially when writing math equations or programming instructions that contain lots of symbols; script would be no faster.
Inhuman communication Since programming requires good organization and precise use of language, hackers are good at composing sentences, paragraphs, and compositions. But though hackers are good writers, they’re bad talkers, since they don’t get much practice chatting with humans. They’re not skilled at arguing with humans, confronting them, and negotiating with them; they’re better at communicating with computers, which don’t argue.
Good at memorizing Hackers are good at memorizing details, such as computer codes.
Neat just in output Hackers produce programs, writings, and thinking that are very neat and well-organized; but a hacker is too busy to make the hacker’s environment equally neat, so a hacker’s desk and office floor are typically piled high with a disorganized mess of resources.
Here’s what a hacker looks like, and where to find one.
Near universities Half of the USA’s best hackers live within 100 miles of Boston or San Francisco. That’s because, during the 1950’s and 1960’s, the top researchers in artificial intelligence were at two universities: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Boston) and Stanford University (in Silicon Valley’s Palo Alto, near San Francisco). Those researchers spawned proteges, who want to keep living near the master researchers even after graduation, to stay connected to the intellectual community.
Mostly male Most hackers are male, but females are more common in hackerdom than in other technical professions.
Mostly Caucasian In the USA, most hackers are Caucasian. On the West Coast, many hackers are Asian; on the East Coast, many hackers are Jewish.
Relatively unbigoted Hackers are less bigoted than other Americans, since hackers care more about what a person wrote than the person’s appearance. Hackers believe computers can act like humans and therefore believe in the humane treatment of all computers and all people.
Casual dresser Hackers dislike “business attire”. The typical hacker would quit a job if it required wearing a suit.
Hackers like to wear clothes that are casual, easy to take care of, post-hippie: T-shirts (with slogans on them), jeans, running shoes (or barefoot), and backpacks.
Scruffy appearance Hackers look scruffy. Many hackers have long hair. Men hackers often have beards and moustaches. Women hackers try to look “natural” by wearing little or no makeup.
Since hackers love computers, which are mostly indoors, hackers don’t get tans.
Night owls Hackers often stay up all night, to finish work on excitingly frustrating programming challenges. Then they sleep late in the morning.
Extreme food For dinner, hackers prefer spicy ethnic food instead of “American” food. The most popular is spicy Chinese (Szechuan or Hunan style, rather than Cantonese, which is too bland). Alternatives, popular occasionally, are Thai food and Mexican food.
For a change, hackers like high-quality Jewish-deli food, when available.
For midnight snacks while in the middle of marathon programming sessions, hackers prefer pizza and microwave burritos. Back in the 1970’s, hackers used to eat a lot of junk food, but modern hackers are more into “health food”.
Hackers tend to be extreme: either too skinny or too fat. More hackers are too skinny than too fat.
Nearly drug-free Hackers need to protect their heads from drugs, so they don’t do drugs. They don’t smoke. Most hackers don’t drink alcohol, though a few hackers experiment with fancy wines and exotic beers.
Since hackers favor experimentation, they tolerate folks who use non-addictive drugs such as pot and LSD. But hackers criticize people who take “downers” and opiates, since those drugs make you act stupid.
To help stay up late at night programming, hackers often take mild “uppers” such as caffeine (in coffee and Jolt cola) and sugar (in soft drinks and junk food).
Experimental sex Hackers are more likely than “normal” folks to experiment sexually. Many hackers openly have multiple boyfriends or girlfriends, or live in communes or group houses, or practice open marriage (where both partners agree that extra-marital relationships are okay), or are gay or lesbian.
Here’s how to make a hacker happy.
Toys better than money Hackers don’t care about earning lots of money or social approval. Instead, hackers just want the intellectual pleasure of inventing beautiful programs and products — and exploring the beautiful products invented by others. So to bribe a hacker, don’t offer money or a fancy title; instead, offer a lab full of computer hardware and software for the hacker to play with, and permission for the hacker to spend time playing with and inventing fantastic technology.
Non-religious Since hackers don’t like to be told what to do, they don’t like organized religion. Since hackers are into facts, not beliefs, they tend not to believe in God. When asked “What religion are you?”, many hackers reply by calling themselves “atheist” or “agnostic” or “non-observant Jewish”. Some hackers join “parody” religions, such as Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius. Some hackers have fun participating in “mystical” religions such as Zen Buddhism and neo-paganism.
