Gill Smith
Gill Smith - Comedy Writer & Performer

Gill's Journal, Issue

Quarterly magazine of The ARM Club the Leading Independant
RISC OS Computer User Club.
Whatís the strangest place youíve ever checked your e-mail from? Now, most of the time, I check mine, and respond, send mails, and ignore spam from a 3 bedroomed (well, one bedroom, two studies) semi-detached in suburbia. But I have been known to check my e-mail from sports halls in Wakefield (you too? What a surprise!) and Waterloo station (they were trialing internet points around places like that, it was free, I had time to kill.)

Iíve also checked my e-mail from outside the UK, although my brotherís kitchen table in Brooklyn doesnít exactly make for a wild location. That could describe downloading e-mails to a caravan in deepest Wales, or sneaking a quick look in the depths of Dartmoor - in a delightful B & B.

Gill Smith explores the dangers and delights of extreme spodding and suggests how it could be extended to add excitement to other pastimes, such as train spotting.

Iíve also developed a great way of checking my e-mail from anywhere, regardless of whether I have a machine, and an internet connection. Iíve been known to check my mail from all sorts of places round the UK. All it needs is a mobile, and this is all I have to do:

  1. Pick up mobile.
  2. Unlock it.
  3. Press Ďnames.í
  4. Press ĎTí
  5. Go through and select ĎToby.í
  6. Then say, "Darling, can you have a quick look for me..."

Iím sure Iím not the only person to have checked my e-mail from somewhere obscure, and I know certain spods havenít been able to cope without a quick trip to an internet cafť wherever they are around the world.

Of course, theyíll kindly put up with the perils of having to use systems designed by a certain well known US corporate with anti-trust issues, just for the sake of knowing that your e-mails do not go unread. Unanswered, well, maybe. It depends on how good a time theyíre having - and whether there was a particularly interesting conversation on linux box settings that they might be missing out on.

Extreme Spodding But this is an interesting phenomena, that Iíve named ĎExtreme Spodding.í (These days, nothing is cool unless thereís an extreme branch of it - although it may take more than that to make spodding cool!) But be warned, it isnít just about where in the world youíve spodded from, although extra credit should be given for any nation where we in the UK havenít even heard of any of their politicians. Also, extra brownie points will be awarded for finding RISC OS and Oregano in any country other than the UK or Holland (to rule out your committee members demanding extra points for trips to the Dutch show), and still spodding from your favourite OS.

But ĎExtreme Spoddingí can take place in the good old UK, so long as youíre doing something else interesting at the same time as checking your e-mail. And no, I donít mean surfing for pictures of Gail Porter.

No, by "interesting" Iím using a definition of the term that involves finding at least three other people - not including members of The ARM Club, your co-workers, or your own family - who also find it interesting. Such examples might include bungee jumping, white water rafting, or abseiling.

Spod of Hell. Or, since this is spodding, it might be best to suggest such radical things as watching ĎThe Office,í listening to Radio One, or knocking back the Baileys. With the first two, the only worry is distraction, although the danger of accidentally sending your boss an e-mail intended for the Gail Porter fan club is a risk that shouldnít be ignored. With the last on that list, the danger becomes that youíre suddenly quite happy to send your boss the sort of e-mail youíd only ever intend for Gailís personal inbox.

Oh yes, Spodding can be a dangerous sport. Imagine trying it (or should I say Ďremember,í in the case of some of you?) from a moving vehicle. Please let someone else do the driving though! Unless thatís just using a GPS (Global Positioning System) to tell you exactly how lost you really are - geographically, rather than in the quest to find a life.

And I donít count using a car with an electronic dashboard or electric engine as spodding. Otherwise milkmen would be the spoddiest people youíve ever met. If there are any left, that is - the nearest I get to a milkman is the spotty youth re-stacking the shelves at Sainsburys. Yet I still always get stuck behind a milk float when Iím late anywhere. Toby demands that in-car electronics at the level of a touch-screen is classified as spoddy, however. To save myself being counted as a spod, in return, I insist that this depends entirely on what you use it for - and if itís only to panic that youíre running out of petrol and change radio stations, itís definitely not spoddy.

