Friday, 25 June 2010

61 Candles

It's Elise's birthday today. It would be amiss to reveal the total score, of course, but this morning I played her a small selection of appropriate music, including the dyslexic version of the Crest's 1959 hit "16 Candles," Jerry Lee Lewis's excellent "39 and Holding" (admittedly telling its tale about a man, but with a sentiment more than apt for any woman who has passed the dreaded four-oh) and the 1957 success by the Tune Weavers, "Happy Birthday Baby," the title of which is suitable for such an occasion, even if the lyrics are far less so.

I can't imagine a better pastiche for such a celebratory occasion, though I have to admit that She Who Must Be Obeyed seemed less than impressed with my musical selection (it is true, of course, that she is usually less than impressed with my musical selections, so this was no exception).

Well, after that auspicious start, I continued in caring husband mode by switching on the dish-washer and making a loaf of bread, two quite separate activities, I hasten to add (it is possible to poach a salmon in a dish-washer, but I know of nobody who has yet succeded in baking a loaf of bread in one). Following a well-earned rest, during which Elise received a number of phone calls from friends in Belgium and several emailed birthday wishes, I took Elise to Hotel Laguna for a slap-up meal, which she seemed to enjoy. No doubt a visit to El Corte Inglés will soon be on the books.

Happy birthday, Elise! Penblwydd hapus, mujer!

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Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Do you speak Belgian?

Elise and I come from Belgium.

Well, that's not entirely true, as I was born in Wales, where I lived for the first nine years of my life, after which I lived in England until I moved to Belgium when I was almost twenty-three. However, having then spent the next thirty-five years of my life in Belgium, before moving to Spain, I feel almost entitled to write that I, too, come from Belgium and I'm proud to be able to write it, too.

Anyway, I am amazed at how many people who, upon first meeting us, ask us if we speak Belgian. And then, when we explain that there is no such language, they seem to have great difficulty in accepting that a country called Belgium does not have a language called Belgian, as if Brazil has a language Brazilian, or Canada a language Canadian, or New Zealand perhaps New Zealandian… Admittedly, Americans speak a strange sort of English, but their language remains English, even if their accent and usage is American.

Well, Belgium is rather like that, as far as language is concerned, except that things are rather more complicated, especially for such a very small country. You see, there are three official languages in Belgium: Dutch (spoken by some 60% of the population), French (roughly 38%), and German (some 2%).

Dutch is spoken in the northern part of Belgium, in the area known as Flanders. The sort of Dutch that is spoken there, with its typical accents and usage, is often referred to as Flemish, but it really is Dutch and don't let anyone tell you different.

French is spoken in the southern part of Belgium, in the area known as Wallonia. Wallonian French has, again, its own accents and usages, but it remains French.

German is spoken in a very small part of Belgium, close to the border with Germany. This part of Belgium actually belongs to the political region that corresponds to Wallonia, but don't let this confuse you—Belgian politics, particularly when related to language borders and usage is a minefield that requires an expert in hieroglyphics to decipher and understand.

So, no, we do not speak Belgian. Our first language, at least as far as Belgium is concerned, is Dutch, though we can also get by in French (with hairs on) and German (even hairier).

Indeed, nobody speaks Belgian.

Even people who have some idea of Belgium are often very confused abut its use of language. Many believe it to be a French-speaking country, whereas it is primarily Dutch- speaking, of course. In the early 1960s, one of my Geography masters explained to the class that Belgium was French-speaking, but that some uneducated, illiterate peasants still spoke a dialect called Flemish (it was the same Geography master that threw me out of the class for arguing with him that Monmouthshire was in Wales and not England). Educational nonsense was not confined to the UK side of the Channel, however: my Belgian wife, when at school at about the same time, was taught that Wales was a county in England… So much for schools.

(The photo shows the Belfort (bell tower) in Gent (Ghent) with Sint Baaf's cathedral in the background.)

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Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The First PC?

Some months ago I wrote about my start in computing (see I'm Counting On You, ending that entry with my move to Belgium in 1971.

My first job in Belgium was just an excuse to get a work-permit, visa and whatever else I needed to come to the country (remember, the UK was not part what was then the EEC at that time), but after a few months I found a place in Gent (Ghent) as a programmer for a company that, as well as using an IBM 360/30 for its own purposes, also acted as a sort of computer service bureau for other companies, writing and running their programs. One of my tasks was to write a series of programs for the luggage manufacturer, Samsonite, the European headquarters of which were in Oudenaarde. This went very well and some time later, when Samsonite decided to get their own computer, I was asked to go to work for them.

I had written the original series of programmes in RPG for the IBM, but Samsonite had selected a Honeywell Bull GE 58 machine, so the programmes had to be rewritten in COBOL. Gradually, the set was expanded to form a complete Order and Billing system, handling not only the sales and stock of Samsonite Belgium, but also those of the other sales offices in Europe: France, Germany and the UK. Sales data and other relevant information (production, customer updates, etc.) were still handled in batch, the data being collected on forms, transferred to punch-card and processed during the evening for production of invoices, stock sheets, customs documents, and so on. When Samsonite upgraded from the GE 58 to an HB 64 in about 1976, everything had to be converted because of the very different operating systems and we took the opportunity to radically alter the O&B system, to include real-time sales entry in Belgium and data capture in the sales-points outside Belgium through DataPoint 2200 "workstations."

The DataPoint 2200 was a strange creature and really represented the first personal computer: it sat on top of the desk (a desktop, in other words), it had a screen, a keyboard, a means of storing programs and data, a processing unit, and it could drive peripheral devices, such as a printer. It really was a PC ahead of its time, for nobody at that time had heard of a "personal computer". Still, with the CTOS operating system (Cassette Tape Operating System), a means of designing on-screen forms and a Basic-like programming language, I was able to allow the users in the countries outside Belgium to capture sales information and customer updates during the day onto cassette tape and to send that data using a telecommunications link (first with an acoustic coupler at 300bps, and later with a "real" modem at 1200bps) with the HB 64 in Belgium, for processing during the night. The next morning, sales results, invoices, stock reports and other information for printing were transmitted back, again capturing these on cassette tape for printing at will.

It was primitive, but it worked very well and was still working when I left Samsonite in 1981. By that time, Apple had become well known with its Apple ][ personal computer and IBM had finally realised that people really could make use of PCs and had unwittingly fallen into the clutches of one Bill Gates in a desperate attempt to stop Apple's growth. But it's nice to have used the machine that represented the very start of the personal computer revolution, a start which is generally overlooked.