Computers: Customised madness - Self-programming software often starts out as a harmless hobby. Andrew Brown provides a cautionary tale of obsession

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The Independent Online
TEN MINUTES ago my computer screen suddenly rearranged itself in a pattern of jagged purple lines, resting diagonally across a blue background. It looked rather beautiful, like an exposed geological fault; but it meant that I had just lost another two hours' work.

What made matters worse was that the work may not have been worth doing; this is a cautionary tale about customising computers.

I will not use the word 'programming', because I do not program and anyway it does not convey the appalling drug-like insidiousness of the habit. Real programmers are not like you or I. They tend to be fat men with remarkable sex lives, who do contract work for MI6. Or they are thin and miserable, though respectable and spend their lives struggling to make hospital software work. Every so often, you meet one who seems perfectly normal. This is because he has made so many million dollars that he need not program ever again.

These normal types then sell software to allow other people to program things. Of course, they do not call it programming. It is called 'automating your work with macros', or something similar; and is built into software sold to do word processing.

At first, it all seems delightfully simple. Word processors, for example, usually lack a command to transpose two adjacent letters. Some people simply rub out the letters and retype them. Others, encouraged by the manual, decide they can record this sequence of actions and assign it to a single key, thus saving several taps on the keyboard.

That is the theory. The danger is that it works. A feeling of giddy omnipotence creeps over unsuspecting tinkerers. Soon they have added commands to capitalise words, or to insert their own letterhead. The first warning sign is that their copy of the word processor is suddenly unusable by anyone else.

But this becomes a source of pride. Soon they are actively looking for ways to improve the software. Their evenings start to drift away from their family. They wake up at night and cry: 'That's how you do it]' and lie there wondering whether to get out of bed and test the idea.

For by now, the costs of the habit are becoming apparent. So long as macro programming involves no more than arranging for the work of four keystrokes to be done by one it is harmless and a little invigorating, like drinking wine. But soon comes the craving for the hard stuff. Macro languages were once the equivalent of bathtub gin. No one would imbibe them for pleasure. But now, if you buy Lotus 123 for Windows or Microsoft Word, or any similar full-strength program, they seduce you into it.

For one thing, they have dialogue editors. These do not automate esprit d'escalier. They might be useful if they did. Instead, they make it possible to draw up the pretty dialogue boxes with which Windows communicates with its victims. Once you discover that a button need not say 'OK' or 'Cancel' but 'Heigh ho]', 'Oops]' or, to approve an entry in an expenses claim, 'honest]', you need help.

I had my habit well under control until a recent change of expenses forms at the office. The new ones require that we fill out the VAT part. My intentions were more modest. I simply wanted to assemble a spreadsheet that would do the arithmetic for me. It might have been possible with a word processor: the arithmetic involved is trivial and all of the big ones like Microsoft Word, Wordperfect, and AmiPro will set up tables that function as crude, miniature spreadsheets, setting up grids of numbers and doing calculations on them.

I could have done it, quite easily, with a database program. The problem then would have been tweaking the output to look as far as possible like the printed forms we are issued with. I am sure it must be possible, but I could not think how. I decided to try with a spreadsheet. After all, the forms we filled in had clearly been designed on a spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet has been to accountants what the stirrup was to the Goths or the tank column to Hitler: the secret weapon which enabled them to lay waste whole continents of peaceful civilisation. We have no choice but to fight back with them.

Or so I thought, 24 hours ago, when I settled down with Lotus 123 for Windows, having drawn up a reasonable imitation of our new expenses form. All that remained was to fill it in, offering the user a neat little form on screen, into which they would enter the date, the type of expense and so on, only to have it all miraculously sorted, cleaned up and printed out. That is one dialogue box and a few simple calculations. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

So I plunged with mindless courage into the thickets of the macro language. Within hours, I was writing things like:

@IF(@CELL('contents',dollars D

LG CATEGORY)=0,@IF(

@CELL('contents',dollars DLG

GOTVAT)='1',@VALUE

(dollars DLGAMOUNT)/1.175,@

VALUE(dollars DLGAMOUNT),

'Another category').

They do not mean anything to me, either. They seem to mean something to the infernal machine, but never quite what I meant them to mean. All the brackets and silly punctuation are vitally important.

And, it must be said, this is all much easier than it used to be. Big companies like Lotus and Microsoft now have languages that fill out most of the really boring and maddening stuff themselves, leaving you with only a hard core of total incomprehensibility.

There is a huge selection of books that purport to help with these problems. But most of them are junk and all cost about pounds 20 to pounds 30. Or I could ask on Compuserve, the on-line information service. But the people who hang out there enjoy what they are doing. Any answer they propose will be even more elaborate than whatever I think up.

So, red-eyed, weeping and with shaking hands, I drag myself once more to work. People are beginning to talk. By now I am determined to finish this thing if it kills me. No doubt I will eventually succeed, and at the cost of about 12 hours at the keyboard have shaved five minutes off the time it takes to fill out an expenses claim - until they change the forms again.

Then I will pick up my computer and walk with it to the South Bank. As I cross Hungerford Bridge, I will turn sharply right, squeeze the computer tight, and jump without a murmur of complaint into the Thames.

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