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Radiohead album hides an app that only runs on an '80s computer (engadget.com)
245 points by usuallymatt on July 14, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 144 comments

I remember listening to OK Computer some years ago and I must have been studying or something or other and the track "Fitter Happier" came on. Those familiar know how it goes, the Stephen Hawking voice droning on about all these ideals worth pursuing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HimvFbossU8). I sat back half listening that evening and this funny response came out in my head, where I responded to the monotone nagging computer's message with "OKaay Computer!". It was interesting because it came out spontaneously in the same sense as "OKaay Mom" in the fashion of perhaps a teenager on some sitcom trying to put an end to his nagging mom's berating him with a bunch of unwelcome or tedious advice. Then I immediately realized the overlap with the album title and thought, "hmmmmmm, is it a commentary on some dystopianish future where the computers nag us humans to get on with some urgent optimum they're trying to press us all into conformity with?"

Oddly enough, Thom Yorke insists the album wasn't about the tedium of the modern world, or the perils of advanced technology, but actually how much he hates traveling [1]

[1] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/exclusive-thom-yo...

But he also loves to pull the wool over our eyes, he's full of inside jokes that only he understands. Take it all with a grain of salt, he entertains himself as much as the rest of us!

As I remember this was done on an Apple computer.

In the command line you could do this with they 'say' command.

The parameter -v is used for the voice. And I think "Fitter Happier" is 'Fred'.

  say -v Fred "fitter.happier.more productive"
Edit: other sources say it was 'Bruce'. But I don't have an Apple, so I can't check.

My go to favourite is 'Karen' for the Australian accent. Her voice is far more natural sounding that most of the others I've auditioned, and I use her as the default and pepper all my deployment scripts with 'say' commands now.

As a New Zealander, I'm not an Aussie but I am still disappointed she can't say "Strewth" properly!

She gets 'arvo' and 'stone the crows' right though, so that's something ;-)

Hahaha yeah, I’m a kiwi living in Melbourne and at first before Apple had added New Zealand to Siri’s input localisation I had it set to Australian and it’d get everything wrong, I found that instead setting it to British English it worked a lot better and then better again when New Zealand was added, regardless I keep Siri’s voice set to British Female as it sounds the most natural to me.

For those that aren’t familiar with Australian vs New Zealand ascents - they’re /very/ different despite how close the countries are physically located to each other. When spoken New Zealand English has more of a British / South African - ‘rounder’ sound, where Australian is generally (especially as you move north or west up the country) more nasal and closer to American English with more emphasis on E rather than O if that makes sense.

You just answered a question I pondered earlier today as I watched the MacOS X demo I linked to above somewhere. And that is to the question if a native speaker would recognize the synthetic speech as unnatural. As the video progresses it lands on international languages such as Arabic and Chinese among other things. To my ear and my best memory of how those languages sound the synthetic versions came out pretty convincing. It made me think about a concept I've had about a test to language recognition: if a native speaker were to speak gibberish in their native tongue would an outsider to the language recognize it as gibberish or assume it was vocabulary in that language.

There's a short film on YouTube that explores that idea:


It's a very strange experience hearing it!

This is a video of Saara who is not a native speaker but who has an extraordinary ability to mimic accents.


Even today, of the 8 voices I have available in my Siri, Australian Female is still the most natural sounding. I guess that is the gender identity of the person who writes that bit of code. Or maybe Australians just sound naturally robotic...

My default is Fiona. It seems like the cadences of a Scottish accent help mask the shortcomings of TTS technology.

It's definitely Fred.

Another clever use was "Kathys Song" by Apoptygma Berzerk, which was named for the Mac "Kathy" speech synthesizer voice used to sing the chorus. Great song too.


that's cool background. I didn't mean to suggest it was actually the same voice Stephen Hawking utilizes, but just to put forth a popular and familiar sound to imagine with. Though Apple's Fred and Bruce may be the original characters, I'm not sure they'd be as well known as Stephen Hawking but I could be very wrong on that point. I'll try to dig up some Fred and Bruce tracks on YouTube.

