The children’s secret message game

When I was a troublesome schoolboy (I still have the cap, and it might be worth something now the school has been flattened), I used to play a game in Maths class with my pal Piggy. Aside from trying to see up the Maths teacher’s very short skirt, we’d devise codes and pass each other notes in those codes. The one who was left with an unsolved code at the end of the lesson was the loser. We both passed Maths quite nicely, by the way. It’s a sort of digression but also something of a prologue…

I’ve been trying to find a story I read as a teenager. I’m almost certain it was in one of Brian Aldiss’s collections, either ‘Comic Inferno’ or ‘Space, Time and Nathaniel’ but I’m not 100%. What’s really infuriating is that I know I have both those books but they are small paperbacks among big stacks of books, and might be in one of the attic boxes.

It told of two young boys in the future. One of them had a storybook. The future storybook was, naturally, a computer that spoke the stories since the archaic art of reading and writing had long fallen into disuse. The main thrust of the story was the children’s ultimate rejection of the toy and its ominous final tale to itself, ending with it repeating ‘Someday…’ over and over. In fact, I think that was the title of the story. ‘Someday’.

The other aspect of that story, the part that led to the boys kicking away the talking book, was their discovery of an ancient thing called ‘writing’ which involved making marks on a slate with a chalk (might not have been slate and chalk, but that was the general idea).

I would have read this around 1973-76, I think. It must therefore have been written earlier. So the author could not have known that his prediction would one day begin to come true.

Back in nineteen-seventy-something it would have seemed like a good idea. There was no home internet and ‘surveillance’ meant having a policeman shine his torch into a dark alley once per shift. So the idea that one day it wouldn’t matter if your handwriting looked like you’d replaced a spider’s legs with unequal wooden ones, plied it with vodka and dipped it in ink was a great relief. Everything would be spoken. You’d just speak a story and a machine would record it and anyone who wanted to hear the story would press ‘play’. Computers would hold conversations rather than having to punch holes in little cards and hope they were in the right order (Keyboards came later, as did computers that didn’t require a whole room of their own).

Now, however, the replacement of teaching handwriting with the teaching of ‘keyboard fluency’ sounds a little sinister.

Why? Well, if you can scribble a note on a plain pack and pass it to someone else, nobody else can possibly know what that message said. If you can’t do that, but can type the message in a few seconds and hit ‘send’, then it is easy to intercept and monitor. We don’t yet have computers we can converse with, apart from that Siri thing on the rabid antismoking Apple phones, and nothing so far that we can have a real, sensible conversation with.

However, when I started university in 1978 they had taken delivery of a new (second hand, I think) computer. A vast thing that used punched cards and did statistics. I never used it. By the time I had learned how, punched the cards, ran the program and worked out what the hell it was telling me, I could have done the stats on paper and written up the report. It seemd a huge waste of time.

When I was halfway through a PhD I bought a second hand Sinclair ZX-81 with a massive 16 kilobytes of memory and programs in BASIC.

In my first job, I experienced the BBC Master and the first MS-DOS PC. With daisywheel printers. Couldn’t afford those myself, so set the work BBC to plot the Mandelbrot set. It took three days. And there was no way to print it. Sigh.

About 1990, I had an Amstrad PCW with WYSIWYG word processing (Locosript, and it was a good one) that used CP/M. This had a dot matrix printer – it could do graphs! Amazing. No more graph paper.

The ‘no more graph paper’ turned out to be a bad thing. The best, quickest and easiest way to work out bacterial specific growth rates is still a plot on semi-logarithmic graph paper. Can’t get that anywhere now.

Early 1990s and I had a home-made 386 running an early Windows that was connected to the internet via Compuserve. There didn’t seem to be much to the internet at that time, mostly chatrooms and grainy porn (on an early dialup modem, you’d lose interest before the image arrived).