Libertarian politics Hackers like freedom to explore computers. They don’t like restrictions. They don’t like being told what to do. They dislike authoritarians, managers, MBA’s, and big government. They tend to be Libertarian. They dislike the dogmatic insistence of the far left and far right. If asked to choose between Democrats and Republicans, they tend to choose Democrats because Democrats permit more social freedoms, so hackers are classified as “left of center”.
Cat lovers Hackers are more likely to have cats than dogs, because cats are like hackers: clever rather than belligerent.
No team sports Hackers don’t like to watch sports. Hackers don’t watch sports on TV and don’t go to sports stadiums.
Hackers would rather participate than watch. Though half of all hackers don’t make time to participate, the other half do participate, but mainly in individual sports rather than team sports. The only team sport they like is volleyball, because it’s non-contact and friendly.
They prefer individual sports that involve dexterity, concentration, and stamina, rather than brute force. Their favorite sports are bicycling, hiking, rock climbing, caving, kite-flying, juggling, martial arts, roller skating, ice skating, skiing, target shooting, and auto racing, and aviation.
Strange cars Hackers don’t wash their cars. Hackers drive extreme cars: either beat-up heaps (unwashed because they’re junk) or (if the hackers are rich) luxury sports cars (unwashed anyway).
Brainy hobbies Hackers like to play music, play board games (such as chess and Go), dabble in ham radio, learn about linguistics & foreign languages, and do “theater teching” (give technical support to theater productions).
Hate stupidity Hackers like active intelligent freedom, so they dislike dishonesty, boredom, business suits, stupid incompetent people (especially stupid incompetent managers who wear business suits), stupid music (such as “easy listening music”), and stupid culture (such as TV, except for TV’s cleverly cynical cartoons & movies & the old Star Trek).
Back in 1970, computerists tried to predict what life would be like in 1990. Let’s look at their predictions and see which ones came true. The predictions appeared in:
Work at home
Martin & Norman said:
What happened instead Personal computers have become so cheap that most homes contain them instead of terminals attached to timesharing services. Personal computers can communicate with national computer networks by using the Internet. Many executives work at home on personal computers during evenings and weekends but still prefer to meet face-to-face with other employees during the day.
Martin & Norman said:
What happened instead Since banks charge merchants big fees to handle charge cards and fund transfers, some merchants discourage cash for purchases under $10. Some attempts to develop computerized shopping failed because consumers want to see photos of goods before buying. On TV, infomercials succeed by letting consumers view before buying.
Martin & Norman said:
What happened instead Now that we have microwave ovens and gourmet frozen dinners, housewives (and househusbands!) can create dinner in less than 5 minutes without using a computer. Instead of being linked to a big household computer, each appliance contains its own fancy microprocessor (which controls the timing, temperature, etc.), since microprocessors have become so cheap.
What happened instead Rich citizens can send e-mail messages to politicians by using the Internet. Low-income citizens haven’t bought modems yet.
What happened instead On-line services, such as America OnLine and the Internet, provide the complete text of daily newspapers around the country. Few people use those services, since they work just while the reader sits by a phone jack, and since the computer screen is too small to display the contents of a full newspaper page pleasantly.
What happened instead Many doctors and pharmacists use computers to double-check diagnoses and also warn of interactions between drugs. Diagnosis by computer-assisted tomography is widespread in hospitals. Many invalids stuck at home use beepers to call help when needed. Most patients trust neither computers nor doctors.
The whole family
What happened instead The feminist revolution has encouraged role reversal. Kids use computers mainly to play games, practice programming, do word processing, print greeting cards & posters, send e-mail, and access the Internet.
Here’s how to introduce kids to computers.
Here’s how to develop the curriculum.
When should kids start learning about computers? Programs have been developed even for kids in nursery school! You can get “alphabet fun” programs: when the kid presses the A key, pictures of apples appear all over the screen; when the kid presses B, the screen is filled with bears; C generates cats, etc. To make the program fun, the pictures on the screen are animated; they dance!
Kids should start writing simple programs in BASIC when they’re in the third grade. (The brightest kids can start even younger!) Before the third grade, the typical kid should learn how to run other people’s programs and maybe learn LOGO (a language that’s easier than BASIC for beginners).
