Monday, September 26, 2011

Forget It! - Part 1 of 2

© 1977 by Henry Melton

When I wrote this, back in 1977, a lot of computing was new.  This same issue of the new computer magazine ROM had an article explaining a new-fangled concept called hypertext.  The editor had seen another article by me and requested a story with a 'memory' theme.  Getting a request was exciting to me, so I wrote this overnight, and so many of the predictions I made were so laughably wrong.  Instead of the web as we know it, I envisioned something more like AOL or Compuserve, and instead of the Internet, I had the Tie-line, a cable TV derivative.  Still, I predicted the copyright issues, and working tonight on my Mac, where my word processor saves all versions of everything, I wonder how soon Carlos' problem becomes more widespread.

Carlos Walker had the most thoughtful wife. He told her so while he shook the fancy wrapping paper free from the tiny package she had gotten him for his birthday.
It was a beautiful computer–a gold case on a gold watchband, with an elegant soft black display screen. Deb had been subjected to his wishing aloud for this model since they had hit the market, but he hadn't expected her actually to get him one. It must have done horrible things to her budget.
She may have been reading his mind, for she shushed him before he could ask, and handed him the instruction booklet. Then she rose to fix the cake.
Instructions. Oh, boy. Now I've gotta figure out how to work the thing.
He thumbed past the technical stuff, his eyes catching on the bold print...baseplate is a block of electron-hole-pair holographic memory with a nearly unlimited capacity. Comptron guarantees that the memory cannot be filled in the lifetime of the original owner.... The thin-plate WPU.... accepts instructions in an expanding subset of 2012 REVISED U.N. STANDARD ENGLISH....
The good stuff, the real operating instructions, Carlos found several pages later. He was pleased to see the boldface notice that the contents of the entire booklet, as well as a simple instruction course in operating the computer, were available in the computer's own memory at the call of a code word. He scanned the rest of the page which gave the voice-coding procedure, then set it aside.
He brought his arm before his face. "Computer, key to my voice."
"It is done." The computer's voice was male and very much like his own. The screen had displayed his own words in red and the computer's in blue.
"Display the index, please."
The little blue lines of data rolled up the screen tiny, but clearly readable. There were a lot of useful functions listed there.
Finally Carlos said, "Stop. Make a note of Deb's birthday, April 26, and be sure to notify me a week before then."
"It is done."
Carlos nodded and got up, pleased with himself. The odor of rich German chocolate cake was drifting into the room. Maybe I'd better get it to remind me to stay on my diet–tomorrow.
Fred Browell looked like a pet falcon perching over Carlos's shoulder as Carlos put his computer through its paces calculating the day of the week Fred was born on.
There was such a longing in Fred's voice when he finally sighed and said, "What I wouldn't give to be able to afford one of those."
"I hear the prices should be coming down some time next year."
Fred nodded, "But that's next year. The thing I have in mind has to be done now, or not at all."
"What's that?"
Fred looked uncomfortable. Carlos got the strong impression he hadn't meant to bring the subject up. Fred eyed the wrist-computer critically, then asked, "What kind of data-rate can it handle?"
Carlos shrugged and asked it. The display screen filled with technical specifications, while it vocally reviewed the high points. Fred listened carefully to the listing of the audio and visual band widths the device's sensory transducer arrays were capable of handling.
Fred frowned a moment in mental calculation, then asked, "Can you store video-to-memory at that rate?"
There was silence. A smile flickered across Carlos's face, and he repeated the question for Fred. The computer knew its master's voice.
"Yes. The data can be stored directly to memory, without processing. Detailed recall or processing at a slower rate can be handled later."
Fred mumbled to himself, grinning. Carlos could almost see the visions of kilobucks that were dancing before Fred's eyes. Nothing but money made Fred quite so gleeful.
Fred turned to him with a big grin and a slap on the back, "Carlos, my friend, how would you like to make a little spare change?"
"What's the deal?"
Fred glanced down the hallway. No one appeared to be taking any interest in the two of them. Fred eased around to where he could talk while keeping an eye on the people around them. When he spoke, his voice was considerably softer than usual.
"Have you used the National Index?"
"Of course." Who hasn't. When every information file you need is right there on your Vidi terminal, why go anywhere else?
"And what, my friend, do you find objectionable about our National Index?"
"Oh, not much–other than the constant file charges and those nuisance priority codes." Carlos hated those priority codes. Nothing was worse than knowing that the information you needed existed, just a keystroke away, and then not knowing the code to get at it.
Fred smiled knowingly. "Exactly, my friend. Have you ever paused to think how the information in the Index gets to your Vidi?"
"It's hooked to the Tieline. I suppose they send it out that."
"Right! And do you know how?"
