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ODS - Alice through the VDU

A familiarity with the works of Lewis Carroll and a background in IT will certainly enhance your appreciation of this piece, but I don't think it's essential.


Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting in front of the computer terminal and not knowing what to do. Once or twice she looked into a user manual, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what use is a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

"I wonder what goes on behind the screen?" she asked herself. "There's a vague reflection of an office much like mine, only everything is back-to-front - it must be a computer department! Oh how nice it would be if I could only step into it and find out how they do things there!"

"Why, the glass is turning into a sort of mist, I declare! It'll be easy enough to get through..."

She was clambering over the keyboard as she said this. Her knee hit the ENTER key, and in an instant Alice was through the glass and had jumped lightly down into the computer department.

She found herself in a long, low hall lit by rows and rows of cathode ray tubes - visual display units of every shape and size. She looked at every screen, but they only showed messages like
PR   :   XTLCRTCA, or
A>, or
and some screens did not display anything at all.

"Oh why do computer people always make things so confusing for users?" Alice thought aloud. Then suddenly she saw a vdu, just three inches high, upon which was displayed:

"Oh! What a friendly little terminal! It wants me to write a program," she cried, "I think I could, if only I knew how to begin."

She went over to a desk, hoping she might find a book of rules on how to program, and to her great delight there was one! The spine read COBOL MANUAL, and tied around it with some paper tape was a label with the words READ ME in large letters.

Alice cautiously flicked through the opening pages. Finding it even more confusing than the screens, she backed away, her head reeling. "What a curious feeling," she said. "That manual has made me feel very, very small!" And so it had - she was now only ten inches high.

Her eyes fell upon a booklet under the table entitled TEACH YOURSELF BASIC, with the label LEARN ME. This manual was much easier to swallow than the first, and she soon finished it off.

"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice (she was so surprised that for a moment she quite forgot how to construct a good Basic statement). "Now I really feel as though I can hold my head up high in DP. Goodbye feet!" (for when she glanced down at her feet they appeared to be getting further and further away). "I'll soon look down on everyone."

At that moment her head struck against the ceiling of the hall. She was about to curse - just like a real computer programmer - when she heard a little pattering of feet. A White Rabbit trotted by in a great hurry, muttering to himself as he went.

"Oh my paws and whiskers! Oh, the users! Oh, won't they be savage if I've kept them waiting?" And off he went.

Alice tentatively peered into the Cobol manual again, and tried to understand the strange writing she had seen before.

Twas binary, and the wysiwyg
Did gulp and gigo in the mips:
All bubble were the memories,
And bipolar were the chips.

Beware the Jargontalk, my son -
Like "gigabytes" and "Riscs" and "Rings" -
Beware all technospeak, and shun
Those dubious buzzword things.

Base two! Base two! and through and through
The packet switch went buffer stack!
With multithread and thin-film head
It went on looping back.

And hast thou sussed the Jargontalk
In interactive user code?
Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
(in Lewis Carroll mode).

As the puzzled Alice shrank back to size she heard again the patter of tiny footsteps and turned to see the White Rabbit scurrying back.

"Oh, the users! the users! Oh my fur and whiskers! They'll have me executed, as sure as Unix is Unix!"

The rabbit noticed Alice, and called out to her in an angry tone, "Why, Mary Ann, how is your program going? Get it running this moment! Quick now!"

"He took me for a programmer," Alice said to herself as she ran after him. "Who are you"?" she asked. The Rabbit wriggled his whiskers. "Why, I'm a systems analyst," he said.

"Oh! And what is it exactly that you do?" she asked.

"I hope it's analysing systems that I do exactly!" he replied.

"Oh, I see," said Alice, but she did not see, and the White Rabbit saw that she did not.

"I talk with the users," he began, by way of explanation, "and they talk with me. They get to tell me what they need and I need to tell them what they'll get!"

"Oh, I see," said Alice.

"Do you? They never do!"

"Who are they? The users?"

"Yes," the rabbit affirmed, then enquired, "Do you like poetry?"

"Ye-es, pretty well - some poetry," Alice said, doubtfully.

"Then let me recite The User And The Analyst as we go along:

The user and the analyst
Had an informal chatter
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of data
"If this was all computerised,"
They said,"it might not matter."

"If seven maids with seven screens
Typed for half a year,
Do you suppose," the user said
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it!" said the analyst,
And shed a bitter tear.

