Clutter Your Life

Well, hopefully the insomnia isn’t back, but it’s about 4:30 AM, I’ve been up since about 3:45, and while I’ll probably crash and burn by 10, I’m wide awake now. So while the snowstorm blows and blusters outside I’m down in my snug little corner in the basement with my Alexa thingie sitting there on the shelf offering to show me how to make Chia Pudding (shudder) and telling me it’s going to snow all day and I want to talk about uncluttering of all things.

That’s what we’re supposed to be doing, aren’t we? Uncluttering. Especially us old farts. Instead of sitting around doing whatever it is us old people are supposed to be doing – maybe sewing our own shrouds and waiting to die or something I guess – we should be uncluttering.

Run that term through Google and you’ll come up with about a gazillion hits. “Ten Principles to Help Anyone Clear Clutter”. “10 Ways to Unclutter your Life”. “The Joy of Less”, “Unclutter and Unburden”. The basic premise is the same – we should be getting rid of all of the stuff we accumulate because it will be, somehow, “good for us”. The premise of all of them is that we don’t need all that – that stuff. We don’t need the books and the clothes and the magazines and the knicknacks and the dishes and the souvenir mug from Wall Drug and the pictures and everything else we own, and pare it down to just what we need to merely survive…

I suppose this trend has been driven, in part at least, by the occasional news story about hoarders and television shows about the nightmares discovered in the homes of hoarders. And the usual suspects have climbed on the band wagon to screech at you that if you have a single souvenir mug or refrigerator magnet or have a book you haven’t read in years, well, OMG you’re a hoarder and you’re sick and you need an “intervention” or something.

And if that doesn’t scare you into decluttering, they try to guilt you into it. “Just think of your family!” they whine. “They shouldn’t have to go through the pain of having to clear out all the stuff in your home after you’re dead! Think of the pain that will cause them!”

I normally don’t use language like this, but, well, fuck that. It’s BS. All of it. It’s like “mindfulness” or any of the other trends that seem like a good idea on the surface and have been quickly taken over by loonies and scammers and others out to make a quick buck. (Did you know there are books and classes out there to teach your dog “mindfulness”?)

Take a look at some of the “clutter” in my house.

There’s a battered, stained, beaten up looking Tom Swift Jr. book, part of a series of SF books written for kids back in the 1950s. It looks like it should have been tossed or recycled long ago. But that book is part of my life, my history, my memories. My mother would occasionally talk my father into abandoning the never ending chores associated with the farm long enough to go up to Green Bay, a major excursion for us back then. We’d stop at a department store that had a large book section, including a lot of kids’ books like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Tom Swift books. I remember the trips, the store, stopping at Krolls afterwards for a hamburger… Interestingly, Krolls is still around and it’s right next door to the clinic MrsGF goes to for her knees and, amazingly enough, the hamburgers taste just as good now as they did 50 years ago or more

Hanging on a nail out in the garage is an old, battered cane made from white oak. It was my father’s, and his father’s before him. It was never used as a cane, it was used for sorting cattle. Every time I pick it up I remember walking into that barn, hearing the cows gently mooing at me in the hopes it was time to be fed, remember the smells, the warmth of the barn on a -30 degree winter day…

Back on my dresser is a statue of a dog, a collie. It isn’t anything special, probably didn’t cost very much. I should toss that too, according to the unclutter people. But my favorite uncle gave me that for Christmas when I was, oh, ten, eleven years old. He was a nice fellow. Gentle, kind, smart, successful. Every time I see it sitting there I think of him and my aunt, remember his voice, remember the times we visited.

No, I’m not going to “declutter”.

And I’m glad my mother and father didn’t before they passed on. Going through their things was a journey back in time, back through my childhood and even before I was born. My father apparently kept every receipt, every bill, every bit of paperwork concerning the farm that he ever got. Sorting through his papers after he died was an excursion into time, a trip into the past, a reminder of what life had been like going back almost to the time he bought the farm from his father.

We sorted through the toys of our childhood, even old homework that our mother had kept, old Christmas cards, ancient photos going back more than a hundred years. Going through all of that brought back a flood of memories that were full of joy and pain and sadness and surprise… It was difficult sometimes, yes, but it was an experience I also will always cherish as well.

