Augmenting brains
  Why Fleabyte?
  Fleabyte fundamentals
  Orality, Literacy, Computency
  Unfinished Revolution


  A Flea in the Bonnet

human brain and networking diagram

Fleabyte is my term of endearment for the pocket computer or, for that matter, any programmable computer that can be carried on a person as comfortably as a watch or a ballpoint, a wallet or a pocket knife, a handkerchief or a pair of glasses. Like all these small and so useful articles, Fleabyte is there where you need it, when you need it. If any computer deserves to be called personal, the honor must be little Fleabyte's.  180813-1

It is quite wrong to view Fleabyte as a poor man's alternative to the desktop computer and just as wrong to mistake it for a handheld calculator. Even though all three have a common electronic ancestry and have many overlapping functions, they do differ in more than one way. One difference, the one I believe to be the most important, is still barely in the offing: it is that little computer's role as an electronic extension of the brain. Fleabyte, playing this role in continuous intimacy, will affect both what we learn and how we learn. If this seems a little farfetched to you, just contemplate some developments in the past.  180813-2

That miniature, the wristwatch, has revolutionized man's daily life more than the clock ever did and one would expect that that other miniature, the pocket computer, will do the same. It, too, is bound to evolve into a lifetime companion. Given that opportunity, it will increasingly take charge of many routine memory and thinking tasks and thereby free the neural brain for occupations of greater interest. We may all have a chip on the shoulder one day.  180813-3

Literacy has changed the consciousness of man, an occurrence that has been carefully investigated and documented.* The printing press has brought further such change. Computer literacy—computency—one ought to expect, will cause even more change in consciousness. My personal view is that computency is an extension of general literacy in the sense that now not only man, but also his machine can act on recorded thought. Computency may soon be at the very foundation of formal education, along with reading and writing.*  180813-4

In the meantime, however, while being fully cognisant of its potential, it is probably best to simply regard Fleabyte as a step toward feeling comfortable with computers. It may be had for little money and one can learn to use it with a modicum of effort. And as one learns, one is likely to be surprised by the amount of plain, old-fashioned utilitarian value Fleabyte has. How much of it, though, will depend on the person using it; on the things he does in, and with, life. It can make money matters tractable and perform other chores of an administrative nature. It can rank data, evaluate them, sort out things. It can take on computational tasks way beyond the ability of the handheld calculator. It can help think and remember. It can educate, it can entertain, it can amaze. And because Fleabyte is light and small and is powered by tiny batteries, it does all this just about anywhere you want it to, something which even the laptop computer cannot. Fleabyte, you will agree, commands a deep and abiding respect.  180813-5

This course demonstrates just how good Fleabyte is. Evolution in market demands will make it better still: even smaller, perhaps; more powerful all the time; increasingly meeting better defined needs. And by learning to program it yourself rather than merely depending on software produced by others, you will be master of its mind. You will get what you want, and get it done the way you want it.*  180813-6

A choice of companions  180813-7

At the time of writing, the major suppliers of pocket computers are the ubiquitous Japanese firms Casio and Sharp. Between them they put a respectable number of different models on the market. Some of these have been or are still appearing under another familiar name, Radio Shack or Tandy. Most of these computers are characterized by being very light indeed. Well-known companies that also offer small computers are Texas Instruments with its TI-74, and Hewlett-Packard who since 1984 has been selling the Cadillac of pocket computers, the darling of the engineering set, the pricey HP-71B. And then there is the Organizer II made by the U.K. firm Psion and the Pocket PC, developed by DIP, another U.K. firm, and distributed by Atari outside the U.K. The Organizer II is intended primarily, although not exclusively, for personal organization. The Pocket PC is as full-fledged a pocket computer as they come.  180813-8

I do not consider high price a virtue. I want my daily companion to be compact, versatile, adaptable to changing circumstances, and easy to get along with. I expect to have to replace my instrument from time to time, not because of wear and tear, but because new and desirable features are coming to market all the time. A low cost of acquisition should certainly help to take the sorrow out of parting.  180813-9