"Oh anílyst come and talk with us,"
The users then did plead,
"A pleasant chat on this and that
To help us to proceed,
It will only take an hour or two
We know just what we need"

"The time has come," the an'lyst said,
"To talk of many things:
Of roms and rams and vdus,
Of online processings.
And why you need an Ethernet,
or lans with Token Rings."

"But wait a bit," the users cried,
"Before we have our chat,
Please speak to us in English,
We'll communicate in that!"
"Don't worry," said the analyst.
They thanked him much for that.

"A database," the users said,
"Would be so very nice!
We'd like these files and those reports
And access in a trice,
Some tables, graphs and histograms,
And each one printed twice."

Back in his room for half a year
The analyst invented
A way in which the user's needs
Were fully implemented.
"At last!" he said,"it's specified,
I hope they are contented."

"We weep for you!" the users said
"We deeply sympathise,
"But we've altered our requirements
Concerning use and size,
Still, that aside we think you'll find
They're unchanged otherwise!"

The users asked the analyst
"Now, can you make it run
From our statement of requirements?"
But answer came there none.
And this was scarcely odd because
They'd changed them, every one!

As soon as the White Rabbit had finished speaking an electronic buzzing filled the air. The Rabbit took a digital watch out of his waistcoat pocket, looked at it, then hurried on saying "Oh dear! oh dear! I shall be too late!"

As she ran after him Alice came upon a mushroom about the same height as herself. She stretched up on tip-toe and peeped over the edge. Her eyes met those of a big blue caterpillar, sitting on top of the mushroom, quietly working on a telephone.

"Who are you?" asked the caterpillar, languidly putting down the mouthpiece.

"I'm Alice - I'm new to the computer department I'm here to learn all about New Technology - computers and so on - not old-fashioned things such as telephones. Sorry to have disturbed you."

"What do you mean by that?" said the caterpillar, sternly. "Explain yourself."

"What I meant to say is that there is nothing new about telephone technology, you see!"

"I don't see," said the cater-pillar. "Recite You're An Old, Old Invention!"

Alice folded her arms, and began:

You're an old, old invention, dear telephone set
And you're hardly an uncommon sight,
And yet new technology uses your net -
Do you think, at your age, it is right?

"In my youth," the old telephone set did opine,
"I'd just transmit voice in the main,
But now I communicate data online,
Why, I do it again and again!"

You're an aged invention, as I mentioned before,
And your functions are nowt but old hat,
But now British Telecom's used more and more -
Pray, what is the meaning of that?

"In my youth an old handset was all I had got,
But now my connections are subtler,
With auto-dial multiplex modems - the lot.
Allow me to sell you a coupler!"

You're an old, old invention you telephone wire,
And all one could do was talk through it,
But now text and images also go via -
Pray, how do you manage to do it?

"In my youth, speech transmission was what I did best,
But now data transfer is rife,
Facsimile copies, Prestel and the rest
Have given a new lease of life."

You're so old, telephone, one would hardly suppose
That your lines are as busy as ever,
Yet your system potential, it just grows and grows,
What makes you so awfully clever?

"I have answered three questions, and that is enough,
For I've given you several tips;
And although you could listen all day to such stuff -
Be off, or I'll give you the pips!"

At the end of the poem the telephone rang loudly, and the caterpillar was soon engaged in an extremely long and important conversation. Alice looked about her and noticed a curious appearance in the air, which puzzled her very much at first, but after watching it for a minute or two she made it out to be a grin.

"I wonder if that's a satisfied user?" she thought aloud.

"No such animal," said the mouth that had now become part of a smiling Cheshire Cat.

Alice began to explain her visit to the computer department, but as she spoke, she became aware of a large group of people approaching - they looked for all the world like a pack of animated playing cards. "Who are you?" Alice enquired.

"We're users and we've come to the computer department to see whether we can come up trumps!" said the Queen of Hearts. "And who, pray, are you?"

"I'm Alice, and I was just explaining to the Cheshire Cat..."

"To whom?"

"The Cheshire Cat," said Alice, and pointed upwards. The cat grinned.

"I'm a project leader in the computer department . . ."

"Off with his head!" shouted the Queen.

"I'll fetch the executioner myself," said the King. Alice soon heard the distant roll of a drum, then another, and another until the air was full of the sound and she was quite deafened.

Looking round for the source of the drumming Alice suddenly realised she was back at her computer terminal, and that she had been awakened by the noise of the printer, which was percussively churning out reams and reams of paper.

The author of the above is Laurence Heath who, I presume, retains the copyright. It originally appeared in Computer Weekly magazine in December 1987!