Which kids should take computer courses? Expose all kids to a computer. Give them the opportunity to press the buttons, run programs, and do other fun things.
Which language should kids learn to program in? More programs have been written in BASIC than any other computer language. A person who doesn’t understand BASIC is “out of touch” with reality and a computer illiterate. Every kid should learn BASIC before graduating from high school.
What should a computer course emphasize? The course should emphasize hands-on programming with a wide variety of amusing applications.
In the “computer curriculum”, how important are music & graphics? Any computer for kids should play music and draw color graphics, because music & graphics create fun and maintain the kids’ interest.
What homework should a computer course assign? The homework should including writing a computer program. To make that practical, the school must have enough computers to handle all the kids. Though the teacher should assign some standard exercises, the kids should also be encouraged to invent their own programming projects.
In what order should computer topics be taught? The course should begin with hands-on experience. The kids should write elementary programs (in BASIC or LOGO) and also run programs that others wrote. As the course progresses and programming examples become more complex, give the kids a breather by inserting light-hearted topics such as video games, computer graphics, word processing, the Internet, business software, kinds of hardware, computer companies, effects on society, and careers.
The computer can help teach many topics.
English While trying to write a program, the kid learns the importance of punctuation: the kid learns to distinguish colons, semicolons, commas, periods, parentheses, and brackets. The kid also learns the importance of spelling: if the kid misspells the word PRINT or INPUT, the computer gripes. The kid learns to handle long words, while wading through computer manuals.
Some kids “hate to write English compositions”. The computer can change that attitude!
To make the kid understand why parts of speech (such as “nouns”, “verbs”, and “adjectives”) are important, give the kid a computer program that writes sentences by choosing random nouns, random verbs, and random adjectives. Then tell the kid to invent his own nouns, verbs, and adjectives, feed them into the program, and watch what kind of sentences the program produces now.
Young kids enjoy a program called Story Machine.
History The computer can make history come “alive” by throwing the student into an historical situation.
For example, a graduate of my teacher-training institute wrote a program that says, “It’s 1910. You’re Kaiser Wilhelm. What are you going to do?” Then it gives you several choices.
Such a program is called an historical simulation, since it makes the computer simulate (imitate) an historical event.
Current events The best way to teach current events is through simulation.
For example, when California’s Governor Brown had trouble controlling medflies, teachers wrote programs that began by saying, “You’re Governor Brown. What are you going to do?” (One of the programs was even called “Medfly Mania”.)
The best way to encourage the student to analyze the conflict between Israel and the Arabs is have the student run a program that begins by saying “You’re Israel’s Prime Minister” then run a program that says “You’re the PLO’s leader, Yassir Arafat”.
When Three-Mile Island almost exploded, teachers wrote a program saying “You’re in the control room at Three-Mile Island”.
The best way to teach economics and politics is to give the student a program that says “You’re running the country” and then asks the student to input an economic and political strategy. At the end of the program, the computer tells how many years the student lasted in office, how well the country fared, and how many people want to assassinate him.
The best way to learn anything is “by experience”. Computer simulations let the student learn by “simulated experience”, which condenses into a few minutes what would otherwise require many years of “natural experience”.
Biology The computer can do genetics calculations: it can compute the probabilities of having various kinds of offspring and predict how the characteristics of the population will shift over time.
The computer can handle taxonomy: it can classify different kinds of animals and plants.
To teach ecology, a graduate of my teacher-training institute wrote a simulation program that begins by saying, “You’re the game warden of New Jersey. What are you going to do?”
Sex education When Dartmouth College (which for centuries had been all-male and rowdy) suddenly became coed in 1971, its biology department realized the importance of teaching about birth control. The professors wrote a program that asks how old you are and which birth control method you wish to use this year.
How can programs that tutor, drill, and test students be made exciting? Let the programs use the same techniques that make video games exciting.
Here’s advice on how to manage the school’s computers.
Should kids play games on the computers? Give each kid the experience of briefly playing high-speed computer games.
But discourage kids from spending excessive time on games.
By charging a small fee for game-playing, you can collect enough money to buy more computers.
Which rooms should contain computers? The safest place to put computers is in the library.
Try moving some cheap computers into the cafeteria for students to use during lunch and study breaks.