Let us touch upon some of Fleabyte's special qualities.  180813-10

Size. – When a computer is some eight inches long, almost four inches wide and an inch thick (20 cm × 10 cm × 2.5 cm) it might be regarded as a handheld more than a pocket computer. Although computers somewhat too clumsy to fit in a person's pocket are finding their niches—with many having become the computer for a salesperson outside the office—it is somewhat difficult to envisage them as our close companions, ready to share our learning, our thinking, our memory. At the small end of the scale we find instruments with dimensions less than five-and-a-half, three, and one-half inch (14 cm × 7.5 cm × 1,8 cm), such as, among those now on the market, Casio's FX-730P and FX-795P, Tandy's PC-6 and some Sharp pocket computers. The middle ground is occupied by a variety of models with a range of features.  180813-11

Versatility. – We want the processing of information to be simple. We want Fleabyte to move without difficulty among people, computers, and various forms of storage such as books, sheets or strips of paper, magnetic disks, strips, or tapes, optical cards, whether nearby or at great distance, and do all this fast and at any time. While these things are possible today, there is still some distance to go in Fleabyte's world. Nearly all pocket computers are made to be connected with a printer and a tape recorder. Some can exchange informatiion with magnetic disks and other computers and, if desired, do so by telephone. But such features do exact a much higher price.  180813-12

Worthy of mention at this point is the compact storage of programs and data on electronic chips ("RAM cards" or EPROM "Data Packs") or on magnetic cards that can be quickly inserted in one's pocket computer. These devices very effectively add to Fleabyte's mental capacity. The low-cost Casio FX-720P and FX-820P models take cards of either 2 or 4 kilobytes. There are exchangeable 8-, 16- and 32-kilobyte RAM cards for the, somewhat larger, Sharp PC-1460 whereas the Sharp PC-1360 takes two 32-K RAM cards. Each RAM card is kept alive by a little battery.  180813-13

Magnetic cards are not thus encumbered. Hewlett-Packard's classy HP-71B has a slot for a two-by-one-inch "card reader" that allows one to save or use programs and data on thin, 1.3-K magnetic cards.  180813-14

The capacity of many computers may be expanded by simply adding, rather than exchanging, memory chips. Thus the working capacity of Tandy's PC-6 may be doubled to about 16 kilobytes whereas that of the Casio FX-850P may be expanded from 8 to 40 kilobytes. The advantage of exchanging rather than adding chips is that it removes the fixed limit on Fleabyte's capacity. The magnetic card does this as well. As things stand today, exchangeable RAM cards can hold bigger programs, but having to look after their batteries is a distraction. The Organizer II, which measures 5.6 by 3 by 1.1 inch (14 × 7.6 × 2.8 cm), has a working memory of nearly 23 K that may be expanded by 64 K or, by using "Data Packs," to more than 300 K. Latest on the market are "memory cards," the size of credit cards, with capacities up to 128 K. DIP's Pocket PC, which can have up to 256-K RAM of its own internal working memory, uses them. Tomorrow, we may have laser-scanned cards of that size, but with a capacity of more than 20 megabytes. These, then, could become for Fleabyte what now floppies and hard disks are for micro-computers.  180813-15

A fine feature now on the market is Casio's Data Bank. Throughout one's daily doings—from reading a newspaper perhaps, moving on to do some chores for the community, a chat with a friend, on to work, then doing some shopping during lunch break, and making that phone call—one can enter notes in any random order to do a quick sort later for interpretations by programs self made. Everyman's data management at its best! Don't believe it? Turn to Chapter 11 and see for yourself.*  180813-16

Especially useful are pocket computers that can be connected to a micro-computer and via this route to the micro's printer and diskdrive. This requires an RS-232 connector such as found on the Organizer II and on the Sharp 1360 and 1460 models. The Casio FX-850P can be similarly linked, whereas the connection from Casio's PB-1000 goes via its diskdrive.  180814-1

Some pocket computers permit the plotting of small graphs on their liquid crystal display (e.g. the Pocket PC) whereas others can produce graphs on a connected plotter (e.g. Hewlett-Packard 71B, Casio FX-850P and the Sharp PC1460 and PC-1560180814-2