That’s just 25 years ago. Look at it now – the internet is fast, you can stream an entire movie, there’s been a program called Dragon Dictate around for ages that lets you just talk into a microphone and words appear on a screen. OCR was around before that. Scanners that can take every detail of a document or image. I have a scanner that is designed to scan old photo negatives and convert them into positives. I have a camera on a flexi arm that can look under and behind things to find that thing I dropped. I have a (not very powerful in microbiology terms) USB microscope.

I can talk to someone on the other side of the world for free if I ever figure out Skype. I can chat in real time on Farcebok or Twitter – and there are other options I have not explored.

I have a little Acer Aspire that doesn’t look like much but can do a hell of a lot more than that old 386 I once was so proud of. The ZX81 I used to think was the ultimate in computing power is now laughed at by my cheap phone.

On my desk is a computer that, really, is capable of running the entire affairs of a small country. I use it to make up stories, look at silly cat pictures and talk nonsense here and on Twitter. If Bloefeldt or the Penguin had had access to this kind of computing  power they would have taken over the world in a week.

Conversing computers are not that far away now. Children are to be taught typing instead of writing already and when the machines talk, there will be no more need for either.

And every single word will be stored and analysed. Every transaction will be tracked and taxed. Use today’s wrong word and the Authority will know at once and you’ll be picked up for re-education and disposal within minutes.

Until those little enquiring minds rediscover the skill of making marks on something and knowing what the marks mean.

They will. Oh yes, they will. A million years from now they will still pass codes in Maths class.

When the inevitable-one-day solar flare wipes out electronics, even if only for a few days, those future Ogham-scratchers will be the survivors.

This whole ‘New World Order’ shit is not going to work in the end. Why put us through it all, when it is ultimately an utter waste of time? Rich pompous folk, I recommend you spend your money on having a good time because a hundred years from now you will be just as dead as me anyway.

Do you really think otherwise?



Memory finally kicked in. The story ‘Someday’ was in a collection called ‘The Metal Smile’ and might or might not have been written by Brian Aldiss. At least I remember which book I’m now looking for.



34 thoughts on “The children’s secret message game

  1. Brian Aldiss is still alive and will occassionally answer a polite e-mail or inquiry about his writing. He is quite old and not doing all that great but has still a remarkable memory and wit. A testimony to the better qualities of having been a great writer….


  2. At one point in history, it was considered “witchcraft” to use Runes, and use them for writing. In Most of Europe, and Scotland, it was a burning offence, in England they did not burn, but just squashed you a bit.

    I wonder when being able to write will be treated the same?

    In fact, is that not kind of what “Farenheit 451” is about? I must read it again some time.


    • The banning of books was indeed the story behind ‘Farenheit 451’. Montag, the compliant drone, was a great help in writing 10538’s character. Especially the conversation with his boss –

      Captain (forgot his name): What do you do on your day off, Montag?
      Montag: Nothing much. Mow the lawn.
      Captain: And if that were forbidden?
      Montag: Watch it grow.


  3. “The best, quickest and easiest way to work out bacterial specific growth rates is still a plot on semi-logarithmic graph paper. Can’t get that anywhere now.”

    Log/semi-log graph paper, customised to your requirements and printed at home:

    “The ZX81 I used to think was the ultimate in computing power is now laughed at by my cheap phone.”

    Did you see they released a quad-core Raspberry Pi (the little hobbyist/tinker chipset) yesterday? One GB of RAM for ~£20. In 1980 that would have cost you over £4 million! (source: )


    • Thanks – I’ve downloaded a few variants of semi-log paper. I used to have a little Windows program that generated a print of semi-log paper but lost it in a hard disk crash years ago. I’m much more serious about backing up these days!