How can you supervise computers cheaply? Get parents to volunteer. Many parents would love the opportunity to work in a computer environment, in the hope of entering a full-blown computer career later.
Turn your school’s computer club into a “Computer Service Organization” that helps teach the rest of the school about computers. The club’s members can mention such service on their résumés, which will help them get into college.
Give a speech to all students: tell them to help each other at the computers. Encourage teamwork.
How can you pay less for software? If you’re a teacher, tell your hot-shot students to write software for you.
Many software publishers give educational discounts. Some publishers offer “site licenses”, where you pay a big fee but then can make as many copies of the software as you wish. The nicest publishers of business software offer “trial size” versions (for $10 or even free), which let you practice the software but require you to keep your documents and files brief.
How could computers change human society? The many good ways are obvious. Here are the bad ones.
Although the computer can have a mechanical breakdown, the usual reason for computer errors is mental breakdown — on the part of the people who run it. The usual computer blooper is caused by a programmer who writes a wrong program, or a user who inputs a wrong number. If you want the computer to write a check for $10.00 but you forget to type the decimal point, the computer will nonchalantly write a check for $1000.
The biggest computer blooper ever made occurred at Cape Kennedy:
In one city’s computer center, every inhabitant’s vital statistics were put on cards. One lady in the town was 107, but the number 107 wouldn’t fit on the card properly, because the space allotted for AGE was only two digits.
A man in Germany received a bill from a computer requesting the payment of “zero deutschmark”.
That last anecdote was from Martin and Norman’s The Computerized Society. This is from Time Magazine:
On a less humorous note, a woman died from freezing because an errant computer thought she hadn’t paid her utility bill.
At the end of 1999, people were nervous about the year 2000 problem (which is also called the Y2K problem and the millennium bug). Here’s what those people said:
Programmers worked to solve that problem. January 1, 2000, came and went without major disasters.
Since the computer’s a labor-saving device, it may make laborers unemployed. Clerks and other low-echelon white-collar workers might find themselves jobless and penniless.
The advent of computers doesn’t have to mean fewer jobs. In fact, new ones are created.
When computers do human work, will there be enough work left for us humans to do? Don’t worry: when no work is necessary, humans have an amazing talent for inventing it.
…That’s what will happen in the long run. But for the next decade or two, as society shifts to computers, many folks will be temporarily out of a job.
Since the computer handles numbers easily, it encourages people to reduce problems to numbers. That’s both good and bad:
Since only quantifiable problems can be computerized, there’s a danger that, in a burst of computer enthusiasm, people will decide that unquantifiable problems aren’t worth investigating, or that unquantifiable aspects of an otherwise quantifiable problem should be ignored. John Kemeny gives this example:
People are being reduced to numbers: telephone numbers, social security numbers, zip codes, etc. When you start treating another human as just a wrong telephone number and hang up in his face, something is wrong.
The computer’s a seductive toy that can wreck your social life.
Computerization is part of the coming technological bureaucracy. Like all bureaucracy, it encourages the individual to say, “Don’t blame me — I can’t change the bureaucracy.” But now the words read, “Don’t blame me — the computer did it.”
Computers will run governments and wars. The thought of someone saying, “I can’t change that — that’s the way the computer does it” is frightening.
As computers amass more info about people, computers will become centers of knowledge. The people who control them — the programmers, sociologists, generals, and politicians — will gain lots of power. The thought of so much power being concentrated in the hands of a few is frightening. A handful of people, pressing the wrong buttons, could atom-bomb the earth.
Nobody should have complete control over a computer center. The power should be diversified. Sensitive data and programs should be protected by passwords and other devices, so no single individual can access all of it.
The computer’s the biggest tool in the kit of the white-collar criminal. All he has to do is insert a zero, and the computer will send him a paycheck for ten times the correct amount.
Since you must be smart to be a computer criminal, if you’re caught you’ll be admired. Instead of saying “What a terrible thing you’ve done!” folks say “Gee, you must be smart. Tell me how you did it.” A bright button-down computer criminal who steals $100,000 electronically gets a lighter sentence than the dude who must resort to a gun to get $1000. Is that justice?