Nearly all pocket computers have built-in BASIC of one dialect or another, but some are multilingual; Personal Pascal for the TI-74, and Forth and Assembler for HP's 71B. Some. such as Casio's FX-790P and Tandy's PC-6, have been arranged to allow the study of Assembler. The Organizer II employs OPL (Organizer Programming Language), which is rather much like a modern, procedural BASIC. Upon entry, OPL programs are translated into fast-acting machine code by the press of a button.  180814-3

Adaptability – Technology marches on and the price of progress includes obsolescence. If we are to rely on supplementing our neural brain with artificial circuitry, we want to be very sure that the part of our mental assets in Fleabyte's care will not be in jeopardy either because of some accident or as a consequence of updating components or methods. We must be absolutely confident that what has been programmed in one language can be readily transposed into another, more up-to-date one. We must be certain also that information exchange via, to, and from computers and storage devices can be readily and cheaply adapted by more up-to-date or replacement equipment. Fleabyte's mental assets, accumulated over years of programming, may not be quite as valuable as those held in our natural brain, but they may in a future not too distant become a close second and they should, therefore, not be subject to the buffetting forces of progress and the whiles of commerce.* We want a Fleabyte that can be readily attuned to futute change. The more we can rely on this, the more we shall be prepared to entrust it with important parts of our mental burden.  180814-4

Interaction – Our discourse with Fleabyte should be comfortable, virtually automatic, fast. Clearly, this ideal is a long way off. In his 1977 book, The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan wonders if it is possible to add some day  180814-5

      "a variety of cognitive and intellectual prosthetic devices to the brain—a kind of eyeglasses for the mind. This would be in the spirit of the past accretionary evolution of the brain and is probably far more feasible than attempting to restructure the existing brain. Perhaps one day we will have surgically impanted in our brain small, replaceable computer modules or radio terminals which will provide us with a rapid and fluent knowledge of Basque, Urdu, Amharic, Ainu, Albasian, Nu, Hopi, !Kung, or Delphinese; or numerical values of the incomplete gamma function and the Tchebysheff polynomials; or the natural history of animal spoor; or all legal precedence for the ownership of floating islands; or radio telepathy connecting several human beings, at least temporarily, in a form of symbiotic association previously unknown to our species."  180814-6

Sagan's train of thought, way back then, took off from a device, "successfully" applied, to effect the direct communication between a chimpanzee's brain and an electronic computer.  180814-7

This kind of ease—although I doubt we shall ever want it in this particular form—is probably still a while in the coming. In the meantime we must let our fingers do the talking. Or the tip of a plastic cap on a ballpoint—which I find very convenient for pressing the 5/32-inch (4 mm) keys of my Sharp PC-1261. Maybe c heap software will be made available for making programs on desktops with their more convenient keyboards, and then transferring them by cable, infrared or simply via magnetic cards. But as I see it, the pocket computer itself must remain programmable also to permit modifications or making new programs away from the home computer.  180814-8

Talking about keyboards, most pocket computers—the Organizer II being a notable exception—have their letter keys arranged as on conventional typewriters, in querty format. At first glance this may seem strange because a ten-finger typist would need very small fingers indeed. However, some time of struggling with an alphabetic arrangement made me long for that good, old, and despised querty. I imagine that the last word on keyboards is still to be heard. In the meantime we might be offered a choice. One interesting solution to the high population density of keys on a pocket computer is the Microwriter keyboard, an English invention, with five unmarked keys. By pressing various combinations of these keys, a large number of different signals give Fleabyte plenty to think about.*  180814-9

That PC-1261 I mentioned two paragraphs earlier puts its messages on an LCD (liquid crystal display) with two lines of 24 characters each. That is four times as many as I had been accustomed to. Not that a twelve-character display is at the present time the most limiting factor for pocket computers, but two lines is heaven, especially because the flexibility it affords Fleabyte for displaying questions and answers. Some models do better still. The Casio FX-850P has two lines of 30 columns each and the (rather more hefty and expensive) Casio PB-1000 displays 128 characters spread over four lines. The Pocket PC accomodates eight lines of 40 characters each. While graphics are already in, color displays should not be far off: small color-TV sets with liquid crystal displays have been on the market for some time and some related technical details are either about to be solved or, by now,11 have been solved.  180814-10

