Saturday, 14 March 2009

Steam driven computing

I love my big, shiny, black, rather menacing Dell with its elegant flat screens and enough processing power to run NORAD - but sometimes it's useful to remember that writing isn't really about having a whizzy computer. I wrote my first few books on one of these.

It was IBM's first truly portable computer (it was too much like a part of a tank to really be called a laptop). Those two 3.5 inch diskette drives were it as far as disk storage went. No hard disk. One had the operating system, the other the word processing software and you saved your files on any space left.

I can't remember exactly how many lines of text you got on the screen - about 10 I think. And that screen was rubbish. But it did the job.

It wasn't the first PC I used - I'd worked on both at XT and an AT at work (the latter was only the second of these in the UK), which had hard disks, though admittedly only 10 Mb or thereabouts. But the 'portable' PC was enough for my book writing.

These days I hardly ever use a laptop. My current laptop dates back to 1998 and is due to be replaced (probably with a netbook) soon. It still looks quite stylish (it's a little purple Sony Vaio), but it's impossibly slow now. No one expects me to take a laptop to give talks any more - I just take a memory stick. And I prefer to work on paper on the train - I think better on paper.

If I'm doing a lot of text on the move and want to capture it electronically, I've got one of these rather fun electronic pads from Selwyn Electronics. You write on an ordinary pad with a special pen, and the clipboard below captures an electric version of the page (up to 999 of them) which can then be taken as a simple scan, or text recognized and input to a wordprocessor.

Like all text recognition it has its moments of madness. but for most things it's acceptable. Usually, though, an ordinary scribbled-on bit of paper is enough for my needs.


  1. I rather like the idea of one of those Selwyn thingies, especially as I do a lot of work on trains. I wrote up my PhD on one of those Amstrad PCW machines. My current set-up though is a real lash-up job, of secondhand iMac OS-X and ailing Dell Inspiron. And an Asus Eee. And (most of all) my iPhone. Isn't technology wonderful?

  2. Do you use the Selwyn's OCR software, and if so, how much extra does it cost? And is the stylus pleasant to use for long stretches?

  3. Yes. It's a bit fiddly. You use their Digimemo Manager software which gets the files off the widget across a USB, then the Myscript Notes package, which is not a bad handwriting thingy. About £30( and they do bundles with the pad.

    Like all handwriting recognition it needs some editing after input - but basically works okay.

    The stylus is fine. It's a ballpoint pen with a built-in detector, so you write on an ordinary paper pad in ink, and the image is captured as you do it.

  4. One other benefit - for anyone like me who uses Microsoft's OneNote as a universal notebook/info store, the newest version of the Digimemo software lets you load stuff from the pad direct into OneNote (you can also then use OneNote's text recogition, which I'm not sure is quite as good as Myscript Notes, but does do the job).

    See this: for more on OneNote.