We are human beings. Our brains work in funny ways sometimes. A smell, a sight, an object, can trigger memories so vivid that it is almost like we’re experiencing those events all over again. Objects, even silly, otherwise worthless things, become important to us, are even cherished by us, because they trigger those memories within us.

So if you tell me I need to “declutter”, I’m going to tell you to do something anatomically impossible to yourself because you’re telling me to erase my life, erase my memories, erase my past.

Changes… And New Toy… And My Mind Wanders. Again

IMG_0167This is my new toy, a Raspberry Pi 3. If you want to experiment with building evil robotic minions to help you to take over the world, this is a good place to start. It has a 64 bit, quad core ARM A53 processor running at 1.2 GHZ, a gig of RAM, 4 USB ports, an HDMI port, LAN port, WiFi, reasonably good graphics and sound, and runs a version of LINUX. It can connect to the outside world to enable the computer to hook up to sensors, relays and controllers to make evil robots to allow you to take over the world, control devices, record data from sensors and all sorts of fun things.

And it costs a whopping $35. Less than what it would cost me to get a good meal at that fancy restaurant a couple of blocks from here. Hell, less than what just a bottle of wine would cost over there.

Now this, on the other hand… Well, not on the other hand because you couldn’t pick it up with one hand, but you get the idea. This is the first computer I ever owned. It is a Ohio Scientific C2-8P, and if you’ve 2ecd9544af30be5a0d4d8f7926065484never heard of it, I don’t blame you. Ohio Scientific is just one of many, many computer makers that tried to get into the home and small business market back in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, and failed. It did better than a lot of them did, but eventually it failed, along with Atari, Commodore, Apricot, Coleco, Exidy, Franklin, Panasonic, Radio Shack/Tandy, Sinclair, Texas Instruments… Well, the list goes on and on.

Mine wasn’t even as good as the one in the photo over there. Mine was an early version that didn’t have the fancy paint and logo on the front. And it was nasty. It was about the size of a microwave oven, packed solid with circuit boards the size of a sheet of paper, each of those stuffed with chips of various types, all hooked together with miles of ribbon cables and wiring.

Mine was kind of odd. Kind of? Ha! It was seriously odd. I’d never seen anything like it before or since. I suspect it was an experimental unit that had been heavily modified. According to the photocopied documentation I got with it, it could support three different processors, a 6502, 6800 or 8080. Or maybe a Z80. Don’t remember. It was a long time ago. They were selected via a rotary switch on the back???? Really? Seriously? I never knew for sure. There was only one CPU board in it when I got it. There was a big rotary switch on the back but it wasn’t wired to anything. I think they had some kind of scheme where the switch would select one of 3 CPU boards connected to the backplane, but since there was only one CPU board and the switching system wasn’t connected I have no idea what the hell they were trying to do.

Why 3 different CPUs? I suspect they intended to use it as some kind of development and/or testing system for different types peripherals. The documentation I had was originally typewritten, with hand written notes in the margins, and then had been photocopied. It was interesting, that’s for sure. Large parts of the machine were wire wrapped and hand soldered so someone had been in there fiddling around. A lot.

It came with a whopping 4K of RAM. I spent hours hand soldering chips to the memory board to bring it up to 8K. The company I bought it from found an extra 8K RAM board for it and gave that to me. It was, of course, unpopulated, so I spent many more hours hand soldering RAM chips to the extra board.

Data storage was on a cassette tape. It read/wrote data to a cassette tape at a whopping 300 baud using the Kansas City Standard (if you know what that is, you really, really need to get out more and get a life). That’s 300 bits per second… Oooo, the excitement! To load the editor/assembler program so I could program in assembly language took 20 minutes. Video was black and white, text only, going to an old Panasonic B&W TV set that I had to re-wire to handle the video input from the computer. The company I bought it from offered to give me a “real deal” on the matching 8 inch floppy drive system for it. I passed because I could have bought a pretty good car for what they wanted for the thing.

What did it all cost? By the time I got it up and working (sort of) I probably had well over a grand invested in the thing.

In a way it was completely worthless, that computer. I never actually did anything genuinely useful with it. But on the other hand, if you count the intangibles it was worth every penny because I taught myself programming in BASIC and assembly language on that beastie. I learned how to solder IC chips to circuit boards. I learned how to hunt down failed components (capacitors failed all over the place on that thing for some reason). I learned why storing data on cassette tape is very, very nasty. Trying to get that thing running and keeping it running taught me more about the technology than all the computer science classes I took in college.