Ha, funny you bring up that track – one of my first late nights programming was soundtracked by Fitter, Happier on repeat. I was so in the flow I didn't even realize it was repeating itself. Only when I sat back to take a break did I notice. The weird thing was the immense wave of depression that broke over me when I did.

sounds like it made you "more productive", ha.

It is not a meaningful coincidence.

Radiohead also released an EP of OK Computer B-sides called "Airbag / How Am I Driving?" It's absolutely brilliant, but relatively unknown. If you haven't heard it seek it out.

Yes! It includes a great track called "Palo Alto".

As someone who lives in the area I've always been curious how it came about, especially circa 1996/97.

Yeah I love that EP. The new version of OK Computer (aka OKNOTOK) features all the tracks from the EP as well as 3 previously unreleased tracks that they've played live.

It's included in disc 2 of the re-release.

On the front cover is a phone number, which when called would go to a voicemail.

Yes, it's great!

I believe that voice was a built-in Apple text reader.

You see those blocky colours in the youtube video? Those are the Spectrum's "attribute file", a small colour overlay that goes on top of the higher resolution 1-bit monochrome bitmap part of the machine's video ram. Gives you a "hi-res colour computer" while saving a ton of ram, but at the cost of creating horrible artifacts when differently coloured objects get too close together.

The same principle is still used in consumer video encoding (and all but the highest-end professional video), where's it's described as eg. 4:2:2 or 4:2:0, the numbers describing how many pixels' worth of chroma (colour) data are provided for each block of luma pixels.

Another way to do a similar thing is HAM on Amiga, I only recently got to reading about how it works. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hold-And-Modify

Where can I read more about it.

Here's a nice short read with graphics:


Another spiritual successor to this 'image compression scheme' are compressed texture formats in modern GPUs.

For the modern incarnation, look up "chroma subsampling".

So there was no separate text mode at all, it seems (which is what I assumed looking at the video). Did it make the text scrolling sluggish?

Yes, there's only one display mode. But if anything it was better for displaying text than graphics.

The rows of pixels were laid out in a wacky fashion to make text rendering fast. The display resolution was 256x192. Being monochrome, the bitmap part of the display therefore used 32 bytes per row of pixels. You might expect that the second row would start at start_of_screen_address + 32. BUT NO! It was at start_of_screen_address + 256 because you can increment an address register by 256 faster than you can increment by 32 (on a Z80). Hahaha.

The result was that drawing graphics was a bit fiddly, but drawing 8-pixel wide character glyphs was easy and fast.

Pretty sad they're calling this an "app". If it's dated to 1996, clearly it's a "program"!

Everything is an "app" now. For me it sounds cheaper, somehow trivializing the work of many.

Yes, it definitely has a connotation of commoditization.

for many of its uses, it isn't just a connotation. mobiles apps have been commoditized to a point. social apps, messaging apps, cloud storage apps, mobile games, etc. are all basically commodities.

NeXTSTEP was around in the early 90s and used the file extension .app

The Atari ST operating system used .APP as well. This was in 1985.

.app was rarely used though. Most things used the .prg extension.

Oh that’s a good point you have there and app is just an abbreviation of Application which I think philosophically was a subset of Programs / Programmes.

It's always Program; in British English Program and Programme are not interchangeable and mean something quite different. A Program is a piece of computer software, a Programme is a series of planned events or a sheet of paper/booklet listing a series of details about an events. That we use the two distinctly is pretty powerful and the ambiguity of using one spelling is removed.

NeXTSTEP was around in the late 80s, came out in 1988.

"Application" was around way earlier, as shorthand for "application program" (to be distinguished from "utility program", and, possibly, "game")

For examples look at the search hits in https://archive.org/stream/1981-03-compute-magazine/Compute_....

