THIRD WORLD ATARI
Computing in antebellum Grenadaby DR. LINT HUTCHINSON
After spending three years as a professor at St. George's University School of Medicine in Grenada, the trials and tribulations of Atari users in the States seem like duck soup to me. When was the last time that your electric company turned off the power three or four times a day because the Cubans were blasting? Or that the lights dimmed and your file disappeared because a cow had knocked over the power lines! Or, better yet, imagine that it's evening and the Grenadians are unloading a special Russian cargo ship -- and that, as a result, the entire country is without power until "later."
At St. George's, I was involved in the development of computer-assisted instruction programs used to prepare students to qualify for American medical programs. This work resulted in a comprehensive MSKP (Medical Science Knowledge Profile) Review that covers all areas of medicine on which the students are to be tested. It runs on an Atari 800.
However, developing educational software and being able to use it eight hours a day are two different things - especially in Grenada. For instance, when I went to the only electrical hardware store on the island, I found that a much- needed six-foot extension cord cost $30! There were no two-prong to three-prong connectors at all, and to top it off, the island uses two different types of wall plugs that have to be seen to be believed.
These were just a few of the commonplace inconveniences I encountered in the West Indies, where computers of any shape, size or description are rare.
The first obstacle I ran up against was customs. After all, the British left Grenada, their former colony, with a highly developed sense of procedure. When you inform a customs agent that you want to bring a computer into the country, you have to be prepared to dedicate the next four hours to filling out a vast number of forms. These help the authorities to determine which classification a computer should come under: electronic equipment, typewriters, or toys. In the meantime, two or three customs agents will attend you. But make no mistake about it - once a decision has been made, all the tea in China will not alter it.
If your computer is classified as electronic equipment, you must pay a duty of 105% of its total value before you leave customs. If, on the other hand, it is categorized as an electronic typewriter, you will be charged only 30-50% of its value. And if you are very lucky, and it is deemed to be a toy, you don't have to pay any duty at all. Sometimes, however, the authorities will simply confiscate your equipment to see if it has any military applications.
The first time I entered Grenada, it took me at least two hours to convince customs that my Atari 810 was not an eight-track tape player. I patiently explained that the 810 uses single-sided single-density, soft-sectored, 40-track floppy disks that are something like record albums enclosed within protective covers. My customs agent promptly informed me that each record that enters the country is subject to a $10 import duty. Since I had ten boxes of disks with me (and 10x10x$10=$1000),I quickly backtracked and explained that, actually, a floppy disk was made of magnetic tape. The agent noted (just as quickly) that there was also an import tax on all cassette tapes that were brought into the country!
A VALUABLE LESSON
Once I'd recovered in Grenada's warm, crystal-clear, tropical waters from the trauma of having made some unexpectedly large contributions to the island's economy, I decided it was time to get down to some serious computing.
It was only then that I discovered the primitive nature of the island's electrical system. Most Caribbean nations use a 22O-volt current at 50 Hz. This current must be converted to 110 volts for computing purposes (Atari 800's work on 50Hz). So, unpacking my computer equipment, I took out a converter that an electronics expert in the U.S. had guaranteed would handle anything from an electric shaver to a computer. I plugged it into system, and for the first 45 seconds everything worked just like it had back in the good old USA. Soon, however, noticed a strange smell and saw black smoke pouring from the back of my monitor. The converter started to buzz and then slowly melted into a puddle of darkened plastic. Then, nothing. I had just learned the difference between a converter(which is what I had) and a transformer (which is what I needed).
Getting a computer repaired in such a setting is no easy feat -- in fact, it's just about impossible. What do you do with a burned-out Atari in a country where there are no T.V. stations, and where you are required to carry a license to operate a transistor radio?
The only practical solution is to send it back to the United States to be repaired. The postal regulations of each island nation in the Caribbean vary, but generally packages cannot be insured by the Post Office, and packages that are sent through the mail tend to wind up in the Bermuda Triangle. With luck, though, you can have your Atari fixed and returned to you in as few as six months. And when your equipment finally does arrive, a friendly customs agent will want to talk to you about import duties.
LIVING IN THE PAST
If you can gear your computer needs to a time frame out of the 1950's, you should be able to use your equipment even in far-off places like Grenada. For example, rather than using fan-fold computer paper, which is non-existent in the islands, you should substitute the paper rolls that are common in the West Indies. You should also make sure that each piece of equipment, from a power adapter to a surge protector, has a double fuse. (You'll soon discover that in the Caribbean a 220-volt current can run anywhere from 170 to 260 volts.) Furthermore, you'll need to adjust the speed of your disk drive at least twice a day, and backup your programs every 15 minutes or so. It's best to keep two backup copies of any program you're working on.
Finally, it will quickly become clear to you that special precautions must be taken regarding the storage of your floppy disks. If your disks are not kept in a cool, dry place, you may someday open a storage box to find that a green slime or a while mold is enjoying the fruits of your modern technology!
ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE
If you ever find yourself computing on a sunny beach somewhere in the Caribbean, remember to enjoy these minor inconveniences. Consider them to be challenges, rather than major obstacles. It's the only way to survive as a Third World Atarian.
Dr. Lint Hutchinson taught at the St. George's University School of Medicine for three years, and left the island of Grenada shortly before last year's coup and U.S. rescue operation. He holds a Ph. D. in psychology, and is involved in the design of instructional systems for medical students. He has more than 15 years of computing experience.