And I learned how to make my own Faraday cage because it put out so much RFI it screwed up every TV and AM radio in the area when I turned it on and had build one around it just so I could use it.

Now, where was I? How did I get off on this? Sheesh, I was going to talk about changes in technology, make pithy remarks about how almost no one back then foresaw how computer technology would evolve, morph into what it is today where computers are literally everywhere, in every aspect of our lives.

Instead I end up doing this ramble down memory lane babbling about a relatively minor player in the early computer market… Sigh.

Damn, I hated that computer. Wish I still had it.

 

 

The Urge

It’s early spring, and that means the urge is starting to kick in again.

I never used to be much of a traveler. I was always a homebody. I hated traveling, hated the discomfort associated with it, hated staying in motels, hated having to try to find someplace to eat. I hated everything associated with traveling.

The result was that for the first 50 years of my state I’d hardly been more than a hundred miles from the place I’d been born, and I was quite content with that.

Then something, I’m not sure what, happened. That’s when the — the urges started to kick in. And suddenly the guy who hated traveling, hated being away from home, was finding himself in places like, well, like this:

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Or like this…

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Or this

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Or these:

So what happened? How did someone who hates traveling so much end up doing exactly that? I have no idea. It’s weird, really, this urge to go wandering, traveling.

I was starting to think that I’d got it out of my system. I wasn’t going to go wandering very far from home this year. If I went anywhere at all it was going to be less than a day’s travel from the house.

But now that the weather is getting warmer, things are starting to grow again, that damned urge is coming back… Same thing happened last year. Wasn’t going to go anywhere, I told myself. Nope. At least not very far, not more than a couple of hundred miles. If that. And ended up spending over a week out in the Black Hills…

This year I’m not going anywhere though. I am going to stick close to home. It’s too expensive, too time consuming. No sir. Not going anywhere.

But then there are those damned urges. Don’t know where they come from.

Personally I blame allergies.

Icons and Nostalgia

An icon of my youth is, I’ve been told, going to be torn down in Manitowoc, the old Penny’s building.IMG_0143.jpg

This is one case where I heartily approve of the decision if does indeed happen. As you can see the building looks like it’s ready to fall down all by itself. The two upper floors have been abandoned for years, windows broken out, covered up with plywood. The main floor was remodeled, if you can call it that, into small shops that now house, well, basically they’re junk shops except for a small art studio and resale shops that sell rummage sale items, a few antiques, on a consignment basis.

Saturday I was talking with a shop keeper downtown who used to rent space there and she told me that while it was cheap, she got out years ago because she was afraid the building was going to fall down around her ears. She told me that there were plans in the works to tear it down and replace it with a parking structure. We went in to look around and I can understand why she got out of the place. It’s pretty bad in there.

Going to Manitowoc’s downtown, the old shopping district, is a kind of bittersweet experience for me because I find it nostalgic, sad, exciting, interesting and hopeful all at the same time.

When I was a wee lad we did some of our shopping there in the downtown. At the time it looked like this. I found this image on-line somewhere.

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 7.30.15 AM.pngDowntown was the hub of the city, where everyone went to shop. Penny’s was there, as was Sears. Woolworths had a store there, the old “five and dime” store. Kresge’s, another 5&10 store was down there as well. The elegant and upscale Schutte Bros. department store with it’s pneumatic cash tube system. Dozens of smaller shops all running down 8th street and going down the side streets. It was a thriving, bustling place. Just over the bridge was the Boston Store, and Sears.

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The old Kresge’s building is still there. It now holds a rather nice coffee shop that seems to be doing well. The corner shop has been a succession of different little stores mostly trying to sell tourist trinkets.

Sears is long gone. Kresge’s closed down. The Boston Store closed. Schutte’s closed, and eventually the other shops, the jewelry stores, tailors, shoe stores, all of them closed or went bankrupt as shopping patterns changed.

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The old Boston store property. The area with the trees on the far right is the site of the old Sears building.

The elegant and upscale Schutte Bros. store is in a sad state. It looks like this now.

