After all - Logging for you

From an ink pot to a PC hard drive - E&T chronicles the super-fast (from our point of view) evolution of the technology of writing.

There's little doubt that the most amazing technological change experienced by my generation has been in the field of writing.

At my Soviet primary school, we were allowed to use only wooden pens with metallic tips that had to be dipped into a personal inkpot every pupil had to bring in from home in a special Mum-(or gran-) manufactured bag. The real bane of my existence was the subject called 'Chistopisaniye' (or 'Clean Writing'). No matter how far I was extending my ink-smeared blue tongue, my pen kept leaving horrible navy-blue spots all over the paper. The spots kept spreading and growing, like cancerous tumours, until I mopped them up with a fluffy 'blotter' which would stop their malignant growth and turn them into smears…

The advantage of the metal-tipped pens was that they could be easily transformed into darts during break times. One of my fellow pupils nearly lost an eye as a result.

We were first allowed to use fountain pens only in the fifth form.

I wrote my first tyro poems and stories in long hand, of course - a 'black' copy, then a 'clean' one. Typewriters were prohibitively expensive and required a special permission to own.

My university diploma paper was also written in long-hand. I then asked a girl with a nice calligraphic handwriting with whom I was friends to copy it for me - for a fee, of course.

At Moscow newspapers and magazines in the late 1970s and early 1980s they had typewriters, but most of the hacks (including yours truly) were slow with them and would rather pen their copy in longhand and then take it to a 'typists' bureau' staffed with noisy gossip-prone women.

One had to be on friendly terms with the typists at the peril of having to spend long hours banging out one's own copy on some antediluvian East German-made electric 'Erica'. Despite its nice-sounding foreign name, the Erica was rusty, semi-broken and would make a clatter comparable to that of a platoon of Soviet soldiers goose-stepping on the Red Square cobbles or give you a nasty electric shock via your finger-tips, as happened to me more than once…

When my father gave me my first typewriter as a birthday present, I - by then an established Moscow journalist - was (literally) speechless. It was bright-red, portable and made in Yugoslavia. What else could one dream of?

I saw my first computer in London while on a short attachment to the Guardian in 1988.

No, actually much-much earlier that that.

It was 1961…

I was six, approaching seven, when Dad took me to his Institute's 'Novogodniaya Yolka' (literally, 'New Year Fir Tree') - a special New Year party for the kids of the Institute's staff ('Christmas' and 'Christmas parties' were taboo in the atheistic USSR).

Dad's place of work was known officially as the Physico-Technical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was a pioneering establishment in the field of physics, where the nucleus was split for the first time in Europe in the 1930s.

Having greeted Grandfather Frost (I remember he carried an impressive cane with a blinking electric knob at the top) and Sniegurochka (the Snow Maiden), having jumped (sheepishly) with other children around the New Year tree (not the 'Christmas' tree, mind you), having received a plain-looking goodie bag with several sticky lollipops inside, I got tired and wanted to go home.

"Before we go, I want to show you something," said my Dad, with a mischievous smile.

He took me to his laboratory - a spacious, brightly lit room now totally deserted. Half of that room, as well as half of the next one and half of the corridor, were taken by a bulky brownish installation which looked like a long row of multi-tiered gym lockers.

"What is it?" I asked.

"It is called computer," Dad replied.

"And what can this ka... poo…ter do?"

"Almost anything… For example, it can count…"

Dad pressed some buttons - and the enormous machine came to life: red and yellow lamps began to blink frantically to the accompaniment of the loud noise, like that of a giant car getting started. The floor was shaking slightly under my feet…

"Give it a task!" Dad kept encouraging me, and I couldn't think of anything better than asking the machine to add two and two. Dad shrugged and typed the "task" in on a large and clumsy keyboard.

The noise had increased dramatically; it was no longer a car starting but rather an airplane's engine revving up. The lights were blinking faster and faster, like some demented winking nanogenarians. I shut my eyes and covered my ears.

It all lasted for a couple of minutes after which the noise suddenly stopped. I opened my eyes.

"Here's your answer," my father said. In his hand he was holding a piece of yellow perforated paper on which a bleak and hardly visible little "four" was sloppily printed…

When I joined the Melbourne Age newspaper in July 1990, I had to master a computer very fast. But it was easier said than done. I kept losing my columns and whole chapters of my second book which I was then writing. Curiously, both columns and chapters tended to disappear never to be found again at the point when I was about to put a final full stop, and not a moment earlier!

Ready to put my name under PJ O'Rourke's remark that a computer was but a machine that let us make mistakes faster than any other invention in human history, with the possible exception of handguns and tequila, I ended up writing an open letter to my PC as one of my weekly columns.

The fact that it was a computer, not a whimsical mistress, was revealed in the penultimate sentence only.

"I log for you!" ended the column.

Miraculously, after that "letter" my word processor stopped playing tricks on me.

Or, more likely, I had simply gained enough experience of dealing with it (her?).


Vitali Vitaliev is features editor of E&T magazine

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