Of all the harm computers can do, “invaded privacy” worries people the most. George Orwell, in his book 1984, warned that someday “Big Brother will be watching you” via a computer. His prediction’s already a reality: your whereabouts are constantly checked by computers owned by the FBI, the IRS, the military, credit-card companies, and mail-order houses.
The info computers have stored about you may be misleading. If you never find out about the error, the consequences can haunt you the rest of your life. Examples:
You’ve a right to see what info is stored about you, and change it if it’s wrong. For example, if a teacher or employer writes a “confidential recommendation” about you, you’ve a right to examine it, to prevent misleading statements from haunting you for life.
Even if the info stored about you is accurate, you’ve a right to prevent its dissemination to the general public. No organization should store or disseminate info unjustifiably.
What’s “justifiable”? Fearing “Big Brother”, people don’t want politicians to access personal info. On the other hand, fearing criminals, people want the police to have a free hand in sleuthing. How to give info to the police without giving it to politicians can be puzzling.
Outdated info should be obliterated. An individual shouldn’t be haunted by his distant past; he should be given a chance to turn over a new leaf. Moreover, info 50 years old may be couched in words that have been redefined. To be a “leftist”, for example, means something different in each decade.
Only facts should be stored, not opinions. It’s okay to store that someone lives on Fifth Avenue, but not that he lives in a “nice neighborhood”.
It’s unfortunate that people feel a need for privacy. If the info stored about you is correct, why argue? But many people feel a need to be secretive, and I suppose people have that right. It’s called the right to be “let alone”.
People don’t want to feel their whole lives are on stage, recorded by a computer. It inhibits them from acting free and natural.
Begin by reading The Secret Guide to Computers.
Then read the hardware and software manuals that came with your computer. Although a beginner can’t understand those manuals, you’ll understand them — after you’ve mastered The Secret Guide to Computers!
Then read some of these books:
For each topic, I’ve shown the two best books. If you read both books about the topic, you’ll become an expert.
For each book, I’ve shown the title, author, and publisher. I’ve also shown the list price (rounded to the nearest dollar) or said “OP” (which means “Out of Print”). If a book is OP, try to find it at your local library.
Thank you for reading The Secret Guide to Computers. If you have any questions about what you’ve read, phone me at 603-666-6644, day or night.
You’ve been reading the 27th edition. I’ve been revising the Guide for over 27 years:
To get on the mailing list for a free brochure about the 28th edition, use the coupon on page 639, or just send me a postcard with your name, address, and the words “send 28th edition info”.
I hope to meet you someday. If you ever visit New Hampshire, drop in! Say hello and browse through my computer library. My heavy workload prevents me from chatting long, but at least we can grin.
If you like, join one of my blitz courses, where we cover everything worth knowing about computers in one intensive weekend. I give the course in many cities and charge just $2.50 per hour.
I can also visit your home town and give a course to you and your friends privately. If you have lots of friends, the cost per person can get quite cheap.
For more information about what I can do for you at little or no charge, phone me at 603-666-6644 or mail the coupon on the back page.
How to give a course
After you practice using computers and become a computer expert, why not give your own courses? You too can become a guru. Here are some suggestions.
When giving a course, you won’t have enough time to cover every detail, so don’t even try. Tell the students that the details can be found in The Secret Guide to Computers and the manuals that come with their computers.
Instead of grinding through details, have fun! Demonstrate hardware and software that the audience hasn’t seen, argue cheerily about computer hassles, let the audience ask lots of questions, and give the audience hands-on experience aided by tutors.
Here are some of the lines I use to liven up my classes and loosen up my students. Feel free to copy them.
When you’re planning to teach a course, phone me for free help with curriculum, dramatics, and tricks of the trade.
Your first course might have some rough edges, because you haven’t had experience yet in giving demonstrations, fielding audience questions, and dramatically varying the pace so that your audience stays awake. So for your first course, play safe: charge as little as possible, so everybody in the audience feels the course was a “good deal” and a “wonderful bargain” and nobody feels “ripped off”. For that first course your goal should not be money: instead, your goal should be to gain experience and a good reputation.
No matter how great you think you are, your audience will tire of you eventually. To keep your audience awake, offer variety by including your friends as part of your act.
Good luck. Try hard. You can cast a spell over the audience. Courses change lives.
Your source of free help, at your service, your computer butler,
Russ Walter, 603-666-6644