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It’s been standing empty for I don’t know how long now. There have been attempts to do something with it. A half dozen different restaurants have tried to make a go of it on the main floor, but none of them have worked well, and it’s been empty now for years, slowly deteriorating.

Somehow this old building has managed to remain almost as elegant and beautiful as it was when it was first built probably almost a hundred years ago.

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If memory is correct, and there’s a good chance it isn’t, this building originally belonged to the International Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization that was popular back in, oh, the early 1900s. They spared little expense in the design and construction, and thanks to owners who cherish these old buildings, they’ve restored it and kept it in pretty good condition, and it’s one of the finer buildings downtown now.

Another fixture of downtown, the huge old malting/beer facility right on the lakeshore, is going to be hanging on, too.

DSCF2058.JPGIt had been owned by few different beer companies, the latest being Budwiser. Budwiser moved out of the facility a few years ago and we were afraid it would fall derelict like so many others. But it was purchased by Briess Malting of Chilton, a major producer of malted grains for the brewing industry that’s been in business for over a hundred years now.

The old imposing bank downtown is still there too, looking just as impressive and intimidating as it did when it was first put up.

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I don’t think it’s a bank anymore. Someone told me they think city offices are in there now.

The old Mirro Aluminum building is finally coming down at last. After being abandoned by it’s new owners when Mirro Aluminum was bought out and shut down, it sat empty for ages, gradually falling apart.

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Not my photo, found this online

After years of the city squabbling with various owners, various schemes for getting rid of it, the city itself finally had to take over the property to get it demolished.

 

 

Changes…

Despite the name of this blog, it isn’t really about farming. I guess it’s more like a journal where I write about things I find interesting, curious, infuriating, irritating, fun. But I often return to talking about farming because it was such a big part of my life for so long. But this one is about farming for a change.

What does that have to do with changes? A lot. I was reading an article about new ag technologies, automated and robotic systems to replace human labor. This has been going on for some time, of course. Robotics and automation have taken over product assembly, car manufacturing and a whole host of other industries. Ag has been slower to adopt robotics because it requires above average intelligence, dexterity, strength and gentleness and a lot of other qualities that are difficult to do with robotics. Until now. New advances in software, AI systems, new engineering, new materials and a lot of other technologies have sprung up that are making fundamental changes in how we grow food over the next couple of decades.

Neat, I thought. But then I thought further and realized that this has been going on my entire life. The pace of change has accelerated, true, but when I look at what farming was like when I was a kid and what it’s like today, it’s actually a bit mind boggling.

When I was a kid we still had a crank style phone. We didn’t get a dial phone until I was in second grade. Electricity service went out so often we still had old kerosene lanterns laying around ready to use just in case. A lot of the equipment we used looked like some kind of steampunk nightmare, to be honest.

We still had a few farmers in the area who were harvesting grain with grain binders,dscn1419 shocking it, and running it through threshing machines, for heaven’s sake. In case you’ve never seen one, here’s a photo of a grain binder from an antique farm equipment show I took some years ago. And yes, that thing over there that looks like it was cobbled together out of bits of old string, wire and old barn boards, is an actual commercially made machine. It was pulled by horses (that’s why there’s a seat on it). It cut the grain off with a sickle bar, put it in a bunch, tied the bunch with twine, then dumped it on the field. Workers would come along, stand the bundles on end with the grain heads up so it would dry. Then it would be loaded onto wagons and taken to a threshing machine.

And in case you’ve never seen a threshing machine, here’s one. Well, it’s sort of a dscn1422threshing machine. This is actually a special machine designed specifically for threshing or hulling clover seed, not wheat or oats, but the principle is the same. Workers would throw the bundles onto the elevator over on the left where it would run through threshing bars, fans, screens, etc. to be separated from the stalks and hulls. The hopefully clean seed would come out one pipe to be bagged, the straw would blow out onto a pile. The whole thing was originally powered by a massive steam traction engine via that long belt you see extending out the left side of the photo. Steam engines were replaced in the 1920s or so by gasoline powered tractors, but the threshing machines themselves remained in use well into the 1950s in some parts of the state. There were still a couple of farmers in the area who were using this setup when I was a kid. These things hung on because as long as you could get inexpensive labor it was cheaper to keep using it than buying a combine.