I wouldn't call this an application, though.

"App" is completely wrong, as it was introduced by Apple for user-facing programs running on a mobile phone (if Android had been the OS popularizing this, Google would have picked the first three letters of its company name as the new name for these things, and every web site would have a banner "install our goo" :-))

"App" significantly predates the iPhone. Binary/warez sites regularly used "apps" as a shorthand, NeXTSTEP used .app before Apple bought it...heck, Apple called an early Mac development framework "MacApp".

We've been calling applications "apps" for going on thirty years at a minimum.

Mobiles pre-smartphone boasted of their 'Java App Library', too. I don't know anyone who used one deliberately though, with the slow and extortionately priced data of the time.

Also Java applets

The term "killer app" goes all the way back to the 80s. Back then, Lotus 1-2-3 was considered a killer app as was Wordperfect/Wordstar depending on your needs.

As others have pointed out, it was also used as the file extension for "application programs" on NeXTStep (.app). It continued to OS X which is where "App" came from for iOS applications. It has nothing to do with the name "Apple".

App is short for Application, not Apple.

MIME was using "application" in media type names in 1996. I think macOS may have started it because they needed to distinguish them from desk accessories.

That was in a different world, this is the home computer sphere, its a program.

RISC OS, the OS from the company that later became ARM, used "application" from at least 1987, and by 1991 that had been abbreviated to "Apps" in some of the UI, although I think we still said "application."

These were school or home computers.

Picture under RISC OS 3: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_RISC_OS

The term "killer app" goes back a long way (back to the early 80s) and was first used for Visicalc, I think.

> "Congratulations....you've found the secret message syd lives hmmmm. We should get out more." Is what the message reads. Are they referring to the late Pink Floyd guitarist Syd Barret?

They're more directly referring to the backmasked message on Pink Floyd's Empty Spaces, which goes: "Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the Funny Farm, Chalfont."

Very cool - brings back memories of loading programs from a cassette tape on an old TRS-80 back in high school, and watching those "" stars blink in the top corner. I believe the cassette players we used used to also play the signal as audio at the same time it was uploading to the PC.

Then, after a few minutes:

"Hammurabi, I beg to report..."

I remember pirating games using my moms double casette deck in the kitchen.

It played the signal as audio while copying.

This never occurred to me until you said it. Did that work??

Up to a point. It's an analogue process so each copy degrades the signal. At some point games started having custom file loaders which made them load faster but also served as a kind of copy protection as copies were more likely to fail. Of course it also meant the original was more likely to fail.

The trick was to add a little circuit to the player which would keep the signal as clean as possible while reinforcing it. I did a similar thing many moons ago by putting an old TTL chip into the C64 Datassette then wire its gates as buffers. The input was connected to a point where I identified the played cassette signal was present and the output after some light filtering went to a RCA plug to which I would connect my Aiwa deck in record mode. Any copy made that way would work much better than the originals: no more failed loads after 25 minutes waits and no more azimuth twiddling to find the sweet spot.

We also used something we called turbotape to load our games. We would first load turbotape, forward to where the game was on the tape and then either type <leftarrow>L or SYS<someNumberIcantRemember> to load the game.

Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn't. It depended on the quality of the cassette deck and also how crappy the tape was you were recording to. Me and my friend often used to try high speed dubbing but that rarely yielded good results.

I did the same. It wasn't ZX Spectrum though, it was an MSX. Same deal. This was actually before I even knew you could copy files using the computer itself.

Analog copies are lossy, so you can only copy so many times before it becomes unreadable. Higher quality tapes (even better, chrome based) would allow for more copies.

Reminds me of the original Quake game on CD, which, if put into a normal CD player, would play through the NiN soundtrack.

That's not an easter egg. That's just a dual format CD - you can burn them yourself really easily (I used to write these as MP3 CDs so systems that didn't support MP3 could still play a subset of the tracks).