I have not yet found the perfect electronic companion, if ever there will be one. Nevertheless, with what is already available the time has come to press ahead and turn our thoughts to how Fleabyte may become a most valuable and trustworthy helpmate, a veritable friend, to have and to hold till parted by death or obsolescence. And the next step, clearly, is to understand Fleabyte and be on talking terms with it.  180814-11

Whence this course.  180814-12

Fleabyte power  180814-13

As far as I can sense, the belief is taking hold that the Western world is beginning to play, or is already playing, second fiddle to Japan. This belief is nurtured by a seeming falling drive in our children to apply themselves to worthwhile goals, and also by the rise of the yen.  180814-14

Knowledge Is Power is an adage that goes back a long, long time. Not unlike today's secrets of state, knowledge used to be garnered and guarded by priesthoods thousands of years ago. Today, knowledge is abundant everywhere but usually not readily on tap. It is difficult to select what seems most wanted and then to organize it and apply it to good purpose.  180814-15

Power can create a dominance that permeates human affairs throughout the world. And, not unlikely, information may mean more to us than power. It may be essential to human survival.*  180814-16

Clearly, information, its spread and its uses are subjects worthy of careful scrutiny. And so is the acquisition of the skills to utilize information, learning. It is in this context then that Fleabyte is not to be ignored. Fleabyte, carried on the person, may well become a boost to our mental efficiency, the quickening of wits, the capacity to know or recall faster and, possibly, think better in a manner we can't yet understand. Fleabyte could be part of that power.  180814-17

Being of Two Minds  180814-18

A burning question that, I should expect, will occupy individuals—educators and scholars especially—is just what it is we should learn, what we should leave to Fleabyte, and what is best left to books and their equivalents. These are most fascinating questions and one should not be deterred by the fact that any notion what the answer will be, or even where it is to be found, might merely be a distant gleam in some haze.  180814-19

Even before the coming of Fleabyte, questions of this kind never did find a satisfactory answer. To answer "what is worth knowing most?" demands a view so catholic as to be very difficult to attain. It would seem, therefore, that any approach should be pragmatic with a minimum of vision or theory. We must plot a course not too far out from shore so that we may quickly steer for familiar waters in the event we lose our barings. In any attempt to answer questions such as this, we must consider also that humankind has a rapidly increasing store of what is worth knowing, worth sensing, worth considering, worth caring for, and worth doing.*  180814-20

Two decades ago the Learning Research Groupo at Xerox Palo Alto set out to develop Dynabook, a "personal dynamic medium the size of a notebook, which could be owned by everyone and could have the power to handle vistually all of its owner's information related needs. It would respond to questions, it would have enough capacity to store anything the owner would like to remember, it would have high quality video and audio output, and it would have enough power to respond instantly."*  180814-21

Fleabyte is not Dynabook. The tasks envisaged for it do not fit within the 1.5-K to 300-K range of today's pocket computers. Except for those produced on specialized peripherals, Fleabyte's graphics are rudimentary and the quality of its audio is mostly limited to a beep or two. "Today, that is, today," I wrote yesterday. Now I have a unit, the Organizer II that lets me program musical notes of varying duration. And the Pocket PC possesses a mental muscle comparable to those of an average desktop computer.  180814-22

Fleabyte Goes to College  180814-23

In recent years, pocket computers have been appearing in college classrooms and laboratories and their presence seem to have some disturbing effect on at lest some faculty. Fleabyte, because of its memory, has been banned from examination rooms. I do not know how widespread this ban is, but that is not all that important for this discussion. Besides, if such a ban is not yet universally enforced, it could well happen soon because we now have low-cost pocket computers that store formelas replete with commentary and ready for use. Today's Fleabyte can, in principle, help its owner pass a final examination in college chemistry, a fact that any chemistry teacher can verify. If this seems a little worrisome, there is another problem as well: excluding electronic memory from examinations while allowing the use of electronic calculators requires that invigilators are able to distinguish between electronic devices that can memorize and those that can't.  180815-1

We probably do far better by making grateful use of what we have and pose such questions as "If Fleabyte can help answer examination questions, are we perchance asking the wrong questions? Has not the time come to take another good, hard look at the worth of what we should preparing and examining human brains for?" We shall consider this question during one of our interludes.*  180815-2