Anyway, getting back to what passes for a point, there are also risks when using mobile technology - would you really want your poor mother to realise that the most excitement youíve had since Christmas (as I write in early December) is outsmarting another spod about what DNS settings he should use? Itíd break your poor grannieís heart to get that sort of text by mistake. To see you get over excited about a new bit of shareware might be something your friend Dave can understand - but if you accidentally send it to the address book entry before him: Dad? Your poor father will have to finally accept that youíll only ever play for Arsenal on the Nintendo.

Mobile phones arenít all bad though - at least you get fair warning of who is calling, so you can be really naughty and not answer when youíre out with your mates - well, at a RISC OS Show, then - and your mum rings to ask when youíre dropping your laundry round. And if you ever need to find a teenager (perhaps if youíve forgotten how to program the video) these tracking devices are firmly implanted between hand and ear. Donít expect to understand the series of grunts that passes for conversation, however, if youíve hit the age of twenty.

Do, though, be glad itís going on. Yes, apparently mobiles are good for teenagersí health. Setting aside the average parentís utter conviction that they may as well just fold their teenager into the microwave and have done with it, apparently having mobiles reduces teen smoking.

The changing habits of British youth. Personally, I donít think itís lack of desire to rebel, but that, after learning manual dexterity in the cradle, they lose it again in their teens. It goes soon after the power of rational conversation, when any child from age ten onwards suddenly returns to their biological roots, and starts to instead speak Neanderthal. As this vocabulary change hits, they also lose physical abilities - well, I canít assume they dress themselves like that out of choice! So while their mobile is glued to their fingers texting someone theyíll see as soon as school finishes, they donít have the dexterity to also light up. Not while trying to fit the entire class, minus one or two spods, in behind the bike sheds. Could Nicorette really soon be going broke, while Orange saves the UKís health?! And incidentally, as teenagers refuse to get exercise and cycle to school, why are there still bike sheds to smoke behind?

Of course, the average spod would be perfectly capable of managing both, but they usually find better things to do with their hands. One may be clasping the mobile to the ear, while explaining to a second cousin seven times removed, for the fifteenth time, that the bold button is that big bold ĎBí, but the spodís other hand is still in use coding lines of some complicated program, that will save them 0.173 seconds time online every time they dial up. Of course, as a spod doesnít dial up, but has broadband, so it just means the mails get there that tiny bit quicker. Phew! Those extra milliseconds make all the difference.

And I suspect that this is the real extreme spodding. Itís not about where you spod from, what youíre on (caffine being fully expected, alcohol being a bit silly really) or what else youíre up to while you spod. Itís about having so little else to do with your life that writing code to occasionally save yourself three nanoseconds becomes not a pointless waste of time, but a "Challenge."

Along with ĎExtreme,í ĎChallengeí is a thoroughly overused word. It used to imply Anneka Rice running around doing something dramatic - something that was virtually impossible, but she just about managed anyway, most weeks. It used to imply cool off-road buggy things, and tight jump suits. (Shall I pause and leave you with that image for a moment?)

The word also got used for ĎUniversity Challengeí where the challenge wasnít between two teams from different colleges to beat the other in the battle of intelligence, wit and general knowledge. No, it was the challenge to persuade any of the audience to care which team won.

"Challenge" according to the good people at the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, means "a call to someone to participate in a contest or fight to decide who is superior." Please note, complicated coding is not, therefore, a challenge. The computer is not calling. You do not need to prove your supremacy over your RISC machine. If you feel the need to, get up and make yourself a coffee. Your computer canít do that. Then return, say "ner, ner ne ner ner" to your Acorn, and promptly surf the internet for the number of a local psychiatrist.