It was a really common practice to put in game music as audio tracks on game CDs. Dreamcast GDs also work a similar way where you can play the game audio in a regular CD player despite the data track being formatted differently to the ISO standard.

Yup, I was amazed when I put my Moto Racer [0] game CD into my CD player and all the background songs started playing! I was just, in my naiveté, trying to see if the CD player would be able to convert the game binary data into music.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moto_Racer

Some audio CDs also came like this. I have at least one that bundled some promo images of the artists.

F if i know today why i bought it though...

It is called Redbook Audio, because that is what the standard for audio cds is called. Technically, this would have to be called Orangebook because it mixes Redbook and Yellowbook (the standard for data on cds). See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_Books

A list of games can be found here: https://www.giantbomb.com/redbook-audio/3015-6487/games/

Half life did the same, as I recall, as did many other titles.

I assume that the CD simply had two "tracks," with the audio CD "partition," if I may call it that, being the first. This allowed the game developers to play music during the game using the CD-ROM drive's hardware audio decoding (remember that small molex that went from the drive to the soundcard?) without impacting the game's performance.

These days, it's impressive to think that decoding WAV audio could at one point be a limiting factor for a CPU.

It will boggle your mind then to know that most games still have their sounds in .wav files, even the music sometimes.

It's very rare for a game to have its music compressed, unless the hardware can decode it on the fly (think wma on the xbox, or adpcm on the ps)

It's a balancing act thought - shipping audio as WAVs trades performance for disc usage, which can also be an issue (e.g. Titanfall shipping with 35GB of uncompressed audio, which is a pain to download).

Also, I know a fair number of games that use Vorbis for music, so not sure I would say it's very rare.

It is common for music to be compressed, that's true. But sfx, almost always you'll see wavs for those. I don't think cpu usage is a concern anymore, I believe it's about latency. That's why music is compressed. It doesn't matter if music takes 10 ms to start playing, but 10 ms of latency for a pistol shot sound is not acceptable.

Dunno. I was surprised a few years back when i discovered that one of the Unreal games used OGG compression for its music.

This because a friend didn't know about the format but wanted to play them.

Total Annihiliation also did this. It wasn't that uncommon in that era since audio compression was difficult and so a common process was to install off the CD to HDD, run completely off HDD, and then play audio off a series of audio tracks on the CD if it was present in the drive (plus maybe some oldschool DRM by checking for the CD).

Another older example: Out Run game for ZX Spectrum. You would load it from the A side of the tape and, when finished, you could play the game soundtrack on the B side while gaming. Double win: you get awesome music and you wouldn't need to rewind the tape!

That was an amazing soundtrack

I remember putting the CD for some Windows program into a CD player and being rewarded with horrible screeching sounds. A couple of weeks ago I tried it again, but only got an error message. Seems like "modern" CD players aren't as permissive.

I am reminded of the last track on Information Society's[1] 1992 album "Peace and Love, Inc.", which was a recording of a 300 baud modem encoding an ASCII text message[2]. Their debut album, "Information Society"[3], used the somewhat obscure "CD+G" format, which included graphics that could be displayed by compatible players.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_Society_(band)

[2] http://www.textfiles.com/humor/is_story.txt

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmYPQq7JcEg

Aphex Twin did something similar on "2 Remixes by AFX." [1] There was an SSTV image [2] encoded into one of the tracks. It's basically some calibration header tones followed by FM. For a little while, I didn't know it was data and just thought it was Richard doing his thing :)

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWvuFdqk8Yg

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slow-scan_television

The box set for David Bowie's Sound + Vision album included a fourth CD that included an extra video track in addition to three regular CD audio tracks.

Isn't it depressing that the title says "an 80's computer" because even on HN too few people would know what a ZX Spectrum is? :-)

That's cool, I still have my old Spectrum at home, but I would need to find a cassette player for it, but I assume they've started making those again.

That's 4 to 8 times too fast!