Then there were tractors. Take a look at this beast, for example. Believe it or not, when I img_0279was a kid we actually had one of these beasts, this exact same model. And we didn’t have it for some collection, this monstrosity was an actual working tractor at the time. The only thing we used it for was running the blowers to blow grain or forage into the barns or silos, but it was still a working tractor on the farm. And dear lord we hated that thing. Trying to start that beast… Oh, my. It started by manually cranking it with that big lever  you see just below the radiator. That connected to the crankshaft to turn the engine over. And if you didn’t know what you were doing when you tried cranking it, it would gleefully break your arm. Seriously. It would if you didn’t know what you were doing.

Lest you think we were weird or something, the rest of our tractors looked like this.

A modern (at the time) Oliver 1655 and a 1950s era Oliver 77. (That 77 actually belongs to my eldest son.) So why did we hang onto that old monstrosity? It was cheap power. You could buy them for little more than scrap metal price.

Almost all of the changes that have gone on in agriculture have occurred for one reason: money. They did something that improved the profits of the farm in one way or another. The old threshing machines hung on as long as they did because for some of the tiny farms around at the time it made more sense to keep running them long after they should have gone to the scrapyard than to drop thousands of dollars on a modern combine. Same with the old McCormick tractor. It was cheap power, good enough to run a forage blower, but for nothing else. As soon as it was no longer economical to hang onto the thing, it got dumped. We ended up buying another 1650 to replace it.

Just in my lifetime we’ve gone from grain binders and threshing machines, to GPS guided computerized combines. Harvesting crops by hand to a facility in New Hampshire that raises lettuce that is never touched by a human during its entire life. From planting to harvesting and packaging, everything is done by automated systems or robots.

Changes… Sometimes I look at the world around me and think I’m living in a science fiction novel.

Computers that should have been great but weren’t

The item I wrote about the Epson HX-20 the other day reminded me about one of the other items I was supposed to try to sell for that business supply company, the Epson QX-10. This beastie:

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This particular example is, judging from the color of the case, an elderly one. The plastics used for computer cases rather rapidly turned an unappealing shade of dirty yellow. In its prime, though, it was a rather handsome creature, and it was both one of the most advanced, and the most useless computers I’d ever worked with.

At the time the QX came out the computer market was going through a shakeup and even more importantly, a shakeout. There were dozens of different computer makers back then, offering an astonishing variety of systems that ranged from the silly to the sublime. But at the time, IBM with its PC and the MS-DOS operating system was well on its way to becoming the standard for small business and, eventually, home computers. By the time Epson brought the QX-10 to market, its underlying hardware was already pretty much obsolete, and it’s sophisticated software and graphics weren’t enough to make up for it’s lack of horsepower.

Before IBM jumped into the market with the PC, the ‘standard’ for small business computers was the 8080 or Z80 CPU based microcomputers running the CP/M operating system. These computers were based on an 8-bit CPU and limited to 64K of RAM. Then IBM came along with it’s PC, which used the 16-bit Intel 8088 which could handle up to 640K of RAM, at around the same price as the 8-bit CP/M machines, and the rest is, as they say, history.

How did Epson hope to compete in a market that was already crowded with other 8-bit, Z80 based computers, or to compete against IBM and MS-DOS?

By coming out with a operating system of their own which was combined with a hardware package that made the QX-10 the most sophisticated system ever produced. Or so they claimed.

The QX-10 was admittedly pretty sophisticated. It had a high-resolution monochrome graphics system with up to 128K of dedicated video memory that blew away anything except dedicated CAD systems. It’s Valdocs operating system was incredibly advanced for it’s day with a built in Help system, 128 character long file names when everyone else struggled along with 8 characters. And it had 265K of RAM.

And it had what was possibly the first WYSIWYG ‘what you see is what you get’ word processor to become widely available at a (somewhat) reasonable cost. Boldface a word? It showed up in bold on your screen. Same with italics, underlining, etc. Virtually every word processor on the market at the time showed not bold face, but codes embedded in the text to turn on or off control functions, if they allowed things like bold face or italics at all.

They gave me one of these things and I had it at home for a few weeks while I learned it inside and out because I was supposed to support the thing. It was definitely sophisticated. The graphics capabilities were outstanding. It was undeniably an amazing computer when combined with the Valdocs system.