Complicated coding is in fact the desire to show off - but to who - your computer? If so, please see the last bit of advice above. But maybe definition two from the Concise OED will help here "Challenge - a call to prove or justify something." Still, I think youíre only proving to your computer that you love it more dearly than any of the four human beings you know, but if it helps you justify to yourself that ridiculously expensive bit of hardware, well, someone has to keep the Acorn market afloat, and Iím a big believer in the redistribution of wealth (feel free to send cheques to...)

Maybe itís all about showing off to other spods. Back in the dark ages (pre 1983) the best way to show off was the size of your house (larger is better), wage packet (ditto), car (small, two seater, less practical the better) or job title (back to big is best.) These days, with technology, you can be working from a central London bedsit, while someone else does the same job from a four bedroomed suburban semi. And no one is fool enough to pay you what youíre worth. Theyíll pay what they can get away with.

Before that (the really-dark-especially-at-night-as-no-one-had-invented-light-bulbs ages) it was all about getting some form of dinner on the table. And not by using the mobile to call for pizza. No, dinner may have been running away not long ago. Or some poor fool had spent hours kneading dough, for you to part with your hard earned, or thieved, cash for it. (Personally, Iím amazed that once electricity was tamed for use in the house, the first invention to follow electric light wasnít the breadmaker.)

These days you have all that spare time when someone else is catching the food, or kneading the bread, and so instead, the width and reliability of your broadband becomes much more important. So if you can, in just a few lines of Perl script, or a bit of nearly forgotten BASIC programming, save yourself a bit more of that spare time, then naturally, youíre better off than all the other spods, still working on ways to save themselves seconds, that they wont know what to do with when they have.

Scripting something that youíll probably only ever do once anyway is really just about showing off your skills at saving time. Itís not surprising, since the world, and particularly the Innovations catalogue, is packed with time saving devices, from dishwashers to lights that save you the bother by turning themselves on.

The whole world is trying to save time. After all, time, is, allegedly money. And money, as you know, canít buy you love. But instead, it could buy you a brand new Iyonix, which will then consume all of your remaining time playing on it, and money buying programmes for it, and peripherals to make it even cooler. Your machine may not love you back, but Iím sure you can give it a womanís name and pretend.

By which point, youíll be needing to write some more time saving scripts, just so that you can still find time to show off your coffee making skills - sorry guys, but thatís not yet an available attachment for the Iyonix, to the best of my knowledge. And if it is, then show off to your new and shiny machine by drinking the coffee. Iím sure there are ways to get the coffee inside the computer, but Iím equally sure it wont get a caffine buzz and work harder after you do that. Please, just trust me on that one.

Well, while Iíve got the dictionary out, what does it have to say about "Extreme." I suspect "a way to make activities sound cooler than they really are" isnít the OEDís definition. And even if it was, would it stop people signing up for classes in extreme knitting, or stamp collecting? See, there are plenty of other hobbies out there that need some effort to sound trendy. Presumably extreme knitting is a matter of making something really huge, while in stamp collection, I can only assume its finding stamps from radical countries. Maybe you even need to go to war torn third world dictatorships and send yourself postcards?

And what about train spotting? Could that be extreme, other than in the sense of extremely sad? How about, instead of just spotting the trains, you have to touch them too? So train spotters risk life and limb for a glancing blow from the 4:50 from Paddington. Extreme plane spotting appears to be a hobby best pursued on the military bases of Greece.

Train Spodding So, extreme: 1. very great (knitting big things, spodding on big bits of code) ; very severe or serious (I think normal train spotting can be counted as extreme, if itís all about how seriously you take the hobby!) 2. far from moderate, especially politically.

Well, I think number 2 sums up The ARM Club members, and their attitude to nasty American corporates that blind the poor innocent public as to what they really want from computers. Although I trust you donít decide to trash your computers at work just because your boss isnít as enlightened as he / she ought to be.

Of course, I havenít noticed a march through London by spods, demanding decent computing for all. But obviously that would involve going outside into daylight, and also getting exercise, which would be far too radical from most spods. Maybe the way to do it is to arrange an eveningís dithering round Parliament Square?

Written by Gill Smith, © Published Spring 2003 Reproduced with permission.
Cartoons © Howard Read