Cool, it seems apparent that nerds that grew up in the 80's have money now, seeing as all these things are coming back.

Would you be pulling it out of a box at the back of the cupboard after a long period of rest? The Speccy may need some TLC - the electrolytic capacitors are pretty much at EOL and on some of the units I have seen recently, they need replacing. Apart from causing an unstable system, if the caps are well gone, the ripple on the multiple power rails can damage the lower (16K) RAM.

It probably hasn't been powered on for 15 years, so yes.

I'll keep that in mind, thanks!

Too bad it's ZX Spectrum only. Would have been cool if it would have been a cross-platform BASICODE program (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BASICODE).

Spectrum's are legendary in the UK. I'm guessing that's the reason.

    After the introduction, all that hard work is finally rewarded with some scrolling text and a seemingly random arrangement of bloops and bleeps.
"Random arrangement of bloops and bleeps?!" Does he not recognize the genius arrangement of Radiohead's newest and most groundbreaking song?! Filthy casual.

You get Radiohead ;) but actually, I hope you can appreciate some of their work.

Does x86 count as an '80s computer?

Games came on vinyl in the 80s: https://unicornbooty.com/video-games-vinyl/

The Swedish band Adolphson-Falk included a computer program in the innermost track of its album “Över tid och rum” from 1984.

Various people did, I'm sure somebody must have compiled a list somewhere but I can't immediately find it. Off the top of my head I recall Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Frank Sidebottom including software on their records.

Frank Sidebottom was created as a fake fan of Chris Sievey's band The Freshies. Sievey had previously released a ZX81 program on a B side that played along with the record, showing lyrics, etc. Sidebottom was a character on the accompanying record for the game, called "The Biz" -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Biz_(video_game)

Skinny Puppy had a hidden track like this too. I think it was on Brap but I could be mistaken.

Don't forget Pete Shelley's XL1 which ran on a Spectrum from a vinyl record.

never thought I hear the loading sound of a ZX Spectrum again. Love it, Love it.

Of course it does.

It reminded me a strage fate of Syd Barrett...

author was so proud of coming up with "genre-bending" he had to use it twice

Maybe you need an OK computer.

great concept. i'd say it's more intelligent and meaningful promotion rather than succumbing to hipsterism...

We didn't have "apps" in the 80's we had "programs".


    From: t-jacobs@utah-cs.UUCP (Tony Jacobs)
    Newsgroups: net.micro.mac
    Subject: MultiMac MULTITASKING!
    Date: Thu, 21-Nov-85 12:12:47 EST


    It doesn't work with some programs (like MacPaint)
    and some apps need to be the first app loaded to work 
    (like MacDraw.)  When you run multiple sound apps the 
    first one run is the one that works, the rest will 
    run but you don't hear a them.


Id forgotten that horror. The order things loaded in, my god. It was actual witchcraft trying to get a stable machine, and if achieved you still had the special rituals to help it past the cursed extensions.

Why does Steve Jobs have braces?

That may be the case for the Spectrum, but not for the Mac.

They have always been referred to as "applications" on the Mac, and I know that was abbreviated as "apps" by the mid-90s. It wouldn't surprise me to discover that abbreviation was used by Mac users as far back as the 80s.

Atari's GEM/TOS also had applications, abbreviated as "app", in the mid-80s. I don't know where people got the idea that "app" is something recent, but I've started seeing people say it in a few places lately. It's not true at all, we definitely had apps in the 80s.

I think those people are saying -- reasonably -- that the word app is recent in the mainstream popular language, not that it was never ever used by anyone until the iPhone.

Windows called them programs (until recently), and Android & iOS call them apps, so it's likely that most people have only started hearing the term in the last 10 years.

I remember hearing the Windows control panel functions referred to as applets 20 years ago or so. Likewise, java programs embedded into a web page were also called applets.

Is applet but a diminution of application, or of app?

Best i can tell, win32 binaries are still programs, UWP binaries are apps.