Not only do computers force these kind of questions on us, electronic calculators do so as well. Hewlett-Packard's HP-28C is so sophisticated as to cause one dean at a U.S. university to observe, "On most examinations that are now given in calculus, that calculator could get a B or at worst a C+. It is a real opportunity, but it means that the calculator course will have to change."  180815-3

In contemplating such change, be it in mathematics, chemistry, or any other field, it is well to give heed to, on the one hand, the job market and the competition from abroad and, on the other, our increasingly complex and perplexing society in a threatening and threatened world. We must learn to think and respond faster and we simply cannot afford to ignore any opportunity to improve the choice of what and how we learn. As for the workplace, we neither can afford to give it that high degree of priority that threatens the quality of life—family life in particular—as has often been found the case and, going by reports, especially so in Japan. Clearly, we must find ways of working smarter and, yet, under less stress or we shall be unable to compete or avoid tearing the social fabric beyond acceptable limits. And, be it on or off the job, our existence and effective democracy require faster and better decisions, living, as we do, amidst nuclear and industrial wastes that destroy our very bodies. First-rate education for the creation of first-rate judgment is vital.  180815-4

Computer programs permit the rapid execution of repetitive calculations. Whereas the microcomputer requires a student to go to it, a pocket computer—one in the hands of every student and of the instructor—gets such work done right in the classroom or laboratory. Be it variations in electron density about atomic nuclei or the effect of polysyllables on readability, a range of illustrative data can be produced quickly and on the spot. It is a way of doing things that at the same time reduces or eliminates the common problem of access to school computers.  180815-5

Already pocket computers should permit instructors to make commonplace those student exercises that generate a field of solutions from a range of inputs. This contrasts starkly with today's typical exercises that lead to some single answer and whose sole purpose usually is to find whether or not a problem is understood well enough for a student to solve it. But a field of solutions enhances the educational value of problem solving by adding a dimension and thereby provide perspective, depth and/or internal context. Add to this that there are pocket computers that can show plots on their liquid crystal displays (or more elaborate graphing on a peripheral plotter) and we have a device that should capture the full attention of educators. After all, graphic presentations make learning more concrete and, hence, better.  180815-6

And thinking ahead a little further still, couple all of the above with compact-disk interactive technology now being developed by Phillips in The Netherlands and by Sony in Japan. We shall learn to orchestrate words, sounds, and pictures with programs made by, and set to our own hand. Any moving components will be micromachinery, the technology of which is being developed right now.  180815-7

Clearly, the time has come to recognize, in the context of popular education, the potential of computency and of pocket computers. If there is anything holding us back now, it is not technology.  180815-8


Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, Methuen, 1982.  *   fn1

August, 2018. – It has taken longer than expected three decades ago. In recent years, England has made computing a statutory subject for all children from age 5 to 16. More on this in my essay about our Senate.  *   fn2

August, 2018. – But just as we have vehicles that allow us to move more efficiently than walking, we shall also have a need for specialized, professionally produced applications.  *   fn3

August, 2018. – Chapter 11 of this Fleabyte course, of course. Quoting from that chapter,
      "Recent models of Casio computers really put on the Ritz. They have a Data Bank, a feature that permits storing and using information without any programming whatsoever. And not only that! The stored information can be acted on by your programmed instructions to use it the way you want it. In my book, that beats having to slavishly learn and follow instructions that come with commercial data management software."
Etc., etc.  
*   fn4

August, 2018. – How little I seemed to have been aware of criminal hackers.  *   fn5

August, 2018. – Douglas Engelbart, about whom more in Social augmentation introduced the chorded keyset as a computer interface in 1968 at what is often called "The Mother of All Demos".  *   fn6

August, 2018. – My "ongoing" Senate essay On guard in a global environment emphasizes the need for our senators to remain well-informed about the direction local and global developments are taking and integrate that information. It just struck me how helpful the kind of Data Bank touched upon in paragraph 180813-16 may very well be!  *   fn7

August, 2018. – At this point, I have taken the liberty to leave out a few badly conceived sentences.  *   fn8

August, 2018. – Today, my netbook appears to fill that bill.  *   fn9

August, 2018. – Orality, Literacy, Computency *   fn10

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