II. The friendly software

Kaypro II

Kaypro II

I will delay discussion of the computer that weaned me from the Kaypro, as there are still things to be said about the two “word processing” programs bundled with the Kaypro. (I use inverted commas because the term implies to me a distinctly industrial approach to writing!)

These programs were Perfect Writer (a version of EMACS) and Wordstar. Wordstar was like MS Word in that it was page oriented and it inserted invisible codes into the textflow that formatted the text onscreen. But in my experience Perfect Writer was far superior: it was elegant, lean, and better suited for my purposes. Wordstar was a word processor, good for writing letters to the editor, recipes, shopping lists and memos, whereas Perfect Writer was a text editor, and more useful for creating documents longer than a couple of pages — like my 600-page thesis.

What one saw on Perfect Writer’s screen was a document up to 70 characters wide without any page breaks, like a vertical scroll. The typeface was quite legible, but not even as glamorous as Courier. Unlike my typewriter, text was wrapped without any bell reminding me every so often that I needed to hit the carriage return; but the only onscreen formatting that was offered was the separation of paragraphs with a blank line, though inline visible codes could be inserted by hand to tell Perfect Formatter how to lay the text out when preparing it for printing.

Someone who has never used a Kaypro may be excused for thinking that its green 9-inch cathode ray tube was inadequate. It was not. It allowed 24 lines of 70 characters — about 1.5kB of text, which is quite enough. The size of the documents was limited to the 380kB that could be fitted on a 5.25-inch floppy disk — again, quite an adequate amount. Simple and memorable commands scrolled the text up and down through the window with ease, or moved the cursor to the beginning of a word, sentence, line, paragraph or document. By splitting the screen display horizontally, one could view either two different documents or two sections of the same document and move chunks of text of any size between the two windows. Virtual memory in the form of a swap file effectively extended the meagre 64kB of physical memory that the Z80 processor could address. Documents could be loaded onto the external RAM drive that I added, and this speeded up the editing process considerably, requiring no floppy disk saves until the end of the session.

Lacking fancy formatting, the only feature that is noticeable onscreen is the quality of the writing itself.

Because of this I still prefer not to compose text in Word, using a font that glamourises my prose, making it look as if it has been printed and bound by a master printer. Only when I am happy with it do I transfer my naked text to a program that uses the wiles and conceits of typesetting to display it to its best advantage. I like using a virtual typewriter for composition, appreciating the leanness of the process — the bare ability to read what one has actually written (if I were a spy by profession my handwriting would suffice to encrypt and protect eternally from the enemy any sensitive messages) — while allowing one later with minimal effort to convert the typescript to a font of one’s choosing in seconds.

I have tried writing methodically, but most of what I write has a structure that is sui generis, and that sometimes takes a lot of kneading to reveal itself. (This is about all I can claim to have in common with Beethoven.) Unlike, say, a report of a scientific experiment, where one writes in a prescribed manner — a description of the problem, the method of investigation, the results and the conclusion — I find it difficult to pour my thoughts into a preformed mould. Instead of a skeletal outline, I usually begin by developing my thoughts as separate chunks of text, in whatever order they occur. Printing these out and writing all over the paper (coloured inks are fun!) helps me to see how they relate to each other, the order they should follow and what is wanting or superfluous. Another advantage of the scroll-like presentation is that the length of the document is more readily dictated by the content rather than a specific physical layout on the page

I continue to use EMACS in its Windows incarnation, for the very reasons described above, and regard my early encounter with one of its many offspring, the aptly named Perfect Writer, as highy fortuitous.

/to be continued…


© David Pickett and davidpickett, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to David Pickett and davidpickett with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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