  4. Heh, our computer histories are so close to each other it’s funny. School computer building with giant idiotic puter that you’d spend hours teaching (through punch card input) how to multiply 2 x 3. Zx-Sinclair-Whatever with those amazing 16k of memory and early adventure games (You can get the complete walkthrus of all the great old Scott Adams games that you used to spend weeks trying to guess the next two words (actually the words were just the first two or three letters of a word) to advance through the puzzle. Instead of an Amstrad I moved to a TI-99 (32K) and then the amazing Commodore 64 with its incredible 16-color graphics! No BBC, but BBS’s galore (early independently-based, text and ASCII graphics only, individuals hosting bloggy-chat-roomy type things for up to three people at a time!), then AOL with its million or so users and hundred or so chat rooms, bumped up to a 386 and ZORK, and then the early real Internet, graphic “Ultima” type games, then chaperoned CNN educational chat rooms with 46 screaming kids typing away in each one, then a 486 and a Pentium and the magic of the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy coming to real life in the palms of our grubby googly fingers.

    One of my dreams of what a nice afterlife would be like would simply be floating around and watching today’s kids go through similar amazing stages with today’s technology! “Back when I was a young’un we had things called Smartphones with 2-D imaging limited to 50 megs a second! Heck you couldn’t even have real SEX without being in a room with someone ‘n breathin’ all their friggin germs!”

    – MJM


  5. Just a few weeks ago I was sorting through some old scraps of paper when I found some chicken scratches of a book outline for Brains that I’d scribbled somewhere back in the early 80s. I could decipher almost nothing without a magnifying glass and painstaking guesses at half the words. The heading on the page was an early Brains pre-title: “Deadly Doorknobs, Sinister Showers, And Secondhand Smoke”

    Huh…. wonder if Brains woulda been a best-seller with that title?



  6. Hi L-i. I think the story you are thinking of is “Someday” by Isaac Asimov. I have just dug it out and it fits in with what you wrote. The story-telling computer was called the Bard.



  7. My husband has an app on his phone called ‘Sound Hound’ – it can identify a song from a tiny snatch of music. If you have an irritating fragment of ditty rattling inside your brain, you can hum it to the phone and the app will tell you who’s the blame.

    It’s not just the surveillence thing, though, that’s the worry is it? Handwriting has personality – it reflects, or does it help develop personality too? I suppose if you’re intent on raising drones, it’s a logical step, especially if a baptism in the font of all knowledge follows … it’ll be ‘all knowledge you’ll ever need’ 😉


    • ‘Tells me everything I need to know’ said the proud drone with his wearable tech.

      It doesn’t though. It tells him everything he’s allowed to know, and makes sure he never realises there’s anything more.

      Look at the Internet. Unbelievable amounts of information. Nobody could absorb it all, but it’s all available. Then governments start installing porn filters ‘for the cheeeldren’ and soon you get to customised filters for particular groups of drones and they still believe they have access to everything.

      But I have ot get back to writing about that 😉 Managed to avoid getting caught up in Twitter tonight so have made some progress.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Then governments start installing porn filters ‘for the cheeeldren’ and soon you get to customised filters for particular groups of drones and they still believe they have access to everything.”

        Back in the hoary AOL days of the late 80s I remember the birth of “soft” internet censorship and being appalled at where it could lead. It was a “purely voluntary” thing — as it was being presented — with “child friendly” sites posting little blue ribbons next to their title-names in return for being granted some sort of favored status in whatever passed for search directories in those days. I remember trying to convince some webmeisters of the time to push the idea of anti-censorship by promoting a innocent little graphic of bare boobs for *all* websites to display so that *everyone* would be in violation of the censors’ standards, but, as all too usual, self-interest won out and people scrambled to cooperate so their own pages wouldn’t be hurt. :/

        Yes, there are things out there that almost any of us would like to see controlled, but once you allow for the control of those things you’ve opened the doors not only to having the Leg Irons locked behind closed electrons, but for the North Koreas of the future to give us populations who believe that 99.9% of the population always has and always will support and love our Supreme Leader and the Status Quo.

        That’s the scary part, as the old alt.smokers fighter of the 90s, David MacLean, put it:

        The true horror of 1984 is not what was done to Winston Smith. The true horror was that the vast majority of the populace was happy, content, and believed that what their government was doing was “right.”