Fred glanced down the hallway again. "I didn't either," he confessed, "until I ran across a notice in one of the restricted files I had to look up for Kordi. It said that due to unauthorized information taps on the NI system, they were going to transfer the information feed to an unnumbered channel." He paused for the significance of that to sink in." Thus, I assumed it was currently on a numbered channel. I looked for it, and I found it."
Fred slid into Carlos's desk seat and reached behind the Vidi terminal for the picture controls. With a little tweaking, he managed to roll the image half-way down the screen. Above the image, on one of the entertainment channels, was a dancing gray area.
"Raw file data. Constantly updating the holding memory in your Vidi. I think it is unscrambled as well. Your wrist-computer said it can store data faster than the Tie-line updates the NI. If you ordered it to record what it sees and you left it pointing at a Vidi screen set up like this for a few hours, you could have the whole National Index on your arm. For no charge, and with no restricted files. Some of the stuff would gradually get out of date, but a lot of it wouldn't." Fred eyed him significantly. "And I'm sure you might find a friend, he pointed to himself, who would pay you to transfer a duplicate into his computer, when he finally can afford to buy one."
Carlos had to admit that it appealed to him. But he had some doubts. "It sounds illegal."
Fred frowned as he readjusted the Vidi, "I don't think so. The notice I saw implied that the NI people were making the change to comply with some kind of legal ruling. I'd bet it will be illegal, after they make the change. Besides, you can always erase the copy if we find out later that it's illegal."
Carlos chewed on his tongue; it was tempting. "Let me think about it."
"Don't think too long. They reprogram the network on the first of the month."
Carlos did a lot of thinking that night. The way Fred put it made the whole thing sound so easy. But he also remembered how stiff the laws had gotten on copyright matters in the last couple of decades as copying into digital storage systems became so easy. And he only had Fred's word that it would be legal.
In fact, he only had Fred's word on a lot of things. Carlos glanced down at the computer on his wrist. How did he know it was really possible?
"Computer, is it possible for you to store digital data that is displayed in real-time on a standard Vidi channel?"
"Would you be able to index that information later at my request?"
"That would depend on what type of data was recorded and which encoding methods were used. If the data is in a standard code, it would be possible."
Carlos leaned back in his chair, meditating on possibilities. A minute later he abruptly got to his feet and went into his study where he kept his home Vidi. With some experimenting he finally found the way to make the picture roll down as Fred had done on the office machine. But in this case, there was no hidden data.
Wrong channel. I should've noticed what channel that was. "Computer, what channel were Fred Browell and I watching at about eleven this morning?"
"I do not know."
"Why not? Couldn't you see the channel indicator?"
"I do not know. At that time, there was no command to record, and so I did not do so."
Carlos growled at the thing. There were too many channels to hunt through, hundreds of the things. It would take him all night if he had to hunt it up himself.
There's really only one way to find out. Like he said, I can always erase it later.
Carlos tapped Fred's name and I.D. on the keyboard. The half of Fred's face that was visible on the misadjusted screen lit up when he saw who it was calling him.
Carlos asked, "What channel was that?"
"How long do you think it would take?"
I've never seen a file that was more than half a day out of date. Give it twelve hours."
Fifteen minutes later, with a little coaching from the computer to align its camera's field of view with the data on the screen, Carlos left the room. The wrist-computer was propped up facing the Vidi screen, with little blue letters on its face spelling out the message, "Recording."
Twelve hours. Should finish just before I have to leave in the morning. I hope it works.
It seemed to burn on his wrist all the way up to the office. It seemed forever before he could take a break and talk to it. He found a nook and checked the hallways.
Just like a criminal. This isn't like me.
"Computer, display your answers only. "
It printed in tiny blue, "Okay."
"Is the data you recorded off the Vidi in clear code?"
"Can you index files from it on my command?"
"Any file?"
Carlos was nervous like a little boy on his birthday. Free access to the National Index was like a license to steal. "Display the file on current international monetary exchange rates."
Out it came, scrolling up the screen at a rate for comfortable scanning.
"Wait! Back that up to the beginning!"
The image scrolled back down until the very first of the file filled the screen. Carlos read it with a sinking feeling.
"WARNING: Any duplication of this information into any technological storage or display system without a registered authorization by the National Index Corporation is a felony under the Information Ownership Act of 1997."


Rob said...

Yup, you're absolutely right; there's a lot of stuff you can get away with in handwavium. But the copyright issues were completely dead accurate. Great job back then, and it still stands now.

Henry Melton said...

Rob, I've got your RSS feed for loaded in my reader. It looks like a great start.

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