All in all i can't shake the feel that apps are more "restrictive" in how they can be used...

So long as we all agree the term "applet" was asinine. :)

Why do all my programs end it .PRG then? :P (currently struggling to get data off of an old ST - good old RS232 strikes again)

Fellow ST user here! .prg was the most common extension but .app was certainly used in some cases. I think it denoted a different format.

Weren't .prgs the actual "foreground"-programs while .apps were the small helper tools that ran in the background and stayed resident even if not in focus? I distantly remember some apps getting a spot in the menu bar...

(It's been ages since I touched that system, good times, though.)

The resident tools were .ACC (desktop accessories).

Ahh, right. Thanks for the refresher!

Actually, the .app extension Das sometimes used. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari_TOS

...and no "coders" neither. We were programmers! But we were 'appy!

Folks also called themselves computer software engineers too

-edited for clarity

And hackers

I wonder what synonyms there are for 'computer program.' Does 'application' count?

Are there any synonyms for 'pedantry' that you can think of?

> I wonder what synonyms there are for 'computer program.' Does 'application' count?

"Application" definitely counts, but for some inscrutable reason I associate that with GUI-only programs.

> Are there any synonyms for 'pedantry' that you can think of?

"dogmatism", "purism", "literalism"... but maybe I'm being too literal, puritanical, or dogmatic. :)

I think all of your examples fit perfectly haha :)

There are vast numbers of programs that run without a UI for people to use.

There are also vast numbers of programs designed for action entertainment.

Then there are programs like spreadsheets and word processors that are "applications" -- programs with a humane UI, purely for end users, designed mainly to be employed for some other specific productive purpose rather than to be used in themselves.

It is true that we now have the more generic "app" thanks to the iPhone,[1] but I think at this point the word is only a little more established in the language than "on fleek."

But even when that changes, it won't mean that when grown-ups observe the history and meaning of words as they are actually used they are engaging in "pedantry."

[1] (Yes, I know there are examples of prior usage of "app" from long before 2007. I'm talking about widespread, mainstream language, not your technical chats with RMS when you were a comp sci grad student in the 1970s.)

From the video, it looks like it is loading a BASIC program and then running it. So the term "program" is a better description to this rather than "app" or even "application program" which (to me at least) implies something precompiled and ready to run.

Steve Jobs using the term "apps" in 1990:


It really just depends on what the platform you're talking about called them.

Lotus 1-2-3 was commonly described as the "killer app" for the IBM PC as early as 1987.

Yes, but "application" didn't mean "program", it meant "application". Lotus 1-2-3 was an application of PCs, it made PCs useful.

I thought the etymology was from function application.


I doubt it. If anything, they probably just have common origins.

Apply originates from functional languages which did exist at the time, but were not really used outside of research.

Occam's Razor tells me that it most likely came out from "how you use the computer" and then it evolved to refer to the program itself.

Ok... Then explain why it was common to encounter the phrase "killer app" in marketing materials in the 80's.

I thought this was a relatively recent term. Can't find anything on archive.org that would indicate it was used in the 80s:


Wikipedia says:

> The first recorded use of the term in print was 1987, in PC Week 8 Sept. 107/2. "Everybody has only one killer application. The secretary has a word processor. The manager has a spreadsheet."

The phrase killer app first appears in print circa 1986 according to Google Ngram Viewer [0].

While a search for just app with Ngram Viewer would contain too much noise, we can reasonably assume that app must have been prevalent in technical jargon before that time, else marketing campaigns would not have used it.

Archive.org isn't reliable for this kind of query.

[0] https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=killer+app&yea...

exactly my first thought after reading the headline even though I was born well after the 80s.

If memory serves, my 386SX also had plenty of 'executives'.

In classic MacOS, the full name was "application program".

...Because you could also have DAs and CDEVs

progs, apps, and warez

Exactly what I wanted to comment.

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