        Very few people are willing to question or fight against what they’ve been made to believe “everyone else” feels is proper. And control over the media gives the government control over that belief.

        – MJM


        • What I’m trying to do in ‘Panoptica’ is that drone compliance. Without the rebellion of Winston Smith in ‘1984’ or of Montag in ‘Farenheit 451’. This is one of the background drones in those stories.One who loves his subservience.

          That’s what makes it so hard to write.


  8. I’ve mentioned before my computing history which started in 1979. Lots of operating systems, devices snf software. BT Gold was the first sort of internet sort of thing that was available. I had a huge client who gave all their managsre access to it as a means of getting them to at least switch on their terminals even if it was to play games etc.

    I went to visit the IT guy one morning and he was pretty harrassed. A large lorry was sitting at the main door of the Computer Department. It was the delivery of an IBM AS400 which he knew nothing about. Apparently the main board had agreed to move from ICL kit to IBM but they hadn’t told their staff. Good deal.

    I took most of my books to charity shops. I had hundreds. I know have hundreds of ebooks.

    When I discovered books and could get a ticket for the adult library I had a simple strategy. I read Spere sci-fi and just didn’t do Gallantz. I also had a wee acquantence with NEL. I read a lot of them. I’ll probably get thrown in prison for admitting to that.


    • I have a Kindle and it is a great thing – pile in the books and the weight and shelf space stays the same.

      However, I hang on to my print books because they can’t be remotely edited or deleted 😉


  9. In the Predictions for the distant future department:

    And, I am sure that boys will still be trying to look up the teacher’s short skirt!


    • She was a particularly attractive maths teacher with a particularly short skirt. Sometimes she’d have to stretch up to write on the blackboard (inanimate objects weren’t racist in those days) and the pencils being dropped sounded like machine gun fire. I’m not surprised the pass rate was so high. No boy skipped that class, ever.


  10. One thing I have noticed is how my handwriting has deteriorated since I started using email. I didn’t realise until my printer ran out of ink and I had to provide a hand written reference. I was appalled at how bad it had got, anyone else noticed this?


    • Yep, though I never had a good hand. I bought a typewriter in about 1976 – before then I had secretaries who took dictation.

      I type out short stuff like this, but use the dictation program our host mentions for longer work, and preparing figures on spreadsheets: RSI and consequent twinges – that’s a euphemism which anyone who has bashed a lot of keyboards will recognise. Long ago I used paper spreadsheets which were a nightmare after entry of a certain level of data.

      In six months or so my income finally stabilises, and one of the things I am going to do is at last develop good handwriting, just for the pleasure of it.


      • Get some calligraphy pens and a lot of spare time and you can stun everyone with next year’s Christmas cards!

        Dragon Dictate couldn’t ‘get’ my accent and had a habit of typing ‘No! You bloody stupid machine!’ every time I said it.


    • When I was lecturing, students always handed in work typed. Or they’d send it by Email. All perfectly legible, spellchecked and neat. Mrking took minutes per paper.

      At the end of the year they had a written exam. Oh. My. God! Some of those papers took days to decipher. Some of them hadn’t hand-written a single word all year!

      So it’s not age, it’s lack of practice. Anyway, I’m a Doctor so I’m expected to have handwriting that looks like a diagram of coral 😀


      • When I was at uni it was all hand written though I did eventually get an electric typewritten. What I would have given for a computer then, especially when I was trying to change paragraphs around. Of course I couldn’t imagine such a thing, I wonder if my grandchildren will one day feel the same about out current computers and what they will have instead?


        • I hand-wrote my PhD thesis. Cut and paste was real cut and paste then!

          I did have a typewriter but my mother was a secretary so she was much faster (and didn’t charge anything).


          • If you can’t write with a pen, if you can’t send an electronic message without using a spell check program, (We’ll forgive the occcasional typo)
            Then you probably dom’t belong on this planet…


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