The problem was that it just didn’t work very well. Valdocs and TPM, the underlying operating system, were full of bugs. It seemed every other day I was getting updates and bug fixes. And since this is the pre-internet, that meant either dialing the company’s BBS system with a 300 baud modem and paying long distance phone bills, or waiting until they shipped me a floppy disk with the updates.

The biggest problem though was it was slow. Oh dear lord it was slow! Any kind of competent typist could easily outdistance the Valdocs word processor, getting forty, sixty characters ahead of the display update. So far ahead that you could easily overload the buffers and lose characters and words. And since we were supposed to push this as a word processing system because of the WYSIWYG display system, well, it’s pretty hard to sell a word processor that made you work slower.

The other problem was that there was no software for the Valdocs system except what was supplied by Epson. The word processor, calculator and drawing program and, I think, a rather brain dead database. There was a spreadsheet but it was so abysmally slow you could go get a cup of coffee while it was recalculating.

If you wanted to use it for actual work, that meant you had to reboot the system with the old CP/M operating system to actually do anything useful. And, of course, once you booted into CP/M, all of the fancy features Epson was pushing were lost and all you had was a generic and overpriced CP/M computer.

Then there was the competition. At the same time Epson was pushing the QX-10, the IBM-PC was becoming the standard for small business computers. There was lots of genuinely useful business software available for it. So basically there was absolutely no reason to buy the QX-10 with it’s outdated hardware, useless Valdocs system or the increasingly obsolete CP/M system.

Epson’s solution to the competition from IBM was to find someone to supply them with a plug in card that was basically an IBM-PC clone on card, while they scrambled to get the QX-16 system on the market. This ‘solution’ was literally a PC clone on a card that plugged into the computer’s internal bus, with an 8088 CPU, it’s own memory, everything. It worked, sort of. But it didn’t actually run MS-DOS, it ran PC-DOS which was an MS-DOS clone. It would run some MS-DOS based software. Sometimes. Maybe.

It also cost in the neighborhood of $1,500 if I remember right.

So you have a computer with a base price of around $2,500, already far more than comparable CP/M machines. And now you have to drop another $1,500 for a card to make it use MS-DOS software, and there’s no guarantee it will actually run the software you need…

Oh, brother…

Could it have been a great computer? I don’t think there’s any doubt that it could have. The QX was, on the surface at least, one of the most sophisticated systems to hit the market at the time. It had a lot of features that eventually became standard on later generations of computers; long file names, WYSIWYG word processor, high resolution graphics, etc.

Unfortunately, design decisions crippled it. The decision to go with the Z80 processor meant it would never have enough raw horsepower to live up to the hype. The graphics system’s hardware was woefully slow. The Valdocs system, while very nice, was bogged down by the obsolete hardware and inefficient programming techniques. Even worse, Epson never brought out any software that ran under Valdocs except that which was included with the computer. That meant that in order to run the popular business software of the day, the computer had to be rebooted into CP/M, and that turned it into nothing but a vastly overpriced, generic business computer.

Valdocs itself acquired a reputation of being buggy. I never really ran into serious problems with it except it’s woefully slow speed, but I wasn’t using the computer under actual business conditions.

There were rumors flying around that over at Rising Star, the company that made Valdocs and its underlying OS, TPM, programmers were routinely fired as soon as they finished work on their assigned modules, leaving people who were unfamiliar with the code to try to support and debug problems.

I was told that large parts of Valdocs and even TPM had been written in Forth, of all things. Forth is not exactly what I’d call user friendly. It was never designed for large projects. It was originally designed as a hardware control language used to control telescopes. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but oh brother… I’ve programmed in Forth and I wouldn’t want to use it for any kind of complex system.

Epson went on to bring out the QX-16, an interesting machine that was intended to compete head to head against the IBM PC. It had both a Z80 and 8088, and would run either Valdocs, CP/M or PC-DOS. Alas, it wasn’t very good either.

The upgraded hardware didn’t cure the system’s speed issues. The word processor was faster, but screen updates were still unacceptably slow. The spreadsheet was terrible. Reviews at the time claimed that a spreadsheet that would recalculate in just five or six seconds in MS-DOS or CP/M spreadsheets, would take minutes to recalculate under Valdocs. And while it could run some MS-DOS software, a lot of it wouldn’t run at all.