Mailing Lists and Technophobia: Report from the Boston SftP Computer Group

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Mailing Lists and Technophobia: Report from the Boston SftP Computer Group

by Alan Epstein & Mimi Halperin

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 12, No. 1, January/February 1980, p. 27–28

Nov. 15, 1979 

The Boston area micro-computer project grew out of the needs of Science for the People, requests for aid from various other progressive groups, and the experience with micro-computers which several members of the Boston chapter began to acquire during 1977 and early 1978. In the spring of 1978, when it appeared that it would be feasible for SftP to obtain its own very minimal computer system, serious planning began. 

The most urgent need is to deal with SftP’s own mailing list. This data base of about 2000 names and addresses must be updated and sorted bi-monthly, and mailing labels for magazines, newsletters, renewal forms, etc., must be regularly prepared. Other left groups have similar mailing list problems, one group even having to produce about 800,000 mailing labels a month for various purposes. In addition, a leftist typesetting collective (Zafra Graphics) which typesets SftP magazine has become interested in using a micro-computer to serve as an extra text-entering and editing facility, and a local food co-op has asked whether a computer system might help them with inventory problems. 

It rapidly became clear that computer solutions of these problems had four common requirements for success: 

• Equipment must be dirt cheap.Though central processors, the heart of a computer system, are getting cheaper, faster, and more powerful all the time, there is a still a problem in obtaining affordable and acceptable printing devices and external information storage devices. It was decided to concentrate on a system involving 3 or 4 ordinary and inexpensive audio tape cassette recorders for storage of the mailing lists, and for the programs themselves. (Handling a very large mailing list, therefore, is not included among our initial goals.) In addition, for the Zafra Graphics project we need to design and build an interface for a papertape punch and reader so that the final output could be fed into their present typesetting equipment. 

• Programs must be easy to run. Most groups (including SftP) cannot rely on a pool of experienced computer people to read dense instruction manuals and wade through complicated and sophisticated computer commands when a mailing list must be produced. We neither intend nor need to make programmers out of all people who use the system. Special programs have to be created to interactively direct the uninitiated as they use the computer system. Instructions to users need to be simple and unambiguous, and the purpose of each program should be straightforward. 

• Provision must be made for rapid troubleshooting whenever problems do arise, and for regular maintenance to prevent problems from arising in the first place. Each piece of work for which a micro-computer solution has been requested must be assumed to be central to the well-being of the organization involved. Reliability is therefore important to any proposed system. It is essential that fast and accurate recoveries be made from any breakdown during a program run, and that several copies of mailing lists or whatever be available at all times, ready for direct use by the computer. In particular, we decided to emphasize the value of having all groups use identical equipment and similar programs so that in case of need, interchangeable parts and borrowed programs could be shifted among groups. 

• More people must be trained in the skills needed to develop and run programs and equipment. The efforts to meet the other requirements will require much more designing, engineering, programming, and building than our small group (effectively half a dozen when we began) can possibly provide. Without trying to turn all activists into computer experts or usurping their valuable time from the main work of each organization, it is still necessary for us to begin a process of computer education for ourselves and for the general members of SftP, as well as for the other groups interested in our work. This goal is also part of the SftP philosophy, which holds that technology and science must be understandable, available, and ultimately responsive to the needs of all people. 

These four requirements gradually led to equipment choices and outlines for programs. The Z-80 is a relatively common and easy to use microcomputer for which manufacturers have already designed additional equipment, some of which would be useful for our project. A sorting program (to put mailing labels in zip-code order) and a special purpose editor (to change expiration dates, correct addresses, etc.) were designed and some programming begun during the summer and early fall of 1978. 

Since then, major efforts have gone into the educational side of the project. In October 1978, Glenn Wargo began teaching the Z-80 programming course with 4 students, all of whom were in some way connected to SftP. The purpose was to train people to use and program our soon-to-be-acquired Z-80 microcomputer. In December, Alan Epstein began teaching, taking much of the burden of the actual classroom instruction, while Glenn continued to plan and steer the course. 

The course started from scratch smce the original students had no prior computing experience, and, at least in one case, a technophobic attitude toward computers. The course consisted of classroom lectures, problem solving time, and homework assignments which were reviewed in class. Barden’s The Z-80 Microcomputer Handbook was used as a text; unfortunately, it was written for experienced programmers, and this caused consternation among the students who were confused by the terminology and quickly grew to dislike it. Plowing through it turned out to be an ordeal, but overall it was a reasonable reference guide. 

The use of Glenn’s Intel 8080 microcomputer helped immensely in allowing the students to try running their homework programs on a real machine. (The Z-80 and Intel 8080 have a similar enough instruction set to allow this interchangeability.) It is clear that the use of a machine is vital to the course. 

As the course came to an end, we reviewed the relevant chapters in Barden, and spent time in “work-topic” groups, where the students began to work on actual needed software for the Z-80. One group began working on a mailing label verification program, and will be involved later in writing our special-purpose mailing label editor. The other group began designing a translation program for Zafra Graphics. 

At the outset it was estimated that it would take approximately 100 hours of work to bring an inexperienced person “up to speed”, i.e., to a point where she or he could do useful programming. The students were able, after 50-75 hours, to write elementary programs, and it seems that the 100 hour estimate was correct. All of the students who completed the course did extremely well; in fact, one was hired as a junior programmer mainly on the basis of the experience from the course. 

The course was offered for free (the instructors were not paid); materials were paid for by everyone. It was expected from the outset, however, that once the course was over the participants would donate their newly acquired skills to furthering the efforts of the overall project. 

In September 1979, the course was started again by Alan, and five people are currently enrolled. Chris Hydeman, who completed the first course, is assisting the instruction, as is Toby Bloom, another computer group member. 

The pace of the course is geared to the speed at which the participants are learning the information; no one is left behind. Questions are encouraged at any time so that no one gets stuck. We also split into smaller groups which meet with the teachers to get more individualized attention. An effort is made to make the learning environment as relaxed as possible. We try to share information about our lives to offset the traditional isolation which most of us have experienced in our past learning situations. 

Evaluations are also part of the process: after every few weeks, the participants are asked what they thought was constructive and helpful about the teaching, method, teacher, and materials; and then, what they would like to see changed. This has allowed useful feedback. 

Concurrently, Glenn Wargo and George Smolenski are teaching a hardware course, dealing with electronics and machine repair. The classes consist of interactive instruction as well as hands-on experience with electronic components. 

Nothing has been planned for the next round, but hopefully in the future we will be able to expand our classes and more widely distribute this information.

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